Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion, Salvation, Truth

The Historicity of Jesus

On a recent blog post, conversation turned toward the reliability of the New Testament, and more specifically, how much evidence we have for whether or not Jesus ever existed. Instead of continuing the discussion there (since it had already broken the 500th comment mark and this would have taken the conversation in a different direction), I thought it might be a good idea to do it here. Makes it easier for other people to find.

So without further ado, here are the three main comments that kicked it off. Feel free to add additional comments below.


Hi kcchief1, it’s impossible ion a blog comment to do justice you your question, so I’ll give you a few quotes and some references.

EP Sanders, possibly the most respected NT scholar of the last few decades:

“Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, 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. ….. the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”
(from The Historical Figure of Jesus, p281)

“I shall first offer a list of statements about Jesus that meet two standards: they are almost beyond dispute; and they belong to the framework of his life, and especially of his public career. (A list of everything that we know about Jesus would be appreciably longer.)

Jesus was born c 4 BCE near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
he was baptised by John the Baptist;
he called disciples;
he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities);
he preached ‘the kingdom of God’;
about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
he created a disturbance in the Temple area;
he had a final meal with the disciples;
he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.”

(from The Historical Figure of Jesus, p10-11)

“I think we can be fairly certain that initially Jesus’ fame came as a result of healing, especially exorcism.”
(from The Historical Figure of Jesus, p154)

Maurice Casey:

“[Mark’s] sources, though abbreviated, were literally accurate accounts of incidents and sayings from the life and teaching of Jesus. …. The completed Gospels of Matthew and Luke are also important sources for the life and teachings of Jesus ….Some of his [Matthew’s] special material … shows every sign of being authentic material literally and accurately translated from Aramaic sources.”
(from Jesus of Nazareth, p 97-99)

Classical historian, Michael Grant:

“The consistency, therefore, of the tradition in their [the Gospels’] pages suggests that the picture they present is largely authentic.”
(From Jesus: an historian’s review of the gospels, p 202)

Craig Evans:

“the persistent trend in recent years is to see the Gospels as essentially reliable, especially when properly understood, and to view the historical Jesus in terms much closer to Christianity’s traditional understanding, i.e., as the proclaimer of God’s rule, as understanding himself as the Lord’s anointed, and, indeed, as God’s own son, destined to rule Israel.”

John A.T. Robinson:

“The wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world.”
(From Can we Trust the New Testament?, p36)

You can find more quotes on Jesus in history, <a href=""Are the gospels historical.

Note that both Evans & Sanders claim to be reporting the view of the majority of scholars.

I don’t think archaeology can help much because it can throw light on places, but not much on the text. But the much-maligned John’s gospel has been found by archaeology to report accurately several locations that were destroyed long before it was written – see Archaeology and John’s gospel.

So that’s as much as I should write here. Please check out the references for more.


unkleE, you can always find Scholars to support your claims. That doesn’t mean they are right. Here are just a few Scholars who don’t agree with your Scholars. If your evidence was conclusive, why this disagreement amongst Scholars. Also when you tour Jerusalem the most common statement your Tour guide will make before he talks about a Holy Site or Holy person is the famous, ” Tradition tells us” NOT “History tells us” I was recently in the ancient city of Ephesus and someone from my group asked the local guide why he kept using the phrase,”Tradition tells us Paul preached here …isn’t there archaeological evidence for this?” The guide said ,”It’s your story not ours” I have no proof there wasn’t a Jesus any more than you have proof there was. I agree that much of the NT is historical in as much as certain cities, villages, and government official’s names are true. But you can’t boldly proclaim there is historical evidence for the main character, Jesus.

Oh not that it really matters because it proves nothing either but here are scholars who question the historicity of Jesus and/or the NT.

When the Church mythologists established their system, they collected all the writings they could find and managed them as they pleased. It is a matter altogether of uncertainty to us whether such of the writings as now appear under the name of the Old and New Testaments are in the same state in which those collectors say they found them, or whether they added, altered, abridged or dressed them up.

-Thomas Paine (The Age of Reason)

The world has been for a long time engaged in writing lives of Jesus… The library of such books has grown since then. But when we come to examine them, one startling fact confronts us: all of these books relate to a personage concerning whom there does not exist a single scrap of contemporary information — not one! By accepted tradition he was born in the reign of Augustus, the great literary age of the nation of which he was a subject. In the Augustan age historians flourished; poets, orators, critics and travelers abounded. Yet not one mentions the name of Jesus Christ, much less any incident in his life.

-Moncure D. Conway [1832 – 1907] (Modern Thought)

It is only in comparatively modern times that the possibility was considered that Jesus does not belong to history at all.

