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Historical Jesus

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The term historical Jesus refers to the scholarly reconstruction of the first century figure Jesus Christ most notably written about in the first century text of the New Testament. Characterized since around the 18th century, the quest for the historical Jesus in biblical criticism consists of rigorous historical methods and European Enlightenment ideals like logic and reason as opposed to faith.[1] Historical Jesus research is an in-depth process that culls together in a critical manner many diverse sources in search of evidence for a historical portrait of the person Jesus Christ. During the process employing a broad spectrum of interrelated fields within modern academia such as; psychology, theology, anthropology, history and science.

Quest for Jesus

Over the last few centuries, there have been many different methods for accepting and rejecting various pieces of information about the historical Jesus Christ. Specifically starting around the 18th Century modern biblical scholarship started to form into what it is today.

Fictitious Lives of Jesus

During the 1700s, several secular scholars speculated about various things that the gospels are silent about. Karl Barhdt invented the theory that during Jesus' teenage and young adult years, he joined a group called the Essenes. This group helped him stage miracles and his death. Karl Venturini invented a similar theory, speculating that Joseph and Nicodemus noticed, when putting Jesus' body in the tomb, that Jesus was still alive, so the Essene group moved him out of the tomb later. Other scholars such as Gfrorere (1831-1838), Hennell (1838) and Salvator (1838) suggested the Essenes were involved in aspects of Jesus' ministry. None of these theories attracted attention and could add very little to serious historical studies.

Classical Period

During the 1900s, not as many people invented things about Jesus' life, but they ignored his deity and miracles. He was generally viewed as a moral man. During that time, Heinrich Paulus wrote that he accepted some of the gospels as historical, but also supplied naturalistic explanations for his miracles.

Anti-Historical Jesus

The anti-historical Jesus period started in 1918 when Barth's Epistle to Romans was published. Barth wrote that the historicity of Jesus didn't matter and that we should just have faith. Other scholars, such as David Strauss and Rudolf Bultmann, argued something completely different while also not emphasizing the historicity of Jesus; they came up with the idea that the gospels were purely mythological documents, with no historical basis. Rudolf Bultmann has a significant effect on some circles of scholarship for the first half of the twentieth-century.

R. Bultmann and K. Barth vigorously attacked the older liberal scholars who made an accurately reconstructed account of the life and personality of Jesus the very heart of the Christian message. For both Bultmann and Barth not the historical Jesus but the proclaimed Christ of the kerygma is central.[2]

New Quest for the Historical Jesus

In 1964, Ernst Kasemann argued that the Christian commitment at the time of Jesus requires the presence of at least some historical content. Gunther Borkaman disagreed and said that the Christian faith does not require historical basis, but he also conceded that we can still know some things about the life of Jesus. James Robinson came up with a new approach, saying that while the Christian faith does not require historical basis, the core teachings do. He claimed that we can only know that material in Jesus' life is authentic if it is not derived from primitive Christian teachings or Judaism. Other scholars criticized this, saying that since Jesus inspired the majority of Christian teachings, we cannot eliminate all of them.

Third Quest for the Historical Jesus

In modern times, scholars have put emphasis on anchoring Jesus in his own time. Many scholars have discussed the influences in the land of Palestine and there has also been much debate about recent archaeological findings, such as the Shroud of Turin. There are also some scholars that still favor a mythological approach to the gospels, such as the scholars from the Jesus Seminar.

The so-called Third Quest of the historical Jesus has been marked by a variety of portraits. Jesus has been depicted as a rabbi, a sage, a prophet, a philosopher (perhaps even a Cynic), a holy man and a Messiah. What lies behind these discrepancies is a lack of consensus about context and differing assessments of source materials.[3]

The many faces of Jesus created during the so-called third quest is characterized this way in The Historical Reliability of the Gospels;

Albert Schweitzer exposed the weakness of almost all these works: Jesus was being recreated in the image of their authors at the expense of objective scholarship.

