Edited transcript of a talk given at the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students conference in Ulverstone, July 2011
Today, I am going to talk on the historical Jesus. First, I am going to look at the historical evidence for Jesus from outside the New Testament. Then I will explain what non-Christian historians think about Jesus and what they mean by the expression “the historical Jesus”.
Historical Evidence for Jesus
There are some people, usually atheists, who claim that Jesus never existed, such as Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. The idea that Jesus did not exist at all does not strike me as particularly logical. Just because you do not believe in God does not mean that there was also not a person Jesus of Nazareth 2000 years. I am not a Moslem or a Buddhist, but I still believe Mohammed and Buddha existed.
In The God Delusion the only person, which Richard Dawkins cites in support of the non-existence of Jesus, is “Professor G. Wells of the University of London” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam, London, 2006, p 97). Dawkins does not tell his readers that Wells is not a professor of history. He is a professor of German. If you wanted to find out if there was really any doubt or controversy about the existence of Jesus, I would think the logical person to ask would be a professor of ancient history and he could tell you his reasons, based on his expertise and his study of the ancient evidence, why he believes Jesus did not exist. The fact, that Dawkins and the other “new atheists” cannot find any appropriately qualified expert, who agrees with them, shows their argument about the non-existence of Jesus are not very rational or intellectual.
There does not appear to be a historian in a university anywhere in the world who believes Jesus did not exist. They do not necessarily believe he was the Son of God who died and rose from the dead, but they still believe there was a person Jesus of Nazareth who founded Christianity and was crucified.
When it comes to the historical evidence for Jesus, we need to realise how little we really know about the ancient Greek and Roman world. 99% of the written records have been lost or destroyed, so historians have very little to work with. For example, the Roman emperor when Jesus was crucified was called Tiberius. Within 150 years of his reign there are only ten surviving written works from the ancient world which mention Tiberius and one of these is Luke in the New Testament (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Kregel, Grand Rapids, 2004, p 128).
Most of our knowledge about the emperor Tiberius comes from two Roman historians, Suetonius and Tiberius, who wrote around 110 AD. These books are not all about Tiberius. 40 pages of the Penguin Classics edition of Suetonius is devoted to Tiberius. About half of Tacitus’ Annals in the Penguin Classics is about Tiberius, almost 200 pages. This is actually pretty good compared to what we have for some emperors. But if we compare these 240 pages about Tiberius with everything which has been published about John Howard, which a modern historian could use, it gives you an idea of how little historians of the ancient world have to work with.
Tiberius was the most important person in the world at the time, so we would be surprised to find anything about someone from a village at the edge of the empire. Nevertheless, Jesus is mentioned by non-Christian historians.
Josephus was a Pharisee who died around 100 AD. He wrote four books which have survived, including a detailed account of the Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. In his book Antiquities of the Jews he wrote this about Jesus,
“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at tis day.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:3:3)
There is a problem with this passage because Josephus says that Jesus was the Christ. This would make Josephus a Christian which he was not. This has led some historians to conclude that this passage is a forgery which was inserted by a Christian scribe who was copying the manuscript. Most historians think that Jesus did write about Jesus but some overenthusiastic Christian scribe altered it to make it sound more Christian.
There is an Arabic version of the same passage,
“At this time there was a wise man named Jesus. His conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to crucifixion and death; but those who had become his disciples did not forsake his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; he was therefore, perhaps, the Messiah concerning whom the prophets had recounted wonderful things.” (F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1974, p 41)
This passage does not sound blatantly Christian so many historians believe this could be this could be the original version before it was tampered with.
Josephus also mentioned Jesus when he wrote about the execution of his brother James,
“He [Ananus the high priest] assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20:9:1)
This says that Jesus was called the Christ, not that he was the Christ, which is more likely to be authentic.
Josephus also mentioned John the Baptist in Antiquities of the Jews 18:5:2. This is the only mention of John the Baptist on a non-Christian source.
Mara bar Serapion
Another early reference to Jesus, which was written some time after 70 AD, is a letter written by Mara bar Serapion to his son,
“What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching he had given.” (Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, op cit., p 31)
This does not mention Jesus by name, but the Jews’ wise king, who was executed and whose teachings live on, could only be Jesus.
