Jesus : biography

c. 4 BC – c. 30

Donald Akenson has argued that, with very few exceptions, historians of Jesus have not followed sound historical practices. He has stated that there is an unhealthy reliance on consensus for propositions that should be based on primary sources or rigorous interpretation, and that some of the criteria being used are faulty. Michael R. Licona has criticized Jesus scholars for not using "deliberate methods for weighing hypotheses and criteria for awarding historicity". He says that the scholars too often "rely on their own intuition", which is often influenced by their backgrounds and biases.


The Christ myth theory, which questions the existence of Jesus, appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries and was debated during the 20th century. Some of its supporters contend that Jesus is a myth invented by early Christians. Supporters of the theory point to the lack of any known written references to Jesus during his lifetime and to the relative scarcity of non-Christian references to him in the 1st century, which they use to challenge the veracity of the existing accounts of him. Beginning in the 20th century, scholars such as G. A. Wells, Robert M. Price and Thomas Brodie have presented various arguments to support the Christ myth theory. However, virtually all scholars of antiquity now agree that Jesus existed and regard events such as his baptism and his crucifixion as historical. Van Voorst and (separately) Michael Grant state that biblical scholars and classical historians now regard theories of the non-existence of Jesus as effectively refuted.

In response to the argument that the lack of the contemporary references implies that Jesus did not exist, Robert E. Van Voorst has stated that, "as every good student of history knows", such arguments from silence are "specially perilous". Arguments from silence generally fail unless a fact is known to the author and is important enough and relevant enough to be mentioned in the context of a document. Bart D. Ehrman argues that although Jesus had a large impact on future generations, his impact on the society of his time was "practically nil". It would therefore be unsound to expect contemporary accounts of his deeds.

Ehrman says that arguments based on the lack of physical or archeological evidence of Jesus and of any writings from him are poor, as there is no such evidence of "nearly anyone who lived in the first century". Teresa Okure writes that the existence of historical figures is established by the analysis of later references to them, rather than by contemporary relics and remnants. A number of scholars caution against the use of such arguments from ignorance and consider them generally inconclusive or fallacious. Douglas Walton states that arguments from ignorance can only lead to sound conclusions in cases where we can assume that our "knowledge-base is complete".

Non-Christian sources used to establish the historical existence of Jesus include the works of first-century historians Josephus and Tacitus. Josephus scholar Louis H. Feldman has stated that "few have doubted the genuineness" of Josephus’ reference to Jesus in book 20 of the Antiquities of the Jews, and it is disputed only by a small number of scholars. Tacitus referred to Christ and his execution by Pilate in book 15 of his work Annals. Scholars generally consider Tacitus’s reference to the execution of Jesus to be both authentic and of historical value as an independent Roman source.


Despite the lack of specific archaeological remains directly associated with Jesus, 21st-century scholars have become increasingly interested in using archaeology to seek greater understanding of the socio-economic and political background to Jesus’ life. James Charlesworth states that few modern scholars would now ignore the archaeological discoveries that cast light on life in Galilee and Judea during the time of Jesus. Jonathan Reed states that the chief contribution of archaeology to the study of the historical Jesus is the reconstruction of his social world.