Twenty Facts about Jesus

Twenty Facts about Jesus August 26, 2013

Doug Chaplin has a post in which he mentions my attempt to engage mythicists. He writes:

Of course, in any topic under the sun, but especially those to do with Jesus, even almost indisputable facts get disputed, even down to his actual existence. The latter seems to be giving a few North American writers a little frisson of naughtiness and an illusion of intellectual courage in their frequently fundamentalist culture. Some scholars – such as James McGrath – do their best to take mythicists seriously enough to refute them. This side of the Atlantic academia hardly notices them.

The main content of his post is a list of twenty facts about Jesus, explicitly based on E. P. Sanders’ famous lists of things that we can have historical confidence about. I am reproducing Doug’s list below. Would you agree with his confidence about our historical knowledge regarding all, some, or none of them, and why?

  1. A man called Jesus existed who people thought was worth remembering
  2. He came from Nazareth
  3. He spoke Aramaic as his first language.
  4. He was washed in the Jordan by John the Immerser as part of John’s restoration movement.
  5. He developed a ministry independent of John’s (which was probably part-based around Capernaum and part-itinerant).
  6. His travels and planned action and teaching were confined to Israel although may have included areas whose “Israeliteness” was disputed.
  7. He ate, drank and spoke about God with those whose community status and purity was disputed or denied.
  8. He called disciples and spent time teaching them.
  9. Among these disciples he spoke of and to a core group of twelve.
  10. He prioritised the fictive kin relationships of his followers over their natural family relationships
  11. He performed exorcisms and other perceived healings
  12. He was also widely seen as a teacher, and a significant portion of his teaching was seen as indirect, riddling and opaque.
  13. One of his key subjects was the kingdom of God / heaven.
  14. He referred to himself using the idiom “son of man” (although how and why he did so is disputed)
  15. One characteristic way he expressed authority in his teaching was by prefacing some statements with “Amen.”
  16. He engaged in controversies over the interpretation of the law
  17. One of his final controversies was something to do with the Temple
  18. He was executed by the Roman authorities as a royal pretender
  19. His followers after his execution claimed he had been vindicated by God as God’s true king
  20. A new Jewish movement in his name opened up Judaism to include Gentiles and came into conflict with other Jews over Jewish identity, theology and practice.

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  • Ian

    I worry more about identifying what he said, his idiomatic language, for example. I think the criteria approach there is quite weak. It isn’t clear to me that we aren’t just basing some of those on a single source, with no good way of cross-checking. Having said that, they don’t seem inherently unlikely, so I think they warrant mentioning in the list.

    Isn’t 6 anachronistic? I think we can be clearer. He was primarily Galilean, he went to Jerusalem for passover, caused trouble in the temple and was arrested and executed.

    And I’d dispute ‘called disciples’, just because that word is idiomatic in Christian theology based on the ‘call’ stories, so is unhelpful historically. He had and taught disciples, I would agree. The process of him acquiring them strikes me as mythologized.

  • Herro

    Is 2 really a fact? IIRC you think that nazorean might not actually be related to Nazareth, and there are some indications in the gospels that nazarene has a connection to being a nazirite (Mk 1:24 being a good example), Paul never mentions it and Mk seems to say that his home was in Capernaum.

    • Nazorean may only have been connected with Nazareth after the fact, perhaps in an attempt to dissociate Jesus from whatever already-existing connotations Nazorean had. But the association of him with the town of Nazareth is also present throughout the tradition, using other terminology as well as the name of the town. And given the strenuous and contradictory attempts to move his place of birth to Bethlehem, the connection with Nazareth is likely to be historical. There is no connection with being a nazirite, which has a different spelling. Mark 1:24 has Ἰησοῦ Ναζαρηνέ which is quite clearly what we would render as Nazarene, and not ναζιρ or ναζιραιος.

  • I think I would be more impressed if our earliest source corroborated more than a couple of them (and those more than partially).

  • Dave

    If I had to pick one it would be #9 as this strikes me more as a symbolic depiction.

  • There are so many problems with this list. Where should one begin?