Tacitus, who was mentioned earlier, also refers to Jesus when he wrote about how the emperor Nero blamed the Christians for the fire at Rome in 64 AD,
“To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (As they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. But, in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.” (Tacitus, Annals, 15:44)
This tells us that they knew Christ had been executed by Pilate and this is the only surviving reference to Pilate in pagan Roman literature.
Suetonius also briefly mentions Nero’s persecution of the Christians,
“Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous belief.” (Suetonius, Nero, 16)
Suetonius also mentioned an incident during the reign of Claudius,
“Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” (Suetonius, Claudius, 25)
Claudius expelling the Jews from Rome is also mentioned in Acts 18:2.
We cannot be sure but many historians believe that “Chrestus” is a garbled reference to Christ and this is referring to a conflict between Jews and Christians in Rome.
Pliny the Younger
Pliny the younger was a Roman governor in part of what is now Turkey around 110 AD. He wrote a letter to the Roman emperor Trajan to get a ruling about what to do about the local Christians. Part of it says they worshipped Christ as a god,
“[T]hey had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god.” (Pliny, Letters, 10:96)
In The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown says that Christians did not believe Jesus was God until the fourth century AD, but here we have a letter from a pagan Roman 300 years earlier saying the Christians already believed Jesus was God.
Around 170 AD Lucian of Samostata wrote a satire about someone called Peregrinus who, among other things, tried to pass himself off as the leader of a group of Christians,
“He [Peregrinus] interpreted and explained some of their books and composed many himself, and they considered him like a god, used him as legislator, and noted him as a protector, next after that one whom they still worship – the man crucified in Palestine – because he introduced this new rite to human life……The poor wretches have persuaded themselves that they will be immortal and will live forever, and consequently they despise death and most of them willingly give themselves up. Moreover their first legislator persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another, once they have transgressed by denying the Greek gods, by worshipping that crucified sophist himself, and by living according to his laws.” (Lucian, Peregrinus, 2)
Lucian did not mention Jesus by name but he said the founder of Christianity was crucified in Palestine and that the Christians worshipped him as a god.
A Christian writer Julius Africanus, who died around 240, mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus and said that an earlier writer Thallus mentioned the darkness when Jesus died, but he does not say that Thallus mentioned Jesus,
“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness, Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.” (Georgius Syncellus, Chronicle, 322 )
The reason it could not have been an eclipse is that Jesus was crucified at the Passover which took place at a full moon when the moon could not have been between the earth and the sun for an eclipse.
The Jewish holy book the Talmud mentioned Jesus in a passage which was probably written in the late second century,
“On the Sabbath of the Passover Jesus the Nazarene was hanged. For forty days before execution took place, a herald went forth and cried: ‘Here is Jesus the Nazarene, who is going forth to be stoned because he practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favour, let him come forth and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forth in his favour, he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.” (Talmud (baraitha Sanhedrin 43a))
This agrees that Jesus was executed during the Passover. Where it says that Jesus practised sorcery, this probably refers to his miracles. The Talmud does not deny that Jesus performed miracles. They just questioned the source of his miracles.
Other early pagan references to Christians which do not mention Jesus or Christ
Other pagan references to Christians in the 150 years after Jesus, death, but do not mention Jesus, are:
Epictetus (90-100) in Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus 4:76
Trajan (110) in Pliny, Letters, 10:97
Hadrian (122) in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4:9
Cornelius Fronto (140) in Minicius Felix, Octavius 9:8
Lucian (160), Alexander, 25,38
Galen (170) in R. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, Oxford University Press, 1949
Marcus Aurelius (170), Meditations, 11:3
That is every definite mention of Jesus and Christians in non-Christian sources in the 150 years after Jesus’ death.
The New Testament as Historical Evidence
There is also the early Christian evidence for Jesus – the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers. Some people object to the idea of relying on the New Testament as historical evidence for the existence of Jesus because it is not independent.
However, if I am studying someone from Greek history like Alexander the Great, I am going to use Greek sources. If I am studying Roman history, I will use Roman sources. If I tried to write a history of Rome without using anything written by the Romans, it would be a very short book.