Unfortunately Schweitzer fell into the same trap as he reinterpreted the gospels in view of his own commitment to ‘thoroughgoing eschatology’- the belief that Jesus thought that he would see the end of the age in his lifetime but died mistaken.’[4]

Origin and Early Life

Agony in Gethsemane by Heinrich Hofmann.
Main Article: Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ or Jesus of Nazareth (Hebrew: יהושע, Yehōshūaʻ; Aramaic: ישוע, Yēshūaʻ; Greek: Ίησους, Iēsous; Latin: Iesus; "Name means::YHWH is Salvation") is the Hebrew Messiah and the physical incarnation of God—the Son of God (meaning that he is God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, of the same essence of and co-eternal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, but distinct in Person). He came to earth as a man, yet being both fully Man and fully God, to provide salvation and reconciliation by His death for the sins of mankind. He was born in the reign of Augustus Caesar (about Born::5 BC) in Bethlehem, Judea to the virgin Mary and was raised in Nazareth in Galilee by his mother and foster-father, Joseph, whom He followed in becoming a carpenter. He was executed by crucifixion in about Died::April 34 AD, after condemnation by Pontius Pilate, the fifth procurator of Judea. Through Jesus' incarnation, life, death and resurrection within history He began what is now the largest religion in the world, Christianity.[5]

In The Cambridge Companion to Jesus introduction written by Markus Bockmuehl, the impact of Christianity and Christ particularly on humanity are described;

Two thousand years have come and gone, but still his remains the unfinished story that refuses to go away. Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew from rural first-century Galilee, is without doubt the most famous and most influential human being who ever walked the face of the earth.

The followers of Jesus live in every country of the globe. They read and speak of him in a thousand tongues. For them, the world’s creation and destiny hold together in him, the wholly human and visible icon of the wholly transcendent and invisible God. He animates their cultures, creeds and aspirations.[6]


Underpinning historical Jesus studies is set of positive criteria. The criteria are applied to certain claims and statements made within the New Testament. The method does not attempt to prove a negative about the life of Christ, it should not be applied to prove something not historical about the life of Christ. [7]

The four kinds of authenticity that help in finding and therefore demonstrating historicity of certain aspects or sayings of the life of Christ are generally considered by scholars to be;

  1. Independent attestation. If a tradition of Jesus that is mentioned in several independent documents, as in more than one author wrote the same thing about the same person, the traditions is probably historical. If it is independently attested it is unlikely it has been made up.
  2. Dissimilarity. If a tradition about the life of Jesus is at the same time different from Judaism that preceded and the later Christian movement that came after, than it is probably historical and originated from within the life and actions of the historical Jesus.
  3. Embarrassment. If a tradition or saying about the life and death of Jesus is something that is embarrassing for the early Christian movement than it is more likely historical.
  4. Contextual credibility/plausibility. Traditions about Jesus that cohere well with already established facts about Jesus and his culture and background of Palestinian Judaism have a good probability of being historically reliable.[7]

Minimal facts method

Main Article: Minimal facts method

The minimal facts approach is a particular argument that uses agreed upon facts by the majority of critical scholars that publish scholarly work surrounding the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although its origin is in historical Jesus studies, the approach can be a fundamental guide to help deduced historicity surrounding not just the controversial life and death of Jesus Christ but also history within ancient secular literature as well. By using specific passages of the New Testament and other relevant literature, granted by even the most liberal of scholars, the goal of the approach is to present the historical bedrock of facts about the life of Christ.

The minimal facts method is also called the minimal facts approach and was pioneered in the 1970's by the philosopher, historian and prominent Christian apologist Gary R. Habermas. It is considered within specifically historical apologetics as a scholarly approach to establish specific reliability in the Bible showing the central doctrine of Christianity as historical fact.[8]


  1. A Review of; The Historical Jesus: Five Views by Beilby, James K., and Paul Rhodes Eddy, eds. Review written by Pieter F. Craffert for the Review of Biblical Literature. 2011[1]
  2. Graham Stanton, Jesus of Nazareth in New Testament Preaching (Cambridge University Press 1974), pg. 2
  3. Craig A. Evans, The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (Cambridge University Press 2003), pg. 11
  4. Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP Academic, 2nd Edition 2007), pg. 8
  5. The Historical Jesus - Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ By Gary Habermas. College Press Publishing Company (1996)
  6. The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, edited by Markus Bockmuehl. "Introduction" by Markus Bockmuehl, pg. 1. Cambridge University Press, 2003
  7. 7.0 7.1 William Lane Craig critiques Bart Ehrman By William Lane Craig
  8. A historical fact is what historians consider knowable history; they do not necessarily mean it to be a logical proof.

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