Historical Jesus

Jesus’ foremost mission was the salvation of sinners, not social justice. While the marginalized and oppressed tended to be the most receptive to Jesus’ message, his message was for all people because all people need to be saved.

What about Jesus’ healing ministry? While Jesus surely had compassion on the sick, His miracles had a bigger purpose than just helping the destitute and needy. They were intended to reveal His identity and confirm His message.

Jesus never raised money for the poor or went on a campaign to liberate the oppressed. If those things could be done, great, but that was not Jesus’ mission, and it’s not the church’s mission either. Our primary mission is to preach the gospel and call sinners to repentance. If we can help their lot in life along the way, all the better, but we must keep the Great Commission the central mission of the church.

Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason recently wrote an article related to this topic. He debunks the idea the myth that Jesus was a social justice warrior championing the cause of the poor and oppressed. Check it out.

The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith, but why does it matter?  Why think of it as just another of many miraculous/supernatural events?  Why not see it as a mere historical oddity?  Why does it matter so much to Christianity?  What is the significance of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead?

Here are just a few reasons it is significant:


The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was the central message of the early church and the basis of Christian hope.  But why should we believe that a man was raised from the dead 2000 years ago when we were not there to witness it, and when our uniform experience says that dead people always stay dead?  While many people think the resurrection of Jesus is something you either choose to believe or choose to reject based on your personal religious tastes, the fact of the matter is that there are good, objective, historical reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Historians must do two things: establish the historical facts, and then find the best explanation for those facts.  When it comes to the life of Jesus, the primary source material for the historian is the New Testament (NT) gospels and Paul’s writings because they include the testimony of early disciples who witnessed the events in question or knew those who did, and they provide the most detail about Jesus’ life.


Only the resurrection of Jesus from the dead can explain why Christians believed Jesus was divine.  It also gives credence to the fact that Jesus claimed to be God.

Many skeptics think that Jesus never made claims to deity – that such claims were merely put on his lips by his followers.  But why would they do so?  The Jews had no concept of a divine messiah.  Indeed, the idea that God could become a human being was considered blasphemy to the Jews.  If the gospels are to be believed, the reason Jesus was condemned to death by the Jews was precisely because he claimed to be God.


empty_tombThe resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was the central message of the early church and the basis of Christian hope.  But why should we believe that a man was raised from the dead 2000 years ago when we were not there to witness it, and when our uniform experience says that dead people always stay dead?  While many people think the resurrection of Jesus is something you either choose to believe or choose to reject based on your personal religious tastes, the fact of the matter is that there are good, objective, historical reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.


"Jesus said to them, 'My wife'" highlighted.

“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife'” highlighted.

I had previously written about the so-called Jesus’ Wife fragment that was brought to the public’s attention in 2012 by Karen King of Harvard Divinity School (here, here, and here). It was greeted by a lot of controversy regarding its authenticity, with the evidence leaning heavy in the direction of forgery. We had been waiting for tests to be performed on the papyrus and ink for well over a year to see if they also pointed in the direction of forgery. Those results finally came out in April 2014. It turns out that the materials are old (~8th century A.D.), but not nearly as old as King initially suggested and the paleographic evidence indicated (4-5th century A.D.).

Despite the ~300 year difference between estimated age and actual age of the papyrus, this seemed to be a vindication for King against those who argued that it is a modern forgery.  But is it?  Couldn’t it be a modern forgery using ancient materials?  After all, no forger buys his paper at the local Wal-Mart!  We would expect a forger to use an old papyrus for his forgery, so an analysis of the materials alone is not sufficient to tell us whether this is a forgery (it can confirm forgery, but not preclude it).  The analysis of the contents (vocabulary, grammar, writing style, etc.) is equally important, if not more important than the material composition itself for evaluating authenticity.


Dr. Craig responds to an op-ed piece in The Washington Post by Reza Aslan titled “Five Myths about Jesus: Challenging Everything You Think You Know.”

This story continues to fascinate me.  It’s like CSI Miami for Biblical nerds!  And new insights and arguments continue to be offered for and against the authenticity of the GosJesWife.

Christian Askeland has a nice 10 minute video demonstrating some of the peculiarities of the writing on the GosJesWife which cause scholars to doubt its authenticity.

Hugo Lundhaug and Alin Suciu discuss the problems around dating the GosJesWife and evidence that a paintbrush was used for the writing.

Timo Paananen disputes James Watson’s methodology for concluding that the GosJesWife is a patchwork of the Coptic GTh.

Peter Head examines some of the reasons King et al concluded that the writing was authentic, including the lack of ink in a hole created by an insect, the lack of ink where fibers have gone missing from the papyrus, ink on the frayed edges, and the faded ink on the recto and finds them wanting.

