Historicity of Jesus

The historicity of Jesus is the question of Jesus of Nazareth can be regarded as a historical figure. Virtually all New Testament scholars and Near East historians, applying the standard criteria of historical-critical investigation, find that the historicity of Jesus is effectively certain, although they differ about the beliefs and teachings of Jesus as well as the accuracy of the details of his life that have been described in the gospels.

The question of the historicity of Jesus is part of the study of the historical Jesus as undertaken in the quest for the historical Jesus and the scholarly reconstructions of the life of Jesus, based primarily on critical analysis of the gospel texts and applying the standard criteria of critical-historical investigation, and methodologies for analyzing the reliability of primary sources and other historical evidence.

While scholars have criticized Jesus’ scholarship for religious bias and lack of methodological soundness, with very few exceptions such critics generally do support the historicity of Jesus and reject the Christ myth theory that Jesus never existed.

Historical existence

Most scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed. Historian Michael Grant asserts that if conventional standards of historical textual criticism are applied to the New Testament, “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.”


Main article: Sources for the historicity of Jesus

All extant sources that mention Jesus were written after his death. The New Testament represents sources that have become canonical for Christianity, and there are many apocryphal texts that are examples of the wide variety of writings in the first centuries AD that is related to Jesus.

New Testament sources

Synoptic Gospels

Main article: Synoptic Gospels

The Synoptic Gospels are the primary sources of historical information about Jesus and of the religious movement he founded. These religious gospels–the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of Luke–recount the life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of a Jew named Jesus who spoke Aramaic. There are different hypotheses regarding the origin of the texts because the gospels of the New Testament were written in Greek for Greek-speaking communities, and were later translated into Syriac, Latin, and Coptic. The fourth gospel, the Gospel of John, differs greatly from the Synoptic Gospels. Historians often study the historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles when studying the reliability of the gospels, as the Book of Acts was seemingly written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke.

Pauline epistles

The seven Pauline epistles considered by scholarly consensus to be genuine are dated to between AD 50 and 60 (i.e., approximately twenty to thirty years after the generally accepted time period for the death of Jesus) and are the earliest surviving Christian texts that may include information about Jesus. Although Paul the Apostle provides relatively little biographical information about Jesus and states that he never knew Jesus personally, he does make it clear that he considers Jesus to have been a real person and a Jew. Moreover, he claims to have met with James, the brother of Jesus.

Non-Christian sources

Josephus and Tacitus

Judea Province during the 1st century

Judea Province during the 1st century

Non-Christian sources used to study and establish the historicity of Jesus include the c. first century Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus. These sources are compared to Christian sources, such as the Pauline letters and synoptic gospels, and are usually independent of each other; that is, the Jewish sources do not draw upon the Roman sources. Similarities and differences between these sources are used in the authentication process.

In Books 18 and 20 of Antiquities of the Jews, written around AD 93 to 94, Josephus twice refers to the biblical Jesus. The general scholarly view holds that the longer passage, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, most likely consists of an authentic nucleus that was subjected to later Christian interpolation or forgery. On the other hand, Josephus scholar Louis H. Feldman states that “few have doubted the genuineness” of the reference found in Antiquities 20, 9, 1 to “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”.

Tacitus, in his Annals (written c. AD 115), book 15, chapter 44, describes Nero’s scapegoating of the Christians following the Fire of Rome. He writes that the founder of the sect was named Christus (the Christian title for Jesus); that he was executed under Pontius Pilate; and that the movement, initially checked, broke out again in Judea and even in Rome itself. Some scholars question the historical value of the passage on various grounds.


The Mishnah (c. 200) may refer to Jesus and reflect the early Jewish traditions of portraying Jesus as a sorcerer or magician. Other references to Jesus and his execution exist in the Talmud, but they aim to discredit his actions, not deny his existence.

Critical-historical research

Main articles: Historical criticismTextual criticism, and Biblical hermeneutics

Historical Reliability of the Gospels

Main article: Historical Reliability of the Gospels

The historical reliability of the gospels refers to the reliability and historic character of the four New Testament gospels as historical documents. Little in the four canonical gospels is considered to be historically reliable.

Historians subject the gospels to critical analysis by differentiating authentic, reliable information from possible inventions, exaggerations, and alterations. Since there are more textual variants in the New Testament (200–400 thousand) than it has letters (c. 140 thousand), scholars use textual criticism to determine which gospel variants could theoretically be taken as ‘original’. To answer this question, scholars have to ask who wrote the gospels, when they wrote them, what was their objective in writing them, what sources the authors used, how reliable these sources were, and how far removed in time the sources were from the stories they narrate, or if they were altered later. Scholars may also look into the internal evidence of the documents, to see if, for example, a document has misquoted texts from the Hebrew Tanakh, has made incorrect claims about geography, if the author appears to have hidden information, or if the author has fabricated a prophecy. Finally, scholars turn to external sources, including the testimony of early church leaders, to writers outside the church, primarily Jewish and Greco-Roman historians, who would have been more likely to have criticized the church, and to archaeological evidence.
Main article: Quest for the historical Jesus

Since the 18th century, three separate scholarly quests for the historical Jesus have taken place, each with distinct characteristics and based on different research criteria, which were often developed during that phase. Various criteria of authenticity are developed and employed to distinguish early oral elements from later literary elements in the Gospel stories, regarding those early elements as original elements of Jesus’ teachings and biography.

