Several Things Historians Know with Good Certainty About the Historical Jesus


This article looks briefly at some of the important events and details concerning the life and ministry of Christ that are widely accepted by historians today.

Christ is Attested to in Early and Independent Sources

Most historians will say that when it comes to historical evidence Christ boasts a fair amount of it. As such, no historian doubts that there was ever a man named Jesus Christ who stands as the founder of the Christian religion. Why? Because several early and independent historical textual sources mention, enough to provide historians with confidence in historical reconstruction. What is some of this evidence?

The general accepted dates for Christ’s crucifixion is 30 AD, and by the end of the 1st century historians have four biographical accounts accounts in Mark (70 AD), Matthew (80 AD), Luke (80 AD), John (90 AD) on Christ many of which are based on early traditions that were circulating in different very early Christian communities. Each gospel is independent although given Markan priority  Luke and Matthew do include much of Mark’s material. These biographical accounts were penned within a generation or two of the eyewitnesses and therefore constitute early evidence. Even considering the lasted gospel, which is John’s, historian Michael Licona says a

“A gap of sixty to seventy years between the writing and the events they purport to describe is quite early compared to what historians work with when it comes to other ancient biographies” (1).

Historian and philosopher Gary Habermas agrees saying that “With regard to the historical Jesus, any material between 30 and 50 AD would be exemplary, a time period highly preferred by scholars like those in the Jesus Seminar” (2).

Traditions and materials can be dated earlier than most of the gospels themselves. Historians have discovered sources and materials such as Q (a hypothetical source used by Luke and Matthew), M (material unique to Matthew), L (material unique to Luke), and a pre-Markan passion narrative dating earlier than 70 AD. These materials suggest that the gospel authors had access to earlier information about Christ that date even earlier than the gospel accounts themselves. Mark’s author, for example, used early tradition which he includes in his passion narrative which “goes back so early it is probably based upon eyewitness testimony” (3).

The author of the latest gospel, John, had access to earlier material too. Historian Bart Ehrman writes that “scholars have long suspected that John had at his disposal an earlier written account of Jesus’ miracles (the so-called Signs Source), at least two accounts of Jesus’s long speeches (the Discourse Sources), and possibly another passion source as well” (4).

When it comes to reconstructive efforts on Christ, historians are dealing with significant data, much of which is early, and close to them times of the purported events. It’s possible that these materials, when they once existed in physical and/or oral form, could have been quite expansive themselves. This might explain why Luke’s author, in the introduction to his biography, mentions that “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” (Luke 1:1-3. emphasis added).

Early traditions are further suggested by Aramaic sayings in the gospel texts. For example, the gospels were originally written in Greek yet various passages are left in the Aramaic, the language that Christ is thought to have spoken. This suggests that the traditions date to the earlier years of the Christian movement before it would have expanded into the Greek speaking areas. For this reason the gospel authors would have had to translate Aramaic sentences for their readers. One finds this in the episode where Christ is begged by Jairus, the father of an ill girl, to heal his daughter, of which Christ agreed to do. Christ grabs the (now dead) girl’s hand, and says, “Talitha cumi.” Mark’s author takes the responsibility to translate Christ’s words for his readers (in this case it means “Little girl, I say to you rise”). Another example is seen in Christ’s cry on the cross, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani!” (Mark 15:34, also see John 1:35-52).

Early creeds have also been factored in by historians. A creed is understood to be specific tradition or source that is dated to much earlier than the text in which it is found. The most famous example is the pre-Pauline creed in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8, a text the Apostle Paul penned to the church in Corinth. This creed is has been dated to between three and five years of Christ’s crucifixion meaning it is possibly the earliest historical data we have for Christ (5).

Many other New Testament sources such as Paul’s authenticate letters, Paul’s inauthentic letters, Acts, the Johannine and Petrine epistles, Hebrews, Revelation, and more speak of Christ, all of which too date to within the 1st century. On these grounds, the texts penned by those within the earliest Christian communities are enough to corroborate the existence of the Christ.

