Jesus Christ: Myth or History?
Is the Jesus of faith the same as the Jesus of history? Or is Jesus only a creation of faith? If so, should we reject the historical Jesus as a myth created by later Christians?
In the first centuries of the Christian era, while the resurrection and lordship of Jesus were questioned, there was little doubt about his historicity. In the early fifth century, Augustine prepared a Harmony of the Gospels to protect the Gospel writers from charges of “absolute unveracity,” admitting, at the same time, that the order of events and the discourses could have been reconstructed. Yet the Jesus of faith and history were basically one.1
The so-called “quest” of the historical Jesus began with Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768), who proposed to find the Jesus who had existed before the church had smothered him in dogma. Reimarus went so far as to accuse the disciples of inventing the miracle stories and fabricating the resurrection tale to avoid returning to their fishing nets.2 His work caused consternation among believers and interest among scholars.
In the nineteenth century F. J. Baur (1792-1860), using historical criticism as his method, concluded that “the view we take of the resurrection is of minor importance for history.” What really mattered was that the apostles believed it had taken place.3
Albert Schweitzer’s 1910 work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, critiqued the works of scholars who had turned Jesus into “a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb.” At the same time, he concluded that the historical foundation of Christianity no longer existed, but after all, it was “not Jesus as historically known, but Jesus as spiritually arisen within men” who was ultimately decisive.4
Twentieth-century Jesus scholarship was dominated by Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). Trained in liberalism and skepticism, Bultmann affirmed that “we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary.” Christ’s miracles were “legends”; his sayings, “characteristic,” rather than authentic. The church had attached meaning to his death; Jesus had not.5
Following Bultmanns lead, the “Jesus Seminar,” a group of 74 scholars, mostly from American universities, met in the late 1980s and early 1990s to prepare a Scholars Version of the four canonical Gospels and the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. They studied 1,500 sayings of Jesus, casting their vote on the perceived authenticity of each. Their verdict was that “eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him.” On miracles, their position was similar to that of Bultmann: “The Christ of creed and dogma…can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope.”6 Seminar cofounder John Dominic Crossan stated that Jesus “did not and could not cure” diseases and that no one ever brings dead people back to life.7 Christ’s own resurrection was said to have involved “trances and visions” rather than reality. Crossan noted that the resurrection story tells more about the origin of Christian authority than the origin of Christian faith.8 For Marcus Borg, a member of the seminar, the story of the historical Jesus ends with his death on a Friday in A.D. 30. However, the Lord appeared to his followers “in a new way beginning on Easter Sunday and from then on they experienced him as a living reality.”9
The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” was, to a great extent, based on rationalism, naturalism, and criticism. Its presupposition—that miracles do not happen—led the questers to conclude that much of what the Gospels record is fictitious. Those who believe in the essential accuracy of Scripture cannot accept the results of this kind of scholarship. They also note the many evidences for the historicity of Jesus.
References to Jesus in non-Christian materials
Josephus, Jewish general and historian (A.D. 37-ca. 100) clearly refers to Jesus in two passages of his Jewish Antiquities. The first is tangential to his presentation of the activities of the high priest Ananus, around the year 62: “He [Ananus] assembled the sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.”10
The non-Christian point of view is suggested by saying that Jesus “was called” Christ. In addition, the Christian way of designating James would have been “brother of the Lord.”
In Book 18 of the same Antiquities, Josephus refers to Jesus in a well-known and much debated “Testimonium Flavianum.” (Book 18 is only attested in three Greek manuscripts, the oldest one from the tenth century.) The passage seems unlikely to have been written by a Jew: “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 amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again on the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.”11
In 1971 an Arabic version of the “Testimonium Flavianum” was published in Israel. It differs significantly from the Greek version: “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”12
The differences between the two statements suggest that the Greek version does include Christian additions. However, there is little doubt that Josephus did mention the crucifixion of Jesus.
