Jesus Christ is a figure of religion and mythology. Miraculous deeds, divine attributes, and arcane sayings are attributed to him, and his billions of followers across the world hold countless views about who he was, what he said, what he meant, and how exactly he was related to God.
Jesus of Nazareth is a figure of history, a real man who lived and died in the first century Middle East, but whose biographical details often seem frustratingly elusive, obscured by the sensational aspects of his religious persona.
Extricating the man from the myth is a more complicated task than many Christians might imagine. “We have four good biographies of Jesus,” they might say. “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Put them together, and we know a great deal about Jesus.”
Yes and no. Scholars and theologians have long realized that there is much about Jesus that the Gospels don’t tell us, or at least that they aren’t conclusive about. The “First Quest for the Historical Jesus” began during the 18th century and lasted until Albert Schweitzer published The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1906. The “Second Quest” began in the 1950s, and the current “Third Quest” began in the 1980s with the Jesus Seminar.
The reason these “quests” exist is simple: we can’t necessarily trust the Gospels, or the New Testament in general, as unbiased, purely factual accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Schweitzer concluded that almost nothing about the historical Jesus was knowable, and resolved that faith was more important anyway. This view was overturned by archeological discoveries at Nag Hammadi and Qumran, which illuminated much about Jesus’s time. Scholars active in the current “third quest” will tell you there is quite a bit about Jesus that is “knowable.”
Before I explore the quest for the historical Jesus further, it’s important to address the small but vocal contingent of people who contend that Jesus never existed at all, that he is a complete figment of the imaginations of the earliest Christians. This argument holds almost no scholarly credibility because both biblical and non-biblical texts offer good historical evidence that Jesus did exist.
We know about Jesus mainly from the Gospels and the seven genuine letters of Paul (1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, and Philemon). These texts are inconclusive, however, because Paul’s letters are woefully short on biographical details of Jesus’s life, and the Gospels are gospels, not biographies. They were written with the intent to exalt Christ and spread a certain message, not to present an authoritative factual account.
Thankfully, we have a couple of non-Christian sources from around the same time that also mention Jesus. The Jewish-Roman historian Josephus wrote about Jesus twice. The first instance is in reference to James the Just, Jesus’s brother and the head of the Jerusalem church. Josephus wrote about “James, the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”
The other, longer instance is called the Testimonium Flavianum and appears in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. Unfortunately, the work was preserved by Christian scholars who couldn’t resist the urge to make some “improvements” to the manuscripts. The entirety of the passage is below, with the Christian interpolations bracketed:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, [if indeed one ought to call him a man]. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. [He was the Messiah.] When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. [On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.] And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
Josephus was writing at the end of the first century, about sixty years after Jesus’s death. Though it’s a short passage, it confirms important facts about Jesus: he was seen as “a wise man,” that is, a teacher or rabbi. He performed “surprising feats,” that is, miracles. After his death, his followers continued to follow his path. And most importantly, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
The Roman historian Tacitus also mentions Jesus, though indirectly, when writing about the fire in Rome in July 64 CE:
“Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate…” (Annals, 15.44)
Josephus, Tacitus, and the Gospels all offer evidence of one significant fact about the historical Jesus: he was crucified. Any discussion of the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth must begin with the fact that he was executed by the Roman State, receiving a punishment exclusively reserved for political insurgents and slaves.
Think carefully about what that means. Since Jesus was not a slave, he must have been in some way an enemy of the State, an enemy of the Roman Empire.
We will pick up the discussion from there in tomorrow’s post…