So far in this series, we have examined Jesus’s impact on the world, introduced the academic field of historical Jesus work, shown that the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is so firmly established in history that virtually all scholars accept it, examined the various criteria and methods which historians use in determining historicity, and looked briefly at the nature of the gospels as sources. To remind, the purpose of this series since its beginning was the look at the identity of Jesus, not necessarily the historicity of all the events in his life or the reliability of the gospels, etc. We have very briefly touched on these things (having to leave out much) in order to set up and provide a foundation for our ultimate turn to questions of identity. In this post, we will look at several events from the life of Jesus and try to determine their historicity.
If you remember from Part 4, I gave a list from respected agnostic scholar E. P. Sanders of events in the life of Jesus which are generally accepted by a vast majority of scholars. In this post we will be examining some of these events and seeing why it is the case that they are so widely affirmed.
To start: Jesus was from Nazareth. In the words of Sanders: “he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village” . This isn’t exactly a controversial claim, but it’s worth examining, just to exercise our use of the criteria/methods we’ve learned. First, multiple attestation. Remember, this criterion states that 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. As scholar Craig Keener states, “that Jesus was from Nazareth is multiply, independently attested” . It’s found in Mark–in fact, the very first time Jesus comes on the scene in Mark it says: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth” . It’s found in John, and in fact the writer of John goes to some great lengths to try to work around this “embarrassing” fact, as we’ll see. It is in M (the material unique to Matthew), and in L (material unique to Luke).
By far and away the best reason for affirming the authenticity of Jesus’s background from Nazareth is its consideration under the criterion of embarrassment. If you remember, this criterion 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. This also applies to material which is not just embarrassingly, but which the church would have had no reason at all to invent. As Keener says, “No one would have invented Jesus’ Galilean background. Such a background was obscure to most people in the Diaspora, and Judean critics would employ it as a matter of scorn” , and elsewhere: “No one would invent Nazareth as a background for Jesus . . . Nazareth is too insignificant a site for tradition to have invented; indeed, such a place of origins could count against one’s credibility” . We can even see this in John:
“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” .
As for the criterion of dissimilarity, nothing in first century Judaism would have led people to expect the Messiah to come from Nazareth; the village is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. More could be said, but this quick overview gives us a good indication for why Jesus’s background in Nazareth and Galilee is not really in dispute.
Next: Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. This event, along with Jesus’s general relationship with John, is multiply, independently attested in Mark and John (John doesn’t specifically narrate the baptism, just an encounter between the two), and is suggested in Q (common source used by Matthew and Luke). Again most importantly, the event fulfills the criterion of embarrassment. John’s baptism was for repentance of sin, and yet the early church believed Jesus was sinless; so why would they make up a story of Jesus being baptized in such a way? Furthermore, why would the church make up a story of Jesus submitting to John, thus making Jesus look inferior? As Keener notes, “The Gospels, eager to exalt Jesus, would hardly have invented his submission to John’s baptism or portrayed Jesus’ ministry as chronologically following John’s . . . if John did not genuinely play an important role in Jesus’ ministry” . We can clearly see the difficulty and embarrassment early Christians must have felt at this fact in the way they try to deal with it. Matthew includes a quick objection from John: “But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” . Keener explains more fully:
“Given the embarrassment of some early Christian traditions (both in the canonical Gospels and in the early Gospel of the Nazoreans) that Jesus accepted baptism from one of lower spiritual status than himself, it is virtually inconceivable that early Christians made up the story of John baptizing Jesus . . . The Gospel writers did not wish to emphasize that Jesus had been subordinate to John’s ministry in some way, especially so close to the beginning of Jesus’ own. Following their sources, however, the Synoptics retain this information, albeit in the barest form” .
Next: Jesus called disciples. Now we should be careful here to make several distinctions between three facts: first, that Jesus had disciples at all should be fairly obvious, considering that these would be the first Christians who started the movement which became the church. This is separate from the fact that Jesus called disciples, which is significant on its own. Jesus acted as a Jewish teacher or sage, called “rabbi” (which just means teacher) frequently by both those within and without of his following. Later in rabbinic Judaism rabbi would become a formal title which would not fit Jesus, but at Jesus’s time it was used informally. With most rabbis, it was standard for their disciples to choose them, not the other way around. Jesus, however calls and selects his own followers. Keener writes:
“That Jesus actually called disciples to follow him, regardless of the consequences for livelihood and social ties (Mk 1:20; 2:14), suggests a perception of his identity quite different from that of the normal Jewish teacher. Normally disciples chose teachers; only the most radical teachers . . . called their own disciples, with the expectation that the disciples would follow . . . many of [the people at that time] would have felt it dishonorable for the teacher to seek out the disciple” .
So here we have the criterion of dissimilarity and perhaps of embarrassment at play. The calling of disciples is also multiply attested in Mark and John. That Jesus had an “inner circle” of twelve main disciples, later designated “apostles”, is also very well established. Especially considering the types of people included within this inner twelve, such as fishermen and a tax collector. Keener notes that no one would be likely to invent these as Jesus’s closest followers, and concludes, referring scholar Ben Witherington:
“‘Fishers of humans’ [the phrase used by Jesus in his calling of some of the disciples] is hardly a later Christian image for mission, yet the metaphor makes sense if some of Jesus’ earliest disciples were fishermen. The narrative also hardly drew the image of Jesus recruiting disciples from Jewish practice (it was neither traditional Jewish nor subsequent Christian practice); finally, Luke 5:10 attests the ‘fishers of humans’ sayings in a different context and form, perhaps supporting the saying’s authenticity by means of multiple attestation. Some of the above arguments are more convincing than others, but cumulatively the most convincing of them offer a very strong case” .
