The Historical Jesus: Did He Exist?

Because there is a limited amout I wish to say about the historicity of Jesus, unlike the rest of the site, this page will not be a series of essays on other pages, but one long page. Navigation links are at the bottom.

This page only covers the historical evidence of Jesus - things such as the historicity of the Bible, whether the resurrection can be proven etc are contained in Authenticity & Reliability of the Bible

There are two questions to be asked about the 'historical' Jesus:

Image of what Jesus might have looked like, BBC
Reconstruction of a 1st Century Jewish man, BBC

Did Jesus exist?

The Gospels - Historical Evidence?

For Christians, the most important documents relating to Jesus are the four Gospels in the Bible. These purport to be eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus in the first century CE (Common Era). There are, however, several questions which should be raised about these documents. The first is who wrote them?.

Now, although the gospels are given in the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (of whom two were eyewitnesses, with another possibility being John Mark), we do not actually know they were by these people. It is thought there are possible references within the gospels to the authors. In the case of Mark, that is at Mark 14:51-2:

"And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about [his] naked [body]; and the young men laid hold on him: And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked" (KJV)

It is argued that there is no reason for Mark to have added in this character, unless it was himself, in which case he put it in to show that he was indeed an eyewitness. As anyone can see, though, this is hardly a proof of authorship, or that Mark was an eyewitness - for all we know, this 'young man' may have been someone the gospel-writer's community knew, or just a bit of detail. (There is also evidence that the Gospel of Mark may have been substantially edited, in the Secret Gospel of Mark letter, which will be in the Authenticity section).

As for the Gospel of Matthew, it is difficult to see any sort of self-reference within the text. Matthew uses 92% of the Gospel of Mark, 'fleshed-out' as it were, which may well mean that Matthew was not an eyewitness of Jesus, as if he were, why would he use someone else's writing? Because of this, most modern Biblical scholars believe someone who was not an eyewitness, but who did have a copy of either the Gospel of Mark or 'Q' (thought to be a collection of sayings used by Matthew, Mark and Luke).

The Gospel of Luke has perhaps the highest claim to an actual author. It begins:

Luke 1:1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, 2 just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-ophilus... (RSV)

So it can be seen that the author of Luke was not an eyewitness, but rather someone who read all the other gospels, and chose from them what was most likely to be true, in order that Theophilus would read the correct information. From the amount of medical information in the Gospel and Acts (almost certainly by the same author) it is thought that 'Luke' is Luke the Physician, a friend of Paul's.

The Gospel of John does seem to mention the author in the text, under the name of the 'Beloved Disciple':

John 20:2 "Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved..." (KJV)

The Beloved Disciple is mentioned elsewhere in the Gospel, too. However, there are some problems with this idea - if John was of such arrogance as to herald himself as the foremost disciple, the one Jesus loved (implying Jesus did not love the others, or not as much) throughout the Gospel, why did he not put his name at the beginning? It is true that Chapter 21 does seem to suggest that the Beloved Disciple (whoever he was) did write the Gospel:- 24 This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true. However, it is felt by many Biblical scholars that Chapter 21 is a later addition, as there is another ending to the Gospel in Chapter 20. Also, why does the author suddenly switch to the third person - we know his testimony is true, rather than saying, I know my testimony is true? It seems very much as if a group of people - a church, perhaps - added this chapter to give it authenticity. John's Gospel had a stormy ride in the second century, almost not making it into the canon - it was not seen as having undoubted apostolic or eyewitness authority. Irenaeus (c170CE) stated that “John, a disciple of the Lord, who also leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia." - Irenaeus knew Polycarp, who had listened to the author of the Gospel. However, as CK Barrett noted, Irenaeus does not say that Polycarp told him that John wrote the Gospel. Added to this the difficulty with John's Gospel that comes from it being so very different to the Synotic Gospels (the other three), and we have a problem on our hands. If these were all written by eyewitnesses, why are they so different?