There is nothing inappropriate to an objective historian in using Christian sources to prove the existence of Jesus. Michael Grant has written several books on Roman history and translated Tacitus. He is also an atheist, but unlike the “new atheists”, he is more objective and does not doubt the existence;
“[I]f we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria, as we should to other ancient writings, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned.” (Michael Grant, Jesus, An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1977, p 199-200)
Historians and Jesus
The good news is that historians believe there was a Jesus of Nazareth. No historian denies that. The bad news is that they do not believe Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God who died for our sins and rise from the dead, unless they are already Christians. Many do not even believe that Jesus said he was the Messiah.
When historians talk about the “historical Jesus”, they usually mean they believe the historical Jesus was different from the portrayed in the Gospels. They will often talk about the “Jesus of history”, that is the real Jesus of Nazareth, and the “Christ of faith”, what the early Christians believed about Jesus Christ and wrote in the New Testament. They do not believe they are the same.
Historians also talk about the search or quest for the historical Jesus. This is the search for the real Jesus behind what the early church wrote about him in the Gospels.
I will explain why this approach is flawed.
The First Quest for the Historical Jesus
The search for the historical Jesus can be divided into three periods.
The First Quest began in the eighteenth century. It grew out of the rationalism of the Enlightenment which denied the supernatural. Historians started to write lives of the “historical Jesus” which were stripped of anything supernatural, such as Jesus being the Son of God, performing miracles and rising from the dead. They usually portrayed Jesus as just a moral teacher or a political revolutionary.
It is important to understand that these “historical” portraits of Jesus were not the result of some breakthrough in historical research where they studied the evidence and concluded there was nothing supernatural about Jesus. They started with the presupposition that there is no such thing as the supernatural and then rewrote Jesus so he would fit their presuppositions. This is still a problem with a lot of historical writing about Jesus today.
In 1906 Albert Schweitzer published The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer believed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who believed the world was about to end.
He was also very critical of the previous studies of the historical Jesus. He showed they were basically projecting their own rationalist Enlightenment values onto Jesus and coming up with a Jesus who was pretty much like themselves.
Again, this is still a problem among some historians today.
The No Quest Period
Albert Schweitzer became a medical missionary in Africa and eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize.
His book basically killed off research into the historical Jesus for nearly 50 years. It was assumed that the early church had made up sayings and actions of Jesus to suit their own situation, what was going on in the early church at the time, and put them in the Gospels, so it was impossible to know who the real historical Jesus was. This is sometimes called the No Quest Period.
There is an obvious problem with their assumption that the early church made up things about Jesus and put them in the Gospels to suit their own situation.
In Acts and Galatians there was a major controversy in the early church about whether Gentile believers should be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses. If the original Christians really were in the habit of inventing sayings of Jesus, you would expect them to have made something up where Jesus said whether or not they sould be circumcised. Jesus did not say this or deal with other issues for the church like spiritual gifts or church leadership. This suggests this assumption underlying the search for the supposed historical Jesus is groundless.
The Second Quest
The Second Quest or New Quest began in the 1950s. Like the First Quest, these historians usually denied the supernatural and assumed the early church had invented things about Jesus and the Christ of faith, which Christians believed in, was different from the Jesus of history who actually existed.
However, they now believed it was possible to find out what the supposed historical Jesus was like. They developed criteria of authenticity to judge or determine whether or not what is recorded about Jesus is authentic.
One of these criteria is called dissimilarity or uniqueness. Because they assumed the early church invented things about Jesus, this means that if Jesus said something which is not part of the beliefs of the early church, it is unique, then the early Christians would not have made it up so it is likely to be authentic. In the Gospels Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man”, but this expression does not appear elsewhere in the New Testament. Likewise, Jesus talked a lot about the “kingdom of God”. This expression does appear in Acts and Paul’s epistles, but nowhere near as much as Jesus used it. This would suggest that the expressions “Son of Man” and “kingdom of God” were part of Jesus’ original teachings and were not made up by the church.
This criterion has its limits in that it can only be used in a positive way and argue that because the dissimilarity or uniqueness exists, a passage must be authentic. It is illogical to use it negatively and argue that because there is no dissimilarity and Jesus said something, which is part of the beliefs of the early church, it is not authentic.
Jesus was the founder of Christianity. He must have had some influence on what Christians believed. There must be some connection between what he said and what the early Christians believed.
The Third Quest
The Third Quest began around 1980. This was an improvement on the earlier quests in that historians sought to put Jesus into his historical context. They emphasized Jesus’ Jewishness and his Jewish background and culture, while in the first two quests they often did not portray Jesus as particularly Jewish.
