Posted by: Ken Brown | November 2, 2008

Evidence for the Historical Jesus

In his several posts on the subject, Stephen Law’s primary argument for skepticism about Jesus’ existence is that the inclusion of so many miraculous events in the Gospels should lend doubt even to the mundane details given. This is, in fact, a valid objection to which could be added the important point that the gospels do show some evidence of embellishment and fabrication. He is correct that we cannot uncritically accept these texts as straightforward historical accounts. But neither can the simple fact that they include miracles automatically disqualify them as fabrications. Even if we reject all the miracle stories as too poorly attested to be believed, there are, in fact, many other aspects of the Jesus tradition which make it almost certain that it derives from a genuine historical core.

In my last post on the historical plausibility of Jesus’ existence, I noted that, even in the absence of any other evidence, the claim that he was crucified is itself very good evidence for his existence. In short, the argument runs as follows: 1. We know from independent sources that a number of messianic claimants were killed by the Romans in 1st C. Palestine; 2. We know from independent sources that crucifixion was seen as an extremely shameful death, more likely to be covered up than made up; and yet 3. We know that the early Christians were emphatic that Jesus had been crucified. Quite apart from any dubious reconstruction of motives, it is much more probable that the Christians really did believe their leader had died in this way than that they created the story from scratch. It was simply too big a liability to have been invented (indeed, it opened them up to insistent ridicule from both Jews and Greeks, leading some later Christian heretics to claim that Judas was actually tricked into dying in his place).

Thus, the crucifixion rightly stands as the most important point in any case for the historicity of Jesus, but it is by no means the only reason to believe he existed. I would now like to lay out a few of the other important evidential points which, all combined, not only make Jesus’ historical existence almost certain but also lend a level of support to the broad-scale reliability of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Here I am building on Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd’s 2007 book The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition:

External Evidence: As has widely been recognized, the external evidence for Jesus’ existence is far from overwhelming. If we lacked the New Testament, we truly would have little reason for confidence in Jesus’ existence. None of the extant sources provide unquestionable evidence, but several of them are important. For instance, the Gospel of Thomas seems to include some early traditions about Jesus that are independent of the canonical Gospels. Since it is a collection of sayings rather than a narrative, it obviously provides no evidence of the activities of Jesus, but it does offer a measure of confirmation for his existence, and since it includes no miracles, Stephen’s objection on that point can be dismissed.

Among non-Christian sources, things are more dubious. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews twice mentions Jesus, but both cases have been widely dismissed as later Christian interpolations. There are strong arguments both ways, so any conclusion must be tentative, but in my view, the reference to James, “the brother of Jesus, who is called Christ” (20.9.1) seems very slightly more likely to be original than an interpolation for a variety of reasons. In contrast, the fuller description of Jesus (18.3.3) has clearly been tampered with, but there are good reasons to think this tampering represents secondary attempts to Christianize an already existing reference. For instance, the distinctly Christian elements (“if it be lawful to call him a man,” “He was the Christ,” “for he appeared to them alive again the third day”) all interrupt the flow of the passage. When these are removed, the resulting text is as follows:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

This reconstructed text boasts a number of elements which are unlikely to have been invented by Christians (such as the claim that the Jewish leaders who accused Jesus were “men of the highest standing among us” and the reference to Christians as a “tribe”). It also finds support in the modern discovery of a 10th C. Arabic translation of this text (first published in 1971) in which the three clear Christian interpolations are all absent or altered, confirming their secondary nature. Admittedly, the case is not certain, but Josephus does at least provide potential confirmation of Jesus’ existence and crucifixion.

Outside of Josephus, matters are even less clear. Though we have a variety of later non-Christian references to Christ, it is unlikely that any of them provide genuine independent evidence of his existence. Still, it should be noted that the later critics—like Taticus (an early 2nd C. Roman historian), Celsus (who wrote an attack on Christianity in the late 2nd C.), and several references in the Jewish Talmud—all denigrate Jesus (and his followers) rather than dismissing his existence outright. Since ancient philosophers and historians did occasionally question the existence of various mythic figures (such as the Homeric heroes), it is reasonable to think that if these critics knew of any reason to doubt his existence, they would have mentioned it. This is, admittedly, an argument from silence, but the fact that such was never claimed is at least noteworthy, though by no means conclusive.

