No scholar in the fields of relevant expertise doubts that Jesus once existed as a historical figure. In fact Jesus is, for a 1st century figure, very well attested in independent sources that are traceable to the earliest Christian Palestinian communities. So what is some of this evidence that makes Jesus such a very well attested figure?
Firstly, Jesus was crucified by 30 AD, and by the end of the 1st century we have four independent accounts (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) on Jesus based on early traditions that were circulating in different very early Palestinian Christian communities (each gospel has its own unique material, this is what I mean by “independent” accounts. It is not to deny that there is much cross collaboration between the synoptics Mark, Matthew and Luke). Sources that date 40 – 60 years after the described events are early if we are to judge by what we have for other historical figures and events. Thus Mike Licona, a prominent New Testament historian, explains that “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)
In a similar way scholar Mike Bird, who is on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, says 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” (2).
Gary Habermas, philosopher of religion and biblical exegete, is quite enthusiastic in 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” (3).
Furthermore, behind the gospels, via textual analysis, we have uncovered several hypothetical sources, commonly referred to as Q, M, L, and a pre-Markan formula. Q, M, L are sources that the gospels authors themselves consulted but that are no longer in existence. However, most historians believe that these hypothetical sources were once in existence. Hypothetical Q was one such source that the authors of Matthew and Luke had used for a handful of their narratives. L was material unique to the Gospel of Luke. L is unique content that Luke’s author used for his narratives that are not found in Mark or Q. The author likely made us of early and independent traditions. The same applies for the Matthew’s unique material, M. M is material that only the author of Matthew seemed to have used. Secondly, it has become obvious to scholars that Mark, our earliest gospel completed by 70 AD used a pre-Markan source for his passion narrative. The pre-Marken account could have even been based on eyewitness testimony, as exegete William Lane Craig observes in an interview, “That Mark was using and relied upon a pre-Markan passion story is one that is widely accepted by most scholars today, and because it goes back so early it is probably based upon eyewitness testimony” (4).
Our final gospel, John, also used earlier sources. Scholar Bart Ehrman informs us 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” (5).
This, for the historian, is good data. What more validates Jesus’ historicity is that Q, M, L, pre-Mark, pre-John, some of which predate the gospel accounts, could have been multiple sources themselves (oral, written, or a combination of the two). This might explain Luke’s mentioning 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. emp. added)
Secondly, we also find Aramaic traditions evident in some of our New Testament texts. The gospels were originally written in Greek yet various passages are left in the Aramaic; Aramaic was the language that Jesus would 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. We can see this in the episode where Jesus is begged by Jairus, the father of a very ill girl, to heal his daughter, of which Jesus agrees to do. But before Jesus manages to arrive she dies. However, Jesus still goes to the girl, grabs her hand, and says, “Talitha cumi.” These are Aramaic words of which Mark translates for his readers, “Little girl, I say to you rise.” Another example is seen in Jesus’ cry on the cross, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani!” (Mark 15:34, also see John 1:35-52).
Thirdly, we have early creeds. A creed is specific tradition or source that is dated to much earlier than the text in which it is written. In this regard the most well-known creed can be found in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8. This creed is widely dated to within just five years of Jesus’ death in which Paul, our earliest Christian writer, attests to Jesus’ death, burial, empty tomb, and resurrection appearances. For a historian this is good data simply because it is so early.
In addition we have independent sources from our Johannine epsitles, Petrine epistles, Hebrews, Revelation, and other New Testament literature – these additional sources stem from separate communities within 1st Century Palestine and house early independent traditions. Similarly, the book of Acts is embedded with speeches and oral traditions that would date prior to our gospels.
Therefore, it’s no secret that before the close of the 1st century we have sufficient independent attestation corroborating the basic fact of Jesus’ existence. And within these sources we find earlier traditions, oral, written or combination, that are dated to a few years after Jesus’ death. Thus we have a substantial body of literature from the New Testament corpus on the historical Jesus.
Moreover, the most authoritative extra-biblical sources (outside of the Bible) we have are from Josephus Flavius and Cornelius Tacitus. Both these ancient figures were prominent historians, and both of them were penning their accounts of Jesus within a century of Jesus’ death by crucifixion. 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).
One could look further and include content from the likes of Suetonius, Pliny, Serapion, Lucian, as well as the early Christian church fathers Papias, Ignatius, and Clement. Clement and Ignatius are taken to be important writers since they are relatively early in comparison to other ancient writes and they also had links to Jesus’ original disciples. Other data from the Gnostic Gospels as well as the Jewish Talmud can be considered although they are not s valuable as the above mentioned sources, probably because they pick up on later unreliable traditions. Exegete Habermas concludes, “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).
1. Licona, M. Answering Brian Flemmings “The God Who wasn’t there.” Available.
2. Bird, M. 2014. Yes, Jesus Existed… Available.
3. Habermas, G. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels. Available.
4. Craig, W. 2011. Pre-Markan Source and the Resurrection of Jesus. Available.
5. Ehrman, B. 2012. Did Jesus Exist?
6. Ehrman, B. 2012. Did Jesus Exist?
7. Habermas, G. 1996. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. p. 219.