The Person of Jesus Part 3: The Historical Jesus

It’s been almost a month since my last post in this series on the person of Jesus. In the Introduction, we looked at the importance of history in general and argued that Jesus is the most significant human who has ever lived. In Part 1, we looked specifically at what impact the mere idea of Jesus has had on history. In Part 2, we looked at Lewis’ and Tolkien’s conception of the Gospel as a “true myth,” and then we laid out a list of questions to act as a framework/guide for our examination of this history altering man. In this post, we will take a look at the academic scholarship that has been done in the area.

In academic circles, this field of inquiry into the life of Jesus is known as “historical Jesus studies,” and it is an extremely controversial and problematic field. The title “historical Jesus studies” is meant to differentiate it from a purely theological or philosophical examination of Jesus’s life and the meaning thereof. But even this name itself reveals, to a certain degree, some of the misguided assumptions and foundations of the study. Anne Rice, a well known writer, had this to say about the historical Jesus field:

“Some books were no more than assumptions piled on assumptions…Conclusions were reached on the basis of little or not data at all…I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I’d ever read” [1].

I’ve always had a keen personal interest both in history, and in the person of Jesus; so when several years ago I started researching into the historical Jesus field, I was somewhat surprised and devastated by what I found. To put it quite frankly, there is a lot of atrocious and ridiculous work that passes as “scholarship.” John Dominic Crossan, one of the more well known historical Jesus scholars, calls it an “academic embarrassment” [2], and says that “Historical Jesus research is becoming something of a scholarly bad joke…[due to] the number of competent and even eminent scholars producing pictures of Jesus at wide variance with one another” [3]. I couldn’t agree with him more. Of course, this is not to say that there are no good scholars and no good scholarship to be found; far from it. There are many great thinkers doing extremely honest, careful, and insightful work which deserves respect and praise. Unfortunately, much of this work is drowned out by the popularity which the media gives to poor scholarship, such as that done by the so-called “Jesus Seminar,” who are on the fringe of scholarship but who receive an extraordinarily inordinate amount of attention for their work. Craig Evans, who is, in my opinion, perhaps one of the best scholars in the field, has this to say about the Jesus Seminar:

“This deficiency on the part of so many New Testament scholars helps explain the oddness of much of the work of the Jesus Seminar…As a consequence of these deficiencies [in their training in certain areas], it is not surprising that the Jesus Seminar has come to so many odd and implausible conclusions…The Seminar’s errors are egregious and legion. Unfortunately, the Seminar has gained a great deal of media attention and has cultivated a series of books that advance misguided and mistaken views of Jesus and the Gospels” [4].

He goes on to write:

“We live in a strange time that indulges, even encourages, some of the strangest thinking. It is a time when truth means what you want to make of it. And in these zany quests for “truth,” truth becomes elusive…What I find particularly troubling is that a lot of this nonsense comes from scholars. We expect tabloid psuedoscholarship from the quacks, but not from scholars who teach at respectable institutions of higher learning. Modern scholars and writers, in their never-ending quest to find something new and to advance daring theories that run beyond the evidence, have either distorted or neglected the New Testament Gospels, resulting in the fabrications of an array of pseudo-Jesuses” [5].

If you’ve ever heard claims such as “Jesus had a wife and children!” or “there are lots of other gospels besides the ones in the New Testament that give secret information about the real Jesus” or anything to that effect, chances are you can trace them back to the popularized pseudo-scholarship referred to above.

Rigorous scholar Craig Keener writes this:

“Academic history has passed a negative verdict on most of the past two centuries of ‘historical Jesus’ research, which has more often than not replaced earlier conclusions with new ones, only to find the newer ones themselves displaced” [6].

The historical Jesus field is usually conceptualized by/divided into “liberal” and “conservative” scholars, where the latter are often Evangelical Christian believers, and the former often either more progressive believers, or else atheist or agnostic unbelievers. This creates an extremely divided and polarized field, where it’s hard to find actual consensus on a large range of topics. This division can be extremely disruptive and infuriating, as is the fact that there is bad scholarship done on both “sides.” It has been frequently noted that when scholars embark upon discovering the “historical Jesus,” the picture/reconstruction they come up with very often resembles their own previously held ideologies, rather than an objective reality [7].

In general, for the past few centuries, there has grown a severe and corrosive skepticism concerning the historicity and authenticity of the New Testament documents and the events which they depict. It is not even uncommon today to hear people comment that “Jesus probably didn’t exist, he was just made up,” or “the Gospels are just myths and legends.” On the other side, many who belong to the Christian faith strictly maintain that the Gospels are completely and entirely true and inerrant, without any contradictions or mistakes. Now, while I insist that one can be justified in holding this latter view on theological grounds, it is impossible to fully verify it purely historically. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can know/verify nothing about the person of Jesus, his life, works, teachings, and fate, or that of his followers. We can. But it requires careful, honest thinking and scholarship that is at times very difficult to find.

