The historicity of Jesus concerns the historical authenticity of Jesus of Nazareth. Scholars often draw a distinction between Jesus as reconstructed through historical methods and the Christ of faith as understood through theological tradition. Most scholars in the fields of biblical studies and history agree that Jesus was a Jewish teacher from Galilee who was regarded as a healer, was baptized by John the Baptist, was accused of sedition against the Roman Empire, and on the orders of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate was sentenced to death by crucifixion.
On the other hand, mythologists and a minority of biblical scholars argue that Jesus never existed as a historical figure, but was a purely symbolic or mythical figure syncretized from various non-Abrahamic deities and heroes.
Scholarly opinions on the historicity of the New Testament accounts are diverse. At the extremes, they range from the view that they are inerrant descriptions of the life of Jesus, to the view that they provide no historical information about his life. As with all historical sources, scholars ask: to what extent did the authors' motivations shape the texts, what sources were available to them, how soon after the events described did they write, and whether or not these factors lead to inaccuracies such as exaggerations or inventions.
Jesus is featured throughout the New Testament and other Early Christian writings. In particular, the four canonical Gospels (most commonly estimated to have been written between 65 and 110 C.E.) and the writings of Paul of the New Testament are among the earliest known documents relating to Jesus' life. Some scholars also hypothesize the existence of earlier texts such as the Signs Gospel and the Q document. There are arguments that the Gospel of Thomas is likewise an early text.
The most detailed accounts of the life of Jesus in the Bible are the four canonical Gospels: the Gospel of Matthew; the Gospel of Mark; the Gospel of Luke; and the Gospel of John. These Gospels are narrative accounts of part of the life of Jesus. They concentrate on his ministry, and conclude with his death and resurrection. The extent to which these sources are interrelated, or used related source material, is known as the synoptic problem. The date, authorship, access to eyewitnesses, and other essential questions of historicity depend on the various solutions to this problem.
The four canonical Gospels are anonymous. The introduction to Luke mentions accounts of what was handed down by eyewitnesses, and claims to have "diligently investigated all things from the beginning." The epilogue to John states that "these things" are testified to by the beloved disciple, whose "testimony we know … is true". The authors in antiquity who discussed the authorship of the Gospels generally asserted the following: Matthew was written by Matthew, one of the Twelve apostles of Jesus; Mark was written by Mark, a disciple of Simon Peter, who was one of the Twelve; Luke was written by Luke, who was a disciple of Paul, who was the Apostle to the Gentiles; John was written by John, who was one of the Twelve.
The first three Gospels, known as the synoptic gospels, share much material. As a result of various scholarly hypotheses attempting to explain this interdependence, the traditional association of the texts with their authors has become the subject of criticism. Though some solutions retain the traditional authorship, other solutions reject some or all of these claims. The solution most commonly held in academia today is the two-source hypothesis, which posits that Mark and a hypothetical second source, called the Q document, were used as sources for Matthew and Luke. Other solutions, such as the Augustinian hypothesis and Griesbach hypothesis, posit that Matthew was written first and that Mark was an epitome. Scholars who accept the two-source hypothesis generally date Mark to around 70 C.E., with Matthew and Luke dating to 80-90. Scholars who accept Matthean priority usually date the synoptic gospels to before 70, with some arguing as early as 40. John is most often dated to 90-100, though a date as early as the 60s, and as late as the second century have been argued by a few.
"Thus our prime sources about the life of Jesus were written within about 50 years of his death by people who perhaps knew him, but certainly by people who knew people who knew him. If this is beginning to sound slightly second hand, we may wish to consider two points. First… most ancient and medieval history was written from a much greater distance. Second, all the Gospel writers could have talked to people who were actually on the spot, and while perhaps not eyewitnesses themselves, their position is certainly the next best thing."
Mainstream scholars hold that the authors wrote with certain motivations and a view to a particular community and its needs. They regard it as virtually certain the authors relied on various sources, including their own knowledge and the testimony of eyewitnesses. The later authors did not write in ignorance of some texts that preceded them, as is claimed explicitly by the author of Luke.
The extent to which the Gospels were subject to additions, redactions, or interpolations is the subject of textual criticism, which examines the extent to which a manuscript changed from its autograph, or the work as written by the original author, through manuscript transmission. Possible alterations in the Gospels include: Mark 16:8-20, Luke 22:19b–20,43–44, John 7:53-8:11.
