Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Will the Real Historical Jesus Please Stand Up? The Gospels as Sources for Historical Information about Jesus

Why would scholars assume that the disciples of Jesus were less reliable transmitters of his teaching than other disciples were for their teachers? If Jesus' disciples respected him as more than a teacher, rather than less than a teacher, this respect would surely not justify deliberately misrepresenting his teaching. The disciples' collective memory could correct individual recollections during retellings of Jesus' story.

Will the Real Historical Jesus Please Stand Up

Essay based on Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

By Craig Keener
Professor of New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary,
Eastern University
February, 2010

Scholars reconstruct the historical Jesus in various ways. Often they do so based on which sources about Jesus they privilege and how much they accept as reliable in these sources. Some scholars accept very little in the Gospels as reliable, hence sometimes offer reconstructions from the silence that remains - arguments from silence. Because of their minimal trust in the Gospels, others feel free to play some elements of the gospel tradition off against others - though usually these elements are not intrinsically contradictory.

Neither of these approaches suit the way that we would read comparable documents not associated with a world religion. That is, if these sources involved a first-century emperor or philosopher, we would likely read them less skeptically. We would not bend over so far backward to apologize for our sources and to provide a minimalist reading; we would simply use the best available information to offer the likeliest reconstruction possible. Most of what follows parallels an argument detailed more extensively in chapters 5-10 of my recent Historical Jesus of the Gospels.1

The Gospels as Biography

Readers through most of history approached the Gospels as “lives” (bioi) of Jesus. The Gospel authors’ contemporaries were familiar with this genre, which is attested both before and after their time. Nevertheless, these ancient biographies differed in many respects from modern biographies. Often ancient biographers arranged these works topically rather than chronologically, and they focused on the most relevant elements of the person’s life (such as their public career, teaching, or martyrdom) rather than trying to summarize the life as a whole. For this reason, much of twentieth-century scholarship rejected the “biographic” classification for the Gospels. In recent decades, as scholars have examined the best ancient analogies for the Gospels, it has become increasingly clear that the Gospels were designed as biographies—though as ancient rather than modern ones.2

But what was an ancient biography? Scholars have sometimes lumped together a variety of works in this category, some of them clearly different from the mainstream form of biography attested in most biographers of the period.3 Some scholars have placed some novels in this category, but these works show little interest in historical information or sources.

Given the clear dependence on sources in Matthew and Luke, the Gospels seem to belong to the mainstream of the genre that worked on the basis of information. (Since they readily depend on Mark, it is clear that Mark’s first interpreters, writing less than a generation after him, construed Mark as biography as well; and given the relative chronology, these interpreters were undoubtedly better informed than we are.)

Ancient biographies were, as classicists note, primarily historical works. Biographers typically wrote at a more popular level than writers of multivolume histories, but they did seek to convey information. Like novelists, biographers could seek to entertain, but in contrast to novels, they also sought to inform, using prior material available to them. Biographers, like historians, had agendas: they explicitly sought to offer moral lessons, and often betrayed particular political or even theological perspectives. But such lessons characterized biographies far more than novels and were offered on the basis of received accounts about a person, not pure imagination.

These observations do not mean that biographies always got their information correct. Nevertheless, we can often distinguish which biographies tend to be most accurate. Biographers and historians writing about recent figures tended to be right far more often than those writing about ancient ones. Those writing about figures who lived centuries earlier had to depend on sources that typically included many legendary developments, elements rarer in works about events less than a century old. (Ancient historians themselves acknowledged these differences.) We also can sometimes test biographers against other extant sources, to observe which writers stayed closest to their sources.

Such considerations about ancient biography are quite relevant for how we approach the Gospels. The Gospels address events easily within two generations of their composition; their sources date to within a generation of the events. When we compare them with one another, it is clear that Matthew and Luke (whom we can best test) use their sources very carefully by ancient standards (as a synopsis of the Gospels will reveal). (As E. P. Sanders and others observe, if the writers were inventing stories freely, we would not have “Synoptic” Gospels—i.e., Gospels overlapping greatly in their material.) This does not mean that these writers concerned themselves about telling every detail in exactly the way that they received it—most ancient audiences expected writers to exercise more freedom than that—but that, by the standards we apply to their contemporaries, the Gospels are remarkably useful sources.

Our Earliest Writings about Jesus

Most early sources we have about Jesus outside the Gospels (for example, a few lines in Josephus) offer only snippets about Jesus. Meanwhile, the authenticity of later sources is usually questionable. There is no consensus on the date of some Gnostic gospels, but most scholars date the earliest of these works (which are more sayings collections than “lives” of Jesus) to roughly seventy years after the Gospel of Mark. Most other “gospels” (usually novels or sayings collections) are generations or centuries later.

Our earliest substantive informants are the Gospels and their sources. These include Mark, completed perhaps a generation after Jesus’ ministry (usually considered somewhere around 70 CE) and “Q,” scholars’ nickname for a common source that most (though not all) scholars believe stands behind shared material in Matthew and Luke.4 The vast majority of scholars argue that these sources stem from within a generation of Jesus.

