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Capturing the Historical Jesus
by Revanth T
Not For Sale
Author requests article critique


One of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Paine, said this of Jesus Christ, “There is no history written at the time Jesus Christ is said to have lived that speaks of the existence of such a person, even such a man.” [1] In his essay Why I Am Not a Christian, Bertrand Russell wrote, “Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if he did we know nothing about him.” [2] Yet the foundation of Christianity is the historical person of Jesus Christ. The New Testament documents are the most important historical sources for Jesus of Nazareth. This is not to suggest that there are no sources outside the Bible which refer to Jesus. There are many. He is referred to in pagan, Jewish and Christian writings outside the New Testament. For example, the first-century Roman Tacitus who is considered one of the more accurate historians of the ancient world gives the account of the great fire of Rome, for which some blamed the Emperor Nero:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures of a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had it’s origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. [3]

This passage contains references to Christians, named after Christus (Latin for Christ), who suffered the “extreme penalty” under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. The “superstition” which started in Judea and had made its way to Rome was most likely the resurrection of Jesus.
Pliny the Younger was a Roman author and administrator. In a letter to the Emperor Trajan in about 112, Pliny describes the early Christian worship practices:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food – but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. [4]

This passage confirms several New Testament references. The most notable is that the early Christians worshipped Jesus as God. Their practices also betray a strong ethic, probably that of Jesus. There is also a reference to the love feast and Lord’s Supper. Later in the same letter, Pliny calls the teaching of Jesus and his followers “excessive superstition” and “contagious superstition,” which may refer to Christian belief and proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus.

Flavius Josephus (37/38-97) was a Jewish revolutionary who changed allegiance to the Romans in the Jewish revolt in time to save his life. He became a historian, working under the auspices of Emperor Vespasian. In the pages of his works we can read about New Testament people like the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, King Herod and John the Baptist. One of his passages refers to James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” [5] This confirms the New Testament facts that there was a man named Jesus, who was known as “Christ” and had a brother named James.

There is an overwhelming amount of information about Jesus that can be drawn from historians who were contemporary to him or lived soon after. This comes largely from Greek, Roman, Jewish and Samaritan sources of the first century. In brief they inform us that:
1. Jesus was from Nazareth;
2. he lived a wise and virtuous life;
3. he was crucified in Palestine under Pontius Pilate during the reign of
Tiberius Caesar at Passover time, being considered the Jewish king;
4. he was believed by his disciples to have been raised from the dead
three days later;
5. his enemies acknowledged that he performed unusual feats they
called “sorcery”;
6. his small band of disciples multiplied rapidly, spreading even as far as Rome;
7. his disciples denied polytheism, lived moral lives, and worshiped Christ as Divine. [6]

Still, if we want any further details about Jesus’ life and teachings, we must turn to the New Testament. Extra biblical sources confirm what we read in the gospels, but they don’t really tell us anything new. The question then must be: how historically reliable are the New Testament documents?
There is extensive evidence that the New Testament is a reliable record composed by contemporaries and eyewitnesses of the events. There are more manuscripts, earlier manuscripts, better copied manuscripts, and manuscripts written by more people who were closer to the events than for any other piece of ancient history. Archaeology is continually confirming details of their writing. For example, it was once thought that Luke, writer of the most historically detailed Gospel and Acts, had fabricated his narrative from the rambling of his imagination, because he ascribed odd titles to authorities and mentioned governors that no one knew. The evidence now points in exactly the opposite direction. To validate my point, I mention Gallio, Proconsul of Achaia. This designation in Acts 18:12-17 was thought to be impossible. But an inscription at Delphi notes this exact title for the man and dates him to the time at which Paul was in Corinth (A.D. 51). Repeatedly, through the book of Acts, Luke’s accuracy can be clearly demonstrated: from the sailings of the Alexandrian corn fleet to the coastal terrain of the Mediterranean islands to the peculiar titles of local officials, Luke is accurate. In full agreement, Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White says, “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd.” [7]

On the basis of the reasons I listed above, we are justified in accepting the historical reliability of what the gospels say about Jesus.

A Few Aspects of Jesus’ Life

Now by the very nature of the case, it is not possible to say a whole lot more beyond this to establish that certain accounts in the gospels are historically true. How could you prove, for example, the story of Jesus’ visiting Mary and Martha? You just have here a report given by a reliable author in a position to know and no reason to doubt the historicity of the narrative. There’s not much more to say.
Nevertheless, for many of the crucial events in the gospels, a great deal more can be said. What I’d like to do now is take a few of the significant aspects of Jesus’ life in the gospels and say a word about their historical credibility.

