How much do we know about the historical Jesus?


How much do we know about the historical Jesus?  Not much, but before going any further it’s worth asking why bother looking for the historical Jesus in the first place?  For almost all Christians, Jesus is a figure of faith and belief, not a subject of historical study.  But what about Paul and the gospels, the reader might ask?  Aren’t they the source of our knowledge of the historical Jesus?  No.  Paul and the authors of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) wrote about Jesus in order to create a man who fit the needs of first-century Christians.  They cannot be considered historical sources, even if some of the things they say are historical true.

What can we know historically? 

There is widespread (if not always total) consensus that Jesus was baptized by John, that he taught and preached in Galilee, that he drew followers to himself, that he was known as an effective miracle worker and exorcist, and that he made a final journey to Jerusalem for Passover where, in conjunction with an incident in the temple, he was arrested, convicted by Pilate and crucified.  (Eddy and Beilby, pp 47-48) 

In recent years the Jewishness of Jesus has been unquestioned.  In every facet of his life Jesus was a Jew.  He was born a Jew, educated as a Jew, and lived as a Jew.

That’s it?  Yes, not one word of the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed has a historical basis. This makes sense when you think about what they assert: that Jesus is the son of God, born of a virgin, crucified under Pontius Pilate, was raised from the dead after three days, appearing to his followers before ascending into heaven, where he judges the living and the dead.  One day he shall return, ushering in the kingdom of heaven on earth. 

None of these statements, with the exception of crucifixion, is a historical statement.  They are statements of faith.  But what about the healing miracles Jesus performed, what about the parables?  What about the resurrection?  There is no historical evidence.  People who encountered Jesus told other people that he performed miracles, spoke in parables, and appeared to them after his death.  But none of those who first wrote about Jesus, the authors of the synoptic gospels, who wrote between forty and seventy years after his death, knew about these things except at third-hand, via word of mouth, and from a hypothetical document called Q.Some of these things may be true, but we all know what happens to a story after it is retold a couple of times. 

What about non-biblical authors? 

For the most influential man in history, Jesus is virtually absent from the historical record.  For almost everyone except his followers, during his lifetime Jesus was hardly a footnote to history. 

Our earliest non-canonical reference comes from Tacitus, who explains that the victims of Nero’s persecution “took their name from Christus [i.e. Christ] who was executed in the reign of Tiberius by Pontius Pilate.” (Annals 15.44.3) That’s it. 

A second Roman writer, Suetonius, refers to Jesus in passing in his Lives of the Caesars (circa 120 CE).  Explaining the reasons for an expulsion of Jews from Rome in the 40s, Suetonius wrote “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”   That’s it (Bond, p 38).

The most significant paragraph (one paragraph is as much as we get) was written by Flavius Josephus (born 37 CE), a Palestinian Jew who defected to the Roman side during the war with Rome.  In his Antiquities of the Jews, written around 95 CE, he summarizes the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (18:63).  Josephus was not a Christian, which lends credence to his work.

Josephus adds no new information, but confirms the basics of the gospels.  Jesus was widely regarded as a miracle worker and teacher, was handed over by Jewish leaders and crucified by Pontius Pilate, and that his followers continued to support him after his death (Bond 40-41). 

The majority of scholars regard the non-canonical Gospel of Peter as a later work, having no historical significance.  The Gospel of Thomas, though treated seriously by the Jesus Seminar, is probably a second-century work.  The Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who voted on the likelihood that a particular statement attributed to Jesus actually comes from Jesus, eventually agreed that about twenty percent was genuine (Funk).  But voting isn’t the best way of getting to the truth of something like this.  One needs a consistently applied theory of validity. 

The Gospel of Q is derived from Matthew and Luke, and so contains no new material.*

Another way to look at the historical Jesus

Another way to approach the historical Jesus is to consider what a surprise he must have been to his followers.  As John Dominic Crossan explains, most Jews expected the Davidic messiah to appear as a warrior king who would destroy the enemies of Israel and initiate an era of perpetual peace, based on the restoration of the kingdom of Israel (p 119). Instead they got a messiah who preached humility and non-violence before being crucified by his enemies, a particularly degrading and humiliating death. 

This counts as evidence for the historical Jesus because who would have made up such a story, contrary to Jewish expectation and self-understanding?  This example fulfills the criterion of dissimilarity or embarrassment, often used to distinguish genuine from false statements about Jesus.  No one who expected a warrior king would have spoken about Jesus as the synoptic gospels do (as a loser in today’s terms) unless the truth of the man and his acts was so compelling that it could not be denied. 

