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Jesus, the Gospels and History




By Amanda Witmer
Conrad Grebel University College
August 2013


In some quarters it is now fashionable to argue that Jesus did not exist! At the opposite end of the spectrum we find the position that every word of the Bible is literally true and that the gospels provide us with an unfiltered historical account of Jesus’ life. This is a false dichotomy rooted in our human tendency to insist on absolutes and true or false claims. Neither position takes the evidence seriously. As it turns out, historical information about Jesus can be found, but sifting through the data requires some work. An open and enquiring mind is also a necessary requisite.

The gospels are colored by the conviction of those who wrote them that Jesus was the Son of God. As time passed and memories were formed, faith began to shape the way in which the early Christian community viewed and wrote about Jesus. As a result, the portrait of Jesus we find in the gospels is nuanced, containing a mixture of biography, historical information, memory, faith and myth. This means that one should not expect these documents to provide the kinds of details we might see in a modern biography. It is now generally accepted that the gospels can be fitted broadly into the genre of ancient Greco-Roman biography. While modern biographies tend to focus on the way in which a person’s character has been shaped over time, the aim of ancient biographers was to show, through depicting episodes from the hero’s life, the fixed and exemplary nature of their character. This is likely why, for example, Jesus is depicted at the age of twelve as already debating with the scholars in Jerusalem (Luke 2: 41-51). Aside from the particular emphasis placed on Jesus’ death and the use of Jewish scripture, the gospels are not that different from other forms of ancient biography.

To say that the gospels are not pure history does not imply that they are complete fiction. They were written not for the purpose of documenting historical fact, but for presenting a portrait of the man the writers understood to be the savior of the world. That said, historical information does emerge from the four evangelists’ portraits. Luke’s gospel states that Jesus was around 30 years old when he began his mission (3:23) and that John the Baptist began to preach in the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign, so presumably in the year 28 or 29 (3:1). Jesus was probably born around 4 BCE, about the time that Herod the Great died,1 putting him in his early thirties at the time of his death. All four gospels report that Jesus died by crucifixion in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate. Since all of this corresponds to what is attested in non-biblical sources, we have no particular reason to doubt this information. So, while the gospels were shaped by faith and a theological perspective, the basic outline of what occurred as described in the gospels is corroborated by what we find in the writings of Tacitus and Josephus.

Jesus was not an elite figure, nor was he involved in any kind of large scale movement. Thus, it is not surprising that we would have very little information about his life. Even so, the sources we have on Jesus’ life were actually written closer to his lifetime than were those on Alexander the Great, for example, and were recorded while people who had known him were still living. Our most complete source of information about Jesus is the New Testament Gospels, written between 40 and 70 years after Jesus’ death. While some of Paul’s letters were written earlier than the gospels (perhaps 20 years after his death) they, in fact, provide very little historical information about Jesus’ life.

References to Jesus also occur in Roman and Jewish sources. Tacitus (Ann. 15.44), a Roman historian, writing around 110-120 CE, refers to the execution of Christus by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. This reference allows us to date Jesus’ execution to sometime during the overlap of the prefecture of Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE) and the reign of the Emperor Tiberius (14-37 CE),2 likely around 30 CE. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, also mentions Jesus, noting his reputation as a wonder worker, the charges brought against him by the Jewish leadership, his execution under Pilate, and the continuation of the so called “tribe” of Christians until the time of Josephus’ writing (ca. 90 CE).3 While some other more confessional statements in Josephus’ account are widely acknowledged to represent Christian interpolation, most scholars view the information just cited as coming from Josephus himself.

Another feature of the gospel reports about Jesus that can be linked with evidence outside of the gospels is his connection to John the Baptist. We can be almost certain about John’s existence and execution under Herod Antipas, because Josephus discusses him and links the crowds he drew with Antipas’ decision to have him executed.4 We can also be fairly certain that Jesus was closely linked to John, based on the criterion of embarrassment. This criterion asserts that if something mentioned in the gospels would be potentially embarrassing to the early Christian community, but has nevertheless been retained, it is likely to be historical.

A case can be made for linking Jesus to John historically by applying this criterion to several sayings and reports in the gospels. The first example involves Jesus’ baptism. Mark, the earliest of the gospels (written around 70 CE), begins with Jesus’ baptism by John, and makes no comment about it. Matthew, written approximately 15 years later, seems uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus coming to John for baptism and has John protest and Jesus insist (3:13-15). The gospels of Luke and John, written around 85 and 90-100 respectively, avoid any description of the baptism at all (probably for the same reason that Matthew has John protest it). Luke acknowledges that Jesus was baptized, but avoids placing John at the scene by having him already in prison (3:18-22), and the writer of John’s gospel incorporates the imagery of the dove from the baptism tradition, but avoids directly mentioning that John baptized Jesus (1:29-34).

