Historical Epistemology: What Can We Know About Jesus?

Note: Given I will barely scratch the surface on this issue, here is additional info:

External Evidences for the Truth of the Gospels by Dr. Timothy McGrew

Recent   Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels: Gary Habermas

Archeology   and the Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Peter S. Williams

Anthony R. Cross, “Historical Methodology and New Testament   Study,” Themelios 22:3 (April 1997): 28-51.

Michael F. Bird, “The Purpose and Preservation of the   Jesus Tradition: Moderate Evidence for a Conserving Force in its   Transmission

James M. Arlandson: Historical Reliability of the   Gospels

Craig Blomberg: Jesus of   Nazareth: How Historians Can Know Him And Why It Matters

Mark   Roberts: The Game of Telephone and Oral Tradition

Norman Geisler: A Note on the Percent of the Accuracy of the   New Testament Text

F. F. Bruce:   The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?

Ben   Witherington’s Review of Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle


The New Testament does not reveal Jesus as any ordinary prophet or religious teacher. Rather, it reveals Him as God incarnate (John 1:1; 8:58-59;10:29-31;14:8-9;20-28; Phil. 2:5-7; Col. 2:9; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1). Anyone who reads through the Gospels will see that Jesus made some very challenging statements that force us as humans to face our own autonomy before our Creator. So it should be no surprise that there is a great deal of skepticism about the reliability of the very documents that make such claims.

1. The Starting Point: Presuppositions

Have you ever heard anyone say the following?

1. “We can’t know much about the Historical Jesus”

2. “We can know alot about Jesus”

3. “I am not sure if we really can know anything about Jesus”

Statements like the ones just mentioned generally stem from a couple of issues:

First, an individual’s presuppositions play a large role in how they evaluate the evidence for Jesus. A presupposition is something assumed or supposed in advance. We could say that to “presuppose” is to conclude something before the investigation is commenced.

This can be seen in the work of the well known New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. Ehrman says the following:

“We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.” (1)

Ehrman’s naturalistic presuppositions won’t allow him to say the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the appearances to the disciples.

It is beyond the scope of this article to defend the philosophical basis for miracles. So for those that are skeptical towards the New Testament due to the miracles that are recorded there, that is philosophical issue that won’t be dealt with in this post. If you want to read a small tidbit on that issue, click here: or here

Another common presupposition is that the historical records of the life of Jesus are examples of religious plagiarism. Sadly, the internet is full of allegations about this issue. The same old dying and rising god theme myth just gets rehashed over and over. What is even more problematic is the people who hold to this view automatically assume the New Testament witness to Jesus is false. To see our post about this issue, click here:

Secondly, the stamements about what we can and can’t know about Jesus may stem from ignorance about the basics of historical method. For example, there is something called “The Historical Bedrock” that is discussed in Mike Licona’s latest book. We can see that many who have been trained in historcial method agree with the “Historical Bedrock.”

2. Jesus’ Existence

Jesus’ crucifixion is attested by all four Gospels. Therefore, it passes the test of multiple attestation. It is also one of the earliest proclamations in the early Messianic Movement (see Acts 2:23; 36; 4:10). It is also recorded early in Paul’s writings (1 Cor.15), and by non-Christian authors (Josephus, Ant.18:64; Tacitus, Ann.15.44.3). Even John Dominic Crossan, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar (not some hyper-evangelical group) says the following:

“Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if no follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixition, we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus.” (2)

I have already mentioned Ehrman. In relation to Jesus existence, Ehrman says:

” What about those writers like Acharya S (The Christ Conspiracy) and Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (The Jesus Mysteries), who say that Jesus never existed, and that Christianity was an invented religion, the Jewish equivalent of the Greek mystery religions? This is an old argument, even though it shows up every 10 years or so. This current craze that Christianity was a mystery religion like these other mystery religions-the people who are saying this are almost always people who know nothing about the mystery religions; they’ve read a few popular books, but they’re not scholars of mystery religions. The reality is, we know very little about mystery religions-the whole point of mystery religions is that they’re secret! So I think it’s crazy to build on ignorance in order to make a claim like this. I think the evidence is just so overwhelming that Jesus existed, that it’s silly to talk about him not existing. I don’t know anyone who is a responsible historian, who is actually trained in the historical method, or anybody who is a biblical scholar who does this for a living, who gives any credence at all to any of this.”-Bart Ehrman, interview with David V. Barrett, “The Gospel According to Bart”, Fortean Times (221), 2007

Here are a few more comments:

Robert E. Van Voorst, Professor of New Testament Studies at Western Theological Seminary, in his discussion on the historical evidence of Jesus outside of the New Testament states:

“The theory of Jesus’ nonexistence is now effectively dead as a scholarly question.” (Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence.14.)

