Is Jesus a real historical figure?
Clarifying the question
Jesus is supposed to have been a Palestinian Jew in the 1st century (roughly 4 BC to AD 30), the personage around whom the Christian church was formed. Regardless of whether he actually performed miracles or whether he actually claimed to be the Son of God, did such a person at least walk the earth as a real historical figure?
Historians unanimously say “YES”
While historians and scholars abound who doubt Jesus performed miracles, literally over 99.9% of them (and 100% of relevantly credentialed professors) believe he existed. See examples of experts commenting on the status in their own field:
- Paul Maier (Ancient history professor at Western Michigan): “Open nearly any text in ancient history of Western civilization used widely in colleges and universities today, and you will find a generally sympathetic, if compressed, version of Jesus' life, which ends with some variation of the statement that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate and died as a result. No ranking historian anywhere in the world shares the ultimate criticism voiced by German philosopher Bruno Bauer in the last century, that Jesus was a myth, that he never lived in fact.” [“Christianity Today”, XIX (1975): 63.]
- Bart Ehrman (Outspoken critic of Christianity, NT & religion professor at UNC): “He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees” [Forged: Writing in the Name of God (HarperOne, 2011), 256.]
- Mark Allen Powell (NT professor at Trinity Lutheran, a founding editor of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus): “A hundred and fifty years ago a fairly well respected scholar named Bruno Bauer maintained that the historical Jesus never existed. Anyone who says that today – in the academic world at least – gets grouped with the skinheads who say there was no Holocaust and the scientific holdouts who want to believe the world is flat.” [Jesus as a Figure in History (Westminster, 1998), 168.]
- Michael Grant (Atheist professor at Edinburgh, Classicist): “To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has 'again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars'. In recent years, 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus' or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.” [Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels (Simon & Schuster, 1992.] (Approvingly citing Otto Betz)
- Craig Evans (NT professor at Asbury; Founder of Dead Sea Scrolls Inst.): “No serious historian of any religious or nonreligious stripe doubts that Jesus of Nazareth really lived in the first century and was executed under the authority of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea and Samaria. Though this may be common knowledge among scholars, the public may well not be aware of this.” [Jesus, The Final Days eds. Evans & Wright (Westminster, 2009), 3.]
- Robert Van Voorst (NT professor at Western Theological): “The nonhistoricity [of Jesus] thesis has always been controversial… Biblical scholars and classical historians now regard it as effectively refuted.” [Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 16.]
- Richard Burridge (Biblical exegesis professor at King's College, Classicist): “There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more.” [Jesus, Now and Then (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 34.]
AD 30-175 sources report on Jesus
Between AD 30 and AD 175, many Christian and non-Christian sources/writers testify to Jesus's existence.
See this page to analyze these 20 proposed examples:
- In [AD 33] The 1 Corinthians 15 creedal formula we hear of Jesus as an historical figure, including “that Christ died… and that He was buried.”
- In [AD 45] Paul's letters to churches at Corinth, Galatia, etc. were speaking of an historical Jesus (e.g. “born of a woman, born under the Law,” “born of a descendant of David,” he had a “brother”, “[Jewish leaders] both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets,” and “that Christ died… and that He was buried” etc.)
- In [AD 55] Thallus's 3rd volume of his history book speaks of Jesus's crucifixion, and consequences in “many places in Judea and other districts”
- In [AD 70] The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke spoke of Jesus as a historical figure, “just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses”
- In [AD 70] Acts of the Apostles we also hear often of "Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified,"
- [AD 80] The Gospel of John we hear often of this historical "Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph"
- [AD 93] Josephus's Jewish Antiquities 18 speaks of this Jesus who "won over many Jews and many of the Greeks"... "Pilate... condemned him to be crucified"
- [AD 93] Josephus's Jewish Antiquities 20 we hear of how "the Sanhedrin [was convened] and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ," (note James is well-known as Jesus's biological brother often in Paul's letters; Paul knew James personally).