This evidence strongly suggests that the baptism of Jesus by John was historical and that the link between the two men was so deeply rooted in the tradition that the Christian community had no choice but to deal with it. At the same time, as Jesus became more venerated and superseded John in status, there was a need to try to explain why Jesus, who had now come to be regarded as sinless by the church, would have needed to submit to baptism for the forgiveness of sins. In other words, if the earliest Christian community had simply invented Jesus, why link him to John, a fiery Jewish prophet who was executed by Herod Antipas?

The second example involves John’s status within the tradition. All four gospels indicate that John was highly regarded, both by Jesus and by his contemporaries. In fact, Matthew, Mark and Luke report that Jesus, when challenged by Jewish leaders, linked his own authority and credibility to that of John and his baptism (Mark 11:27-33 par. Matt 21:23-27, Luke 20:1-8). Another reference found in Matthew and Luke, and likely drawn from an earlier source (Q), tells us that both John and Jesus were criticized by their Jewish contemporaries, John for refusing to eat and drink and having a demon (in other words, for being an ascetic) and Jesus for being a drunk and a glutton (for not being ascetic enough).5

This information is incidental to the Christian message and does not portray either Jesus or John in a particularly positive light. It also potentially gives us historical information about both men; that Jesus was known to eat and drink freely, and that John was known as an ascetic. In other words, this saying tells us that the two men were very different, even though Jesus had initially been closely linked to John and may have even been his disciple. These differences apparently provoked not only controversy, but also some confusion amongst the populace who weren’t quite sure how to interpret either man. Finally, there is evidence in both Mark and John that Jesus was thought to be out of his mind by some (Mark 3:21; John 7:20; 8:52; 10:20) and in Mark and Q that Jesus was accused of casting out demons using Beelzebul, the prince of demons (Mark 3:22; Matt 12:24=Luke 11:15). Why should the early Christian community invent these kinds of accusations against Jesus or John when they could have simply invented a “nicer” story?

Finally, John’s gospel mentions that at one point, both Jesus and John were baptizing (3:22) and that some of John’s disciples wondered about the numbers of people who were now following Jesus rather than John (3:25-26), and questioned him about this. In addition, Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is placed in the context of one of Jesus’ disciples asking him to teach them to pray as John’s disciples had taught him (11:1). Reading between the lines, or against the text, we learn from these two passages that John had perhaps initially been viewed as the more important of the two men, and that this perception gradually shifted. Again, why invent this issue?

To sum up, it is important to interpret the evidence about Jesus’ existence in a balanced way that neither dismisses all biblical evidence as worthless, nor assumes that every aspect of the biblical account should be read as pure history. The gospels provide us with an imprint left by the first-century man, Jesus of Nazareth, which is, in my view, rooted in historical experience, but also deeply shaped by the experience of faith and the theological interests of the writers. The gospels certainly give us information about their authors and the communities they represent. Nevertheless, they also reflect the impact the historical figure, Jesus, had on those who were marked by his life.



Notes

1 Matthew’s gospel (2:15) links Jesus’ birth to the death of Herod the Great, which occurred in 4 BCE.

2 Suetonius (Claud. 25.4), another Roman historian, refers to the expelling of Jews from Rome because of disturbances instigated by one “Chrestus.” This reference is less certain since Chrestus may refer to another person. Pliny the Younger (110 CE) also mentions Jesus in connection with a group identified as “Christians” in a letter to the emperor Trajan Ep. Tra. 10.96.

3 Josephus, Ant. 18.63-4.

4 Josephus, Ant. 18.118.

5 Matthew 11:16-19 // Luke 7:31-34





Comments (13)


Oh, these old arguments again?
#1 - Tom Verenna - 08/08/2013 - 19:23



What Tom Verenna said. There is no independent evidence of Jesus's existence outside the NT and some extra-canonical Christian literature. (Pseudo-?)Josephus and Tacitus aren't independent sources for Jesus.
We can also be fairly certain that Jesus was closely linked to John, based on the criterion of embarrassment.
-I groan. JtB isn't embarrassing at all for Mark (though he is embarrassing for later gospel authors). Thus, it's inside the realm of reason to say that Mark originated the JtB-Jesus connection.
Why should the early Christian community invent these kinds of accusations against Jesus or John when they could have simply invented a “nicer” story?
-For Christian readers to gloat how wiser they are than some characters. It's fanservice. Just like when Jack Chick inserts a straw atheist into one of his tracts.
Again, why invent this issue?
-Again, fanservice (and to remind the readers to stray from error).
To sum up, it is important to interpret the evidence about Jesus’ existence in a balanced way that neither dismisses all biblical evidence as worthless, nor assumes that every aspect of the biblical account should be read as pure history.
#2 - E. Harding - 08/08/2013 - 21:56



'Jesus was probably born around 4 BCE, about the time that Herod the Great died,...'