Mark Allan Powell, a professor of NT and chairman for Historical Jesus at the Society of Biblical Literature puts it harsh stating:

“Anyone who says that today [i.e. that Jesus didn’t exist]–in the academic world at least–gets grouped with the skinheads who say there was no Holocaust and the scientific holdouts who want to believe the world is flat.” (Mark A Powell, Jesus As a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee. 168)

The late F.F. Bruce in his popular The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable? said:

“Some writers may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ-myth,’ but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ-myth’ theories.” (Bruce, The New Testament Documents. 123.)

To see more quotes about the existence of Jesus, see here:

3. Genre Issues

If someone makes the claim that the Gospels or other parts of the New Testament are myth (meaning half-truth, folklore, fantasy, or a fictionized account of history, etc), one thing that can aid in clearing up the confusion about this issue is genre studies. Most of the modern world’s standard of accuracy is defined by an age where tape recorders, video cameras are prevalent. As Ben Witherington says so well, “Works of ancient history or biography should be judged by their own conventions.” (3) To see our post on this topic, click here.

4. Reconstructing The Past

How do historians reconstruct the events of the past? After all, even though the earliest life of Alexander the Great (356-323) was written 200 years later, it is regarded by historians as a reliable source of information. Any historian will quickly admit that they can’t verify that Alexander the Great existed by observing him directly. What about the life and deeds of Julius Caesar who was responsible for transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire? The earliest copy we have for the life of Caesar is nearly 1,000 years after when it was first written. Many people assume Caesar existed and did the deeds that are attested about him from the sources we have available to us. But once again, the historian knows he can’t verify Casers’ existence by observing him directly.

5. Historical Epistemology

Since historians can’t verify the events directly, they rely on things such as written documents (both primary and secondary sources), external evidence/archaeology, and the testimony of the witnesses to the events. New Testament faith is portrayed biblically as knowledge based upon testimony. As a Christian, I share the faith of the early witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that investigates the nature and origin of knowledge. We as humans come to know things by a variety of ways such as reason and logic, intuition, inference, personal and religious experience, the scientific method, listening to authorities on a subject matter, etc.

Epistemologically speaking, one of the tools that plays another important element of discovering the past is the testimony of witnesses. Are we justified in believing in the testimony of others? Allow me to mention a few things that will allow us to say we are justified in trusting the testimony of the witnesses in the New Testament:

Oral Tradition

Given the emphasis on education in the synagogue, the home, and the elementary school, it is not surprising that it was possible for the Jewish people to recount large quantities of material that was even far greater than the Gospels themselves. Jesus taught in poetic form, employing alliteration, paronomasia, assonance, parallelism, and rhyme. Since over 90 percent of Jesus’ teaching was poetic, this would make it simple to memorize. (4)

As Paul Barnett notes,

“Jesus was a called a “Rabbi” (Matt. 8:19; 9:11; 12:38; Mk. 4:38; 5:35; 9:17; 10:17, 20; 12:14, 19, 32; Lk. 19:39; Jn. 1:38; 3:2), which means “master” or “teacher.” There are several terms that can be seen that as part of the rabbinic terminology of that day. His disciples had “come” to him, “followed after” him, “learned from” him, “taken his yoke upon” them” (Mt. 11:28-30; Mk 1). (5)

Therefore, it appears that the Gospel was first spread in the form of oral creeds and hymns ( Luke 24:34; Acts 2:22-24, 30-32; 3:13-15; 4:10-12; 5:29-32; 10:39-41; 13:37-39; Rom. 1:3-4; 4:25; 10:9; 1 Cor. 11:23ff.;15:3-8; Phil. 26-11; 1 Tim.2:6; 3:16; 6:13; 2 Tim. 2:8;1 Peter 3:18; 1 John 4:2).

Also, any questions about the telephone game objection-read here Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable?

6. One Thing About Early Testimony

We don’t want to forget the advice of historian David Hacket Fisher who says,

“An historian must not merely provide good relevant evidence but the best relevant evidence. And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself.” (6)

So keeping that in mind, when I am asked as to why Christians don’t put as much weight into extracanonical Gospels, here is something to think about. The Gospel of Mary has been dated at 160 A.D, the Gospel of Peter at 170 A.D. etc. One of the earliest creeds that attests to the death and resurrection of Jesus is 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7 which is very close to the time of the life of Jesus-30-33 A.D. So keeping the comment by Fisher in mind, what source is more reliable? To read more about this, click here:

7. The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham

One book that has recently handled the issue of eyewitness testimony issue within the New Testament is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham.