- [AD 95] 1 Clement's letter speaks of Jesus, e.g. "remembering the words of the Lord Jesus" who came from "the line of Judah."
- [AD 100] The Didache speaks of Jesus, from "the holy vine of... David" (i.e. a descendent).
- [AD 100] Mara-Bar Sarapion's letter to his son likely refers to Jesus in a line of references to historical figures like Socrates, saying the Jews gained nothing from "executing their wise king".
- [AD 105] Papias's report speaks of hearing what living disciple-witnesses of Jesus were still teaching ("the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying")
- [AD 107] Ignatius's Epistle to the Smyrnæans also speaks of "the seed of David according to the flesh," "baptized by John," and "under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross]"
- [AD 110] Polycarp's letter to the Philippians speaks of Jesus as a historical figure, e.g. how he was killed "upon the tree" (a Jewish prophetic reference to the cross).
- [AD 111] Pliny the Younger's letter to Trajan speaks of Jesus as a historical figure, and even how Christians sang "a hymn to Christ as to a god" (while himself believing Jesus was merely a recently executed man.)
- [AD 115] Tacitus's Annals speaks of "Christus, from whom the name ["Christians"] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus"
- [AD 120] Seutonius's Life of Emperor Claudius also mentions "Chrestus" and his followers ("[Claudius] expelled them from Rome," which is true of Christians).
- [AD 150] Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho records that the historical Jesus was "crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judæa, in the times of Tiberius Cæsar."
- [AD 165] Lucian's book, The Death of Peregrinus speaks of Christians quite a bit, and how Jesus "was crucified", calling him a historical "crucified sage."
- [AD 175] Irenaeus's book, Against Heresies too refers to Jesus as a historical figure, "being of flesh and blood.... [and was less than] fifty years old;"
This is relevant because Jesus died in AD 30 (or AD 33) and these reports represent a true diversity of independent attestations supporting his existence. These sources reporting on Jesus by and large were in a position to know the truth of the matter, and so have a justified belief. At the same time, there are no existing reports suggesting that people believed in a Jesus myth--not even one.
The Gospels stories are based in witness testimony
Among the four Gospels are many stories of Jesus's sayings and deeds, culminating in his death by Roman crucifixion. As it happens, we can know that the Gospel stories are largely or entirely rooted in witness testimony.
This page analyzes 7 arguments in depth:
- New Testament name-ratios precisely match Palestine's. So for example, onomastic studies have catelogued over 3,000 names from tomb inscriptions etc, and we can tell a lot. We know AD 30's most common Palestinian names are also the most common names in the Gospels, despite not being common at all outside of Palestine in that time. Among the many examples, consider that 41.5% of men had one of the 9 most popular male names in that time and place, which almost exactly matches the ratio in the Gospels and Acts (40.3%). Likewise AD 30 Palestine's rarer names are equally rare in the Gospels. And finally, AD 30 Palestine's Greek names are equally frequent in the Gospels. The coorespondence is stunning and precisely what we would expect from stories grounded in eyewitness testimony. It would be almost impossible to fake this accuracy by chance even for a resident living in AD 30 Palestine, and essentially impossible outside of ~AD 30 Palestine.
- Gospel authors got it all witness-approved or close. (E.g. they self-claimed to be witness-based, they were called "memoirs", the true details about Jesus's life and teaching were fresh and overwhelming for any lay inquirer at that time, the Gospel authors were demonstrably honest, we can show several parts and details were witness-based, and the Gospels were arguably written only when the active story-recounting witnesses started dying.) And if the content was witness-approved, then it's trivially a subset of witness testimony.
- Gospels spew witness-based stories. Some reasons to agree include the fact that we can confirm an astonishing amount of undisputed accuracies in these stories, we can observe them spewing truly vivid realism (30+ instances) which are more expected coming from witness testimony, they also exhibit complex internal coherences and interlocking details. Moreover, the stories are often provably early, we can show that Christians were truly inundated in honest witness-based Jesus accounts (rather than fictions), and finally all the additional reasons in this section help establish that the Gospels spew witness-based stories. But of course, if the Gospels have so much witness-based content, then absent reason to think otherwise we have reason to think they simply are largely or entirely witness-based stories as a whole. Whatever the details, the active Gospel-formation mechanisms were obviously successful at relaying witness testimony in the final product.
