The primary source of historicalknowledge about Jesus is contained within the Christian Gospels which the majority of historians believe to have originated from sources written within living memory of Jesus. Evidence for a historical Jesus is also provided by the Epistles, especially those by Paul. Other sources regarded as of less significance from the perspective of modern historians are other early Christian material, other religious traditions, and certain historians of the period. The majority of historians accept the New Testament as evidence for the historical existence of Jesus; but there is somewhat less acceptance of the basic narrative of his life and death, and far less for any miraculous claims, among professional historians and liberal biblical scholars.
A minority of historians argue from the internal features of, and inconsistencies between, the Gospels and other canonical andnon-canonical Christian and Gnostic writings that Jesus was a mythical figure. The paucity of non-Christian historical sources that corroborate Christian writings is adduced as support for this position. See, for example, the writings of Earl Doherty. While once popular, this view has migrated to the fringes of serious scholarship today.
Most discussions about Jesus, including this one, involve a conflict between contrasting, and in some ways incompatible, views of the world and of how humans acquire knowledge (this subject is discussed in the disciplines of epistemology andmetaphysics).
Christians believe that humans can have direct personal knowledge of God and of Jesus and that this is confirmed throughscripture, which is a form of divine revelation. Some Christians believe that Scripture must be interpreted in the light ofTradition, while others believe that individuals can interpret it for themselves. For some Christians, belief in Jesus is a matter of faith: they need no further confirmation of the existence of God and His son. Other Christians feel they have knowledge of God and Jesus based on the empirical existence of the Gospels and/or Bible as accurate historical documents, the Christian tradition passed on from generation to generation, and through their direct consequent religious experiences.
Jesus is a still more controversial figure because there are different accounts of Jesus within other religions like Islam,Judaism, Gnosticism, Mandaeanism(see later in this article.)
Historians meanwhile make statements about historical events or persons based on more pragmatic standards of empirical evidence. They look at scripture not as divinely inspired but as the work of fallible humans, who wrote in the light of their culture and time.
There is a paucity of accepted contemporaneous sources and of direct empirical evidence. Therefore, it is difficult for representatives of the different religious and secular traditions of knowledge and faith to reach agreement on a “biography” of Jesus. This article therefore while seeking to identify as much common ground as possible between the different traditions, also indicates where there are differing views and beliefs.
Jesus is derived from the LatinIesus, which in turn comes from the GreekIesous (Ιησους). The Greek form is a transliterationof the Aramaic name Yeshua (ישוע), a short form of HebrewYehoshua (יהושע), the name that Moses gave to his successor as leader of the Israelites, who is known in English as Joshua. The Name means the Lord is salvation, literallyYahweh/Jehovah saves.
Direct English transliterations from the Aramaic Yehoshua/Yeshua include Joshua, Jeshua, Yahshua, Yahoshua and Yaohushua. These variations in English spelling are of no real significance as they can only approximate the sound of the Hebrew or Aramaic original.
Christ is not a name but a title, and comes, via Latin, from the GreekChristos (Χριστος), which means anointed. The Greek form is a literal translation of Messiah from Hebrew mashiyakh (משיח) or Aramaic m’shikha (משיחא), a word which occurs often in the Old Testament and typically signifies “high priest” or “king” – a man, chosen by God or descended from a man chosen by God, to serve as a religious, civil, and/or military authority. Other sources suggest the title Christ is linked to Latincrestus, ‘good’. To Muslims, Jesus is known as the prophet Isa al Masih (عيسى المسيح ), from the aforementioned Aramaic forJesus the Messiah.
Most historians do not dispute the existence of a person named Jesus; evidence for Jesus’ existence two thousand years ago is by historical standards actually fairly strong. Jesus is obviously mentioned extensively within the New Testament, but is also considered a historical figure within the traditions of Judaism, Islam, Mandeanism and alternative Christian traditions like Gnosticism. Jesus also gets a passing mention within historical accounts of the period, though the reliability of some of these accounts is disputed.
Moreover, historians generally agree that at least some of the source documents on which the Gospels are based were written within living memory of Jesus. These historians therefore accept that the accounts of the life of Jesus in the Gospels, excepting certain miraculous claims and the details that surround them, provide a reasonable basis of evidence by the standards of ancient history, for the basic narrative of Jesus’ life and death.
The exact month or day or even the year of Jesus’ birth cannot be exactly ascertained. Due to a mistaken calculation based on the Roman Calendar by Dionysius Exiguus in 525, it was long held that Jesus was born in the year 1 BC (making the following year, A.D. 1, the first throughout which he was alive).