-J.M. Robertson (Pagan Christs)

Many people– then and now– have assumed that these letters [of Paul] are genuine, and five of them were in fact incorporated into the New Testament as “letters of Paul.” Even today, scholars dispute which are authentic and which are not. Most scholars, however, agree that Paul actually wrote only eight of the thirteen “Pauline” letters now included in the New Testament. collection: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Virtually all scholars agree that Paul himself did not write 1 or 2 Timothy or Titus– letters written in a style different from Paul’s and reflecting situations and viewpoints in a style different from those in Paul’s own letters. About the authorship of Ephesias, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, debate continues; but the majority of scholars include these, too, among the “deutero-Pauline”– literally, secondarily Pauline– letters.”

-Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, (Adam, Eve, and the Serpent)

We know virtually nothing about the persons who wrote the gospels we call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

-Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, (The Gnostic Gospels)

Some hoped to penetrate the various accounts and to discover the “historical Jesus”. . . and that sorting out “authentic” material in the gospels was virtually impossible in the absence of independent evidence.”

-Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University

The gospels are so anonymous that their titles, all second-century guesses, are all four wrong.

-Randel McCraw Helms (Who Wrote the Gospels?)

Far from being an intimate of an intimate of Jesus, Mark wrote at the forth remove from Jesus.

-Randel McCraw Helms (Who Wrote the Gospels?)

Mark himself clearly did not know any eyewitnesses of Jesus.

-Randel McCraw Helms (Who Wrote the Gospels?)

All four gospels are anonymous texts. The familiar attributions of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John come from the mid-second century and later and we have no good historical reason to accept these attributions.

-Steve Mason, professor of classics, history and religious studies at York University in Toronto (Bible Review, Feb. 2000, p. 36)

The question must also be raised as to whether we have the actual words of Jesus in any Gospel.

-Bishop John Shelby Spong

But even if it could be proved that John’s Gospel had been the first of the four to be written down, there would still be considerable confusion as to who “John” was. For the various styles of the New Testament texts ascribed to John- The Gospel, the letters, and the Book of Revelations– are each so different in their style that it is extremely unlikely that they had been written by one person.

-John Romer, archeologist & Bible scholar (Testament)

It was not until the third century that Jesus’ cross of execution became a common symbol of the Christian faith.

-John Romer, archeologist & Bible scholar (Testament)

What one believes and what one can demonstrate historically are usually two different things.

-Robert J. Miller, Bible scholar, (Bible Review, December 1993, Vol. IX, Number 6, p. 9)

When it comes to the historical question about the Gospels, I adopt a mediating position– that is, these are religious records, close to the sources, but they are not in accordance with modern historiographic requirements or professional standards.

-David Noel Freedman, Bible scholar and general editor of the Anchor Bible series (Bible Review, December 1993, Vol. IX, Number 6, p.34)

Paul did not write the letters to Timothy to Titus or several others published under his name; and it is unlikely that the apostles Matthew, James, Jude, Peter and John had anything to do with the canonical books ascribed to them.

-Michael D. Coogan, Professor of religious studies at Stonehill College (Bible Review, June 1994)

A generation after Jesus’ death, when the Gospels were written, the Romans had destroyed the Jerusalem Temple (in 70 C.E.); the most influential centers of Christianity were cities of the Mediterranean world such as Alexandria, Antioch, Corinth, Damascus, Ephesus and Rome. Although large number of Jews were also followers of Jesus, non-Jews came to predominate in the early Church. They controlled how the Gospels were written after 70 C.E.

-Bruce Chilton, Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College (Bible Review, Dec. 1994, p. 37)

James Dunn says that the Sermon on the Mount, mentioned only by Matthew, “is in fact not historical.”

How historical can the Gospels be? Are Murphy-O-Conner’s speculations concerning Jesus’ baptism by John simply wrong-headed? How can we really know if the baptism, or any other event written about in the Gospels, is historical?

-Daniel P. Sullivan (Bible Review, June 1996, Vol. XII, Number 3, p. 5)

David Friedrich Strauss (The Life of Jesus, 1836), had argued that the Gospels could not be read as straightforward accounts of what Jesus actually did and said; rather, the evangelists and later redactors and commentators, influenced by their religious beliefs, had made use of myths and legends that rendered the gospel narratives, and traditional accounts of Jesus’ life, unreliable as sources of historical information.

-Bible Review, October 1996, Vol. XII, Number 5, p. 39

The Gospel authors were Jews writing within the midrashic tradition and intended their stories to be read as interpretive narratives, not historical accounts.

-Bishop Shelby Spong, Liberating the Gospels

Other scholars have concluded that the Bible is the product of a purely human endeavor, that the identity of the authors is forever lost and that their work has been largely obliterated by centuries of translation and editing.

-Jeffery L. Sheler, “Who Wrote the Bible,” (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 10, 1990)

Yet today, there are few Biblical scholars– from liberal skeptics to conservative evangelicals- who believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually wrote the Gospels. Nowhere do the writers of the texts identify themselves by name or claim unambiguously to have known or traveled with Jesus.