There are also extra-biblical sources that historians have found important, particularly from Jewish historian Josephus Flavius and Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus. Both these ancient figures were prominent writers, and both of them were penning their accounts (in which they mention Christ) within a century of Christ’s death. Ehrman explains “That Jesus lived recently is affirmed not only in all four of our canonical Gospels…. It is also the view of all of the Gospel Sources – Q…M, L – and of the non-Christian sources such as Josephus and Tacitus” (6). New Testament scholar Michael Bird provides a summary of the importance evidence for the life and ministry of Christ,

“Paul’s letters are written about 20-30 years after Jesus’ death, and the Gospels about 50-70 years after his death. Our oldest piece of papyrus with a fragment of John 18 is P25 and is dated to about 125-150 CE. Authors like Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and Tacitus from the late first and early second century wrote about Jesus too. That sounds pretty early to me, at least in comparison to other historical figures” (7).

There is other evidence too, although this evidence is far less valuable than the New Testaments witness. This would include accounts penned by Suetonius, Pliny, Serapion, Lucian, as well as the early Christian church fathers Papias, Ignatius, and Clement. According to Habermas,

“When the combined evidence from ancient sources is summarized, quite an impressive amount of information is gathered concerning Jesus and ancient Christianity. Few ancient historical figures can boast the same amount of material” (7).

Christ as Miracle Worker

It might come as a surprise that most historians acknowledge the miraculous side to Christ’s ministry. Historical Jesus scholar and scholar of early Christianity Craig Evans writes that “It is no longer seriously contested that miracles played a role in Jesus’s ministry” (8). Graham Stanton, a New Testament scholar at King’s College London, explains that “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered” (9).

Habermas explains the evidence that underpins this view,

“Several important examples might be provided. Of the five sources often recognized in the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ miracles are reported in all five, with some specific occurrences reported in more than one. Jesus’ crucial “Son of Man” sayings are also attested in all five Gospel sources. And the empty tomb is reported in at least three, if not four, of these Gospel sources. This helps to understand why these items are taken so seriously by contemporary critical scholars” (10).

Because Christ’s records of miracles are so embedded within the early source materials even the controversial and skeptical scholar Rudolf Bultmann of the 20th century said that “Most of the miracle stories contained in the gospels are legendary or at least are dressed up with legends. But there can be no doubt that Jesus did such deeds, which were, in his and his contemporaries’ understanding, miracles, that is, deeds that were the result of supernatural, divine causality. Doubtless he healed the sick and cast out demons” (11).

3. Christ Thought of Himself More Than Human.

Christ’s favourite self-title was the “Son of Man.” This title is so embedded in the gospel accounts and early materials that even skeptical historians, notably those within the Jesus Seminar (known for claiming that most of Christ’s words in the gospels are inauthentic), agree that Christ referred to himself in this way. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington writes that,

“This phrase is found in all the source layers of the Gospels whether we think of distinctively Markan, Lukan, Matthean, or Johannine material, or even in the sayings source that Luke and Matthew seem to have both drawn upon. By the criteria of multiple attestations this phrase has the highest claims to have been spoken by Jesus of Himself and used frequently” (12).

That Christ referred to himself in this way is found all across the gospel sources (Mark 8:31-32:38, 2:27-28, 8:11-13, 10:32-34, Matthew 20:17-19, 8:20, 12:8, 12:38-42, 13:37,41-42, Luke 18:31-34, 6:5, 9:58, 11:29-32 etc.).

Every historian believes that learning what Christ meant by this is crucial for understanding how he viewed himself. For example, the phrase “Son of Man” is as a reference to the prophecy found in the Old Testament text of Daniel. This read,

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (7: 13-14, emphasis added).