What is significant about Richard Bauckham’s book is his mentioning of Thomas Reid. Reid was a Scottish philosopher and contemporary of David Hume who played an integral role in the Scottish Enlightenment. It was in Reid’s “common sense” philosophy of the eighteenth century where Reid understood testimony as an integral part of the social character of knowledge. In other words, for Reid, to trust the testimony of others is simply fundamental to the kind of creatures we are.

As Bauckham notes:

“Trusting testimony is indefensible to historiography. This trust need not be blind faith. In the “critical realist” historian’s reception and use of testimony there is a dialectic trust and critical assessment. But the assessment is precisely an assessment of the testimony as trustworthy or not. What is not possible is independent verification or falsification of everything the testimony relates such that reliance on testimony would no longer be needed. Testimony shares the frugality of memory, which is the testimony’s sole access to the past, while also, when it predates living memory, existing only as an archived memory, cut off from the dialogical context of contemporary testimony. But for most purposes, testimony is all we have. There are indeed, other traces of the past in the present (such as archaeological finds), which can to a degree corroborate or discredit testimony, but they cannot, in most cases, suffice for the study and writing of history. They cannot replace testimony. In the end, testimony is all we have.” (7)

As Bauckham notes, ” The Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events. Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted. Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).” (8)

In other words, Byrskog defines “autopsy,” as a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses). Byrskog also claims that such autopsy is arguably used by Paul (1 Cor 9:1; 15:5–8; Gal 1:16), Luke(Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41) and John (19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4).

“This, at least, was historiographic best practice, represented and theorized by such generally admired historians as Thucydides and Polybius. The preference for direct and indirect testimony is an obviously reasonable rule for acquiring the testimony likely to be reasonable.” (9)

Loveday Alexander, in his book The Preface to Luke’s Gospel offers the translations: “those with personal/firsthand experience; those who know the facts at hand.”One of the greatest assets of Bauckham’s book is the reminder that ancient historians thought that history had to be written during a time when eyewitnesses were still available to be cross-examined.

In examining the role of testimony in the Holocaust, Bauckham quotes Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel. Weisel says:

” If the Greeks invented tragedy, the Romans the epistle, and the Renaissance the sonnet, our generation [i.e., Jews who Witnessed the Holocaust] invented a new literature, that of testimony. We have all been witnesses and we feel we have to bear testimony for our future. And that became a single obsession, the single most powerful obsession that permeated all the lives, dreams, all the work of those people. One minute before they died they thought that was what they had to do.” (10)

Baukham goes on to say:

” The sense (not a properly one generic one) in which the witnesses of the Holocaust created a new literature of testimony, is much the same sense as that in which the witnesses of the history created the Gospels. Those witnesses understood the imperative to witness to a command of the risen Christ, but the parallel is sufficient to be suggestive. In both cases, the uniqueness required precisely witness as the only means by which the events could be adequately known. In both cases, the exceptionality of the event means that only the testimony of participant witness can give us anything approaching access to the truth of the event.” (11)

Bauckham notes that in studying the eyewitness testimony of people within a courtroom, psychologists have noted that the witnesses who participated were not required to recall the peripheral details of the event, but the gist of the events they recalled. Bauckham quotes Alan Baddeley in relationship to eyewitness memory:

“Much of our autobiographical recollection of the past is reasonably free of error, provided that we stick to remembering the broad outline of events. Errors begin to occur once we try to force ourselves to come up with detailed information from an inadequate basis.This gives full rein to various sources of distortion, including that of prior expectations, disruption by misleading questions, and by social factors such as the desire to please the questioner, and to present ourselves in a good light.” (12)

If we look at Luke 1:1-4, we see even though Luke was not a direct eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, he says the information he received was given to him by those who were “from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (1:2). Luke’s reference to the information as being “handed down” would be understood in a Jewish culture as something a rabbi did when he would “hand over” a body of teaching or legal opinion to his disciple or disciples (Mark 7:3-5). We can conclude that just because those recording the events may have not been direct witnesses to the events, this should not serve as a defeater to the reliability of their testimony of the event itself. .

Perhaps another illustration will help: How many biographies do you own that were written by authors that personally knew the individual they were writing about? If the biographer did not know the person they were writing about, does that automatically negate the trustworthiness of the biographer?