-Jeffery L. Sheler, “The Four Gospels,” (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 10, 1990)

Once written, many experts believe, the Gospels were redacted, or edited, repeatedly as they were copied and circulated among church elders during the last first and early second centuries.

-Jeffery L. Sheler, “The Four Gospels,” (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 10, 1990)

The tradition attributing the fourth Gospel to the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee, is first noted by Irenaeus in A.D. 180. It is a tradition based largely on what some view as the writer’s reference to himself as “the beloved disciple” and “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Current objection to John’s authorship are based largely on modern textural analyses that strongly suggest the fourth Gospel was the work of several hands, probably followers of an elderly teacher in Asia Minor named John who claimed as a young man to have been a disciple of Jesus.

-Jeffery L. Sheler, “The Four Gospels,” (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 10, 1990)

Some scholars say so many revisions occurred in the 100 years following Jesus’ death that no one can be absolutely sure of the accuracy or authenticity of the Gospels, especially of the words the authors attributed to Jesus himself.

-Jeffery L. Sheler, “The catholic papers,” (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 10, 1990)

Three letters that Paul allegedly wrote to his friends and former co-workers Timothy and Titus are now widely disputed as having come from Paul’s hand.

-Jeffery L. Sheler, “The catholic papers,” (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 10, 1990)

The Epistle of James is a practical book, light on theology and full of advice on ethical behavior. Even so, its place in the Bible has been challenged repeatedly over the years. It is generally believed to have been written near the end of the first century to Jewish Christians. . . but scholars are unable conclusively to identify the writer.

Five men named James appear in the New Testament: the brother of Jesus, the son of Zebedee, the son of Alphaeus, “James the younger” and the father of the Apostle Jude.

Little is known of the last three, and since the son of Zebedee was martyred in A.D. 44, tradition has leaned toward the brother of Jesus. However, the writer never claims to be Jesus’ brother. And scholars find the language too erudite for a simple Palestinian. This letter is also disputed on theological grounds. Martin Luther called it “an epistle of straw” that did not belong in the Bible because it seemed to contradict Paul’s teachings that salvation comes by faith as a “gift of God”– not by good works.

-Jeffery L. Sheler, “The catholic papers,” (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 10, 1990)

The origins of the three letters of John are also far from certain.

-Jeffery L. Sheler, “The catholic papers,” (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 10, 1990)

Christian tradition has held that the Apostle Peter wrote the first [letter], probably in Rome shortly before his martyrdom about A.D. 65. However, some modern scholars cite the epistle’s cultivated language and its references to persecutions that did not occur until the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96) as evidence that it was actually written by Peter’s disciples sometime later.

Second Peter has suffered even harsher scrutiny. Many scholars consider it the latest of all New Testament books, written around A.D. 125. The letter was never mentioned in second-century writings and was excluded from some church canons into the fifth century. “This letter cannot have been written by Peter,” wrote Werner Kummel, a Heidelberg University scholar, in his highly regarded Introduction to the New Testament.

-Jeffery L. Sheler, “The catholic papers,” (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 10, 1990)

The letter of Jude also is considered too late to have been written by the attested author– “the brother of James” and, thus, of Jesus. The letter, believed written early in the second century.

-Jeffery L. Sheler, “The catholic papers,” (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 10, 1990)

According to the declaration of the Second Vatican Council, a faithful account of the actions and words of Jesus is to be found in the Gospels; but it is impossible to reconcile this with the existence in the text of contradictions, improbabilities, things which are materially impossible or statements which run contrary to firmly established reality.

-Maurice Bucaille (The Bible, the Quran, and Science)

The bottom line is we really don’t know for sure who wrote the Gospels.

-Jerome Neyrey, of the Weston School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass. in “The Four Gospels,” (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 10, 1990)

Most scholars have come to acknowledge, was done not by the Apostles but by their anonymous followers (or their followers’ followers). Each presented a somewhat different picture of Jesus’ life. The earliest appeared to have been written some 40 years after his Crucifixion.

-David Van Biema, “The Gospel Truth?” (Time, April 8, 1996)

So unreliable were the Gospel accounts that “we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus.”

-Rudolf Bultmann, University of Marburg, the foremost Protestant scholar in the field in 1926

The Synoptic Gospels employ techniques that we today associate with fiction.

-Paul Q. Beeching, Central Connecticut State University (Bible Review, June 1997, Vol. XIII, Number 3, p. 43)

Josephus says that he himself witnessed a certain Eleazar casting out demons by a method of exorcism that had been given to Solomon by God himself– while Vespasian watched! In the same work, Josephus tells the story of a rainmaker, Onias (14.2.1).

-Paul Q. Beeching, Central Connecticut State University (Bible Review, June 1997, Vol. XIII, Number 3, p. 43)

For Mark’s gospel to work, for instance, you must believe that Isaiah 40:3 (quoted, in a slightly distorted form, in Mark 1:2-3) correctly predicted that a stranger named John would come out of the desert to prepare the way for Jesus. It will then come as something of a surprise to learn in the first chapter of Luke that John is a near relative, well known to Jesus’ family.