Here the description “Son of Man” functions as a Messianic title. Christ, through applying it to himself, is saying that he will be the one predicted in Daniel 7 who will be given dominion, glory, and a kingdom by God. Whenever Christ used this phrase, he was assigning the Son of Man prophecy to himself. Christ will one day come in the clouds of heaven, and possess sovereign power and authority over all people, nations, and languages. They will worship him, his kingdom will be eternal, and thus never be destroyed. Scholar Peter Tomson explains that,

“Although he apparently considered himself the heavenly ‘Son of Man’ and ‘the beloved son’ of God and cherished far-reaching Messianic ambitions, Jesus was equally reticent about these convictions. Even so, the fact that, after his death and resurrection, his disciples proclaimed him as the Messiah can be understood as a direct development from his own teachings” (13).

4. Jesus Lead a Ministry

Historians do not dount that Christ cultivated a reputation and gained a following. New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders says that,

“Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died… the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism” (14).

New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine says 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” (15).

It is clear that throughout the gospels that Christ led a ministry which included miracles and exorcisms as well as sharing the message that he had came to save sinners, and reveal God’s kingdom to the people. This message found continuation after Christ’s death as the his earliest followers proclaimmed the Gospel and Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

5. Christ’s Baptism by John the Baptist

Consensus holds that John the Baptist performed a baptism on Christ in the Jordan River. According to James Dunn, Christ’s baptism commands “almost universal assent” (16), and that it, alongide the crucifixion, “rank so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical facts” (17).

Several historical criteria render the baptism highly probable. For one, as a historical figure, John the Baptist is mentioned in numerous independent sources. Josephus Flavius, a first century Jewish historian who, in his work the Antiquities of the Jews (93 AD), writes concerning John the Baptist, his popularity among the crowds, and his death in Perea by Herod Antipas (this death being attested to in the gospel accounts). Flavius coroborrates the gospel accounts and provides historians with confidence.

In respect to gospel attestation all four gospel accounts mention Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1:10, Matthew 3:16, Luke 3:22, John 1:32), as well as in Acts 10:37-38. It is important to note, however, that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s earlier gospel as a source narrative, so we have at least two independent sources in Mark and John (plus Acts, although its author also probably derived his information from Marl). The baptism is further found in Q (18) which means that three independent sources attest to it, which constitutes valuable historical data for historians to work with.

Further, the baptism satisfies additional criteria such as the criterion of embarrassment. This is a criteria of which scholars apply to the New Testament accounts to separate what is deemed historical from what isn’t deemed historical. The idea is that it is very unlikely that the authors, who we know were followers of Christ, would have made up an event that was of embarrassment to themselves, their revered figure, and/or to their early movement. How does this apply to Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist? Baptism was seen by the early Christians as the washing away of sins, yet it is clear that the early Christians viewed Christ as their sinless saviour, and the only individual capable of saving them from their sins. It is therefore very unlikely that Christ’s baptism would be an obscure historical event that the New Testament writers would invent. It is reasonably certain that Christ’s baptism passes the criterion of embarrassment.

Christ’s baptism is multiply and independently attested in six historical sources: Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, and Q. Of those sources at least three are independent. Of those six, at least two are considered early: Q and Mark. These, coupled with the criterion of embarrassment, provides a fairly high probability that Christ’s baptism is an actual event of history. It is further a fact accepted by some of the more skeptical and radical scholars. For example, Dominic Crossan, of the Jesus Seminar, believes that it is historically certain that Christ was baptized by John in the Jordan River (19). According to Robert Webb,

“within the realms of historical probability, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. As such, the baptism was for Jesus a significant turning point in his life, from his former life as a peasant artisan in Nazareth to a life of ministry” (20).

6. Christ Thought He Could Forgive Sins.

Christ thought that he could forgive sins, as only God could do, which would seem to put him on equal footing with Yahweh, the God of the Bible. Christ stated his mission and purpose of why he came to Earth: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” On this point New Testament scholar Robert Grant says that “Jesus introduced a very singular innovation. For he also claimed that he himself could forgive sins” (21).

