The Historical Jesus

I am interested in the distinction between the historical Jesus and the mythologized Jesus created by the Bible and numerous other texts and presentations. First, how do we know that the historical person, Jesus, really existed? Are there any historical records written by non-Christians? Second, what do we know about the real person? Is there anything written about him by contemporaries?

Asked By: 
There are sources

Yes, there are a few historical records –I would say historical mentions of Jesus of Nazareth- written by non-Christians. In his book The New Testament. A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Bart Ehrman talks about what is already common knowledge, namely, that a few Roman and Jewish sources mention the historical Jesus, thus proving his existence to anyone who wants to deny it. In 113 C.E. (Common Era) Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia-Pontus, writes a letter to the Roman emperor Trajan asking him what to do with Christians in his province. As a side comment he mentions Jesus and the fact that he is being worshipped as a god. That’s all he says about him.

Some years later Suetonius, the Roman historian, writes about some riots that had occurred in Rome during the reign of Claudius (41-54 C.E) and says that these riots were instigated by someone named “Chrestus.” Is he misspelling “Christ?” Some think so. But if he does, he is referring not to Jesus himself, who had died some twenty years earlier, but to Jesus’ followers.

Then we have Tacitus, another historian, who in his Annals mentions both Christians and Jesus (he calls him “Christus”), whom he said was executed by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. This is another historical evidence of Jesus’ existence.

Finally we have the Jewish sources. Of these the only ones that are contemporary with Jesus are the works of Flavius Josephus. The rest are later sources, from the rabbinic period that produced the Talmud, and therefore can not be considered contemporary or objective, since they are permeated by an anti-Christian bias. But Josephus does mention Jesus. He lived and wrote during the time of the Jewish Revolt (66-73C.E.). In one of his writings, The Antiquities of the Jews, he describes Jesus as “a wise man and a teacher who performed startling things and as a consequence found a following among both Jews and Greeks; it states that he was accused by Jewish leaders before Pilate, who condemned him to be crucified; and it points out that his followers remained devoted to him even afterward.” (Ehrman, The New Testament, p.214)

So, the only thing we know about Jesus from these sources is that first, he existed, he lived at a certain time in Roman occupied Palestine. And second, that he was a wise man, a teacher and “a doer of startling deeds,” probably a reference to his miracles. He was executed by the Romans (not the Jews!) but his followers formed a group (Josephus calls it “a tribe”) which endured even after his death and were still around when Josephus was writing.

The New Testament gospels, then, contain some basic historical facts about Jesus but the rest of the information comes from the oral traditions passed around by his followers. Therefore one should expect a high degree of biased embellishment and theological construction. Nevertheless, one can not deny that some of these stories have a historical basis, for the non-Christian sources preserve only that aspect of Jesus’ life that was of public knowledge, not the intimate details known only to his followers.

Want to learn more? Get started with Bible study here. Appreciate these answers? Help us continue by donating here

Author: Osvaldo D. Vena, Th.D.
No myths but possibly legends

The very existence of the man Jesus from Nazareth was most famously called into question by Arthur Drewes about 100 years ago, and subsequently by such eminent New Testament scholars as Rudolf Bultmann. But since then, a scholarly consensus has emerged that we now know considerably more about Jesus than e.g. about Alexander the Great, whose existence it never occurred to anyone to doubt; and that notions of Jesus’ non-existence are right up there in the realm of fantasy with notions that the Trojan War took place in England, or that Odysseus or the Chinese sailed to Canada, or that Jesus went to England, or lived in India, or married Mary Magdalene and spawned the Merovingian dynasty of France.

Once granted that—like Siddhartha Gautama—the man Jesus really existed, the biblical and later stories about Jesus come under the heading, not of “myth,” but of “legend.” So likewise we have plenty of “legends” about George Washington (chopping down the cherry tree) and Abraham Lincoln; but as with Jesus, such legends are not sufficient reason to doubt the existence of, and even a body of solid facts about those men.

As for the “theological” interpretations of Jesus in the New Testament, Jesus’ first- and second-generation followers were hard put indeed to come up with a reason why—in God’s plan—their great leader should have been crucified; and having experienced at first or second hand his resurrection, they then proceeded to give theological explanations of his crucifixion and resurrection.

Finally, first-century non-Christian references to Jesus are rare indeed; Josephus gives more space to John the Baptist than to Jesus. But that is probably because, on the great stage of first-century imperial history, Jesus seemed such a relatively minor figure that he got almost no column-inches in the non-Christian historical reports of the time. His importance became apparent to a broader audience only in the second century and later.