-Paul Q. Beeching, Central Connecticut State University (Bible Review, June 1997, Vol. XIII, Number 3, p. 43)

The narrative conventions and world outlook of the gospel prohibit our using it as a historical record of that year.

-Paul Q. Beeching, Central Connecticut State University (Bible Review, June 1997, Vol. XIII, Number 3, p. 54)

Jesus is a mythical figure in the tradition of pagan mythology and almost nothing in all of ancient literature would lead one to believe otherwise. Anyone wanting to believe Jesus lived and walked as a real live human being must do so despite the evidence, not because of it.

-C. Dennis McKinsey, Bible critic (The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy)

The gospels are very peculiar types of literature. They’re not biographies.

-Paula Fredriksen, Professor and historian of early Christianity, Boston University (in the PBS documentary, From Jesus to Christ, aired in 1998)

The gospels are not eyewitness accounts

-Allen D. Callahan, Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School

We are led to conclude that, in Paul’s past, there was no historical Jesus. Rather, the activities of the Son about which God’s gospel in scripture told, as interpreted by Paul, had taken place in the spiritual realm and were accessible only through revelation.

-Earl Doherty, “The Jesus Puzzle,” p.83

Before the Gospels were adopted as history, no record exists that he was ever in the city of Jerusalem at all– or anywhere else on earth.

-Earl Doherty, “The Jesus Puzzle,” p.141

Even if there was a historical Jesus lying back of the gospel Christ, he can never be recovered. If there ever was a historical Jesus, there isn’t one any more. All attempts to recover him turn out to be just modern remythologizings of Jesus. Every “historical Jesus” is a Christ of faith, of somebody’s faith. So the “historical Jesus” of modern scholarship is no less a fiction.

-Robert M. Price, “Jesus: Fact or Fiction, A Dialogue With Dr. Robert Price and Rev. John Rankin,” Opening Statement

It is important to recognize the obvious: The gospel story of Jesus is itself apparently mythic from first to last.”

-Robert M. Price, professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute (Deconstructing Jesus, p. 260)


unkleE, I could have shortened my last post by 90% by simply providing one Scholar whose reputation speaks for himself. Geza Vermes

Géza Vermes or Vermès (Hungarian: [ˈɡeːzɒ ˈvɛrmɛʃ], 22 June 1924 – 8 May 2013) was a British scholar of Jewish Hungarian origin—one who also served as a Catholic priest in his youth—and writer on religious history, particularly Jewish and Christian. He was a noted authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient works in Aramaic such as the Targums, and on the life and religion of Jesus. He was one of the most important voices in contemporary Jesus research,[1] and he has been described as the greatest Jesus scholar of his time.[2] Vermes’ written work on Jesus focuses principally on Jesus the Jew, as seen in the broader context of the narrative scope of Jewish history and theology, while questioning the basis of some Christian teachings on Jesus.[3]

Geza Vermes on the Resurrection

Vermes contends that neither the empty tomb or resurrection appearances satisfy the “minimum requirements of a legal or scientific inquiry. The only alternative historians are left with in their effort to make some sense of the Resurrection is to fall back on speculation…”(141) This speculation requires the dismissal of “two extreme” theories – (1) the “blind faith of the fundamentalist” who accept the bodily resurrection and (2) the “unbelievers” who “treat the whole Resurrection story as the figment of early Christian imagination.” (141) So what are the alternatives between this spectrum?

1. The Body was Removed by Someone Unconnected with Jesus
The emptiness of the tomb was genuine, but there are a number of reasons aside from Mark 16:6. The swift nature of the burial in a tomb “obviously prepared for someone else” is explained that someone – possibly the gardener (Jn 20:15) – “took the first opportunity to move the body of Jesus to another available tomb.” (142) It was this innocent transfer of the body that later developed into the “legend of the Resurrection.” (143) Vermes notes that this is itself problematic – those who organised the burial were well known and could have explained this.

2. The Body of Jesus was Stolen by His Disciples
Those familiar with the narrative in Matthew will recognise this hypothesis as a current polemic against the empty tomb tradition (Matt 28:15). Vermes points out that this theory “presupposes that a fraudulent prophecy concerning Jesus’ rising from the dead was widely known among Palestinian Jews.” (143) Evidently, this is a “later Jewish gossip” circulating the time the evangelist was writing and its value for the Resurrection is “next to nil”.

