The Person of Jesus Part 5: Sources and Historical Method

In the previous post in this series, we examined the historical evidence pertaining to the existence of the person Jesus of Nazareth, concluding that the hypothesis that Jesus existed is most definitely the best explanation of all the relevant data and coming to understand why the overwhelmingly vast majority of scholars all agree that Jesus existed. But just knowing that some person Jesus of Nazareth existed doesn’t tell us very much about him, who he was, what he did, why he’s important, etc. To discover these things requires further inquiry, which we will now begin to undertake.

In an earlier post, I discussed what is known as the “historical Jesus” field of academia, and some of the reasons why it is so controversial and problematic. Within this field, there have been several main “quests for the historical Jesus”, or large, concentrated efforts to come up with some sort of definitive account of what, if anything, we can know historically about the life of Jesus. Each of these so called “quests” has had different focuses, methods, and results. It is widely agreed that the field is now currently undergoing the “third quest.”

Scholars in the field have a few main criteria of historical analysis that they use to determine whether they think a certain piece of information about Jesus is historically valid or not. The first issue is that of sources: what viable sources do we have from which to garner historical information about Jesus?

Here I must make a brief point. In discussion with several different people about this topic, an objection was raised that we must rule out the New Testament documents from the start, because they are religious in nature, and written by followers of Jesus who were extremely “biased” towards their beliefs. Now, from our position at the beginning of our historical search, it is quite obvious that yes indeed the New Testament documents are highly religious in nature, and they were written by followers of/believers in Jesus. But does this really mean we must automatically rule them out before we even begin our examination?

The issue of bias in historical method is discussed in relation to most all subjects, not just religious ones. Every writer and every historian has a worldview and set of beliefs/assumptions about the world to which they are predisposed. This is inevitable. For some, this fact is the ruination of any attempt at objective history. But for most, inherent biases don’t necessarily destroy the possibility of objective history. Instead, starting worldview can be acknowledged from the beginning, submitted to the control of standard methods, and used as a tool rather than a detriment. Scholar Michael Licona writes extensively on this in the first part of his The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach [1].

As I argued in the previous post, it may very well be that the New Testament documents offer us absolutely no viable information about the life of Jesus. It may very well be that the Gospels are so biased as to be completely untrustworthy. But it is just naive and unwarranted to rule them out from the start, before we even examine them at all. Furthermore, even a source that gives us no actual historical information about its subject matter can still be useful in understanding the writers of those sources themselves (in the last post I used the example of the Iliad to illustrate this).

As an example, suppose you get in a fight with someone and the police come to sort things out. You might very well be inclined to tell the police that the other man started the fight, whether or not it’s true, because you are obviously biased towards yourself and are automatically inclined to doing what is in your own best interest. So, the objector might likewise say, the writers of the New Testament believed certain things to be true about Jesus, and they wanted others to believe those things as well. In writing the documents, then, obviously they’re going to write only those things that support their beliefs, embellishing or completely inventing stories in order to do so. Perhaps they didn’t even consciously do so. After all, many skeptics say, we don’t even know who wrote the gospels, but it almost certainly wasn’t by anyone who actually knew Jesus personally. Instead, stories just circulated around about Jesus like a game of telephone, and legends and falsities took over, and by the time they were actually written down, no one actually knew anything about what really happened. We’ll deal with these latter claims in due course. But even if all those things are true, it still doesn’t warrant ruling the New Testament documents out as sources from the start. After all, if you do tell a police officer that the other man started the fight, he might suspect you’re lying because your biased towards yourself. But the simple fact that your story happens to align with your own interests, does not necessarily mean that you are definitely wrong, and that your testimony should be categorically rejected. It could absolutely be the case that the other man did start the fight, and that you are telling the truth. Bias rightly requires us to be careful, but not to be unfair or unjustifiably critical to an extreme degree. The only way to actually determine whether or not the New Testament documents contain any truth is by examining them, not by ruling them out from the start.

With all of that having been said, let’s go back to the original question: what viable sources do we have from which to garner historical information about Jesus? In the previous post we discussed the extra Biblical sources pertaining to the life of Jesus, written by many non-Christians and even those hostile to Christianity. Of course there are also extra Biblical sources which were written by Christians but not included in the canon, such as various letters and writings of the early Church Fathers. Many are probably familiar with the infamous extra biblical gnostic gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, gospel of Peter, etc.  All of these can be helpful and useful, especially in figuring out what people believed about Jesus. But by far and away the best sources for understanding the life of Jesus itself are the four canonical gospels, labeled Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as we shall come to see.

Now some people, especially lay apologists, choose to handle the examination of the gospels holistically, posing the question as “are the gospels historically reliable as a whole?” Most historical Jesus scholars, however, don’t look at things in this way, at least not entirely. Instead of asking “is the gospel of Mark a historically reliable document?” they’ll take certain sections, events, sayings, etc. within the gospel individually and evaluate it according to standard criteria. There might be some debate as to which method is actually better, but it’s probably possible to integrate both in different ways.