The Gospels are problematic, because they offer two seemingly incompatible accounts. Matthew states that Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still alive and that Herod ordered the slaughter of infants two years old and younger (Matt. 2:16), and based on the date of Herod’s death in 4 BC (contra Dionysius Exiguus), many chronologists conclude that the year 6 BC is the most likely year of Jesus’ birth. Consequently, Jesus would have been about four to six years old in the year A.D. 1.
On the other hand, Luke‘s account places Jesus’ birth during a census conducted under the governorship of Quirinius, who, according to Josephus, conducted a census in A.D. 6. In order to reconcile the two Gospel accounts, some have suggested that Josephus was mistaken or that Quirinius had a separate period of rule under Herod. In any case, the actual date of his birth remains historically unverifiable.
In recent years, East Asian historians have attempted to match the birth of Jesus Christ with special events in their history. They found that, according to the oldest record of the Comet Halley during the Han Dynasty, “The comet heads east with its tail pointing west at night, and was appearing in the sky for more than 70 days.” in 6 BC. This has been suggested as an independent record of the “Star” described in Matthew 2. If accepted, this suggestion would place the birthday of Jesus Christ in summer rather than winter.
In the 6th century, Dionysius Exiguus proposed to make the birth of Jesus the basis of the calendar but he miscalculated the death of Herod. Years reckoned in this way are labelled “A.D.”, which stands for Anno Domini, meaning “in the year of the Lord” in Latin. Since many non-Christians have come to use this calendar, an alternative notation “C.E.” is sometimes used. It is presently uncertain what the original meaning of this abbreviation was, although today it is taken to mean either theCommon Era or the Christian Era: many references cite both.
Based on inferences from Gospel accounts, Jesus was executed by crucifixion on a Friday, and on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan under the administration of Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate held his position from 26–36 and the only years in which Nisan 14 fell on a Friday are 27, 33, and 36 and possibly in 30 depending on when the new moon would have been visible in Jerusalem. Scholars have defended all of the dates.
Jesus was possibly born in Bethlehem, although he may have been assigned this birthplace by early Christians based on that city’s status as the presumed birthplace of King David, from whom the Messiah was to descend. It is much clearer, however, that Galilee was his childhood home. Gospel accounts state he was brought up in Nazareth, however, it is possible that early Christian transcribers mistook the title “Nazarene” for a location, because the town of Nazareth is unmentioned in contemporary historical sources.
Jesus’ mother was Mary. Two of the Gospels (Matthew and Luke, but not Mark or John), are interpreted to allege that Josephwas Jesus’ foster father, and that Jesus’ biological father was God the Father, who impregnated Mary without sex via theHoly Spirit, giving rise to a virgin birth. The other two Gospels, Mark and John, make no mention of Joseph at all, but in their first chapters refer to Jesus as the son of God. Others have postulated that Jesus might have been the biological son of Joseph or an unidentified man with whom Mary had relations before her marriage to Joseph. We can say nothing with certainty about Jesus’ childhood or young adulthood. Certain events are mentioned in the various Gospels, but there is no common agreement.
The Gospel of Mark reports that Jesus had brothers, that he was “Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon,” and also suggests that Jesus had sisters. The Jewish historian Josephus and the Christian historian Eusebius (who wrote in the 4th century but quoted much earlier sources now unavaliable to us) refer to James the Just as Jesus’ brother. Some churches reject this interpretation, saying that they were Jesus’ cousins, which the Greek word for “brother” used in the Gospels would allow. Other churches suggest that these were half brothers, children of Joseph and a previous wife who died before Mary was betrothed to him. This tradition probably originates with the Protevangelion of James, traditionally ascribed to James the Just and certainly dated sometime in the late 1st to middle of the 2nd century.
Jesus began his public ministry some time after he was baptized by John the Baptist, who inspired Mandaeanism. Jesus began preaching, teaching, and healing. There is no firm evidence for when his ministry started or how long it lasted. The detailed nature of Jesus’ spiritual teaching cannot be fully agreed because accounts are fragmentary and because he made extensive use of paradox, metaphor and parable; making it is unclear how literally he wished to be taken and precisely what he meant.
Jesus did preach the imminent end of the current era of history, in some sense a literal end of the world as people of his time knew it; in this sense he was an apocalyptic preacher bringing a message about the imminent end of the world the Jews knew.
Like the Pharisee, Jesus opposed stringent interpretations of Jewish law, and preached a more flexible understanding of the law. His teachings show an inclination to following a teleological approach, in which the spirit of the law is more important than the letter of the law. However, the Gospels record him as having many disagreements with the Pharisees, as he consistently takes differing views from the standard religious practice of the day. However, the interpretations of the law by the Sadducees were in most cases much stricter than Pharisee interpretations of the law, and the Sadducees were the dominant authority at that time, yet the Gospels record no sign of Jesus having much disagreement with their views (although it was, according to the Gospels, the priests — alligned with the Sadducees — who ultimately arrested Jesus). Some modern historians thus believe that Jesus may have been a liberal Pharisee in some respects, or an Essene (a sect with whom he shared many views); and that later Christian transcribers cast him as an enemy of the Pharisees, because when Christians and Jews came into conflict in later years the Pharisees had become the dominant sect of Judaism. This view receives some support in Acts of the Apostles, because Jesus’ apostles were generally attacked by Sadducees but were sometimes protected by Pharisee liberal interpretations of Jewish law.