3. The Empty Tomb was not the Tomb of Jesus
Drawing on the fact that the witness of women was not very convincing, the disciples who investigated the report of the empty tomb (Luke 24:11) may have suspected the women had “gone to the wrong tomb.” The disciples may have simply been mistaken, and the resurrection appearances that soon followed “rendered such an inquiry [as to the location of the tomb] superfluous.” (144)

4. Buried Alive, Jesus Later Left the Tomb
This is self-explanatory, and is elaborately forwarded by Barbara Thiering. Josephus’ Life 420 evidences crucifixion victims surviving. The theory is that Jesus was on the cross for such a short time that he was not dead when Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body. John’s mention of the spear in the side was an apologetic to dispel these sort of doubts. (John 19:34) However, I would argue that John’s mention, if invention, would have more to do with suffering servant styled prophecy fulfilled. Vermes sees this as implausible – a “semiconscious Jesus crept out of the tomb in the darkness of night…” (145)

5. The Migrant Jesus
A belief evident in contemporary Ahmadiyya Islam which believes Jesus was revived and eventually died in Kashmir, India. Others such as Thiering believe that Jesus wandered off to Rome where he died. Vermes concludes “In the absence of real ancient evidence, these modern musings need not retain us.”(146) By real evidence, he is of course referring to Thiering’s discovery by using “Pesher” to find whatever she wants in whatever document. For a brief review of pesher see my earlier post.

6. Do the appearances suggest spiritual, not bodily, resurrection?
Visions of the risen Jesus are abundant in the Christian sources (with a notable exception being the shorter ending of Mark.) These visions are separated into 4 categories:
1. “In Matthew no concrete details are given”
2. John/Luke – unknown man such as the gardener and travel are later recognised as Jesus
3. Luke/John – “a spirit mysteriously enters the apostles’ residence despite the locked doors”
4. “The ghost later becomes a stranger with flesh and bones, who says he is Jesus and invited the apostles to touch him, and eat with him.” (146)
As the evangelists do not mention appearances to people outside the circle of his close followers Vermes takes these to imply that the Resurrection was not meant to be an extension of public ministry. In essence, the “Resurrection becomes a purely spiritual concept without requiring any accompanying physical reality.” (147) The idea of spiritual resurrection accounts for the visions, but the Jewish bond of body and spirit spurred the empty tomb and physicality of the body in John and Luke. In appealing to the mystic tradition, Vermes contends that this view is no different from crosscultural experiences. [I didn’t explain this option best although in my defence neither does Vermes.]

Vermes really does come to something quite unsatisfying – “All in all, none of the six suggested theories stands up to stringent scrutiny.”

Geza Vermes on the Nativity
‘The nature of the birth stories and the many fabulous features incorporated in them, angels, dreams, virginal conception, miraculous star,’ bring Dr Vermes to the view that the Infancy Gospels are ‘not the stuff out of which history is made’.

Thank you for your time

164 thoughts on “The Historicity of Jesus”

  1. I found a few of Lee Stroebel’s books to be good arguments against some of the common arguments against the historicity of Jesus. Not conclusive, but a good rebuttal. Just in case anybody is looking for the other side of the argument, Cliff Notes style.


  2. Fascinating stuff. Thank you for re-posting these comments separately.

    For me, the uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding the gospels (and the Bible as a whole, for that matter) makes me smile a bit: if the gospels *are* The Infallible Truth, God orchestrated their construction and preservation in such a way that there would never be enough certainty about their factuality to negate the necessity of faith. Maddening, yes, and possibly cruel on the part of the Almighty.

    That said, I think the focus on factuality takes away from the truths people can glean from the scriptures: things like the value and power of genuine empathy, the transformative power of love and the importance of humility. *Truth*, I have come to discover, is much larger than *fact*.


  3. I agree — that was a great comment, Rodalena!

    I have to admit that I sometimes struggle appreciating the truths and beauty that can be found within the Bible. I still feel betrayed by it a lot of times. But I know I need to have a healthier attitude toward it, so thanks for posting that comment. It reminds me that I need to step back sometimes and let it be what it is — not judge it so much for what it isn’t.


  4. The value of our most enduring stories is in that they can, if we’ll let them, make us better human beings.

    This isn’t to say that facts don’t matter, or that history and archaeology and science aren’t valuable. Instead, it’s to help us see that Jesus, just like King Arthur or Achilles, can teach us things we need to know, even if they never actually existed.


  5. I think honesty and truth are not always the same things. A person might honestly disbelieve or believe, but their honest position doesn’t mean they are factually right or wrong.

    People are also made up of contradictions and opinions. And truth can be mixed in with opinion and misguided emotions at different times. If there is any truth in something a person has expressed, the other opinions and desires of that same person can distract from this truth.

    In these references, what is the historian’s attitude and what is the fact. The studies of literature and history are not like the study of mathematics 🙂


  6. Hi kcchief1, you have presented a lot of material. When I first saw it, I thought I would have to agree with Nan that “dueling scholars” would be a waste of time. But as I read and checked the material you presented, I find that it needs to be analysed.