Dating the Gospels has also been a problem, and makes them less reliable as sources. Scholars debating the date of John's Gospel have said “the wide limits of A.D. 90-140 have now been reached" (Barrett) for a variety of reasons which I won't go into here. Mark's Gospel is thought to have been written in c70AD, Matthew and Luke, because they are thought to have used Mark, but to have come before John, are dated to c80CE. (More information is at http://home.earthlink.net/~kirby/xtianity/dating.html). This means that not only can we not be sure that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, but they were also written at the least 37 years after the death of Jesus! This both adds to the difficulty in saying that eyewitnesses wrote the gospels (people did not live as long in ancient times as they do now, because of disease, and in this case, persecution by the Romans and the Jewish Wars occuring in the meantime), but also adds to the possibility that the actual facts of Jesus' existence had become blurred. After that amount of time it is entirely possible that bits and pieces from other religions had been added to what Jesus really said and did (more on this later), and/or that things had become substantially distorted and 'mythologised'. This could also mean that there was no 'Jesus', but people were told there had been - any lack of people who had actually met him would ensure no one would contradict what the gospel-writers said.

So it seems that the gospels may well be secondary sources, with a possibility that the facts of Jesus' existence (if he did exist) have been distorted within them. In other words, they are not particularly good historical evidence of his existence, or of what he said and did.

Other Sources

There are some (not many) non-gospel sources which refer to Jesus, and which Christians say prove the historical existence of Jesus. These are the writings of:

The Josephus passage is among the most celebrated as proving that Jesus existed:

"Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works; a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." (Antiquities XVIII 63f)

At first glance, this appears to be a very good source for the historical existence of Jesus. However, Josephus was a Jew, and remained a Jew. For him to say that Jesus was 'the Christ' and was resurrected from the dead, would have had him a Christian, not a Jew, and he would have been banned from the synagogues, as were all the others who said Jesus was the messiah. Futhermore, up until the 4th Century there are no mentions of Josephus having written about Jesus in this way. None of the Christian Church Fathers mentioned Josephus as having written about Jesus in this way, if he had done so, Justin Martyr and Origen among others would have been glad to use it as ammunition in their disputes with the Jews. They did not, however, no mention of it at all. Origen actually said that Josephus did not acknowledge Jesus. Most scholars do not believe Josephus wrote this passage, but that it is a later addition by Christian scribes - Bishop Warburton denounced it as "a rank forgery and a very stupid one, too."

Suetonius wrote:

"Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome". Life of Claudius (XXv.4)

Again there are a number of questions raised about this passage. Firstly, Suetonius is talking about "Chrestus" - but he spelt "Christians" correctly later in his book, which makes you wonder whether he was actually talking about Jesus at all, and not some other person, especially as 'Chrestus' is the correct Latin form of an actual Greek name. He also seems to imply that there was someone called Chrestus in Rome in 49CE when the expulsion occurred. This makes him a very dubious source indeed.

Tactitus wrote that:

"Consequently ... Nero fastened the guilt 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 Tiberias at the hands of the Procurator Pontius Pilatus, and a deadly superstition, thus checked for a moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City." Annals (XV.44.2-8)

in his account of the burning of Rome. Again this piece of Tactitus' writing, besides not being by an eyewitness, has a big question mark hanging over its authenticity. This particular piece is not quoted before the 15th Century, and when it was quoted, there was supposed to be only one copy of the 'Annals' in the world, made in the eighth century (600 years after Tactitus' death). Also, Tactitus could not have been using Roman records of Jesus' death (if there were any) because he prefers to Pilate as a Procurator, when in fact he was a Prefect. Again we must discount this passage.

Pliny wrote a letter to the emperor Trajan saying:

"They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: that they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery ..."

He was asking Trajan to advise him what action to take against Christians living in Asia Minor. He proves that there were Christians there, but not that Jesus ever existed.

