The Historical Jesus : Key Features of His Life
Anyone looking into Jesus, will mostly likely begin with the Bible, and more specifically the New Testament. In the New Testament, we read of testimonies and letters of all those who encountered Jesus, from those in his closest circles, his apostles, their close disciples, and from Paul who had an encounter with Jesus that forever changed him and the trajectory of his life.
There are over 24,000 manuscripts of the Bible that we have, more than any other document, and the minimal variances between them, indicate a level of supreme care taken by the scribes. Time again, archaeological and historical discoveries confirm what is stated in the bible, and give the Bible credibility as a source that can be trusted.
But many Christians and non-Christians wonder, are there any extra-biblical sources to confirm the historical Jesus ?
The answer is a resounding yes! Some of the most convincing sources are from :
The writings of Tacitus,who was a Roman senator, orator and ethnographer, and arguably the best of Roman historians (55/56–c. 118 C.E)
Josephus, a Jewish priest who grew up as an aristocrat in first-century Palestine, whose two great works, The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities, confirm the existence of Jesus.
Pliny the Younger and his letters to Emperor Trajan are another important source of evidence about Jesus and early Christianity
Lucian of Samosata was a second century Greek satirist who jested about the beliefs of early Christians, but he provides important references to the crucified Christ.
If you wish to go even deeper into the specific nature of their writings here are two excellent posts to look into for yourselves, one from the site BeThinking and the other from The Bible Archaeological Society.
The main take away from the content of all of these extra-biblical writings, is that they confirm several key features of Jesus’s life found in the bible.
These Key Features are:
1. He existed as a man.
2. His personal name was Jesus.
3. He was called Christos in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, both of which mean “anointed” or “(the) anointed one.
4. He had a brother named James (Jacob).
5. He won over both Jews and “Greeks” (i.e., Gentiles of Hellenistic culture).
6. Jewish leaders of the day expressed unfavorable opinions about him, at least according to some versions of the Testimonium Flavianum.
7. Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed, as both Tacitus and Josephus state.
8. His execution was specifically by crucifixion, according to Josephus.
9. He was executed during Pontius Pilate’s governorship over Judea (26–36 C.E.)
What we can conclude is that groups of people with no incentive or motivation to prove his existence, write about his life, his ministry, his death on the cross, and his followers. Almost all scholars of antiquity, confirm his existence, and theories of his non-existence have all been effectively refuted.
So now we have established Jesus as a real person of history, we now need to confirm who he said he was, and whether or not as C.S. Lewis famously stated, he is a Liar, a Lunatic, or Lord and Son of God.
But first we will see if his life fits the prophesies of the coming Messiah found in earlier Jewish Scripture, the Torah and the Books of the Prophets.
Prophesies About the Messiah Fulfilled by Jesus
The Jewish people had long waited for their promised Messiah, to free them from their bondage and establish His Kingdom on Earth. The prophets of the tradition gave hope to the people by prophesying that one day God would send them a deliverer, a Saviour, and a new King of The Jews.
Here are the details of these prophesies concerning the Messiah, the Christ (Anointed of God) and their fulfillment in Jesus, sourced from About Christianity :
|44 Prophecies Jesus Christ Fulfilled|
|Prophecies About Jesus||Old Testament
|1||Messiah would be born of a woman.||Genesis 3:15||Matthew 1:20
|2||Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.||Micah 5:2||Matthew 2:1
|3||Messiah would be born of a virgin.||Isaiah 7:14||Matthew 1:22-23
|4||Messiah would come from the line of Abraham.||Genesis 12:3
|5||Messiah would be a descendant of Isaac.||Genesis 17:19
|6||Messiah would be a descendant of Jacob.||Numbers 24:17||Matthew 1:2|
|7||Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah.||Genesis 49:10||Luke 3:33
|8||Messiah would be heir to King David‘s throne.||2 Samuel 7:12-13
|9||Messiah’s throne will be anointed and eternal.||Psalm 45:6-7
|10||Messiah would be called Immanuel.||Isaiah 7:14||Matthew 1:23|
