The primary source materials for the historical Jesus are early when compared with other figures of ancient history.
The latest text from the New Testament (the book of Revelation) dates to no later than 60-65 years post Christ’s crucifixion, and the earliest text dates to just 20 years (1 Thessalonians). All the other New Testament materials fall between these two dates. Generally speaking, the earliness of source materials for ancient religious founders and philosophers are quite bad. Texts for Sidhartha Gotama’s (the Buddha whose teachings formed Buddhism), Mahavira’s (the reformer and reviver of Jainism), Laozi (founder of Daoism), Confucius (founder of Confucianism), and the Prophet Muhammad (Islam) are removed by at least one and more often than not several centuries. For Christ that historians have in their possession four gospel biographies (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) which are reasonably coherent and all penned within 60 years (as early as 40 years in the case of Mark) of Christ’s death is very unique in ancient religious history. Scholar Michael Bird explains that,
“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” (1).
Although the earliness of a historical source in proximity to purported events believed to have occurred does not itself guarantee historicity, earliness remains greatly appreciated. The general rule of thumb is that the earlier the material the more valuable it is. Historians are sensitive to the fact that oral traditions in circulation for several centuries prior to being put to paper are susceptible to legendary embellishment. However, just as the earliness of a text is not a guarantee of historicity, so is the lateness of a source not a guarantee of its unreliability. After all, an dating closer to purported events could conceivably be less reliable than a text dating to much later. These should be kept in mind when dealing with the historical data.
In the case of historical reconstructive purposes for Christ the primary sources derived from the New Testament are in all likeliness too early for mythological embellishment to impugn the texts. By the time the gospels and New Testament texts were being written the important events and teachings of Christ’s life would have been fresh in the minds of the authors, disciples, eyewitnesses, and early Christian communities. Professor Craig Keener explains that “Gospel materials written within four decades of Jesus’ execution therefore provide a remarkably special opportunity for early insight into Jesus’ ministry” (2).
1. Bird, M. 2014. Yes Jesus existed…but relax, you can still be an atheist if you want to. Available.
2. Keener, C. 2009. Will the Real Historical Jesus Please Stand Up. Available.