Last post I looked at one aspect of the historical evidence for the life of Jesus – Were the gospels written a long time after the event? Another question often asked, or a claim often made, relates to how much evidence there is for the events and teachings outlined in the gospels, and how much is faith.
Here’s how I see it.
Did Jesus really exist?
It doesn’t take long to answer this. Almost all ancient historians, whether christian (e.g. NT Wright), Jew (e.g. the late Geza Vermes), atheist/agnostic (e.g. Bart Ehrman) or noncommittal (e.g. EP Sanders), whether New Testament historian (e.g. Maurice Casey) or first century classical historian (e.g. the late Michael Grant), believe the evidence points to the conclusion that Jesus really did live and we can know significant information about him.
Check out a list of quotes from many of the world’s most eminent historians.
Historical facts about Jesus that are “almost beyond dispute”
EP Sanders is one of the world’s most respected New Testament historians. (I don’t make this statement idly – historians such as Mark Powell, Paula Fredriksen, Maurice Casey and Craig Keener have identified him as one of the most respected of NT scholars.) In The Historical Figure of Jesus, p10-11, Sanders lists the following important facts about Jesus as being historically “almost beyond dispute”.
1. Jesus was born c 4 BCE near the time of the death of Herod the Great
2. Jesus spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village
There are those who claim Nazareth didn’t exist at the time of Jesus, but the archaeological evidence indicates that it did, and I’ve never come across a reputable historian who doubts this fact.
3. Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist
4. Jesus called disciples
5. Jesus taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities)
In addition to this general statement about Jesus’ public teaching, there are many of his specific teachings that would be accepted as genuine by many, if not most, historians (though my assessment here must be subjective). Examples include:
- parables such as the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Dishonest Steward;
- substantial sections of the so-called Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), with their teachings on non-violence, forgiveness, etc;
- accounts of arguments with orthodox religious teachers;
- statements where Jesus called people to follow him and accept his authority as prophet, teacher and future judge,;
- teachings and parables (e.g. the Workers in the Vineyard) that suggest Jesus saw himself as God’s viceroy, if not son; and also ….
6. Jesus preached ‘the kingdom of God’
7. About the year 30 Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover
8. Jesus created a disturbance in the Temple area
9. Jesus had a final meal with the disciples
10. Jesus was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest
11. Jesus was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate
12. Jesus’ disciples saw him (in what sense is not certain) after his death
This may be surprising to some, but a review by Gary Habermas a few years ago found that almost all critical scholars conclude that the disciples had some sort of visionary experience which they believed was the risen Jesus (e.g. EP Sanders, Maurice Casey, and the Jesus Seminar).
These ‘facts’ are not very controversial among historians.
Historical facts about Jesus we can be fairly sure of
In addition to Sander’s list of almost certain facts, a few other “facts” seem to be accepted by the majority of scholars
13. Jesus was known at the time as a healer and exorcist.
Most scholars agree on this, though they take different views on the explanation:
- genuine miracles
- non-miraculous “folk healings”
- legends or untrue stories
- a matter which historical study cannot determine
14. Jesus’ tomb was found empty
Habermas also found that about 75% of all academic papers surveyed were written from the viewpoint that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. Classical historians Michael Grant and Robin Lane Fox take this view.
15. Jesus called on his hearers to repent
I am not sure whether a majority of scholars believe this but Grant, Casey, Sanders and others certainly do, and I think that agreement is probably indicative.
16. Jesus believed his death would be redemptive
Again, I am not sure whether a majority of scholars believe this but Grant, Casey, Burridge, Thiessen and others do, and I think a majority probably do. Most would see this as being redemptive for Israel, possibly but not necessarily for Gentiles, as the modern church believes.
17. Jesus believed he was speaking on behalf of God
Most scholars draw this conclusion, but they express it in different ways. Many (e.g. Ehrman, Casey, Sanders) say Jesus should be described as an end-times prophet or a last messenger from God, but many also conclude that he saw himself as God’s Messiah, viceroy or king (e.g. Sanders, Wright).
There is much discussion among scholars about how soon his followers saw him as Messiah and divine. The evidence seems to point to those titles being given to him very soon after his death (within a decade).
How do historians know this?