This statement probably needs some qualification. An obvious counter example is Craig Blomberg’s famous The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, which, as its title implies, does look at things more holistically. Other studies that look at the genre of the gospels are also more holistic. The difference between these scholarly approaches, however, and popular apologetic approaches, is that the latter tend to assume that if we can confirm that the gospels as a whole are generally reliable in their presentation of historical information, then we can automatically trust and assume that everything within the gospels are historically verified. But it doesn’t work that way. We will discuss this more further on.

Why is it that many scholars don’t look at things holistically? Well, one reason is that the gospel writers themselves weren’t just writing entire narratives out of whole cloth. Instead, they used, relied on, and integrated numerous different sources within their texts. The gospels that were written in whole, that are included in the canonical New Testament, are in large part made up of much earlier oral and written traditions. The culture in which Christianity was born was highly oral in nature: stories were told and passed on within communities, and the gospel writers eventually integrated these into their narratives. Now, some scholars and writers think this process casts significant doubt on the accuracy of the information, comparing it to the child’s game of “telephone”. Other scholars have offered good reason for thinking that, on the contrary, this process actually strengthens the reliability of the information, due to the very nature of an oral culture which places extremely high value on memorization and keeping the stories pure [2]. Scholars concerned with these matters study what is known as source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism. There is much, much more to say about this, but for now we’ll just list some of the main sources used by many scholars in extracting information about Jesus. The first is the Gospel of Mark, which is generally accepted as being the earliest written of the four gospels (although this is not without some controversy). Both Matthew and Luke used Mark almost in its entirety as a source. Matthew and Luke also contain many accounts that are almost exactly the same, thus leading a majority of scholars to conclude that they both used another common source, which has come to bear the name “Q.” It is debated whether this hypothesized Q was oral or written, but it is usually thought to be quite an early source. The material that is unique to the Gospel of Matthew, that doesn’t appear in any of the other gospels, is referred to as “M,” and the material unique to the Gospel of Luke is referred to as “L.” All together, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the synoptic gospels because of their relation in material, structure, wording, and order. John is also a source (and might itself have used various other sources), but much of John is completely unique and is generally thought to be later than the synoptics.

In the previous post, we looked at some criteria historians use to evaluate hypotheses to explain facts. There are different criteria used to evaluate the specific facts themselves. Historical Jesus scholars especially use the following, sometimes referred to as the “criteria of authenticity”. Craig Evans writes about them that they are “an attempt to apply common sense in trying to determine whether ancient documents are actually trustworthy sources for learning what happened, and who said what” [3]. Some of the standard criteria include:

