History’s Jesus: An Exploration of Historical Analysis

Academics use historical analysis to discern truth from the shroud of myth, distortion, and omission brought on by the passage of time. Historical analysis does not claim to provide a complete narrative of history but whittles whole stories and civilizations down to what we can know with some certainty. It is an important and evolving tool for the academy, but one that Christianity has not always comfortably engaged. Historical analysis adheres to a principle of plausibility that can appear incompatible with an analysis of the supernatural works of Jesus. I think it is possible and fruitful to use historical analysis to explore Jesus’ life. In this essay, I will endeavor to claim the historical validity of a few specific events of Jesus’ life and illuminate some of the key themes and assertions of his ministry using the methodologies of biblical scholars Bart Ehrman and Helen Bond.

In a commitment to a pure historical analysis I will concede the indefensibility of many assertions of the Christian church. Historical analysis and church doctrine may differ on the authorship, dating, and reliability of the New Testament, and on its treatment of miraculous claims. These assertions may be defensible through other equally valid mechanisms for exploring truth; however, I believe them to be outside the scope of historical analysis and this article. In a search for truth no method of analysis should be employed in isolation; instead, they should be viewed as one of many tools at our disposal as we explore history and the present.

Bart Ehrman questions the preservation of accuracy within the New Testament, primarily because of the roles of oral traditions, writer biases, language barriers, and dubious claims about the supernatural events in retelling Jesus’ ministry. Ehrman contends that oral traditions in early Christian communities were bound to modify the memory of events surrounding Jesus’ life. Mark, the oldest gospel, was likely not penned until 65-70 CE, over 30 years after Jesus’ death. In the meantime, the stories of Jesus spread primarily through word of mouth.[i] We will assume that even if the gospel writers had every intention of accurately portraying Jesus, time and tradition were bound to take their effect. Historical analysis cannot assume the writers of the gospels were perfectly objective in their descriptions of Jesus either. As early followers and shapers of Christianity, gospel writers wrote with theological motivation possibly at the expense of historic acuity. In each gospel we can discern how the authors use particular issues in the life of Jesus to make theological claims or send a pointed message to their readership.

Another concern is that language transition may have happened early on in the retellings of the story of Jesus. As a Galilean, Jesus most likely spoke with his disciples in Aramaic, yet the entire New Testament is written in Greek.[ii] Some scholars find this to be a minute point, but for Ehrman it fundamentally challenges the traditional Christian assumption that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses. It also challenges the accuracy of direct quotations attributed to Jesus.[iii] Given the multicultural environment facilitated by the Pax Romana and its widespread commercial empire, scholars like Eric Meyers believe that Jesus was likely bi- or trilingual. In order to be successful as a carpenter, Jesus likely needed proficiency in several languages, including Greek.[iv] In the same way, those following Jesus must have had varying degrees of exposure to Greek. Jesus was very likely in the presence of men who heard his words in one language and were capable of recording them in another. Nevertheless, none of the claims in this paper necessitate accepting that the New Testament was definitively written by eyewitnesses.

The most difficult factor in creating a historically accurate retelling of Jesus is the nature of the supernatural assertions in which he is embedded. Responsible historical review must be skeptical of supernatural claims and events, relying on probability to direct its inclinations. Jesus, or at least many accounts of him, claims a special relationship with divinity and consequently performs the miraculous. By nature historical analysis will not confirm supernatural events, but we may develop a valid understanding of what was experienced and interpreted by eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry.

Scholars have developed a number of criteria to inform an accurate reconstruction of the historical Jesus. Among Ehrman’s preferred methods are independent attestation and the principle of dissimilarity.[v] Ehrman himself concedes that all methods have limitations, that none can provide us with full assurance of validity, and that no event is necessarily fictional just because these criteria cannot support it. Criteria have been developed to be used in conjunction to create a more cohesive narrative. I will also explore one of Helen Bond’s methods which provides a broader scope to discern what claims we may make about the life of Jesus.