There isn’t space in this post to discuss this at length. But briefly, historians work with the New Testament text, treating it the same as other ancient documents (the fact that the writers had a religious agenda is little different to other writers, most of whom had religious or political agendas, which historians take account of). Factors which may encourage them to accept a story as historical may include:
- if there were multiple independent sources which agree about a particular event or teaching (which is often the case with the NT), particularly if the sources are relatively early, it gives greater confidence in it being historical;
- if the event is in some ways difficult or embarrassing, it is unlikely to have been invented;
- if the account fits with what we know of history and culture at the time, it gives greater confidence;
- sometimes the texts shows signs of having been translated from an Aramaic original, which makes it more likely to be older and closer to Jesus’ lifetime.
Scholars present their conclusions in peer-reviewed papers, in books published by reputable academic publishers and at conferences. This process ensures that any bias (e.g. religious or anti-religious bias) is mostly filtered out. Most of the scholars referenced above are not christian scholars.
Faith and belief
Where I start from
If we accept the consensus of scholars, it seems to me that there are only two basic conclusions to be drawn:
- Either Jesus saw himself as a teacher and prophet to Israel, but he was mistaken in some of his beliefs, or
- Jesus was a prophet and teacher, but also made subtle but implicit claims to divinity which were actually true.
Obviously my conclusion is the second one, for several reasons:
- The philosophical arguments for the existence of God, plus human experience of the divine (e.g. in miracles of healing) lead me to conclude that God exists, so I have no philosophical reason to reject the supernatural.
- I think the best explanation of Jesus’ ministry, teaching and claims is that he was telling the truth, and that he was truly divine.
- The evidence for the resurrection is strong for someone who brings no anti-supernatural views to the question, so I believe it is a unique indication of the truth of Jesus’ claims.
- Believing in Jesus makes more sense of the growth of christianity than believing he was mistaken.
I understand others don’t come to the same conclusion. But once I have reached the point, based on the historical evidence, of believing Jesus was sent by God to establish his rule on earth, I can accept, in faith, facts about Jesus which the historians cannot verify, or reject because of the supernatural element.
Matters which I believe in faith based on the historical evidence
- the miracles, including the resurrection, really happened;
- Jesus truly was, in some sense which christians have always struggled to explain, divine – best expressed as the unique son of God – though he was cautious in making explicit claims which could easily be misunderstood;
- his death was indeed redemptive and forgiveness of sin is available because of it;
- the gospels record honestly and reasonably accurately the things he did and said;
- John’s gospel has a significant basis in history, but was written to explain theology as much as record history.
Things I still have doubts about
There are some aspects of the gospel records that remain difficult, though none of these affect anything substantial (to my thinking):
- some, perhaps many, aspects of the stories of Jesus’ birth may be unhistorical – we cannot really know – though I believe the virgin birth is true;
- the stories of the dead coming out of their graves at the time of Jesus’ death, and of Jesus telling his disciples to look for a coin in the mouth of a fish, seem more legendary than historical;
- there are some minor inaccuracies or differences between accounts in different gospels (e.g. the alternative names of the territory of the Gadarenes, Gerasenes or Gergesenes), but these generally make little difference to the stories and teachings; some may be simply copying errors;
- the stories of the resurrection are not easily harmonised, though it can be done;
- John’s gospel includes significant reflection on the ministry of Jesus from some time after the event; some events have been placed out of chronological order to make a point; it isn’t always easy to tell what words come from Jesus and what come from John; and many of the discourses may reflect the sense rather than the true words of Jesus.
I see no reason to believe that the gospel records were kept from all error, but I believe on the basis of the historian’s conclusions that they are substantially accurate. We can therefore draw reasonable conclusions about Jesus – who he was and why he is important for us.
There will always be matters we cannot fully understand or explain. I don’t expect to understand everything, but I believe we can understand sufficient. I believe this is a sufficient basis for placing my life’s trust in Jesus.
I can understand that others cannot agree. I think mostly they haven’t analysed the historical evidence adequately, but I understand that isn’t always the case.
I hope readers will use this post as a basis for their own open-minded review of the evidence.
Thanks for reading! Comments are welcome.
There is a series of pages addressing these matter in more detail, at Jesus.