The Search for the Historical Jesus

The Search for the Historical Jesus

According to a survey by the Church of England, two in five people in England believe that Jesus was a mythical figure – in other words, that he wasn’t real, that the Gospels (the accounts in the New Testament of Jesus’ life, as presented by four of his followers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were, in effect, a conspiracy theory.

The historical record, however, is incontrovertible. Jesus did exist. And he made serious demands on the attention of Jews and Gentiles alike. Whether or not you are offended by Jesus’ claims, whether you believe Jesus was a good teacher, a false Messiah or the real deal, the statistic above should be alarming, for the simple fact that Jesus was real.

How did Jesus’ existence come to be questioned? The answer lies in the changing trends of modern Bible scholarship. The “quest for the historical Jesus” describes a longstanding and vexed attempt to reconstruct Jesus’ life, during which various scholars have ventured the claim that Jesus was made up.

But biblical scholarship has turned in the other direction – towards affirming Jesus’ existence and answering some of the most common objections posed by skeptics.

If Jesus was real, why don’t we read about him outside of the Bible?

There are authors and historians who mention Jesus outside of the New Testament. We just don’t hear about them all that often.

Tacitus was the preeminent historian of the early days of the Roman Empire. He writes about the death of Christ and the existence of Christians at Rome in his Annals:

Hence to suppress the rumor [i.e. that he ordered the burning of Rome], [Nero] falsely charged… and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also.[1]

Tacitus mentions Jesus as the leader of a seditious sect whose “pernicious superstition” –  that Christ was the divine King of the Jews – spread during the reign of Nero (AD 54–68). He is the only contemporaneous non-Christian historian to record the name of Pontius Pilate as Christ’s executioner.

In addition to Tacitus, the Roman writers Suetonius and Pliny the Younger mention the Christians. Suetonius uses a bastardized variant of Christ’s name: “Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit [Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome].”[2] Pliny the Younger, meanwhile, addresses the Emperor Trajan in a letter, where he asks various questions about martyring Christians in his province.

Josephus, a major Jewish historian born in the time of Jesus, makes mention of Jesus and the Christians. For context: Josephus was not a popular guy among the Jews. After briefly taking part in the First Jewish-Roman War (AD 66–73), he switched allegiances and was granted Roman citizenship by Emperor Vespasian in AD 69. After that, he played flunky to the Romans in their suppression of the uprisings in Judea. In Rome, he wrote his Antiquities, a history of the Jews.

Josephus is an important source in the “search for the historical Jesus” since he mentions John the Baptist. His description concurs with that of the Gospel accounts, though his explanation of baptism differs slightly:

John, surnamed the Baptist… was a good man, who bade the Jews practice virtue, be just one to another and pious toward God, and come together in baptism. He taught that baptism was acceptable to God provided that they underwent it not to procure remission of certain sins, but for the purification of the body, if the soul had already been purified by righteousness… Herod feared that his persuasive power over men, being so great, might lead to a rising… So he thought it much better to seize him and kill him before he caused any tumult, than to have to repent of falling into such trouble later on, after a revolt had taken place. Because of this suspicion of Herod, John was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fortress which we mentioned above, and there put to death.[3]

Besides John the Baptist, Josephus mentions Christ in one “hotly-contested passage”[4] of his Antiquities called the Testimonium Flavianum:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a 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. He was the Christ. 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. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.[5]

This passage used to be considered proof positive that Josephus knew about Jesus; then scholars found its language about Jesus to be problematic – Josephus was not a Christian, after all. Later scholars attempted to synthesize these disparate readings by understanding the passage as fundamentally authentic, since it shares stylistic and syntactic similarities with the rest of Josephus’ writings, even though it shows signs of Christian interpolation. (So, when Josephus calls Jesus the “Christ [which means Messiah],” the uncorrupted text originally would have said “the so-called Christ.”)

Regardless, scholars generally agree that Josephus affirmed Christ’s existence. This is a crucial distinction. Believing in Christ’s claim to divinity is not essential to believe, at the very least, that he existed.

Josephus mentions Jesus once more in a passage scholars uniformly accept as authentic and uncorrupted:

But the younger Ananus… assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.[6]

Even the Talmud mentions Christ on several occasions, albeit disparagingly. The rabbis whose sayings constituted the Talmud were spiritual descendants of the Pharisees, whom Jesus alienated and argued with in his lifetime. These men would have had every reason to give him a bad name (their usual joke is that he was an illegitimate son). But nowhere do they question the reality of his existence.

One author sums it up this way:

Some writers may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ-myth,’ but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ-myth’ theories.[7]

Even if Jesus is recorded as being “real” according to outside sources, why should I believe anything about him recorded in the Gospels?

Some people are under the impression that the Bible is a hodgepodge of chauvinistic national myths and folktales, or that the New Testament is a conspiracy among deluded fishermen. Prominent atheists from our era (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) have done much to militate against the legitimacy of the New Testament and create this false impression.

