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.
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)
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:
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:
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]:
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]
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.
Our description of the historically reliable aspects of the life of Jesus is based on these sources and criteria:
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.
3.2 His Ministry
3.3 His Teachings
3.4 His Miracles
3.5 Jewish Leadership Reaction
3.6 The Passion
So many details of the passion story are contradictory that it cannot be considered very reliable.