What Can We Know About Jesus? Six Guidelines to Follow

Here are some guidelines as to what we can know about Jesus. Please also note that you can check out our bibliography here. 

1. Paul is our earliest source for the life of Jesus. In these links I discuss some of the common internet objections about Paul.

Paul and the Historical Jesus

Evidence We Want and Evidence We Should Expect: A Look at Paul’s Letters

“BUT PAUL NEVER MET JESUS”AND OTHER BAD ARGUMENTS ABOUT PAUL ON THE INTERNET

What Can Paul Tell Us About Jesus?

Darrell Bock responds to Bart Ehrman’s book “Forged

How Did Paul Receive the Gospel? Clearing Up A Supposed Contradiction Between Galatians 1:11-12, and 1 Corinthians 15:3-5

A Look at James Tabor on Christianity Before Paul

Why the Resurrection of Jesus is the Best Explanation For What Happened To Paul

The Earliest Record for The Death and Resurrection of Jesus: 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7

Did Paul Invent Christianity?

Did Paul Invent Christianity? Is the Founder of the Christian ReligionPaul of Tarsus or Jesus of Nazareth?

Ben Witherington’s Review of Bart Ehrman’s Forged

Mike Licona’s Review of Bart Ehrman’s “Forged”

2. Before there was a written tradition, there was a oral phase of the Jesus story. This means that the culture of Jesus was predominantly oral. So this means the desire for an abundance of written sources for Jesus is misguided from the start.  Furthermore, the typical attempt “arguments from silence “objection falls flat.

Maurice Casey, who was a non Christian scholar who specialized in early Christianity summarized the importance of the oral world of Jesus:

“The major reasons why all our earliest sources for the Life and Teaching of Jesus are Christian is that Jesus was a first- century Jewish prophet who lived in a primarily oral Jewish culture, not a significant politician in the Graeco-Roman world. By contrast, for example, Julius Caesar was an important political and literary figure in the highly literate culture of the Romans. It is therefore natural that he should have written literary works which have survived, and that other surviving literary sources have written about him.”

Casey goes onto say:

“Jesus of Nazareth left no literary works at all, and he had no reason to write any. He lived in a primarily oral culture, except for the sanctity and central importance of its sacred texts, which approximate to our Hebrew Bible. A variety of works now thought of as Apocrypha (e.g. Sirach) or Pseudopigrapha (e.g. 1 Enoch) were held equally sacred by some Jewish people, and could equally well learnt and repeated by people who did not possess the then- difficult skill of writing. Almost all our surviving primary sources about Jesus are Christian because most people who had any interest in writing about him were his followers,and the few relatively early comments by other writers such as Josephus and Tacitus are largely due to special circumstances, such as Jesus’ brother Jacob (Jos.Ant .XX,200), or the great fire of Rome” (Tac.Annals XI, 44). – Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? by Maurice Casey

To see more sources on this topic, see here:

Jesus, the Gospels, and the Telephone Game Objection

Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus by Craig Evans

With no scripture in place, what controlled doctrine in the 1st century? By Darrell Bock

The Issue of Oral Tradition: Dr. Darrell Bock

How Reliable were the Oral traditions about Jesus? – Dr. Craig Keener

Mark Roberts on Oral Tradition/Telephone Game Objections

A Look at Oral Tradition/The Orality Phase of the Jesus Story

James M. Arlandson: Historical Reliability of the Gospels

3. It is hard to know much about Jesus without understanding the Second Temple Jewish period.  Given that internet skeptics are infatuated with how the Jesus story was borrowed from other pagan or dying and rising god stories, this is important. 

Linguistically speaking, Christianity didn’t exist in the first century. Judaism in the first century was not seen as a single “way.”  There were many “Judaism’s”- the Sadducees, the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, etc.  The followers of Jesus are referred to as a “sect” (Acts 24:14;28:22); “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5).  Josephus refers to the “sects” of Essenes, Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots. The first followers of Jesus were considered to be a sect of Second Temple Judaism.  For all the different sects, they did have some core beliefs such as adherence to the Torah, belief in one God, and belief in Israel as God’s elect people. Would Second Temple Jewish people who  would recite three times daily his nation’s creed, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one’ (Deuteronomy 6.4),  be so quick to base the Jesus story after mythological constructs such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, or someone else?  Let’s say Paul and the New Testament authors decided to build the Jesus story off some of the these figures.  Based on each sects adherence to their core beliefs,  any form of religious syncretism is a form of idolatry. First, the Jewish Scriptures forbids worshiping anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9).

Also, following the exile and subsequent intertestamental struggles, the Jews no longer fell prey to physical idolatry. So to assert that the Israel always had problems with idolatry in their early formation which would lead to further into idolatry in the Second Temple period leads me to cry “anachronism.”  Remember, idolatry is rarely mentioned in the Gospels. But there are warnings about idolatry in other portions of the New Testament( 1 Cor 6:9-10 ; Gal 5:20 ; Eph 5:5 ; Col 3:5 ; 1 Peter 4:3 ; Rev 21:8).  Paul instructs believers not to associate with idolaters ( 1 Cor 5:11 ; 10:14 ) and even  commends the Thessalonian for their turning from the service of idols “to serve the living and true God” ( 1 Thess1:9). So I guess my question is the following: Why would Paul or the early disciples commit an idolatrous act and but then later speak against idolatry?  It seems rather inconsistent.

 Also, see Craig Evan’s article here called Jesus and Judaism. 

4.   It is important to understand the genre of the Gospels. See our resources here:

Richard Bauckham: The Gospels as Histories: What sort of history are they?

Ancient and Modern Historiography: What Are The Gospels?

Craig Keener on the Genre of the Gospels

The Gospels as Historical Biography (Richard Bauckham)

Glen Miller’s Were the Miracles of Jesus invented by the Disciples/Evangelists?

The Gospels as Biographical Kerygma-Michael Bird

5. If the Gospels are truly biased and only written for apologetic purposes, the Gospel authors made it very hard on themselves. See our article here:  

6. A final note: Nobody applies the same  standards to anyone else in antiquity as they do with Jesus. If they did, we probably would know little about anyone in antiquity. Just read John Dickson’s example in his review here.

Please feel free to take our look at What Can We Know About Jesus? 25 Suggested Readings or our resource page here.

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