Again, if such references were all we had, Jesus’ existence would rightly be in serious doubt. Though these might provide a measure of confirmation, it is the New Testament itself which must provide the most important evidence for an historical Jesus, and it does in fact deliver. Of the many issues that could be raised here, we will focus on just three aspects of the Synoptic Gospels (particularly Mark, widely recognized as the earliest), in increasing order of importance: 1. The inclusion of various incidental details which point to early Palestinian tradition; 2. The omission of any retrojection of various issues of central importance to 1st C. Christianity; and 3. The inclusion of embarrassing details about Jesus’ life.

1. Inclusion of Incidental Details: The gospels include a number of details about early 1st C. Palestine (including knowledge of geography, customs, and figures) that do not appear to be “ideologically motivated,” and can point to an historical core to the story. This evidence is, admittedly, the least secure of those we will discuss, as a knowledgeable author could perhaps have added such details even if writing fiction, but at the least, they help establish the knowledgeability of the Gospel writers (or the traditions they are based on) and point to the early, and very Jewish, nature of the tradition as it has come down to us.

To name just one class of evidence here, note that despite the fact that our Gospels were written in Greek (and are widely claimed by Jesus-deniers to be thoroughly Hellenized), they include a number of Aramaisms which point to much older Jewish traditions. Examples from Mark include Jesus’ use of Abba, meaning “father” (14:36); talitha koum, meaning “little girl, get up!” (5:41); Ephphatha, meaning “Be opened!” (7:34); Rabbi , meaning “teacher” (9:5); and especially Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, meaning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (15:34). The fact that all of these (except Rabbi) are glossed into Greek points to their being holdovers from an older tradition. Additionally, the last of these also fulfills the criterion of embarrassment (see below), as it runs counter to the usual depiction of Jewish martyrs as unperturbed and confident of their salvation (cf. Acts 7 and the 1st C. text 4 Maccabees), and is thus omitted from Luke and John.

That such Aramaisms were not simply added to give the account an artificial sense of antiquity is evident from the fact that the tradition itself shows a tendency to remove rather than add them (thus Matthew and Luke eliminate most of these). This, by itself, does not prove that the tradition goes back to Jesus, only that it goes back to the earliest Christians who spoke Aramaic, but it does lend considerable doubt to the notion that Jesus was fabricated to correspond to the Greco-Roman redeemer myths. If there are parallels to such non-Jewish myths (they are never explicitly invoked in the New Testament), such is more likely to be a secondary layer of interpretation of an older Jewish Jesus tradition than its original source.

2. Omission of Relevant Issues: A more important point is the omission from the Gospels of a number of items that we might have expected them to include if they were pure fabrications. The tradition does show some tendency towards reading later issues back into the life of Jesus (e.g. the anachronistic mentions of expulsion from the synagogue in John 9:22; 12:42 and 16:2), but it is surprising how many of the topics that were highly controversial in the first century church (as indicated by the New Testament epistles) go unmentioned in the Gospels. For instance, given that Jesus was incessantly referred to as the Christ by the early Church (the NT Epistles are full of references), it is remarkable that the Gospels present Jesus as downplaying this title. Such is extremely difficult to imagine being a fabrication.

Alternatively, other vital issues are entirely ignored by Jesus, such as the necessity or unimportance of Gentiles being circumcised in order to become Christians (an issue which divided Paul from the Jerusalem church, including Peter, James and John). In fact, the Gospels evidence a remarkable lack of interest in matters relevant to Diaspora Judaism, despite the fact that they almost certainly reached their final form in the Diaspora after the fall of Jerusalem. They are simply dominated by Palestinian concerns, which is extremely difficult to square with claims that the tradition is entirely fabricated. This provides strong evidence of the relatively conservative nature of the Synoptic Gospels and suggests that they contain at least some genuinely historical information about an early 1st C. teacher.

