The Historicity Of Jesus: What Sources Do We Have?

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No scholar in any field of relevant expertise doubts Jesus’ existence. So what is some of this evidence that makes Jesus such a well attested figure?

1. The Gospels

Jesus was crucified by 30 AD and by the end of the 1st century we have four  independent accounts (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) on Jesus. This is not to deny that there is cross collaboration between the synoptics (Mark, Matthew and Luke). Consensus acknowledges that Matthew and Luke drew some of their source material from Mark.

However, sources that date 40 – 60 years after the described events are early given what we have for other historical figures and events. Thus Mike Licona, a prominent New Testament historian, comments, “A gap of sixty to seventy years between the writing and the events they purport to describe is quite early compared to what historians work with when it comes to other ancient biographies.” (1)

In a similar spirit scholar Mike Bird, who is on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, explains that “Paul’s letters are written about 20-30 years after Jesus’ death, and the Gospels about 50-70 years after his death. Our oldest piece of papyrus with a fragment of John 18 is P25 and is dated to about 125-150 CE.

Authors like Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and Tacitus from the late first and early second century wrote about Jesus too. That sounds pretty early to me, at least in comparison to other historical figures” (2).

Gary Habermas, philosopher and biblical exegete, is quite enthusiastic:

“With regard to the historical Jesus, any material between 30 and 50 AD would be exemplary, a time period highly preferred by scholars like those in the Jesus Seminar” (3).

Furthermore, behind the gospels we have several hypothetical sources commonly referred to as Q, M, L, and a pre-Markan formula. Q, M, L are sources that the gospels authors themselves consulted but are no longer in existence. They no longer exist probably because the papyri they were written on likely wore out after multiple uses, however, it has become apparent to most scholars that such sources were once in existence.

Hypothetical Q is pre-gospel account that Luke and Matthew had used for a handful of their narratives. L was material unique to the Gospel of Luke. This unique content was drawn from a tradition not found in Mark or Q. The author likely made use of early and independent traditions. The same applies for the Matthew’s unique material, M. M is material that only the author of Matthew seemed to have used and that is neither found in Mark or Q.

Secondly, it has become obvious to scholars that Mark, our earliest gospel completed by 60-70 AD (roughly 30-40 years after Jesus’ death) used a pre-Markan source for his passion narrative. The pre-Marken account could have even been based on eyewitness testimony, as exegete William Lane Craig observes in an interview:

“That Mark was using and relied upon a pre-Markan passion story is one that is widely accepted by most scholars today, and because it goes back so early it is probably based upon eyewitness testimony.” (4)

Lastly, John’s gospel (our latest ancient biography coming in around 90-95 AD) used additional earlier sources. Professor Bart Ehrman explains that “But scholars have long suspected that John had at his disposal an earlier written account of Jesus’ miracles (the so-called Signs Source), at least two accounts of Jesus’s long speeches (the Discourse Sources), and possibly another passion source as well” (5).

This, for any historian focusing on any historical event or person, is persuasive data. It is also possible that Q, M, and L could have been multiple sources themselves (oral, written, or combination). It could be that the gospel authors consulted these sources in writing their own independent accounts. This requirers a great deal of speculation but this may account for the author of Luke say that:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” (Luke 1:1-3)

2. Aramaic Traditions

Further, we also find Aramaic traditions evident in the New Testament literature. The gospels were originally written in Greek, yet various passages are left in the Aramaic, the language that Jesus would have spoken.

These traditions date to the early years of the Christian movement prior to its expansion into the Greek speaking areas. This explains why the gospel authors would have had to translate these Aramaic texts for their readers.

We see this in the episode where Jesus is begged by Jairus, the father of a very ill girl, to heal his daughter, of which Jesus agrees to do. But before Jesus gets to her she dies. However, Jesus still goes to the girl, grabs her hand, and says: “Talitha cumi.”

These are Aramaic words of which Mark translates for his readers: “Little girl, I say to you rise.” Another example would be Jesus’ cry on the cross: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani!” (Mark 15:34, also see John 1:35-52). This suggests these narratives were originally told in Aramaic but then translated into Greek.

3. Creeds

Thornhill, James, 1675/1676-1734; Paul Preaching in the Areopagus

Thirdly, we have early creeds. A creed is specific tradition or source that is dated to much earlier than the text in which it is written. In this regard the most well-known creed can be found in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8. This creed is widely dated to within just five years of Jesus’ death in which Paul, our earliest Christian writer, attests to Jesus’ death, burial, empty tomb, and resurrection appearances. For a historian this is good data simply because it is so early.