That Christ forgave sins is a common theme of the gospels.  In Mark, Jesus forgives a paralyzed man saying “Son, your sins are forgiven” (2:1-12 ). He forgives a woman in Luke 7:48. In Mark 2:10 he says that he has the authority “on earth to forgive sins.” In Acts, Christ says that believers “may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (26:15-18). Christ also stated this at the last supper,

“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:26-28, emphasis added)

That Christ claimed he could forgive sins was enough for his Jewish opponents to accuse him of blasphemy, a serious offense:

“Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven.” And some of the scribes said to themselves, “This fellow blasphemes.” And Jesus knowing their thoughts asked, “Why are you thinking evil in your hearts?” (Matthew 9:3)

7. Christ’s crucifixion.

It is universally accepted by historians that Christ died by means of crucifixion. According to scholar James Dunn the crucifixion is one of “two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent” and that it “rank[s] so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical facts” (22). Likewise, Ehrman says that “The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans is one of the most secure facts we have about his life” (23). Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson agrees saying that “The support for the mode of his death, its agents, and perhaps its coagents, is overwhelming: Jesus faced a trial before his death, was condemned and executed by crucifixion” (24). Secular historian Gerd Ludemann finds that “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable” (25). John Dominic Crossan says he takes it “absolutely for granted that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate” (26). Jewish scholar Paula Frederickson writes that “the crucifixion is the single strongest fact we have about Jesus” (27). The Jesus Seminar, which for many represents historical scholars of a more skeptical bent, finds the crucifixion to be “one indisputable fact” (28). The late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg put the crucifixion as a historical certainty akin to other commonly accepted events from ancient history,

“[S]ome judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example, Jesus really existed, and he really was crucified, just as Julius Caesar really existed and was assassinated. …. We can in fact know as much about Jesus as we can about any figure in the ancient world” (29).

Many valuable sources attest to the cruxifixion such as Mark (in the form of the pre-Markan passion narrative), Q, John, Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter (2:24), Clement, Ignatius, Martyr, Josephus Flavius, and Cornelius Tacitus. This numbers to 11 independent sources, excluding other later sources. If one takes two independent sources as a good rule for determining historical confidence then one seems on good grounds to accept the crucifixion.

8. Christ’s Burial in a Tomb

According to John Robinson the burial is one of “the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus” (30). According to the New Testament historian Raymond Brown, “Jesus’ burial by Joseph is “very probable,” since it is “almost inexplicable” why Christians would make up a story about a Jewish Sanhedrist who does what is right by Jesus” (31).

One discovers that Christ’s burial is attested in early sources, one of which is Paul’s authentic letters within which there is an early creed. 1 Corinthians was penned by Paul around the early 50’s AD, and the creed within it is dated to within three to five years of Christ’s crucifixion (32). Accord to the creed Christ “was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4, emphasis added). According to Habermas, these creeds “preserve some of the earliest reports concerning Jesus from about AD 30-50,” and therefore constitutes early evidence for Christ’s burial (33).

The burial narrative is also part of Mark’s pre-passion narrative material. Exegete William Lane Craig explains that “The burial account is part of Mark’s source material for the story of Jesus’ Passion. This is a very early source which is probably based on eyewitness testimony and dates to within several years of Jesus’ crucifixion” (34). Other scholars agree to the earliness of Mark’s pre-passion narrative which, according to scholar Rudolf Pesch, dates no later than 37 AD, a few years after Christ’s crucifixion (35). Scholar Bauckham also dates this material prior to 40 AD, stating that it probably “goes back to the Jerusalem church” (36).

Habermas, having analyzed over 3000 articles penned by scholars on the historical Jesus found that roughly between 66 and 75% of the scholars accept the empty tomb. There are numerous reasons for this of which attestation in the form of the pre-Mark passion narrative, the source behind Luke and John not found in Mark, M, John, Acts, and Paul.

