Our Historical Jesus

1. Introduction

The quest for the historical Jesus consists of academic efforts to determine, using historical techniques, what words attributed to Jesus are most likely to have been spoken by him, and what actions attributed to Jesus are most likely to have occurred, and to provide a portrait of his life and mission.

A Google search for titles of books containing the phrase ‘historical Jesus’ found hundreds of such books in print.  There is even a four-volume Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2010).  And the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus has been published from 2003 to the present.   Clearly, this is a very popular topic.

Everything said about Jesus in early Christian writings (both in the NT and otherwise) comes from authors within communities of believers that are writing many years after the resurrection.  The NT is written “from faith for faith” with the intention of promoting belief in Christ.  Thus, the contents of the NT must be considered somewhat suspect in terms of its reliability as an historical source.  So we are comparing the historical Jesus with the Christ of belief.  Crossan has described the field this way: it “asks about the relationship between any and every historically reconstructed Jesus and any and every theologically accepted Christ.” [JDC2, 218]. Perhaps this should be called the quest for the ‘historically plausible Jesus’.

In Section 2 we review selected contributions to the subject from qualified authors, both believers and skeptics alike.  In Section 3 we present our own list of the historical facts about Jesus.  Section 4 gives all the supporting arguments and Bible references for the list of Section 3.  Section 5 deals with Jesus’ self-identification and mission.  Section 6 provides detailed notes on selected issues raised.  All the referenced sources are listed under References.

2. The Historical Jesus of Others

The authors listed in Sections 2.1 to 2.6 include three knowledgeable Christian scholars (Albert Schweitzer, Luke Timothy Johnson, and R.T. France) and three qualified non-Christian commentators (Josephus, Paula Fredricksen and Bart Ehrman).  They agree on a number of basic facts about Jesus, but sometimes select different facts for their lists.  The different portraits result from the different assumptions, methods, beliefs and biases of the scholars, as well as their degree of skepticism about the different sources.

2.1       Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)

Albert Schweitzer’s book. 1906, 1910.

Dr. Schweitzer was a biblical scholar who stunned the academic world with his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus [QHJ].  It was published in German in 1906, and in English in 1910.  Schweitzer insisted that the historical Jesus had been a radical Jewish prophet who believed that the world was fast approaching an apocalyptic end.  Jesus rejected prevailing Jewish norms and promoted kinder applications of Torah.  Even though this end time did not come, his disciples carried on with performing healings in his name, repeating his teachings, and warning of the coming end of days.  Schweitzer thought that the view that Jesus’ death atoned for the sins of all was made up by later Christians.  [CApol, 371, 643]

2.2       Luke Timothy Johnson (1943 -)

Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson, a liberal Catholic scholar, believes that all of these statements about the historical Jesus have a high degree of certainty: [LTJ3, 26]   Jesus:

  • was a Palestinian Jew, baptized by John the Baptist;
  • spoke of God’s rule, taught in parables, worked wonders, interpreted Torah;
  • associated with marginal elements of his society, and chose 12 followers as disciples;
  • was opposed by elements of the Jewish leadership;
  • was executed by the Romans around the year 30 C.E.; and
  • was the man about whom a movement arose and spread across the Mediterranean, generating writings in a variety of literary genres.

Dr. Johnson adds “Although these statements are significant, they fall short of providing a narrative or supplying the self-understanding and aims of Jesus beyond what is provided by the Gospels—whose bias of faith is intractable for historians.”

2.3       R.T. France

Professor R.T.France, of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, wrote two of the articles in the New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics: “Jesus, Historical” [CApol, 367] and “The Jesus of History and Christ of Faith”  [CApol, 370-73].  He says the gospels are more like anthologies than chronicles; “anthologies of stories and sayings of Jesus within only the broadest overall narrative framework.”   Jesus:

  • Preached the coming of the ‘kingdom of God’;
  • Was hailed as a prophet and eagerly followed as a miracle – worker (an attribute which he shared with a number of Jewish holy men of the same time);
  • Preached an alternative society of love and holiness;
  • Trained a group of disciples;
  • Ran into trouble with the Jewish leaders; and
  • Returned from death, making the movement unstoppable.

2.4       Confirming Roman Authors

For the earliest independent Roman reports about Jesus, John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and the early Christians, see our web page, Confirming Authors.  It has documentation from Flavius Josephus, Pliny the Younger and Tacitus.

The most important writings are by Josephus, a Jewish Roman historian.  All of his writings are freely available online at   www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/j#a1050.  In his Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 3, para 3, he wrote the following ca 93 CE (the Christian additions to his text have been removed):  “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man.  For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.  He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks.  And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease.  And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”  Josephus also spoke of ‘astounding and marvellous deeds’ performed by Elisha.  [GV2, 13].

2.5       Paula Fredriksen (1951 –  )

Dr. Paula Fredriksen is an historian of Christianity and Judaism at Boston University.

