When the historian wishes to learn about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ he or she evaluates the primary sources (the gospels, Pauline epistles, and the rest of the New Testament) using what is known as the Criterion of Authenticity.
Through this the historian may come to some conclusion regarding the historical probability and (un)reliablity of the purported deeds and/or sayings of Christ. The more the criteria can be shown to apply to a saying or deed of Christ’s then the greater the confidence the historian can have regarding them. There are several of these criteria including the likes of early and independent attestation, dissimilarity to Christian teaching, linguistic semitisms, traces of Palestinian milieu, retention of embarrassing material, coherence with other authentic material, and more.
This method is aimed at affirming sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. In other words, it is not necessary for a saying of Christ’s to pass, for instance, the criterion of embarrassment in order to be deemed historical. The historicity of the a saying or event is therefore independent of the criteria. Obviously if a criterion can be shown to apply to a saying or event then it helps. Further, the criteria is not infallible and can be mistaken. Despite its fallibility it remains the generally accepted method of authenticity. Exegete William Lane Craig outlines several criterion that have been used by historians to establish the likelihood of a specific event (S) ascribed to Christ (1):
 Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.
 Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source.
 Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.
 Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.
 Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.
 Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.
If a saying/event of Christ can pass one or more of these criteria then one may be in a good position to affirm its historicity. It is also important to keep in mind that this criteria does not presuppose the divine inspiration of the New Testament texts. Rather it holds that they are historical documents penned during the first century AD. Several events of Christ’s life are generally understood to satisfy this criteria. These would include, but are not limited to, his unique personal claims, several miracles, crucifixion, burial in the tomb, discovery of the empty tomb, and resurrection appearances to several people and groups. Historian and philosopher Gary Habermas identifies 12 facts accepted by most historians (2):
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. He was buried.
3. His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
4. The tomb was empty (the most contested).
5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus
6. The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.
7. The resurrection was the central message.
8. They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
9. The Church was born and grew.
10. Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
11. James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic).
12. Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was an outsider skeptic and enemy of the church)
1. Craig, W. 2013. A Reasonable Response; Craig, W. 2014. Gospel Authorship – Who Cares? Available.
2. 12 Historical Facts (Most Critical Scholars Believe These 12 Items). Available; Habermas, G. 2012. The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity. Available; Habermas, G. & Licona, M. 2004. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. p. 44.