The Jewish Talmud, produced in its Babylonian and Palestinian forms during the fifth century A.D., contains vast amounts of oral tradition handed down from rabbi to rabbi. While Jesus is mentioned in several passages in pejorative ways, one statement is of interest: “On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of Passover.13
While the passage agrees that Jesus was executed on the eve of Passover, the forty day notice is foreign to the Gospel story. Interestingly, Jesus was to be stoned for enticing “Israel to apostasy,” following Jewish custom. Yet he was “hanged,” possibly following Roman orders. In any case, Yeshu was a historical person who marginally impacted Jewish history.
The earliest mention of Jesus in pagan sources appears in a letter written by Mara bar Sarapion, a Syrian Stoic, from a Roman prison to encourage his son to pursue wisdom. He mentions Socrates, Pythagoras, and the “wise king” killed by the Jews. None of these men was really dead because each had left a legacy of wisdom. The wise king lived on, “because of the new law he has given.”14 Although the name is not given, there is little doubt that Mara was referring to Jesus.
When Pliny became governor of Bithynia and Pontus in the early second century, he wrote Rome asking for guidance. One of the issues was how to deal with Christians. His letter mentions Christus twice. He allowed that anyone accused of being a Christian could refute the charges by offering incense to the gods and the emperor, and blaspheming Christus. He also described Christian worship as taking place before daylight and including the recitation “by turns [of] a form of words to Christus as a god.” While this letter, written c. A.D. 112, adds little to our knowledge of Christian beliefs and practices, it does corroborate the existence of Christians whose faith was in Christ.
Roman historian Tacitus (ca. A.D. 55-ca. 117) wrote thirty books on events between A.D. 14 and 96. Unfortunately, those covering the period from A.D. 29 to 32 are among those missing. Yet the account of the great fire in Rome (A.D. 64), for which Nero blamed the Christians, contains reference to Christians and Christ: “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”15
Tacitus goes on to call Christianity a “mischievous superstition,” which had broken out in Judaea and then in Rome. His tone precludes the possibility of a Christian interpolation. Tacitus took Jesus as a historical figure.
Lucian of Samosata, a second-century satirist, derides Christians and their founder: “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites and was crucified on that account.” Furthermore, they “worship the crucified sage and live after his laws.”16
This brief survey shows that non-Christian authors of the early centuries, Jewish and pagan, make Jesus a historical figure. They did not believe in him, but they accepted that he had lived and begun a religious movement.
The reliability of biblical sources
While admitting my stance as a believer, I find reasons to consider the biblical sources as reliable witnesses of the historicity of Jesus.
Proximity of the New Testament to the events recorded
There is little disagreement that the whole New Testament was written by the end of the first century. Earliest tradition vouches for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as authors of the Gospels. Matthew and John were disciples of Jesus. Mark and Luke were one step removed. Papias of Hierapolis (early second century) penned that Mark was “Peter’s interpreter,” who wrote down Peter’s story of Jesus, not necessarily in the order events happened, but with the greatest accuracy possible.17 About A.D. 185 Irenaeus wrote that Luke, Paul’s fellow apostle, had authored a Gospel which provided details of the story of Jesus not given in the other three Gospels.18 Furthermore, the epistles take the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for granted. Paul even points to witnesses to the Jesus events (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).
The references to dates and rulers in Luke’s Gospel, though not free from difficulties of interpretation, provide evidences of the author’s proximity to the events. Luke’s use in 3:1-3 of a Greco-Roman style clearly shows his intent to show the historicity of his Gospel.
Christian authors wrote about Jesus soon after the events. By way of contrast, Plutarchs biography of Alexander the Great, considered trustworthy by historians, was written more than four centuries after his death.
