Jesus Christ as a Well Attested Historical Figure

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By way of personal reflection having specialized in the study of religion, I observe one thing, “datum” or “common mind” that all mainstream scholars, regardless of their personal worldviews, will accept: there really was a historical Jesus. To most, including myself, this is a rather mundane thing to point out because it is just downright obvious that there was a historical Jesus. But not everyone will agree, notably a radical, fringe community aptly labeled ‘mythicists’ who maintain there was no historical Jesus or that if there was we can know nothing about him. This is an absurd view, but it is one that will offer me the opportunity to very summarily show some evidence to suggest that Jesus Christ is a well and sufficiently attested historical figure.

Going on consensus, that Jesus was crucified around 30 CE, it is impressive that by the end of the first-century historians have four partially independent biographies in the canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. It is difficult to state exactly how significant having four biographies is when most of what historians know about ancient figures is derived from a single source or, if they are lucky, two.

The gospels of Jesus were circulating in early Christian communities, and each, despite their theological nature, presents itself as bound to space and time. They speak of real people, places, locations, villages, towns, cities, and cultural-social customs. Many of these have been corroborated with hard evidence from archaeology. These facts alone ground the gospels within history which is one of several reasons why historians take them seriously as historical sources.

Consensus holds that the earliest gospel, Mark, was penned around 70 CE, and that the latest, John, was written around 90 CE. Matthew and Luke are probably around 80 to 85 CE. What this means is that the gospels are fairly early sources for Jesus. They were largely composed within a generation or two of Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Many historians will agree that having sources dating from forty to sixty years after the described events are early in comparison to what they have for many other historical figures and events. New Testament historian scholar Michael Licona 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).

Historian and philosopher Gary Habermas says that when comes to “historical Jesus, any material between 30 and 50 AD would be exemplary,” and that such a time period is appreciated by even the skeptical historians, some of whom were in the controversial Jesus Seminar (2).

Behind the gospels historians have discovered several hypothetical sources, commonly referred to as Q, M, L, and a pre-Markan formula. Q, M, and L are sources that the gospel authors accessed but are no longer in extant form. Consensus is that there are good reasons for accepting these hypothetical sources, rather than just viewing them as inventions. For instance, given the near word for word agreement between Matthew and Luke where they record the same events and words of Jesus, it becomes clear that they must have had access to some other shared material (that is not Mark). This is what scholars refer to as Q. For a more detailed description of Q, readers can go here.

L material is thought to be unique to the Gospel of Luke and constitutes content that Luke‘s author used for his narratives but is not found in Mark or Q. This leads scholars to think Luke‘s author made use of early and independent traditions. The same applies to Matthew’s unique material, M. M is material that only the author of Matthew seemed to have used. Although Matthew and Luke use large amounts of Mark for their source material, M and L are independent of Mark. This means that Mark, Matthew, and Luke can, in some of their material, be considered three independent sources. Already this is not bad when most of what we know about first-century messianic claimants comes from a single source in the historian Josephus Flavius. We have only considered Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and Jesus is already doing quite well.

Further, it is clear to many scholars that Mark made use of a pre-Markan source for constructing his Passion narrative and that there are is reason to think this is based on eyewitness testimony (4). If so, this is very valuable material.

The latest gospel, John, also used earlier sources. According to Bart Ehrman, “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).

John‘s gospel is also independent of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. So, in the end, we have four independent biographical sources for Jesus’ ministry.

Let’s consider creeds. A creed is a specific tradition that is passed down through time to an author who then includes it in his written source. A creed therefore must date earlier than the written source itself. An important creed is offered by the Apostle Paul (a hostile convert to the early Jesus movement and the earliest Christian writer we have) in his letter 1 Corinthians (5:3-8). It is an important creed because of its content (it attests, for instance, to Jesus’ death, burial, empty tomb, and resurrection appearances) and earliness. It has been dated to within just three to five years of Jesus’ crucifixion, making it an incredibly valuable source given materials we have from ancient history. There is also a hymn in the letter Philippians (2:6-11) considered early material and speaks of how Jesus took on the role of a human being with the nature of a servant.

In addition, historians have sources from the Apostle Paul’s other genuine and inauthentic letters (these being letters attributed to Paul but likely composed by someone other than Paul), Hebrews, Revelation, and other New Testament literature (the Petrine and Johannine epistles, James, Jude, and Acts), all evidencing an awareness of the historical Jesus. Taken together, we have a strong, extensive pool of sources from which to draw details for the historical Jesus. Readers can access this article on what Paul tells us about the historical Jesus.

Scholar Michael Bird argues that most of the primary materials we have for Jesus can be considered as early,

“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” (5).

By the close of the first-century historians have early and independent sources attesting to the historical Jesus. If we consider sources dating to within one hundred years of Jesus, then this pool gets even deeper.

What about other sources beyond the New Testament? Here we again find references to Jesus. There is Josephus Flavius, the most important historian for the first century when it comes to Judaism and messianic figures. There is Cornelius Tacitus. Flavius and Tacitus were prominent historians and both offer accounts referring to Jesus well within a century of Jesus’ 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).

As time progressed, several other figures took to writing about the emergence of Christianity and its founder, Jesus. These include materials from Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Serapion, and Lucian. These are important sources, but they are not the most valuable of them. They can sometimes be ambiguous in their references and likely depend on hearsay information. Their value lies primarily on what the Christian religion looked like in its infancy, rather than on the historical Jesus, although they do speak about Jesus.

There are other sources written by early Christian leaders like Papias, Ignatius, and Clement, all of whom reference the historical Jesus. Clement and Ignatius are important because they are relatively early in comparison to the rest and are thought to have had links to Jesus’ original disciples. This, and all the other evidence, establishes a strong chain of many writers who knew that Jesus existed and wrote about him. At no point is anyone doubting that Jesus existed, or even considering such an idea.

It should be clear that the historical evidence we have for the Jesus figure behind the emergence of Christianity is strong and far more than sufficient. This is not to make a theological statement, but a purely historical one. One does not need to believe that Jesus was God incarnate to admit that he existed as a historical person. Is this perhaps what scares the mythicists, that to admit Jesus existed is to concede to much to religion (almost all mythicists are atheists, it should be noted)?

This much too brief sample of the evidence convinces every historian in the field that Jesus existed historically. To conclude anything else is to have one needing to explain away mountains of data. When mythicists have tried this, their hypotheses and conclusions are absurd, contrived, conjectural, and speculative. We can conclude with the words of 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).

References

1. Licona, M. Answering Brian Flemmings “The God Who wasn’t there.” Available.

2. Habermas, G. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels. Available.

3. Craig, W. 2011. Pre-Markan Source and the Resurrection of Jesus. Available.

4. Bird, M. 2014. Yes, Jesus Existed… Available.

5. Ehrman, B. 2012. Did Jesus Exist?

6. Ehrman, B. 2012. Ibid.

7. Habermas, G. 1996. The Historical Jesus:  Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. p. 219.

7 comments

  1. James, is it still true today that the overwhelming majority of scholars in the relevant fields of expertise believe that Jesus Christ existed?

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