In the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Introduction

A few years ago Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward developed an algorithmic method of ranking historical figures, just as Google ranks web pages. They defined the “historical significance” as “the result of social and cultural forces acting on the mass of an individual’s achievement.” By their reckoning, Jesus of Nazareth is the most influential figure in the history of our civilization. As a historian, I couldn’t agree more. His significance is overwhelming. We are, as a society, deeply influenced by the religion that is centered around Jesus. I tell my students that this influence can be seen, not just in the way we calculate years, but also in the way we perceive the time itself! We have this linear notion of time as something that has a beginning and that moves in a certain direction. It’s a Christian idea! This was a completely foreign thing to Greek and Romans who perceived time in a circular way. As Carl Jung famously said, we are all deeply woven with Christian ideas. Our subconscious has absorbed them – regardless of our religious stance.


But who was Jesus of Nazareth? A question that only on the surface seems simple. In fact, it is the question that historians have been trying to answer since the end of the 18th century. Countless books and articles have been written, a sea of debates have been organized – and it still is fruitful ground for thousands of scholars worldwide. Their enterprise is commonly called the quest for the historical Jesus. The “historical Jesus” refers to the reconstruction of the life and teachings of Jesus by critical historical methods, in contrast to religious interpretations. These two methods (historical and theological) are not necessarily in conflict – there are numerous theologians who also participate in the quest for the historical Jesus. They are just different. In a religious (Christian) interpretation, Jesus was (and still is) the resurrected son of God who died for our sins; he is the second person in the Trinity, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead. Historians, while doing historical research, do not operate with these beliefs and presuppositions. They look at this figure as they would look at any other historical figure from antiquity such as Julius Ceaser or Pontius Pilate. They use the same methodology they would use on any other figure from the past. Still, most historians who specialized in the “Historical Jesus quest” are Church-going believers (e.g. John P. Meier). They don’t see any problem with compartmentalization – they look at these two approaches (theological and historical) as wonderful and important, but different approaches towards the Jesus of Nazareth. But, why is then so hard to reconstruct the “historical Jesus”? What are the problems historians are faced with? How do they come to their conclusions? In the next couple of posts, I’ll try to dig deeper into the problems and challenges of the quest for the Historical Jesus. What can we, as historians, can tell about this person and how did we get to those conclusions?

How to establish basic facts about someone who supposedly lived 2000 years ago? It’s actually a principal historical question. How do we know that Julius Ceaser lived? Or Pontius Pilate? Or the emperor Vespasianus? As a rule of thumb, historians have to begin and end their stories with primary sources. We can establish basic facts about historical figures only by looking at the shreds of evidence (including archaeology) that have been left behind them. Whether they wrote something (like Julius Ceaser did) or whether others wrote about them (like the emperor Vespasianus). Jesus of Nazareth didn’t leave any writings of its own. If we take into account the literacy rate and the level of education in the Roman Empire, this should not surprise us. Jesus was a lower-class peasant from a rural area of Galilee. As such, he probably didn’t get the opportunity to enroll in the “educational system” of the Greco-Roman world – an enterprise available only to the upper crust families. But we do have other sources written after Jesus’ death by his followers. The following picture illustrates a) basic chronology relevant to establishing historical facts about Jesus and b) the most important sources we have at our disposal.


Based on the information gathered in the four canonical Gospels, we can establish the basic chronology of Jesus’ life. Both Matthew and Luke (Mt 2,1; Lk 1,5) associate the birth of Jesus with the reign of Herod the Great, who, as we know from other sources, died around 4 BC. Luke also states that Jesus was “about thirty years old” at the start of his ministry, which according to Acts (another book written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke) was preceded by John the Baptist’s ministry. His ministry (Lk 3,1-2) had begun in the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign (28 or 29 CE). By calculating the gospel accounts with the historical data about other related figures (e.g. emperor Tiberius) we arrive at the date of birth for Jesus between 6 and 4 BCE. The reason why Jesus was born “before the Christ” lies in the fact that a monk named Dionysius Exiguus (6th century) made a mistake when he determined the year of Jesus’ birth. Similarly, we can pinpoint the year of his death somewhere between 30 and 33 CE. For example, numerous sources associate Jesus’ violent death with the prefect Pontius Pilate who reigned between 26 and 36 CE. That gives us a rough estimation that can be, based on the information in the Gospels, narrowed to 30 – 33 CE.

Most New Testament scholars agree that Paul had traveled over 16 000 kilometers!

After his death apostles came to believe that he was raised thus encouraging their faith. Armed with a zealous belief they started to spread the good news about Jesus by telling stories about him. Others picked up those stories and spread them even further. All of this was done by word of mouth in an oral culture where more than 85 % of people were illiterate. Chronologically, the first Christian author we know of (after Jesus’ death) was the apostle Paul. As a missionary who traveled across the Roman Empire (from Jerusalem to Rome!), he established several Churches and wrote seven letters to different Christian communities (e.g. Romans) and individuals (e.g. Philemon). Paul probably died around 64 CE in Rome. Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t tell us a lot about Jesus’ life. Based only on his letters, we can deduce the following things:

  • He asserts that Jesus was born of a woman (γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός) – Gal 4, 4.
  • He calls Jesus a man, several times. For example: τοῦ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ – Rom 5, 15.
  • He quotes Jesus’ on marriage and he quotes Jesus’ words at the Last Supper – 1 Cor 7, 10-12; 1 Cor 11, 23-26.
  • Paul also claims that he met James who he calls “the brother of the Lord” (τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου) – Gal 1, 18-19.
  • Paul also knows about Jesus’ death by crucifixion – 1 Cor 1, 17; Gal 3, 1.

In my opinion, the mythicist theory (“Jesus never existed”) dies with Paul. In fact, my take is that this notion was pretty much over with by the beginning of the 20th century. There are no really new and innovative arguments – all we have are colorful revisions of the old arguments. Paul’s letters clearly imply that there was a guy in Palestine who lived recently. Moreover, Paul knew people who knew Jesus (e.g. Peter) and Paul even knew Jesus’ brother James. If Jesus didn’t exist, you would think that his brother would know about that! Kidding aside, the evidence from Paul is decisive. Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person who lived in Palestine during the 1st century CE. However, if we want to know more about his life we have to go beyond Paul. And there we encounter several methodological problems that I will be dealing with in the next post!

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