Other issues with the historicity of the Gospels include possible conflicts with each other, or with other historical sources. The most frequent suggestions of conflict relate to the Census of Quirinius as recounted in Luke, the two genealogies contained in Luke and Matthew, and the chronology of the Easter events.
Jesus is also the subject of the writings of Paul of Tarsus, who dictated letters to various churches and individuals from c. 48-68. There are traditionally fourteen letters attributed to Paul, thirteen of which claim to be written by Paul, with one anonymous letter. Current scholarship is in a general consensus in considering at least seven of the letters to be authored by Paul, with views varying concerning the remaining works. Paul was not an eyewitness of Jesus' life, but claimed knowledge of Jesus through visions (Gal 1:11-12 and 1 Cor ). He met some of those described as Apostles of Jesus in the Gospels referring to them as Apostles (Gal 1:18–20, and 1 Cor ). In his letters, Paul referred to commands of Jesus, or events in his life, a few times.
In his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul writes in chapter , referring to his fellow Jews, that they "...killed the Lord Jesus..." (though we should note that the authenticity of this passage has been doubted by some.). He also refers to the "Lord's own word" in chapter discussing the future coming of the Lord.
In his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul writes that after God "revealed his Son in" him (Gal 1), he did not discuss it with those who had been Apostles before him, but traveled to Arabia then back to Damascus. It was three years later that he went to Jerusalem where he saw the Apostle Cephas/Peter, and James, "the Lord's brother" (or "the brother of the Lord," αδελΦος του κυρίоς 1:18–20), believed by many to be James the Just. Paul then 14 or more years later had a meeting with Peter, James, and John, the Council of Jerusalem.
In Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians he says in chapter that the "... rulers of this age ... crucified the Lord of glory ...." In he gives what he says are commands of "the Lord" regarding divorce. In he refers to "the Lord's brothers" (or "the brethren of the Lord," αδελφοι του κυριου) and refers to what "the Lord has commanded" in . Paul gives a description of the Last Supper in , which he says he received directly from "the Lord." In , he talks of the death and resurrection of Christ and witnesses to resurrection appearances.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes that Christ Jesus had the form of God, and speaks of his "appearance as a man" and his "human likeness." In his letter to the Romans, , Paul describes "Christ Jesus," as the "Son of God" and says that Christ Jesus was from the seed of David, "according to the flesh."
Acts of the Apostles, written at least twenty but probably thirty or forty years after Galatians, gives a more detailed account of the Council of Jerusalem in chapter . Acts also claims Jesus' family, including his mother, were members of the early church ( ).
Jesus is a large factor in New Testament apocrypha, works excluded from the canon as it developed because they were judged not to be inspired. These texts are almost entirely dated to the mid second century or later, though a few texts, such as the Didache, may be first century in origin.
Early Christian sources outside the New Testament also mention Jesus and details of his life. Important texts from the Apostolic Fathers are, to name just the most significant and ancient, Clement of Rome (c. 100), Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107-110), and Justin Martyr.
Perhaps the most significant Patristic sources are the early references of Papias and Quadratus (d. 124), mostly reported by Eusebius in the fourth century, which both mention eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry and healings who were still alive in their own time (the late first century). Papias, in giving his sources for the information contained in his (largely lost) commentaries, stated (according to Eusebius):
… if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders — that is, what according to the elders Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying.
Thus, while Papias was collecting his information (c. 90), Aristion and the elder John (who were Jesus’ disciples) were still alive and teaching in Asia Minor, and Papias gathered information from people who had known them. Another Father, Quadratus, who wrote an apology to the emperor Hadrian, was reported by Eusebius to have stated:
The words of our Savior were always present, for they were true: those who were healed, those who rose from the dead, those who were not only seen in the act of being healed or raised, but were also always present, not merely when the Savior was living on earth, but also for a considerable time after his departure, so that some of them survived even to our own times.
By “our Savior” Quadratus meant Jesus, and by “our times,” he may have refered to his early life, rather than when he wrote (117-124 C.E.), which would be a reference contemporary with Papias.