  1. Multiple Attestation: “This criterion refers to sayings and actions attributed to Jesus that appear in two or more independent sources . . . Sayings and actions of Jesus that appear in two or more independent sources suggest that they were circulated widely and early and were not invented by a single writer” [4]. Furthermore, this criterion also applies not only to a saying/action within multiple sources, but also within multiple forms. J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace these as examples of different types of forms: “a miracle account, a parable, and/or apocalyptic settings” [5]. Craig Blomberg writes: “According to the first criterion, information or teaching that appears in more than one of the Gospel sources or in several of the different categories of passages identified by form critics may be accepted as authentic. The more independent testimony one has to an event, the more confident one may be of its accuracy” [6]. Considered simplistically, imagine if, in the scenario of the two men in a fight, both of whom tell the police the fault lies with the other, there were actually other witnesses. A lady walking down the sidewalk on the other side of the street. A man in his apartment that overlooked the scene, who opened his window and looked down when he heard that commotion. Imagine if these other, independent witnesses come forth and each separately tell the police what they say. If their independent testimonies agree with each other, and there aren’t other, overriding reasons for doubting them, then it is highly likely that their testimony is true. In the same way, if multiple different sources about Jesus all independently relate some saying/event, then it becomes much more likely that it is historical, and that any single person isn’t just inventing or making up the saying/event, but rather that it was a well known account that goes back to the historical Jesus.
  2. Embarrassment: This criterion is one of the most intriguing, for it can tell us quite a lot both about Jesus, and the earliest of his followers. It stipulates that any accounts of Jesus or his disciples which would have been embarrassing for the early church to include, are much more likely to be authentic. Consider our example again. Suppose, in your telling the police officer who started the fight, that you admit that when the other man started the fight, you yourself were doing something illegal. The fact that you admit something potentially damaging to yourself and your reputation increases the officer’s trust in your statement. Writes Evans, “material that potentially would have created awkwardness or embarrassment for the early church is not likely something that a Christian invented sometime after Easter. ‘Embarrassing’ sayings and actions are those that are known to reach back to the ministry of Jesus, and therefore, like it or not, they cannot be deleted from the Jesus data bank” [7]. Another writer adds, “The only reason to put such embarrassing sayings in the Gospels is that they were really uttered. It is hard to imagine the early Christians inventing embarrassments for themselves when they already had enough problems for persecution!” [8]. In other words, if you are creating a story about someone whom you highly respect and revere, why would you invent things about him that are embarrassing or awkward or difficult to explain? It is much more likely that such accounts are not invented, but are included because the writers were trying to accurately convey what actually happened, and they could not in good conscience leave out those elements. Even though they might be embarrassing, they were true, and thus the writers felt bound to include them. This applies not only to sayings/actions of Jesus in the gospels, but to his followers as well. Often times in the narratives, Jesus’s followers are presented as ignorant, doubtful, weak, and even immoral. How utterly shameful must it have been for Peter, one of the highest, best known leaders of the early church, to tell everyone that at one point he actually denied his Lord! Why would he make something like that up, if it were not true
  3. Dissimilarity: This is perhaps the most controversial of the criteria, and is oftentimes extremely abused. Put simply, “this criterion essentially says that if a saying attributed to Jesus differed from the teachings of the Judaism of his day and from what the early church later taught, then the saying must be authentic. The reason for this is easy to understand: If such a saying cannot be found in Judaism prior to Jesus, then there is good reason to think that it really goes back to him and not earlier. And if the early church did not pick up on it, then obviously they did not invent the saying and put it on Jesus’ lips” [9]. In other words, suppose we came across one of Jesus’s parables, but we noticed that the exact same parable was delivered by another Jewish rabbi fifty years before Jesus is born. Then the possibility arises that the writers of that gospel are just taking the parable from this earlier rabbi, and that Jesus didn’t actually say it. Of course, it is possible that Jesus still did actually say it, just borrowing it from the earlier rabbi. But we would have reason to be suspicious, and we could not confirm that the account is authentic. Likewise, some scholars maintain that the writers of the gospels invented some sayings that would be useful to their current context. For example, if the writer of the gospel was a member of a local church body that debated when Jesus would return, wouldn’t it be easy to just slip some words about that into Jesus’s mouth in the text, thus giving them authority and addressing the problem? If, however, a saying in the gospel was not used by/pertinent to the early church, then there would be no reason to think that they had any purposes in inventing it. Blomberg explains: “[the criterion] maintains that where the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus differs from the typical perspectives both of ancient Jewish belief and early Christianity, then one may be sure of having authentic Jesus-tradition. Because Jesus seemed to stand out so much from his contemporaries and because his followers so easily deviated from his demanding requirements, this criterion has appealed to many as the most helpful” [10].
  4. Coherence: Finally, this criterion (often divided into two separate criteria) addresses whether a specific saying/action of Jesus coheres 1) with the larger, already constructed picture of the life of the historical Jesus, with other actions/sayings of his that have already been accepted, and 2) with the overall background of historical context/circumstance in which Jesus lived and operated. “Deeds and sayings attributed to [Jesus] in the Gospels that cohere with these major elements and, indeed, help us understand these major elements should be judged authentic” [11]. Imagine if we came across a quote attributed to Jesus that addressed some use of modern technology. Obviously we would not only doubt this quotation but flat out reject it, because Jesus lived two thousand years ago when there was no modern technology. Or imagine if we come across a saying wherein Jesus supposedly encourages Zeus worship. While not physically impossible as in the last example, this would nonetheless be drastically inconsistent with what we know about Jesus’s life and context. Jesus was a Jew living in first century Palestine who would have rejected pagan worship as blasphemous to the one, true God of Israel. This criterion is somewhat weaker individually than the others in that it basically just brings them all together and asks whether a certain saying/action is consistent with the other criteria. One must be careful, though, because “to the extent that they have painted an inaccurate picture of the real Jesus, this criterion will be invalid” [12].

These are the main criteria used, although there are others also frequently employed. However, the use of all these criteria have been widely contested and utterly misused. A few scholars have suggest throwing out and disregarding them entirely, coming up with a some different method of authentication. Many scholars support a more moderate, sober application of them that utilizes their strengths but recognizes their weaknesses, warning against the not infrequent overstepping of their inherent limitations.

These criteria for the most part are entirely positive in nature, telling us only what we can accept as authentic, not what we can actually reject as inauthentic. But many scholars nonetheless use them in this latter way. Consider multiple attestation, for example. Just because a saying is not multiple attested does not at all mean it didn’t actually happen. Most of what happened in history has absolutely no attestation whatsoever at all, and yet it would be utterly ridiculous to hold that ninety percent of all history didn’t happen. Instead, multiple attestation can only tell us whether a saying/event is more likely to be authentic. Likewise, just because an account isn’t embarrassing doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It just means that that particular criterion can’t be used in addressing the account, to either affirm or deny its historicity. Coherence might be an exception, because, as in our example, if an account is so wildly inconsistent with what we know already so as to be completely implausible, then we have reason to reject it. But that criterion itself is already weaker and relies in its function on the other criteria anyways.

