Akhenaten has been attacking statements I have made here, and on my other blog theWay?. The latest comment on Christians and cathedrals questions whether “there exists a scholarly consensus that a reasonable if modest amount of facts about Jesus can be known”.
I decided this question required a longer answer … (and I apologise for the length of this post)
There are too many historical scholars to simply count their opinions, so I suggest the best way to test this proposition is by considering what the leading, or most respected scholars, say.
How can we decide which scholars are most respected?
Scholars from reputable universities, who have relevant PhD qualifications, who publish in reputable journals, and whose books are well received and often-quoted, are more likely to be respected than those from specifically christian colleges, with lesser qualifications or are not published in peer-reviewed journals.
Assessing how often historians are quoted favourably is quite subjective, but can still give an indication. But sometimes scholars specifically nominate who they believe are most expert or respected.
So who are the leading scholars?
- In his 2000 textbook on historical Jesus scholarship, Mark Powell named 5 scholars he felt were the most respected at that time: JD Crossan, M Borg, EP Sanders, J Meier and NT Wright,
- Paula Fredriksen in Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (2000) lists the same 5 scholars plus Geza Vermes.
- In his book on Jesus of Nazareth, Maurice Casey mentions with approval EP Sanders, Geza Vermes and NT Wright from Fredriksen’s list, plus R Bauckham, C Evans, J Dunn, M Hengel, P Fredriksen, D Allison and B Chilton.
- When Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? was heavily criticised by generally non-recognised scholars, a number of scholars (e.g. Maurice Casey and Larry Hurtado) supported him.
- Not all scholars agree with Richard Bauckham, but he is recognised by many scholars (e.g. J Dunn, NT Wright, M Hengel & L Hurtado) for his expertise.
Several names appear again and again – notably EP Sanders, Geza Vermes and NT Wright – and these may be considered among the leading scholars. It is interesting that one is an agnostic, one a Jew and one a christian. Most of the others mentioned above could be considered to be among the most respected.
Most of these studied or taught at reputable universities (e.g. Wright at Oxford, Durham & St Andrews; Casey at Nottingham; Bauckham at Cambridge & St Andrews; Sanders at Duke, etc), publish in journals and have written books.
My own choice of scholars to read and quote depends on who I have found in my local library or on the web and who I have decided to buy. I mostly quote EP Sanders, M Casey, Michael Grant and B Ehrman (all non-believers) and NT Wright, R Bauckham, C Evans & John Dickson (all christians), but I have read something by almost all of those mentioned above.
So what do these scholars say?
we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. ….. In recent years, ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus’ or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.”
The late Michael Grant, eminent historian of the Roman Empire
This view [that Jesus didn’t exist] is demonstrably false. It is fuelled by a regrettable form of atheist prejudice, which holds all the main primary sources, and Christian people, in contempt. This is not merely worse than the American Jesus Seminar, it is no better than Christian fundamentalism. It simply has different prejudices. Most of its proponents are also extraordinarily incompetent.
Maurice Casey, Nottingham University
I don’t think there’s any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus …. We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.
Prof Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina
The historical evidence for Jesus himself is extraordinarily good. …. From time to time people try to suggest that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, but virtually all historians of whatever background now agree that he did”
NT Wright, Oxford & St Andrews Universities
some judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example, Jesus really existed, and he really was crucified, just as Julius Caesar really existed and was assassinated. …. We can in fact know as much about Jesus as we can about any figure in the ancient world.
Marcus Borg, Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University
[In answer to the question, did Jesus exist?] I would say it is much more likely that he did than he didn’t. To believe that he had been imagined or invented is a much harder task than to rely on the available evidence, which is obviously not as clear-cut as one would like, but is sufficiently good to say that somebody by the name of Jesus existed around the time when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea in the first century AD.
Geza Vermes, Oxford University
Jesus did exist; and we know more about him than about almost any Palestinian Jew before 70 C.E.”
Prof James Charlesworth, Princeton Theological Seminary
Biblical scholars and classical historians now regard it [the theory that Jesus didn’t exist] as effectively refuted.”
Robert Van Voorst, Western Theological Seminary
Jesus did more than just exist. He said and did a great many things that most historians are reasonably certain we can know about today. …. A hundred and fifty years ago a fairly well respected scholar named Bruno Bauer maintained that the historical Jesus never existed. Anyone who says that today – in the academic world at least – gets grouped with the skinheads who say there was no Holocaust and the scientific holdouts who want to believe the world is flat.
M A Powell, Trinity Lutheran Seminary
I think that the New Testament does provide prima facie evidence for the historicity of Jesus. It is clear, then, that if we are going to apply to the New Testament the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we should not require independent confirmation of the New Testament’s claim that Jesus existed.
Jeffery Jay Lowder, writing on the Secular Web
So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot.
Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor, Edinburgh University
Research in the historical Jesus has taken several positive steps in recent years. Archaeology, remarkable literary discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and progress in reassessing the social, economic, and political setting of first-century Palestine have been major factors. …. the persistent trend in recent years is to see the Gospels as essentially reliable, especially when properly understood, and to view the historical Jesus in terms much closer to Christianity’s traditional understanding
Prof Craig Evans, Arcadia Divinity College, Arcadia University
…. a growing conviction among many scholars that the Gospels tell us more about Jesus and his aims than we had previously thought ….. subsequent Christianity may be in greater continuity with Jesus than was previously thought.
J Paget, Cambridge University
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.
Emeritus Professor Edwin Judge, Ancient History Research Centre, Macquarie University, Sydney
[The following is beyond reasonable doubt from everyone’s point of view:] “that Jesus was known in both Galilee and Jerusalem, that he was a teacher, that he carried out cures of various illnesses, particularly demon-possession and that these were widely regarded as miraculous; that he was involved in controversy with fellow Jews over questions of the law of Moses; and that he was crucified in the governorship of Pontius Pilate.
A.E. Harvey, formerly at Oxford University
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.
EP Sanders, Oxford & Duke Universities
I shall first offer a list of statements about Jesus that meet two standards: they are almost beyond dispute; and they belong to the framework of his life, and especially of his public career. (A list of everything that we know about Jesus would be appreciably longer.)
Jesus was born c 4 BCE near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
he was baptised by John the Baptist;
he called disciples;
he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities);
he preached ‘the kingdom of God’;
about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
he created a disturbance in the Temple area;
he had a final meal with the disciples;
he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.
I could gather more statements, but surely it is clear enough. With only one or two exceptions, scholars are in little doubt that Jesus existed and the Gospels tell us some reliable information about him. Anyone who says otherwise is not willing to accept what the experts say.
We need to be clear what the historians are saying, and not misunderstand. They are not necessarily endorsing christian belief about Jesus – some of the above historians are christians, some are not. And they are not saying that the New Testament is 100% reliable on matters of history. They are simply saying that the New Testament provides useful historical information and a person recognisable as the Jesus of the gospels truly lived, taught, gained a reputation as a miracle-worker and was executed.
For more on what they conclude we can know about Jesus, see Jesus in history.
Nevertheless, christian belief is built on this historical foundation. I personally accept the truth of christian teaching about Jesus because I accept, on faith, the pictures painted by the gospel writers.