3. Inclusion of Embarrassing Details: The most compelling evidence for an historical Jesus, however, is the inclusion of so many “embarrassing” details in the Jesus tradition. Though the crucifixion itself stands at the head of this group (and its importance must not be underestimated), the canonical Gospels are full of details that are unlikely to have been invented. By tracing the Jesus’ tradition across the various gospels (canonical and non-canonical), we can clearly see that the later texts do tend to soften or omit these items, proving that their embarrassing nature was evident to the early Christians themselves, and thus their fabrication is unlikely. The following is only a partial list, drawing exclusively from Mark, but should establish just how widespread this phenomenon is:

Mark admits that Jesus’ own family questioned his sanity, while others accused him of demon-possession (3:20-30); Jesus was rejected by the people of his hometown and could not perform many miracles there (6:1-5); he sometimes seemed to rely on folk medical techniques, which were not always immediately successful (e.g 7:31-37, 8:22-25); he associated with people of ill-repute (e.g. 2:14-17) and seemed to disregard a number of Jewish laws, customs and cleanliness codes (e.g. 2:23-27); he spoke and acted in culturally “shameful” ways (e.g. 3:31-35); he cursed a fig tree for lacking fruit even though it was not the correct season for figs (11:13-14); the disciples—including the leaders of the early church—are frequently presented in an unfavorable light, often seeming dim-witted, obstinate and cowardly (e.g. 10:35-45; 14:37-40; 14:50); indeed Jesus was betrayed by an inner-circle disciple (14:43-46), while Peter himself is called “Satan” (8:32-33) and denies any association with Jesus at the crucial moment (14:66-72); and the empty tomb itself was discovered by women (16:1-8).

Some of these are easier to explain away than others (e.g. Jesus’ disregard of purity regulations could well be an interpolation reflecting later Christian practice), but others are virtually impossible to imagine as fabrications (e.g. that Jesus’ own family “went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’” [3:21]; a detail omitted from all the later gospels). In most of these cases, the tradition after Mark indicates a strong tendency to downplay or omit such details (an exception is the betrayal by Judas, which was subsequently played up), verifying their embarrassing nature. Taken together, the inclusion of such material strongly suggest an historical core to the Jesus tradition as preserved in Mark, not only making Jesus existence almost certain, but even providing a measure of confirmation for the reliability of the Synoptic Gospels as a whole.

Conclusion: Though individually the above arguments (which are by no means exhaustive) might be questioned, their combined force is considerable. They do not, of course, prove the New Testament accounts “inerrant” (nor do I believe that they are), but they do make the plausibility of a purely fictional Jesus extremely unlikely. Yet as they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and ultimately the near unanimity of New Testament scholars (from conservative to liberal) about the basic details of Jesus’ life—that he was an itinerant preacher who was crucified in the first third of the 1st C.—is not based on such arguments so much as the basic usefulness of the assumption. The alternatives offer no where near as much explanatory power, and depend on far too much speculation and skepticism. In contrast, the rise and shape of early Christianity and the New Testament simply make the most sense when viewed as a reaction to an historical Jesus. In every way, the early church evidences its profound debt to the unique personality, distinctive teaching, shameful death, and (purported) resurrection of Jesus.


  1. Ooo! Ooo! I have one!

    I like John 1:46:
    “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.

    It comes across almost as a joke but it is first and foremost an attempt to deal with an embarrassing, and widely-known, fact.

  2. Believe it or not, I actually find at least some of your evidence convincing for the historicity of Jesus. However, the fact that (allegedly) Jesus said he was forsaken by God and that (allegedly) he was crucified are not convincing to me. Here is why: Paul states that he recieved his gospel by personal revelation (His vision on the way to Damascus) as well as through what “has been revealed” by God through the OT Scriptures (Romans 16:25-27). Both the crucifixion and the phrase “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” can be found in Psalm 22.

  3. I also want to point out that the fact the crucifixion was shameful does not mean it was not invented. The worshippers of Attis believed he died in agony after castrating himself. The worshippers of Inanna believed she was stripped naked in Hades, killed, and that her naked corpse was hung on a hook for three days. The worshippers of Hercules believe that he set himself on fire to end his agony after being tricked into consuming poison (which surely satisfies the criteria of embarrassment in numerous ways).

    The point is, the criteria of embarrassment is not decisive and certainly does not apply to the death of god-men. I don’t mean to say that embarrassment does not add weight to a historical case, simply that it is not decisive.

  4. AIGBusted,
    There is no evidence that Psalm 22 was applied to the Messiah before the rise of Christianity. Thus, whether Jesus himself actually quoted it or it was only later used to interpret his death (I will grant that either is plausible), it makes more sense as a reaction to an actual death than as the source of the story itself.