Crossan’s way of looking at Jesus has another advantage, revealing that when you come down to it, there are but two ways to be in the world: the way of Rome and the way of Christ.  Rome’s power was based on violence.  As the ancient historian Hesiod put it around 700 BCE, “strong of hand, one man will seek the city of another” and “right will be in the arm.”  Israel was taken by force and occupied by Rome for about four hundred years. 

The alternative, perhaps the only real alternative in this world, is the way of peace and non-violence.  Sometimes it looks like weakness, but Paul got it right when he referred to Christ’s strength made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).  Jesus lost so we might win.  Few of us have enough of that kind of strength even to get through an ordinary day.  Gandhi and Martin Luther King made it their way of life, which is why we remember them as martyrs. 

Impact on his followers and the literary Jesus

Another way of thinking about the historical Jesus is in terms of his impact on his followers.  What could make a dozen ordinary men give up everything and follow Jesus, often sacrificing their own lives in the process?  If we look at the gospels not in terms of particular stories or parables, but in terms of the impact of Christ’s personality on their lives, there is remarkable agreement among the synoptic authors. 

Jesus opens himself to others, disregarding distinctions of class, sex, and trade, and is totally obedient to God.  He dies though he wishes to live.  To be a follower of Christ means not to say or do the same thing as he, but to make his life a model for your own (Johnson, p 175).  The impact of Jesus on others, including men and women of today, is the best evidence of his life.

For Luke Timothy Johnson, there is not much more we can know about the historical Jesus.  What he calls the post-Easter faith, belief in the resurrection, “pervades all our chief sources for the life and mission of Jesus.” (p 203) This prevents the present-day searcher from seeing the historical Jesus as he was. 

The gospels reflect the influence of Jesus on his earliest followers.  This influence is the historical Jesus, as close to him as we are likely to get. 

This may not be the worst thing.  The most important Jesus, the real Jesus, is the literary Jesus, whose richness, complexity, and subtlety is greater than other famous literary protagonists, such as King Lear, Ahab, and Stephen Dedalus.  Jesus is the protagonist in the greatest story ever told, the story of Christ’s sacrifice and the salvation of humanity.  Isn’t that enough? 


* Q is a hypothetical document containing only the sayings of Jesus.  Long since lost to history, it appears to be the source of nearly identical sayings of Jesus quoted by both Matthew and Luke, who were not familiar with each other’s work, but  used much of Mark’s.  This is called the two-source hypothesis, Mark providing some of the narrative material, Q. many  of the sayings common to each.  I am assuming what is called the two source hypothesis.  The hypothetical document is called Q after the German Quelle, which means source.  More on Q in a coming post.


James Beilby and Paul Eddy, Introduction, in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, ed. James Beilby and Paul Eddy, pp 9-54.  InterVarsity Press, 2009. 

Helen Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed.  T&T Clark, 2012.

John Dominic Crossan, Jesus and the challenge of collaborative eschatology, in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, ed. James Beilby and Paul Eddy, pp 105-153.  InterVarsity Press, 2009. 

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar.  The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say.  Harper, 1998.

Luke Timothy Johnson, Learning the human Jesus: historical criticism and literary criticism, in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, ed. James Beilby and Paul Eddy, pp 153-296.  InterVarsity Press, 2009. 

Mark Mattison, The Gospel of Q: Jesus’ Prophetic Wisdom.  Independently Published, 2016.

P. L. Maier, editor and translator, Josephus –The Essential Works. Kregel Publications, 1994.

2 thoughts on “How much do we know about the historical Jesus?”

  1. “This example fulfills the criterion of dissimilarity or embarrassment, often used to distinguish genuine from false statements about Jesus. ”
    I have not heard of this before but it seems very sensible.
    You have made a good case.I will have to read it a few times
    before I say any more.

  2. What I find interesting is that the followers of Jesus managed to introduce a completely new concept of deity into the Roman world. A concept that overthrew the old ideas, which had been derived from Greek culture, with one that had originally been developed by the Hebrews. Some of the ideas, such as the ‘Trinity’ were anathema to the Jews themselves but the early Christians could move into Roman society in a way that Jews could not, as a people that had been crushed by Roman power.

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