The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies
~Academic Historians and Religious Texts~ 
The Historicity of Jesus the Nazarene

Debates concerning Jesus as a historical figure center on two issues: the role of God in natural and human history, and the veracity of the New Testament as a historical source. 

The question of God's role in natural and human history involves not only assumptions about God, but about how humans acquire knowledge (this subject is discussed in the disciplines of epistemology and metaphysics). 

Most Christians believe that God has played an active role in history through miracles and divine revelation; and accept as a basis for their faith the divine authority of the Bible, and the divinity of Jesus. Some Christians believe that Scripture must be interpreted in the light of tradition, while others believe that individuals can interpret it for themselves. 

Some Christians believe that human understanding of the divine is imperfect, and can and must be supplemented by other forms of knowledge. Such people draw on works by secular scientists and historians to help interpret their own experiences and their reading of Scripture. Some believe in God but question the divinity of Jesus and the Bible, and rely more heavily on the work of scientists and historians. Others do not believe in God and rely entirely on the work of secular scholars. 

Most historians make statements about historical events or persons based on more pragmatic standards of empirical evidence. They look at scripture not as divinely inspired but as the work of fallible humans, who wrote in the light of their culture and time. There is a paucity of accepted contemporaneous sources and of direct empirical evidence concerning Jesus, which makes it especially difficult for representatives of the different religious and secular traditions of knowledge and faith to reach agreement on a "biography" of Jesus. 

Most scholars do not dispute that a person named Jesus, connected in some way to the events described in the Bible, once lived; they feel that evidence for Jesus' existence two thousand years ago is by historical standards fairly strong. The primary source of historical knowledge about Jesus is contained within the Christian Gospels which many historians believe to have originated from sources written within living memory of Jesus (but later lost, and remaining lost). Evidence for a historical Jesus is also provided by the Epistles, especially those by Paul. Other sources regarded as of less significance from the perspective of modern historians are other early Christian material, other religious traditions, and certain historians of the period. Many historians accept the New Testament as evidence for the historical existence of Jesus; but there is much less acceptance of the basic narrative of his life and death, and far less for any miraculous claims, among professional historians and liberal biblical scholars. These scholars also draw on mention of Jesus in Josephus, and mention of early Christians in Suetonius and Tacitus. 

Moreover, some historians believe that, if not the Gospels themselves, at least some of the source documents on which they may have been based were written within living memory of Jesus (see Q document). These historians therefore accept that the accounts of the life of Jesus in the Gospels provide a reasonable basis of evidence (by the standards of scholarship for events in ancient history) for the basic narrative of Jesus' life and death. The miraculous claims of the Gospels and details that surround them, however, are disputed by many historians. 

Other historians argue from the internal features of, and inconsistencies between, the Gospels and other canonical and non-canonical Christian and Gnostic writings that Jesus was a mythical figure. The paucity of non-Christian historical sources that corroborate Christian writings is adduced as support for this position. See, for example, the writings of Earl Doherty. 

There are only two historical references to Jesus found outside of religious materials. One is a statement about a sect of Romans who follow "Christos"; and the other a brief passage in a historical work by Josephus which some scholars strongly believe was actually later written by Christians and inserted in the text of Josephus's work. There are no non-religious historical documents which give any detail at all about Jesus; everything about him is from a religious text or tradition. 

The popular historian Will Durant wrote about the historicity of Jesus in his book Caesar and Christ (p. 557): 

In summary, it is clear that there are many contradictions between one gospel and another, many dubious statements of history, many suspicious resemblances to the legends told of pagan gods, many incidents apparently designed to prove the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, many passages possibly aiming to establish a basis for some later doctrine or ritual of the Church.... 

All this granted, much remains. The contradictions are of minutae, not substance; in essentials the synoptic gospels agree remarkably well, and form a consistent portrait of Christ.... That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. 

Academic historians and religious texts 

Unlike religious fundamentalists, who assume that such texts as the Gospels are entirely and literally true, and unlike some critics of Christianity, who assume that such texts are entirely false, most academic historians believe that such texts are historical sources, but that their meaning depends on a variety of factors. Historians generally assume that the Gospels, like other historical sources (for example, the works of Josephus), were written by human beings. Some argue that a text with a clearly identified author (for example, the Gospel of Luke) was written by someone else, or by several authors, or by an author drawing on several sources. Historians assume that a text that is based on real events may nevertheless reflect the biased view of the author or authors, or a bias that is meant to appeal to an intended audience. They also generally don't believe in supernatural phenomena, and tend to look for naturalistic explanations of any supernatural phenomena that were recorded. Consequently, they believe such texts contain information not only about a described event, they also reveal information of historical value about the authors and audience. Historians then use information about the cultural, political, and economic context (from sources outside the text in question) as a basis for reconstructing the intended or understood meaning of the text. Although historians use established methods, there are often vigorous debates over the validity or strength of a given interpretation. Moreover, historians strive to revise their interpretations when new linguistic, literary, or archeological evidence becomes available. 

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The Historicity of Jesus the Nazarene