Historical Jesus

There is a massive artifact testifying to existence and work of Jesus, which is called the church. It can be categorized as a society, a culture, a corporation, or a network. It is the main source.

Unsurprisingly, the oldest churches have the most historical continuity with Jesus’ first century movement: this would mean the various Orthodox churches, the Catholic church, and the churches of the Middle East, which share similar structures, traditions and doctrines. The disagreements among these churches are mostly over culture and lines of authority. This main tradition is what I’m calling “the church”. The Anglican and Lutheran churches keep some continuity with this main tradition. The thousands of Evangelical churches, for all the noise they make in the English speaking world, are modern innovations which do not bother to claim historical continuity.

The church has preserved some documents, considered defining, about the life and work of Jesus – the New Testament. The texts of the New Testament are about as detailed as ancient biographies ever get. They are also (maddeningly for us moderns) stylized and highly theological. One thing that tends to be forgotten in polemics (again, thanks to noise made by Evangelicals) is that Christianity would exist even if the New Testament did not. The books were not written, and then the church come to be, but the other way around.

So the question is not whether or not we have historical artifacts of Jesus, we have a mountain of them, but how well the artifacts reflect their ultimate source. The question is unanswerable. Aside from the testimony of the church, there is no other testimony of Jesus.

Attempts to use the New Testament as a source independent of church tradition, to try and get “behind” the text to the “real” Jesus have been very productive insofar as they help show the theological structure and redaction of the texts, but have never achieved their main goal. Their method is to set criteria for a “certain” event or teaching of Jesus, discover those events or teachings in the text, and then create a parallel theory of Jesus out of those elements, proclaiming that they have discovered the historical Jesus.

But just because a particular method highlights some teachings and events as more certain, and others as less certain, does not mean that any of those events really did or did not happen. Compound the fact that the criteria of certainty and uncertainty are largely subjective, the resulting theory is meaningless. For example, theologians regularly divide the letters of St. Paul in to ones certainly written by him, ones possibly written by him or by a close disciple, and ones probably not written by him. They categorize the biography of Paul in Acts of the Apostles as being “possible, but not certain”, since he did not write it himself. They then limit their theories about St. Paul only to the “certain” texts, which gives a completely different picture of Paul than if they built their theories out of the “certain” texts and the “possible” texts.

The other problem is assuming a totality which the texts do not claim. To again use Paul as an example, it is thought that Paul wrote three letters to the Corinthians, the middle one being lost. Had the third been lost, and the second preserved, modern scholars would claim that Paul had never heard of the Eucharist.

It is possible however to shed indirect light on the sources. Our knowledge of first century Palestine and second Temple Judaism can help make sense of what is found in the Gospels. The problem of course is that the religious and cultural world of 1st century Palestine was largely destroyed by a Roman army in 70 AD. Our knowledge has been traditionally limited to the works of Josephus and the New Testament, neither of which claims to give a complete picture. Modern research has opened us up to the realization that there is more we do not know about Jesus’ cultural environment than what we do.

But what has been discovered can be enlightening. Take for example the changing picture we have of the Gospel of John: traditionally it was ascribed to Jesus’ disciple John the son of Zebedee, and thought to have been redacted by a close disciple of his. Then about a century ago it became fashionable to date the work to 120-140 AD (much too late to have anything to do with the son of Zebedee), written by a gentile influenced by Greco-Roman Gnosticism. In the late 2oth century, archaeological digs in Jerusalem have shown that the author of the Gospel of John was familiar with Jerusalem pre-70 AD, making a late dating impossible. After two thousand years of ignoring each other’s work, Christian and Jewish exegetes have been surprised to see that the dialogues in John are rabbinical misdrahes, and that John’s depreciating references to “the Jews” have strong parallels with other first century Jewish writings found at Qumram where “the Jews” refers to the religious authorities in Jerusalem, making the term not so much anti-Semitic as anti-Temple. In short, contemporary research suggests that the author of John was most likely a first century Jew with formal theological training, and ignorant of Gnosticism.

In short, there is no Jesus proposed to us except the Jesus proposed by the church, which is one of the themes of the New Testament anyway. St. Paul brushes off accusations that he never knew Jesus in the flesh, for him it has no bearing on his vocation as an apostle. John insists regularly on the theme of testimony: people believe in Jesus through human testimony. Much of the Gospel of Matthew is a commentary on church governance, an embryonic canon law. Likely, many of the books were never meant to be read outside of a Eucharistic celebration. In all the Gospels, Jesus sends his apostles to preach, to baptize, to repeat the words and rituals he taught them. The testimony can be accepted or rejected, but not explained away.



  1. There is a massive artifact testifying to existence and work of Jesus,

    Which is like saying JK Rowling Fan Clubs are testimony to the work(s) and existence of Harry Potter.

    1. A better modern analogy would be that the Henry Ford Motor Company suggests the existence of a man named Henry Ford, but nice try, Fredo.