|11||Messiah would spend a season in Egypt.||Hosea 11:1||Matthew 2:14-15|
|12||A massacre of children would happen at Messiah’s birthplace.||Jeremiah 31:15||Matthew 2:16-18|
|13||A messenger would prepare the way for Messiah||Isaiah 40:3-5||Luke 3:3-6|
|14||Messiah would be rejected by his own people.||Psalm 69:8
|15||Messiah would be a prophet.||Deuteronomy 18:15||Acts 3:20-22|
|16||Messiah would be preceded by Elijah.||Malachi 4:5-6||Matthew 11:13-14|
|17||Messiah would be declared the Son of God.||Psalm 2:7||Matthew 3:16-17|
|18||Messiah would be called a Nazarene.||Isaiah 11:1||Matthew 2:23|
|19||Messiah would bring light to Galilee.||Isaiah 9:1-2||Matthew 4:13-16|
|20||Messiah would speak in parables.||Psalm 78:2-4
|Matthew 13:10-15, 34-35|
|21||Messiah would be sent to heal the brokenhearted.||Isaiah 61:1-2||Luke 4:18-19|
|22||Messiah would be a priest after the order of Melchizedek.||Psalm 110:4||Hebrews 5:5-6|
|23||Messiah would be called King.||Psalm 2:6
|24||Messiah would be praised by little children.||Psalm 8:2||Matthew 21:16|
|25||Messiah would be betrayed.||Psalm 41:9
|26||Messiah’s price money would be used to buy a potter’s field.||Zechariah 11:12-13||Matthew 27:9-10|
|27||Messiah would be falsely accused.||Psalm 35:11||Mark 14:57-58|
|28||Messiah would be silent before his accusers.||Isaiah 53:7||Mark 15:4-5|
|29||Messiah would be spat upon and struck.||Isaiah 50:6||Matthew 26:67|
|30||Messiah would be hated without cause.||Psalm 35:19
|31||Messiah would be crucified with criminals.||Isaiah 53:12||Matthew 27:38
|32||Messiah would be given vinegar to drink.||Psalm 69:21||Matthew 27:34
|33||Messiah’s hands and feet would be pierced.||Psalm 22:16
|34||Messiah would be mocked and ridiculed.||Psalm 22:7-8||Luke 23:35|
|35||Soldiers would gamble for Messiah’s garments.||Psalm 22:18||Luke 23:34
|36||Messiah’s bones would not be broken.||Exodus 12:46
|37||Messiah would be forsaken by God.||Psalm 22:1||Matthew 27:46|
|38||Messiah would pray for his enemies.||Psalm 109:4||Luke 23:34|
|39||Soldiers would pierce Messiah’s side.||Zechariah 12:10||John 19:34|
|40||Messiah would be buried with the rich.||Isaiah 53:9||Matthew 27:57-60|
|41||Messiah would resurrect from the dead.||Psalm 16:10
|42||Messiah would ascend to heaven.||Psalm 24:7-10||Mark 16:19
|43||Messiah would be seated at God’s right hand.||Psalm 68:18
|44||Messiah would be a sacrifice for sin.||Isaiah 53:5-12||Romans 5:6-8|
Here we establish the uniqueness of Christ in the fact that God foretold of his coming, he pre-announced it to his chosen messengers to support the claim made by Jesus that he really was from God. Just as car manufacturers make announcements of upcoming releases, God announced to the world when His Messenger would come, where he would be born, where he’d live, his enemies, the doctrine he’d teach, and the manner of his death.
We can then assess the extent in which the Messenger conformed to these announcements, so we can reasonably judge the validity of His claims.
Number 41 of the prophecies fulfilled is particularly important to Christians ; the Resurrection of Christ from the Dead. Without this one, there would be no Gospel, as it would hardly be considered Good News if Jesus’s story ended with Him hanging on the cross.
It would be also hard to imagine early believers willing to die for Jesus if they did not have the experiences with the Risen Christ that they claimed. They speak of having seen and interacted with a resurrected Jesus after his death on the cross, and we must examine whether the evidence points to this as a reasonable explanation, considering it is such an essential part of our faith.
Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus
A commonly used method to establish the historicity of an event is called “inference to the best explanation.” in which we examine the available evidence and infer what the best possible explanation would be, if that evidence were true.
If you carefully examine the evidence we have, it is my argument ( and the belief of many other historians and researchers much smarter than me) that the resurrection of Jesus provides the best possible explanation of the evidence.
And even though here at Stoke My Fire we believe the New Testament is inspired by God, we do not need it to prove the historicity of these claims. We will focus on three claims that even critical scholars can agree on, and build our case this way.
The tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered empty by a group of women on the Sunday following the crucifixion.
Jesus’ disciples had real experiences with one whom they believed was the risen Christ.