“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife'” highlighted.

The web continues to be abuzz with The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.  So much is being written that it’s hard to keep up!  Here are the latest and most important developments.

James Watson has written two more papers (here and here) further developing his original thesis that The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a collage of various words and phrases culled from the Gospel of Thomas to form a new composition that is supposed to appear like a new gospel.  Andrew Bernhard has also tested Watson’s thesis in two papers (here and here), and agrees that “a modern author could have created the text of GJW simply by using short excerpts culled exclusively from Coptic GTh.”[1]  Both of Bernhard’s papers present an excellent visual and summary of the extensive semantic borrowing of the GosJesWife from the Coptic GTh.  He notes that only 14 out of 139 legible letters on the recto of the GosJesWife do not correspond to the Coptic GTh.  Eight of these 14 letters make up the phrase “my wife.”  Of the other 6 letter differences, they are either due to gender shifts in the pronoun or uninterpretable because they are single letters that come at the beginning or end of the line and lack sufficient context for reconstruction.


Karen King, professor of divinity at Harvard and specialist in Gnostic Christianity, recently announced the existence of a small (3” x 1.5”), late-4th century[1] fragment in which Jesus speaks of his wife. Written in Sahidic Coptic with black ink[2] on papyrus, the fragment contains eight lines of text on the recto and six lines of text on the verso, with all margins missing.[3]  The extant text on the recto side reads:

1  Not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe
2  The disciples said to Jesus
3  deny. Mary is worthy of it.[4]
4  Jesus said to them, “My wife
5  she will be able to be my disciple
6  Let wicked people swell up
7  As for me, I dwell with her in order to
8  an image[5]

Although the text bears some striking resemblance to known Gnostic texts (particularly the Gospel of Thomas[6], and to a lesser degree the Gospel of Philip), it does not match any known apocryphal or Gnostic gospel.  This may be an independent Gospel of unknown character (Gnostic, apocryphal, etc.) or, as Francis Watson has argued, it may be a modern forgery created using key words from the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas (more will be said concerning this momentarily).


In the former post I mentioned The Burial of Jesus, a collection of essays published by the Biblical Archaeology Society.  All but one of the essays in that collection addressed ancient tombs.  One essay, however, written by Richard Bauckham and titled “All in the Family: Identifying Jesus’ Relatives,” attempted to provide information regarding Jesus’ family in the early history of the church from both Biblical and extra-biblical sources.  I found the topic and article quite interesting, and wanted to share Bauckham’s findings with you here.

The NT tells us very little about Jesus’ family.  First Corinthians 9:5 and Galatians 1:19 speak of “the brokers of the Lord.”  Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 identify them by name: James, Joseph/Joses, Judas, and Simon.  They also tell us Jesus had sisters, but do not specify how many or identify them by name (although I would argue that Matthew’s reference to “all His sisters” makes better sense if Jesus had at least three sisters since one would ordinarily refer to a group of two individuals using “both” rather than “all”).  The Protoevangelium of James 19:3–20:4, the Gospel of Philip 59:6–11, and Epiphanius Panarion 78.8.1 and 78.9.6 identify Jesus’ sisters as Mary and Salome.  Since the name Salome was very popular in Palestine and very rare outside of Palestine, this tradition may be historically accurate.


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I recently read The Burial of Jesus, a collection of essays published by the Biblical Archaeology Society (the organization that publishes Biblical Archaeology Review).  It provided very valuable archaeological data regarding ancient Jewish tombs, and assessed whether or not the Garden Tomb or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre could possibly be the tomb of Jesus. What follows is a summary of the articles, as well as my own personal contribution.

The Gospels tell us that after Jesus’ death, He was hastily buried in a cave tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy man who was also a member of the Sanhedrin (Mt 27:57-60; Mk 15:42-46; Lk 23:50-53; Jn 19:38-42).  Only upper-middle and upper class Jews could afford a rock-hewn tomb.[1]  The poor in the 1st century buried their dead in trench tombs.  Trench tombs were about 5-7’ deep, and had a niche in the bottom for the bodies.[2]  Bodies would be wrapped in a shroud (and sometimes placed in wood coffin) and lowered into the niche.[3]  Had Joseph not buried Jesus, Jesus may have been buried in a trench tomb, or thrown into a field as the Romans were oft to do with crucified victims.


For a long time I have been wanting to read Harold Hoehner’s standard work on the chronology of Christ, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ.  I finally got around to purchasing and reading the book.  Here is my summary of his arguments for dating the birth (5 BC), ministry (AD 29-33), and death of Christ (AD 33).  Text in “[]” reflects my own thoughts/research.