      1. Well, there is plenty of real evidence to demonstrate that Henry Ford was a real historical person.
        If you have any evidence even remotely similar for the biblical character, Jesus of Nazareth then I would be very interested to read it.

      2. Ford Motor Corp IS real evidence.
        We are speaking analogously: the evidence is different in a document poor 1st century AD.

      3. But the christian church is NOT evidence of the biblical character, Jesus of Nazareth any more than Hinduism is evidence of the (reality of the) god Vishnu.

        You will have to do a little better than that, dp,
        Come on, dp, you’re an intelligent fella. Surely you have evidence that the biblical character, Jesus of Nazareth is a god?
        You wouldn’t believe in something supernatural unless there was overwhelming evidence if the veracity of your claims, would you?
        What was the evidence that convinced you?

      4. Hinduism is not an institution. The church is.

      5. Smile … here we go. Splitting hairs dp.
        Just so typical of the religious who have to be skilled at the theological two step.
        Again …. why not present the evidence that convinced you?
        Surely you have it? I mean, you wouldn’t accept something if it wasn’t true would you:you’re not indoctrinated or anything …. are you?

      6. Not splitting hairs at all. You are trying to equate two very different religions. Completely different self understanding, different ways of looking at life. Then you call ME ignorant!
        Check the discussion on your blog for a my answer to the rest of the question.

      7. It doesn’t matter how you try to conflate the argument it ends up the same in the end – worship of a deity.
        Now, you have not presented any evidence other than state you are prepared to give the nod to the gospels, which you know cannot not be trusted for historical accuracy.
        And analogous won’t cut it either.
        Even Marcion beat the church when it came to putting the Jesus Story down on paper.
        No, this crock cannot, surely be the evidence you turned to as a rational, critical thinking adult and said. This is IT!

        That is a bullshit answer and I am not prepared to believe you swallowed this crock and became a Christian.
        Come on, dp,present the real evidence

      8. Whatever theological styling you find in the Gospels, it is most reasonable to assume they are in continuity with the preaching of the apostles and therefore of Jesus. That’s the forest for the trees.
        Otherwise you need a conspiracy taking place sometime between 35 and 50 AD to explain the lack of continuity.

      9. What continuity? They read like a cribbed homework essay where the pupils completely effed up on the really important details so now you simply cherry pick the bits you like and can patch together to form a passable story.
        You are just spewing out the ‘party line’ dp. This is not what I would expect from someone as erudite as you come across as.
        I say once more, if you are not a product of childhood indoctrination where is the evidence that convinced you to become a Christian.

      10. Really? I read them as elaborately structured theological reflections.

      11. Reflections of what?

      12. Significance of Jesus.

      13. Significance is not evidence.
        So which is it?

  2. Hmm, I had forgotten about this interesting little ditty of a post. Don’t tell me you are still scratching around looking for evidence, dp?

    1. I’d forgotten too.
      The whole point of the post was that there isn’t any way to know Jesus outside of the testimony of the church. There is no “third party corroboration” to speak of, which is why it is called faith. Sorry if that was not clear above.

      1. It did come across as rather obtuse, but then I have been working rather a lot lately so maybe I’m just a little tired?

        Regardless, to paraphrase Twain; faith is merely believing something you know isn’t true. So why on earth t you continue to do it?

        That you still indulge in this nonsense is quite beyond me.
        I am surprised you don’t suffer from severe cognitive dissonance.
        Are you perhaps slightly schizophrenic or have you found a way to compartmentalize?

      2. Fundamentalist and atheist caricatures aside, there is nothing internally contradictory about faith.
        I think ultimately there are only two coherent options: materialism, or belief in the living God. Materialism might have internal coherence, but it strikes me as utterly unsatisfying.

      3. When you use the term ‘god’ you refer to a creator deity, not the biblical character, Jesus of Nazareth, right?

      4. I’m not sure it is possible to distinguish. I went through a deism phase as a teen. But I’m beginning to think that were it not for Yahweh/Jesus no one would ever have come up with deism. I might be wrong.

      5. The Jews would beg to differ …
        How do you come to the conclusion that you do?

      6. Hmmm. On the one hand Plato had his One from which being emanates, and Aristotle had his unmoved mover, a pure act of thought by which the cosmos moves in imitation, but these are not creators in the Christian sense. In these philosophies, the universe is co-eternal with “God”.
        Only after Christianity makes the claim of faith that the universe is not eternal, but created in time, does anyone start asking the question “why does the universe exit, and not nothing”.
        Deism wants a rational God to trot in, get the ball rolling, bow at the waist, and make his exit. The God of deism is a watered down version of the Christian God, a God of the gaps that satisfies the needs of a rationalist intellectual system, and not much else.