Paul, our earliest writer, knew of Jesus and even met his brother James, and Jesus’ favourite disciple Peter – Paul writes about Jesus in several letters he authored to several early churches. For a historian this is good data primarily because it is so close to eyewitness testimony, namely that Paul had met Jesus’ brother James and his most intimate disciple Peter.

In addition we have more independent sources from our Johannine epsitles (1st and 2nd John), Petrine epistles (1st and 2nd Peter), Hebrews, Revelation, and other New Testament literature.  These additional sources stem from separate communities within 1st Century Palestine and house early independent traditions. Similarly, the book of Acts is embedded with speeches and oral traditions that, assuming to be historical date prior to our gospels.

Therefore, it’s no secret that before the close of the 1st century we have sufficient independent attestation corroborating the basic fact of Jesus’ existence. And within these sources we find earlier traditions, oral, written or combination, that are dated to a few years after Jesus’ death. Thus we have a substantial body of literature from the New Testament corpus on the historical Jesus.

4. Extra-Biblical Sources

Moreover, the most authoritative extra-biblical sources (outside of the Bible) we have are from Josephus Flavius and Cornelius Tacitus. Both these ancient figures were prominent historians, and both of them were penning their accounts of Jesus within a century of Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Ehrman explains “That Jesus lived recently is affirmed not only in all four of our canonical Gospels…. It is also the view of all of the Gospel Sources – Q…M, L – and of the non-Christian sources such as Josephus and Tacitus” (6).

New Testament historian Gary Habermas says that:

“When the combined evidence from ancient sources is summarized, quite an impressive amount of information is gathered concerning Jesus and ancient Christianity. Few ancient historical figures can boast the same amount of material” (7).

A list of all the sources we have

Gary Habermas has a Ph.D. in history and philosophy of religion. He is a New Testament scholar and Distinguished Research Professor and Chair of the Philosophy and Theology Department at Liberty University.

He says “there are over 42 sources within 150 years after Jesus’ death which mention His existence and record many events of his life.” on page 233 of his book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.  They are listed as follows:

9 Traditional New Testament Authors:

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude.

Early Christian Writers Outside the New Testament:

Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Didache, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Fragments of Papias, Justin Martyr, Aristides, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Quadratus, Aristo of Pella, Melito of Sardis, Diognetus, Gospel of Peter, Apocalypse of Peter, and Epistula Apostolorum.

Heretical Writings:

Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Apocryphon of John, and Treatise on Resurrection.

9 Secular Sources:

Josephus (Jewish historian), Tacitus (Roman historian), Pliny the Younger (Roman politician), Phlegon (freed slave who wrote histories), Lucian (Greek satirist), Celsus (Roman philosopher), Mara Bar Serapion (prisoner awaiting execution), Suetonius, and Thallus.

We have other sources too which come after the first 150 years of his death, making his existence so well attested that it cannot be denied.

James F. Mcgrath  is an Associate Professor of Religion and Clarence L. Goodwin Chair of New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University.  As he says on his blog in response to the abundance of sources:

“To suggest that these various authors and sources independently invented a historical Jesus, or that despite their divergent views they conspired together to do so, is (to put it charitably) less plausible than the explanation of this state of affairs accepted by all scholars and historians teaching at accredited institutions.”

Finally, regarding the vitality of the debate over Jesus’ existence within historical scholarship, Bart Ehrman says that:

“This is not even an issue for scholars. There is no scholar in any college or university who teaches classics, ancient history, new testament, early Christianity, who doubts that Jesus existed. He is abundantly attested in early sources.

Early and independent sources indicate that Jesus certainly existed… Paul is an eyewitness to both Jesus’ disciple Peter and the brother of Jesus. Like, I’m sorry. Atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism because it makes you look foolish to the outside world.”

We know that Jesus certainly existed because he is attested in early, independent sources. We have dozens that we are aware of, and probably at least half a dozen more that are oral/hypothetical. Simply put, we have many good sources for affirming Jesus’ existence.

References
  1. Licona, M. Answering Brian Flemmings “The God Who wasn’t there.” Available.
  1. Bird, M. 2014. Yes, Jesus ExistedAvailable.
3. Habermas, G. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels. Available.
  1. Craig, W. 2011. Pre-Markan Source and the Resurrection of Jesus.
  2. Ehrman, B. 2012. Did Jesus Exist?
  3. Ehrman, B. 2012. Did Jesus Exist?
  4. Habermas, G. 1996. The Historical Jesus:  Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. p. 219.
This article was inspired from an article originally featured on the website of James Bishop and was used with permission from the author.
*Section starting at “A list of all the sources we have” was added in by Steven Bancarz to the original article with permission from the author.
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