Historical Jesus Studies

“An Assessment of the Present State of Historical Jesus Research” is a popular level summary in a chapter included in a book by Sean McDowell, A New Kind of Apologist (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2016), Used by Permission.

Michael Licona (original article)

A few years ago, I boarded a plane for a very long flight. I had a new book I had saved for the trip and was very much looking forward to reading it. Shortly after I took my seat, an elderly man, probably in his eighties, took his seat next to me. I smiled thinking, He’s going to fall asleep and I’m going to get in a lot of reading. 

I was mistaken. Just after I began reading, my fellow passenger leaned over and looked very deliberately at the pages of my book. I smiled and showed him the cover. It was a book on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. He chuckled and said, “Well, I guess we don’t have to think seriously about that, since it has now been proven that Jesus never even existed!” He then sat up straight, as though our conversation had ended and now it was time to find something else to do. Hit and run? Not a chance, my new friend.

“Why do you think Jesus never existed?” I asked. This led to a short conversation on Jesus’s existence. It did not take long for him to concede that Jesus had, in fact, existed. But he maintained that “resurrections are impossible. There is no evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and it certainly could never be proved.” Perhaps you have had a similar discussion with someone and wished you had known how to reply. In what follows, I am going to discuss three key areas that will both inform and equip you to engage in intelligent discussions about Jesus with others.

Current State of Historical Jesus Studies

Our first matter is to define what is meant by the “historical Jesus.” Although scholars have not agreed on a definition, most would at least be satisfied with the following definition as a means to enter a discussion: When the data has been sifted, sorted, and assessed, the historical Jesus is the Jesus historians can prove with reasonable certainty and apart from faith.

It is important to observe that the historical Jesus is not the real Jesus who walked and taught in Judea and Galilee, but is the Jesus known through the results of historical investigation. The real Jesus was much more than the historical Jesus, just as a corpse in a grave was once much more than the minimal information described on the tombstone. And then there is the Jesus in the Gospels. This third Jesus is also a partial representative of the real Jesus who had many more elements to his personality and many more things that he said and did than could ever be reported in a Gospel with a length of less than twenty-five thousand words.

It is very important to understand these distinctions and many often fail here. In theory, these three Jesuses are not necessarily in conflict. For example, if historical investigation were some day to prove that the real Jesus did not claim to be the Son of God, the real Jesus and the historical Jesus would be in conflict with the Jesus in the Gospels, since the Jesus in the Gospels claimed to be the Son of God. On the other hand, the inability of historical investigation to determine whether Jesus was born of a virgin does not place the historical Jesus in conflict with the Jesus in the Gospels or the real Jesus, since the former will always be an incomplete figure. Accordingly, if historians cannot prove Jesus performed Event X, it is a misstep to conclude on that basis that it did not occur. To do so would be quite naive, since numerous events that actually occurred in the distant past cannot be verified.

How do historians arrive at conclusions regarding Jesus?

There are several approaches and various tools used within each approach. The most common approach at present is to recognize that Jesus was a Jewish itinerant preacher who lived in first-century Palestine in a culture that was both Jewish and Greco-Roman. This provides historians with a background knowledge that helps them obtain a more accurate understanding of what Jesus taught and the impact it may have had on those who heard him. They then apply what are referred to as criteria of authenticity to the words and deeds of Jesus as preserved in the Gospels. These criteria reflect commonsense principles. If two or more sources that are independent of one another provide similar reports of the same event, we can have more confidence that the event had occurred than if only one source had reported it. This is called the criterion of multiple attestation. For example, the Gospel of Mark and Paul’s letters are independent of one another. So, when both report that Jesus was buried, we have multiple attestation of the event.

If a source that is unsympathetic or even hostile toward the Christian faith provides a report that agrees with the Christian reports, we can have more confidence that the event had occurred, since the unsympathetic or hostile source would not have the bias carried by the authors of the Christian reports. This is called the criterion of unsympathetic sources. For example, Tacitus referred to Christianity as an evil and mischievous superstition (Annals 15.44). This identifies him as an unsympathetic source. So, when he reports Jesus’s execution by Pontius Pilate, a report entirely compatible with what we find in the Gospels, historians can have more confidence that the event had occurred.

