What can history tell us about the figure of Jesus?


Every so often there’s an attempt to come up with a list of the most influential figures in human history. Names like Napoleon Bonaparte, Martin Luther King, and William Shakespeare are typically high up these lists. In a recent book called Who’s Bigger?, two computer scientists used various algorithms to try to estimate which figure in history has had the greatest impact of all. Neither of the authors are Christians, but they concluded that the answer is Jesus of Nazareth, and by quite a long way. Of course that doesn’t prove that Christianity is true. But it does, at least, make it worthwhile to ask the question: How much can history tell us about this figure of Jesus?

In universities across the world today there are thousands of scholars who study the historical sources about the life of Jesus and try to answer the question of what can be known about Jesus by investigating his life in the same way that historians would try to investigate the life any other notable figure in the ancient world. These scholars are from a range of religious persuasions and some are agnostics and atheists. There are certainly plenty of issues that they disagree about. They do agree, though, that Jesus was a real historical person, who grew up in the small town of Nazareth in first-century Palestine, who went on to have a preaching ministry in the towns and villages of Galilee, and who ultimately ended up being executed on a Roman cross.

So, let me briefly summarise three reasons for thinking that we can know quite a lot about the historical figure of Jesus.

Firstly, the Gospels, the biographies of Jesus, were probably written by people who had access to eyewitness information.

A number of historians today, including the eminent scholar Richard Bauckham, have made a compelling case that the authors of the Gospels either were eyewitnesses themselves or, in the case of Mark’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel, they personally knew people who were eyewitnesses of Jesus. But even if we couldn’t definitively work out which specific individuals wrote the Gospels, the evidence shows that the Gospels were written in small communities of Christians in the first century that were very closely networked with each another at a time when some of the original eyewitnesses of Jesus were still alive and were in positions of leadership in this early Christian movement. In other words, the authors of the Gospels were not far removed from the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life.

The second thing to say is that, when we try test the accuracy of the Gospels by comparing the details that they give about the world in which Jesus lived with archaeological discoveries and ancient documents outside the Bible, we find that they match really well. Excavations all over Israel-Palestine in the last few decades have shown that the Gospels are far more rooted in Jesus ’time and place than was once thought. There are dozens and dozens of examples of small details that the Gospels get right about the geography of first-century Palestine, the landmarks, the customs and the way of life, the local language of Aramaic, and the religious and political atmosphere of the land in Jesus ’day. Just to give one example, the patterns of personal names in the Gospels — which names were popular and which names were rare — match really closely with the patterns of names in first-century Palestine that archaeologists have unearthed. This is not what you would expect from a story that was written by people far removed from the events.

A third point is that even from ancient sources outside the New Testament, we can build up a fairly clear outline of the events of Jesus’s life and the beginnings of the Christian movement. This is quite impressive when we consider that Jesus was not a political figure or military leader but a humble itinerant preacher.

So, what can history tell us about the figure of Jesus? Well, more than you might have thought. This topic has been significant for me in exploring the big questions of life. Christianity makes some bold claims about events that supposedly happened in time and space, in recorded history. I had initially assumed that the stories about Jesus were on a par with ancient Greek myths about gods and goddesses. So it was a significant turning point to discover that there’s actually a world of difference between those myths and the accounts about Jesus in the Gospels. The claim at the heart of Christianity is that God stepped into our world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The thing I find so captivating about this thought is that if it’s true, then it means that God has given us the dignity of being able to investigate the footprint that he has made in human history.

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