Our primary sources for Jesus, by historical comparison, are very early. Our latest source from the New Testament (Revelation) comes in no later than 60-65 years after Jesus’ death, and our earliest source comes in at around 20 years afterwards (1 Thessalonians written by Paul). Everything else falls between these two dates. However, why do historians consider this to be early?
Consider the fact that our earliest source for learning about the life of the Buddha is a poem (the Buddhacarita) that comes in at 500 years (100 AD) after his death around 410 – 400 BC. Our other sources come later, the Mahāyāna/Sarvāstivāda (+200 AD), the Mahāvastu (+300 AD), and the Nidānakathā (around 400 AD). With this in mind one will begin to see the value of the earliness of our texts on Jesus, and the timescale historians work with.
The same applies for Alexander the Great, and Confucius. For Alexander our earliest source comes from Diodorus Siculus 450 + years after his life. For Confucius we can get back much earlier than both Alexander and the Buddha as our first source comes from a non-contemporaneous follower called Mencius just over 100 years later. Following on from Mencius we have a time gap of +- 250 years before we get the Shiji. These are late sources that have quite evidently succumbed to mythological embellishments, but the actual existence of the Buddha, Confucius, and Alexander is well established according to historians. Just because a narrative might have evolved over time mythologically before being penned down does not mean it doesn’t have any historical value, it certainly does and historians sift through the data to separate the historical from the non-historical. However, our sources for Jesus are much more abundant, and much earlier, thus for scholars this is very promising. Scholar Michael Bird explains:
“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).
Finally, the fact that our primary and authoritative sources from the New Testament date so early, we can be certain that mythological embellishment could not have impugned our texts. This is because that by the time our New Testament literature was penned the events of Jesus’ life were fresh in the minds of the authors, eyewitnesses, as well as the disciples, as Professor Craig Keener captures:
“Gospel materials written within four decades of Jesus’ execution therefore provide a remarkably special opportunity for early insight into Jesus’ ministry” (2).
The point is that when it comes to the general historical information that we have for the historical Jesus we are quite lucky that they are early, at least in comparison to other historical figures. This allows for us to be more confident in sketch a portrait of the historical Jesus.
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.