Thallus is said to have written that Jesus' death was accompanied by earthquake and darkness. His original work has been lost and it was cited only in Julius Africanus' work in the third century. This is the only reference to unusual meterological events occuring after the death of Jesus outside the New Testament, which is strange as such things were routinely recorded. It is impossible to determine whether Thallus actually wrote this, when he wrote this or if the events actually happened as there is no other evidence.

The Talmud says Jesus was the illegitemate son of a Roman soldier called Pandera (or Pandira) who worked magic. However, most of that material derives from 200-500CE and is the Jewish reaction to the spread of Christianity. It is not a contemporary reference but a reaction to a movement.(For anti-Christian parts of the Talmud, including those referring to Jesus, refuted, please see http://crnews.pastornet.net.au/jmm/aasi/aasi0151.htm)

Many Christians also make reference to the "Acts of Pilate" whicih Justin Martyr said was Pilate's report to Rome of the crucifixion of Jesus. Several other early church writers also referred to this, including Euseubius, who said there was a forged copy of that report circulating in his day. At the present time, the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus claims to have this report within it, and there is also another report. The second report, called " The letter of Pontius Pilate which he wrote to the Roman Emperor, concerning our Lord Jesus Christ. is thought by most historians to have been written in the fifth century. The Gospel of Nicodemus is thought to have been written c150-200 which leaves a small possibility that it has a copy of the report of Pilate in it, but the gospel is not accepted by most Christians as being authentic, and most historians doubt that it has the report of Pilate either.

There are some other historical sources, but these are the main (and earliest) ones, so I will not cover them. There is a possibility that Jesus did exist, as vouchsafed by the historical evidence, but the practise of the Christian church in destroying records of Jesus (at one time, anyone attempting to preserve writings which were hostile to him was subject to the death penalty) and of falsifying various others (such as Josephus) has paradoxically made it unlikely we will ever be able to say with certainty that Jesus existed.

What type of man was Jesus?

Although in the previous section we have seen that it is not certain that Jesus actually existed, we will look at the various things people have thought that the historical man actually was. This 'quest' for the historical Jesus began in the 18-19th Centuries, and is divided into three sections.

The First (or Old) Quest

This sought to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith - in other words, to strip away the layers of interpretation which followers had added on to the motives and thoughts of Jesus and show what he thought of things, using historical data.

It began with Professor Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) who was Professor of Oriental Languages at Hamburg. His work, published posthumously in 1778, "Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger" (The Goal of Jesus and His Disciples) was the starting point for the quest. He saw Jesus as a political claimant for the throne of Israel who anticipated a worldly kingdom and was executed as a political revolutionary. He expected God to help him achieve political authority, and cried out in desolation on the cross when it became clear God was not going to help him. The disciples were also desolate, bbut stole Jesus' body and announced that he was a new type of Messiah, and thus founded the church.

One whose influence can still be felt, although his name is not often mentioned, is Paulus. He harmonised the four gospels (put them all together to make one narrative) and tried to rationalise the miracles. He said that, for example, at the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus did not miraculously create lots of bread and fish, but by his example inspired the 5,000 to share the food they had brought with them with each other.

One of the most important scholars in the first quest was David Friedrich Strauss, who wrote "Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet" when he was 28. He advocated unbiased work on the New Testament, and suggested that the Synoptics were the most historical gospels - a view still held today by the majority of scholars. He believed the gospels should be characterised as myth, and said that, aside from the bare framework, most of the gospels were based on Old Testament stories, not facts from Jesus' life. He also made the distinction between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history.

