Any survey of Christian History would be inconsequential without giving careful attention to the life and times of the central figure himself:
Yeshua bar-Joseph, or
Jesus: the Christ.
No other figure in history has been subject to such a panoply of criticism, worship, mystery, and awe. Some modern scholars today (although they are in the minority) go so far as to doubt His very existence, claiming that the Jesus of the gospels is a fictional character created to propagate a radical new strain of Judaism in response to the legalistic and politically-motivated leadership of turn-of-the-century Judaism. Yet, others today claim that these accounts are meticulous documentation of a miraculous intersection of the divine and His creation in the form of a God-man, sent to save humanity from its sins.
To prove one perspective over another would be beyond the scope of this article; rather, I would like to focus on understanding the historical context of Jesus that often goes vastly overlooked by those who study the New Testament texts exclusively.
Jesus, According to History
Assigning exact historical dates to the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus can be challenging, primarily because references to chronology by the gospel writers can be difficult to harmonize with extra-biblical references to the same events. Generally, most scholars place Jesus’ life from around 6-4 BCE to 30 CE.
The most widely-cited ancient source for Jesus’ historicity is Antiquities of the Jews, written around 93 CE by Josephus, a Roman Jewish scholar. A portion of his text reads as follows (although its validity is heavily debated):
“At that time lived Jesus, a holy man, if man he may be called, for he performed wonderful works, and taught men, and joyfully received the truth. And he was followed by many Jews and many Greeks. He was the Messiah.” | Antiquities, 18.3
It’s likely that Josephus acknowledged the significance of Jesus’ ministry, but the Messianic claim was most likely added by another, later author. Nevertheless, it is significant that a non-Christian referenced Jesus, validating His place in history.
Another document by Roman historian, Suetonius, mentions persecution of Jewish Christians by Claudius Caesar in Rome around 50 CE. This is consistent with Acts 18:2.
“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” | Suetonius, Claudius 25
Tacitus, a Roman scholar, wrote in 115 CE in reference to the persistence of the Christian movement in Rome. He condemned the Christian movement, but corroborates the gospel account of the trial by Pontius Pilate.
Jesus, According to His Followers
Christian sources regarding Jesus evolved in three stages: (1) oral communication between eyewitnesses and the next generation of believers, (2) written communication between first-century believers (e.g. the epistles of Paul) beginning around 65 CE, and (3) accounts of the life of Jesus comprised of eyewitness and second-hand information (the gospels) written from ~65-90 CE (during the Apostolic Age).
From a historical perspective, the development of the gospels can be hard to pin down. Even a casual reader can observe that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have many similarities, and even some passages that are copied verbatim. This is why these three gospels are often called the Synoptic Gospels (synoptic is Greek for “seeing together”). It is generally agreed upon by scholars that Mark wrote his gospel first, and Matthew and Luke later expanded his account. Another common theory is that Matthew and Luke also drew from another gospel account, which has since been lost, called Q (from the German word quelle, or source).
John’s gospel is significantly different from the others in writing style, events that are depicted, chronology, and purpose. John writes “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31), while it is presumed that the other gospels were written more for documentation of events.
John’s rhetoric in 1 John is largely parallel to the content of Jesus’ sermons that are exclusive to John, indicating that John may have focused on particular aspects of Jesus’ message that other writers placed less emphasis on, such as love (John 13:34-35) and the constant tension between the Spirit and the flesh (John 3:5). John wrote significantly later than other gospel writers, and his narrative has much more of a theological, rather than historical, design. Attempts to harmonize the gospels typically trust Matthew or Luke primarily for proper sequencing of events, whereas John’s depiction of events gives less attention to chronology, which can be disconcerting to the post-Enlightenment Western reader.
Since the gospel accounts were written one generation after the death of Jesus, their precision in reporting events is under question. However since eyewitnesses were still alive during the gospels’ dissemination, and some of those figures were portrayed in quite embarrassing situations (James and John’s attempt to gain rank in Jesus’ kingdom, Peter’s denial, Thomas’ doubt), it is unlikely that such depictions of Christian leaders would incite a great following unless they were generally faithful accounts.
What Do We Know?
Unfortunately, we can’t definitely prove historically what happened in Palestine from the years 6 BCE to 30 CE. Scholars will continue to debate the historicity of the gospel accounts, and extra-biblical support for the miraculous nature of Jesus’ existence is few and far between. Regardless, it is undeniable that the gospel accounts have changed lives over the course of two thousand years, and that is something worth paying attention to.