9. Christ’s Tomb was Found to be Empty

Most historians acknowledge that the tomb somehow became empty. According to Habermas,

“An intriguing development in recent theological research is that a strong majority of contemporary critical scholars seems to support, at least to some extent, the view that Jesus was buried in a tomb that was subsequently discovered to be empty” (37)

The emtpy tomb is attested to in all four canonical gospels (Mark 16, Matthew 28, Luke 24, John 20), by Paul who implies it in an early creed (1 Cor. 15:1-11), and by a sermon in Acts. There are additional arguments that favour the empty tomb such as its location, and women discoverers. According to the Austrian scholar Jacob Kremer, “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb” (38).  According to Michael Grant “the historian… cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb” and that “the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty” (39).

10. The Resurrection Belief was Early

Historians have acknowledged the earliness of the resurrection belief. It is the key focus in the Apostle Paul creed in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8. This creed implies the fact of the empty tomb, which in turn implies that the earliest Christian belief was that Christ was raised from the dead. According to it, Christ appeared to many people including his chief disciple Peter,  the inner circle of disciples known as the Twelve, a group of 500 disciples at once, to his younger brother James (who up to that time was not a believer), and then to Paul (who was also not a believer but also a persecutor of the early church). Habermas explains that,

“Reports from such an early date would actually predate the written Gospels. A famous example is the list of Jesus’ resurrection appearances supplied by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Most critical scholars think that Paul’s reception of at least the material on which this early creedal statement is based is dated to the 30s AD” (40).

James Dunn dates dates it to within 18 months of Christ’s death while Gerd Ludemann dates it “to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus” and “not later than three years” (40).

As such, belief in the resurrection was not only part of the early teachings of the teaching but constitutes some of the earliest historical evidence for Christ. The resurrection cannot therefore be explained away as a later myth.

11. Paul Had a Resurrection Experience of Christ

It is not doubted that the Apostle Paul, while still a pharisee and opponent of the early church which was established just after Christ’s death, had an experience of Christ that resulted in his conversion from Judaism to a Christ follower. One learns from the the book of Acts and from Paul’s own letters that around 31-33 AD, a year or two after Christ had died, Christians were proclaiming that Christ had been raised from the dead, of whom Paul went to great lengths to persecute.

According to the book of Acts, “Saul [Paul’s name prior to his conversion] was in hearty agreement with putting him [Stephen] to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (8:1-9). In Acts “they all rushed at him (Stephen), dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul… And Saul was there, giving approval to his death” (7:57-8:1). After Stephen had been martyred, Saul went door to door in Jerusalem finding people who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison” (Acts 8:3). After putting these people in prison, Saul found that the Christian were in Damascus: “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished” (Acts 22:4-5).

But then something quite extraordinary happened to Saul while he was traveling to Damascus in search of more Christians to persecute. Christ appeared to him in an unexpected way, “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, `Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ ” `Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. “`I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. ” `What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked. ” `Get up,’ the Lord said, `and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me” (Acts 22:6-11).

After this encounter Saul had changed dramatically, “At once he (Saul of Tarsus) began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 9:20-22).

Licona finds the Apostle Paul’s conversion quite striking,

“Paul’s conversion is especially interesting because he was an enemy of the church when his experience of the risen Jesus occurred. Therefore Jesus’ resurrection is reported not only by his friends but also by at least someone who was a vehement foe at the time of the experience. Paul’s belief that he had witnessed the risen Christ was so strong that he, like the original disciples, was willing to suffer continuously for the sake of the gospel, even to the point of martyrdom” (41).

Ehrman writes that,

“It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection” (42).

12. The Disciples Had Resurrection Experiences of Christ

It is also accepted by historians that Christ’s earliest followers, particularly those who were with him during his ministry, came to believe that he had been raise from the dead based on resurrection experiences. Ludemann writes that “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ” (43). Sanders finds good reason to believe “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact” (44). What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. Sanders further states that “Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause” (45) Ehrman argues that “It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death” (46). Ehrman goes on to write that this we can say “with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that … he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead” (47). Bultmann penned that “All that historical criticism can establish is that the first disciples came to believe the resurrection” (48). Sanders acknowledges the sincerity of the disciples’ belief,

“we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it” (49).

