Historicity of Jesus
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The historicity of Jesus concerns the analysis of historical evidence to determine whether Jesus existed as a historical figure, and whether any of the major milestones in his life as portrayed in the gospels can be confirmed as historical events, as opposed to the Christ myth theory, which holds that the Jesus of Nazareth as portrayed in the Bible is a fictional figure. The related study of the historical Jesus attempts to construct portraits of his life and teachings, based on methods such as biblical criticism of gospel texts and the history of first century Judea.
Historicity is the study of the historical actuality of persons and events, meaning the quality of being part of history as opposed to being a historical myth or legend, or of being part of prehistory. Questions of historicity arise where accounts of events are believed by some to be true, but cannot be verified, either due to the absence of historical records of sufficient accepted reliability or where historical accounts incorporate folklore, theological views or literature as fact.
Most modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed, but scholars differ on the historicity of specific episodes described in the Biblical accounts of Jesus, and the only two events subject to "almost universal assent" are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate. Biblical scholars and classical historians regard theories of his non-existence as effectively refuted, although there is a significant debate about his nature, his actions and his sayings. Most scholars agree that Jesus was a Galilean Jew who was born between 7 and 4 BC, in the closing stages of the reign of King Herod and died 30–36 AD, that he lived in Galilee and Judea, did not preach or study elsewhere, and that he spoke Aramaic and perhaps also Hebrew and Greek.
Since the 18th century a number of quests for the historical Jesus have taken place, and historical critical methods for studying the historicity of Jesus have been developed. Various Christian and non-Christian sources are used to study and establish the historicity of Jesus, e.g. Jewish sources such as Josephus, and Roman sources such as Tacitus. These sources are compared and contrasted to Christian sources such as the Pauline Letters and the Synoptic Gospels. These sources are usually independent of each other (e.g. Jewish sources do not draw upon Roman sources), and similarities and differences between them are used in the authentication process.
The question of the existence of Jesus as a historical figure is distinct from the study of the historical Jesus, which goes beyond the analysis of his historicity and attempts to reconstruct portraits of his life and teachings, based on methods such as biblical criticism of gospel texts and the history of first century Judea. Nor does it concern supernatural or miraculous claims about Jesus, which historians tend to look on as questions of faith, rather than historical fact.
Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed, and most biblical scholars and classical historians see the theories of his non-existence as effectively refuted. In antiquity, the existence of Jesus was never denied by those who opposed Christianity. There is, however, widespread disagreement among scholars on the details of the life of Jesus mentioned in the gospel narratives, and on the meaning of his teachings. Robert E. Van Voorst states that the idea of the non-historicity of the existence of Jesus has always been controversial, and has consistently failed to convince virtually all scholars of many disciplines. Geoffrey Blainey notes that a few scholars have argued that Jesus did not exist, but writes that Jesus' life was in fact "astonishingly documented" by the standards of the time – more so than any of his contemporaries – with numerous books, stories and memoirs written about him. The problem for the historian, wrote Blainey, is not therefore, determining whether Jesus actually existed, but rather in considering the "sheer multitude of detail and its inconsistencies and contradictions". Although a very small number of modern scholars argue that Jesus never existed, that view is a distinct minority and virtually all scholars consider theories that Jesus' existence was a Christian invention as implausible. Christopher Tuckett states that the existence of Jesus and his crucifixion by Pontius Pilate seem to be part of the bedrock of historical tradition, based on the availability of non-Christian evidence. Graham Stanton states that "Today nearly all historians, whether Christians or not, accept that Jesus existed".
The sources for the historicity of Jesus are mainly Christian sources, but there are some mentions also in a few non-Christian Jewish and Greco-Roman sources, which have been used in historical analyses of the existence of Jesus. These include the works of 1st-century Roman historians Josephus and Tacitus. Josephus scholar Louis H. Feldman has stated that "few have doubted the genuineness" of Josephus' reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20, 9, 1 and it is only disputed by a small number of scholars. Bart D. Ehrman states that the existence of Jesus and his crucifixion by the Romans is attested to by a wide range of sources, including Josephus and Tacitus.
The Mishnah (c. 200) may refer to Jesus and reflect the early Jewish traditions of portraying Jesus as a sorcerer or magician. Other possible references to Jesus and his execution may exist in the Talmud, but they also aim to discredit his actions, not deny his existence.