Scholars, however, take a more measured view. While only some are “evangelical” (including the writer of this article) – which includes belief in the New Testament as divine revelation – even those who are not tend to affirm the validity and usefulness of the Gospels as records of the life of Christ. At the very least, they figure that the Gospels are originally based on an oral tradition of the sayings and doings of a man called Jesus.

Historically, scholars have separated the Gospels into two categories, the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and John.

Various seeming discrepancies become apparent when reading these accounts. Mark is much shorter than the others. John’s simple, arresting tone and setting of Jesus’ ministry chiefly in Jerusalem are different from the other Gospels, whose narratives are centered around Galilee and adopt a more straightforward descriptive tone.

Over time, schools of criticism arose to account for these differences.

Literary criticism made the claim that Matthew, Mark and Luke are based in part on a theoretical document entitled “Q.” Literary critics expended much energy hypothesizing what this document might have looked like.

Form criticism, as it is somewhat confusingly called, hypothesized that an oral tradition formed the basis of the Gospel of Mark, who was a follower of the Apostle Peter and who (they argue) assembled and reconfigured various units of meaning and narrative from Peter’s ministry. Luke and Matthew, in turn, read Mark but included other sayings of Jesus that were orally transmitted; Luke particularly sought out additional testimony to enrich his account of the life of Jesus.

It is impossible to summarize the various schools of scholarship, whose conclusions about the harmony and consistency of the Gospels differ. One helpful way of understanding the nature of the Gospels as historical documents is as follows.

In older versions of the Bible, the accounts of the life of Jesus are entitled, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” The Gospel According to Mark,” “The Gospel According to Luke,” “The Gospel According to John.” Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were four different followers of Jesus writing after his death, attempting as best they could to record his sayings, doings and messianic claims. It is one life story, described according to four different authors with different sources of information. For Mark this source was Peter; for Matthew it was Mark; for Luke it was Mark and a wide body of Syrian believers Luke interviewed about the life of Jesus. For John, it was Jesus himself (John is thought to be the “beloved disciple” mentioned in several passages of his Gospel, who had special knowledge and access to Jesus). Their different perspectives account for variations in focus and discrepancies in wording, but the authors of these four accounts are not fundamentally at odds with one another.

Why isn’t there physical evidence of Jesus?

While the scholarly world no longer accepts church relics to be legitimate sources of historical evidence, that isn’t to say we have nothing in the way of “physical” evidence (though the distinction between “physical” and “documentary” evidence in ancient times is much fuzzier than it is today – documents were very physical objects that were indices of history).

Archaeological excavations in modern-day Israel have unearthed inscriptions, stelae, epigraphs, and coins that indicate a correspondence between details of the Gospels (specifically Luke) and the geography and history of Palestine under the Romans.

Just one example will have to suffice here: for some years, various biblical scholars identified certain usages and place-names in Luke and Acts as errors. However, inscriptions and epigraphs have tended to corroborate Luke’s usages in these two books:

The book of Acts has been shown to well represent the geography of antiquity. Nearly every town in the book has been identified, and many cities have been excavated. The Acts record of Paul’s travels to Rome, including his shipwreck, presents one of the most detailed and useful travel accounts from antiquity (Acts 27). Luke, the author of Acts, even knows the correct terms for specific governors – as shown by uncovered inscriptions mentioning the proconsul Gallio (18:12), the asiarchs of Ephesus (19:30–31), and the politarchs of Thessalonica (17:1, 6).[8]

Where Luke sometimes names an official whose title should (if officialdom were consistent in its ranks and titles) be something else, the actual historical record bears out his usage.

The New Encyclopædia Britannica sums it up succinctly:

These independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus, which was disputed for the first time and on inadequate grounds by several authors at the end of the 18th, during the 19th, and at the beginning of the 20th centuries.[9]

Yes, Jesus existed. But he is much more than a historical figure. Both Jews and Gentiles have been gripped by the person of Jesus as they read the Gospel accounts. If they are not just folklore, if they are not just the ramblings of random men, if even non-believers must acknowledge Jesus’ existence, then the Gospels make it evident that he has the power to change our lives.

Are you ready for an encounter that could change yours?

[1] Tacitus, Annals 15.44.

[2] Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum, 25.

[3] Josephus, Antiquities XVIII 5:2.

[4] Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1979), 81–82.

[5] Josephus, Antiquities XVIII 3:3.

[6] Josephus, Antiquities XX 9:1.

[7] F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972),119.

[8] NET Bible, 2nd ed., “Archaeology and the Bible,” 2593 (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2017).

[9] Encyclopædia Britannia, 15th ed., s.v. “Jesus Christ,” from Macropædia, vol. 10, p. 145 (Chicago: Benton Foundation and Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1976).

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