- Gospel stories are not lies/legends. (E.g. We see them abounding in Palestinian content, and details which we can confirm are non-legendary for a range of reasons, we can see how the Gospels lack anachronisms and anatopisms which we would otherwise expect from legends, and we have strong reasons for thinking that early Christians in general were stringently honest about Jesus biography.) But if the Gospel stories are not lies or legends, then the only serious option remaining is that they stem from witness testimony.
- Gospel stories are a subset of 1st church’s. (E.g. We can show that the early stories about Jesus were propogated and regulated by the Jerusalem church [i.e. the "1st church"] where the main witnesses were headquartered, and that the Gospel content pre-dates the Gospels and is truly multiply attested. We can know Christians in general lionized the witnesses and celebrated and recounted their stories of Jesus from the get-go, that the Gospel authors could've and would've wanted to align their contents with the 1st church's stories, and that the Gospels did in fact strive to be witness-based while all the main witnesses attended the 1st church). But the 1st church's stories were based in the treasured witness testimony of its members, so if the Gospel content is a subset of that it means the Gospels were witness-based as well.
- The Gospels are historically reliable (E.g. in addition to the more general evidence that the content is witness-based, we know that the Gospels are extremely information rich and yet repeatedly avert countless opportunities to record inaccuracies we would otherwise anticipate on the hypothesis that the Gospels are unreliable. This cries out for an explanation, and the only satisfying one cites the general reliability of the Gospels). But if the Gospels are generally historically reliable, then the best explantaion is that their contents are truly are grounded in witness testimony.
- Popular Jesus-bio was a subset of what witnesses said. Some reason to agree are that, in general, witness-based truth would and has always smothered attempts at legend, for 50+ years after the initial events. In particular, we can show Jesus-bio thrived in the AD 30-70 Mediterranean and that false Jesus-bio failed to thrive. This is relevant because the Gospels demonstrably depended on sources for virtually all of their content, so the sources all (or virtually all) being witness-based bodes well for the prospects of the gospel content in turn being witness-based.
The Gospels being rooted in witness testimony counts in favor of Jesus's historicity because these stories are precisely about a historical Jesus and his dealings. That these reports would exist is not at all surprising if Jesus did exist, but they are quite difficult or frankly impossible to explain if there were no historical Jesus.
The Jesus stories spew unchurchy content
The stories we find in the Gospels are often very “dissimilar” to church in AD 31-90. Their behavior and language which was quite discontinuous with post-Jesus attitudes. (This includes post-Easter beliefs, expectations, styles, background, understanding, and preferred vocabulary).
See this page to explore 3 arguments:
- Gospel stories spew church-hated content. For example, they spew content about Jesus that is quite embarrassing to themselves. These range from things like his being baptized by John the Baptist, to his being disbelieved by his family (which was very shameful), up to his own apostles abandoning him in the end. See inside for 10+ examples.
- Speakers in Gospels think-talk as pre-Christians. The idea here is that the Gospel characters sound nothing like post-Easter Christians. For example, we never see Jesus or individuals in the Gospels speaking of believers "receiving" Jesus, which was par for the course in post-Easter Christianity. And if the Gospels were legends, we would see that language here. Explore inside to learn about several additional examples.
- Gospel Jesus-sayings repeat consistent quirks. This is the inverse of the point just above. For example, across our sources Jesus habitually prefaces his comments with "amen." Similarly, across our sources Jesus habitually identifies himself as the "Son of Man." These are quirks that are unique to the reported Jesus, however, and the church had no corresponding tendency to apply these to Jesus.