Date of Christ’s Birth

Jesus was born while Herod was still alive (Mk 2:1; Lk 1:5).  Herod was declared king in 40 BC byRome, and took physical control of Palenstine in 37 BC.  He reigned 34 years.

Josephus tells us there was an eclipse shortly before Herod died.  The eclipse occurred on March 12/13, 4 BC.  He also tells us the Passover was celebrated shortly after (April 11, 4 BC).  So Herod died sometime between mid-March and early April, 4 BC.  Jesus must have been born before this.  (more…)

A new website, The Ehrman Project, has launched.  It’s dedicated to evaluating and responding to Bart Ehrman’s claims.  It examines each of his three best-selling books: Misquoting Jesus, God’s Problem, Jesus Interrupted.  There are eight video responses to each book, each one covering a different topic.  There are also links to related books and articles. 

Participating scholars include Ben Witherington, Darrel Bock, D.A. Carson, Daniel Wallace, Alvin Plantinga, et al.  One of the coolest features of the site is that you can pose a question on the blog, and it will be answered by one of the scholars!  So if you have any difficult questions related to the issues Ehrman raises, now is the time to ask them.

HT: Ben Witherington

Our earliest canonical Gospel, Mark, was probably written sometime in the early or mid50s, approximately 20-25 years after Jesus ascended to heaven.  Many have wondered why it took so long for Jesus’ followers to commit His teachings and deeds to writing.  The most common answer is that they did not feel the need because they expected the imminent return of Christ.  If Jesus was coming back soon, why bother?  This answer is not adequate, however.  First, it presumes that Jesus’ followers expected His imminent return.  This is debatable.  More importantly, we know from experience that groups expecting an impending apocalypse are often voluminous writers.  Consider the Qumran community in Jesus’ day.  They were expecting the imminent Day of the Lord, and yet they produced an abundance of written materials.  An even more pertinent example is modern believers who espouse to a pre-tribulation, “at-any-moment” understanding of the return of Christ.  Few have hotter print-presses than this group!

Why, then, did they not write sooner?  Perhaps they did, but those documents were not preserved.  Luke tells us that “many have undertaken [the task] to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us,” and he utilized at least some of those sources in the production of his own gospel (Luke 1:1-4).  Luke’s gospel was probably written in the late 50s or early 60’s.  For Luke to be aware of these other writings, they must have been written much earlier, possibly much earlier than Mark’s gospel.


If you are interested in the history of when the celebration of Christmas began and how the date was determined, this article from Biblical Archaeological Review is a good one.  And if you think the answer is that Christians co-opted the Roman feasts of Saturnalias and/or Sol Invictus, you need to read the article.

I just finished reading a tremendous review of Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Jesus Interrupted, by Michael Kruger.  I would highly recommend it.  The last paragraph is literary gold in my book.  It’s one of those summary paragraphs that I would have loved to have penned myself.


HT: Justin Taylor

It has been popular for 100 years for liberal scholars to claim there was no Christian orthodoxy from the beginning of the church.  Rather, they claim, there existed a bunch of disparate community-based theological movements loosely centered on a historical—but mythologized Jesus—each vying with the other to become the orthodox version of the Christian religion.

According to these theorists, the Jesus tradition spread rapidly to different geographical regions.  Each local community would re-tell the Jesus story, but the re-telling of the tradition was wild and uncontrolled, so that the Jesus of history quickly became swallowed up by the various and competing Jesuses constructed by each community.  With no way of knowing (and perhaps little concern for) which version of Jesus was accurate—if any—the battle for orthodoxy in the first 300 years of the church became more of a political battle than a theological and historical quest.  Recent and popular proponents of this view include Bart Ehrman, Marvin Meyer, and Elaine Pagels.

In the way of critique, this thesis has an extremely weak historical and logical foundation.  It is based largely on the (more…)

Christianity is unique in that its veracity depends on the reality of particular historical events.  Christianity is not a philosophical religion.  Christian faith is not faith for the sake of faith, but a particular understanding about the significance of particular historical events—events that were either supernatural in character, or pregnant with supernatural significance.  If these purported historical events are actually fictional or mythical in nature, the very foundation of Christianity crumbles.

While our faith depends on the veracity of particular historical events through which God revealed Himself and His purposes, there is no question that we believe much more than can be demonstrated historically.  Historical and archaeological investigation can only verify and bolster some of the Bible’s historical claims.  While it can cover a lot of ground, the remaining gaps still must be transposed by faith.  That faith is not a blind and absurd leap as Kierkegaard suggested, but a reasoned judgment in reality based on the evidence available to us.