Independent attestation, as Ehrman describes it, assumes that an account that is described “by several witnesses who independently agree on a point at issue” is credible.[vi] Independent attestation is an effective tool for historic reconstruction because it takes advantage of both the quantity and distinction of sources. Matthew, Mark, and Luke repeat many of the same accounts, often word for word, but we will not treat the three as independent sources. Instead, we will assume, as does most biblical scholarship, that Mark and an independent Source Q informed the writing of both Matthew and Luke. Thus, I will not consider events only depicted in Marcan or Source Q material, even if they appear in two or all of three synoptic gospels, as independently reported. Using this idea, I pay special attention to events that are recounted in some combination of the synoptic gospels, the gospel of John, Paul’s letters, and early non-Christian sources like the Jewish historian Josephus.[vii]

Employing these parameters, we can establish some basic facts about Jesus. Independent attestation allows us to conclude that Jesus did have exactly twelve apostles. Every gospel and Paul reference the twelve.[viii] Luke even describes the process of replacing Judas in the twelve in the very first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.[ix] Most likely, the number—but not the names of the apostles— was so well-preserved for the allusion it makes to the twelve tribes of Israel. We might then say with historical credibility that Jesus, implicitly or otherwise, represented the establishment of a new nation for the Jews not just retrospectively but in his own historical moment.

Jesus almost certainly performed “surprising deeds” as Josephus called them, depicted as healings, miracles, or signs by the gospel writers.[x] The specific miracles are more difficult to definitively determine. The only miracle that appears in all four gospel accounts is the feeding of the 5,000.[xi] Nevertheless, recurring types of miracles appear, including Jesus’ demonstration of his control over nature by walking on water and producing a plentiful catch of fish.[xii] We can also say that the ministry of Jesus was closely associated with healings. While John does not describe any of exactly the same healing miracles as Mark or Source Q, all three sources attribute healings to Jesus. Four different accounts of Jesus healing blind people appear in the gospels: two men described in Matthew, an account of Bartimaeus in Mark’s tradition, one reported by Mark but not by Matthew or Luke, and a single account in John.[xiii] Where time and retelling may have conflated or repeated stories of healing, we can affirm with confidence that these accounts originated in the wake of real events of the historical Jesus.

The second of Ehrman’s methods is the criterion of dissimilarity, which highlights events that the reporter may have had less vested interest in retelling. The criterion assumes accounts that provide a degree of contradiction are more likely true. It is a paradoxical but well-suited mechanism for an analysis of Jesus. This criterion rises from the idea that eager evangelists of early Christianity may have constructed stories and parables of Jesus to elaborate on what they understood his teachings to be. But while some accounts of Jesus are palatable and attractive to wide audiences, many certainly are not. Stories that do not as easily conform to the basic themes of Jesus’ teaching or those which challenge closely held values of the Jewish community yet remain integral to early Christian teachings intrigue scholars and speak to the early church’s commitment to truthful retellings.

Critics of this method argue that we only uncover the limitations of our understanding of early Judeo- Christian thought, and thus highlight only our own constraints.[xiv] I find the tension between Jewish doctrine and early Christian claims valid and fruitful in discerning the authenticity of Jesus’ historic position. Given that so many of the early church leaders were committed Jews, where their new doctrine contends with Jewish tradition was surely of acute significance to them and to the early church.

Ehrman examines dissimilarity to make a case for the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, the betrayal by Judas, and the crucifixion.[xv] The baptism, which is also supported by independent attestation, creates discomfort for early Judeo-Christian communities because it suggests a backwards hierarchy between Jesus and John. We can sense within the telling of Jesus’ baptism that the story evokes discomfort for both the scene’s characters and the authors. Amidst claims of Jesus’ high status and divinity, the submission to baptism is hard to explain.[xvi] None of the gospels can clearly justify the dynamic between John the Baptist and Jesus.[xvii] For this very reason, we can reasonably conclude that Jesus’ baptism did actually occur.

