By James Bishop| Having studied both Theology and Religious Studies at undergraduate and post-graduate levels there is one thing, “datum,” or “common mind” that all scholars, regardless of their personal beliefs, will accept, and this is that Jesus Christ existed.
The purpose of this short entry is just to capture some of this evidence. It will also try to show that when the historical data is considered Christ is a fairly well attested figure of history.
Going on consensus that Christ was crucified around 30 AD it is impressive that by the end of the first century historians have four (partially) independent biographies in the form of the gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John). These biographies were circulating in different early Christian communities, and each, despite their theological nature (to greater and lesser degrees depending on the gospel in question), present themselves as texts bound in space and time. These texts speak of real people, places, locations, villages, towns, cities, and cultural-social customs. Many of these have been corroborated with hard evidence from archaeological finds, and therefore must be considered grounded within history.
Consensus holds that the earliest gospel, Mark, was penned around 70 AD, and that the latest, John, was penned around 90 AD. Matthew and Luke are probably around 80 to 85 AD. What this means is that the gospels are early texts mostly penned within a generation or two of Christ’s death. Many historians will agree that possessing sources dating from 40 – 60 years after the described purported events are early when compared with what they have for many other historical figures and events. New Testament historian and professor Michael Licona says that,
“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).
Historian and philosopher Gary Habermas says that when comes to “historical Jesus, any material between 30 and 50 AD would be exemplary,” and that such a time period is appreciated by even the skeptical historians, some of whom made up the controversial Jesus Seminar (2).
Behind the gospels historians have discovered 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 had access to be but that are no longer in extant form. Consensus is that there are good reasons for accepting these sources. Given the near word for word agreement between Matthew and Luke in places they record the same events and words of Christ it seems clear that they must have had access to some other shared material (which is not Mark), and this is what scholars refer to as Q.
L material is thought to be unique to the Gospel of Luke, and it constitutes content that Luke’s author used for his narratives that are not found in Mark or Q. The author likely made use of early and independent traditions. The same applies for Matthew’s unique material, M. M is material that only the author of Matthew seemed to have used.
Further, it is clear to most scholars that Mark, the earliest gospel (70 AD), made use of a pre-Markan source for constructing his passion narrative, and that there is good textual and analytical reasons to believe it is based upon eyewitness testimony (4).
The latest gospel, John, also used earlier sources. According to scholar Bart Ehrman, “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” (4).
Already historians realize that they are working with an impressive amount of early and independent data here, and this is just from the gospel biography sources.
Further, there are a few creeds. A creed is specific tradition or source that is passed down to the author of a text and therefore dates earlier to the text itself. The most important creed is found within the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15: 3-8). This creed is dated within just three to five years of Christ’s death, and attests to several early beliefs about Christ: his death, burial, empty tomb, and resurrection appearances. This is impressive data simply because it is so early.
In addition there are New Testament sources from the Apostle Paul’s genuine and inauthentic letters, Hebrews, Revelation, and other New Testament literature, all of which show an awareness of the historical Christ. According to scholar Michael Bird,
“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” (5).
It is no secret then that before the close of the first century historians have sufficient independent, multiple, and early attestation corroborating the time-space existence of Christ. And that’s just from what the New Testament gives us. In fact, the most authoritative extra-biblical sources (outside of the Bible) historians have are from Josephus Flavius and Cornelius Tacitus. Both these ancient figures were prominent historians, and both of them were penning their accounts (which refer to Christ in select passages) within a century of Christ’s death. 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).
As time progressed more figures took to writing about the rise of Christianity, its founder Jesus Christ, and some of its followers’ beliefs and practices. These sources from the likes of Suetonius, Pliny, Serapion, Lucian are important, but they are not valuable for providing independent and early attestation to Christ’s ministry. They are often penned over a century of Christ’s life, can sometimes be ambiguous in their references, and are likely depending on hearsay information, and therefore take second seat to the above mentioned data.
One might also mention the likes of the early church fathers Papias, Ignatius, and Clemen. Clement and Ignatius are considered important since they were relatively early in comparison to other ancient writes, and they had links to Christ’s original disciples. Habermas concludes,
“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).
1. Licona, M. Answering Brian Flemmings “The God Who wasn’t there.” Available.
2. Habermas, G. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels. Available.
3. Craig, W. 2011. Pre-Markan Source and the Resurrection of Jesus. Available.
4. Bird, M. 2014. Yes, Jesus Existed… Available.
5. Ehrman, B. 2012. Did Jesus Exist?
6. Ehrman, B. 2012. Ibid.
7. Habermas, G. 1996. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. p. 219.
This article was originally featured on the website of James Bishop and was republished with permission.