There are passages relevant to Christianity in the works of four major non-Christian writers of the late first and early second centuries – Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger. However, these are generally references to early Christians rather than a historical Jesus. Of the four, Josephus' writings, which document John the Baptist, James the Just, and possibly also Jesus, are of the most interest to scholars dealing with the historicity of Jesus (see below). Tacitus, in his Annals written c. 115, mentions popular opinion about Christus, without historical details. There is an obscure reference to a Jewish leader called "Chrestus" in Suetonius. Pliny condemned Christians as easily-led fools.
Flavius Josephus (c. 37–c. 100), a Jew and Roman citizen who worked under the patronage of the Flavians, wrote the Antiquities of the Jews in 93 C.E. In these works, Jesus is mentioned twice. The one directly concerning Jesus has come to be known as the Testimonium Flavianum.
The Testimonium's authenticity has attracted much scholarly discussion and controversy of interpolation. Louis H. Feldman counts 87 articles published during the period of 1937-1980, "the overwhelming majority of which question its authenticity in whole or in part".
In the second, very brief mentioning, Josephus calls James "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ". For this shorter passage, most scholars consider it to be substantially authentic, while others raise doubts.
More notably, in the Testimonium Flavianum, it is written:
About this time came Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it is appropriate to call him a man. For he was a performer of paradoxical feats, a teacher of people who accept the unusual with pleasure, and he won over many of the Jews and also many Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon the accusation of the first men amongst us, condemned him to be crucified, those who had formerly loved him did not cease to follow him, for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, as the divine prophets foretold, along with a myriad of other marvellous things concerning him. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.
Concerns have been raised about the authenticity of the passage, and it is widely held by scholars that at least part of the passage is an interpolation by a later scribe. Judging from Alice Whealey's 2003 survey of the historiography, it seems that the majority of modern scholars consider that Josephus really did write something here about Jesus, but that the text that has reached us is corrupt to a perhaps quite substantial extent. However, there has been no consensus on which portions are corrupt, or to what degree.
In antiquity, Origen recorded that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Christ, as it seems to suggest in the quote above. Michael L. White argued against its authenticity, citing that parallel sections of Josephus's Jewish War do not mention Jesus, and that some Christian writers as late as the third century, who quoted from the Antiquities, do not mention the passage. While very few scholars believe the whole testimonium is genuine, most scholars have found at least some authentic words of Josephus in the passage. Certain scholars of Josephus's works have observed that this portion is written in his style.
There is one main reason to believe Josephus did originally mention Jesus and that the passage was later edited by a Christian into the form that we have now. There is a passage from a 10th century Arab historian named Agapius of Manbij who was a Christian. He cites Josephus as having written:
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and (he) was known to be virtuous and many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not desert his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.
The text from which Agapius quotes is more conservative and is closer to what one would expect Josephus to have written. The similarities between the two passages imply a Christian author later removed the conservative tone and added interpolations.
Pliny the Younger, the provincial governor of Pontus and Bithynia, wrote to Emperor Trajan c. 112 concerning how to deal with Christians, who refused to worship the emperor, and instead worshiped "Christus":
Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
Tacitus (c. 56–c. 117), writing c. 116, included in his Annals a mention of Christianity and "Christus," the Latinized Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah." In describing Nero's persecution of Christians following the Great Fire of Rome c. 64, he wrote:
Nero fastened the guilt of starting the blaze and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius 14-37 at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.
R. E. Van Voorst noted the improbability that later Christians would have interpolated "such disparaging remarks about Christianity". For this reason the authenticity of the passage is rarely doubted, but there is disagreement about what it proves. It has been controversially speculated that Tacitus may have used one of Pilate's reports to the emperor as the source for his statement that "Christus" had been crucified by Pilate. Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman wrote that: "Tacitus's report confirms what we know from other sources, that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, sometime during Tiberius's reign." Others would say it tells us only what the Christians in the year 116 believed, and is not therefore an independent confirmation of the Gospel reports. For example, historian Richard Carrier writes "it is inconceivable that there were any records of Jesus for Tacitus to consult in Rome (for many reasons, not the least of which being that Rome's capitol had burned to the ground more than once in the interim), and even less conceivable that he would have dug through them even if they existed … It would simply be too easy to just ask a Christian—or a colleague who had done so … there can be no doubt that what Pliny discovered from Christians he had interrogated was passed on to Tacitus."