Now let’s look a question posed by historian Louis Gottschalk : (1) Was the author of the document able to tell the truth; and if able, (2) Was he willing to tell the truth? (13)

8. The Jewish People and Bearing False Witness

As Bakers Evangelical Dictionary of Theology notes, the biblical concept of testimony or witness is closely allied with the conventional Old Testament legal sense of testimony given in a court of law. Its validity consists in certifiable, objective facts. In both Testaments, it appears as the primary standard for establishing and testing truth claims. Uncertifiable subjective claims, opinions, and beliefs, on the contrary, appear in Scripture as inadmissible testimony. Even the testimony of one witness is insufficient—for testimony to be acceptable, it must be established by two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15). It can also be observed that the emphasis on eyewitness testimony was carried on through the early church.

As Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy note in their book The Jesus Legend: A Case For the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition, Christianity cannot be understood apart from it’s first century Jewish context. The Sinai teaching that multiple witnesses was retained Mark 14:56,59; John 5:31-32; Heb 10:28) and also used for church discipline (Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1;1 Tim 5:19). Also, the principle of giving a true testimony and making a true confession are evident in the early church (Matt 10:18; Mark 6:11;13:9-13;Luke 1:1-2;9:5;21:12-13;22:71;John 1:7-8,15,19,32,34;3:26,28;5:32; Acts 1:8,22;3:15;5:32;10:37-41;13:31;22:15;18;23:11;26:16).

The Gospel of John uses words that are usually translated as witness, testimony, to bear witness, or to testify, witness, testimony, to bear witness, etc. The total usage of these words in John’s Gospel is larger than any of the Synoptic Gospels. The book of Acts is the next book with the most references to the terms related to eyewitness testimony.

We see in the following New Testament passages where testimony and witness is used as a means to verify events:

• Luke 1:4: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received”

•Acts 2:32: “This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it.”

• Acts 3:14-15: “But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses.”

• Acts 5:30-32: “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. “And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

•1 John 1:1: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life”

•Acts 10:39 : “We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and (in) Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.”

•Acts 4:19-20: “Peter and John, however, said to them in reply, “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”

•1 Peter 5:1: “So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed.

•2 Peter 1:19: ” We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

•John 21:24: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.”

•1 Corinthians 15: 3-8: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

9. The Principle of Embarrassment

Another issue that speaks to the character and trustworthiness of those that wrote about Jesus is what is called The Principle of Embarrassment- a test that was put forth by John P. Meier in his A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol. 1. This criteria seeks out material in the Gospels that would have been would create awkwardness or difficulty for the early church. This type of material would most likely have not been created by the early church because it would have been provided material useful for the early church’s opponents.

Let me go ahead and give an example: All four Gospels attest to Jesus’ baptism by John at the very beginning of his ministry. Would the Gospel authors make up such a tradition? In the Jewish culture, it was understood that the one who was being baptized was spiritually inferior to the baptizer himself.

So if the New Testament authors want to convince their audience that Jesus is the Lord, why say the following?
• “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28)
• Jesus seems to predict incorrectly that he is coming back to earth within a generation (Matt 24:34)
• Jesus then says about is second coming, that no one knows the time, “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son” (Matt 24:36)
• Jesus is seen cursing a fig tree for not having figs when it wasn’t even the season for figs (Matt 21:18)
• Jesus seems unable to do miracles in his hometown, except heal a few sick people.

If the New Testament writers were making up a story, why leave hard- cross cultural sayings that make it so hard to consider becoming a disciple of Jesus? We see this in the following statements:
• ” Be perfect, because your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48)
• “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully already committed adultery in his heart.”
• “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may like your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45)
• “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt 7:1-2)

The New Testament authors included embarrassing details about Jesus such as the following:
• Jesus is considered “out of his mind” by his mother and brothers (his own family), who come and seize him
in order to take him home (Mark 3:21,31)
• Jesus is not believed by his own brothers (John 7:5)
• Jesus is though to be a deceiver (John 7:12)
• Jesus is deserted by many of his followers (John 6:66)
• Jesus turns off the Jewish people who had believed in him (John 8:30-31) to the point that they want to stone him (vs 59) (14)

10. The Gospel of John

Something else that helps solidify the truthfulness of eyewitness testimony is the use of archaeology or external evidence. As Gottschalk says,

“Conformity or agreement with other known historical [geographic] or scientific facts is often the decisive test of evidence, whether of one or more of the witnesses.” (15)

In his book The Reliability of John’s Gospel, Craig Blomberg has identified 59 people, events, or places that have been confirmed by archaeology such as:

1.The use of stone water jars in the New Testament (John 2:6).
2. The proper place of Jacob’s well (2:8)
3. Josephus in (Wars of the Jews 2.232), confirms there was significant hostility between Jews and Samaritans during Jesus’ time (4:9).
4. “Went Up” accurately describes the ascent to Jerusalem(5:1).
5. Archaeology confirms the existence of the Pool of Siloam (9:7)
6. The obscure and tiny village of Ephraim (11:54) near Jerusalem is mentioned by Josephus.
7. “Come down” accurately describes the topography of western Galilee.(There’s a significant elevation drop from Cana to Capernaum). (4:46;49, 51).
8. Caiaphas was the high priest that year (11:49); we learn from Josephus that Caiaphas held the office from A.D 18-37.