    One could point to the fact that there are as many historical “Jesuses” as there are people questing for him, most of whom would demure from and find fault with several of these “facts”, and there is also the point that the majority of these are not corroborated outside of the New Testament texts. It is my understanding that there are really only three core “facts” underpinning the historical Jesus on which a consensus of contemporary scholars converge upon (with the understanding that the facticity of historical consensus is quite different compared with the precinct of science):

    1) He was baptized by John the Baptist (corroborated in all 4 canonical gospels and externally by Josephus’ /Antiquities/)

    2) He was crucified by decree of Pontius Pilate (externally attested by both Josephus and Tacitus’ /Annals/)

    3) A movement emerged that can be traced back to him, in which various sayings, capacities and miracles were subsequently ascribed

    By contrast, #s 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, in the preceding list are attested by nothing more than single biblical accounts (which of course were written predominantly theologically, NOT historically, and thus contain heavily mythologized, fictionalized content, making it difficult to parse the historical wheat from the fictive chaff). I’m not sure many in the field would feel comfortable labeling these “facts”. In addition, a few of these, such as #s 19 and 20, relate more to the movement which arose after his death rather than facts about the historical Jesus. The movements (plural) which emerged later could have had no familial or theological connection to Jesus’ preachments and ministry.

    (Please feel free to correct any of the above if I have it wrong.)

    – Daniel

    • There is a common misunderstanding about the plurality of “Jesuses.” This simply shows that there are a lot of people working in the field – nothing more. When a field of history is vibrant, scholars, needing to come up with something new and worthy of publication, will try to come up with new ways of configuring and interpreting evidence. But not every proposal becomes part of a scholarly consensus. To make much of this would be as mistaken as the attempt by creationists to point to exciting science headlines which contradict one another, or which did not pan out under further scrutiny, as though it invalidates those things which scientists consider to be relatively clear and agree about.

      I also think that talking about “Biblical” accounts, as though the later decision to incorporate texts into something called a “Bible” makes them historically useless, is problematic. Nor does the fact that there is material in them that is judged unreliable by historians make them any less useful than other texts about which the same judgment would be passed. It is difficult, but we must strive to not give these texts special treatment – either especially favorable or especially hostile – merely on the basis of the fact that they came to be important to particular groups of people.

      One more quibble – Josephus doesn’t mention Jesus having been baptized by John, and indeed shows no knowledge of any connection between them.

      Apart from that, I’d say that there certainly are varying degrees of confidence appropriate to different things on the list, but all of them fit into the category of things that most historians judge to be more probable than not.

      • Thank you for your clarifying comments, James. And thanks for the correction on Josephus; Book 18 Chapter 5 describes the death and imprisonment of John the Baptist, not that he baptized Jesus and indeed intimates no connection to Jesus. (I was going off pure memory there.)

        Secondly, I am always loth to draw too fine a parallel between the disciplines of history and science, for the aforementioned reason that the fields have varying degrees of facticity. For example we can have more confidence that whales are traceable to a wolf-like ancestor, that humans evolved from an ape-like ancestor, and that the (very) early universe was suffused with the lighter elements than we can that Jesus had 12 disciples or preached message ‘X’. Science is more Boolean, while history is more Bayesian in nature 🙂

        I always enjoy my visits here. You have one of the best blogs on biblical scholarship on the web. As always, thanks for your insight.

        – Daniel Bastian

        • If only the “genetic code” carried by religious traditions provided the clear cut evidence of family relationships that DNA provides in biology, imagine all the questions that we could answer! 🙂

        • arcseconds

          I think it has to be admitted though that the difference between the status of purely factual assertions in history and in science is really one of degree.

          We’re more confident of humans having an ape-like ancestor than any fact about Jesus. But are we more confident about the common ancestor of humans and other apes than we are of the historical existence of, say, Adolf Hitler? And how certain are we of how quantum physics should be reconciled with general relativity, or the correct account of abiogenesis?

          It seems to me there’s plenty of questions in science where things are pretty uncertain and only probable answers (or even only plausible answers, or no persuasive answers whatsoever) can be given, and areas of history where we can be pretty damn certain.

  • This is what I figure are the essential twelve facts about Jesus:

    1) Right after Pilate took over as procurator (and/or prefect) in Judea, there is an unprecedented series of events in Jerusalem & Cesarea (Josephus’ Wars II, IX, 2-3 & Ant., XVIII, III, 1), with exceptionally good outcomes, inviting the Jews to think God is back looking after them. Also, this episode weakens Pilate’s rule, allowing for John the Baptist (JtB) and the many Jews going to him (and later a certain royal welcome near Jerusalem).

    2) JtB attracts large crowds for a few months (spring of 27 CE), preaching God’s Kingdom (of the old prophecies) is near, better to be “cleansed” in order to avoid the accompanying God’s wrath.

    3) Jesus enters here, so far as a lower class, uneducated, rural Jew from Galilee.
    He stays around JtB, among others.

    4) Jesus goes to Capernaum right after JtB’s arrest. Then two small successive events happen on Sabbath day, creating a short-lived hysteria around Jesus’ alleged healing power.

    5) After Jesus is credited to have healed a man with skin disease (in the nearby villages), another hysteria takes hold and gets known all the way to Jerusalem (80 miles away) and beyond.