As a result of the preaching of these disciples, which had the resurrection at its center, the Christian church was established and grew.
If you gather all the critical scholars who deal with the resurrection, these three stated truths are nearly universally accepted by them. If we were to look at each truth individually, the Resurrection of Jesus provides the best possible explanation, but when we look at these three facts together, we have an even more powerful and convincing case for the resurrection of Jesus.
The Empty Tomb
Since the resurrection of Jesus was first preached in Jerusalem, the same city where he died and was buried, it would not have been possible to maintain this position if Jesus was still in the tomb.
Even the Jewish leaders at the time admitted the tomb was empty, and their response was to “tell everyone the disciples had come by night and stolen the body” (Matthew 28:11-15). The group most invested in keeping the teachings of Jesus from spreading, still admit to an empty tomb. This can be found in the writings of The Toledoth Jesu, a compilation of early Jewish writings, which attempt to explain away the empty tomb.
This is all very significant for the case of the empty tomb, because as Dr. Paul Maier states, this is “positive evidence from a hostile source. In essence, if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favor, the fact is genuine.”.
It is also worth noting that the accounts of the event found in the Gospel of Mark were from sources that have been dated within 7-10 years of the event, making it too close to be legendary, and increasing the chance of its accuracy.
A very common custom in the first century was to build shrines around the bones of Holy people, and there were about 50 of these types of sites at the time of Jesus. There was no such shrine built for Jesus, indicating that no such bones were found on the site.
Here is another interesting piece of evidence that I previously have not considered. In the first century jewish culture, the testimony of women was pretty much considered worthless. So if the writer of the Gospel of Mark were making this up, wouldn’t it make more sense for a male disciple to have discovered the empty tomb. Here is a quote from William Lane Craig that summarizes this nicely:
“if the empty tomb story were a legend, then it is most likely that the male disciples would have been made the first to discover the empty tomb. The fact that despised women, whose testimony was deemed worthless, were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb can only be plausibly explained if, like it or not, they actually were the discoverers of the empty tomb.”
Of course there are various theories circulating around in regards to the empty tomb to disprove the Resurrection explanation, mainly that His body was stolen. However, all serious scholars have dismissed these theories due to lack of evidence and they have done so for more than a 100 years.
The Jews and Romans wanted to suppress Christianity, so they had no motive for stealing a body and thus giving fuel to a fire they didn’t want spreading. The disciples have no motive to steal the body either. As they began preaching about the Resurrection of Jesus they were beaten, persecuted, and in some cases killed. Why would anyone be willing to go through any of these things for a deliberate lie? That is why serious scholars do not hold to any of these explanations.
So you might be wondering what explanation do serious scholars offer for the empty tomb ? Again Dr. Craig gives us lay people some insights into the critics’ explanation:
“they are self-confessedly without any explanation to offer. There is simply no plausible natural explanation today to account for Jesus’ tomb being empty. If we deny the resurrection of Jesus, we are left with an inexplicable mystery.”
Hopefully it is becoming clear that not only is the resurrection of Jesus the best possible explanation of the evidence, it is really the only one offered that has any legs to stand on.
Resurrected Jesus Appears To His Disciples and the Multitudes
There is evidence that His Disciples had experiences with one whom they perceived as their Master, Jesus. This is not that heavily disputed because we have the testimonies of His disciples saying the say Him Alive again after his Death. We see this recorded in 1 Cor 15:3-8 in the form of an ancient creed passed onto Paul that was of the up most importance.
Critical Scholars agree that this creed was given to Paul by Peter and James about 3-5 years after the crucifixion. The creed reads as follows :
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time
Since we have Peter ( Cephas ) and James ( one of the twelve disciples) mentioned in the creed as seeing the risen Christ, this then becomes one of the earliest eye witness testimonies of the event.
Now it is important to remember, just because certain disciples of Jesus say they saw Him, doesn’t mean they actually did. Here are the Three possibilities :
They were lying
They Imagined or Hallucinated their Experiences
They Saw the Resurrected Christ
Let’s go through these possibilities and see which one seems must likely based on the evidence.
In the view in which the disciples are lying, they know Jesus did not rise from the dead, and they fabricated a story about the resurrection. Then 10 of his disciples were willing to die and be martyred for that lie. It is hard to imagine 10 people willing to give their life for something they knew was a lie.
It is easier to imagine them dying for something they believed to be true but turned out to be a lie. However, this theory states that they did know it was a lie before dying. Couple this with scope of the cover up needed to pull off this lie, and the absurdity of this theory becomes obvious and it is why most critical scholars reject it.