11. Luke’s Gospel

Furthermore, Luke’s Gospel shows displays a variety of historical figures that have been confirmed. For example, Luke gives correct titles for the following officials: Cyprus, proconsul (13:7–8); Thessalonica, politarchs (17:6); Ephesus, temple wardens (19:35); Malta, the first man of the island. (3) Each of these has been confirmed by Roman usage. In all, Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands without an error. (16) Over all, here is a list of 30 historical persons in the New Testament.

30 Historical Persons in NT

• Agrippa I—-Acts 12
• Agrippa II—Acts 25
• Ananias—–Acts 23, 24
• Annas——-Luke 3; Jn. 18; Acts 4
• Aretas——-2Cor. 11
• Bernice—–Acts 23
• Augustus—Lk. 2
• Caiaphas—Mt. 26; Lk. 3; Jn. 11, 18; Acts 4
• Claudius—-Acts 11, 18
• Drusilla—-Acts 24
• Egyptian (false prophet)–Acts 21
• Erastus—-Acts 19
• Felix——–Acts 23
• Gallio——-Acts 18
• Gamaliel—Acts 5

12. The Book of Acts

One book in the New Testament that plays as indispensible role in evaluating the resurrection is the book of Acts. It is within Acts that we see the resurrection was part of the early apostolic preaching and the evidence given that Christianity is true (Acts 2:25-32; 3: 15; 10:39-41; 17:2-3, 18, 31). It is also within Acts that records Paul’s testimony to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 9:1-9; 22: 1-11; 26: 9-19).

In his book, The New Testament Concept of Witness, author Allison Trites says the following about the Book of Acts:

” Luke therefore wants to present the evidence, particularly that for the resurrection, which vindicates Jesus….. he seeks to provide evidence for the truth of the events which have transpired, thereby giving Theophulis “authentic knowledge” [asphaleia], ….the same word used by Thucydides in the preface to his historical work, 1:22) and vindication his name as an historian…..He uses the historical material for the Book of Acts according to the standards of his time as they are expressed by such ancient historians as Heroductus, Polybius, Thucydides and Josephus, and certainly intends to offer evidence that will stand the test of the closest scrutiny.” (17)

Eduard Meyer, the distinguished historian of classical antiquity, commented that Luke’s work in spite of a more limited content, “bears the same character as those of great historians, of a Polybius, a Livy and many others.” (18) In his monumental work called The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, classics scholar Colin Hemer has shown that Luke has also done his work as an historian.There are at least 84 events, people, locations, etc, which have been confirmed by archaeology. Some of them are:

1. A natural crossing between correctly named ports (13:4–5). Mount Casius, south of Seleucia, stands within sight of Cyprus. The name of the proconsul in 13:7 cannot be confirmed, but the family of the Sergii Pauli is attested.
2. The proper river port, Perga, for a ship crossing from Cyprus (13:13).
3. The proper location of Lycaonia (14:6).
4. The unusual but correct declension of the name Lystra and the correct language spoken in Lystra. Correct identification of the two gods associated with the city, Zeus and Hermes (14:12).
5. The proper port, Attalia, for returning travelers (14:25).
6. The correct route from the Cilician Gates (16:1).
7. The proper form of the name Troas (16:8).
8. A conspicuous sailors’ landmark at Samothrace (16:11).
9. The proper identification of Philippi as a Roman colony. The right location for the river Gangites near Philippi (16:13).
10. Association of Thyatira with cloth dyeing (16:14). Correct designations of the titles for the colony magistrates (16:20, 35, 36, 38).

One more thing. Cambridge New Testament scholar G.M. Stanton has discovered that the grammar, literary style, theological motifs and emphases, tone and use of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament are different from Acts 1-12 than those in chapters 13-28. Also, the speeches in Acts 1-12 contain a number of Semitic phrases and other features that indicate that it is a Greek translation from an early Aramaic source. This is what we should expect if these speeches were historically accurate. Since Peter is the speaker in Acts 12, he is addressing Jewish audiences in Aramaic. But since Paul is speaking in Acts 13-28, he is addressing a Gentile audience. Hence, he is speaking in Greek. So these issues only strengthen our confidence in these speeches as being historically reliable. (19)

