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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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    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
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    I am an atheist of the Philip Pullman variety, but it's still not right to treat the New Testament as historically worthless. All sources have some kind of agenda. And that far back in history there aren't many sources at all, so we can't be too choosy. – Ne Mo Jul 1 at 10:43
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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. – user2848 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 '19 at 21:13
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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
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Interest in the historicity of Jesus began over two hundred years ago and has been increasing overall till our post-modern day, when the number of books, articles, essays, monographs and PhD theses on this subject have become truly staggering. Many approaches have been taken--from quality scholarship to the fringes--and the sheer volume of material is not easy to survey. A comprehensive answer on the historical Jesus would be impossible to deliver, but I will try to limit this to a few main points about history.

So, first, you ask: "How do historians study the events of Jesus' life, and the person he was?" Secondly, "I want to know what primary source documents, etc. say about Jesus and the person he was;" and then finally "What sort of historical methods can be applied?" Let's directly address these three.

First, historians use the primary sources, and hopefully they do so in the same manner they study anything else. They begin with a question, gather all the relevant sources, assemble data, devise a method and/or use the established historical criteria and methods of criticism, apply other fields of study and secondary historical sources as applicable, and do their best to come up with a valid and viable answer to the question.

The primary sources include the gospels, which cannot be arbitrarily excluded. As New Testament scholar Gerd Theissan says "there is broad scholarly consensus that we can best find access to the historical Jesus through the Synoptic tradition." Theissen, Gerd; Merz, Annette (1996). The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide Ehrman adds "To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly." They are ancient documents in their own right and must be evaluated accordingly.

Yes there is subjectivity, but there always is. Tacitus and other Roman historians included gossip, hearsay, myth, biases and errors, and they left it for the reader to sort through and draw their own conclusions. None of it has prevented good historians from making use of their writings as historical documents. (Moses Hadas, Introduction to “The Complete Works of Tacitus, ppIX-XIX). The gospel's theological content shouldn't either.

The gospels also contain the remnants of the oral creeds from the period of oral transmission that preceded the written gospels which is valuable primary evidence as well. The creeds preserve some of the earliest reports of Jesus dating from the thirties to the fifties in the first century. There were multiple creedal formulas; the most common are Christological, but 41 creeds record what the early church recorded as the historical facts of the life of Jesus.

For example, the creed recorded in 1 Cor. 11:23ff presents a tradition that was already fixed when it was passed on to Paul by the time he wrote Corinthians. It tells of Jesus attending a dinner on the night of his betrayal. It is widely recognized as presenting historical events that trace back to Jesus.

Archaeological sources also provide some primary source material as corroboration for the historicity of details, background, setting, geography, that kind of thing, and it can help with dating.

It's true that the more contemporary a source the better, but that is not an absolute requirement--sources are not automatically rejected simply because they are not contemporary. Outside of the Roman emperors themselves, there are almost no contemporaneous sources for anyone who lived in ancient times.

Sources for anyone’s existence in the ancient world are scarce, and were often written decades—or even centuries—after the person was long gone. Jesus’ background as a peasant from a humble family, the commonality of itinerant obscure-country preachers, the scarcity of contemporary writers and their focus on Rome, the problematic nature of Jerusalem and the Palestinian area itself garnering the attention, plus all the various other problems and issues in the empire of the time, would all serve to keep the focus off of Jesus while he was alive, so there's really no reason to expect contemporaneous sources of Jesus.

Historians also look at sources within the first three centuries of Jesus. Non-Christian sources include Tacitus, Seutonius, Thallus, Josephus, Pliny the Younger and his exchange with Trajan, Hadrian, the Talmud, Toledoth Jesu, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, and the gnostic sources, 'The Gospel of Truth,' 'The Apocrypha of John,' 'The Gospel of Thomas,' and the 'Treatise on Resurrection.' Some of these are hostile sources, but history takes that into consideration as well. Some are less dependable than others, but information can be sifted even from those.

The writings of the early church fathers also make useful references.

There are also lost sources that have some bearing on the historical Jesus. Justin Martyr (AD 150) and Tertullian (AD 200) both say the "Acts of Pontius Pilate" was an official document of Rome, but we have no remnant of it. (This work should not be confused with later fabrications of the same name.) Justin Martyr in his First Apology said the details of Jesus’ crucifixion could be validated from Pilate’s report to Tiberius. He also says, the location and fact of Jesus’ birth could be verified by consulting the records of Cyrenius, the first procurator of Judea. We have no extant records from Cyrenius. Origen reports on Phlegon, a freedman of emperor Hadrian born about AD 80 writing Phlegon's "Chronicles" including records of reports on Jesus. It's lost. Papias is recorded in Eusebius but his multi-volume history is lost. Not much can be said with any certainty about these works, but a historical work would note them.