Accepted historic facts
The reconstruction of portraits of the historical Jesus along with his life story has been the subject of wide ranging debate among scholars, with no scholarly consensus. In a review of the state of research Amy-Jill Levine stated that "no single picture of Jesus has convinced all, or even most scholars" and that all portraits of Jesus are subject to criticism by some group of scholars. According to New Testament scholar James Dunn, nearly all modern scholars consider the baptism of Jesus and his crucifixion to be historically certain. He states that these "two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent" and "rank so high on the 'almost impossible to doubt or deny' scale of historical facts" that they are often the starting points for the study of the historical Jesus. Amy-Jill Levine has summarized the situation by stating that "there is a consensus of sorts on the basic outline of Jesus' life" in that most scholars agree that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and over a period of one to three years debated Jewish authorities on the subject of God, gathered followers, and was crucified by Roman prefect Pontius Pilate who officiated 26-36 AD. There is much in dispute as to his previous life, childhood, family and place of residence.
Scholars attribute varying levels of certainty to other episodes. E.P. Sanders and Craig A. Evans independently state that there are two other incidents in the life of Jesus that can be considered historical: that Jesus called disciples, and that he caused a controversy at the Temple. This extended view assumes that there are eight elements about Jesus and his followers that can be viewed as historical facts—four episodes in the life of Jesus and four about him and his followers, namely:
- Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. He called disciples. He had a controversy at the Temple. Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.
- Jesus was a Galilean. His activities were confined to Galilee and Judea. After his death his disciples continued. Some of his disciples were persecuted.
"Christ myth theory" is an umbrella term that applies to a range of arguments that question the existence of Jesus as described in the Christian gospels. The theory that Jesus never existed at all has support from a small minority of modern scholars.
Quest for the historical Jesus
In the early church, there were already tendencies to portray Jesus as a verifiable demonstration of the extraordinary. Since the 18th century, scholars have taken part in three separate "quests" for the historical Jesus, attempting to reconstruct various portraits of his life using historical methods. Although textual criticism of Biblical sources had been practiced for centuries, these quests introduced new methods and specific methodologies to determine the historical validity of their conclusions.
While textual criticism (or lower criticism) had been practiced for centuries, a number of approaches to historical analysis and a number of criteria for evaluating the historicity of events emerged as of 18th century, as a series of "Quests for the historical Jesus" took place. At each stage of development, scholars suggested specific forms and methodologies of analysis and specific criteria to be used to determine historical validity.
- The Bible and history
- Census of Quirinius, the enrollment of the Roman provinces of Syria and Judaea for tax purposes taken in the year 6/7.
- Chronology of Jesus
- Cultural and historical background of Jesus
- Historical reliability of the Gospels
- Quest for the historical Jesus
- Sources for the historicity of Jesus
- In a 2011 review of the state of modern scholarship, Bart Ehrman (a secular agnostic) wrote: "He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees" B. Ehrman, 2011 Forged : writing in the name of God ISBN 978-0-06-207863-6. page 285
- Michael Grant (a classicist) states that "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." in Jesus by Michael Grant 2004 ISBN 1898799881 page 200
- Richard A. Burridge states: "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." in Jesus Now and Then by Richard A. Burridge and Graham Gould (Apr 1, 2004) ISBN 0802809774 page 34
- Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee by Mark Allan Powell 1998 ISBN 0-664-25703-8 page 181
- Jesus Remembered by James D. G. Dunn 2003 ISBN 0-8028-3931-2 page 339 states of baptism and crucifixion that these "two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent".
- Prophet and Teacher: An Introduction to the Historical Jesus by William R. Herzog (4 Jul 2005) ISBN 0664225284 pages 1-6
- Crossan, John Dominic (1995). Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. HarperOne. p. 145. ISBN 0-06-061662-8. "That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be, since both Josephus and Tacitus...agree with the Christian accounts on at least that basic fact."
- Robert E. Van Voorst Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence Eerdmans Publishing, 2000. ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 page 16 states: "biblical scholars and classical historians regard theories of non-existence of Jesus as effectively refuted"
- James D. G. Dunn "Paul's understanding of the death of Jesus" in Sacrifice and Redemption edited by S. W. Sykes (Dec 3, 2007) Cambridge University Press ISBN 052104460X pages 35-36 states that the theories of non-existence of Jesus are "a thoroughly dead thesis"
- The Gospels and Jesus by Graham Stanton, 1989 ISBN 0192132415 Oxford University Press, page 145 states : "Today nearly all historians, whether Christians or not, accept that Jesus existed".