Recognizing Jesus’ Jewish context can make the Jesus of the Gospels more historically believable. In the Gospels Jesus has disciples and he is sometimes called a rabbi or teacher. In rabbinical schools the students or disciples of the rabbi were expected to memorize the teachings and sayings of their master, the rabbi, so they could be passed on perfectly.
Now, the supposed search for the historical Jesus tends to assume there was no real effort by Jesus’ disciples to pass on what he actually said. It was supposedly haphazard and the early Christians added things. But, if Jesus and his disciples behaved like a Jewish rabbi and his disciples would have, not like modern historians assume they would have behaved, then Jesus would have ensured his disciples memorized what he said. After all, the whole point of having disciples would have been to pass on his teachings. He would have ensured it was done properly.
In this case, the more we understand Jesus as a Jew, the more likely it appears the Gospels’ account of his teaching is historically accurate.
The Gospels as Biographies
Another improvement is that historians have now come to regard the Gospels as biographies of Jesus. Until recently there had been no agreement about what genre, what type of literature the Gospels were. It used to be widely assumed that the Gospel writers had basically invented a new genre.
There are different genres or types of writing in the Bible and you cannot read or interpret them in the same way. There are historical books which were intended to describe things which actually happened and are meant to be taken literally. At the other end there is apocalyptic literature which contains a lot of symbolism and is not meant to be understood literally. For example, if you take Revelation 3:12 literally, it says that if you are a good Christian, God will turn you into a pillar in the Temple.
Evangelical Christians say the Gospels are meant to be historical. They are describing what the writer believes happened and they are meant to be taken literally. Some more liberal Christians would say the Gospels were never meant to be historical. They were basically works of fiction, stories which contained moral or spiritual truths for us to learn from, a bit like fairy tales with a moral message, but they did not actually happen.
This all changed in 1992 when What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography by Richard Burridge was published. Burridge compared the structure of the Gospels to biographies from the ancient world. Ancient biographies contained little or nothing about the subject’s childhood. They tended to focus on their careers which were usually made up of anecdotes or accounts of events and speeches. There is a lot of attention given to how the person died. Burridge concluded that the Gospels were ancient biographies. Since then most historians have accepted this and they regard the Gospels as biographies of Jesus.
This has obvious implications for how the Gospels are to be read and understood. They are not stories with a message about things which did not happen. They were intended to be biographies, accounts of Jesus” life. They were intended to describe what he said and did and they were meant to be taken literally, like we would take literally a biography of Alexander the Great. This is now the consensus among modern historians. They have come around to what evangelical Christians have been saying the whole time.
More Criteria of Authenticity
Another characteristic of the Third Quest is the use of more criteria of authenticity. One of these is the criterion of embarrassment which means that if Jesus did something which was embarrassing or difficult for the early church, then the early church was not likely to have made it up so it is authentic. A good example of this is when John the Baptist baptised Jesus. John baptised people for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). Then Jesus, who is perfect and sinless, comes along and is also baptised. Now you can lie awake at night wondering why the sinless Jesus was baptised for the forgiveness of sins, but you can be pretty sure that it must have happened because the early church would never have made something like that up.
There is also the criterion of multiple attestation which means that if the same event is recorded in multiple sources, more than one ancient writer says it happened, a historian is more likely to believe it happened than something which is only mentioned once.
The criterion of coherence says that if Jesus said or did something which is coherent or consistent with something elsewhere, like when he used different parables with the same themes or underlying ideas, they are likely to be authentic.
Criterion of Aramaic Language
If you think about it, some of these criteria do not just apply to Jesus. You could apply them to any historical writing to determine if they are authentic. However, some apply only to Jesus, such as the criterion of Aramaic language.
Jesus spoke Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek which was the international language of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. If the early Christians, who speak Greek and lived outside Judea and Galilee, were to make up something Jesus supposedly said and put it in the Gospels, they would have said it in Greek. They probably could not speak Aramaic.
This means that any Aramaic words in the New Testament or Greek, which is clearly a translation of Aramaic, most likely go back to the Aramaic-speaking Jesus. For example, in Mark 5:41 when Jesus brings a dead girl back to life, it says, “He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means “Little girl, get up”.” “Talitha cum” is Aramaic. Mark has recorded Jesus’ original words in Aramaic and then translated them for his Greek readers.