13. Christ’s Brother James Was Martyred

According to the earliest biography of Christ, many Christ had encountered in his ministry had rejected him, including his family and his brother James (Mark 3:21). However, at a later point after Christ was said to have appeared to James, James, like Paul, is discovered leading the early church, and was eventually martyred for his belief in Christ.

According to an important passage found Antiquities of the Jews (93 AD), penned by the first century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius one finds that “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” met his death after the death of the procurator Porcius Festus but before Lucceius Albinus had assumed office.” (Antiquities 20, 9). This constitutes the most important evidence for the martyrdom of Christ’s brother.

Later writers such as the church father Origen (184-253) consulted the works of Josephus around 248 AD, and also includes an account of the death of James. Concerning this, John Painter claims that “Origen twice asserts that Josephus said that the destruction of Jerusalem occurred because of what was done to James. The argument was that the destruction was a consequence of divine retribution because of what was done to James” (50). Wataru Mizugaki says that “Origen appreciates Josephus by noting that he has ‘researched on the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple’ and concludes that Josephus is ‘not far from the truth’ in concluding that the reason for the calamity was the assassination of James the Just by the Jews” (51)

The church historian Eusebius (260-339), also quotes Josephus’ account, but in addition records the lost passages from Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria, concerning Chirst’s death. According to Hegesippus (110-180 AD): “To the scribes’ and Pharisees’ dismay, James boldly testified that “Christ himself sitteth in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven.” This wasn’t taken well and they “… threw down the just man… [and] began to stone him: for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned, and kneeled down, and said: “I beseech thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Licona concludes that the,

“The disciples’ willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs indicates that they certainly regarded those beliefs as true. The case is strong that they did not willfully lie about the appearances of the risen Jesus. Liars make poor martyrs” (52).

14. Christ was a Historical Figure and Not a Copy of Mythology

Contemporary scholarship unanimously rejects the notion that Christ was a copy of pagan gods, a hypothesis that has gained some popularity although proposed primarily by obscure, fringe non-academic skeptics. The claim is that either Christ did not exist historically and/or he is a copy of pagan mythology existing prior to the advent of first century Christianity. Scholar Tryggve N. D. Mettinger says that “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct…” (53). Philosopher and theologian Ronald Nash explains that popular claims that Christianity has a dependence on Mithraism, particularly the idea of a virgin birth, “have been rejected on many grounds. Mithraism had no concept of the death and resurrection of its god and no place for any concept of rebirth—at least during its early stages” (54). Nash then concludes noting that “Today most Bible scholars regard the question as a dead issue” (55). Dunn contends that pagan mythology “is a term of at least doubtful relevance to the study of Jesus and the Gospels” (56).

When one compares the alleged parallels one, explains New Testament historian, Craig Keener writes that “end [s] up with a whole lot more differences than you do similarities” (57). Jonathan Z. Smith, noted for his work on Hellenistic religions, states that the concept “of dying and rising gods is largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts” (58). Bird likely represents the annoyance of most historians when it comes to the Jesus mythicists,

““Now I am normally a cordial and collegial chap, but to be honest, I have little time or patience to invest in debunking the wild fantasies of “Jesus mythicists”, as they are known. That is because, to be frank, those of us who work in the academic profession of religion and history simply have a hard time taking them seriously” (59).

The major difference that mainstream historians have to the mythicists is that contrary to their claims there really is sufficient historical evidence for Christ from which one can understand who he was, and insufficient historical evidence for the parallels that mythicists go to fantastical lengths to establish between Christ and pagan deities.