    6) Peripherally, Jesus talks about a (down to earth) message well adapted to the times (right after JtB’s one: “Kingdom to come”) and his milieu (rural Galilee): the Kingdom is coming soon (on earth) and it will benefit only the poor (Jews).

    7) At that time, JtB, rumored to be the future (human) ruler (king) of the Kingdom, is executed by Herod Antipas.

    8) Then, some Judean/Hellenist activist Jews interpret the healings by Jesus as a Sign; and he is thought to be the One, replacing (or possessed by) JtB (that’s not a leap of faith, this part is multi-documented in GMark).

    9) So, next spring, Jesus gets a “royalish” welcome by some near Jerusalem, days before the Passover.

    10) He feels encouraged enough to do the disturbance (“cleansing” in the temple).

    11) Because of that (and the welcome), he is soon arrested (abandoned by the Galileans) and executed (without trials and as a deterrent). A mocking sign is put on his cross, “the king of the Jews” (spring of 28 CE).

    12) Later, another event (Josephus’ Wars II, IX, 4 & Ant., XVIII, III, 2) will make most Jews doubt the Kingdom (to come soon) and re-establish Roman full authority (and fear) over Judea. But some hellenized Jews will keep the hope alive by looking at certain recent events, the Scriptures, Pharisaic beliefs, Philo of Alexandria’s writings, etc. …

    I do not have any problem with Nazareth/Nazara.

    Everything else was invented, including all Jesus’ discourses, all Jesus’ parables, all Jesus’ prophecies except the Kingdom coming soon (on earth), most of Jesus’ sayings, all extraordinary miracles, the itinerant preacher bit, Jesus as a teacher, Jesus seeing himself as Son of God/David/man, the “high mountain” scene, the last supper, days between disturbance and arrest, the “empty tomb”, his Galilean friends starting the Church of Jerusalem and ever becoming Christians, etc.
    But I agree that Jesus had been considered a healer. And that’s how he started to get (accidentally) some local fame. And his preaching about the kingdom to come (repeating John the Baptist) with the add-on this Kingdom will be for the poor (Jews) made him popular among the poor rural Galileans.

    Cordially, Bernard

  • Ignorantia Nescia

    It looks like an agreeable, modest list, though Reza Aslan might disagree with the caveat in 6 and with 7.

    Could a point similar to 15 be made about “abba”? Though it might be a bad idea to include anything like that, because Jeremias’s claim about Jesus’ use of “abba” is still rampant on the internet.

    • Yes, I would say that Jesus’ use of abba (which as you rightly alluded to does not mean “daddy”) is a more secure piece of historical data than even the use of the introductory “amen.”

  • Andrew Dowling

    I think these are solid save #9 and #14. For the latter, there is considerable debate about how many of the Son of Man sayings go back to Jesus, and in some they refer to himself and in others are not self-referential.

    Also, I’ve become more and more convinced “the 12” were likely a designation of a very early Christian leadership council and not an actual inner group of 12 of Jesus’s disciples. For example, Peter is always one of the 12 in the Gospel accounts, but Paul refers to him separate from the 12 in Corinthians. And every Gospel account has Judas among the 12. But again Paul refers to the 12 having Resurrection experiences . . .did Judas not die or get ostracized following the Crucifixion as every Gospel account signifies?
    I wouldn’t say that its a certainty, but these conflicting accounts lead me to think that the formal choosing of “12 disciples” and the character of Judas are likely literary/oral story creations that derive from historical cores. For example, Jesus clearly had disciples who were closer to him and had more authority than others (and those designated as the 12 in the Gospels likely referred to that inner group although I suspect Mary Magdalene was probably up there with Peter as Jesus’s greatest confidant), and I think he was betrayed by someone, and likely by a disciple.

    And as an aside, as a long time historical Jesus reader I’m highly frustrated by the press Aslan’s book as gotten b/c of the ignorance of Fox News. The “Jesus as Jewish Nationalist Che Guevara” theory has been laughed at by the wide majority of scholarship since Robert Eisenman decided to pump up book sales with a practically identical thesis back in the 90s.

  • asdf4252531

    You’re all stupid, God isn’t real.

    • This comment is not appropriate for this site, not least because it does not address the issue which is the focus of this post. That issue is not the existence of God, which is irrelevant to secular historical study, but the historical question if whether there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth. Offering insults instead of substance, ignoring topics, and other trollish behaviors are simply not allowed on this blog. Please contribute meaningfully to the discussion or find a more appropriate venue for the sorts of comments you choose to leave – keeping in mind that such insults are not likely to do anything but harm to the viewpoint of the one offering them.

    • asdf4252531-hater

      u mad hes real. ur stupid.

      • Poop