    As for Paul, he does indeed, at times, stress the revelatory nature of his gospel. But at other points he stresses the traditions he has recieved from the earliest Christians (e.g. 1 Cor 15:1-11). In fact, his letters include several dozen citations, allusions and echoes of Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the Gospels. Romans 12-16 itself is particularly dense with them: 12:14-21 // Luke 6:22-36, etc.; 13:7 // Mark 12:14-17, etc.; 13:8-10 // Mark 12:28-31, etc.; 13:11-12 // Luke 21:28-34, etc.; 14:5-10 // Mark 2:23-28, etc.; 14:13 // Mark 9:42, etc; 14:14 // Mark 7:15-19, etc.; 14:17 // Luke 13:23-30, etc.; 16:19 // Matt 10:16, etc. It seems clear to me that, despite the fact this letter was written before our canonical Gospels, Paul’s teachings here are actually secondary, building on what is attributed to Jesus rather than the other way around (e.g. Paul’s discussion in 13:1-7 seems an extension of Jesus’ comments in Mark 12, Matthew 5 and elsewhere, rather than the other way around). You can deny that Jesus is the source of these teachings if you wish, but then you will be forced to posit some other distinctive personality as the source of the tradition, and then explain why that person was not revered as the founder of the movement.

    As for the shame of the crucifixion, I certainly grant that (by itself) it is not “conclusive” that Jesus existed. The criterion of embarrassment is helpful, but not unimpeachable. Still, the case of Jesus is quite different than those you cite. First of all, he was claimed to be an individual of recent memory, not a figure from the distant past like those you mention. Second, unlike self-castration, self-immolation or being hung from a hook in Hades (!), the crucifixion of a messianic claimant was not only extremely shameful but entirely plausible–we know it happened to others so around the same time.

