Was Jesus a Historical Person or a Mythical Character?

The following information is sourced from Prof. Bart Ehrman’s textbook, “The New Testament” which is widely used in seminaries across the United States.  It is a wonderful text, and I highly recommend it.  

Historians have devised a number of methods of determining the reliability of historical events.  We must begin by recognizing that the past is always uncertain.  We can never say there is a 100% probability any historical person ever lived, but historians do strive to establish the probability of historical events and persons.

Did Jesus really exists?  Alexander the Great?  Julius Caesar?  How do we determine our sources and the reliability of these sources?  Ehrman offers the following “wish list” of criteria for the ideal situation in establishing the credibility of historical accounts:

  • Numerous accounts.
  • Dated near to the event.
  • Independent accounts.
  • Confirming one another.
  • Internally consistent.
  • Demonstrate a basic concern for accuracy.
  • Unbiased accounts.

Ehrman restricts his sources to those which are within 100-years of Jesus’ death (up to 130 ce), and he breaks them into Non-Christian and Christian sources.

 

Pagan Sources

How many times is Jesus mentioned in 1st century pagan sources (non-Jewish and non-Christian)?  Zero.  Jesus is not mentioned a single time in these early pagan sources.

The first known reference to Jesus in pagan sources occurs in a letter written in 112 ce.  This is some 80-years after the death of Jesus.  In this letter the Roman governor Pliny the Younger asks emperor Trajan in what manner he should go about persecuting the Christians in his province.  All this letter says specifically about Jesus, is that his follower’s worship him as a god.

The second account is uncertain.  A Roman historian, Suetonius, mentions that riots took place sometime during 41-54 ce, and that they were the result of a person named as “Chrestus.”  It is uncertain if this is a reference to Christ (or more specifically, to his follower’s, as Jesus had been dead for about 20 years at this time).

In 115 ce the Roman historian Tacitus writes of the Christians in his history of Rome (“Annals”).  In this text he states that emperor Nero blamed the Christians for starting the famous fire of Rome.  This account offers the first pagan information regarding Jesus:

  • “Christus, from whom their [the Christians’] name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.”

Tacitius also states this “superstition” (meaning Christianity) began in Judea.  This account is known not to be 100% accurate, as Pilate was actually a prefect not a procurator.  But it does confirm other accounts in so far as a man named Jesus was executed by the Roman governor of Judea, that this governor was Pontius Pilate, and that this took place during the reign of Tiberius.

This is the extent of pagan references to Jesus in the 100-years following his execution.

 

Jewish Sources

The Jewish historian, Josephus, made two very brief references to Jesus in his “The Antiquities of the Jews.”  While relating a story about the high priest Ananus, Josephus states that in the year 62 ce Ananus unlawfully had James executed, saying, “[James is] the brother of Jesus who is called the messiah” (Antiquities 20.9.1).

The other reference Josephus makes concerning Jesus is longer, but more confusing, because in it he states that Jesus was the messiah, and that Jesus was raised from the dead.  This is peculiar because Josephus is understood to have remained a Jew, never converting to Christianity.  Therefore it is extremely doubtful he would have described Jesus as the messiah.  Note the phrasing in the previous citation:  Jesus is *called* the messiah, which is very different than declaring Jesus *was* the messiah.  And Josephus, as a Jew, certainly would not have affirmed that Jesus rose from the dead.

Historians believe the Christian scribes who later copied Josephus’ work “Christianized” the text.  A number of scholars have attempted to work out what the original text may have been.  Ehrman quotes Meier’s de-Christianized version of Josephus’ text, Antiquities 18.3.3, as follows:

  • At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man.  For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure.  And he gained a following both among the the Jews and among many of Greek origin.  And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so.  And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.

There are later Jewish references to Jesus in the Talmud, but these two brief accounts are the only two -both by Josephus- in the first hundred years following Jesus’ execution.

