How do historians study the events of Jesus' life, and the person he was? I read a book on the topic, and it held the position that the gospels were revised to appease the Romans - especially the passion narrative. If that is the case and they were completely rewritten, I'm not sure how we got ANY historical information on the topic.

I am not talking about the Gospels. I am not talking about any of the New Testament; it was written after Jesus' death anyway. The crucial detail that makes this question relevant to history lies in that I want to know what primary source documents, etc. say about Jesus and the person he was, not what the Bible says about him. The biblical version isn't very accurate anyway, as after the massacre of the Jews in 66 C.E., Jews and Christians alike both altered their beliefs about Jesus to appease the Roman empire and stifle any religious based revolution.

Assuming that there is a disconnect between a strictly theological interpretation of the life of Jesus and a historical interpretation, how do historians approach the topic? What sort of historical methods can be applied to differentiate between these two interpretations?

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    Hmm. One could argue this is a bit broad, but the answers are good and this question keeps coming up. As it was unilaterally held by a mod, then edited, I think its fair to undo that unilaterally. If actual site users want to close it again for some reason, I'll accept that. But at least this way we can close future "Historical Jesus" questions as dups of this one. – T.E.D. May 10 '16 at 13:41
  • Please document preliminary research before asking this kind of question. No matter how many disclaimers you attach, you're asking a provocative question. If you want answer to this question (rather than pointless argument),documented research is ten times more useful than strong disclaimers. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 24 '17 at 19:56

Thomas Pornin's answer is very good answer to the question of "Can we know anything about Jesus?" But since your question was technically "What do we know about Jesus?", I thought I'd add a few facts about Jesus that the majority of secular and religious historians alike agree upon.

Jesus existed

Virtually no serious historian believes that Jesus never existed. The so called "Jesus myth" theorists are considered an unserious fringe element by serious scholars. To quote the prominent (and agnostic) New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman:

Few of these mythicists are actually scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field, let alone in the ancient languages generally thought to matter for those who want to say something with any degree of authority about a Jewish teacher who (allegedly) lived in first-century Palestine. . . . But even taking these into account, there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land in a bona fide department of biology.

He was baptized by John the Baptist and crucified under Pontius Pilate

Most historians hold to what is called "the criterion of embarrassment." The basic gist of it is that the parts of the Gospel that would be embarrassing to early Christians are much more likely to be true. After all, why invent something embarrassing? Crucifixion was considered the most dishonorable way to die in the Roman world. Likewise, baptism is typically given for the washing away of sins.

Unlike other embarrassing stories about Jesus (like being born in a manger) non-Christian sources also mention Jesus' baptism and crucifixion. According to the theologian James Dunn, "these two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent." I will note, however, that the crucifixion of Jesus is contrary to the Quran, so more devout Islamic sources will contest that fact.

Those three are the Big Three that pretty much anyone who seriously approaches the life of Jesus will agree upon. From there, historians lend greater credence to the facts about Jesus attested to by all four Gospels but, for obvious reasons, leave the miracles and claims of divinity for the theologians to sort out. Here are a few more claims about Jesus that respected Jesus historians consider accurate:

  • Jesus was a Jew
  • He lived in Galilee
  • He had followers
  • He never left Israel
  • He got in trouble with the Jewish authorities (and probably because of an altercation at the Temple of Jerusalem)
  • His followers were persecuted after his death
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    I think there are at least a few more well-documented facts one could add to this list. He was from Nazareth (and was probably born there). He was an itinerant healer who, unlike most healers at that time and place, didn't accept money from those he healed. He was a "tekton," i.e., some kind of laborer such as a carpenter. – Ben Crowell Aug 29 '14 at 6:03
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    @Bregalad - It is "common" only to Matthew and Luke. Since those two Gospels have always been assumed to share a common source, some might argue that there's really only one source that says anything about Bethlehem. But at best 2. Its also both a rather unlikely story, and a very helpful story if you are trying to argue with skeptics of the day that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah (who is supposed to be of the line of David). Add those up, and the Bethlehem story is one of a rather large amount of things found in the Gospels which historians aren't sure about. Not "a fallacy", just not sure. – T.E.D. May 10 '16 at 13:57
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    The "principle of embarrasment" is a very dubious foundation for any conclussion. It could be used to show how people like Kronos (child murder, cannibalism), Zeus (parricide), Hera (attempted child murder) or Romulus (fraticide) did historically exist. – SJuan76 Jan 5 '18 at 15:58
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    @SJuan76 - How would those things being true be in any way embarrassing to Homer? They make the story much more interesting, but that helps him. Regardless, the Criterion of Embarrassment is a well-established technique in historical analysis when used with other analysis techniques as part of the Historical Method. Like the Scientific Method, it's techniques should not be selectively attacked only in instances where we don't like the answer. – T.E.D. Sep 24 '18 at 19:20
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    @SJuan76 An answer on Skeptics covers the topic of Jesus's existence very well. As far as the Criterion of Embarrassment, you should note that it is not used here as evidence for his existence, but as evidence for certain claims about his life (baptism and crucifixion). If there was already a reasonable case for Kronos's existence and if there was a reasonable case that the story of Kronos eating his children came from an agreement of contemporary or near-contemporary sources, then the Criterion of Embarrassment would be relevant. – called2voyage Jun 24 at 21:13

Gospels are a source, like any other. If we were to exclude sources simply because they were written down four decades after the facts, then most of History would disappear. For instance, most of what we know on Genghis Kahn is from The Secret History of the Mongols, a document which was written several decades after his death.

