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Many people believe in Jesus, but that doesn’t necessarily make the stories about him true. What do historians, both believers and unbelievers, conclude about Jesus? How much about him can we know, and how much is a matter of faith?
It turns out that historians believe we can know quite a lot about Jesus while treating the gospels the same as they would treat any other ancient documents.
Historical scholars don’t believe that everything recorded in historical documents is true. Instead they test everything (see Are the gospels historical? for more about this), concluding that some things are well established, somethings seem unlikely to be true and some things cannot be determined one way or the other.
Most historians who have studied the New Testament period agree that, even by the demanding standards of historical study, we can be confident of many details of Jesus’ life. For example, E P Sanders concluded:
Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died. ….. the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”
Most historians would agree with this, a few would be more sceptical and a larger number would be more positive about how much we can know. In the information below, I have stayed with careful and respected scholars who represent the broad consensus of New Testament scholarship, and not followed either the highly sceptical or strongly christian scholars. (For more on the range of scholarly opinion, see Which historians should we trust?.)
What we can be confident of
The following is a summary of what we can be confident of historically, based on the consensus of secular scholars. It is particularly drawn from EP Sanders, N T Wright, Maurice Casey and Michael Grant (note that not all of these scholars would agree with every item, but the majority would):
His early life
Jesus was born about 3-5 BCE, lived in Nazareth in his childhood, and was baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Bart Ehrman (quoting part of an archaeological report):
‘Nazareth was an out-of the-way hamlet of around 50 houses on a patch of about four acres …. populated by Jews of modest means. …. Jesus really came from there, as attested in multiple sources.
He had 12 disciples
It was common for a rabbi or teacher to have disciples (followers committed to learning from their master). Jesus’ choice of 12 was probaby significant.
He followed normal Jewish practices of his day
Jesus’ central activities of teaching in the synagogues, attending the Temple services, keeping the festivals – and disputing with other teachers ….. place him in the mainstream of contemporary religious occupations.
He associated with outcasts
This was uncommon for a Rabbi in his day, because of Jewish purity laws.
Jesus was known as a healer and exorcist
Most scholars believe he was widely known for his healing and exorcism. EP Sanders:
I think we can be fairly certain that initially Jesus’ fame came as a result of healing, especially exorcism.
Many believe he truly effected cures and exorcisms. G Stanton:
Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered. Maurice Casey believed they were effected by natural healing, but NT Wright believes they were signs of God at work.
He preached “the kingdom of God”
Most scholars agree this was Jesus’ main message. Many conclude that Jesus believed he was the “Messiah” (God’s chosen king or agent), inaugurating the Kingdom of God. He called people to repent, and made it clear that repentent sinners were eligible for the kingdom.
P J Tomson:
Although he apparently considered himself the heavenly ‘Son of Man’ and ‘the beloved son’ of God and cherished far-reaching Messianic ambitions, Jesus was equally reticent about these convictions. Even so, the fact that, after his death and resurrection, his disciples proclaimed him as the Messiah can be understood as a direct development from his own teachings..
Welcoming “sinners” was part of Jesus’ teaching and he claimed to be able to forgive people’s sins. M Grant:
Jesus introduced a very singular innovation. For he also claimed that he himself could forgive sins.
The importance of his death
Jesus predicted his death and resurrection (Maurice Casey), and he believed his death would be redemptive. Michael Grant:
Jesus lived his last days, and died, in the belief that his death was destined to save the human race.. Maurice Casey:
He believed that his death would fulfil the will of God for the redemption of his people Israel.
Conflict with the religious establishment ending in his death
Jesus clashed with the religious leaders over many of his teachings. Near the end of his life, he created a disturbance in the temple in Jerusalem, which almost all scholars agree was a catalyst for his arrest. Following a final meal with his friends, Jesus was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities then executed by the Roman Governor, Pilate.
Most scholars believe that Jesus’ tomb was really empty and/or that his disciples “saw” him (in what sense is uncertain) after his death. E P Sanders:
That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.
Amy-Jill Devine sums up:
there is a consensus of sorts on the basic outline of Jesus’ life. Most scholars agree that Jesus was baptised by John, debated with fellow Jews on how best to live according to God’s will, engaged in healings and exorcisms, taught in parables, gathered male and female followers in Galilee, went to Jerusalem, and was crucified by Roman soldiers during the governorship of Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE).
A smaller number of scholars are more sceptical. For example, the Jesus Seminar concluded that only about 15-20% of what is recorded in the gospels can be viewed as probably historical, with the remainder split between text that those scholars considered unhistoric, and text which they could not judge whether it is historic or not. The Seminar included in the “historical” category such matters as:
- Jesus was an itinerant preacher who proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught in parables;
- significant parts of his teaching about God (about 20%) is probably historical;
- he was a healer and an exorcist (though they don’t believe these things physically occurred);
- he associated with outcasts, attracted a large following and had a close group of disciples;
- he was executed by the Roman authorities because of an incident in the Jewish temple;
- Paul of Tarsus and Peter saw “appearances” of Jesus after his death, and Mary of Magdala was an early witness to the resurrection (sceptical scholars don’t believe in a physical resurrection, nevertheless they believe there were appearances of some kind).
This ‘minimum’ is still a significant list which more or less coincides with what can be gleaned from the non-christian Roman and Jewish sources.
On the other hand, there are many more scholars who argue that the historical evidence allows them to believe that the New Testament is almost entirely accurate history, with only a few small historical matters in significant doubt. Historian E Judge:
An ancient historian has no problem seeing the phenomonon of Jesus as an historical one. His many surprising aspects only help anchor him in history. Myth and legend would have created a more predictable figure. The writings that sprang up about Jesus also reveal to us a movement of thought and an experience of life so unusual that something much more substantial than the imagination is needed to explain it.
With this historical background, it is difficult to write Jesus off as not existing, nor can we say that we know nothing about his life and teachings. We seem to have two choices which fit the evidence: we may choose to believe in him and then trust the authors who wrote about him, or we may believe he was a Jewish prophet, but no more.