Classicists only rarely have access to biographies written within a generation of their subjects. Although some of the best ancient historians include eyewitness accounts, much of our history of the early empire depends on second-century historians summarizing the previous 150 years of history. Gospel materials written within four decades of Jesus’ execution therefore provide a remarkably special opportunity for early insight into Jesus’ ministry. Gospels scholars should apologize less for their sources and mine them more confidently.

As W. D. Davies pointed out a generation ago, probably only a single lifespan “separates Jesus from the last New Testament document,” and the material is “not strictly a folk tradition, derived from long stretches of time, but a tradition preserved by believing communities who were guided by responsible leaders, many of whom were eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus.”5

Luke’s Historical Preface

While the Gospels taken on their own terms constitute biographies, one of them—the Gospel of Luke—also doubles as the first volume of Luke’s two-volume historical project, Luke-Acts.6 Luke’s preface (Luke 1:1-4) reveals his historical subject (“matters fulfilled among us”) and is a fitting historical preface unsuitable for novels.

In this preface, we learn that by the time Luke writes, many had already written about Jesus (Lk 1:1). Scholars usually date Luke’s writing between 70-90. (Scholars who date Luke later generally concede that they constitute a minority, fewer than either the majority view or the number of scholars dating the work in the 60s.) While we sadly lack most of these sources today, they were apparently available to the writers who composed our extant first-century Gospels.

We also learn that much of the information in these written sources was previously handed down from eyewitnesses (Lk 1:2). I will discuss further below the degree of reliability one might expect in such oral transmission, but here it suffices to point out that eyewitnesses remained in a position of leadership in the Jerusalem church. Not too many years before Mark wrote his Gospel, Jesus’ key disciples and own brother led the Jerusalem church and retained the respect of churches even far from Jerusalem (1 Cor 9:5; Gal 2:9). No less than today, people in antiquity recognized that eyewitnesses were the best sources for information.7 If the eyewitnesses were basically reliable, sources being written during the period of their leadership or a few years afterward would likely remain fairly reliable as well.

In Luke 1:3, Luke claims “thorough knowledge” of the matters about which he is writing, matters that he has already attributed to eyewitnesses. How might Luke have obtained such intimate acquaintance with these matters? Lukan scholars divide as to whether the author of Acts actually traveled with Paul, but many of us argue that this is the best explanation for Luke’s “we” material. A fictitious “we” makes little sense of the claim’s rare appearance, often in comparatively minor scenes in particular locations. Luke does not preserve first-person pronouns from other sources in his narrative. Moreover, the use of “we” almost always included the author in the action in other historical narratives (as noted by classicist Arthur Darby Nock and others).8 In fact, no one treats “we” claims so suspiciously in other histories; why should we treat them differently in a work just because Christians later made it part of their Bible?9 If, as I and many others argue, the author of Luke-Acts did travel with Paul, then Luke spent up to two years in Judea—plenty of time to consult with early sources (Acts 21:17; 24:27; 27:1).

Finally, we learn that Luke’s purpose was to confirm what his audience (or at least his elite dedicatee Theophilus) had already heard in that early period (Lk 1:4). Luke could hardly appeal to Theophilus’ prior knowledge of his basic story if Luke were inventing it.

Even Less than a Generation

On what sources did Mark and “Q” depend? As we have noted, written sources proliferated by the time of Luke, probably within two decades of Mark’s composition. But Luke also draws attention to oral sources, which emerge much earlier than Mark. Although we lack firsthand access to these oral sources today, there is no reason to doubt Luke’s claim that he had access to them.

Examining the character of oral memory and tradition in Mediterranean antiquity offers us analogies for how accurately material could have been transmitted during the first generation or two. Again, by “accuracy” I do not mean verbatim recall—oral tradition allows variation in wording, and in fact even ancient school exercises required students to be able to paraphrase sayings as well as memorize them. But would the substance of information usually be preserved?

Events four decades before Mark are no likelier to be shrouded in amnesia than four-decade-old events reported by persons we know today. Indeed, an emphasis on rigorous memorization pervaded antiquity, inconceivable as that seems today (with our instant access to information). Extraordinary feats of memory appear in antiquity, and some of Jesus’ disciples might have performed such feats. We need not appeal to the extraordinary examples, however, because basic memory skills were widespread. Memorization characterized oratory (often speeches over an hour long), storytelling, and, most relevantly, both elementary and advanced education.

Memory was important in all forms of advanced education: philosophy, rhetoric, and (among Jewish disciples) Torah study. Many ancient Mediterranean disciples took detailed notes; one professor of rhetoric, while complaining that his students published notes on his lectures without his permission, conceded that they accurately reflected his lectures. Students of rabbis or philosophers would not always end up agreeing with their professors, but they were expected to respect and accurately convey what they taught. Disciples in this period did not normally attribute to their mentors ideas that contradicted what they actually taught.