If you were to translate Jesus’ words in the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, which were recorded in Greek, back into Aramaic, as much as 80% of it is poetic or rhythmic, which would have made it easier to memorize. They were spoken by Jesus in Aramaic and them translated into Greek (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, p 158).
Criteria of Authenticity and the Resurrection of Jesus
These are some of the criteria which historians have developed. They do not agree on them and sometimes they apply them differently, but you can use them to show that most of what Jesus said and did is historically credible and reliable.
Now, I am going to apply these criteria to the resurrection of Jesus and show that it meets the criteria for a historical event.
Multiple Attestations to the Resurrection
When it comes to multiple attestations, there are five accounts of the resurrection in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and 1 Corinthians 15:3-9. One of the problems with the criterion of multiple attestations is that when the same thing appears in the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, historians do not necessarily assume this is a case of multiple attestations from three independent sources. They assume that Matthew and Luke copied Mark, so there is really only one source. This is not the case when it comes to the resurrection because the accounts in the Gospels are different. They were clearly not copying each other.
When it comes to who went to the tomb on Sunday and when-
Matthew says that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb when the day was dawning (Matthew 28:1).
Mark says that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome went to the tomb very early when the sun had risen (Mark 16:2).
Luke says Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women went to the tomb at early dawn (Luke 24:1, 10).
John says Mary Magdalene went to the tomb while it was still dark (John 20:1).
I do not think these are contradictions which discredit the Bible. People can say different things and they can all still be true. Consider the following statements-
Bob and John went to church.
Bob, John and Harry went to church.
Bob, John and Fred went to church.
Harry and Fred went to church.
These statements are not the same but they can all be true. In fact they could have gone to church at different times and these statements could still be true. This is probably what happened at the resurrection. The women did not all go at the same time. This would explain why John specifically says that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb while it was still dark because she went there first, while the others went late when the sun was coming up.
These differences show that there was not one source for the resurrection of Jesus which the others copied, but there were multiple sources. If you have five different sources for one event, a historian would believe it must have happened if it were not for the Jesus rising from the dead bit.
The fact that the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection were all women is an example of the criterion of embarrassment because women were not regarded as credible witnesses in the ancient world. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote,
“But let not the testimony of women be admitted on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4:8:15)
So if the original Christians were going to make up a story about Jesus rising from the dead, they would not have said the first witnesses were women because no one would take that seriously. They would have said they were men without even thinking about it. The fact that they said they women suggests it really must have happened that way.
When it comes to the criterion of dissimilarity or uniqueness, the resurrection was very important to the early church but it is dissimilar or unique from a Jewish perspective because it was something they were not expecting. The Jews were not expecting the Messiah to be resurrected because they were not expecting the Messiah to be killed in the first place. They were expecting a victorious Messiah who would liberate them from the Romans and usher in the Kingdom of God. So they would not have made up the idea of the Messiah being resurrected. Something must have happened.
An example of the criterion of Aramaic is the earliest account of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. This was written by Paul in the 50s, 20 to 25 years afterwards. It mentions appearances of Jesus which the Gospels do not, so the Gospels were not copying this earlier account.
Most historians agree that this account was told to Paul by Jesus’ disciples in the 30s when he first came to Jerusalem only a few years after the event. The wording suggests that it was spoken in Aramaic and then translated literally by Paul into Greek. It looks like an early church creed. So, only a few years after Jesus, death his disciples were saying in Aramaic that he had risen from the dead and had been seen by lots of people. Because this was so soon, there was little or no chance for any legends or embellishments to develop.
Attempts to Explain the Resurrection
Several theories have been put forward to explain the resurrection, such as the disciples were hallucinating or they stole the body, which was first suggested in Matthew 28:11-15. The obvious problem with the stolen body explanation is that the disciples were very different people after the resurrection. They were no longer the cowards who ran away at the first sign of trouble. They were preaching boldly and were now prepared to die for what they believed, which most of them did.
The fact that they were prepared to die for their beliefs does not prove they were true. A Moslem suicide bomber is prepared for his beliefs but he is still wrong. It only proves that he really believes it is true. So the fact that the disciples were prepared to die for their beliefs that Jesus was the Christ and rose from the dead shows they really believed it. They were not lying and knew the body was really somewhere else. You would expect at least one of them to crack under persecution and admit it never happened.