13. More External and Archaeological Evidence

There has also been a wealth of other archaeological findings that support the trustworthiness of all four Gospels. For starters, an entombed remain of a first-century crucified man in Palestine was discovered in 1968. This finding only confirms the biblical account of crucifixion as well as the fact that a Jewish victim of crucifixion could have a proper burial in a private tomb, just as the Gospels claim (Mark 15:42-47). (20)

Furthermore, in 1962, a Latin inscription of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate was found at Caesarea Maritima, confirming that Pilate reigned in the position as told in the Synoptic Gospels. (21)

In 1986, a sunken fishing boat was found in the Sea of Galilee measuring 8.2 by 2.3 meters. According to Galilean archaeologist Jonathan Reed, this fishing boat “could certainly hold thirteen people,” which are the number of people necessary for Jesus and his disciples to cross the Sea as mentioned a number of times in the Gospels. Also, the boats shallow drift (1.2 meters) confirms with Mark’s account that, in the midst of a storm, the boat began to founder as it filled with water (Mark 4:37). (22)

They have also found what is called The Pilate Inscription. Pilate was the Roman prefect of Judaea (AD 26 – 36) who was at the trial of Jesus and gave the order for his crucifixion. To read more about this and other archaeological evidence, click here:

14. Paul’s Letters

And by the way, the earliest documents we have for the life of Jesus are Paul’s letters. Paul, a contemporary of Jesus, was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. Of his 13 books, critical scholars even accept six of them as being authentic in that we can be certain of the author and date of these writings. Of course, there are other scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson and Raymond Brown who think think that more than six of them are authored by Paul. But of the 13 books, the six are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians and 1 Thessalonians (see Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed, pgs 43-44). These letters provide a variety of historical details found in the Gospels. Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians provide a variety of historical details found in the Gospels. Here are some of them:

1. Jesus’ Jewish ancestry (Gal 3:16)
2. Jesus’ Davidic descent (Rom 1:3)
3. Jesus’ virgin birth (Gal 4:4)
4. Jesus’ life under the Jewish law (Gal 4:4)
5. Jesus’ Brothers (1 Cor 9:5)
6. Jesus’ 12 Disciples (1 Cor 15: 7)
7. One of whom was named James (1 Cor 15: 7)
8. That some had wives (1 Cor 9: 5)
9. Paul knew Peter and James (Gal 1:18-2:16)
10. Jesus’ poverty ( 2 Cor 8:9)
11. Jesus’ humility ( Phil. 1:5-7)
12. Jesus Meekness and Gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1)
13. Abuse by Others (Rom 15:3)
14. Jesus’ teachings on divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7:10-11)
15. On paying wages of ministers (1 Cor 9:14)
16. On paying taxes ( Rom 13: 6-7)
17. On the duty to love one’s neighbors (Rom 13: 9)
18. On Jewish ceremonial uncleanliness ( Rom 14: 14)
19. Jesus’ titles to deity ( Rom 1: 3-4; 10:9)
20. On vigilance in view of Jesus’ second coming ( 1 Thess: 4: 15)
21. On the Lord’s Supper ( 1 Cor. 11: 23-25)
22. Jesus’ Sinless Life ( 2 Cor. 5:21)
23. Jesus’ death on a cross ( Rom 4:24; 5:8; Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor 15: 3)
24. Specifically by crucifixion ( Rom 6: 6; Gal 2:20)
25. By Jewish instigation ( 1Thess. 2:14-15)
26. Jesus’ burial (1 Cor. 15: 4)
27. Jesus’ resurrection on the “third day” (1 Cor.15:4)
28. Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the apostles ( 1 Cor.15:5-8)
29. And to other eyewitnesses (1 Cor 15:6); and
30. Jesus’ position at God’s right hand ( Rom 8:34)

To read our post called “What Paul Can Tell Us About Jesus” click here:

15. Church Fathers:

Of the four Gospels alone there are 19,368 citations by the church fathers from the late first century on. This includes 268 by Justin Martyr (100–165), 1038 by Irenaeus (active in the late second century), 1017 by Clement of Alexandria (ca. 155–ca. 220), 9231 by Origen (ca. 185–ca. 254), 3822 by Tertullian (ca. 160s–ca. 220), 734 by Hippolytus (d. ca. 236), and 3258 by Eusebius (ca. 265–ca. 339). Earlier, Clement of Rome cited Matthew, John, and 1 Corinthians in 95 to 97. Ignatius referred to six Pauline Epistles in about 110, and between 110 and 150 Polycarp quoted from all four Gospels, Acts, and most of Paul’s Epistles. Shepherd of Hermas (115–140) cited Matthew, Mark, Acts, 1 Corinthians, and other books. Didache (120–150) referred to Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and other books. Papias, companion of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, quoted John. This argues powerfully that the Gospels were in existence before the end of the first century, while some eyewitnesses (including John) were still alive. (23)

I think everyone needs to ask how much we want to know about Jesus. Are we hoping we can’t know much about Him? If we actually can know alot about Jesus perhaps this would force us to face our autonomy before God.