Why would scholars assume that the disciples of Jesus were less reliable transmitters of his teaching than other disciples were for their teachers? If Jesus’ disciples respected him as more than a teacher, rather than less than a teacher, this respect would surely not justify deliberately misrepresenting his teaching. The disciples’ collective memory could correct individual recollections during retellings of Jesus’ story.10

Another recent project has reinforced for me what intuition suggests: first-generation recollections can prove very dependable. Since finishing my historical Jesus book, I have begun editing my wife’s memoirs of her experience as a war refugee in the Congo. Only halfway through the project did I realize its usefulness as an analogy for understanding how well eyewitnesses could preserve information.11 In addition to her memory of the events, on which I had taken notes during oral interviews with her in 2001, we had her journal of the events, composed in French during the time that the events took place. Comparing the two sources sometimes provided what appeared to be minor contradictions, but because I had access to her as the eyewitness source, I could confirm what she meant. In most cases, apparent contradictions were easily resolved by further information that she provided; sometimes they simply reflected different but inadequate English equivalents for particular French terms (as the Gospels sometimes reflect variant Greek equivalents for Aramaic terms).

Suspicion of Supernatural Claims

Some critics object that the Gospels, unlike other ancient historical sources, report miracles or anomalies. In fact, such reports do appear in many other ancient historical sources, but the Gospels naturally include more of them because they narrate the activity of a figure known as a healer. Philosophic assumptions articulated by David Hume and others preclude for many western interpreters the possibility of affirming genuine supernatural causation for the miracle claims. Much of the world’s population today demurs from such assumptions, however, and an increasing number of philosophers are arguing that the question should be reopened. I plan to address some of these questions more thoroughly in a sequel to the above-mentioned historical Jesus book.12

But theological questions about supernatural causation aside, the historical question as to whether many people believed that they witnessed people cured by Jesus is more easily answered. Even today, literally hundreds of millions of people claim to have witnessed events that they interpret as miracles.13 Why should we deny that first-century followers of Jesus’ ministry could have had analogous experiences, however we explain them? Most historical Jesus scholars today, regardless of their personal theological orientation, do accept that Jesus drew crowds who believed that he performed cures and exorcisms.14 The presence of such elements in the Gospels should not, then, be cited against their usefulness as historical sources, or even against them containing eyewitness elements.


Scholars have often proved too skeptical of our best historical sources for Jesus, the Gospels. Drawing more fully on these sources would provide a more complete and well-rounded picture of the Jesus who lived in history than some historical Jesus scholars have allowed.

1 Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

2 Charles H. Talbert (What Is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977]) and others argued for this classification several decades ago; more recently, Richard A. Burridge’s Cambridge monograph (What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography [SNTSMS 70; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1992]) has proved especially influential in this reorientation.

3 Such as Cornelius Nepos, Arrian, Tacitus, Suetonius, Plutarch, and later Philostratus on sophists or Diogenes Laertius on philosophers. Xenophon’s earlier Cyropedia and Pseudo-Callisthenes later historical novel about Alexander, are examples of works that do not fit biographies of this period.

4 Matthew and Luke each seem too oblivious to key elements in the other Gospel, e.g., their infancy narratives, to be dependent on the other as a finished work.

5 W. D. Davies, Invitation to the New Testament: A Guide to Its Main Witnesses (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), 115-16.

6 Despite some notable scholars’ dissent, the majority of Acts scholars today view Acts as a historical monograph, with biography as the second most common option. (Many do, however, allow for a mixture of elements from various genres.)

7 See e.g., discussion in Samuel Byrskog, Story as History—History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History (Boston, Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002).

8 See Nock, Essays on Religion and the Ancient World I and II (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1972), 828.

9 Some do so because Luke’s perspective on Paul differs significantly from Paul’s own, a question we cannot engage in detail here; but some of the criticism is overstated; but see counterarguments in e.g., Peder Borgen, “From Paul to Luke: Observations toward Clarification of the Theology of Luke-Acts,” CBQ 31 (1969): 168-82; Karl Paul Donfried, Paul, Thessalonica, and Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; London: T & T Clark, 2002), 90-96; Stanley E. Porter, Paul in Acts (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001), 189-206.

10 Richard Bauckham has recently offered a controversial but substantive case for substantial eyewitness tradition in the Gospels (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006]). Other senior scholars (including James D. G. Dunn, in A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005]) have also recently drawn renewed attention to oral tradition.

11 Granted, our period of transmission was shorter than the Gospels, but she also retells her story less regularly than Jesus’ immediate disciples would have been asked to do.

12 Miracles, Hendrickson, forthcoming.

13 One could start by adding the figures of those claiming to have experienced or witnessed healings in the executive summary of “Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals,” Pew Forum Survey (2006), at

14 E.g., Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973), 79; Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), 16; E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 11; John P. Meier, Mentor, Message, and Miracles (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 2:678-772; Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 113.

Would you like to tell a friend about this article? Click Here