Jesus increasingly gained followers as his fame grew, though within his lifetime Jesus’ core following remained no more than a small religious sect. Jesus had by the time of his death taught a number of his disciples or apostles to preach his teachings and perform faith healing to both Jews and Gentiles alike.
In his role as a social reformer Jesus threatened the status quo. He was unpopular with many Jewish religious authorities, not least because he criticised them; but also because some of Jesus’ followers held the controversial and inflammatory view that he was “The Messiah“. It is not clear from strict analysis of the original Gospel texts that Jesus made this claim about himself, but he did not deny it. Neither is it wholly clear to historians that when Jesus spoke of being “Son of God” he meant this to be taken literally as Christians believe, rather than metaphorically in the sense that we are all children of God.
Jesus came with his followers to Jerusalem during the Passover festival. He was involved in some form of public disturbance at the Temple in Jerusalem. At some point later, he was betrayed to the Jewish religious authorities of the city – either the full council (Sanhedrin) or perhaps just the High Priest – by one of his apostles, Judas Iscariot. The High Priest of the city was appointed by the government in Rome and the current holder of the post was Joseph Caiphas. The Romans ruled the city through the High Priest and Sanhedrin, so often the Jewish authorities of the city had to arrest people on the orders of the Romans. Jesus’ disciples went into hiding after he was arrested.
Jesus was crucified by the Romans on the orders of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea in Jerusalem. The Gospels state that he did this at the behest of the Jewish religious leaders, but it may have been simply that Pilate considered Jesus’ ability to incite public disturbance as a potential Messiah to be a threat to Roman order. Pilate was known as a harsh ruler who ordered many executions for lesser reasons during his reign.
All the Gospel accounts agree that Joseph of Arimathea, variously a secret disciple or sympathiser to Jesus, and possible member of the Sanhedrin, arranged with Pilate for the body to be taken down and entombed. According to most accounts Jesus’ mother, Mary, and other women, notably a female follower of Jesus, Mary Magdalene were present during this process.
According to the Christian Gospels, Jesus’ disciples encountered him again on the third day after his death, raised to life. He met them in various places over a period of forty days before “ascending into heaven”.
Christianity is centered on the belief that Jesus is the savior of man. According to Christians, Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Mary. He preached the new covenant across Judea, which angered traditional Jews and disturbed the Romans as he was seen as a threat to public order. One of his twelve apostles, Judas, betrayed him; and later committed suicide in remorse. Jesus was crucified by the Romans. However, he rose from the dead three days later.
Jesus Christ is deemed a false prophet in most sects of Judaism, and religious Jews are still awaiting the arrival of theMessiah. Christianity originated as a sect of Judaism, but developed into its own religion.
Muslims believe that Jesus, or Isa in Arabic, was a prophet and Messiah. However, they do not consider him to be a son ofAllah (God), other than in the metaphorical sense that we are all children of Allah.
Jesus is considered as a manifestation of God by the Baha’i. Mandaeanists see Jesus Christ as something of a false prophet as compared to John the Baptist. Jesus was seen as the savior and bringer of gnosis by various Gnostic sects, such as the extinct Manicheanism. In modern times many New Ageists have reinterpreted Jesus as a misunderstood guru preachingenlightenment.
Mendenhall, George E. The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973. ISBN 0-8018-1654-8. A study of the earliest traditions of Israel from linguistic and archaeological evidence which also treats the teachings and followers of Jesus in that context.
Mendenhall, George E. Ancient Israel’s Faith and History: An Introduction to the Bible in Context, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. ISBN 0-664-22313-3. Another, less technical, study of the earliest traditions of Israel from linguistic and archaeological evidence which also treats the teachings and followers of Jesus in that context.
Bloodline of the Holy Grail by Laurence Gardner. A popular book, but with a hypothesis that would not be accepted by mainstream scholars.
Jesus and the Victory of God N.T.Wright, SPCK (London), 1996 ISBN 0281047170. Second in a projected massive five or six volume series on Christian origins, dealing with the life and death of Christ from a very open Evangelical perspective. The author is now Bishop of Durham (Church of England).
Was Jesus really Julius Caesar? Argues that the lack of a historical Jesus and the strange unJewishness of so many Church doctrines can be explained by the surprising amount of evidence indicating Jesus Christ was really Julius Caesar.