1. Ehmran, B., Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University.1999, 230.

2. Crossan, J.D., Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 1994, 145.

3. Ben Witherington III. New Testament History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001, 18.

4. Reid, D. G., The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament: A One-Volume Compendium Of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2004, 460.

5. Barnett, P., Jesus and the Logic of History. Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press. 1997, 138.

6. Fisher, D.H., Historian’s Fallacies:Toward a Logic of Historical Thought: New York: Harper Torchbooks. 1970, 62.

7. See Bauckham, R. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2006.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Gottschalk, L. Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method. 2d.ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. 53, 54.

14. See Geisler N.L. and Frank Turek. I Do Not Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004.

15. Gottschalk, 168.

16. See Geisler, N. L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Mich : Baker Books, 1999.

17. The New Testament Concept of Witness, author Allison Trites (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press. 1977). 135; cf. pp. 128, 138.

18. See Meyer, E.M. and Strange, J., Archaeology, the Rabbis and Early Christianity. London:SCM, 1981.

19. Moreland, J.P., The God Question: An Invitation to a Life of Meaning. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers. 2009, 110.

20. Boyd, G., and Paul Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition. Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Books. 2007, 443-445.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Mich : Baker Books. 1999, 529, 530.

24. See See Habermas. G.R. and Licona, M. L. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.
Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. 2004, 185-186.

25. Ibid.

26. See Ropp, H.L. The Mormon Papers: Are the Mormon Scriptures Reliable? Downers Grove, ILL: InterVaristy Press. 1977, 47-54.


6 thoughts on “Historical Epistemology: What Can We Know About Jesus?

  1. Meg Allas September 16, 2010 / 6:53 pm

    let’s look a question posed by historian Louis Gottschalk : (1) Was the author of the document able to tell the truth

    Does Dr. Gottschalk’s question apply to the gospel writers’ direct reporting of the exact words spoken by various people?

    I have in mind how often our gospels’ writers “quote” other people. Besides Jesus’ the gospels also record words of the disciples, Herod, angels, demons, Satan, tax collectors, and crowds of people all saying the same words all together. The gospels even record long speeches spoken in dreams, and verbatim accounts of inner thoughts that were never spoken, but that Jesus knew because He could read minds.

    Here’s Dr. Gottschalk’s Was the author of the document able to tell the truth question: How’d they do that? How are the gospel writers able to quote the incidental ephemeral speech of all those bit players exactly ?

    How did the gospel writers know exactly:
    word for word what the angel said in Joseph’s dream? [Mt 1, MT 2]
    word for word what Herod said in his secret meeting? [Mt 2]
    word for word what the centurion said? [Mt 8]
    word for word what the man with leprosy said? [Mt 8]
    word for word what the demons said? [Mt 8]
    word for word what the Pharisees thought in their private thoughts but never spoke? [Lk 5]
    Word for word the things said by the woman at the well? [Jn 4]

    What possible method could our gospel writers have used to come up with all the various verbatim quotations they claim to give?

    Or did the gospel writers get all those “quotations” by just making them up? Is it more likely that “Matthew” knew the words Herod spoke in a secret meeting, or did “Matthew” probably, like other writers back then, just make up quotes because that was the standard way to tell a story?

    And if the only reasonable non-magical explanation is that the gospel writers got their “quotations” by making them up, then …. our gospel writers made stuff up. Just made it up. And it is not true the gospels are historical or reliable, not in the sense that the sayings and events we read about in them actually happened.


  2. chab123 September 16, 2010 / 8:32 pm

    You addressed one issue here -about the author’s inability to tell the truth? So are saying we can’t trust their character in the sense, they lied about it? Does that what it means to make it up? If so, I addressed that issue in the post. Jews knew about the stipulations laid out in the Torah about this issue. And the point of the principle of embarrassment and the external evidence are a couple of other tests that help the historian know the witnesses were telling the truth. There are more tests as well. As far as any authors ability to remember and record names, etc.. that is not as difficult as it seems. How would they be able to remember and know the names, etc?

    As I said in the post, “These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted. Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).

    Remember, home, the synagogue, and the elementary school were where Jewish people learned how to memorize and recall information such as community prayers (the Shema).

