Virtually all scholars of antiquity agree that a historical human Jesus existed. Historian Michael Grant asserts that if conventional standards of historical textual criticism are applied to the New Testament, "we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned."
The Christ myth theory, which developed within the scholarly research on the historical Jesus, is, in Geoffrey W. Bromiley's words, the view that "the story of Jesus is a piece of mythology" possessing no "substantial claims to historical fact". Alternatively, Bart Ehrman (who himself rejects the Christ myth theory) summarises Earl Doherty's view as being "that no historical Jesus worthy of the name existed, that Christianity began with a belief in a spiritual, mythical figure, that the Gospels are essentially allegory and fiction, and that no single identifiable person lay at the root of the Galilean preaching tradition".
Historiographical approaches associated with the study of the poor in the past, such as microhistory, can help assess what type of sources can be reasonably expected in the historical record for individuals like Jesus. For instance, Justin Meggitt argues that since most people in antiquity left no sign of their existence, especially the poor, it is unreasonable to expect non-Christian sources to corroborate the specific existence of someone with Jesus's socio-economic status. Ehrman argues that the historical record for the first century was so lacking that no contemporary eyewitness reports for prominent individuals such as Pontius Pilate or Josephus survive. Historian Michael Grant argues that when the New Testament is analyzed with the same criteria used by historians on ancient writings that contain historical material, Jesus' existence cannot be denied anymore than secular figures whose existence is never questioned.
The seven Pauline epistles considered by scholarly consensus to be genuine are dated to between AD 50 and 60 (i.e., approximately 20 to 30 years after the generally accepted time period of Jesus's death) and are the earliest surviving Christian texts that may include information about Jesus.[failed verification] Although Paul the Apostle provides relatively little biographical information about Jesus and states that he never knew Jesus personally, he does make it clear that he considers Jesus to have been a real person[note 5] and a Jew.[note 6] Moreover, he interacted with eyewitnesses of Jesus since he wrote about meeting and knowing James, the brother of Jesus[note 7] and Jesus's apostles Peter and John.
Non-Christian sources used to study and establish the historicity of Jesus include the c. first century Jewish historian Josephus and Roman historian Tacitus. These sources are compared to Christian sources, such as the Pauline letters and synoptic gospels, and are usually independent of each other; that is, the Jewish sources do not draw upon the Roman sources. Similarities and differences between these sources are used in the authentication process.
Tacitus, in his Annals (written c. AD 115), book 15, chapter 44, describes Nero's scapegoating of the Christians following the Fire of Rome. He writes that the founder of the sect was named Christus (the Christian title for Jesus); that he was executed under Pontius Pilate; and that the movement, initially checked, broke out again in Judea and even in Rome itself. The scholarly consensus is that Tacitus' reference to the execution of Jesus by Pilate is both authentic and of historical value as an independent Roman source.
The Mishnah (c. 200) may refer to Jesus as it reflects the early Jewish traditions of portraying Jesus as a sorcerer or magician. Other references to Jesus and his execution exist in the Talmud, but they aim to discredit his actions, not deny his existence.
According to New Testament scholar James Dunn, nearly all modern scholars consider the baptism of Jesus and his crucifixion to be historically certain. He states that these "two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent" and "rank so high on the 'almost impossible to doubt or deny' scale of historical 'facts' they are obvious starting points for an attempt to clarify the what and why of Jesus' mission."
John P. Meier views the crucifixion of Jesus as historical fact and states that based on the criterion of embarrassment Christians would not have invented the painful death of their leader.
The criterion of embarrassment is also used to argue in favor of the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist as it is a story which the early Christian Church would have never wanted to invent. Based on this criterion, given that John baptised for the remission of sins, and Jesus was viewed as without sin, the invention of this story would have served no purpose, and would have been an embarrassment given that it positioned John above Jesus.
Amy-Jill Levine has summarized the situation by stating that "there is a consensus of sorts on the basic outline of Jesus' life" in that most scholars agree that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and over a period of one to three years debated Jewish authorities on the subject of God, gathered followers, and was crucified by Roman prefect Pontius Pilate who officiated 26–36 AD.