She listed a “handful of indisputable facts about Jesus.” [PF2, 9, 268]:

  • his encounter with John the Baptizer;
  • his popular following;
  • his proclamation of the Kingdom of God;
  • his crucifixion by Pilate in Jerusalem at the Passover;
  • his execution, supposedly as a political insurrectionist – but she notes that his followers were not executed;
  • his core followers survived, and took up his proclamation of the Kingdom;
  • his core followers identified Jesus as Christ, risen from the dead; and
  • they extended the mission out from its Jewish matrix to also include Gentiles.

2.6       Bart Ehrman (1955 – )

Dr. Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religion at the University of North Carolina, wrote the following summary of the life of Jesus. [BE3, 44] [BE7, 16]

  • Jesus was raised in a Jewish home in the small village of Nazareth in Galilee;
  • As an adult, he engaged in an itinerant preaching ministry in largely rural areas of Galilee; there is no record of him visiting any large cities until his fateful journey to Jerusalem at the end of his life;
  • His message was comparable to that found in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible: The people of Israel must repent or they will be faced with judgment. Jesus, however, gave this message an apocalyptic twist, as did many other religious Jews of his day. The coming judgment would be of cosmic proportions and brought by an emissary from heaven, the Son of Man, who would overthrow the forces of evil and establish God’s Kingdom on Earth. When this happened, there would be a serious reversal of fortunes;
  • People needed to prepare for this historical cataclysm by turning back to God and keeping his Law, especially as interpreted by Jesus himself;
  • At the end of his life, he came to Jerusalem during a Passover feast, caused a disturbance in the Temple, and raised the ire and fears of the ruling party, the Sadducees, who were intent on keeping the peace and avoiding any riots during such tumultuous times;
  • They had Jesus arrested and turned him over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who ordered him crucified as a troublemaker who called himself the King of the Jews; and
  • Scholars dispute the precise year of his death, but it must have been some time around 30 A.D.

2.7       Other Modern Academics

According to Donald Akenson, in the mid-1990s, the leading Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish scholars of the historical Yeshua were John P. Meier, E.P. Sanders, and Geza Vermes, respectively.  [DA1, 553]

The Roman Catholic scholar John P. Meier  (1942-     ) is a Catholic priest and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.  He takes the critical historian’s approach.

His best known book, by far, is his five volume A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.  Anchor Bible Reference Library Series. New York: Yale University Press.  These volumes were published in 1991, 1994, 2001, 2009, and 2016. [JPM1].

The Protestant scholar Ed Parish Sanders (1937-   ), at Duke University, saw Jesus as an eschatological prophet.  Two of his many books are: Jesus and Judaism  (Fortress Press, 1985), and The Historical Figure of Jesus.  (Penguin Press, 1993).

The Jewish scholar, Geza Vermes (1924-2013), at Oxford University, saw Jesus as a faithful Jewish teacher, and the invention of Christianity a product of his misguided followers.   [CApol, 372]  Once a Roman Catholic priest, he later renounced Christianity and returned to his Jewish roots.   One of his many books is Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels.  (Fortress Press 1973).

2.8       Final Comments

William Lane Craig is a well-known Christian scholar who has written many books and participated in many debates (found on YouTube).   Here is a carefully recorded statement he made in one of those debates: “God as the author and giver of life has the right to take human life as he wills and to give human life as he wills.  God has it perfectly within his rights to strike someone dead at any moment that he would choose.  If God chooses to take human life I simply don’t see that that is not good.”   We object to this statement – this kind of God is unjust and not worthy of worship.

We do not give much credence to the findings of the “Jesus Seminar” of the 1990s.  The Jesus Seminar was an American group of about 50 critical biblical scholars and 100 laymen founded in 1985 by Robert Funk that originated under the auspices of the Westar Institute.  The seminar was very active through the later 1980s and 1990s, and into the early 21st century.  Although they have a few well-qualified leaders like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, their group contains some poorly qualified lay people, and their methods are flawed.  They also promote the minority view that Jesus was not really an apocalyptic figure.

3. Our Historical Jesus

Our description of the historically reliable aspects of the life of Jesus is based on these sources and criteria:

  1. Jesus’ life story as told in: the Bible Dictionary [Bdict, 458-68]; the Reader’s Digest Bible Through the Ages [RDStory, 138-41, 158-163]; Paula Fredriksen’s Jesus of Nazareth [PF2]; Bart Ehrman’s From Jesus to Constantine: a history of early Christianity [BE7]; and Luke Timothy Johnson’s Early Christianity: the Experience of the Divine [LTJ2];
  2. the short commentaries of Section 2;
  3. understanding that there are at least two ways to read NT passages: literally and figuratively, using the latter when the former is not believable or does not make sense;
  4. knowing that the gospels were written decades after the resurrection, by Greek-speaking authors who never met Jesus, and writing from a believer’s perspective;
  5. the contents of the three synoptic gospels, especially the earlier, more reliable Mark;
  6. being doubtful of stories in John, which are infused with later theological beliefs;
  7. giving more weight to any materials embarrassing to Christians (no one would falsify this kind of information).
  8. giving more weight to statements with multiple independent attestations (independent sources for the same story);
  9. stories must conform to what we know about the society that Jesus lived in: a Jewish society, but very much within a Greco-Roman mileau. For example, Gospels written in Greek say that the Romans crucified Jesus as ‘King of the Jews.’
  10. stories showing the dissimilarity of some of Jesus’ teachings with Judaism, are more likely to be true;
  11. routine statements are more likely to be true. Examples: “And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him,” (Mk 3.14) and “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.” (Lk 4.16);
  12. anything received in a dream, vision or trance is not believable;
  13. any of the many NT stories copied from, or very similar to, an OT story are suspect as being copied for literary effect, but not likely true;
  14. historians cannot accept any supernatural events, which are contrary to our experience of the natural world. So, for example, the resurrection is not accepted as an historical event, while the fact that Jesus’ followers believed in the resurrection is accepted as an historical fact.  Miraculous healings are seen as being exaggerated stories explained by the recipient’s belief, the power of belief, the placebo effect, etc.;
  15. our assessment of the best interpretation of NT passages in light of all of the above.