    Memorization as an instructive tool was not limited to second or third-century rabbinic practice, but was well known in the Greco-Roman world. As Birger Gerhardsson has shown in his The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition, The Gospels (Mark 7:1-15) and Josephus (Ant. 13.297-98) attest that the Pharisees did indeed have an oral tradition independent of Scripture. The relatively short period of oral transmission between Jesus’ ministry and the written Gospels means that we are in the realm of oral history, not exclusively oral traditions, which are passed on over several generations.

    Oral history takes place during the life span of the narrator. I also discussed the issue of what “eyewitness” means. Jews were more than capable of memorizing large amounts of information. Gerhardsson has also discussed that the disciples took written/private notes during Jesus’ teaching- see his The Origin of Gospel Tradition. Matthew was a tax collector and probably was able to record/take records. Also, S’ Leiberman, in his Hellenism in Jewish Palestine book says “it was general rabbinic practice for disciples to write down the sayings of their masters”-pg 203.

    There was tremendous care in ‘delivering’ the traditions that had been received. Jesus’ use of parallelism, rhythm and rhyme, alliterations, and assonance enabled Jesus’ words not only ‘memorizable’ but easy to preserve. R. Reisner says 80% of Jesus’ teaching was in poetic form- see Jesus as Preacher and Teacher.

    Even Paul, a very competent rabbi was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. It can be observed that the New Testament authors employ rabbinical terminology such as “delivering,” “receiving,” “passing on” “learning,” “guarding,” the traditional teaching.

    If you think the NT is not historically accurate, I would like to ask what else is historically inaccurate in antiquity? What tests do you use in determining the reliability of a document or event? If you have a problem with the miracles issue in the NT, (and I wouldn’t use the word “magic”- given that is not the same thing as biblical miracles)- that is a philosophical issue, not historical.

    Take care

  3. Meg Allas September 16, 2010 / 11:37 pm

    Yes, thank you. I see my original question wasn’t clear to you. You tell me how verbatim quotations might have been transmitted once they were acquired in the first place. The question I have in mind is, How was anyone able to record these utterances verbatim in the first place.

    For example, Mt records word for word what Herod said in his secret meeting. [Mt 2] According to your theory, how did Mt learn exactly what words were spoken in that meeting? And not just the gist of what was said; exactly what was said. Mt quotes verbatim. How were Herod’s secret words recorded exactly in the first place?

    And it’s not just Herod in his secret meeting. Over and over Mt spins his stories with verbatim quotations.

    the angel in Joseph’s dream said [Mt 1, MT 2]
    the centurion said [Mt 8]
    the man with leprosy said [Mt 8]
    the demons said [Mt 8]
    the Pharisees thought but never spoke !! [Lk 5]
    the woman at the well said [Jn 4]

    How is it possible anyone had access to the verbatim words of just the right bit players in every story? People around Jesus verbatim memorized everything spoken by every person Jesus ever encountered? What’s your theory?

    Here’s a test. According to Mt. 5 ff, Jesus sat down up on the mountain and spoke, in English translation, 2,400 words. He spoke them once, and “Matthew” wrote them down. Decades later. Verbatim.

    Here’s the test. Right now you go read those 2,400 words. Then you write them down exactly. Check your work. How’d you do?

    What “Matthew” claims to do is not possible .

    What “Matthew” claims to do is not possible. “Matthew” made these conversations up. “Matthew” made stuff up. The stuff we read in “Matthew” did not happen the way “Matthew” said it did. “Matthew” cannot be trusted. The New Testament is not historical or reliable, not in the sense that the sayings and events we read about there actually happened.


  4. chab123 September 24, 2010 / 3:14 am

    Meg, is this you really asking this, or is this you copying what someone else asked previously? That is about word for word what somone had asked as a previous objection. I already answered it. You just need to read it again. I talked about orality and oral traditon, etc.

  5. Curtis hrischuk October 17, 2011 / 11:15 am

    There is a misconception there about the need for a ‘word for word’ historical recording. The Bible authors never declare to provide a word for word rendering and this has not been orthodox Christianity’s position ever. What is required is that the words accurately capture the meaning and intent. This is done today. When you see the newscaster report that “President Obama said …” it is not a word for word rendering but captures the intent and meaning of what was said.

    Then all that is required for an accurate historical recording is for someone who had access to the information to record it. This is not a large barrier. This is not to say that these are not word for word renderings of what was said but that the argument is a straw man.

  6. Tom December 28, 2011 / 6:52 am

    25“All this I have spoken while still with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. John 14:25-26. The scriptures are the inspired Word of God—God breathed. Thus, if the Bible is supernaturally inspired, the ability to record accurately conversations where the author was not present or to remember the many sayings of Jesus is easily accomplished thru inspiration of an all-knowing God.

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