To go no further than print resources, interesting and reliable articles on “Jesus [Christ]” are available in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible with Supplement, the Encyclopaedia Judaica; the Anchor Bible Dictionary, the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, and bibliographies and cross-references there, not to mention whole libraries full of highly respectable books on the subject.

Two early, non-Christian sources

Despite some recent publications that argue Jesus did not exist, there are two statements by early, non-Christian sources indicating that he did. The Jewish historian Josephus (writing at the end of the 1st c. CE) identifies James as “the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ” while the Roman historian Tacitus (c. 115 CE) reports that Christians derive their name from a man named ‘Christus’ who was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius (Ann. 15.44). Both of these statements agree with the evidence of the New Testament, providing outside corroboration.

However, it should also be noted that these two statement represent the sum total of reliable sources outside of the New Testament and dating from around the time of the first century CE that provide evidence for the existence of Jesus. While this may seem surprising to us, it is not surprising in terms of the media world of antiquity. It is estimated that less than 10% of the population could read or write; the written documents that have survived are mostly things such as business letters, contracts, and inscriptions (on the one hand) and (on the other hand) rhetorical manuals, romance novels, histories of the Roman Empire, and lives of philosophers or rulers. It is fairly remarkable, then, that we find any references to a peasant from the region of the Galilee whose followers represented a small group within the Jews, who themselves constituted a very small percent of the population of the Roman Empire.

Our only sources, then, for attempting to reconstruct a historical narrative of the person Jesus are the documents of the New Testament. And, as the questioner observes, these sources are hardly unbiased. Nonetheless, it is possible to cull some more or less factual data from them. The letters of Paul are the earliest sources and they report that Jesus was born of a woman (Gal 4:4), that he was a Jew (Gal 4:4), and that he was crucified (1 Cor 11:23; 1 Cor 2:2). The canonical Gospels all confirm that Jesus was associated the region of the Galilee, but traveled to Jerusalem during major Jewish festivals.

What this doesn’t tell us is what kind of a person Jesus was, what his thoughts were, what formative experiences shaped his life. Yet, it is precisely at this point that efforts to reconstruct the life of any historical person must become interpretive, whether it is George Washington, Gandhi, or Jesus. In the case of Jesus, the efforts to do so have been legion. Fortunately, the web provides easy access to summaries of these efforts and some direct access to the sources employed. Two websites that I would recommend are the following: provides summaries of the work of major scholars who have attempted to reconstruct a life of the historical Jesus; offers a host of resources for approaching the question of the historical Jesus.

Historians don't doubt the existence of Jesus

I know of no professional historian of the ancient world who doubts that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, historical figure. There have been journalists and propagandists from time to time who have raised the question, but historical judgement remains firm on the matter, regardless of the historian's stance on the religious claims that Christians make for Jesus.

For a review of basic evidence, the following is an accessible discussion:
F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974)

Author: Larry W. Hurtado
There are a few things we can say

The distinction between the historical Jesus and the "mythologized Jesus" (though the usual term is "Christ of faith") is a topic in which many people are interested these days. And a number of folks are asking the very question that you're asking, "Did Jesus exist?" I would answer yes to the question because people who were not Christian believers wrote about him around the end of the first century and beginning of the second. These include the Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the 90s, and the Roman historians Tacitus, writing around 110, and Suetonius, writing around 120.

None of these, however, were actual contemporaries of Jesus, who died in the early 30s, while Josephus was born in the late 30s, and Tacitus and Suetonius later than that. Traditionally, it is said that the Gospels of Matthew and John were written by disciples of the historical Jesus, but contemporary scholarship discounts that identification. All four Gospels were written anonymously, and only in the second century were they connected with named individuals, based on speculation by some early Christian writers. Indeed, in Jesus' world the vast majority of people were illiterate, as Jesus may have been, and the people who followed him were also illiterate, so none of his followers would have been able to record what he did or said.

Furthermore, Jesus spoke Aramaic, and our earliest sources, including the New Testament and the writings of Josephus, were written in Greek. The apostle Paul, who wrote his letters in the 50s and 60s, was a younger contemporary of Jesus, though Paul didn't know the historical Jesus, but he claims to have had a dramatic encounter with "the Christ of faith." That encounter may have happened 3-5 years after Jesus' death. Paul, however, doesn't talk much about the historical Jesus; he's only interested in the Christ of faith.