1. Jesus’ Radical Self-Concept as the Divine Son of God.
Many New Testament scholars today don’t believe that the historical Jesus ever claimed to be the Son of God, the Lord or even the Messiah. How then, do they account for the presence of such claims in the Gospel narratives? They believe the Gospel writers put them there!
Is this true that the actual Jesus of history never made such exalted claims for himself? Let me start with a simple question: How did the early church come to believe that Jesus is both Lord and Messiah? Jesus’ earliest followers were monotheistic Jews. They resolutely affirmed the belief that there is only one God. And yet, shortly after his crucifixion, they began to worship Jesus as God! In other words, if Jesus never made such lofty claims for himself, then why would his earliest followers do so? After all, on the surface such claims not only seem blasphemous, they also appear to go against the deeply held Jewish conviction that there is only one God. As Dr. William Lane Craig asks, “How does one explain this worship by monotheistic Jews of one of their countrymen as God incarnate, apart from the claims of Jesus himself?” [8]

But there’s another concern that needs to be deliberated. While several critical scholars reject the view that Jesus made such radical personal claims, nevertheless, they do believe that he spoke and behaved in ways that seem to imply that he had a very high view of himself. In other words, while they might deny that Jesus ever explicitly claimed to be Israel’s Messiah, or Lord, they acknowledge that he said and did things which, when analyzed, seem to imply that that’s precisely who he believed himself to be!

Jesus and the Twelve: Today, most critical scholars agree that Jesus probably chose a core group of twelve disciples just as the Gospels say he did. In fact, Dr. Bart Ehrman refers to this event as “one of the best-attested traditions of our surviving sources.” [9] Now that might seem like a rather insignificant detail. What can we know about Jesus’ self-understanding through this fact? Does his choice of twelve disciples give us any insight into what he believed about himself?
A little background information is helpful here. E. P. Sanders, in his highly acclaimed book, Jesus and Judaism, observes that “. . . in the first century Jewish hopes for the future would have included the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel.” [10] Now this hope was based on nothing less than God’s prophetic revelation in the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes the primary agent effecting this restoration is said to be the Lord (e.g. Isa. 11:11-12; Mic. 2:12). At other times it’s a Messianic figure who is clearly a human being (e.g. Isa. 49:5-6). Interestingly, however, still other passages describe this Messianic figure as having divine attributes, or as being closely associated with the Lord in some way (e.g. cp. Mic. 2:13 with Mic. 5:2-4). But why is this important? And what does it have to do with Jesus’ choice of twelve disciples?

Many New Testament scholars view Jesus’ choice of twelve disciples as symbolic of the promised restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel. The restoration of Israel is thus seen to be one of the goals or objectives of Jesus’ ministry. As Richard Horsley observes, “One of the principal indications that Jesus intended the restoration of Israel was his appointment of the Twelve.” [11] But if one of Jesus’ consciously chosen aims was the restoration of Israel, then what does this imply about who he believed himself to be? After all, the Old Testament prophets attribute this restoration either to the Lord or to a Messianic figure possessing both divine and human attributes.
Might Jesus have viewed himself in such exalted terms? Some scholars believe that he did. Dr. Ben Witherington poses an interesting question: “If the Twelve represent a renewed Israel, where does Jesus fit in?” He’s not one of the Twelve. “He’s not just part of Israel, not merely part of the redeemed group, he’s forming the group—just as God in the Old Testament formed his people and set up the twelve tribes of Israel.” [12] Witherington argues that this is an important clue in uncovering what Jesus thought of himself. If he’s right, then Jesus may indeed have thought of himself as Israel’s Messiah and Lord!

Jesus and the Law: What was Jesus’ attitude toward the Law of Moses? Some scholars say that Jesus was a law-abiding Jew who “broke neither with the written Law nor with the traditions of the Pharisees.” [13] Others say the issue is more complex. Ben Witherington observes that Jesus related to the Law in a variety of ways. [14] Sometimes he affirmed the validity of particular Mosaic commandments (e.g. Matt. 19:18-19). At other times he went beyond Moses and intensified some of the commandments. In the Sermon on the Mount he declared, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). We shouldn’t skip too lightly over a statement like this. The prohibition against adultery is one of the Ten Commandments. By wording the statement as he did, Jesus apparently “equated his own authority with that of the divinely given Torah.” [15] Indeed, it’s because of sayings like this that one Jewish writer complained: “Israel cannot accept . . . the utterances of a man who speaks in his own name—not ‘thus saith the Lord,’ but ‘I say unto you.’ This ‘I’ is . . . sufficient to drive Judaism away from the Gentiles forever.” [16]
But Jesus went further than this! In Mark 7 he declared all foods “clean” (vv. 14-19). That is, he set aside the dietary laws found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. To really grasp the radical nature of Jesus’ declaration one must only remember that these dietary laws had been given to Israel by God Himself! But what sort of person believes he has the authority to set aside the commandments of God? Ben Witherington notes, “Jesus seems to assume an authority over Torah that no Pharisee or Old Testament prophet assumed—the authority to set it aside.” [17] And Jacob Neusner, a Jewish scholar, seems to agree: “Jews believe in the Torah of Moses . . . and that belief requires faithful Jews to enter a dissent at the teachings of Jesus, on the grounds that those teachings at important points contradict the Torah.” [18]
How does this relate to the self-understanding of Jesus? Think about it this way. What would Jesus have to believe about himself to seriously think he had the authority to set aside God’s commandments? Although it may trouble some critical scholars, the evidence seems to favor the view that Jesus believed that in some sense he possessed the authority of God Himself!