Another explanation is that the resurrection appearances were hallucinations. Now it might be possible that a few of Jesus’ disciples were excitable and impressionable and convinced themselves they had seen Jesus come back from the dead. But Jesus was seen by many people over 40 forty days, including 500 at one time in 1 Corinthians 15. I do not think there is any evidence this kind of long-term mass hallucination is possible.
Not everyone who saw Jesus was an impressionable believer. In the Gospels Jesus’ brother James was clearly not a believer. Then 1 Corinthians 15 says Jesus appeared to James. In Acts James becomes the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He was a non-believer. He was not expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. He was not a candidate for a potential hallucination. Then he saw the risen Jesus and this experience changed him into a believer.
Even if everyone was hallucinating, Jesus’ body would still be in the tomb in Jerusalem. If anyone wanted to check out the disciples’ claim that Jesus had risen from the dead, all they had to do was go and see if there was still a body in the tomb.
There are two parts to the resurrection of Jesus. There is the empty tomb and there are the resurrection appearances. Any attempt to explain the resurrection can only account for one of these parts. If the disciples were hallucinating, the tomb would not be empty. And if someone stole the body, that would not explain why people saw the risen Jesus.
In fact, if the disciples had found the tomb empty on Sunday morning, they probably would not assume that Jesus had risen from the dead. If you went to visit a relative’s grave and you found the grave opened and the coffin empty, you probably would not assume they had risen from the dead. You would think that someone had stolen the body. Clearly, something must have happened to make them believe Jesus had risen from the dead.
It is safe to say that most historians realise that attempts to explain the resurrection do not work if you think about them. They accept that Jesus’ tomb was empty and the disciples believed they had seen Jesus alive. Shimon Gibson, who is Jewish so he is not biased in favour of Christianity, wrote in a recent book, The Final Days of Jesus,
“Various strange and outlandish theories have been out forward to explain away the empty tomb, but they are all based on nonsense. … The reality is that there is no historical explanation for the empty tomb, other than if we adopt a theological one, i.e. the resurrection. I will leave it up to the reader to make up his own mind.” (Shimon Gibson, The Final days of Jesus, Harper Collins, New York, 2009, p 165)
I have come across similar statements from other historians. They agree they cannot disprove the resurrection, but they are not prepared to accept that it happened. The problem is not with the evidence, but with their worldviews which is not open to the possibility of the supernatural in spite of the evidence which supports it.
It is the same problem with the First and Second Quests. They let their worldview dictate what they will believe about the evidence, rather than basing their worldview on the evidence.
No Consensus about the Historical Jesus
Another weakness with the Third Quest is that there is still no consensus about who the real historical Jesus supposedly was. Probably most non-Christian historians still believe Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who believed the world was going to end, like Albert Schweitzer did. Others believe he was a rabbi, a Jewish holy man or mystic, a bit like the Jewish version of Ghandi, a wisdom teacher or sage, or a social reformer.
Some more radical historians believe Jesus was a Jewish Cynic philosopher. Cynics were a bit like ancient hippies who sued to travel around teaching and doing socially unacceptable things in public. The problem with this is that Cynics were Gentile pagans. There is no evidence there ever was such a thing as a Jewish Cynic philosopher, let alone that Jesus was one.
In the Third Quest there are also Christian historians who believe that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God.
There is some truth to some of these historical Jesus’. Jesus was a rabbi. He was a holy man. He was a wisdom teacher. He was a prophet and the world, as they knew it, did end with his death and resurrection.
Jesus was a prophet. He was also a holy man, a rabbi and a wisdom teacher. He was not a Jewish Cynic philosopher. He was also more, the Christ and the Son of God.
Most non-Christian historians are not even open to the idea that Jesus believed he was the Messiah, even if they do not believe he was. They still believe this was made up by his followers after his death. I do not think this is particularly logical. Even if they do not believe Jesus was the Christ who died for our sins and rose from the dead, I assume they would think that Jesus was just another Jew who claimed to be the Messiah and came to a nasty end. Instead, they come up theories like he was a wisdom teacher or a Cynic philosopher.