General biographical elements
There is much in dispute as to his previous life, childhood, family and place of residence, of which the canonical gospels are almost completely silent.
Scholars attribute varying levels of certainty to other episodes. E. P. Sanders proposed eight "indisputable facts" about Jesus's life as a framework for biographical discussion:
Jesus was a Galilean preacher.
His activities took place in Galilee and Judea.
He was baptized by John the Baptist.
He called disciples.
He had a controversy at the Temple.
Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.
Since the 18th century, three separate scholarly quests for the historical Jesus have taken place, each with distinct characteristics and based on different research criteria, which were often developed during that phase. Currently modern scholarly research on the historical Jesus focuses on what is historically probable, or plausible about Jesus.
The portraits of Jesus constructed in the quests have often differed from each other, and from the image portrayed in the gospel accounts. There are overlapping attributes among the portraits, and while pairs of scholars may agree on some attributes, those same scholars may differ on others, and there is no single portrait of the historical Jesus that satisfies most scholars.
The mainstream profiles in the third quest may be grouped together based on their primary themes of apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish Messiah, and prophet of social change—but there is little scholarly agreement on a single portrait or the methods needed to construct it, especially in the 21st century.
Ehrman elucidates these differences by pointing out that there are essentially two different portraits of Jesus, one for the preacher who he says really existed, and the other for the Jesus most Christians believe in today. There are, however, overlapping attributes among the portraits, and scholars who differ on some attributes may agree on others.
^Multiple sources: Stanton (2002, p. 145): Today nearly all historians, whether Christians or not, accept that Jesus existed and that the gospels contain plenty of valuable evidence which has to be weighed and assessed critically. There is general agreement that, with the possible exception of Paul, we know far more about Jesus of Nazareth than about any first or second century Jewish or pagan religious teacher. Wells (2007, p. 446):"Today, most secular scholars accept Jesus as a historical, although unimpressive, figure." Ehrman (2012, pp. 4–5): "Serious historians of the early Christian movement—all of them—have spent many years preparing to be experts in their field. Just to read the ancient sources requires expertise in a range of ancient languages: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and often Aramaic, Syriac, and Coptic, not to mention the modern languages of scholarship (for example, German and French). And that is just for starters. Expertise requires years of patiently examining ancient texts and a thorough grounding in the history and culture of Greek and Roman antiquity, the religions of the ancient Mediterranean world, both pagan and Jewish, knowledge of the history of the Christian church and the development of its social life and theology, and, well, lots of other things. It is striking that virtually everyone who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure."
^ abThe Christ myth theory is rejected by mainstream scholarship:
Robert E. Van Voorst, referring to G. A. Wells: "The nonhistoricity thesis has always been controversial, and it has consistently failed to convince scholars of many disciplines and religious creeds. ... Biblical scholars and classical historians now regard it as effectively refuted."
While discussing the "striking" fact that "we don't have any Roman records, of any kind, that attest to the existence of Jesus", Ehrman dismisses claims that this means Jesus never existed, saying, "He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees, based on clear and certain evidence."
Robert M. Price, a former fundamentalist apologist who is now a Christian atheist, says the existence of Jesus cannot be ruled out, but is less probable than non-existence. He agrees that his perspective runs against the views of the majority of scholars.
Michael Grant, a classicist, states: "In recent years, 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus', or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary."
"There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church's imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more."
Maurice Casey, an irreligious Emeritus Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the University of Nottingham, concludes in his book Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? that "the whole idea that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist as a historical figure is verifiably false. Moreover, it has not been produced by anyone or anything with any reasonable relationship to critical scholarship. It belongs to the fantasy lives of people who used to be fundamentalist Christians. They did not believe in critical scholarship then, and they do not do so now. I cannot find any evidence that any of them have adequate professional qualifications."
Bockmuel: "[F]arfetched theories that Jesus' existence was a Christian invention are highly implausible."
