Almost all of what we know about the historical figure of Jesus is contained within the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And yet these texts present almost insoluble problems if you try to extract from them "hard" historical information about the figure at their centre.
Three points need to be made. First, the evangelists are all committed Christians writing 40 to 70 years after the events in question. Their accounts reflect assessments of Jesus which came into being after his death, rather than during his own lifetime.
Second, there are differences between the individual gospels. At the macro-level, there are differences between John's gospel and the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the so-called synoptic gospels; at the micro- level, there are different accounts of, for instance, the Christmas story, the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord's Prayer and the resurrection narratives.
Finally, the gospels were not primarily written to satisfy the historical curiosity of their readers, but to provoke them to reflect on Jesus and the meaning of his life. This may account partly for the differences between the gospels and also for the curious fact that so many questions to which we would like answers such as what Jesus looked like, how he was educated, what he wore and what his friends were like remain unanswered.
This final point is important. If we seek an answer to the question "Who was Jesus?", we can only do so by reading these texts against the grain, that is, by reading them in a way in which they were not intended to be read by their original authors. That, combined with the other difficulties I have outlined, should make us realise how complex is the task of historical Jesus research.
That is not to say we should give up. But we should proceed with caution in the knowledge that reaching absolute conclusions is impossible.
The recent claim that Jesus hailed from "Galilee's prosperous burgher class" ("Jesus may have been a chartered surveyor", The Independent, 28 November) is a less-than-sober judgement (and, for that matter, not an original one). The evangelists afford us very little direct evidence about the social origins of Jesus. It is not a question which interests them.
The term carpenter (tekton in the original Greek), applied to Jesus at Mark 6.3, could be applied to someone just below a civil engineer. But it is not unambiguously such a term as any glance at a Greek lexicon will show (and we do not know what word in Aramaic, Jesus' mother tongue, was used). Certainly Jesus' extant teachings provide little evidence that he came from such a profession (Jesus does refer to building - see Matt 2l.42; and Luke 6.46-49 - but none of those references prove anything about his occupation).
Other indications of social origin are equally ambiguous. Take Jesus' parables (they seem to reflect a broad area of concern), his knowledge of the Jewish scriptures (that was probably something with which a lot of people might have been familiar - some learned rabbis were poor) and the company he kept (that he knew people of consequence like Joseph of Arimathea is indicative of nothing except that they were impressed by him). Finally, we should note that the kinds of complex class stratifications common in industrial societies cannot be applied to the ancient world where the vast majority were poor, and where the existence of a burgher class, certainly within first-century Galilee, is difficult to prove.
Whether Jesus came from a poor background is equally difficult to be certain about. The Nativity stories, which are often the starting point for such a thesis, are not historically reliable, and could in any case be taken to imply that Jesus had a good start in life (whatever happened to The Wise Men's gifts?). That Jesus was concerned with the issue of poverty, and the plight of the poor, is not proof that he was from an impoverished background, nor are observations about the content of the parables (eg the parable about patching up an old garment).
Attempts to label Jesus rich or poor, upper class or plebeian, fail in the face of inadequate evidence. Moreover, they are often attempts to bring him closer to our world and our concerns. They are in any case only very partial answers to the question "Who was Jesus?" In the end one thing at least is certain about Jesus, and that is that he was a first-century Jew. Reflection upon the gospels in the light of that important fact will show us how difficult it is to appropriate him to our time and our concerns.
The writer is a lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Peterhouse.