In addition, we may note that the existence of an inner twelve group of disciples is multiply and indecently attested well beyond just the general calling of disciples. They are mentioned in Q, M, L, and John. In Acts 1, they are referred to as “The Twelve”, even though Judas has already died, indicating that it has become almost an ingrained title. Furthermore, the twelve are mentioned completely outside of the gospel writers in one epistle of Paul, 1 Corinthians chapter fifteen. Here he refers to them as “the Twelve” and even mentions Cephas (Peter) by name. Others of the twelve are mentioned individually throughout the rest of the New Testament documents.
Next: Jesus preached the ‘Kingdom of God’. Scholar Craig Evans notes that “it is almost universally agreed that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God and that he recommended changes of thinking and behavior in view of its appearance” . And Keener echoes that “because virtually every stratum of Gospel tradition testifies that Jesus regularly announced the kingdom, there should be no doubt that this was a characteristic emphasis of Jesus’ teaching” , meaning that it is extremely well attested, and seems to be at the very center of Jesus’ entire teaching ministry. Indeed, the very first words spoken by Jesus in Mark are: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the [good news]” .
The concept of the “kingdom of God”, which means the rule or reign of God, is not unique to Jesus; it was a widespread Jewish concept with roots reaching back to the Old Testament (see especially Daniel 7). Jesus’ understanding and use of the concept might have some distinctiveness, such as in his radical discipleship and ethical demands. We could spend more time going into the meaning, but it should suffice to say here that there is no doubt he proclaimed the kingdom of God as central to his overall message.
Since this post is hardly meant to be exhaustive, but rather to just give a very general outline of some key events and themes in Jesus’ life, we will here move towards the end: Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ death by crucifixion is perhaps one of the single best attested historical facts we have from ancient history. It is, above practically every other piece of information, just about universally affirmed. Many even very skeptical scholars have referred to it as “indisputable” . It is not only multiply attested in the gospels and their sources, but in many of the New Testament documents, and by a fair number of other ancient sources entirely outside of the Christian movement, some of which we already encountered in the post on the existence of Jesus. Scholar Mike Licona summarizes:
“It is very probable that Josephus reported the event in his original version of Antiquities of the Jews 18.3. Tacitus, Lucian and Mara bar Serapion are all certainly aware of the event. Lucian adds that Jesus’ crucifixion took place in Palestine. In Christian sources, Jesus’ execution is widely reported, with and without specifying the mode of crucifixion. All four canonical Gospels report Jesus’ death by crucifixion as do numerous other books and letters of the New Testament that refer to it regularly. Jesus’ death and/or crucifixion are also abundantly mentioned in non canonical literature. Moreover, there is no ancient evidence to the contrary” .
And he concludes:
“In summary, the historical evidence is very strong that Jesus died by crucifixion. The event is multiply attested by a number of ancient sources, some of which are non-Christian and thus not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events. They appear in multiple literary forms, being found in annals, historiography, biography, letters, and tradition in the form of creeds, oral formulas, and hymns. Some of the reports are very early and can reasonably be traced to the Jerusalem apostles. The Passion Narratives appear credible, since they fulfill the criterion of embarrassment and contain numerous plausible details” .
The element of criterion of embarrassment should hardly have to be mentioned here. The followers of Jesus were expecting a victorious king to triumphantly conquer his enemies, not be crucified at the hands of the Romans. If anything, the crucifixion would have been proof that Jesus was not the Messiah. As Paul himself admits, Christ crucified is “to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness” .
So in this post we have established and defended these facts about the life of Jesus: 1) He was from Nazareth in Galilee, 2) he was baptized by John the Baptist, 3) he called disciples, including an inner group of twelve “apostles”, 4) he preached the kingdom of God, and 5) he died by crucifixion. This does not even exhaust the list of sixteen facts given by E. P. Sanders as virtually undeniable and accepted by a vast majority of scholars. Some others of these we take a look at as we go on. Specifically, I’ll just list here a few facts directly relevant to Jesus’ resurrection, which I will then defend in a future post focusing on the resurrection on its own. I’ll quote them again from Licona. First, “very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them”, and second, “within a few years after Jesus’ death, Paul converted after experiencing what he interpreted as a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him” . These, again, are accepted by virtually all scholars working in the field, both believers and skeptics alike.
We should make a quick point here in conclusion. Contrary to popular claims that “nothing can be known historically about the life of Jesus”, here we have given four simple and yet firmly established facts, a mere four, which are yet sufficient to give quite a fair outline of his life all on their own. Even if we could not historically validate any other facts from the Gospels, these alone would go a long way in giving insight into such a spectacular human being, and in supporting the general view of him presented in the gospels.
. Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Penguin Books, 1993. Print, 10.
. Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. Print, 182.
. New American Standard Bible (NASB).The Lockman Foundation, 1995. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+1%3A9&version=NASB
. Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. Print, 178.
. Ibid., 182.
. New American Standard Bible (NASB).The Lockman Foundation, 1995. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=john+1&version=NASB
. Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. Print, 165.
. New American Standard Bible (NASB).The Lockman Foundation, 1995. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+3&version=NASB
. Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. Print, 176.
. Ibid., 203.
. Ibid., 184.
. Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. Print, 230.
. Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. Print, 196.
. New American Standard Bible (NASB).The Lockman Foundation, 1995. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=mark+1&version=NASB
. For a list of such quotes, see here: <https://jamesbishopblog.wordpress.com/2015/11/24/jesus-fact-4-crucifixion-full-historical-investigation/>.
. Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Print, 305.
. Ibid., 312.
. New American Standard Bible (NASB).The Lockman Foundation, 1995. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+corinthians+1&version=NASB
. Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Print, 303.
Image credits: FreeImages.com/Bráulio Campos (http://www.freeimages.com/photo/jesus-1480847)