Currently, modern scholarly research on the historical Jesus focuses on what is historically probable, or plausible about Jesus. Since the late 2000s, concerns have been growing about the usefulness of these criteria.

Historical Jesus

Main article: Historical Jesus

There is widespread disagreement among scholars on the historicity of specific episodes described in the biblical accounts of Jesus, the details of the life of Jesus mentioned in the gospel narratives, and on the meaning of his teachings. Many scholars have questioned the authenticity and reliability of these sources, and few events mentioned in the gospels are universally accepted.

Baptism and crucifixion

Part of the ancient Madaba Map showing two possible baptism locations

Part of the ancient Madaba Map showing two possible baptism locations

The only two events subject to “almost universal assent” are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate.

According to New Testament scholar James Dunn, nearly all modern scholars consider the baptism of Jesus and his crucifixion to be historically certain. He states that these “two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent” and “rank so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical ‘facts’ they are obvious starting points for an attempt to clarify the what and why of Jesus’ mission.” John P. Meier views the crucifixion of Jesus as historical fact and states that based on the criterion of embarrassment Christians would not have invented the painful death of their leader. The criterion of embarrassment is also used to argue in favor of the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist as it is a story which the early Christian Church would have never wanted to invent. Based on this criterion, given that John baptised for the remission of sins, and Jesus was viewed as without sin, the invention of this story would have served no purpose and would have been an embarrassment given that it positioned John above Jesus.

Amy-Jill Levine has summarized the situation by stating that “there is a consensus of sorts on the basic outline of Jesus’ life” in that most scholars agree that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and over a period of one to three years debated Jewish authorities on the subject of God, gathered followers, and was crucified by Roman prefect Pontius Pilate who officiated 26–36 AD.

Other episodes

There is much in dispute as to his previous life, childhood, family, and place of residence, of which the canonical gospels are almost completely silent.

Scholars attribute varying levels of certainty to other episodes. Some assume that there are eight elements about Jesus and his followers that can be viewed as historical facts, namely:

  • Jesus was a Galilean Jew.
  • His activities were confined to Galilee and Judea.
  • He was baptized by John the Baptist.
  • He called disciples.
  • He had a controversy at the Temple.
  • Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.
  • After his death his disciples continued.
  • Some of his disciples were persecuted.

Scholarly agreement on this extended list is not universal. Elements whose historical authenticity are disputed include the two accounts of the nativity of Jesus, the miraculous events including turning water into wine, walking on water and the resurrection, and certain details about the crucifixion.

In the 21st century, the third quest for the historical Jesus witnessed a fragmentation of the scholarly portraits of Jesus.

In the 21st century, the third quest for the historical Jesus witnessed a fragmentation of the scholarly portraits of Jesus.

Portraits of the historical Jesus

The portraits of Jesus constructed in the quests have often differed from each other, and from the image portrayed in the gospel accounts. There are overlapping attributes among the portraits, and while pairs of scholars may agree on some attributes, those same scholars may differ on other attributes, and there is no single portrait of the historical Jesus that satisfies most scholars. The mainstream profiles in the third quest may be grouped together based on their primary theme as an apocalyptic prophet; charismatic healerCynic philosopherJewish Messiah; and prophet of social change; but there is little scholarly agreement on a single portrait, or the methods needed to construct it. There are, however, overlapping attributes among the portraits, and scholars who differ on some attributes may agree on others.

Christ myth theory

Main article: Christ myth theory

The Christ myth theory is the view that “the story of Jesus is a piece of mythology,” possessing no “substantial claims to historical fact.” Alternatively, in terms given by Bart Ehrmanparaphrasing Earl Doherty, “the historical Jesus did not exist. Or if he did, he had virtually nothing to do with the founding of Christianity.”

Most biblical scholars and classical historians see the theories of his non-existence as effectively refuted, and in modern scholarship, the Christ myth theory is a fringe theory and finds virtually no support from scholars.

Several authors, including Thomas L. Thompson and Robert M. Price, have to take a more moderate, “agnostic stance,” arguing that while there are a number of plausible Jesuses that could have existed, there can be no certainty as to which Jesus was the biblical Jesus, and that there should also be more scholarly research and debate on this topic.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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