It might be said, and [it] often has been, that the inadequacies of the biographical Gospel accounts of Jesus are sufficiently compensated for by the fact that we still have his work, the Christian Church, before us, and that we can now draw inferences from it back to its founder. Thus we also have little historical knowledge of Shakespeare, for example, and many fabulous things are said about him; but we are not much bothered by this, since his works enable us to create a picture of his personality in perfect clarity. The comparison would be apt if we likewise had the work of the prophet of Galilee at first hand, as we have the works of the British poet. But the former has passed through a great many hands, which had no scruples about interpolations, omissions, and revisions; the Christian Church was already in its earliest form, as it appears in the New Testament, shaped by so many factors other than the personality of Jesus that any inference from it to him is highly uncertain. After all, the risen Christ, upon whom the church was founded, is already very different from the man Jesus, and from here the idea of him and of his earthly life, as that of the community itself, was reshaped in a way that makes it very doubtful that if Jesus had returned, say around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, he would have recognized himself in the Christ that was then being preached about in the church.
I do not believe that the situation is so dire – as some have asserted – that we cannot know for certain whether a single one of the sayings that the Gospels place into the mouth of Jesus was actually uttered by him. I believe that there are sayings which we may, with all the probability that is the best one can achieve in historical matters, ascribe to Jesus, and I have endeavored to indicate the signs by which we can recognize them. But this probability approaching certainty does not go very far, and when it comes to the deeds and events in the life of Jesus, excepting his journey to Jerusalem and his death, the situation is even bleaker. Little is certain, and precisely those things to which the church faith prefers to attach itself, the miraculous and the superhuman in the deeds and destinies of Jesus, certainly did not happen. But that the salvation of man should depend on the belief in things, some of which certainly did not take place, some of which may or may not have taken place, and only the smallest number of which took place without any doubt – that it should depend on the belief in such things is so absurd that it does not, in this day and age, require further refutation.