    1. What we are discussing

    We need to be clear about this. I have said that: “But the same isn’t true of the NT. There the scholars are much more in agreement that most of it is pretty good history”

    Note three things I have also made clear:

    1. I don’t suggest the scholars say the NT is without error, or anything like it, just that it is a good basis for history
    2. I’m not suggesting all scholars accept the christian explanation of the historical facts – clearly many do not.
    3. I recognise that there is a wide range of scholars (and an even wider range of non-scholars), from ardent christians to ardent sceptics. The important thing is to avoid the extremes and give greatest weight to the consensus of those with expertise, and that is what I have done.

    2. Your list of quotes

    It’s a mighty long list. I presume you cut and pasted it from Did a historical Jesus exist?? I am not one who criticises cutting and pasting – information is information wherever it comes from – but in this case it has led to some unfortunate results. It is a committed atheist site, and so biased from the start. Have you read any of the authors quoted? Did you read many of the quotes? Did you check the credentials of those quoted? I have done all three, and found some interesting things.

    2.1 Scholars?

    A scholar is someone who (1) has relevant qualifications (PhD in a relevant field), (2) is active in their field, (3) publishes in peer-reviewed journals or reputable publishing houses (not just self-published) and (4) is respected by their peers – or at least most of these. These are the criteria used to identify the credentials of scientists, and it should be the same for NT historical scholars.

    Unfortunately, your list is probably only 50% “scholars”. For example, some of the early quotes are so old than can have no relevance to modern scholarship; Doherty fails most of these criteria and has only a Bachelors degree; Spong is a Bishop and theologian with no special expertise in the NT history field; Sheler is a reporter (though he apparently believes the Bible is “fairly reliable” according to this site, despite your quotes, which is interesting); Helms is an English professor; Romer is an Egyptologist.

    Of course there are some very reputable scholars there too – e.g. Chilton, Pagels, Fredriksen, Vermes and others.

    In contrast, my quotes come from eminent scholars, except for Robinson, who is seen as a NT scholar although not with the same credentials as others.

    2.2 Consensus?

    There is a wide range of scholarly opinion on many matters. Anyone wanting to present a view for others’ consideration needs to show they have read across that range, otherwise their views have been biased before they start. Unfortunately, that is true for this list. I am not familiar with all of them, but the ones I know are very much on the sceptical end of the range. e.g. Doherty and Price are Jesus mythicists, Pagels & Spong are very sceptical. There is no problem quoting the genuine scholars among these, but there is not one scholar I recognised that comes from the other ‘side” to give balance (though there may be some I didn’t recognise or check on).

    In contrast, 3 of the 5 scholars I quoted are non-christians (Casey and Grant would be about in the centre, Sanders slightly on the sceptical side) and one (Robinson) was a very liberal christian somewhat like Spong. Only one (Evans) is an evangelical christian. I do this to give balance to my own thinking as well as to what I present to others.

    2.3 What do the quotes tell us about the matter we are discussing?

    I have briefly scanned through the quotes, so I may have missed something, but which ones actually tell us what the person concludes about whether the gospels are “pretty good history”? I see lots of quotes about problems, lack of known authors, inconsistencies, but most ancient historical documents have problems, and scholars deal with it. I didn’t find any from reputable scholars (apart from Price) that went on to say therefore the gospels weren’t useful in understanding history. The Vermes quotes are about the resurrection, not the gospels as history. If I missed something, please let me know.

    3. Conclusion

    So we have a biased selection of quotes from a biased website, including many non-scholars, and not addressing very strongly the question we are discussing. (If there are any from scholars that I missed, please just re-quote them, so we can discuss them.)

    I still think (1) there is a wide range of opinion, and (2) the consensus of the best scholars is that the Gospels are good historical sources, of course not without their problems. I think the bias and irrelevance of most of your references (is that the best they could do?) supports both of these conclusions rather than throws them into doubt.

    You have said: I am not trying to win a “Battle of the Scholars” here. I’m not trying to even prove I’m right.” I agree with you – I hope we are trying to find the truth. I suggest you won’t find it by cut and pasting from an atheist website, but by doing some serious reading across the whole spectrum of scholarly thinking.

    I am still in this discussion because people keep asking me questions. I haven’t tried to convert anyone. I’ve just answered questions and tried to point out where historical evidence doesn’t support some claims. After a while it gets tedious responding to veiled innuendos and comments about my closed mind, especially when I have shown I am more willing than others to engage with people who think differently to me.

    So can I suggest we make a choice? I see three options for us here. (1) We can decide not to discuss further. (2) You can do some more serious reading across the range of scholarly views and we can continue to discuss. (3) You can continue to use biased sources with little relevance, in which cased I will not be interested in further discussion. I don’t wish to be rude, but life’s too short to continue on with all this stuff without some commitment on both sides to base what we say on the best evidence.

    Best wishes.