Under Revision…


22 responses to “Several Things Historians Know with Good Certainty About the Historical Jesus

  1. Pingback: 23 Historical things we know for certain about Jesus | A disciple's study·

  2. I doubt that anyone actually read that whole mindless mess of drivel, I tried and couldn’t bear it. About as unmitigated bunch of
    bullshit as I’ve ever attempted to read.

    • See my response to thunderhawkbolt below. It isn’t mindless drivel, unless you believe that even the atheist and agnostic scholars in the field put out “mindless drivel”. If that is the case, then I suggest that you don’t read any other scholarship, from any other field, either. We need to be consistent, after all.

  3. What about Philo of Alexandria? Why had he not heard of a jesus? Someone as threatening to Roman rule as he certainly would have been…

    • Just because he doesn’t write about Jesus, doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t hear about him. It would simply mean he didn’t consider him significant enough to write about. Consider all the people you know of or have heard about but have never written about at length or otherwise. I think it’s historically true that Jesus was not extremely influential in his own day, but that’s not evidence he didn’t exist.

    • Yeah, only that one is true when the majority of New Testament scholars, including atheist, agnostic, and religious individuals whom are hostile to Christianity, agree to quite a few of these. Yeah. Right!

  4. Pingback: 11 silly things some atheists say. | Historical Jesus studies.·

  5. What an excellent Christian resource this blog has turned into, would you mind others reposting your hard work with proper credit attached? Having read every word I’m thoroughly impressed. Perhaps to the list you could add the fact that Jesus’ ministry (though one of miracles) was also a ministry of exorcism. It’s well established and joins together points 2 and 4 of your list nicely. Following this blog nonetheless.

  6. Pingback: James Bishop’s 23 Historical things we know for certain about Jesus | Old School Contemporary·

  7. Pingback: How Would The Gospels Fare In The Courtroom? | Den of Lambs·

  8. Mr. Bishop. I applaud your expansive study that you made to prepare the 23-point piece about the historical Jesus. Rather than address all 23 points, rather, I am mystified by your last point #23 — that you are equating atheism and atheists to those who deny that Jesus ever existed. Or that an atheist is one who doesn’t believe that Jesus is god-like. My understanding is that an atheist believes there is no god, whatsoever. You quote Bart Ehrman who is chastising someone for suggesting that the historical Jesus never existed. I’ve read Professor Ehrman’s books and he wouldn’t deny Jesus existence. But, he certainly wouldn’t equate that skepticism about Jesus’ existence as being atheistic. Professor Ehrman does question Jesus’ deification. I don’t deny Jesus’ historical existence — but I, along with Professor Ehrman, don’t consider him anymore godlike than I do you. Because of the belief, I don’t think of myself as either an atheist or an agnostic. In fact, I believe that Jesus is as much a son of god as I am. That you are, Mr. Bishop. That, I believe, was Jesus’ message — that “God” is the sum total of all that was, is, and will be. Therefore, his message — “if you love one another, care for one another, you are, in effect, expressing your love for god, for all of humanity, and for all life in its many manifestations.”

  9. Pingback: 22 Historical Things We Know For Certain About Jesus | A disciple's study·

  10. Pingback: Merry Christmas From Chaplain Bill & a Quick Look at Jesus Mythicism. | James Bishop's Theology & Apologetics.·

  11. I like this list, though I may not agree with each point being a “certainty.” In particular Jesus’ burial in the tomb is somewhat contested – with scholar Bart D. Ehrman saying it’s highly unlikely that Jesus received a proper burial.

    And if considered logically and purely historically, the argument that Jesus’ tomb was found empty would seem to contradict the argument that he was buried. So it would seem that one of those two arguments is uncertain. Either he was buried and never found, or he was never buried and thus his proposed tomb was empty.

    However, I would add one more to your list; That Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem (maybe it’s in there). This is multiply attested in the Gospels – and in the gospel of Thomas (Saying .71) Jesus may not have fully understood the context of the destruction, but it’s certainly notable that he predicted it.