This leads us to the next possibility, the Hallucination Theory.
This theory states that all of the disciples and the hundreds of others who claimed to encounter the Risen Christ, had some sort of mass hallucination or shared group projection. However, in general this is not how hallucinations usually work. Hallucinations are a very individual thing, and it is highly unlikely that that many people would have had the same hallucination.
It also doesn’t account for the very physical nature of these encounters, where they ate and drank with Jesus, and some even touched his wounds. This cannot be explained with the hallucination theory.
We also have the issue of Paul’s famous conversion on the road to Damascus three years later. Prior to this he was very active in persecuting the early followers of Jesus, and then one encounter with the Risen Christ completely changed His Life. It is highly unlikely that a hallucination produced by his own Mind, would have such a drastic effect on his life, especially considering how zealous and devout a Jew he was.
So again, we are left with the final explanation, which is that the disciples believed they saw a Resurrected Jesus because they actually saw a Risen Jesus.
The Growing Faith of Early Christians had the Resurrection of Jesus at the Heart of their Message
Here is the third strong proof we have for the resurrection of Jesus. The formation of the early church and its subsequent growth were both firmly established with the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead as a central belief. Even critical scholars will admit, that the early followers of Jesus at least believed that He had risen from the dead.
So then the question would be, where did this belief originate from ? Scholars have come up with three potential influences : Christian Influences, Pagan Influences, and Jewish Influences.
The origin of this belief cannot be explained as product of later Christian influences, because this belief was at the core of its very foundation and included in the very earliest of their creeds, as we saw before in Corinthians. It was not added later, it was there right from the beginning.
Then we have the possibility of Pagan influences shaping this belief in a Resurrected Saviour. It is often pointed out that there were many myths of Dying and Rising Saviours at that time, and early Christians merely borrowed and copied these concepts. However, Dr. Craig points out that “serious scholars have almost universally rejected this theory since WWII” and they do so for several valid reasons:
One, these mystery religions had no significant influence in 1st Century Palestine. Second, most of the sources which contain any similarities or parallels were established after Christianity. Third, a lot of the “similarities” are not that similar at all but merely sloppy misuse of terminology for desired effect. For example, comparing the killing a bull and letting it drip over the people to the Holy Communion is a bit of a stretch. Finally, since the Early Christians all came for Jewish backgrounds, it would be unthinkable for a Jew to take from other religions at that time, as they believed those Pagan beliefs were an abomination to God.
Attributing the belief in the resurrection of Jesus to Jewish Influences doesn’t work either, as 1st Century Judaism does not have this concept of a single person being raised from the dead. They had a concept of resurrection that included everyone being raised together at the end of time. So a single person raising from the dead in the middle of history would have been a new or foreign idea to them.
So again if the resurrection did not happen, we are left with no plausible explanation for its belief and the origin of the Christian faith.
We now have Three established facts and the best possible explanation for these facts based on the evidence, is the actual resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Even if we took each fact individually, it would make a good case for the Risen Christ. But when we factor all three together, we have an even stronger case for Christ and His Resurrection.
If we deny the resurrection, we are left with three inexplicable mysteries. The resurrection is the only theory that best explains all three of these facts. From the Desiring God article on this we see that “If we deny the resurrection, we must come up with three independent natural explanations, not just one”. Since we do not have plausible explanations for any of the three outlined facts ( empty tomb, appearances, and origin of the church), we must conclude that the Resurrection of Jesus has the best explanatory scope, and thus should be accepted.
Why is The Resurrection So Important ?
So if we have established the resurrection of Jesus as the best possible explanation for the evidence we have, what implications does this have on us and the world ?
It Impacts Everything! This is the most important fact that could ever be established. Jesus claimed he would die and 3 days later rise from the dead (Resurrection), and we have shown this to be true. Jesus also claimed to be God. If he did not rise from the dead, then it would be foolish to believe that claim. But if he did rise from the dead, that it would be foolish not believe to that. The Resurrection proves that what Jesus claimed about himself is true.
Which brings us to the next point, what claims did Jesus make about himself ?
Who Did Jesus Say He was ?
There is an important encounter with Jesus and his disciples found in Mark 8:27-29.