- Paul L. Maier "The Date of the Nativity and Chronology of Jesus" in Chronos, kairos, Christos: nativity and chronological studies by Jerry Vardaman, Edwin M. Yamauchi 1989 ISBN 0-931464-50-1 pages 113-129
- The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament by Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum 2009 ISBN 978-0-8054-4365-3 page 114
- . Many scholars agree that Jesus debated with fellow Jews on how best to live according to God's will, engaged in healings and exorcisms, taught in parables, gathered male and female followers in Galilee, went to Jerusalem, and was crucified by Roman soldiers during the governorship of Pontius Pilate" The Historical Jesus in Context edited by Amy-Jill Levine et al. Princeton Univ Press ISBN 978-0-691-00992-6 page 4
- Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (InterVarsity Press, 1992), page 442
- The Historical Jesus in Recent Research edited by James D. G. Dunn and Scot McKnight 2006 ISBN 1-57506-100-7 page 303
- Who Is Jesus? by John Dominic Crossan, Richard G. Watts 1999 ISBN 0664258425 pages 28-29
- James Barr, Which language did Jesus speak, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 1970; 53(1) pages 9-29 
- Handbook to exegesis of the New Testament by Stanley E. Porter 1997 ISBN 90-04-09921-2 pages 110-112
- Discovering the language of Jesus by Douglas Hamp 2005 ISBN 1-59751-017-3 page 3-4
- The Cambridge Companion to Jesus by Markus N. A. Bockmuehl 2001 ISBN 0521796784 pages 121-125
- Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research by Bruce Chilton, Craig A. Evans 1998 ISBN 9004111425 pages 460-470
- Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies by Craig A. Evans 2001 ISBN 0391041185 pages 2-5
- Christopher M. Tuckett In The Cambridge Companion to Jesus edited by Markus N. A. Bockmuehl 2001 ISBN 0521796784 pages 122-126
- Amy-Jill Levine in the The Historical Jesus in Context edited by Amy-Jill Levine et al. 2006 Princeton Univ Press ISBN 978-0-691-00992-6 pages 1-2
- Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium by Bart D. Ehrman (23 Sep 1999) ISBN 0195124731 Oxford Univ Press pages ix-xi
- "What about the resurrection? ... Some people believe it did, some believe it didn't. ...But if you do believe it, it is not as a historian. Ehrman, B. Jesus, Interrupted, pg 176 HarperOne; 1 Reprint edition (2 February 2010)
- Encyclopedia of theology: a concise Sacramentum mundi by Karl Rahner 2004 ISBN 0-86012-006-6 pages 730-731
- Van Voorst, Robert E (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 0-8028-4368-9-page 15
- Geoffrey Blainey; A Short History of Christianity; Viking; 2011; p.xix-xx
- Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey' by Craig L. Blomberg 2009 ISBN 0-8054-4482-3 pages 431-436
- Van Voorst (2000) pp. 39-53
- The new complete works of Josephus by Flavius Josephus, William Whiston, Paul L. Maier ISBN 0-8254-2924-2 pages 662-663
- Josephus XX by Louis H. Feldman 1965, ISBN 0674995023 page 496
- Van Voorst, Robert E. (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence ISBN 0-8028-4368-9. page 83
- Flavius Josephus; Maier, Paul L. (December 1995). Josephus, the essential works: a condensation of Jewish antiquities and The Jewish war ISBN 978-0-8254-3260-6 pages 284-285
- The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings by Bart D. Ehrman 1999 ISBN 0-19-512639-4-page 248
- Jesus and the Politics of his Day by E. Bammel and C. F. D. Moule (30 Aug 1985) ISBN 0521313449 page 393
- In Jesus: The Complete Guide edited by J. L. Houlden (8 Feb 2006) ISBN 082648011X pages 693-694
- Jesus in the Talmud by Peter Schäfer (24 Aug 2009) ISBN 0691143188 page 141 and 9
- Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey by Craig L. Blomberg (1 Aug 2009) ISBN 0805444823 page 280
- Kostenberger, Andreas J.; Kellum, L. Scott; Quarles, Charles L. (2009). The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament ISBN 0-8054-4365-7. pages 107-109
- Jesus of Nazareth by Paul Verhoeven (6 Apr 2010) ISBN 9781583229057 page 39
- Authenticating the Activities of Jesus by Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans 2002 ISBN 0391041649 pages 3-7
- Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee by Mark Allan Powell (1 Nov 1998) ISBN 0664257038 page 117
- A theory of primitive Christian religion by Gerd Theissen 2003 ISBN 0-334-02913-9 pages 23-27
- The historical Jesus: ancient evidence for the life of Christ by Gary Habermas 1996 ISBN 0-89900-732-5 pages 27-31
- Van Voorst (2000) pp. 7-8
- The historical Jesus: ancient evidence for the life of Christ by Gary Habermas 1996 ISBN 0-89900-732-5 pages 47-51
- The Cambridge companion to Jesus by Markus N. A. Bockmuehl 2001 Cambridge Univ Press ISBN 978-0-521-79678-1 pages 123-124. Page 124 state that the "farfetched theories that Jesus' existence was a Christian invention are highly implausible."
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- Van Voorst (2000) p. 14
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