 

Christian Sources – Outside the New Testament Gospels

Ehrman does not consider the Gospel of Thomas to include early sayings of Jesus.  Nor does Ehrman consider any of the other non-canonical gospels to be early enough to be considered for his purposes, because most date from the 2nd century ce or later.  Many of these non-canonical gospels have internal difficulties (with the exception of the Gospel of Thomas, which is only a collection of secret sayings attributed to Jesus).  So in most cases, these would not provide reliable source material in any event.

I personally suspect that a significant number of the purported sayings of Jesus found in the Gospel of Thomas really are sayings of Jesus.  The late Prof. Ron Miller thought perhaps one-third of these sayings may have been said by Jesus.  However, it is Ehrman’s work I am citing in this article, so I am only going to consider those sources Ehrman cites.  Taking this conservative stance means we have zero Christian non-canonical sources from within 100-years of Jesus’ execution.

Christian sources found within the canon, other than the four gospels, are few.  The best information is related by Paul.  Paul never met Jesus,  but it is thought he did meet some of Jesus’ disciples.  While Paul is our best source, and while he speaks a great deal about what Jesus’ ministry meant to him, he says very little about Jesus himself.  Paul’s primary concerns relating to Jesus are of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and anticipated return.

The following is a brief summary of what Paul tells us about Jesus’ life and ministry:

  • Jesus was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4)
  • Born as a Jew (Gal. 4:4)
  • Had brothers (1 Cor. 9:5)
  • One brother was named James (Gal. 1:19)
  • His ministry was directed to other Jews (Rom. 15:7)
  • He had 12 disciples (1 Cor. 15:5)
  • He instituted the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-25)
  • [1] Possibly, that he was betrayed (1 Cor 11:23)
  • He was crucified (1 Cor. 2:2)

 

  • Note [1]:  Ehrman says “possibly” because there is some uncertainty in the meaning of the word being translated.  It may mean “betrayed” or it may mean “handed over.”

 

Paul relates even less about the actual teachings of Jesus:

  • The Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-25)
  • [2] Believers should not get divorced (1 Cor. 7:10-11)
  • Preachers should be paid (1 Cor. 9:14)

 

  • Note [2]:  It may be worth noting that the late Prof. Ron Miller observed he thought this was very likely to have been more a reflection of Jesus’ understanding of the terrible hardships divorced women faced in the 1st century ce, and less a reflection that divorced itself is morally wrong.

 

Christian Gospel Sources

I am not going to discuss the material available in the four gospels.  Access to the Christian New Testament is widely available.  However, interested persons may wish to supplement this by investigating historical-critical reviews of the four gospels.  There is a great deal of depth which may be mined in these accounts.

 

Conclusion

While to our modern sensibilities, there does not seem to be a great deal of surviving texts which discuss Jesus, there are sufficient references which are independent of one another, both of parties biased for and against the early Jesus Movement, that nearly all modern historians find the evidence conclusive, in stating that there was a real historical person named Jesus.

Historians have no access to the Divine realm, so we cannot make any assertions as to whether or not Jesus was Divine.  Such claims are beyond the work of historians.  But we are able to take up our study of Christianity with the knowledge that Jesus was as historical a person as Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar.

Erik+

 

AddendumOne of my bishops, +James, suggested the following observations might inform this discussion (to which I heartedly agree):

Quoting +James:  E. P. Sanders is one of the most respected living NT scholars.  These are the “almost indisputable facts” about “Jesus’ career and its aftermath” as listed by Prof. Sanders.  Jesus and Judaism, p. 11:

  1.  Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist
  2.  Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  3.  Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  4.  Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  5.  Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  6.  Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  7. After his death Jesus’ followers continued as an identifiable movement.
  8.  At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement…and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul’s career….

Thank you, for the above bishop James.

 

INRI

Another point I might as well add, is that the sign hung over Jesus’ head, is thought by a number of scholars I have come across in my studies, to be another of the very probable events in Jesus’ life that took place.  The Gospel of John (19:19-20) explains the inscription as follows:

  •     Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross.  It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.

INRI comes to us through the Latin:  “Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Iudaeorvm

 

Erik+

 

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