At a minimum, I think that we can say this about the historical Jesus: He was baptized by John. He was an itinerant Jewish preacher of the kingdom, or reign, of God, as opposed to the "reign of Caesar." Because of this radical message, he was crucified by the Romans.

Unfortunately, we don't hear much about this counter-cultural Jesus at this time of year. Sometimes I think that we should take Christ out of Christmas, and then we could just have our end-of-the-year shopping spree without sullying Jesus with it.

I would like to point you to some good websites, but I haven't seen any specifically devoted to the existence of Jesus written by scholars. On the more general topic of the historical Jesus, I would point you to New Testament Gateway: It has a large number of websites and online articles on the subject. As far as books go, John P. Meier, _A Marginal Jew_ (4 volumes and counting) is a very careful, judicious, thorough investigation. His treatment in vol. 1 of the existence of Jesus is the best I know.

Author: Michael Willett Newheart
Diverse opinions

Strictly speaking, the "historical" Jesus is the reconstruction of Jesus by scholars who claim to be historians and do their work according to the rules of historiography. The material they use are primarily the Gospels of the New Testament, the only direct sources available (seeking by critical methodology get behind the plain witness of the Gospels) and secondarily Jewish sources that give evidence of what Judaism was like at the time Jesus lived and preached for comparative purposes.

While none of these historians deny that Jesus actually lived, taught and died by crucifixion--after all the ink spilled only fanatic or fools would deny Jesus' historical existence--, they significantly disagree about the "reconstructed" Jesus. For example, on the far liberal side John Dominic Crossan in his The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant gives us an itinerant, village, home-spun philosopher Jesus who advocated simplicity of life, social justice, and equality of genders, and who as a result riled up traditionalists who crucified him and upon death dumped his presumed polluted body in the Jerusalem dump possibly to be eaten by dogs. But another liberal and revisionist scholar, Bart D. Ehrman in his Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, advances the picture of Jesus as a Jewish prophet fired up by the conviction that the world was coming to an end, a failed message, but was nevertheless crucified because of the commotion caused.

On the opposite scholarly side is N.T. Wright in his Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God, who historically connects Jesus with the practices, hopes, and expectations of contemporary Jews and critically corroborates the essential truth of the Gospels about the deity of Jesus especially by underscoring the significance of the resurrection as a historical and world-transforming event. Somewhere in the middle stands Marcus J. Borg in his Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, who views Jesus as a deeply religious, wise, loving, and charismatic man advocating faith in God and transformed spiritual life based on faith, love, justice, peace, compassion, and the like, who can still be a spiritual model for us today.

Some scholars,such as Luke Timothy Johnson in his The Real Jesus and Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel, dismiss the strict historical approach altogether as virtually impossible and vain--because no one can recover exactly who Jesus was, his motivations, processes of thought, decision-making, inner struggles, convictions, values and goals, all that is beyond the reach of the historian due to the lack of necessary direct records coming from Jesus himself--and that the "real" Jesus is the Jesus of faith whom his followers provide for us in the witness of the Gospels and to whom we can also relate by faith today as the "Living" Jesus who impacts on our personal lives.

There has been considerable notoriety in the media about various theories about Jesus such as generated by the so-called Gospel of Judas. Two books that critique many of these theories are by Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels and Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way.

Finally, any student of the question who desires to dig deeply into the issues must read through the philosophical and methodological aspects of these matters such as presented by Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Recovering Jesus: The Witness of the New Testament and Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition.
Happy hunting!

The distinction is not necessarily clear-cut

Only some scholars would agree with such clear cut distinction between "the historical Jesus and the mythologized Jesus." The wide variance among scholars of the Gospels shows that there is a subjective element in any position. Some scholars view all the accounts as basically historical but seeming them varying from other accounts according to the situation of the writers, the many perspectives different observers can have of the same event, and a much looser standard of historical accuracy than what we have today.

Others would be much more minimalistic in that with which they consider historically accurate; yet they still would affirm a lot. A contemporary Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, writing in the later part of the first century, in his Jewish Antiquities, refers to Jesus. My approach in reading Biblical interpretations that are guided by a particular theory of how the work was composed is to see how helpful the interpretation is in opening up the meaning of the passage for me and my life.

Author: Stephen Charles Mott




Massachusetts Bible Society Logo

Exploring the Bible Logo