^* "Introduction". The Historical Jesus : Five Views, edited by James K. Beilby & Paul Rhodes Eddy. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic. 2009. pp. 38–39. ISBN9780830838684. Contrary to previous times, virtually everyone in the field today acknowledges that Jesus was considered by his contemporaries to be an exorcist and a worker of miracles. However, when it comes to historical assessment of the miracles tradition itself, the consensus quickly shatters. Some, following in the footsteps of Bultmann, embrace an explicit methodological naturalism such that the very idea of a miracle is ruled out a priori. Others defend the logical possibility of miracle at the theoretical level, but, in practice, retain a functional methodological naturalism, maintaining that we could never be in possession of the type and/or amount of evidence that would justify a historical judgment in favor of the occurrence of a miracle. Still others, suspicious that an uncompromising methodological naturalism most likely reflects an unwarranted metaphysical naturalism, find such a priori skepticism unwarranted and either remain open to, or even explicitly defend, the historicity of miracles within the Jesus tradition. * Ehrman (2012, pp. 13): In agreement with the view of Albert Schweitzer: "The Jesus proclaimed by preachers and theologians today had no existence. That particular Jesus is (or those particular Jesuses are) a myth. But there was a historical Jesus, who was very much a man of his time"
^The Gospel of Luke states that "many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us."
^That Jesus had a brother named James is corroborated by Josephus.
^ abcdBart Ehrman (a secular agnostic) wrote: "He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees, based on certain and clear evidence." B. Ehrman, 2011 Forged: Writing in the Name of GodISBN978-0-06-207863-6. pp. 256–257
^Blomberg, Craig (2011). "New Testament Studies in North America". In Köstenberger, Andreas J.; Yarbrough, Robert W. (eds.). Understanding The Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century. Crossway. p. 282. ISBN978-1-4335-0719-9. The fruit of a decade of work by the IBR Historical Jesus Study Group, Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence [Ed. Darrell L. Bock and Robert L. Webb (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming).] takes a dozen core themes or events from Jesus' life and ministry and details the case for their authenticity via all the standard historical criteria, as well as assessing their significance. The results show significant correlation between what historians can demonstrate and what evangelical theology has classically asserted about the life of Christ.
^E. Meyers & J. Strange (1992). Archaeology, the Rabbis, & Early Christianity. Nashville: Abingdon, 1981; Article "Nazareth" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday.[page needed]
^Robert M. Price (a Christian atheist) who denies the existence of Jesus agrees that this perspective runs against the views of the majority of scholars: Robert M. Price "Jesus at the Vanishing Point" in The Historical Jesus: Five Views edited by James K. Beilby & Paul Rhodes Eddy, 2009 InterVarsity, ISBN0830838686 p. 61
^ abJesus Now and Then by Richard A. Burridge and Graham Gould (1 April 2004) ISBN0802809774 p. 34 "There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church's imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more. There's a lot of evidence for his existence."
^Michael Grant (1977), Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels
^James D. G. Dunn (1974) Paul's understanding of the death of Jesus in Reconciliation and Hope. New Testament Essays on Atonement and Eschatology Presented to L.L. Morris on his 60th Birthday. Robert Banks, ed., Carlisle: The Paternoster Press, pp. 125–141, Citing G. A. Wells (The Jesus of the Early Christians (1971)): "Perhaps we should also mention that at the other end of the spectrum Paul's apparent lack of knowledge of the historical Jesus has been made the major plank in an attempt to revive the nevertheless thoroughly dead thesis that the Jesus of the Gospels was a mythical figure." An almost identical quotation is included in Dunn, James DG (1998) The Christ and the Spirit: Collected Essays of James D.G. Dunn, Volume 1, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., p. 191, and Sykes, S. (1991) Sacrifice and redemption: Durham essays in theology. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. pp. 35–36.
^Van Voorst 2000, p. 16 "The nonhistoricity thesis has always been controversial, and it has consistently failed to convince scholars of many disciplines and religious creeds. ... Biblical scholars and classical historians now regard it as effectively refuted.".
^Casey 2014b, p. 243 "The most important result of this book is that the whole idea that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist as a historical figure is verifiably false".
^Grant 1992, p. 200 "To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has 'again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars'".