Fact is that known sources on Jesus, written by people who saw him or at least people who could talk with eye witnesses, are from early Christians, because only them really thought that keeping track of the teachings and adventures of Jesus was important. Gospels, Apostles' Acts... are religious in intent, not historical, which means that they must be processed through appropriate tools in order to be usable for serious History. But that's not impossible. It just requires good methodology.

Early non-Christian sources on Jesus include a sentence from Flavius Josephus (which was unfortunately "interpolated", i.e. greatly modified, in ulterior copies), and some passages from Suetonius. These sources concur to show that back in year 49 AD, proto-Christians were already active in Rome.

This recent biography of Jesus is good reading, well researched and done with all historical seriousness in the argumentation and usage of sources (I don't know if there is an English translation). One notable point of that book is that it uses the relics (specifically, the Shroud of Turin, the Sudarium of Oviedo and the Tunic of Argenteuil -- these three are the only ones that the author find "serious enough") to work out the details of the last hours of Jesus (and boy it sure wasn't pleasurable to be flogged and crucified); Petitfils' stance is that these artefacts have a strongly documented history with few "black areas" and any historian would consider them completely authentic sources if they were for any other figure than Jesus.

Of course, History can tell nothing about resurrection, post-mortem wandering and teaching, or changing water into wine. These concern Theology, not History. An historical biography of Jesus necessarily ends on the cross.

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    The shroud of Turin has the obvious 'black area' of being radiocarbon dated to the 14th century – jk. Sep 26 '17 at 12:05

The answer is that we know very little about the history of Jesus. Aside from the Synoptic Gospel writings-(Saints Mark, Matthew, Luke & John), as well as the brief writings of the Jewish Historian Flavius Josephus, there is very little actual written historical evidence that Jesus existed. The Acts and Epistles of Saint Paul, like the Gospels, were written AFTER Jesus' death. If you remember The New Testament, much of Jesus' biographical life-(that is to say his elementary years, his adolescence and his early adulthood are barely discussed. There appears to be a chronological jump in time from Jesus' infancy and babyhood, to his early 30's).

There are the "Apocryphal" stories which talk about Jesus' life from a seemingly unconventional and non-traditional perspective; these are stories that shed some light into Jesus' earlier and developing years.

There are many Churches in Israel-(besides the famed Via Dolorosa), that date to the time of Jesus, his parents, Joseph and Mary, as well as to Mary's parents. There is also the Crypt that Jesus and his family stayed in when they fled to Egypt; the (alleged) Crypt is a Shrine Museum in Downtown Cairo. The presence of various Jesus and Apostle based Churches-(that is to say, Churches built on the historical centers which chronicle the Jesus story), are widely believed by most Christians to be historically and archaeologically accurate centers chronicling Jesus' life and times. Of course, such claims can be disputed and the nature of these claims are not necessarily rooted in historical fact, but instead, are more deeply rooted in the wider lore and mythology surrounding the life, ministry (and alleged miracles) of Jesus.

Ultimately, the Jesus story has been and is still very much, a story based on personal, as well as collective faith for the 2 billion persons around the world who identify themselves as, "Christians". The combined historical and miraculous nature of Jesus, has been comfortably and faithfully reconciled by many of the followers of Christianity over the centuries.

However, for the 5 billion persons around the world who are not self-identified Christians, there is the historical Jesus, as well as the mythologized Jesus, but not the miraculous or deified Jesus. For 70% of the world's current religious population, the ability to reconcile the historical and miraculous nature of Jesus with relative ease and comfort, is incomprehensible and ultimately, does not exist in their religious and theological worldview.

I suspect that much more will be learned regarding the historical biography of Jesus. With the fantastic developments in archaeological technology, combined with increasing curiosity and awareness of the distant past, the Chapter on Jesus' full historical biography has not been closed, but is opening up with great eagerness and interest.

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    Sources would improve this answer. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 24 '17 at 19:57
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    @MarkC.Wallace Sources would also very much improve the case for a historical jesus. – Anaryl Sep 25 '17 at 18:18
  • Could you please correct the parentheses that ends at „30‘s“? Short edits are not allowed and it seems to be a typo. – Ludi Jun 24 at 22:21

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