How can we tell when Jesus was born by looking at two contradictory, fictitious , agenda driven accounts of his birth?

Can historians tell when Barack Obama was born by looking at two contradictory, fictitious, agenda driven accounts of his being born in Kenya?
#3 - Steven Carr - 08/09/2013 - 05:09



It is true that our extant sources on Alexander date from longer after his death than the extant sources on Jesus. However, the extant sources on Alexander cite sources written by people who knew Alexander personally.

It is thought that the gospels relied on oral tradition, but there is really no way to determine whether the ultimate source of that tradition was anyone who knew Jesus personally.
#4 - Vince Hart - 08/09/2013 - 13:00



I am mulling over writing a longer academic response to Dr. Witmer, but in the meantime I would like to direct her and all readers to my response to Bart Ehrman on this very site which actually deals directly with a lot of these outdated arguments that Dr. Witmer has used:

http://www.bibleinterp.com/PDFs/Response.pdf

I recognize that old arguments die hard. It is difficult for rebuttals to make the rounds in academia, especially when most scholars don't have the time, due to faculty commitments and publishing requirements; but that doesn't mean that we should simply proceed as if rebuttals to our most sacred arguments don't exist. In point of fact, the 'Alexander the Great' statement above is just plain wrong--that should be dismissed by every NT scholar. But again, read my response to Ehrman fore a fuller, more in-depth discussion.

On the genre of the Gospels, while I cover it in my Ehrman paper, I also cover it here: http://tomverenna.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/spider-man-and-the-gospel-genres/

Marianne Palmer Bonz was absolutely correct when she wrote that the genre of a text will ultimate influence how a text is interpreted. Leaning rather apologetically on Greco-Roman biography as if Michael Vines, Mary Anne Tolbert, Thomas Thompson, Bonz, Thomas Brodie, and others haven't challenged it since the publication of Charles Talbert's book in 1977 is rather unfortunate.

Dr. Witmer may believe the arguments she has provided situate Jesus in a historical setting, a Sitz im Leben, but she has not made a case for it here. These arguments, and other arguments from many historical Jesus scholars, need to be revised. They need to be reexamined in a new way that takes into account rebuttals, new scholarship--no one has even bothered to consider what Joe Tyson and Richard Pervo's case on the possible late dating of Luke-Acts might do to the study of the subject, for example. It is always possible that the rebuttals are wrong, but one cannot simply continue to proceed in confidence that they just *are* wrong without ever taking the time to deal with them.

Like I said, I may write a longer piece and publish it. For now, please review the sources I have gathered at the links above.
#5 - Tom Verenna - 08/09/2013 - 14:13



"To sum up, it is important to interpret the evidence about Jesus’ existence in a balanced way that neither dismisses all biblical evidence as worthless, nor assumes that every aspect of the biblical account should be read as pure history."
-Hm. Looks like my response to this quote got edited out due to my link. I shall, therefore, point out that truth is not always to be found in the middle, and often lies in extremes. For example, the Spider-Man comic books are essentially fiction. Is there anyone who says that the Spider-Man comic books should be interpreted in a balanced way? The idea that we should treat the Gospels in a balanced way is a baseless assumption that should first be supported by arguments for the gospels' genere, arguments for the gospel authors' intents, and detailed arguments for the gospel authors' sources.
#6 - E. Harding - 08/09/2013 - 21:58



'The gospels of Luke and John, written around 85 and 90-100 respectively, avoid any description of the baptism at all.

Luke acknowledges that Jesus was baptized, but avoids placing John at the scene by having him already in prison (3:18-22), and the writer of John’s gospel incorporates the imagery of the dove from the baptism tradition, but avoids directly mentioning that John baptized Jesus '

I see.

So we know the baptism of Jesus by John is historical because two of our sources never state that it happened.

Pardon my ignorance of Biblical scholarship, but is this known as the 'criterion of multiple attestation'?

Is that the claim that something is historical if we can find not one, but two or more sources which never say it happened?
#7 - Steven Carr - 08/10/2013 - 02:45



So your thesis boils down to Josephus and Tacitus, criterion of embarrassment vis-a-vis John the Baptist and the argument that "the sources we have on Jesus’ life were actually written closer to his lifetime than were those on Alexander the Great, for example, and were recorded while people who had known him were still living." Wow. thanks for setting the record straight. The mythicists have never heard ANY of these objections before.

Alexander has to be dispensed with first. Not only is it factually inaccurate, it also focuses disingenuously on historiography when we have a great deal of MATERIAL evidence for Alexander - coins, statues, inscriptions, archaeological confirmation of battles, etc. There is no material corroboration for Jesus, and it's all an argument from silence anyway. Even if there really was no historical evidence for Alexander,that would no more be evidence FOR Jesus any more than it would be evidence for Robin Hood.