If a report in the Gospels provides data that would have been embarrassing to the early Christian movement, we can have more confidence that the event had occurred, since it is unlikely that the author would have invented content likely to detract from the cause for which he wrote. This is called the criterion of embarrassment. For example, Mark reports that Peter rebuked Jesus and that Jesus in turn rebuked Peter, calling him “Satan” (Mark 8:31-33). Since Peter was a leader of the Jerusalem church, it seems unlikely that the early Christians would have invented and preserved a tradition that casts him in such an unfavorable manner.

Historians prefer to have reports that are from eyewitnesses or from a source whose report was written close to the event it purports to describe. This is called the criterion of early attestation. For example, almost all scholars agree that Paul has preserved an oral tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 that goes back to the earliest days of the Christian church and that the content of these verses, although not necessarily the creedal form in which the content appears, very probably goes back to the Jerusalem apostles.

It would be nice if historians could climb into a time machine, return to the past, and verify their conclusions. Since that is not possible, historians can establish matters with only varying degrees of certainty. And it is entirely possible that a lack of data could lead historians to arrive at a false conclusion. This is not only the state of affairs when historians investigate biblical events but also with every other purported event in antiquity. Accordingly, the fulfillment of one or more of the criteria of authenticity in relation to specific reports about Jesus may be said to establish their authenticity with “reasonable” but not “absolute” certainty.

Historians who investigate nonreligious matters have strenuously debated the nature of history for several decades. Understanding the many challenges to knowing the past faced by historians, some have claimed that the past cannot be known and that historians merely create their own narratives of the past based on their subjective interpretations of the data. These are known as postmodern historians. Although the debate concerning the nature of history continues, the majority of historians have come to reject postmodern approaches to history and embrace realism, the view that the past can be known to a degree. Of course, historical descriptions of the past will never be exhaustive, will vary in their accuracy, and can be established with only varying degrees of certainty.

Therefore, when speaking of Jesus, it is unreasonable to demand absolute certainty. This is important because many of the skeptics we encounter outside the academic world, and even some skeptics within it, have an approach that, in essence, says, “As long as there is an alternate explanation to the biblical account that cannot be absolutely disproved, the biblical account should not be taken seriously.” Such an approach suggests those holding this view have a sophomoric understanding of how the practice of history works. A competent historian embraces what he or she concludes is the most probable explanation of the available data, since there is little of the distant past that can be established with such certainty that no room remains for an extremely unlikely alternative.

The Jesus Mythers

During the past twenty years or so, a number of books and articles have appeared on the Internet arguing that Jesus is a myth who never existed. Viewing the biographical information of their authors reveals that only a handful have any academic credentials. Unfortunately, most people reading the literature written by “mythers” (as they are commonly referred to) are not accustomed to critical thinking by comparing sources. For them, Earl Doherty and Dee Murdock (aka Acharya S) are as credible as John Meier and N.T. Wright. Yet they are unaware that neither Doherty nor Murdock ever went beyond earning a bachelor’s degree while Meier and Wright earned doctorates in relevant fields and teach New Testament studies at prestigious universities.

I am not claiming the lack of academic credentials on the part of Doherty and Murdock prohibits them from having good arguments and, therefore, they should be ignored. However, it is true that they do not have the training and experience in the proper fields. As a result, they often make egregious errors and silly proposals that sound credible only to the naive.??1 Mythers are often guilty of twisting data, providing false claims, appealing to other sources who are also not scholars, requiring an unreasonable burden of proof before acknowledging the existence of Jesus while being unaware that the scenarios they have proposed in order to address the data border on unbridled fantasy. Readers should understand that publishing on the World Wide Web does not make one a world-class scholar, since the only credential one must have to publish on the Internet is to breathe.

It is noteworthy that one could count on one hand all the scholars in the fields of history and biblical studies who have been persuaded by the arguments of mythers. This is not because the majority of historians and biblical scholars are Christians (I seriously doubt that is the case). It is also noteworthy that even some atheist and agnostic scholars have blasted mythers for their poor arguments and treatment of the data.??2 Scholars simply refuse to give them much attention and regard them to be as absurd as holocaust deniers.