This issue is especially seen in the criterion if dissimilarity. It would be absolutely absurd to say that nothing in Jesus’s life would’ve reflected first century Judaism. Jesus was, after all, a Jew! For example, one might incorrectly use this criterion to reject the last supper account, because it contains elements of traditional Jewish passover celebration and thus is not entirely unique to Jesus. But of course Jesus, as a Jew, would have celebrated passover! Likewise, we should most definitely expect much of what is attributed to Jesus to be similar to what the early church taught. They were his followers who were trying to teach and spread his message. Writes Blomberg:

“[The criterion of dissimilarity] can point only to what was distinctive about Jesus, and many critics make the grave mistake of arguing that wherever the Gospels do not depict Jesus as noticeably different from both his predecessors and his followers then they must be rejected as inauthentic” [13].

And Evans explains further:

“What this form of the criterion is trying to do is to rule out sayings and deeds that may have originated in Jewish circles, on the one hand, or in early Christian circles, on the other . . . The problem with the criterion applied this way is that it rules out almost everything attributed to Jesus. After all, Jesus was Jewish and much of what he taught reflected themes and concepts current among religious teachers of his day (not to mention Israel’s scriptures). So shouldn’t we expect Jewish tendencies and emphases to be present in authentic teachings of Jesus? Of course. And the early church clung to Jesus’ teachings as precious and formed its thinking and practices in conformity with it. So shouldn’t we expect lines of continuity between Jesus and the movement that he founded? Yes” [14].

And elsewhere:

“All of these criteria have their place and can make (and have made) useful contributions to the scholarly study of the historical Jesus. They enable historians to give good reasons for judging this saying or that deed attributed to Jesus as authentic. The problem is in assuming that everything that is attributed to Jesus that does not enjoy support from one or more of the criteria should be regarded as inauthentic. Lack of support from the authenticity criteria does not necessarily mean that the saying or deed in question cannot derive from Jesus” [15].

In essence, “these criteria should not be used to deny what Jesus might have said, but only to confirm it” [16]. That is how historical method of this type works. That is what the criteria are designed and meant to do. To use them otherwise is to abuse them.

Of course, as I said, some scholars have shied away from using them. Craig Blomberg is one such example. He says at the conclusion of his book The Historical Reliability of the Gospels:

“The proper procedure for evaluating the historicity of any portion of the Gospels is thus to assume from the outset that its testimony is reliable and then to consider the force of various objections that might cause a person to change his or her mind. Much critical scholarship, however, inverts this process altogether by assuming the Gospels to be unreliable unless powerful evidence can be brought forward in defense of specific passages or themes. The type of evidence accepted in this latter enterprise is that which passes stringent ‘criteria of authenticity’. Not surprisingly, many scholars who adopt this method accept a much smaller percentage of the Gospel material as authentic. Clearly, much depends on one’s starting point” [17].

These represent two completely opposite frameworks: assume that the gospels are generally historically reliable unless good overriding evidence is brought forth for thinking other wise; or, assume that we cannot know whether anything in the gospels is historically reliable or not until good evidence is brought forth for thinking a specific saying/deed within the gospel is authentic. Now, it might be thought that the former framework is suspect, but it should be noted that the general historical reliability of the gospels is not some unexamined theological presupposition implemented by Blomberg’s part, rather it is a historical conclusion of his study of the gospels as a whole, as presented in his book. While I think there is much correct about Blomberg’s method, since the majority of scholars operate within the latter framework, and since this provides more common ground with those who don’t accept much of the gospels’ historicity, I will mostly be using the latter method, with appropriate consideration of the former where beneficial.

In the next post, we will begin to take a closer look at the gospels and specific sayings/events therein to determine their authenticity.



[1]. Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Print.

[2]. See, for example, Craig Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels or Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

[3]. Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. Print, 47.

[4]. Ibid., 48.

[5]. Komoszeki, J Ed, Sawyer, James M, and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006. Print, 44.

[6]. Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007. Print, 311.

[7]. Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. Print, 49.

[8]. Komoszeki, J Ed, Sawyer, James M, and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006. Print, 46-47.

[9]. Ibid., 39-40.

[10]. Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007. Print, 311.

[11]. Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. Print, 48.

[12].  Komoszeki, J Ed, Sawyer, James M, and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006. Print, 46.

[13].  Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007. Print, 311.

[14]. Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. Print, 50.

[15]. Ibid., 51.

[16]. Komoszeki, J Ed, Sawyer, James M, and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006. Print, 40.

[17]. Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007. Print, 310.

Image credits:áulio Campos (


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