The John Rylands papyrus (P52), found in Egypt, contains a fragment of John 18. It dates from the early second century, thus confirming the composition of the Gospel by the end of the first century. The Bodmer II papyrus (P66), dating from the second century, preserves large portions of the Gospel of John in book form. Other papyri from the late second or early third century add to the evidence for the existence of the Gospels, as we know them today, from an early date.19
Following the discovery of the Chester Beatty papyri, in 1930 Sir Frederic Kenyon could write: “The net result of this discovery…is, in fact to reduce the gap between the earlier manuscripts and the traditional dates of the New Testament books so far that it becomes negligible in any discussion of their authenticity. No other ancient book has anything like such early and plentiful testimony to its text, and no unbiased scholar would deny that the text that has come down to us is substantially sound.”20
No other ancient writing has manuscripts so close to the date of writing. For example, the oldest and only extant manuscript of the first six books of the Annals of Tacitus, written in the early second century, dates from about A.D. 1100. The oldest manuscript of Homer’s Iliad comes from some 400 years after the epic was written. The earliest existing manuscript of the Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar was copied about A.D. 900, some thousand years after it was written.
While archaeological discoveries, with the possible exception of the James ossuary, publicized in late 2002,21 do not specifically refer to Jesus, they corroborate the stories of the Gospels. Constructions, such as the synagogue in Capernaum22 and the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem,23 have been excavated and identified. Coins mentioned in the Gospels have been found and studied. The bones of Yehohanan, found in a Jerusalem ossuary, show the effects of crucifixion; a seven-inch spike still pierces his ankle bones.24 Archaeology has shown Pontius Pilate as Roman procurator in Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Further, coins dated between A.D. 29 and 31 show his name, together with Roman religious symbols, corroborating his ill will towards the Jews.25
Effects of the gospel story
The date of Christ’s birth is uncertain, yet it has divided history: B.C. and A.D. Were there no historical basis for the life of Jesus, this would hardly have happened.
The followers of Jesus were changed: Peter, a cowardly traitor, became a fervent apostle; John the beloved wrote with certainty: “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true” (John 19:35). Over the centuries, martyrs have allowed themselves to be killed for their conviction.
The church, in spite of its faults, has based its proclamation and service on the historical reality of Jesus. The Jesus of faith emerges from the historical Jesus, without whom faith would be little more than wishful thinking.
Nancy Vyhmeister (Ed.D., Andrews University) is a retired professor of missions from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, MI, and the author of many scholarly articles. An earlier version of this essay was published in The Essential Jesus, edited by Bryan Ball and William Johnsson (Pacific Press, 2002).
- Augustine, The Harmony of the Gospels 1.7, 2.12.
- Hermann Reimarus, On the Goal of Jesus and His Disciples (Leiden: Brill, 1970), p. 41.
- F. C. Baur, The Church History of the First Three Centuries (London: Williams and Norgate, 1878), Vol. 1, pp. 42, 43.
- Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1959), pp. 398, 401.
- Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (New York: Scribners, 1958), pp. 8, 107, 108.
- Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1993), p. 5.
- John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994), pp. 82, 95.
- Ibid., p. 190.
- Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1987), pp. 184, 185.
- Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1.
- Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3.
- Shlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971); text taken from James Charlesworth, Jesus within Judaism: New Light from Exciting Archaeological Discoveries (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. 95.
- The Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino, 1935), 27:281.
- John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 1:76-78.
- Tacitus, Annals 15.44.
- Lucian, The Death of Peregrine 11-13.
- Cited in Eusebius, Church History 3.39.
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.14.1-3.
- Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 83-102.
- Frederic Kenyon, The Bible and Modern Scholarship (London: John Murray, 1948), p. 20.
- The ossuary reads: “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.” See Biblical Archaeology Review 28 (November-December 2002): 24-37; and 29 (January-February 2003): 20-25.
- James E. Strange and Hershel Shanks, “Synagogue Where Jesus Preached Found at Capernaum,” Biblical Archaeology Review 9 (November-December 1983): 24-31.
- Gonzalo Báez-Camargo, Archaeological Commentary on the Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1984), p. 218.
- New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, s.v. “Crucifixion.”
- D. H. Wheaton, “Pilate,” The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1980), pp. 187, 188.