Discussing the Historical Jesus with Others

With the advent of the Internet in the nineties, an explosion of information became available to the public. Christians are far more likely to hear arguments from their skeptical family members, colleagues at work, and neighbors that are more sophisticated than what they may have heard before the Internet. Moreover, our culture has changed. People are easily offended and many regard truth as relative. Everyone has their own truth and thinks it is morally wrong to offend others by telling them you think they are mistaken.

The apostle Paul adjusted his approach to relate better to his particular audience.??3 We should do no less. We must be more careful than ever to be winsome in our interactions with nonbelievers. We can be respectful of those we disagree with and make an effort to listen to them while they present their views in the same manner we would like for them to listen to us while we present ours. We should not overstate our case but temper it. Instead of saying “The historical evidence proves that Jesus rose from the dead,” say “The historical evidence strongly suggests Jesus rose from the dead.” Instead of saying, “I know that I know Christianity is true,” say “In view of the evidence I’ve examined as well as the answers to prayer I have personally witnessed, I’m convinced Christianity is true.”

Remember the words of the apostles Peter and Paul. Peter wrote, “But set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts, always prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account concerning the hope in you” (1 Peter 3:15, author’s translation). Paul similarly wrote, “Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6, author’s translation).

It is important to recognize that presenting good arguments to a skeptic will not ensure he or she will be convinced by them. Their objections to following Christ may be intellectual (e.g., they are not persuaded by the evidence), emotional (e.g., their Muslim or Jewish family would disown them or they had a poor experience with one or more Christians or their father), or volitional (e.g., they do not want to believe because of pride or it may require them to alter their behavior).

It is their responsibility to make a proper decision. It is our responsibility to share the message of hope through Christ “with gentleness and respect” and “with grace,” as Peter and Paul taught. The gospel message is already offensive to some. We need not make it more offensive by presenting it in a manner that lacks gentleness, respect, and grace. When we combine more knowledge with a heart that deeply cares for our nonbelieving friends, we will be pleasantly surprised to find ourselves engaged in dialogues that are far more enjoyable and effective than we may ever have imagined.

Digitalized Manuscripts

The New Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

Since they began their work in 2002, a core part of their mission has been to make it possible to view and study New Testament manuscripts from anywhere in the world. They have worked toward this by traveling around the globe and capturing beautiful digital images of some of the most important extant manuscripts.

Today, they are taking another step forward by making it easier than ever for us to access manuscripts.

They’re launching the new CSNTM.org.

Here are some of the features that we can expect to find now and in the coming weeks:

  • New Manuscripts – They will be adding 10-20 new manuscripts to their website weekly for the next few months. These will be from the National Library of Greece in Athens (their ongoing project for 2015–16), as well as previously unposted images from hundreds of manuscripts and rare books in their collection.
  • New Look – They have revamped their entire website to make it both simpler and richer in content. They have new content, which narrates how they go about digitizing and archiving manuscripts. They also explain what goes into their extensive training program that enables their teams to work quickly while capturing high-quality images.
  • New Viewing Environment – The website is equipped with a new viewer, which makes it easier than ever to navigate manuscripts and view their stunning new images.
  • New Usability – Their new site is also designed to work perfectly with mobile devices and tablets, enabling us to view manuscripts or to access other resources quickly, whenever we need them.
  • New Search Features – The website is now outfitted with an extensive search functionality. Searches can be performed at the manuscript level, allowing us to find manuscripts that meet certain criteria (e.g., date, contents, material, location). They can also be performed at the image level, which allows us to find specific features within a manuscript. For instance, they now have a Jump to Book option that allows us to find the beginning of each book that a manuscript contains. Also, one can search tagged manuscripts for verse references. Every place, for example, in which John 1.1 is tagged will automatically populate when the verse is searched.
  • New Search Database – The search database holds tags for each manuscript and individual image. As their team continues tagging their growing collection, the search function will become more comprehensive each week. But the task is daunting. They want our help for the tagging!

If interested, you can reach them via their contact page:

http://www.csntm.org/

Please share their new site with colleagues and friends, so more and more people can continue to utilize CSNTM’s library, which is free for all and free for all time. They sincerely hope that you enjoy using the site. It represents a giant leap forward in accomplishing their mission: to bring ancient New Testament manuscripts to a modern world.