The criterion of dissimilarity can also affirm that Jesus was preaching as a Jewish teacher and challenging Jewish religious leaders. His teachings to and about Jewish leaders caused discord within the early church.[xviii] In the gospels and in early Christian texts, Jesus preaches redemption not only to the Jews, but to the entire world. He promotes the expansion of God’s grace toward the Gentile people.[xix] Luke and Paul are particularly adamant that Jesus is the savior for the Gentiles as much as for the Jews. Even Luke and Peter acknowledge the Jewish heritage of Jesus, and also place him at the synagogue and declare that he was sent by the God of the Jews.[xx] Despite the formation of an independent religion in Jesus’ name, the historical Jesus must have practiced and affirmed Judaism.

Nevertheless, Jesus is depicted challenging Jewish Sabbath laws both in the synoptic gospels and in John.[xxi] In the synoptic gospels, he begins to challenge the keeping and interpreting of Jewish law in other ways as well. He declares that there will be no marriage in heaven, he challenges conceptions of ritual cleanliness, and he excuses his disciples from fasting.[xxii] Paul also presents Jesus like this in his letters, attributing the fulfillment of Hebrew Bible law to Jesus and specifically releasing Christians from the obligation to maintain Sabbath and food laws in Colossians.[xxiii] It is reasonable to dispute the validity of the specifics of any one event where Jesus challenged Jewish authority, particularly events unique to the synoptic gospels, but as a general feature of his ministry, Jesus’ posture towards Jewish law depicted in the New Testament passes the scrutiny of historical analysis.

In the first century, there was no cultural precedent for a morally blameless religious figure to associate with the likes of prostitutes and tax collectors—the “unclean.” Particularly in a Jewish context in which food and purity laws were held in high esteem, a Jewish teacher touching defiled people would have been striking. Nevertheless, Jesus is depicted in this way throughout his ministry.[xxiv] The same moral teacher who is broadly characterized by his teachings against sexual immorality and corrupt behavior also reportedly held extended conversations with, ate meals with, and defended the worst of offenders; Jesus even took the tax collector Levi (Matthew) as an apostle.[xxv] In this way, the depiction of Jesus also deviates significantly from standard Jewish practice, but also from any other prominent regional precedents. Unlike the Roman gods, Jesus was chaste towards women; uncharacteristic of followers of the Hebrew law, Jesus was consistently compassionate toward Gentiles. By including these acts of Jesus in their gospels, early Christians not only have to reckon with a Hebrew God who has extended his compassion to the righteous of every nation; it seems they are pushed further to accept even the outcasts as equals in Jesus’ new religion.[xxvi]

The betrayal of Judas and the crucifixion both expose a shameful defeat that is hard to reconcile with a traditional Jewish conception of the victorious Messiah. The suggestion that one among them would betray the Savior is particularly jarring.[xxvii] It illustrates that it was possible to be in close relationship with Jesus, and still ultimately turn away from him. This had to be uncomfortable and disappointing for the early church. In modern rhetoric the depth of the shame of crucifixion goes unappreciated. In the Roman empire this was a form of public humiliation and defeat for the worst of defenders, and a gruesome reminder of Rome’s power. In John’s gospel, Jewish authorities ask for Jesus’ label, “King of the Jews,” to be qualified, for they want nothing to do with Jesus and his shame.[xxviii] Despite the defeat depicted in a criminal’s death at the hands of Jewish oppressors, these events of Jesus become cornerstone to Christian tradition. The crucifixion story within Christian tradition was completely unprecedented. Had it not actually occurred, the budding religion would have adamantly denied the repugnant death of their savior rather than champion the event.

