There are many different opinions about the historical evidence about Jesus, and some outlandish viewpoints. Sometimes it seems everyone has an axe to grind! How can we find the best information, and who can we trust?
We need to be aware that there are differing viewpoints, even among the best experts. If we want the best information, not just what confirms our current opinion, we need to try to balance the differing opinions and avoid the extremes.
I have generally avoided both christian apologists and extreme sceptics, and have based information about Jesus this website on the most respected secular scholars.
Why do we need expert historical information?
Jesus lived in a very different time and culture to us, and spoke a different language. Most of us can only read his biographies in the Bible via a translation. But if we want to delve any deeper, we need to understand language, culture, archaeological discoveries and other ancient writings.
Few of us have access to this information nor the skill and training to interpret it. While we are each free and responsible to form our own conclusions about Jesus, we must first understand the facts available, and that must come from the experts.
The range of expert historical opinion
Historians are supposed to approach their task of assessing the historical facts in an objective manner. However historical investigation of Jesus isn’t easy, because these are no ordinary stories, and because scholars and others who write about Jesus and history can bring to their study many different viewpoints and biases. So the range of opinion can include the following.
These are believers who write to defend the christian faith. They may be acknowledged experts in their fields, but they will generally believe or assume that the New Testament has been inspired by God and kept accurate by him, and are willing to accept the reality of supernatural events and causes. There are a large number of scholars in this category, including, in the reference list, Blomberg, Habermas and those quoted in Strobel. Christians will generally be happy to accept what they say but non-believers may not.
At the other end of the spectrum are non-believers who use speculative or radical methods not generally endorsed by other historians, and perhaps write to disprove or discredit the christian faith. They will generally believe or assume that the miraculous cannot occur, and the New Testament is unhistorical except where it can be proved otherwise. There are a smaller number of scholars in this category, represented in the reference list by Funk and the Jesus Seminar, and those writing on the Secular Web. A number of writers in this category are not recognised scholars. Non-believers are often happy to accept the views of these writers but christians and historians will generally not.
The mainstream of New Testament scholarship uses objective methods and assumptions that remove as much as possible the effect of any pre-conceived viewpoint. They will exercise caution, but not scepticism, in drawing historical conclusions. Some are not willing to pass historical judgment, one way or the other, on miraculous matters, as they see these as beyond the domain of the historian. Some (in my opinion the most trustworthy ones) will apply similar methods of historical analysis to the New Testament as would be applied to other writings of a similar age, but others adopt even more stringent methods to “bend over backwards” so that they reach conservative conclusions.
The most respected New Testament scholars are in this category.
How do we know who is respected and objective?
A historian’s expertise isn’t something that cannot be measured. But the best scholars will fit the following categories:
- PhD degree in a relevant disciple (History, Classics, Archaeology, New Testament) from a reputable university.
- Membership of relevant professional bodies and associations.
- Current scholarship – working in the field in a university or research organisation plus publishing in peer-reviewed journals.
- Respect of peers, which can be seen by their publication plus how often they are cited with approval in journals and books.
I have taken the trouble to check as much as I can, and have come to the conclusion that the following are some of the most respected by their peers: EP Sanders, NT Wright, Gerd Thiessen, Dale Allison, Michael Grant, Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey, Geza Vermes and Richard Bauckham. This list includes non-theists, christians and a Jew. (See my sources for this conclusion at the bottom of this page.)
Who have I relied on?
In preparing the historical Jesus material on this website, I have mostly used scholars in the latter category, because these are the most respected. In order to arrive at conclusions that can reasonably be accepted by people of any philosophical or religious viewpoint, I have used a mix of believers and unbelievers. In particular, I have relied most on:
- the late Michael Grant, because his wide expertise (he wrote numerous books about many facets of the Roman Empire) gave him a broader persective as a historian than some purely New Testament scholars, and because he was a non-believer;
- the lists of facts about Jesus that are “almost beyond dispute” developed by EP Sanders, especially that on pages 10-11 of his book The Historical Figure of Jesus, because Sanders is respected as a careful scholar who has expressed no religious belief or disbelief;
- The late Maurice Casey and Bart Ehrman, who are agnostic scholars with recognised expertise in Aramaic and the New Testament text (respectively);
- NT Wright & Richard Bauckham, who are christian scholars whose scholarship is respected by their peers;
- Mark Powell, because his book represents not his own views but a summary of a broad cross section of the most respected scholars;
- John Dickson, because he is a historian who writes simply for lay readers from a carefully considered viewpoint within the centre of scholarship; and
- Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism by Elijuah Hixson & Peter Gurry (eds) provides reliable information on the NT text.
In basing my summaries on these scholars and the other mainstream scholars mentioned above, I believe I have been objective and reasonable. We do well to be wary of those who only quote scholars from one end of the spectrum or the other.
Sources for my judgment on which scholars are most respected and influential.
- Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth (1999), names M Borg, JD Crossan, EP Sanders, G Vermes & NT Wright as her “senior colleagues”.
- Mark Powell, The Jesus Debate (2000), identifies The Jesus Seminar, JD Crossan, M Borg, EP Sanders, J Meier, NT Wright.
- Mark Goodacre (2007) called EP Sanders “the greatest living New Testament scholar”.
- Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth (2010), names EP Sanders, Geza Vermes and NT Wright as leading New Testament historians.
- Anthony le Donne & Chris Keith, on The Jesus Blog (2012) nominates EP Sanders, Dale Allison, Gerd Thiessen and Jens Schroeter as scholars they respect the most. Their readers listed the following (in order): Dale Allison, NT Wright, JD Crossan, J Meier, EP Sanders, James Dunne, Craig Evans as the most respected.
For a list of the books and websites I have most used, see Historical Jesus references.
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