^ abSchoeps, Hans-Joachim (1968) . The Religions of Mankind. Translated by Winston, Richard; Winston, Clara. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books. pp. 261–262. ISBN978-0-385-04080-8. The Gospels cannot be equated with ... biographies. ... [Their] primary purpose was not to present a detailed historical picture of the life of Jesus. And the non-Christian materials ... provide us with no essential new knowledge beyond the accounts of the Gospels. ... [Thus] the situation in regard to sources is highly unsatisfactory; legendary and historical accounts are hopelessly intertwined. The historian must recognize that the materials available to us do not enable us to reconstruct Jesus as he really was. [They have] only the Jesus the early disciples saw, the Christ who has survived in the beliefs of the Christian community.
^Casey 2010, p. 63-64 "It also provides evidence that Mark is an unrevised literal translation of an Aramaic source, and this at a point where there is every reason to believe that the story is literally true. This means that our oldest source is sometimes perfectly accurate, because parts of it were originally written by people who were in close touch with the events of the historic ministry. This is only one short step away from eyewitness testimony"..
^Meggitt, Justin J. (October 2019). "'More Ingenious than Learned'? Examining the Quest for the Non-Historical Jesus". New Testament Studies. 65 (4): 458-459. doi:10.1017/S0028688519000213. S2CID203247861. For example, given that most human beings in antiquity left no sign of their existence, and the poor as individuals are virtually invisible, all we can hope to do is try to establish, in a general sense, the lives that they lived. Why would we expect any non-Christian evidence for the specific existence of someone of the socio-economic status of a figure such as Jesus at all? To deny his existence based on the absence of such evidence, even if that were the case, has problematic implications; you may as well deny the existence of pretty much everyone in the ancient world.
^Ehrman 2012, p. 49–50: "Think again of our earlier point of comparison, Pontius Pilate. Here is a figure who was immensely significant in every way to the life and history of Palestine during the adult life of Jesus (assuming Jesus lived), politically, economically, culturally, socially. As I have indicated, there was arguably no one more important. And how many eyewitness reports of Pilate do we have from his day? None. Not a single one. The same is true of Josephus. And these are figures who were of the highest prominence in their own day."
^Grant 1992, p. 199-200 "But above all, if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned".
^"Jesus Christ". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Archived from the original on 3 May 2015. Retrieved 27 November 2010. The Synoptic Gospels, then, are the primary sources for knowledge of the historical Jesus
^Vermes, Geza. The authentic gospel of Jesus. London, Penguin Books. 2004.
^Mark Allan Powell (editor), The New Testament Today, p. 50 (Westminster John Knox Press, 1999). ISBN0-664-25824-7
^Stanley E. Porter (editor), Handbook to Exegesis of the New Testament, p. 68 (Leiden, 1997). ISBN90-04-09921-2
^Ehrman 2012, pp. 83–85: "All of these written sources I have mentioned are earlier than the surviving Gospels; they all corroborate many of the key things said of Jesus in the Gospels; and most important they are all independent of one another. Let me stress the latter point. We cannot think of the early Christian Gospels as going back to a solitary source that “invented” the idea that there was a man Jesus. The view that Jesus existed is found in multiple independent sources that must have been circulating throughout various regions of the Roman Empire in the decades before the Gospels that survive were produced. Where would the solitary source that “invented” Jesus be? Within a couple of decades of the traditional date of his death, we have numerous accounts of his life found in a broad geographical span. In addition to Mark, we have Q, M (which is possibly made of multiple sources), L (also possibly multiple sources), two or more passion narratives, a signs source, two discourse sources, the kernel (or original) Gospel behind the Gospel of Thomas, and possibly others. And these are just the ones we know about, that we can reasonably infer from the scant literary remains that survive from the early years of the Christian church. No one knows how many there actually were. Luke says there were “many” of them, and he may well have been right. And once again, this is not the end of the story." (page 83) and "The reality appears to be that there were stories being told about Jesus for a very long time not just before our surviving Gospels but