Moreover, the Gospels certainly were NOT written during the plausible lifetime of anyone who knew him. You may have been alluding only to the authentic Pauline corpus, but that corpus is remarkably reticent to locate Jesus in any physical time or place, gives no biographical information and is only spoken of in cosmic terms. Paul is interested in nothing before the crucifixion, which is very odd at the very least.

The Testimonium is at least heavily tampered and we have no reason to be confident that it's not COMPLETELY forged, especially since it is uncorroborated before Eusebius. Tacitus only shows knowledge of Christians, not independent knowledge of Jesus, as is indicated by the fact that 1. he does not know Jesus' name, but only calls him "Christus," a name that would have not been used in any official record, but only by Christians, 2.) he gets Pilate's title anachronistically wrong - again indicating he was not referencing any inpendent or official record and 3. he would have had access to no records about Jesus anyway. The notion that Governors in the provinces had to send in tedious documentation of day to day administration is preposterous in itself. Papyrus was expensive, transporting it even more so and Rome didn't care.They wanted governing authorities in the provinces to keep the peace and collect taxes, not to document every nobody they arrested or executed.

That leaves John the Baptist, who is apparently not embarrassing to Mark, who believes the baptism itself is what precipitated the adoption of Jesus by the Holy spirit - i.e. Mark uses a popular ritual innovation used by a popular prophet as a kind of superhero origin story. The "embarrassment" about John only grows as the Christology grows.

I am personally agnostic on historicity, and have found any of the specific mythicist arguments compelling either, but none of what is presented above is so strong that it warrants putting an exclamation point after the opening sentence in your piece. It seems to me that arguments for historicity is always just an exercise in stacking sieves and hoping they will eventually hold water.
#8 - Ken Scaletta - 08/10/2013 - 13:23



Purely by coincidence, I recently ran across (on the Internet Archive, www.archive.org) a doctoral dissertation, written in 1906 by one John Robert Bauer at New York University, that rehearses exactly the same claims about Tacitus’ mention of the Christians and Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. Bauer wrote, “We are thankful to have received so much from the pen of Tacitus; the historicity of Jesus is thereby confirmed by an author of repute and the time of crucifixion, explicitly fixed in the gospels, is corroborated.”

Well, no. Bauer’s fallacy is the same as Witmer’s: The passages mentioning Christus/Chrestus in Josephus(?), Tacitus, Suetonius, et al., may have some modest historical value insofar as they provide evidence of what people were saying about Jesus at the time those passages were written. However, they most certainly are in no way evidence that the things said were true. Representing them otherwise is apologetics, not history.
#9 - MBuettner - 08/10/2013 - 22:16



A reference to Alexander the Great, proof that he existed and that honours were paid to him, is found in the 5th Oration of Hyperides, certainly a contemporary. And there's more.
What is meant by saying that someone 'existed'? I think that certain descriptive terms, enough to be interesting, can be truly applied to someone located at a certain juncture of space and time. Thus Alexander existed: was a king, a conqueror who really shook the world up (and a few more things) around 330 BCE in Greece and Asia. So it seems that Jesus existed: he was a victim of crucifixion around AD 30 who was in the minds of followers who proclaimed or passed on what they considered to be his teaching and did so impressively enough for the New Testament, the all-time all-places bestseller, eventually to be written. This is not a very strong claim. It does not guarantee that the 'person in mind' actually taught any of the ideas or did any of the things mentioned in the NT. It is such a mild statement that it does not seem worth much dispute. Claims that the NT authors or some of them got it right or that they got it pretty much wrong and we can correct them are another matter, of course.
#10 - Martin - 08/11/2013 - 17:39



I do not understand this fuss about Alexander. After all, we have his coins, issued already in his own life time.

There is no comparison, if people leave their books for a moment and have a more inclusive view of the Alexander tradition, in literature, and art.

NPL
#11 - Niels Peter Lemche - 08/15/2013 - 12:53






In this article Josephus, Tacitus, et al. are again cited as witnesses for the existence of Jesus, his crucifixion, etc. which is supposed to lend credence to the Biblical accounts because they are non-Christian sources. The question, however, must be asked as to the reliability of these sources as they have come down to us. We do not have original manuscripts and opportunities for interpolating text into these documents are well attested. Before accepting the testimony of these non-Christian witnesses a little research as to the credibility of these passages would, I believe, give Ms Witmer pause for thought. The most exhaustive Treatment I have found is only available in German (so far as I know): Hermann Detering, Falsche Zeugen -- Ausserchristliche Jesuszeugnisse auf dem Pruefstand, 2011. In English -- False Witnesses -- Non-Christian attestations to Jesus under the microscope. The author has a PhD in theology with an emphasis on early Christianity, and is a member of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion.
#13 - Lawrence Rupp - 10/31/2013 - 11:12






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