Was There a Historical Jesus?

To Christians, the question if there was a real, historical Jesus is an absurd one. Believers would argue there is no question about there being a real Jesus in history. However, there are those critics such as Timothy Freke, a popular author, and Peter Joseph, the maker of the Zeitgeist film series, who assert that the real existence of Jesus is just a myth. Both sides of the debate at times try to co-opt the historical and academic side for their own, claiming that there is or isn’t any evidence for the historicity of Jesus. So what do independent, historical and religious scholars really have to say about if there was or was not a historical figure named Jesus who created a religious movement which became one of the most influential religions in history?

In investigating this question, scholars have two types of sources to turn to. The first of these are non-Christian texts. Four writers mentioned Jesus between sixty and one hundred years after his death. The first of these was the Jewish historian Josephus. jesus gosple His first mention of Jesus was only as “the so-called Christ.” Later, in a passage describing Jesus’ persecution and death, Josephus refers to him as “the Messiah.” His change in tone and the fact that Josephus lived and died as a Jew makes the passage suspicious. Scholars speculate that he did probably devote a few sentences to Jesus, but that a Christian scribe may have come along and “fixed” the passage.

The other three non-Christian sources all come from early Romans. Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor, mentioned Jesus in a letter asking the Emperor Trajan how he should deal with the Christians. He stated that the Christians took their name from someone called “Christus.” Jesus was mentioned again by the Roman senator and historian Tacitus. In his Annals he wrote that “Christus,” the founder of the Christians, had been sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. The last possible mention of Jesus was by the historian Suetonius. He wrote that the Jews in Rome constantly made disturbances at the insistence of someone called “Chrestus.”

The other sources that scholars have for Jesus’ historicity are Christian ones. Jesus’ earliest followers spread the Gospel, which means ‘Good News’, orally. Nothing was written down immediately after his death, likely because his followers expected Jesus to return in their lifetimes. This oral transmission resulted in believers preserving that which was useful to them. As circumstances changed Christians began to write the Good News down. What they wrote was heavily influenced by what the oral tradition had chosen to preserve. Accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection were religiously important and therefore common to all of the Gospels. Details less crucial to salvation barely survived at all, such as information on Jesus’ childhood.

It is important to keep in mind that from the moment Christians began writing they presented a diversity of views. Each Gospel writer had a unique focus, resulting in none of them telling the same story. It is impossible, from a historical and academic point of view, to confirm their accounts of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection. So what are we to conclude? Is there then anything that can be said about Jesus’ historicity at all? Did Christianity just emerge from what some people call the “Jesus Myth?”

Scholars would say no. It does seem safe to say, given the Christian and non-Christian sources, that Christianity had a historic founder. In other words, that Jesus did exist. He was a Jew from Galilee who began to preach when he was about thirty years old. After a short career he was arrested, tried before a Jewish court and a Roman official, and sentenced to death. His followers believed that after three days he rose again, and they began to spread the Gospel, what they called the Good News. What emerged is what historians call “The Jesus movement.” This was a movement that started as a disorderly following of one man from Galilee, and grew to become one of the most prolific religions in the world.

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