even before their sources had been produced. If scholars are right that Q and the core of the Gospel of Thomas, to pick just two examples, do date from the 50s, and that they were based on oral traditions that had already been in circulation for a long time, how far back do these traditions go? Anyone who thinks that Jesus existed has no problem answering the question: they ultimately go back to things Jesus said and did while he was engaged in his public ministry, say, around the year 29 or 30. But even anyone who just wonders if Jesus existed has to assume that there were stories being told about him in the 30s and 40s. For one thing, as we will see in the next chapter, how else would someone like Paul have known to persecute the Christians, if Christians didn’t exist? And how could they exist if they didn’t know anything about Jesus?" (page 85)"
^ abEhrman 2012, pp. 145–146: "In about the year 36, Paul went to Jerusalem to confer with Peter (Galatians 1:18–20). Paul spent fifteen days there. He may not have gone only or even principally to get a rundown on what Jesus said and did during his public ministry. It is plausible, in fact, that Paul wanted to strategize with Peter, as the leader (or one of the leaders) among the Jerusalem Christians, about Paul's own missionary activities, not among the Jews (Peter's concern) but among the Gentiles (Paul's). This was the reason stated for Paul's second visit to see Peter and the others fourteen years later, according to Galatians 2:1–10. But it defies belief that Paul would have spent over two weeks with Jesus's closest companion and not learned something about him—for example, that he lived. Even more telling is the much-noted fact that Paul claims that he met with, and therefore personally knew, Jesus's own brother James. It is true that Paul calls him the "brother of the Lord," not "the brother of Jesus." But that means very little since Paul typically calls Jesus the Lord and rarely uses the name Jesus (without adding "Christ" or other titles). And so in the letter to the Galatians Paul states as clearly as possible that he knew Jesus's brother. Can we get any closer to an eyewitness report than this? The fact that Paul knew Jesus's closest disciple and his own brother throws a real monkey wrench into the mythicist view that Jesus never lived."
^Ben Witherington, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (8 May 1997) ISBN0830815449 pp. 9–13
^Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee by Mark Allan Powell (1 Jan 1999) ISBN0664257038 pp. 19–23
^John, Jesus, and History Volume 1 by Paul N. Anderson, Felix Just and Tom Thatcher (14 Nov 2007) ISBN1589832930 p. 131
^John P. Meier "Criteria: How do we decide what comes from Jesus?" in The Historical Jesus in Recent Research by James D. G. Dunn and Scot McKnight (15 Jul 2006) ISBN1575061007 p. 124 "Since in the quest for the historical Jesus almost anything is possible, the function of the criteria is to pass from the merely possible to the really probable, to inspect various probabilities, and to decide which candidate is most probable. Ordinarily the criteria can not hope to do more."
^ abThe Quest for the Plausible Jesus: The Question of Criteria by Gerd Theissen and Dagmar Winter (30 August 2002) ISBN0664225373 p. 5
^ abJesus Research: An International Perspective (Princeton-Prague Symposia Series on the Historical Jesus) by James H. Charlesworth and Petr Pokorny (15 September 2009) ISBN0802863531 pp. 1–2
^ abcThe Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament by Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum 2009 ISBN978-0-8054-4365-3 pp. 124–125
^ abFamiliar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth by Michael James McClymond (22 March 2004) ISBN0802826806 pp. 16–22
^Amy-Jill Levine in The Historical Jesus in Context edited by Amy-Jill Levine et al. 2006 Princeton University Press ISBN978-0-691-00992-6 p. 1: "no single picture of Jesus has convinced all, or even most scholars"
^ abThe Cambridge History of Christianity, Volume 1 by Margaret M. Mitchell and Frances M. Young (20 February 2006) ISBN0521812399 p. 23
^Images of Christ (Academic Paperback) by Stanley E. Porter, Michael A. Hayes and David Tombs (19 December 2004) ISBN0567044602T&T Clark p. 74
^The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth by Ben Witherington (8 May 1997) ISBN0830815449 p. 197
^Ehrman 2012, p. 64 "What I think is that Jesus really existed but that the Jesus who really existed was not the person most Christians today believe in."
Blomberg, Craig L. (2007), The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, InterVarsity Press, ISBN9780830828074
Boyarin, Daniel (2004). Border Lines. The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Brown, Raymond E. (1997). An Introduction to the New Testament. Doubleday.