To sum up, there are 45 ancient sources, including the gospels, 19 creeds, various archaeological finds, 17 non-Christian sources, and five non-New Testament Christian sources that would be considered the best sources to use for researching the historical Jesus. From these sources there are 129 discernible pieces of information concerning the life, person, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Michael Grant (1992). Jesus : an historian's review of the Gospels; Bart Ehrman's Historical Jesus; Dr. Michael Burer; A Survey of Historical Jesus Studies: From Reimarus to Wright; N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, vol. 2, Christian Origins and the Question of God.

Secondly you said, "I want to know what primary source documents, etc. say about Jesus and the person he was;"

Amy-Jill Levine states that there is a general scholarly consensus on the basic outline of Jesus' life; most scholars agree Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, debated Jewish authorities on the subject of God, performed some healings, taught in parables, gathered followers, and was crucified by Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.The Historical Jesus in Context edited by Amy-Jill Levine

Each of these is established by normal historiographical methodology. For example, the death of Jesus is evidenced by references to it in non-Christian and extra-biblical Christian sources, by the oldest creed in 1 Corinthians 15, by medical testimony concerning the heart wound, by Strauss’s famous critique of swoon theory, other New Testament creeds, the gospel testimonies, the worship of his followers, their founding of the church, and crucifixion itself is corroborated by the skeleton of Yohanon. Taken separately, each one on its own might be considered insufficient, but in combination, the weight of evidence removes any reasonable doubt Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate and died. (Habermas, “The Historical Jesus” 1996, Thomas Nelson Publishers).

Other pieces of information that are held by many scholars include: that Jesus called twelve disciples; that Jesus caused a controversy at the Temple; that Jesus was a Galilean Jew born between 7 and 2 BC and died 30–36 AD; that he lived only in Galilee and Judea. (Most scholars reject that there is any evidence that an adult Jesus traveled or studied outside Galilee and Judea). That he was from Nazareth. That Jesus spoke Aramaic and that he probably also spoke Hebrew and Greek, and that after his death his disciples continued, and were persecuted.

Some scholars have proposed further additional historical possibilities such as:

  • An approximate chronology of Jesus can be estimated from non-Christian sources, and confirmed by correlating them with New Testament accounts.

  • The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist can be dated approximately from Josephus' references (Antiquities 18.5.2) to a date before AD 28–35.

  • The date of the crucifixion of Jesus was earlier than 36 AD, based on the dates of the prefecture of Pontius Pilate who was governor of Roman Judea from 26 AD until 36 AD

It is most highly probable that Jesus was a real historical figure and that many of the events associated with him did happen as they are recorded.

It is most highly probable that the disciples were genuine believers in the events surrounding Jesus such as the crucifixion and the resurrection.

There are no other likely explanations for the emergence of the church.

The notion that Jesus was an invention of the Romans, or "that the gospels were revised to appease the Romans," is one of those ideas that has not stood up to historical scrutiny. It's one of many conspiracy theories about the historical Jesus. There are several of these, and it isn’t possible to cover all of them, but as an example of what some non-historic claims about Jesus are, let's take a quick look at Joseph Atwill’s 2005, "Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus."

Atwill’s book is based upon what he sees as ‘parallels’ between Josephus’ and the New Testament. The alleged parallels are anything but parallel. They are subjective additions to the text that do not by any standard rise to the level of actual evidence. Why would the Flavian Emperor Titus start a new religion to subdue Jews when he had already soundly subdued them on the battlefield?

Atwell's timing is hopelessly tangled. Tacitus' comment on Nero in Annals 15.44 places Roman reaction to Christianity a decade before Atwill says Titus invented it.

Atwill’s use of "typology" by the Flavians -- who are said to have learned the technique from Judaism — is wrong. Even the ancient pagans thought in these terms so there was no need for the Romans to borrow the idea. A score of Atwill's errors are the result of not recognizing that commonality often simply reflects a commonplace--something everybody did--nothing more. One of his large errors is finding commonality in names that isn’t actually there. The name Mary was held by up to a fourth of Jewish women in the first century. Atwill’s argument that the Romans turned "Mary" into a "nickname for female rebels" is simply erroneous.

This is not an example of what what "primary source documents, etc. say about Jesus." It's a fringe theory with no support amongst scholars.

Third you asked, "What sort of historical methods can be applied?" Allow me to quote from the part of an article for Wikipedia on this subject that I wrote:

The search for the historical Jesus used textual and source criticism originally, which were supplemented with form criticism in 1919, and redaction criticism in 1948.