Bond provides a method of assessing the life of Jesus that I have dubbed the “footprint method.” She indicates that we can learn something of the historical Jesus by the wake he left behind. We cannot deny that the personhood of Jesus evoked a radical new doctrine within and growing out from Judaism.[xxix] We are at the furthest bounds of historical analysis, but I suggest that we can be confident that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty because of the unconventional nature of the claim, the centuries-delayed grave veneration, the plethora of early Christian references to Jesus’ resurrection—over 30 in the New Testament—and the extent to which orthodox Christian doctrine from the first moments was wholly contingent on it.[xxx] Whether we conclude that there was a divine resurrection or not, we can also say with scholarly confidence that the apostles were not involved in removing the body from the tomb. Their commitment, to the point of martyrdom, to a religion without benefits under the Roman empire and persecution by Nero, speaks to unwavering faith.[xxxi] If we, two thousand years later, know with confidence that Jesus did in fact die a criminal’s death at the hands of Roman authorities, yet his followers continued to proclaim him a victorious Lord, even to the point of their own deaths, something “of enormous magnitude” must have occurred.[xxxii] Many scholars have tried to isolate the historical Jesus from the religious Christ, as if the conception of deity on earth was little more than inspired by the moral teacher. Yet when we assess the dramatic conviction of Jesus’ early followers and the rapid and persistent growth of the Christian community, it seems most likely that they were influenced by something much greater than grand legends. From the strength of their conviction, a global religion was born.


i. Bart Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings: A Reader. (New York: Oxford UP, 1997), 40-44.
ii. Ehrman, 8.
iii. Ehrman, 193.
iv. From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. Video. Directed by Marilyn Mellowes. 1998. 16:28-16:40.
v. Ehrman, 192-195.
vi. Ehrman, 192.
vii. Ehrman, 189.
viii. Matthew 10:1-5 (ESV); Mark 3:14-16 (ESV); Luke 6:13 (ESV); John 6:70 (ESV); Colossians 15:5 (ESV).
ix. Acts 1:12-26 (ESV).
x. Ehrman, 198.
xi. Matthew 14:13-21 (ESV); Mark 6:30-34 (ESV); Luke 9:10-17 (ESV); John 6:1-14 (ESV).
xii. Mark 6:47-52 (ESV); John 6:16-21 (ESV); Luke 5:4-11 (ESV); John 21:1-11 (ESV).
xiii. Matthew 9:27-31 (ESV); Matthew 20:29-34 (ESV); Mark 10:46-52 (ESV); Luke 18:35-43 (ESV); Mark 8:22-26 (ESV); John 9:1-41 (ESV).
xiv. Ehrman, 193-194.
xv. Ehrman, 194-195.
xvi. Helen Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2013.) 84.
xvii. Matthew 3:13-16 (ESV); Mark 1:9 (ESV); Luke 3:21 (ESV); John 1:32-34 (ESV).
xviii. Acts 15 (ESV), Galatians 2:12-14 (ESV).
xix. Matthew 24:14 (ESV); John 3:16-17 (ESV); Romans 3:29 (ESV).
xx. Luke 4:15 (ESV); Romans 9:1-5 (ESV).
xxi. Matthew 12:1-14 (ESV); Mark 2:23-28 (ESV); Luke 6:1-11 (ESV); Luke 13:10-17 (ESV); John 5:1- 18 (ESV).
xxii. Matthew 22:30 (ESV); Matthew 23:25 (ESV); Luke 11:39 (ESV), Mark 2:19 (ESV).
xxiii. Colossians 2:16-18 (ESV).
xxiv. Luke 5:12-13 (ESV).
xv. John 4:1-29 (ESV), Luke 19:1-7 (ESV), Luke 7:36-50 (ESV); Mark 2:13-17 (ESV).
xvi. Isaiah 56:6-8 (ESV).
xxvii. Mark 14 (ESV), John 18 (ESV).
xxviii. John 19:21(ESV).
xxix. Bond, 174.
xxx. Bond, 170; 1 Corinthians 15 (ESV).
xxxi. Tacitus, “The Annals.” The Internet Classics Archive | The Annals by Tacitus.
xxxii. 1 Corinthians 15:54-57 (ESV); Acts 7:54-60 (ESV); Ehrman, 390; Bond, 174.


India Perdue ’19 is from Springfield, Virginia. She is a prospective double major in Government and Sociology.

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