  7. I am enjoying the discussion, fellas. However, when we talk about historical accuracy we are employing a concept that is relative not absolute, at least in the ancient world. In the modern age, we think of historical accuracy as verbatim, objective accuracy, which seems to stem from our use of electronic devices, (voice recorders and computers) writing materials, and a high literacy rate. And this idea of absolute historical accuracy is a sensible approach in the modern age. Although, for the ancients, it is not something that was achievable nor preferable. In antiquity, perhaps five percent of people could read or write and at the best of times the literacy rate might reach ten percent of the population of the ancient world. As a result of the low literacy rate, people operated orally, primarily. In this cultural context, the idea of objective historical accuracy is impossible. Accuracy means something quite different for the ancients, as a result. When you cannot go to the texts to define the accuracy of a tale, saying, or recounting, the idea of accuracy means something else entirely. In my mind, it probably means faithfulness to the Jesus’ tradition, in the case of the early Christians. The ancients relied upon this oral tradition and, in fact, may have preferred it. Written words could be manipulated in any situation and they removed the writer from taking responsibility for them. The ancients, particularly the illiterate, distrusted the written word. Plato didn’t really trust books, preferring instead an oral storyteller. Papias, the church elder upon whom we rely for our earliest information about Christianity, was also suspicious of books. He liked to go straight to the wandering preachers of the oral tradition for his information. So, I am not at all surprised that there is no eyewitness written record about Jesus because people could not write and, if they could write, may be they did not want to write.

    Mark was certainly a part of that ancient world and, as such, was not a historian, at least as we understand historians, but he certainly fit in the category of ancient world biographies. Plutarch’s Lives, for instance, is more along the lines of how most biographies of the ancient world were designed. And, in fact, they are more aretalogies than biographies, which is to say, the author is more concerned with recounting the great deeds of great people; not with the bare facts of that person’s life. It is not historical so much as it is doxological. Mark falls in line with this idea. He writes, in his own words, the good deeds of Jesus Christ not the bare facts of his life. He is more a theologian than a historian, which is not a new or radical postulation. Of course, this has implications for Matthew and Luke because they use Mark as a source. But what this really means is that we have no historical record for Jesus’ life outside of a few details like his origins in Galilee and his death in Jerusalem. However, I should point out that just because Mark’s narrative seems to be filled with creativity and imaginative theology, that does not mean that all of it is rubbish. In fact, I think the Gospel of Thomas, the distinctiveness of certain Synoptic ideas, and sociological and anthropological studies of first century Palestine lend strong historical support to a number of elements within the Gospel tradition.

    The main point is that we need to recognize that we can’t look to the Gospels or any NT writing for that matter with modern eyes. We must realize that objective historical accuracy was of little interest to the Gospel authors and perhaps did not even exist as a concept in the ancient world.



  8. Wow, guys, this just gets better and better!! Thanks Persto and UnkleE for the comments. I’m really enjoying this thread (though I have absolutely nothing to offer to it except thanks). 🙂


  9. LOL!
    Missed out on a lot, by the looks of it.
    Good old Unkle E.
    Still beating that tired old consensus drum.
    Rather than dissect the minutiae of the NT go read Finklestein and Herzog.
    I’ve been pointing to them for ages,now John Zande has done a super post on Yahweh etc. which renders everything NT pretty much moot.
    A point that has been raised with Unklee on several occasions and which , like all ding bat believers, he deftly sidesteps.

    As Hendrix once sang: ‘And so castles made of sand, drift into the sea….eventually.’


  10. unkleE, I was paying for Interent Time on the airplane when I copied and pasted and I admit, some of the sources I provided were merely Journalists. I simply didn’t have time to remove those. I don’t see why I should eliminate ALL Atheist and Agnostic Scholars any more than I should eliminate any Christian ones. Is Christian Scholarship the only Scholarship that counts??? You don’t think they are biased ? This is why I later said the only one I needed to provide was Geza Vermes. I noticed you didn’t comment on him ? Why ?

    Yes, I have read many of the books published from the list of Scholars I have provided to you. I agree about the bias of many scholars. This is why I try to read from as many Atheist and Agnostic Scholars as I do Christian scholars to see what EVERYONE is saying. Bart Erhman was a Christian Scholar who has now admitted he is Agnostic. Does this make him any less of a Scholar ? Obviously for him the evidence made him draw a different conclusion. I think it could be said of Albert Schweitzer as being a Scholar and yet he said the Historical Jesus probably didn’t exist. Does this make him any less of a Scholar ?

    I think I am done here. Persto says we can’t look at the Gospels or any NT writing with “Modern Eyes” If this is true, then the NT wasn’t meant for modern man at all. The “Masses” are going to Divinity School so they can learn how to properly read the NT.

    I appreciate the time you take to explain your positions although I don’t agree with many of them.

    In the future I will be happy to post when I have something new to say but for now I think I’m done. The Best to you and all who contribute here.


  11. Ark!, where have you been? In the 500+ comment post, i was forced to imagine your responses… you were missed.

    And that Hendricks quote is one I think often recite in my own head.