“Then Jesus and His disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way, He questioned His disciples: “Who do people say I am?” They answered, “Some say John theBaptist; others say Elijah; and still others say You are one of the prophets.” “But who do you say I am?” He asked. Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”
He quickly warns them not to tell anyone this, as His time had not yet come, but he did forewarn them of the sufferings he would experience, and that he must be killed but in 3 days he would rise again. Wow! Can you imagine hanging out with a guy like this ? Such certainty and authority in his speech and actions.
We then have an even more direct Claim of Jesus to be The Christ in an encounter with the Jewish High Priest in Mark 14:61-62.
But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
We now begin to see a picture of who his disciples said he was, and who Jesus said He was, but lets take a closer look at the other key claims Jesus made about himself.
Key Claims Jesus Made About Himself
1. Christ claimed to live a sinless life
In front of crowds of people ( some hostile) , he claims to always do what pleases the father (John 8:28-29) and challenges them to prove him guilty of any sin ( John 8:46-47). None of them can.
2. Jesus Christ claimed to be the ONLY way to God
In this relativistic “many paths to God” culture we find ourself in now, Jesus was quite clear that He was The Way to God. Not a way, not one of many ways, but the Only Way, Truth, and Life ( John 14:6, Matthew 11:27 ).
3. Christ claimed to have shared the glory of God in Heaven
Jesus made the claim that he had a pre-existence with God before the world began where he shared in His Glory, and that through him all things came into being. ( John 1:1-5, John 17:5 )
4. Jesus Christ claimed to be able to forgive sins
Jesus’s claims to be able to forgive sins (Luke 5:20-21, Luke 7:48-49 ) was one area that the jewish leaders had particular problems with for two reasons. The first being that sins were considered an act of rebellion against God, and such, only God could forgive them. The second being his ability to forgive sins endangered their authority and power over the people that they so enjoyed.
5. Christ claimed to be a Heavenly king
When being questioned by Pilate, Jesus clearly states that He is a King, and that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36-37) and that he was born to testify to the Truth. Pilate also asks Jesus point blank if he is the Christ, the king of the Jews, and he confirms that with a straightforward yes (Luke 23:1-3 ) .
6. Christ claimed to be able to give everlasting life
He did not merely say that he could make your life better or even that he could lead you to everlasting life. He stated that He Was The Resurrection and The Life ( John 11:25). He claimed that he was the giver of Everlasting Life, and that he that believes in Him shall never perish (John 10:28-30). He states that His father’s will is that anyone who believes in Jesus, His Son, shall have eternal life, and that Jesus would raise them up in the last days ( John 6:40 ).
7. Jesus claimed that he would die and come back to life
He claimed that we would lay down his Life, on his own accord for his sheep, as a sacrifice for our sins, and he said He had the authority to pick it up again (John 10:17 ). He said that what was written by the prophets in regard to the Son of Man would be fulfilled in Him, and his death and resurrection ( Luke 18:31-33 )
8. Christ claimed that he would return again to judge the world
He claimed that the Son of Man would return and appear in power and glory, and that it would come like a flash of lightning upon the people of the world (Matthew 24:27-30 ). He also said he would sit at the right of hand of God, at the throne of Glory, drawing all nations to him and separating them like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-32, Mark 14:61-62 ).
We know who Jesus said He was, but WHO IS Jesus TO YOU ?
What is the Gospel ? What is it That People Who Follow Christ Believe ?
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.—Romans 6:23
The Gospel is literally the ” Good news ” of God for all creation and it is the saving power of God through Jesus Christ, to reconcile people back to Himself, through the blood of Jesus, so that our sins are no longer counted against us, and Christ’s righteousness is applied to us.
We have a God who loves each of us deeply and personally, so much so, that he was willing to be born as a man, live a perfect life without Sin, and be willing to die for our sins on the cross, paying the ultimate price for us, and after 3 days, He was raised from Death to Life, so that now all who have faith and believe in Him, have eternal and everlasting life in Him.
Can you imagine, someone saying to you, I will pay all the debt you have collected over your lifetime, all you have to do is believe in me ? Do you see why it’s called Good News!!
Then this same person says I will send my Spirit to live in you and transform your entire life from the inside out through the indwelling Spirit, and so that I can be with you always, even unto the end of your life. This is our Immanuel, God With Us! We are the new temples of God, as he dwells in us, and we are now the children of God, who share in the inheritance of the Son of God.
All of this is for His Glory, so that you may experience the immeasurable riches of His grace.
God is Calling You Right Now To Eternal Life in His Son, are you ready to make the decision ?