So there is a whole empirical method for establishing the relative historicity of different New Testament Bible verses. Its adherents assume that the Bible was written, that its old, that there may have been a Jesus, and lots of disciples, and that a lot has happened between then and now. It doesn't disqualify the supernatural a priori, attending instead to ways that the supernatural disqualifies itself. I found some of the criteria scholars use to establish the "historicity" of different passages. These criteria build upon archaeology when they can, but mostly upon established techniques in textual analysis, like those for arguing that two books were or weren't written by the same writer.
- the criterion of independent attestation is for stories mentioned in multiple independent sources, either within the Biblical canon or via archaeology.
- the criterion of embarrassment argues that there is more credibility to material that might have been harder for the early church to have to admit, like Jesus' baptism by John, maybe his mockery by the Romans, and some of his outbursts. One neat example, reinforced with known temporal sequence, is an inconsistency in the Gospel of Mark that popped up somewhere between early and late accounts of Jesus's encounter with a leper. ethra'em got transcribed to ethraham at some point, and Jesus' rage with the leper was transformed to pity. If we didn't know that rage had come first, we would still have a principled argument that rage is more credible than pity.
- the criterion of coherence supports claims that are consistent with claims that have already been strongly established by other methods.
- semitisms are (Greek or Hebrew) excerpts that were obviously translated from Aramaic---like those that exhibit wordplay when translated back to Aramaic---are more likely to have come from the mouth of the Aramaic speaker of interest.
- Sitz im Leben can be used to support phrases that draw on aspects of the social, political, agricultural, or religious context of the time (and to discredit claims that refer to ingredients that weren't present). For example, in books probably written within 20 years on either side of 70AD, Jesus prophesied that the Second Temple would be destroyed, that "I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." This prophesy loses some credibility if it was set to writing after the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70AD).
These aren't the most solid criteria for establishing The Facts, but with a fundamentally shaky foundation, I won't mock any house that manages to stand. It shows discipline and an elementary skepticism.
I'm tempted to add one criterion, an inverse of Sitz im Leben. It relates to this problem of historical context. Jesus appeared in a time and place that was waiting for The End, and for a Messiah to take everyone there. Prospective messiahs of the time---and there was always a new Messiah popping up---all tried to fit themselves into the commonly acknowledged Messiah archetype, including divine birth, miraculous healing, knowledge of scripture, apocalyptic message, and resurrection (appearance to believers after death).
Matthew, and parts of the other biographies, read like a list of easter eggs. When Jesus isn't explicitly invoking Biblical prophecy (like sending disciples to nab him a donkey and make his ride into Jerusalem prophetic), his biographers may have tweaked words to make his actions into those of the textbook Messiah. With the remarkable power we have to manifest our desires---above and below the surface of conscious awareness---its hard to separate the truth from the fabrication (and I expect big helpings of both, well- or ill- intentioned).
Given these veins of an apocalyptic social context, I'm tempted to give more legitimacy to words and actions that were unanticipated. I'll have to refine this criterion for myself, because it doesn't lead me to doubt Jesus's donkey ride (more than anything else). Maybe that is because the donkey ride gets some legitimacy from the criterion of embarrassment, since Jesus had to get it by worldy means (it didn't fall out of the sky).
Also, none of these criteria allude to the fish story effect, in which the longer (and younger) Gospels flesh out known stories and make them more miraculous. I'm thinking of how Jesus recruited Simon and Andrew, sometimes (in Matthew and Mark) merely by telling them to stop fishing for fish, but elsewhere (in Luke) by performing some miracles and then telling them to stop fishing for fish.
Regardless, the New Testament is an interesting read, slow read, pretty transparent in places, but generally enlightening. I decided to read it before the Old One, partly because I've already tried and failed at the old one so many times in the past. I've got a long way to go.