Here is our list of statements about Jesus that are considered most likely to be true.  A detailed justification for each statement is presented in Section 4.

3.1       Beginnings

  • Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person.
  • He was likely born ca 6 to 4 BCE, during the last years of the reign of Herod The Great.
  • It was a natural birth, and likely not at Bethlehem.
  • Jesus was named the Hebrew Yesua, which was a common name.
  • He grew up at Nazareth, a small village in Galilee.
  • Growing up, he likely learned the trade of carpentry (or construction) from his father, Joseph.
  • We are told nothing about his height, appearance, voice, schooling, and marital status.
  • There is no physical or archaeological evidence for Jesus.
  • There is no record of any writings by Jesus.
  • He had four named ‘brothers’ and at least two unnamed ‘sisters’.
  • At age twelve, after a Passover festival in Jerusalem, he stayed behind three days, conversing with the temple priests.
  • We are sure he at least spoke Aramaic, the language of working people in Galilee.

3.2       His Ministry

  • Around age thirty, he chose to be baptised in the Jordan River by his kinsman, John the Baptist, who was a very successful preacher of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
  • After his adult baptism, he had a public ministry of teaching, preaching and healing in the synagogues, villages and countryside of Galilee, and later, in or near Jerusalem. His teaching in village synagogues and at the temple in Jerusalem is well documented.
  • As he often quoted OT passages, and taught how to interpret them, Jesus must have been well educated in Judaism. He was thoroughly Jewish.
  • He chose twelve disciples to help him in his work.
  • His ministry most likely lasted at least two years.

3.3       His Teachings

  • Religiously, Jesus was a very intense Jew who understood the Hebrew teachings. He alludes to or quotes a large number of OT passages.
  • His most famous form of teaching was the parable, wherein a spiritual point is taught by reference to everyday experiences familiar to the listeners. There are doubts about some parables.
  • He taught better ways of being faithful to the spirit of Torah rather than the letter.
  • He taught the dual requirement to love God and to love your neighbour.
  • He taught people a version of the Lord’s Prayer, but its exact text is uncertain.
  • He also taught a promise of forgiveness that leads to the reconciliation of sinners.
  • His teachings about the ‘Kingdom of God’ (or Matthew’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) have two main meanings: the kingdom is both in heaven in the future, and it is also a reality here and now.
  • Many of his teaching are universally admired.
  • He also issued threats and warnings to the unrepentant.
  • Many people, including his brothers, did not believe in him pre-resurrection. This non-belief also occured in specific towns like Nazareth, Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, and sometimes more generally.

3.4       His Miracles

  • Reports of his seventeen healing miracles and five exorcisms of demons, may contain some truth but also some exaggeration.
  • Reports of his resuscitations of three individuals (daughter of Jairus, widow’s son and Lazarus) are not believable.
  • Reports of his five physical miracles (changing water into wine, the huge catch of fish, calming the storm, walking on water, and feeding the 4000 and/or 5000) are also not believable.
  • Reports of his five spiritual miracles (virgin birth, transfiguration, resurrection, vanishing at Emmaus, and ascension ) are also not believable.

3.5       Jewish Leadership Reaction

  • Several NT passages show that the Jewish leaders plotted against him.

3.6       The Passion

So many details of the passion story are contradictory that it cannot be considered very reliable.

  • The Jewish Council condemned him for not denying that he was the Messiah, the Son of God.
  • He was sent to the Roman ruler, Pontius Pilate, for trial. He was found guilty of claiming to be ‘King of the Jews’ and sent to be crucified.
  • He suffered and was crucified on a cross.
  • The sign on the cross said he claimed to be the King of the Jews.
  • He was buried in a tomb newly cut into rock, owned by Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man who was both a Christ follower and a member of a ‘Council’.
  • He died sometime around 30 CE.
  • On the third day, some of his women followers came to treat his dead body and found the tomb empty.
  • Over the next forty days, many of his followers claimed they saw him in visionary form.
  • After that, Jesus was rarely seen.
  • He did not literally ascend to heaven.
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