Over 40 people have claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. The most famous, other than Jesus, would be Bar Kochba who led a revolt against Rome around 130 AD. No historian would suggest that any of these Messianic pretenders did not really claim to be the Messiah and his followers made it up after his death. There is no quest for the historical Bar Kochba. So, even if they do not believe he was the Messiah, it does not seem logical that non-Christians do not think that Jesus was just another person who claimed to be the Messiah. Instead, they say he was a prophet, a wisdom teacher, a rabbi, a philosopher.
Why was Jesus Crucified?
One obvious problem with all these explanations is that all historians agree Jesus was crucified. The Romans did not crucify people for saying nice things like “Blessed are the meek”.
If Jesus was only a prophet or a philosopher or a wisdom teacher, he would not have been crucified. He must have done something to get crucified, like saying he was the Messiah. At that time the Jews were expecting a political Messiah who would overthrow the Romans. That would have got Jesus crucified. But if the Romans really believed that Jesus was a political threat, they would not have just crucified Jesus. They would have also crucified his followers, like they did with other political revolutionaries.
So, the way Jesus’ death is portrayed in the Gospels makes sense. The Jewish leaders pressured Pilate to crucify Jesus because he had offended them and they regarded him as a threat, but Pilate did not go after his disciples, which he would have done if he believed Jesus had been a political threat to Rome.
Also, if it was true that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah and the Son of God, this begs the question, why did the early church come to believe that he was?
Lots of Jewish prophets came to nasty ends, such as John the Baptist. But if Jesus was just another prophet, why did his followers come to believe he was the Messiah and the Son of God, but not the followers of John the Baptist or any other Jewish prophet who was martyred over the previous 1000 years?
Jesus must have done something to encourage this belief among his disciples, which no other prophet did. It must have been pretty impressive to convince monotheistic Jews that he was the Son of God, like saying he was the Christ and Son of God, performing miracles, saying he was going to die and rise from the dead and then do it.
Instead, many historians claim Jesus never said he was the Messiah, but his disciples came to believe he was, which is basically the plot of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
The Date of the Gospels
One final point where I think modern historians have got it wrong is that they date the writing of the Gospels too late. Jesus was crucified in 30 or 33 AD. Most historians believe the first Gospel, Mark was written after 70 AD. This is because in Mark Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple which happened in 70. They do not believe in the possibility of the supernatural so they do not believe Jesus could have supernaturally predicted this. They believe the prophecy must have been made up after it happened. Because they believe Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, they believe Matthew and Luke must have been written late in the 80s or 90s.
The later something was written after the event, the less accurate it is likely to be because things can be forgotten and embellished. However, when you read Acts, the sequel to Luke, it seems likely that Luke must have been written before 70 AD, probably around 60. The last half of Acts covers the ministry of Paul, his arrest, imprisonment and journey to Rome. You think it is building up to Paul’s big martyr scene. Then it ends with Paul living and preaching in Rome.
If you read a biography of someone and it ends with them still alive, you can be sure this is because it was written while they were still alive. It could not have been written 30 years after their death, like many historians think Acts was.
Paul was executed by Nero around 64 AD. Acts ends around 61 or 62 AD when it was probably written. Since Acts is a sequel to Luke, Luke must have been written even earlier around 60 or even in the 50s. Since historians believe Luke use Mark as a source, this means Mark would have been written in the 50s, rather than after 70. This would make the Gospels more reliable from a historian’s perspective.
Even evangelicals usually believe John was written in the 90s, but this still means there are four biographies of Jesus written within 60 to 65 years of his death, which must be unique for any figure in the ancient world.
In many ways the Third Quest is an improvement on the earlier quests. There is a greater emphasis on putting Jesus in his first century Jewish context. Historians accept that the Gospels were intended to be biographies of Jesus. There is more emphasis on using historical methods to work out what Jesus said and did. There are some exceptions and these exceptions may often get more publicity, but overall historians now tend to be more conservative and less sceptical than previous generations. A lot of modern historical research actually supports and affirms the evangelical view of Jesus as being historically reliable.
When they say that Jesus did not do supernatural things or he believed he was someone other than the Christ, this is based not so much on a study of the historical evidence. It is based on their assumptions which exclude the supernatural and which assume there has to be a distinction between the original historical Jesus and what the early church believed about him, even though what the early church believed about Jesus must have come from Jesus himself.