    Now I am not trying to evangelize anybody to any particular brand of fundamentalism nor convince anyone about the historical existence of the man whose name has be bandied about more than all others put together, but I would like to analyse what we have been told and what we have been kept in the dark about.
    Firstly let’s look at the contextual history of the period he is said to have been born in. The Greeks had set the stage with Alexander’s great rampage through long standing Eastern cultures, murdering, raping and generally pillaging their way through ancient cities, rearranging their lives, languages and capital naming programmes. They then went on to acquire the rights to claim they created the architecture, political ideas and philosophies of the then known world.
    The big one, that went on to affect our story, was the translation of the Hebrew Sacred Texts into the Septuagint, a Greek language version of the Old Testament. This work was mainly done by Maccabean Hebrew scholars working in Egypt’s Alexandria library system under the eyes of the ruling class Ptolemy’s. No other single act could possibly have done more to set the stage for the resurgence of the concept that a messiah was to be born at Bethlehem and be crucified for the salvation of the believers of that ideal.
    Needless to say, many Greek speaking peoples converted to Judaism in the hope that they would be partakers of the promised New Zion. So by the time Julius Caesar had almost finished his rampage around the Mediterranean and was favouring joining with the Ptolemy’s to rule the world, Jerusalem became the focus of attention. Up until then the rundown backwater mountain rebel base had been overlooked. With Cleopatra’s connections into the Parthians controlled Aramaic speaking Palestine, the then modern cities of Caesarea and Jerusalem sprung into existence and with her new general Mark Antony by her side and Herod’s Sadducees living well under their protection, they began their campaign for world domination. But as history records, the plan began to unravel with their defeat at Actium.
    The Octavian led Romans then moved in to occupy Jerusalem and to settle down what was left of the defeated remains of J.C’s, Cleo’s, Mark Antony’s and Herod the now Great’s shattered followers. Amazingly enough they all claimed to be Jewish. (oh, how history repeats itself). Soon Mary was pregnant and couldn’t name the father and Cleopatra’s mystery cult of Virgin’s didn’t have a benefactor. So our famous donkey led trio, high tail it out of the area and lay low in Egypt while our hero grows into the well educated candidate for King of the Jews.
    While Jesus was studying all the teachings of the Mystery Cults as well as the Talmud and the Septuagint: Octavian, now Caesar Augustus, and Herod the Great die. This opened the flood gate for all the illegitimate children of the ex-rules to begin arguing over who was going to be the next Great leader. Herod Archelaus was the first to be installed but didn’t last long and young Tiberius inherited Rome, so by the time Jesus began his run for the job Archelaus was dead and Tiberius, in exile. Herod Antipas and his mate Caligula were running the show and what a mess they were making of it. Saul, the leader of the Sadducees (later Paul author of the New Testament), had thrown his hat into the ring with a direct challenge to Jesus and his Esseanes faction.
    This all tells a vastly different story to the one we have been fed down the years and it’s enough for me to ignore the politics of it all and look directly at the teachings of Jesus as an enlightened man of his time. We have in the Q documents an independent, reliable source of what those teachings were because they are backed up with actual fragments of notes that were taken while he was speaking to the masses on the Mount and in the Plains. So independently of Churches, factions and “learned scholars” we can assess him and what he taught for ourselves. If you don’t have a copy of these, any accepted translation of the sermon on the mount is a good guide.(Mathew: 5-8)
    Up front I think it is safe to say he was anti-Fascist, anti-establishment, peace loving advocate for the poor and the down and out. His solid body of work indicates he was an intelligent, articulate, moral campaigner for the rights of women and children to live in a world that isn’t dominated by Fundamentalists who would hold the letter of the law over their heads like a sword to slay anyone who disagrees with their interpretation. His no nonsense style convinces me he was a man who was prepared to put his money where his mouth was and that he didn’t suffer hypocrites. I gather his style of government would have been an Ecumenical one incorporating all factions concerned and would include women and gays. He was a man of the people, ready to stick it to the powers that be, in an attempt to attain rights for the underprivileged and marginalized in the mix.
    Unfortunately, He was betrayed by all those who went on to become players in the debacle that followed his crucifixion and would have no more agreed to what was done in his name than He would have condoned or endorsed the church authorities of His day. In an attempt to not turn this into a sermon or a long boring story, the point of it is to encourage those who would like to study the mans work without the associated stigma of being a religious nutcase and to call those who have misinterpreted the mans work, into a formula for oppressing those who don’t buy it, to rethink what it is they are preaching.
    So rather than dismiss Jesus as a future irrelevance or go on to continue using His name in vain, please consider this a plea for common sense and think well of the man who put his life on the line, when he could of just cashed in like the rest. Don’t ride off His teachings anymore than you would Budda’s or Gandhi’s or John Lennon’s and when you are really peeved at the way Christian’s go about their business don’t blame Him , just think of Jesus, a no nonsense guy.

  6. […] with some denying that there ever was a historical Jesus in the first place. While most would reject such extreme skepticism, there is no doubt that the Gospels as we have them are shaped as much by […]

  7. Christians would be embarrassed by his execution, so his execution must be true? That is an incredibly weak argument.

    While the death might be embarrassing to a normal individual, if you wanted to create a martyr, claiming he was executed in a horrific way by officials trying to silence him is a pretty good way to do that.

    “Inclusion of Incidental Details,” even if those details were accurate, in no way supports the truth or falsehood of the story. Many novels are set in the real world and mention real events that are incidental to the story. These details make the story more believable, they do not make the story more true. And of course, in the bible, many of the “incidental details” are actually false. In fact some of the obviously false incidental details (incorrect geographies, events that cold not have occurred when claimed, etc) actually weaken the arguments, since it shows that the people writing the story did not have any actual knowledge of the events.

    “Omission of Relevant Issues” might be relevant if someone was claiming that the bible was invented out of whole cloth as an intentional fabrication. No one is claiming that. People who question the historicity of Jesus do not believe it was an intentional fraud generally, but an organic movement that grew up around a mythical figure. Since the bible was written by several authors in an uncoordinated way, it is absurd to assume no important detail would be omitted.

    If the “inclusion of Embarrassing Details” is “the most compelling evidence” you have for his existence, you really have not put a lot of thought into this. First off, if you are trying to portray someone as persecuted and a martyr, the exact sort of claims you cite would be perfectly expected. Second, again, no one is saying this was invented from whole cloth as a fraud. These details are perfectly expected if the events are mythical, not outright fraud.

    I am not saying that Jesus did not exist, but these arguments do absolutely nothing to suggest that he did. Even a cursory consideration of these arguments shows that they are utterly unsupportable as any sort of evidence.

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