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69–140) wrote the following in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars about riots which broke out in the Jewish community in Rome under the emperor Claudius:
The event was noted in Acts . The term Chrestus also appears in some later texts applied to Jesus, and Robert Graves, among others, considers it a variant spelling of Christ, or at least a reasonable spelling error. On the other hand, Chrestus was itself a common name, particularly for slaves, meaning good or useful. In regards to Jewish persecution around the time to which this passage refers, the Jewish Encyclopedia states: "… in 49-50, in consequence of dissensions among them regarding the advent of the Messiah, they were forbidden to hold religious services. The leaders in the controversy, and many others of the Jewish citizens, left the city".
Because these events took place around 20 years after Jesus' death, the passage most likely is not referring to the person Jesus, although it could be referencing Christians- who were the instigators of Jesus and his legacy- whom Suetonius also mentioned in regards to Nero and the fire of Rome. As such, this passage offers little information about Jesus.
Thallus, of whom very little is known, wrote a history from the Trojan War to, according to Eusebius, 109 B.C.E. No work of Thallus survives. There is one reference to Thallus having written about events beyond 109 B.C.E. Julius Africanus, writing c. 221, while writing about the crucifixion of Jesus, mentioned Thallus. Thus:
On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in his third book of History, calls (as appears to me without reason) an eclipse of the sun.
Lucian, a second century Romano-Syrian satirist, who wrote in Greek, wrote:
The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account… You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.
The Acts of Pilate is purportedly an official document from Pilate reporting events in Judea to the Emperor Tiberius (thus, it would have been among the commentaii principis). It was mentioned by Justin Martyr, in his First Apology (c. 150) to Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucius Verus, who said that his claims concerning Jesus' crucifixion, and some miracles, could be verified by referencing the official record, the "Acts of Pontius Pilate". With the exception of Tertullian, no other writer is known to have mentioned the work, and Tertullian's reference says that Tiberius debated the details of Jesus' life before the Roman Senate, an event that is almost universally considered absurd. There is a later apocryphal text, undoubtedly fanciful, by the same name, and though it is generally thought to have been inspired by Justin's reference (and thus to post-date his Apology), it is possible that Justin actually mentioned this text, though that would give the work an unusually early date and therefore is not a straightforward identification.
On the eve of the Passover, Yeshu was hanged. Forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried: "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.
The Historical Jesus is a reconstruction of Jesus using modern historical methods.
Paul Barnett pointed out that "scholars of ancient history have always recognized the 'subjectivity' factor in their available sources" and "have so few sources available compared to their modern counterparts that they will gladly seize whatever scraps of information that are at hand." He noted that modern history and ancient history are two separate disciplines, with differing methods of analysis and interpretation.
In The Historical Figure of Jesus, E.P. Sanders used Alexander the Great as a paradigm—the available sources tell us much about Alexander’s deeds, but nothing about his thoughts. "The sources for Jesus are better, however, than those that deal with Alexander" and "the superiority of evidence for Jesus is seen when we ask what he thought." Thus, Sanders considers the quest for the Historical Jesus to be much closer to a search for historical details on Alexander than to those historical figures with adequate documentation.
Consequently, scholars like Sanders, Geza Vermes, John P. Meier, David Flusser, James H. Charlesworth, Raymond E. Brown, Paula Fredriksen and John Dominic Crossan argue that, although many readers are accustomed to thinking of Jesus solely as a theological figure whose existence is a matter only of religious debate, the four canonical Gospel accounts are based on source documents written within decades of Jesus' lifetime, and therefore provide a basis for the study of the "historical" Jesus. These historians also draw on other historical sources and archaeological evidence to reconstruct the life of Jesus in his historical and cultural context.
The existence of Jesus as an actual historical figure has been questioned by a few scholars and historians, some of the earliest being Constantin-François Volney and Charles François Dupuis in the eighteenth century and Bruno Bauer in the nineteenth century. Each of these proposed that the Jesus character was a fusion of earlier mythologies. The views of scholars who entirely rejected Jesus' historicity were summarized in Will Durant's Caesar and Christ, published in 1944. Their rejections were based on a suggested lack of eyewitnesses, a lack of direct archaeological evidence, the failure of ancient works to mention Jesus, and similarities early Christianity shares with then-contemporary religion and mythology.Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag
More recently, arguments for non-historicity have been discussed by George Albert Wells, and by Earl Doherty (The Jesus Puzzle, 1999), and by biblical scholar Robert M. Price.
Retrieved January 15, 2009.
New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:
The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia: