by Craig L. Blomberg
Jesus of Nazareth has been the most influential person to walk this earth in human history. To this day, more than two billion people worldwide claim to be his followers, more than the number of adherents to any other religion or worldview. Christianity is responsible for a disproportionately large number of the humanitarian advances in the history of civilization—in education, medicine, law, the fine arts, working for human rights, and even in the natural sciences (based on the belief that God designed the universe in an orderly fashion and left clues for people to learn about it).2 But just who was this individual and how can we glean reliable information about him? A recent work on popular images of Jesus in America alone identifies eight quite different portraits: “enlightened sage,” “sweet savior,” “manly redeemer,” “superstar,” “Mormon elder brother,” “black Moses,” “rabbi,” and “Oriental Christ.”3Because these depictions contradict each other at various points, they cannot all be equally accurate. Historians must return to the ancient evidence for Jesus and assess its merits. This evidence falls into three main categories: non-Christian, historic Christian, and syncretistic (a hybrid of Christian and non-Christian perspectives).
Non-Christian Evidence for Jesus
An inordinate number of websites and blogs make the wholly unjustified claim that Jesus never existed. Biblical scholars and historians who have investigated this issue in detail are virtually unanimous today in rejecting this view, regardless of their theological or ideological perspectives. A dozen or more references to Jesus appear in non-Christian Jewish, Greek, and Roman sources in the earliest centuries of the Common Era (i.e., approximately from the birth of Jesus onward, as Christianity and Judaism began to overlap chronologically). These references appear in such diverse authors as Josephus (a first-century Jewish historian), several different portions of the Talmud (an encyclopedic collection of rabbinic traditions finally codified in the fourth through sixth centuries), the Greek writers Lucian of Samosata and Mara bar Serapion, and Roman historians Thallus, Tacitus, Pliny, and Suetonius. Tacitus, for example, in the early second century, writes in his Annals about Nero’s persecution of Christians and then explains, “The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate” (44:3). The Talmud repeatedly acknowledges that Jesus worked miracles but refers to him as one who “practiced magic and led Israel astray” (b. Sanh. 43a; cf. t. Shab. 11.15, b. Shab. 104b). Josephus, in the late first century, calls Jesus “a wise man,” “a worker of amazing deeds,” “a teacher,” and “one accused by the leading men among us [who] condemned him to the cross” (Ant. 18.3.3).
It is, of course, historically prejudicial to exclude automatically all Christian evidence, as if no one who became a follower of Jesus could ever report accurately about his life and teachings, or to assume that all non-Christian evidence was necessarily more “objective.” But even using only such non-Christian sources, there is ample evidence to confirm the main contours of the early Christian claims: Jesus was a Jew who lived in Israel during the first third of the first century, was born out of wedlock, intersected with the life and ministry of John the Baptist, attracted great crowds especially because of his wondrous deeds, had a group of particularly close followers called disciples (five of whom are named), ran afoul of the Jewish religious authorities because of his controversial teachings sometimes deemed heretical or blasphemous, was crucified during the time of Pontius Pilate’s governorship in Judea (26–36 C.E.), and yet was believed by many of his followers to have been the Messiah, the anticipated liberator of Israel. This belief did not disappear despite Jesus’ death because a number of his supporters claimed to have seen him resurrected from the dead. His followers, therefore, continued consistently to grow in numbers, gathering together regularly for worship and instruction and even singing hymns to him as if he were a god (or God).4
Contemporary reactions to this composite picture sometimes complain that this seems like a rather sparse amount of information. On the other hand, until the last few centuries, history and biography in general almost exclusively focused on the exploits of kings and queens (or their cultural equivalents), military conquests and defeats, people in official institutional positions of power in a given society, and the wealthy more generally, not least because it was primarily these people who could read and/or afford to own written documents. Jesus qualified for attention under none of these headings. Moreover, no non-Christians in the first several centuries of the Common Era had any reason to imagine that his influence would grow and spread the way it did in the millennium and half ahead. So it is arguable that it is actually rather impressive that as much has been preserved outside of Christian circles as has been. And of course, most ancient testimony to any person or event has been lost over the centuries, so many other references to Jesus might have existed that we simply no longer know about.
Historic Christian Evidence for Jesus
By far the most important historical information about Jesus of Nazareth appears in the four Gospels of the New Testament. But chronologically, these are not the earliest Christian documents still in existence. Even most conservative scholars acknowledge that the Gospels were not written before the 60s, whereas Jesus was crucified in either 30 or 33 C.E. The majority of the undisputed letters of Paul, however, were all written at the latest by the 50s. These include Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. Thus, when they report on the deeds and sayings of Jesus, they cannot simply be following one or more of the written Gospels for their information. Rather, they must reflect the oral tradition that was preserving these details before the written accounts were produced. The letter of James contains about three dozen probable allusions to the teaching of Jesus, especially from his Sermon on the Mount, and it may well date to as early as the mid-40s.5 But because this is more disputed, we will limit our focus here to the epistles of Paul just mentioned, before turning to the Gospels themselves.