I am grateful for some interesting comments on that post as well as a helpful post by Loren Rosson on The Busybody, Thoroughgoing Eschatology and Thoroughgoing Humility, including an apposite quotation from John Meier,
And yet the vast majority of these deeds and words, the "reasonably complete" record of the "real" Jesus, is irrevocably lost to us today. This is no new insight of modern agnostic scholars. Traditionally Christianity has spoken of "the hidden years" of Jesus' life -- which amounted to all but three or four of them! (A Marginal Jew, Vol I, p. 22).In spite of the salutary reminder, though, Meier sometimes talks as if we can make conclusions with confidence about the "total" pattern of Jesus' activity as, for example, in this excerpt:
I would suggest that, if we are to continue to use the problematic category of "unique" in describing the historical Jesus, perhaps it is best to use it not so much of individual sayings or deeds of Jesus as of the total Gestalt, the total configuration or pattern of this Jew who proclaimed the present yet future kingdom, who was also an itinerant prophet and miracle worker in the guise of Elijah, who was also a teacher and interpreter of the Mosaic Law, who was also a charismatic leader who called disciples to follow him at great price, who was also a religious personage whose perceived messianic claims wound up getting him crucified by the Roman prefect, in the end, a crucified religious figure who was soon proclaimed by his followers as risen from the dead and Lord of all. It is this total and astounding configuration of traits and claims that makes for the uniqueness of Jesus as a historical figure within 1st-century Judaism. (The Present State of the "Third Quest" for the Historical Jesus, 476-7).In context, Meier is making a broader point about Jesus' uniqueness and how to configure that uniqueness, but in the course of making that point, he works with a presumption that it is possible to generate a "total" configuration or pattern for Jesus. He is assuming that all the really important elements about Jesus were retained somewhere in the tradition and that these enable us to make claims with a degree of confidence about some kind of complete picture.
The desire to draw a complete picture is in fact necessary to the claims about Jesus' uniqueness. If key pieces of data are missing, we are not able to speak confidently about his "uniqueness", especially when it comes to theological claims. Dennis Nineham sounded a warning about this over thirty years ago in his "Epilogue" at the end of The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977), 186-204, a piece that effectively undermined many of the claims made in the earlier part of that famous collection of essays. Where the essayists often spoke about Jesus' unique relationship with God, and so on, Nineham questioned whether such claims can be made with any kind of confidence in responsible historical research.
One of the scholars mentioned by Nineham is Joachim Jeremias, who is also famous for his claim that Jesus' address to God as "Abba", in private prayer, was utterly unique. The claim is of course a problematic one because of the paucity of evidence of Jews' private prayer in antiquity. Perhaps Jesus' address was unique but we could never know. It is the nature of ancient history that our source material, especially on matters like this, is seriously limited. There is an extent to which contemporary Jesus researchers have pulled back from bold claims like those made by Jeremias, but that same assumption, that all the really important data is present somewhere, and is sufficiently robust for us to be able to make large claims, still underlies a lot of our thinking about the historical Jesus.