Quick reads: Jesus.
Christians believe the gospels tell the truth about Jesus, but some sceptics say the stories are just legends. Is there a way to know who’s right?
Background to the gospels
There are four biographies of Jesus (called “gospels”, meaning “good news”) in the Bible, named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John after the traditional authors. They were almost certainly written between 30 and 70 years after Jesus died (i.e. 60-100 CE).
Historians generally agree that stories about Jesus and his sayings were remembered and handed down orally, with some being written down at the time, and others written down much later. The gospels we read were thus probably each compiled from many sources, some the same and some different. It is uncertain who the final authors, editors or compilers were, though the traditional authors probably had some association with “their” gospels.
The gospels give an account of Jesus’ life, death and (the authors believed) resurrection, and his teachings. The question is, how reliable are they historically?
Secular historians and the gospels
Historians, mainly at secular universities, approach the gospels as they do any ancient historical document, not as a holy text, and attempt to assess their historical reliability.
A number of factors can be used to assess historical reliability:
- Whether the authors were trying to write an historical account, and whether they had any motivation to invent.
- Whether the text is internally consistent, and consistent with other known history.
- We can have more confidence in an event or a saying that is recorded in several different sources.
- Sources and writings that are closer to the event are more likely to be reliable.
- Whether an account portrays the time, place and language accurately.
- If an account helps explain subsequent events better than any other reconstruction of events, it is more likely to be reliable.
How the gospels measure up
Historians have analysed the gospels exhaustively, and while there is not agreement on all points, the following is probably the consensus:
- The gospel authors were writing historical biographies, which tried to present historical events accurately, but were also aimed at convincing people of the christian message about Jesus.
- The gospels tell a similar story but there are inconsistencies in some of the details. (Scholars say this is common with oral history at the time.) Jesus wasn’t a well-known figure outside Israel, so we wouldn’t expect many secular historians to mention him, but a few basic details of his life and death are mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus and the Jewish historian Josephus.
- By making verbal comparisons, scholars have ascertained that the 4 gospels are compiled from several independent sources. When we add the writings of Paul, Tacitus and Josephus, there are more independent sources for the life of Jesus than of most figures of his day.
- The gospels were written within a generation of Jesus’ life, a much smaller timespan than almost any other comparable biography.
- The gospels portray well the time, place, language and cultural issues of first century Judaism.
- The early christian movement is a fact of history. The life of Jesus explains how this movement began. Other theories (e.g. that the stories are legends) don’t seem to provide a sufficient explanation.
For these reasons, almost all secular historians accept that Jesus lived a life at least somewhat along the lines described in the gospels. He was known as an itinerant teacher and healer who gathered a group of followers, he was executed by the Roman authorities, and his followers claimed that he had been resurrected. He believed he was God’s representative on earth, beginning a new age of God’s kingdom on earth. These quotes, by three eminent New Testament historians who are not christian believers, are representative:
“I don’t think there’s any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus …. We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period
Prof Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina
“This view [that Jesus didn’t exist] is demonstrably false.”
the late Maurice Casey, Nottingham University
“we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died.”
EP Sanders, Oxford & Duke Universities
The bottom line
If we accept the views of the experts, Jesus did exist, he lived a life as a travelling preacher and healer, and he died at the hands of the Roman authorities.
Whether you believe everything in the gospels is true, and whether you believe he did indeed perform miracles, he rose from the dead, and he is the son of God, are separate matters – some historians believe these things, some do not. There is historical evidence supporting these beliefs, but they remain a matter of personal choice, or faith.