The "criteria of authenticity" emerged gradually, becoming a distinct branch of methodology associated with life of Jesus research. The criteria are a variety of rules used to determine if some event or person is more or less likely to be historical. In 1901, the application of the criteria of authenticity began with dissimilarity. In the early decades of the twentieth century, F.C. Burkitt and B.H. Streeter provided the foundation for multiple attestation. The Second Quest introduced the criterion of embarrassment.

By the 1950s, coherence was also included. By 1987, D.Polkow lists 25 separate criteria being used by scholars to test for historical authenticity including the criterion of "historical plausibility".

But historians often invent their own methods or borrow them from other fields such as sociology and anthropolgy.

[Holmén, Tom (2008). Evans, Craig A. (ed.). The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus. New York: Routledge]; [Criteria for Authenticity in Historical–Jesus Research by Stanley E. Porter 2004]; [Denton, Jr., Donald L. (2004). "Appendix 1". Historiography and Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies: An Examination of the Work of John Dominic Crossan and Ben F. Meyer. New York: T&T Clark Int.]

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  • This is a quite motivated answer. It disregards the Easter trench and piles everything onto one heap; eg Pliny and Tacitus being (possibly) sources for early Christianity, bot not for historical Jesus. While I welcome the handling of Atwill here generally, this is exactly not well corresponding to the para "…among scholars". That a MrJ lived is quite well attested. But exactly what he did is much less so. Especially the "oral traditions" and everything "Paul" in here are used in a problematic way. Eg Paul knew nothing reliable of "the Person he was" (convert after vision of the dead). – LаngLаngС Jan 27 at 16:23
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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 '19 at 22:21
  • I have read Josephus and the lines about MrJ stand out like a black goat in a flock of hens. This is not proof. – RedSonja Jul 1 at 11:24
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An interesting and unknown historical source of Jesus' existence is found in Babylonian Jewish literature, Jesus appears in several contexts:

  1. He is mentioned as a disciple of a Jewish sage by the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Farhiya [Babylonian deviant Talmud Page 47 Side 1]
  2. The story of his killing is mentioned with more details [Babylonian Sanhedrin Talmud Page 43 Side 1]
  3. And his mother is mentioned as a deviant woman with the real name of the Father of Jesus [Babyl Gitin Talmud Page 90 Side 1]
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    If you look to your bookshelf, it might help here to give a more 'standard' bibliographic reference, and in most cases it seems not too difficult to find corresponding links on the net, like for your second 'source'. However, I'd like to point out that you might want to contextualise your sources more: when are they dated, to what 'tradition'/shul do they belong, how are they dated, etc… – LаngLаngС Jun 30 at 20:03
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Question:
What historical evidence is there for the existence of Jesus Christ? What do we know about him?

Short Answer:
While no sources are known who wrote of Jesus before the crucifixion there are writings by a contemporary of Jesus (4 or 6BCE–30CE) who talked with and wrote of people who knew Jesus. Saint Paul. Also the Roman Historian Josephus documents the existence of Jesus twice which most scholars do not dismiss as an independent verification of Jesus’s life.

Detailed Answer:
The oldest books of the New Testament Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians take the form of letters from Saint Paul (4BC–62CE) to early church leaders (dated 55, 56, 57 CE). And stories about St Paul’s experiences. St Paul was a contemporary of Jesus being about the same age as Jesus. Although Paul states he had never met Jesus before the crucifixion. He discusses in his letters meeting with St. Peter who was one of the apostles who knew and walked with Jesus.

The earliest letters of St. Paul predate Josephus by about 40–50 years. But Josephus also contains two references to Jesus (books 18, 20) only one of which is contested. The contested verse is not thought to be entirely false insertion but to have been modified. The other verse from book 20 is not questioned for its authenticity.

Josephus on Jesus

Modern scholarship has largely acknowledged the authenticity of the reference in Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the Antiquities to "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James"[12] and considers it as having the highest level of authenticity among the references of Josephus to Christianity.

Question:
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.

Here is a previous answer to a question about the Bible/History and obvious inconsistencies, which I put some time into which explains generally the purpose and how one could interpret the Gospels with regard to obvious historical errors.

I doubt any Christian in the time of the writing of the Gospels would have modified one letter to appease the Romans. Given the fact that just identifying oneself as a Christian would have meant death when the Gospels were written. First 300 years of Christianity.

The Gospels are not objectively historically accurate but riddled with inconsistencies, that is obvious to anyone who has ever read them. That also is not accidental. It has to do with the changing meaning of history in ancient and modern times. The Gospels were never meant to be literal retelling of events. They were meant to tell the greater meaning of events, the "good news" of the coming of the messiah. The greater truth of how to interpret events.

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