Before we begin looking at this scholarship, some might wonder, “what is the value of historical Jesus studies at all”? For some, the prospect of using historical methods to arrive at certain objective, historical facts about the person of Jesus may seem trivial, useless, or a waste of time. On one side, Christians might be of the belief that if the Bible says something, it must therefore be automatically true, whether or not it can be shown to be reasonable via reason, history, philosophy, etc. They might also think that these things cannot be shown to be reasonable by those methods, but must rather be “taken by faith.” On the other hand, many atheists or agnostics might also hold that such pursuits are worthless, because the Bible is just so obviously full of myths, legends, made up stories, and egregious errors. While either of these positions might be true, it will be valuable to start with the assumption of neither, and work from there. I will not be taking the scriptural documents as inspired religious texts, nor as useless falsities. I will be trying, with my utmost integrity, to be viewing them with as little bias and as much objectivity as possible. And this is the value of the historical Jesus field, when done well. Because all of us hold different, varying, and opposing beliefs, but, if my previous posts were correct that Jesus of Nazareth really was the most significant and influential human in history, then examining his life objectively on historical terms provides a common ground for people from all world views to attempt to come to some answer to the question of this startling man’s identity.

Let’s take just one fact as an example: it is widely agreed, as I will explain more fully later, by the vast majority of all historians and scholars that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by Pontius Pilate. This is a historical fact nearing the highest degrees of certainty possible, especially for antiquity. For Christian believers, the crucifixion of Jesus carries a special theological significance: it was the means by which God enacted his salvation and reconciled man to himself. An atheist, however, obviously does not believe in the existence of God, or in man’s need of salvation; but denying the special theological significance of Jesus’ death does not, and certainly should not, commit him to denying the historical fact of Jesus’ death. Believing, on historical grounds, that the man Jesus of Nazareth existed, does not necessarily commit one to believing that he was the Son of God, etc. Take the atheist/agnostic Bart Ehrman, perhaps the most well known new testament scholar to the public, who certainly doesn’t believe that Jesus was more than a man, but who most certainly does believe that Jesus was indeed a man, as he wrote an entire book arguing against those who make the utterly unfounded claim that “Jesus never existed.”

In one sense, it’s pretty obvious why the field is so divided: the identity of this one human being represents a heated war of worldviews. There is not very much emotion or passion (to the same level) bound up with historical research into, say, Caesar Augustus, because Caesar Augustus is not worshipped by billions of human beings around the globe as God in the flesh. So on one side, Christians can have motive for bias because of their strong, religious attachment to the narrative of this man. But on the other side, atheists can have motive for bias because if it turns out that the gospel stories are anywhere near true, that entire worldview would be turned upside down. Craig Keener writes:

“While quests for the historical Jesus start with the reasonable assumption that later orthodox christology should not be read into our earliest accounts about Jesus, they have too often read Jesus in light of too narrow a background (e.g., only a revolutionary, solely a teacher, just a prophet, or exclusively some other category, but often not more than one at a time) or as a reflection of their own values” [8].

On both sides there is passion and investment, which can often lead to bias. But it doesn’t have to: passion and investment in certain issues are inherent to our human nature, but I believe it is possible to discipline them and use them as tools in the pursuit of truth, rather than roadblocks thereof.

With all of this finally having been said, I will begin in my next post in this series to examine several issues: 1) Did Jesus even exist, and how can we know? 2) What facts can we know about the life of Jesus? and 3) What are our best sources for the life of Jesus?

Until then, I’d like to close with this quote from the opening paragraph of the introduction of The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders, a leading Jesus scholar:

“On a spring morning in about the year 30 CE, three men were executed by the Roman Authorities in Judaea. Two were ‘brigands’, men who may have been robbers, bandits, or highwaymen, interested in only their own profit, but who also may have been insurgents, whose banditry had a political aim. The third was also executed as another type of political criminal. He had not robbed, pillaged, murdered, or even stored arms. He was convicted, however, of having claimed to be ‘king of the Jews’ — a political title. Those who looked on, among whom were some of the women who had followed the third man, doubtless thought that their hopes for a successful ‘insurgency’ had been destroyed and that the world would little note what happened that spring morning. For quite some time the world…did indeed take very little note. It turned out, of course, that the third man, Jesus of Nazareth, would become one of the most important figures in human history. Our task is to understand who he was and what he did” [9].




[1]. Quoted in a review of Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by George Sim Johnston in The Wall Street Journal, November 12-13, 2005. Quoted in: Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. Print, 102.

[2]. Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Print, xxviii. Quoted in: Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Print, 17

[3]. Crossan, Historical Jesus, xxvii. Quoted in: Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. Print, 3.

[4]. Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. Print, 12.

[5]. ibid, 15-16.

[6]. Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. Print, 1-2.

[7] For specific references, see the Introduction and first chapter of Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Print.

[8]. Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. Print, 2.

[9]. Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Penguin Books, 1993. Print, 1.

Image credits:áulio Campos (


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