SO WHAT?

Look, I don’t read Greek.  It gives me confidence, however,  to know that scholars – Christian and non-Christians – who actually do read and do understand the Greek language have dedicated their whole lives to make sure that the thousands of manuscripts we have in our possession say pretty much the same thing.

It gives me confidence to know that the deity of Christ was NOT invented at the Council of Nicea, or that  – other than errors in spelling – the cardinal doctrines of Christianity have always been the same. Paul did not make them up. Nobody corrupted the manuscripts. We can prove it – because we kept them all 🙂

You might like to watch an interview with Daniel Wallace, who is the Executive Director for the NCSNTM. He speaks his mind into the New Testament (NT) tradition. The 5, 839 Greek NT manuscripts, plus the up to 20, 000 NT manuscripts in other ancient languages, plus the over a million NT quotations from the early Church Fathers definitely DO NOT help the Muslim conspiracy theory of Bible Corruption. We can zero in very, very well what the original text said. For the interview click here.

And since David Wood is one of my heroes, we also have his interview with Dr. Michael Licona about the Historical Jesus vs. the Muslim Jesus. To watch that interview, click here.

And last, but not least, an interview with Gary Habermas. During the last ten years, Dr. Habermas has dedicated all his efforts to update his bibliography on the major scholarly research on Resurrection (from 1975 to the present) in French, German and English – if you don’t mind. You can see the interview here.

Hope this helps 🙂

New Testament Contradictions

I have watched many debates and talks that discuss the New Testament  alleged contradictions. This has been a topic that grabbed my special interest ever since I was living in India. The reliability of the text of the New Testament is something that is particularly attacked in the Muslim world.

I hope Dr. Licona’s lecture on Bible Contradictions will help people realize that the contradictions are not really so. Also, you might want to watch some of Dr. Licona’s debates with Barth Erhman regarding the Resurrection of Jesus. You can easily find those on YouTube.

If you ever decide to give Dr. Erhman a chance to mess with your mind, I can assure you he will. I have come to appreciate him – only by watching his debates – and he seems like a nice, funny guy. Bart Erhman has made a living by writing books that create doubt in the minds of Christians. But that is all there is. He is good at casting doubt, but he kinda has a double standard.

In one of his famous books Misquoting Jesus, Erhman concludes that you cannot really trust the manuscripts, and therefore, you cannot really know what the original manuscripts of the New Testament said. However, in the same year when he wrote Misquoting Jesus (2005), he also cowrote an academic book called The Text of the New Testament with Bruce Metzger – the greatest manuscript scholar of the last century.

In The Text of the New Testament, Metzger and Erhman conclude that the manuscripts of the New Testament have been accurately copied, and that we know what the original ones said. So when Erhman writes for a lay audience, he says you cannot trust the manuscripts. But when he writes for an academic audience, Erhman says you can actually trust them.

Why would a respected scholar do this? Same year, same texts, but two different conclusions. I think Erhman knows he cannot get away with these conclusions within an audience that knows what he is talking about. But he can get away with it with the popular audience. And these books that cast doubt into the Bible text – unfortunately – are very popular and sell a lot of copies.

Actually, many Muslims adore Erhman because he is a former Christian who is now a critic of the New Testament. Muslims often exploit Ehrman’s work and parade his anti-Christian rhetoric in videos and articles.  It is important to note, tough, that Erhman, along with the majority of serious scholarship, holds the view that Paul was a true disciple of Jesus Christ who met with the leaders of the early church shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion – not a usurper.

Also, Dr. Ehrman remarks that we can say with confidence that Jesus actually did die, he probably was buried, and that some of his disciples (all of them or some of them?) claimed to have seen Him alive afterward. Erhman also says that NO scribe EVER changed the cardinal doctrines of Christianity i.e. Council of Nicea (on the divinity of Christ).

Now that you have the background on who Dr. Bart Erhman is, you can enjoy the lecture 🙂


If you have doubts about the Christian faith, have you put those doubts *themselves* to the test as much as you have Christianity?

Andy Bannister


Are there contradictions in the Gospels?