2. Jesus’ Miracles.
Critical historians once believed that the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Bible were thoroughly the outcome of legendary embellishment. But, most New Testament historians today believe otherwise. Marcus Borg, a prominent member of the Jesus Seminar, has stated, “Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.” [19] Commenting on Jesus’ ability to heal the blind, deaf, and others, A. M. Hunter writes, “For these miracles the historical evidence is excellent.” [20]

In view of the evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels, few scholars today would attempt to describe these events as purely the result of legend or myth. In fact, most New Testament scholars now believe that Jesus did in fact perform healings and exorcisms.

3. Jesus’ Crucifixion.
The gospels bear witness to the fact that Jesus was condemned by the Jewish high court on the charge of blasphemy and then handed over to the Romans for execution for the treasonous act of setting himself up as King of the Jews. Not only are these facts confirmed by independent biblical sources like Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, but they are also corroborated by extra-biblical sources. From Josephus and Tacitus, we learn that Jesus was crucified by Roman authority under the sentence of Pontius Pilate. From Josephus and Mara bar Serapion we learn that the Jewish leaders made a formal accusation against Jesus and participated in events leading up to his crucifixion. The crucifixion of Jesus is recognized even by the Jesus Seminar as “one indisputable fact.” [21]

4. Jesus’ Resurrection.
Let me present to you four established facts which constitute inductive evidence for the resurrection of Jesus:

Fact #1: Details of Jesus’ burial: After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in his own tomb. This fact is highly significant because it means that the location of Jesus’ tomb was known to Jew and Christian alike. In that case it becomes inexplicable how belief in his resurrection could arise and flourish if the tomb still contained his corpse. According to the late John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge University, the honorable burial of Jesus is one of “the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus.” [22]

Fact #2: Discovery of the Empty Tomb: On the Sunday morning following the crucifixion, the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers. According to Jakob Kremer, an Austrian specialist on the resurrection, “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.” [23] As D. H. van Daalen points out, “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.” [24]

Fact #3: Direct Encounters with Risen Jesus: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. This is a fact that is almost universally acknowledged among New Testament scholars today. Even Gert Lüdemann, perhaps the most prominent current critic of the resurrection, admits, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” [25]

Fact #4: Dawning of the Church: The original disciples believed that Jesus was raised from the dead despite their having every reason not to. Despite having every predisposition to the contrary, it is an undeniable fact of history that the original disciples believed in, proclaimed, and were willing to go to their deaths for the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. C. F. D. Moule of Cambridge University concludes that we have here a belief which nothing in terms of prior historical influences can account for – apart from the resurrection itself. [26]

Any responsible historian, then, who seeks to give an account of the matter, must deal with these four independently established facts. I want to emphasize that these four facts represent, not the conclusions of conservative scholars, but represent rather the majority view of New Testament scholarship today. The question is: how do you best explain these facts? We can decisively argue that ‘God raised Jesus from the dead’ is the best explanation for all the above mentioned facts. [27] The evidence is so powerful that a leading Jewish theologian Pinchas Lapide had declared himself convinced on the basis of the evidence that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead! [28] [29]

In summary, details of several aspects of the life of Jesus mentioned in the historically reliable gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are corroborated by extra-biblical sources. The radical claims, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus, then, are irrefutable facts of history. The apostle John put it succinctly: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”. [30] I want to urge you to read these trustworthy gospels which are the fundamental sources for capturing the historical Jesus!


1. T. Paine, Examination, 234.

2. B. Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, 16.

3. Tacitas, Annals, 15.44.

4. Pliny, Letters, 10:96.

5. Josephus, Antiquities, 20:9.

6. Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 385.

7. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 189.

8. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 242-43.

9. Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, 186.

10. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 98.

11. Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine, 199.

12. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, 134.

13. Donald A. Hagner, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus: An Analysis and Critique of Modern Jewish Study of Jesus, 109-10. This quotation does not represent Hagner’s own position.

14. Ben Witherington, The Christology of Jesus, 65.

15. Craig, 246.

16. Ahad ha’ Am, “Judaism and the Gospels,” in Nationalism and the Jewish Ethic, ed. H. Khon, 298, cited in Hagner, 101-02.

17. Witherington, 65.

18. Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, xii, cited in Craig, 247.

19. Marcus J. Borg, Jesus, A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and The Life of Discipleship, 61.

20. A. M. Hunter, Jesus: Lord and Saviour, 63.

21. Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar videotape.

22. John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God, 131.

23. Jakob Kremer, cited by William Lane Craig in one of his papers.

24. D. H. Van Daalen, The Real Resurrection, 41.

25. Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden, 80.

26. C. F. D. Moule and Don Cupitt, “The Resurrection: a Disagreement,” Theology 75 (1972): 507-19.

27. Ideas taken from several writings of William Lane Craig.

28. Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. Wilhelm C. Linss.

29. Ideas taken from several writings of Norman Geisler and Michael Gleghorn.

30. John 1:14, NIV.

Contact me directly at jesusandrevanth@gmail.com


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