Of course, this is significant insofar as these stories essentially presuppose an historical Jesus, and insofar as Christians are supposed to be the group of persons who invented him. The idea is that if this Jesus in the Gospels is radically different than they are (and in curiously consistent ways across sources!), then the hypothesis that they invented him becomes unmanageable.
Justifiable facts about Jesus entail his existence
In addition to reports explicitly on his existence, there are several justifiable facts about the historical Jesus which entail that he is a real historical figure.1
Consider one example (among many):
- We know that Jesus was crucified. Among our evidences for this (e.g. a panoply of independent attestations from people who would know) is the fact that it is not the sort of thing Christians would invent; it was the highest humiliation and Jews in particular regarded it as a sure sign that God has cursed someone. Paul confirms the stigma associated with it when he dismissively says, “I am not ashamed” (Rom 1:16) and when in 1 Cor 1:23 he says “Christ crucified, [is] to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness.”
This helps establish Jesus's historicity because if we know things about a historical Jesus, then there must be a historical Jesus.
- • Mark Allen Powell (NT professor at Trinity Lutheran, a founding editor of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus): “Jesus did more than just exist. He said and did a great many things that most historians are reasonably certain we can know about today.” [Jesus as a Figure in History (Westminster, 1998), 168.]
Miracle-workers are not real historical figures
Superanatural events like miracles, or divine signs from God, simply do not happen. They are always fictions.
The fact that miracle-workers can't be historical figures comes in to play because if Jesus existed, he was unquestionably a miracle-worker. Insoar as this is an unacceptable idea, it is better to say he did not exist at all.
But, by way of response
- God does exist, and miracles can occur in history if God exists. Moreover, while miracles may be rare, it need not even be particularly improbable that God performed a given miracle provided there are good reasons for thinking God might choose to uniquely perform the miracle(s) in the special case, as He arguably did in special religio-historical context Jesus was operating in). And relatedly, there is nothing illegitimate about citing God's causal activity as long as one does not do so in an ad hoc (i.e., contrived) manner.
And so what if miracle workers can't be real historical figures?
- Rather than denying that Jesus existed, it is easier to just say that Jesus was historical but did not actually perform miracles. Perhaps the miracles are legends. That is more rational than denying his existence altogether. (The same goes for Alexander the Great, Muhammad, and other historical figures who had miracles attributed to them.)
1st century historians are silent on Jesus
There are various historians or general writers in the 1st century (or soonafter) which speak on this or that issues relevant to their time. And yet as we survey this particular list of writers, they make no mention of Jesus. That is to say, even if some historians do speak of Jesus, there are many writers of the time who do not.
In response, however:
- We would not expect Jesus to be mentioned in all sources. (In fact, modern historians say we are lucking in seeing how much Jesus is mentioned, given his lowly status)1
- • Craig Blomberg: “When we realize that ancient historians focused almost entirely on the exploits of political and military leaders or officially recognized religious and philosophical spokespersons, one should not be surprised that Jesus gets so little attention in ancient historiography. Indeed, one might be surprised that he and the Baptist get as much press as they do. For example, Apollonius of Tyana (in what today is central Turkey) was a late first-century teacher and wonder-worker with several striking parallels in his message and deeds to the life of Jesus. Yet we know about his life almost exclusively from the third-century Greek biographer Philostratus. The passing reference made to him in Dio Cassius' Roman History (68:17) is briefer than Josephus' accounts of Jesus.9 2” [Jesus Under Fire, eds. Wilkins & Moreland (Zondervan, 1996), 40.]
Jesus matches prior mythic deities
Details about Jesus match the details of prior mythic deities or mythical figures.
A forthcoming page will analyze several alleged examples, including:
- Jesus seems like a Horus copy. Some reasons to agree are that they share several epithets (e.g., being called Christ, Lamb of God), that Horus was considered a deity, born of a virgin on December 25, had 12 disciples, and was likewise resurrected.
This counts against Jesus's being a real historical figure because to the degree that Jesus resembles pre-existing mythical deities, we have reason to suspect Jesus is in fact just a copy of these deities (and therefore himself mythical).