    I’m fairly agnostic, but I don’t see how anyone can deny the historicity of Jesus. My personal opinion is that the denial of the historical existence of Jesus is not based in sound reasoning but rather in an anti-religious bias.

    • You have to read Ehrman’s works, or listen to him talk about it online, though. Ehrman, just as most historians do, did accept the burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, that is, until he questioned why a member of the Sanhedrin would have done such a thing. It isn’t on the basis of historical accounts that he denies the burial account. It is on the basis of his preconceived notions.

      After reading why he questioned the burial, asking himself why Joseph would do such a thing, I stopped and asked myself the same thing. The answer that rang clear in my head is, “Joseph of Arimathea, a well respected and prominent figure among the Jewish people (cf. Mark 14:53), would only do such a thing if he were a follower of Jesus.” For that reason, I turned to online Bible Software, to search for mentions of Joseph of Arimathea. This is exactly what we see in Matthew 27:57:

      “When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus.”


      In the course of my search I also encountered another possible motivation. Luke 23:50-51:

      ” [50] And a man named Joseph, who was a member of the Council, a good and righteous man
      [51] (he had not consented to their plan and action), a man from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who was waiting for the kingdom of God;”

      Here it is clear that Joseph of Arimathea did not agree with his peers. This seems also to be a viable motivation for the occurrence of such an account as we find in the passion narrative. For those reasons we need not see the account as implausible.

      “And if considered logically and purely historically, the argument that Jesus’ tomb was found empty would seem to contradict the argument that he was buried. So it would seem that one of those two arguments is uncertain.”

      It would only contradict the argument if men can not, under any circumstance, be raised from the dead.

      “Either he was buried and never found, or he was never buried and thus his proposed tomb was empty.”

      …or he was raised and his body no longer resides in the tomb. To dismiss that option is just to assume that the argument for the resurrection is false.

      “However, I would add one more to your list; That Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem (maybe it’s in there). This is multiply attested in the Gospels – and in the gospel of Thomas (Saying .71) Jesus may not have fully understood the context of the destruction, but it’s certainly notable that he predicted it.”

      I’m pretty sure most historians deny this as being written into the account by the authors after the fact, even though there are arguments that would date the gospels pre-70 A.D.

      “I’m fairly agnostic, but I don’t see how anyone can deny the historicity of Jesus. My personal opinion is that the denial of the historical existence of Jesus is not based in sound reasoning but rather in an anti-religious bias.”

      I think that you are absolutely right. I was an atheist until probably six or seven years ago now, but I’m now a Christian. I have come to the same conclusion.

      • Just to be sure I wasn’t misunderstood, I do believe, as Ehrman does, that Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction.

        I have actually read most of Ehrman’s books and I’ve completed all of his lecture series, both on the new testament and on the historicity of Jesus. He’s very objective and fair minded, so I don’t believe he’s basing his assessment off of preconceived notions, but I could be wrong.

        I’m not saying that it’s completely impossible that Joseph buried Jesus, or that the tomb was even empty. I’m just saying I don’t think that it can be a matter of historical certainty that Joseph did. Pilate was not a kind ruler, I can’t see why, after going through the trouble of having Jesus flogged (not a typical part of a crucifixion) and then mocked and crucified – that he would then be sympathetic to Joseph of Arimathea in his request to bury Jesus. Especially given that one of the important aspects of crucifixion was that it was used as a deterrent. For that to be effective the bodies were typically left to rot on the cross (again, I’m not saying this is what happened, I’m simply calling into question the ‘certainty’ that jesus was buried by Joseph.)

        Though, as I’ve thought about it, the story of Joseph of Arimathea does pass the criterion of multiple attestation (Appears in Mark, and in John. [remember Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source]) And it also appears to pass the criterion of dissimilarity. As it seems an unlikely story for later Christians to invent.

        So, as it stands, the possibility does exist, I’m just not sure it can be a historical certainty.

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