Possibly the most well known of all the 'questers' was the brilliant Albert Schweitzer, who wrote Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung (usually called 'The Quest for the Historical Jesus') in 1906, which marked the end of the first quest. He noted that people who search for the historical Jesus usually find a Jesus they agree with! All previous scholars had sought to 'modernise' Jesus, to make him relevant to their particular time, rather than looking at him in his own time. He also noted that they practically ignored the fact that Jesus was Jewish, both in their writings and in the iconography of the day. He saw Jesus as an eschatological (end of the world) prophet, expecting a son of man to be sent by God to bring this end upon them. When this figure did not appear Jesus then thought he must be the son of man, and expected his death on the cross to bring about the end of the world. The disciples then changed his meaning when this did not happen, and moved the end of the world to some unspecified future time. Schweitzer's work effectively stopped all the quests for the historical Jesus for fifty years, although Bultmann in the third quest (the one we're in now) picked up his ideas.

The New Quest

This was initiated by E. Kasemann in 1953, who was a pupil of Bultmann (of whom more later) when he lectured on the Jesus of history. He said it is dangerous to separate the Christ of faith (on whom more work had been done in the period of 1906-1953) from the Jesus of history. If the two are separated then there is no control over the Christ of faith - he was possibly harking back to the Nazi claim that Jesus was an anti-semite. The main scholars of this were Kasemann, G. Bornkamm and N. Perrin, who utilised the greater knowledge of Jewish life and culture in the first century which was then appearing due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls on the 1940's. They fixed what could be said about Jesus, such as that he was Jewish, and lower-class, for example. They tried to work out how to find out whether Jesus had actually said the things the gospels assert that he said. They utilised two criterions for this: the criterion of dissimilarity (if its not a Jewish or early Christian idea then Jesus must have said it - e.g. the son of man sayings. Unfortunately this forgets that Jesus was actually Jewish and so therefore could be supposed to be influenced by the Old Testament and the time in which he lived), and the criterion of multiple attestation.

The Third Quest

From the 1980's to the present day. This came out of work done on the noncanonical gospels, and cultural anthropology.

The Jesus Seminar, the now infamous group of North American scholars who started meeting in 1985. They gathered all the recorded sayings of Jesus up until 300ce from canonical and non-canonical sources. They voted as a group on whether they were said by him or not (with four different coloured balls, probably the thing most known about them). They only found genuine sayings in the synoptic gospels and the Gospel of Thomas. Even then, only 18% were found to have been said by Jesus. They said Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist but left him because he did not like the ascetic lifestyle of the baptist. Jesus believed the Kingdom of God was a present reality and worked as a social critic and sage. He was not the messiah or an eschatological prophet, nor was he particularly religious. There was no particular reason for Jesus to have died, they said that that was the result of his being caught up in a disturbance in the Temple which he did not instigate.

J.D. Crossan in 1991 published "The Historical Jesus" which said Jesus was a peasant Cynic philosopher. (The Cynics denied the social values of the world - such as eating with tax collectors etc). Jesus was against hierarchies and gender divisions and believed the Kingdom of God was a present reality. He advocated a 'brokerless kingdom' with no intermediary between men and God, this was the reason he moved around, so that he was not seen as an intermediary figure. Healings symbolically included everyone in the kingdom. He was killed because he created a disturbance in the Temple when he spoke out about his non-hierarchical ideas, and he was crucified and his body was eaten by dogs (a normal practise for crucified people - vultures would dislodge bits of flesh to the dogs beneath the crosses), this was the reason no one knew where his body was.

N. T. Wright wrote "Jesus and the Victory of God" in 1996. He sees Jesus as an eschatological prophet who taught the Jews that their exile was soon to be ended. (Jews in the 1st Century believed they were still in exile because of the Roman rule in Israel) The miracles were prophetic symbols that the eschaton (end of the world) was soon to come. His was a renewal movement which had a great deal of symbolism in it, such as the twelve disciples representing twelve tribes of Israel, and not fasting/mourning because he was in exile, but feasting because the exile was soon to be over. He brought a new covenant which was not the Temple and the Law but adherence to Jesus. Jesus died because the Jewish leaders believed him to be a false prophet.

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