      7. So ow do you get from a human Jesus to a god, that you regard as THE creator?
        Philosophy not allowed …..

      8. Sorry, you are not allowed to ban philosophy from a discussion that involves the meaning of life.
        But maybe we can start with history.
        The main innovation of the Jews was to posit that their god was The God, one divinity with a universal jurisdiction, who takes personal interest in human history, to the point of leading history towards fulfillment. (Their approach is not philosophical, but the reason it is so powerful is because it gives answer to serious philosophical and existential questions.)
        Jesus is a Jew who claims to be bringing about a new stage of history, a new divine initiative to begin putting humanity right with God and with each other. He is immersed in Jewish tradition but also reinterprets it, in some ways turns it on its head. By picking 12 members for his inner circle (12 tribes) and instituting new rituals like baptism and Eucharist he is consciously refounding the people of God.
        The thing that gives him the authority to do this is his own identity as “The Son”.

      9. Well, we know where the Jews got Yahweh from and that he originally had a partner.
        The question I am asking is how do you go from a human, JC , to the infallible belief that this narrative construct is the creator of the universe. What is your source?

      10. Above I laid out, as briefly as I could, the basic story of the Jewish and Christian peoples.
        Are their claims about God true? I don’t think the question can be answered rationally.
        Are they believable? It has internal coherence. The idea of God proposed satisfies some philosophical and existential problems. It is possible that if such a being exists he could chose to reveal himself in a gradual, historical, cultural way; through an invitation to faith rather than a forensic demonstration.

      11. And still you sidestep the question, simply because you have no coherent answer, thus one is forced to conclude that what you believe is based nonsense to fulfill an emotional deficiency.

        However, if you dispute this then please tell me how you get from a human, Jesus , to becoming a god: the creator of the universe.

      12. I presented a narrative, you said “prove it” and I pointed out that it is neither provable nor disprovable. Which, again, is why it is called faith.
        No sidestepping involved.
        Otherwise I guess I don’t understand your question: are you talking about how historically Jesus came to be considered God? Be clear.

      13. I did not use the word proof, which is generally reserved for mathematics.
        I asked how you got from Jesus to the creator of the universe. based on what criteria.
        Please explain how YOU derive the creator of the universe from a human being.
        And the narrative is disprovable. If one aspect is false then there is no reason to believe any of it. As there are numerous falsehoods it can be decreed that the story has little or no merit.
        be that as it may, I still wish to hear your explanation.

      14. Hmmm… I’d take issue with your assertion about one aspect being false, etc. You can have different versions and interpretations of the same events, depending on the goals and biases of the narrator. You can even have varying eyewitness claims. You can even have aspects of a story that are not meant to be taken literally. That does not mean the event itself did not happen.
        So you are asking why I am a believer? I don’t think anyone can sum up all his reasons for his fundamental orientation towards reality. Perhaps I have motives of which I am not fully aware, but here are a few things:
        1.If the ultimate reality is personal, absolute intelligence and love, then human intelligence and generosity are meaningful; if the ultimate reality is matter, human intelligence and generosity are absurd. I think today there are the only two fully consistent options: faith or nihilism.
        2. The idea of a progressively self-revealing God in history is unexpected, but it strikes me as adequate to human experience: we are historical, cultural beings. The idea of an incarnate God is even more unexpected, but if God exists, why not?
        3. Given the proximity between the NT and the death of Jesus, it is reasonable to assume the NT is more or less in continuity with his core disciples and therefore with Jesus himself, so Jesus likely saw himself as some sort of Messianic figure ushering in a new era, taught on the nature of God, ideals of human behavior, established rituals for his followers as a re-establishment of God’s people, etc. The only problem is that his core followers seem to have been utterly convinced that he rose from the dead, making him in some sense divine.
        Of course this is impossible if he was not some sort of Messiah. But if God exists, why not?
        4. Lived experience plays into it I suppose. Not that I have ever had any “experience of God” in prayer or have ever witnessed preternatural events (nor do I care to) but I do have experience of attempting (at times) to live the gospel, of meeting others who are Christ-like. It is probably the least explainable aspect, but an important one.
        If I were to think about it I could probably come up with motives, but none of them would constitute definitive proof of anything.
        Why don’t you explain why you are an atheist? The existence or non-existence of God is something of an intellectual crap-shoot, our motives are usually elsewhere. Do you take some comfort in nihilism and absurdity?

      15. I don’t have to justify my non-belief in gods. There has never been evidence presented to warrant such a claim. For any gods.

        . I ask you once more, how do you get to believe that the narrative construct, Jesus of Nazareth goes from being a man to the creator of the universe?

      16. If you are unsatisfied with my response above, please reread the four points and explain out why.
        As for your assertion that you do not have to justify your atheism, it is false. In the history of humanity, atheism has never been the default position but merely the private fetish of village cranks and sociopaths.
        The statement that there is no such thing as gods or a logos governing the cosmos is a philosophical position that needs at bare minimum a strong motivation, and probably some form of justification.
        And you do not explain how you deal with the logical consequence of atheism, nihilism. You do not explain how you deal with the existential consequence of atheism, the utter absurdity of everything that makes human life unique.

      17. Ah .. and so you resort to idiocy.

        Like all so many are Jesus followers, you are a fraud and a hypocrite.
        We are done. ..

      18. How cryptic. No explanations?

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