  12. KC,

    I think if you want to be a Christian, then read the Gospels in whatever way suits you. However, if you want to examine the historicity of the Gospels or Jesus, then you cannot proceed in this manner for a whole slew of reasons, some of which I outlined above.



  13. JudahFirst – Listening to The Gods Aren’t Angry. Pretty amazing. I actually like Bell a lot.


  14. Josh, great! I enjoy his videos and absolutely loved his book “Jesus Wants to Save Christians”. I wasn’t a fan of “Drops Like Stars”, though (the video) and I have not had time to read “What we talk about when we talk about God” yet, but it’s on the list.

    Did you read “Love Wins”? (Please forgive me if you already said … I forget a lot.)


  15. Yes, I read Love Wins. Excellent book. Finished the video. I’ll definitely be watching it again and taking notes :). Thanks for the tip!


  16. Josh, you are quite welcome! Now on to “Jesus and the Undoing of Adam”!! 🙂 That’s where you need to land, my friend. “Razing Hell” and “Stricken by God?” are next.


  17. unkleE, Here is my response to 2 of your comments. I still maintain you tend to diminish whatever evidence I or others may have when it doesn’t measure up to your standards.

    2. Your list of quotes

    “It’s a mighty long list. I presume you cut and pasted it from Did a historical Jesus exist?? I am not one who criticises cutting and pasting – information is information wherever it comes from – but in this case it has led to some unfortunate results. It is a committed atheist site, and so biased from the start. Have you read any of the authors quoted? Did you read many of the quotes? Did you check the credentials of those quoted? I have done all three, and found some interesting things.”

    Even your statement about these sources being listed on a “Committed Atheist Site” caught me totally off guard ! It may be an Atheist Site but what has that got to do with the Sources they used ??? Does that make their sources invalid ?? I checked these sources out too and have listed their credentials. What bothered you so much about them. The fact they weren’t your favorite Christian Apologists ?

    2.1 Scholars?

    “A scholar is someone who (1) has relevant qualifications (PhD in a relevant field), (2) is active in their field, (3) publishes in peer-reviewed journals or reputable publishing houses (not just self-published) and (4) is respected by their peers – or at least most of these. These are the criteria used to identify the credentials of scientists, and it should be the same for NT historical scholars.”

    Again here are the list of Sources I found on the supposed Atheist Website you mentioned. Most of them appear to be qualified to me. Most of them happen to be Christian Scholars too. As you happen to have a habit of doing, I feel here again you have diminished my response and evidence. I’m still waiting for your take on Geza Vermes as well.

    Quotes / Author/ Qualifications
    1 Thomas Paine (Deist)
    1 -Moncure D. Conway (Unitarian Clergyman)
    1 -J.M. Robertson (Most likely Atheist)
    3 -Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University (Nowhere is she stated as an Atheist)
    3 -Randel McCraw Helms (Professor and Critical Author of the Bible) Nowhere does it say he is an Atheist
    1 Steve Mason, professor of classics, history and religious studies at York University in Toronto (Nowhere does it state he is an Atheist)
    1 Bishop John Shelby Spong (Definitely NOT an Atheist)
    2 John Romer, archeologist & Bible scholar (Nowhere does it state he is an Atheist)
    1 Robert J. Miller, (Rosenberger Chair of Christian and Religious Studies at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. A Fellow of the Jesus Seminar since 1986, he was Scholar-in-Residence at Westar Institute in 2001) No evidence that he is an Atheist
    1 David Noel Freedman, Bible scholar and general editor of the Anchor Bible series ordained Presbyterian minister (Hardly an Atheist)
    1 Michael D. Coogan, Professor of religious studies at Stonehill College (Nowhere states he is an Atheist)
    1 Bruce Chilton, Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College (Nowhere stated he is an Atheist)
    1 Daniel P. Sullivan, Author (No where can I find he is an Atheist)
    1 David Friedrich Strauss (German Christian Theologian, not Atheist)
    10 Jeffery L. Sheler (Journalist and possibly an Atheist although I don’t find it stated)
    1 Maurice Bucaille (Not an Atheist but could be an Islamic Sympathizer)
    1 Jerome Neyrey, of the Weston School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass
    1 David Van Biema (Award Winning Journalist)
    1 -Rudolf Bultmann, University of Marburg, the foremost Protestant scholar in the field in 1926
    4 Paul Q. Beeching, Central Connecticut State University
    1 C. Dennis McKinsey, Bible critic
    1 Paula Fredriksen, Professor and historian of early Christianity, Boston University
    1 Allen D. Callahan, Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School
    2 Earl Doherty, Author
    2 Robert M. Price, professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute


  18. kcchief1: “I still maintain you tend to diminish whatever evidence I or others may have when it doesn’t measure up to your standards.”

    Glad I’m not the only one that feels this way.

    Liked by 1 person

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