How We Know The Story Of Jesus Is Historical


By James Bishop| When the historian wishes to learn about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ he or she needs to evaluate the primary sources (the four gospels, Pauline epistles, and the rest of the New Testament) using what is known as the criterion of authenticity.

This is a method that has matured greatly within what is known as the Third Quest for the historical Jesus. Here historians have developed a critical-historical method that all scholars from different backgrounds and ideologies can share in and use to objectively test the claims and events concerning the historical Jesus.

Importantly, this is not a method or criteria invented by the faithful or the church, it is one developed by scholars operating within the secular disciplines of history, New Testament, and historical Jesus studies. This method has stirred a great deal of debate because scholars across these disciples, no matter what their private religious or irreligious beliefs are, have to make a historical case for an event or saying that they wish to tie to Christ. Events and sayings are not merely assumed.

Successfully applied and argued, these criteria will assist the scholar in coming to some conclusion regarding the historical probability (or lack therefore) of the purported deeds and/or sayings of Christ found in these sources. And as we will see, there are several criteria the more of which can be shown to apply to a saying or event of Christ the greater the confidence the historian can have in that saying or event.

Importantly, this method is aimed at affirming sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. In other words, it is not necessary for a saying or an event of Christ to pass a specific criterion within this historical-critical method in order for it to be deemed historical. As such, the historicity of a saying or an event is independent of the criteria. However, if a criterion can be shown to apply to a saying or an event then it helps to provide confidence in that saying or event.

Further, the criteria are not infallible and they can be mistaken. For example, independent attestation, which says that an event is more likely if it appears in multiple sources that did not receive their information from each other, could be fallible in light of a story being based on gossip or hearsay that that independent authors each heard rather than on an actual historical event. But despite its fallibility, the criteria of authenticity seems strong and thus remains the generally accepted method that most scholars trust well enough to use (1). Exegete William Lane Craig outlines several criteria that have been used by historians to establish the likelihood of a specific event [S] ascribed to Christ (2):

[1] Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.

[2] Early and independent attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source. Scholar of religion and of the New Testament Dale Martin suggests that most scholars consider events historical if they come from two independent sources (3). New Testament scholar Marcus Borg calls this logic “straightforward,” and this is that “if a tradition appears in an early source and in another independent source, then not only is it early, but it is also unlikely to have been made up” (4). For the historian, the more independent sources she has, the better.

[3] Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S. This argues that the writers of the gospels would not have created a story that would embarrass its figures, particularly its important figures, or create problems for themselves that they otherwise would not need to face. This criterion claims that in light of the inclusion of an embarrassing and problematic detail, the author is likely narrating and conveying a genuine historical event that he would not have fabricated.

[4] Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms. Scholar Bart Ehrman explains that this,

“criterion says that if there are stories about what Jesus said or did that do not fit what the Christians would have wanted to say about him, those stories are more likely authentic than ones that could easily be imagined as something a Christian would have wanted to make up about him” (5).

[5] Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.

[6] Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus. This claims that if an event has been established as historical on the basis of these other criteria and that some other detail coheres with that event, then it is likely historical.

If a saying or an event of Christ can pass one or more of these criteria then the historian is in a good position to affirm its historicity. It is also important to keep in mind that these criteria do not presuppose the divine inspiration of the New Testament texts.

Rather through this method’s use and application, historians approach the New Testament as they would any other ancient text. That these texts are important to certain religious groups and communities is not a priority for the historian vetting them through the historical-critical method.

There is consensus among historians that through this method several events and sayings in the ministry of Christ can be said to be historical. These would include, but are not limited to, his baptism, unique personal claims (such as the “Son of Man“, which is a claim to divinity and equal authority with God, also the Parable of the Tenant), several miracle stories and exorcisms, the crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, the burial in the tomb, the discovery of the empty tomb, and the resurrection appearances to several people and groups. New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders provides the following facts (6),

[1] Jesus was born c. 4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great
[2] he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village
[3] he was baptized by John the Baptist
[4] he called disciples
[5] he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities)
[6] he preached ‘the kingdom of God’
[7] about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover
[8] he created a disturbance in the Temple area
[9] he had a final meal with the disciples;
[10] he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
[11] he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.
[12] his disciples at first fled
[13] they saw him after his death
[14] as a consequence, they believed that he would return to found the kingdom
[15] they formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.

Another version with some difference has been put forward by historian Gary Habermas (7):

[1] Jesus died by crucifixion.
[2] He was buried.
[3] His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
[4] The tomb was empty (the most contested).
[5] The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus
[6] The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.
[7] The resurrection was the central message.
[8] They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
[9] The Church was born and grew.
[10] Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
[11] James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic).
[12] Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was an outsider skeptic and enemy of the church)


1. Ehrman, Bart. 2012. Jesus and the Historical Criteria. Available; Stein, Robert. 1980. “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity.” In Gospel Perspectives I, edited by R. T. France and David Wenham, 225-263. Sheffield, England: JSOT Press; Yale Courses. 2009. 13. The Historical JesusAvailable.

2. Craig, Willian Lane. 2007. Establishing the Gospels’ Reliability. Available.

3. Yale Courses. 2009. The Historical Jesus. Available. [00:30:45]

4. Borg, Marcus., and Wright, N. T. 1999. The Meaning of Jesus. HarperCollings. p. 12.

5. Ehrman, Bart. 2012. Ibid.

6. Sanders, E. P. 1993. The historical figure of Jesus. New York: Allen Lane. p. 10-11.

7. Habermas, Gary. 2012. “The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity.” Faculty Publications and Presentations 14.

This article was originally featured on the website of James Bishop and was used with permission from the author.

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