Friday, 5 October 2007

are the stories about jesus true?

You might think that, after 2000 years, everything that could be written about Jesus would have been written. But books about Jesus are still being published in their thousands, and not all by believers.

And there are so many different views: from fringe christian through mainstream christian, to mainstream unbelief, and fringe unbelief. Some people follow Jesus as the Son of God, others don't believe he ever existed.

If you were interested, how would you know who to trust?

I have been researching this question for a while, and I think we must start by checking what genuine historians say. And we can navigate between the people with preconceived opinions either way and get a reasonably neutral assessment by (1) looking at the consensus of historians working in the area (there is safety in numbers), and (2) checking out an agnostic historian with no axe to grind either way.

So I checked out almost every book in our local library by a reputable historian. This included many of the most respected names in current scholarship, such as Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Ed Sanders, Geza Vermes, Tom Wright and John Meier. Here's what I found out .....

how much can we know?

History is not an exact science. Historians can say what probably happened, and what probably didn't, but there is a large amount of material on which they have insufficient information to make a judgment. This is especially true of the New Testament, because of the miraculous element, on which a historian cannot pass expert judgment - our acceptance of the miraculous will depend on what we believe as much as on the historical facts.

So we have to accept some uncertainty, and go with what we have.

the consensus of historians.

Most professional historians are scrupulously objective. (Most of the books that specifically aim to argue for or against christianity are from non-historians.) And here's the range of their conclusions on whether the stories of Jesus are historical.

The most sceptical of historians are probably those in the "Jesus Seminar" - a group of scholars which has methodically applied the most critical analysis to this question. They nevertheless conclude that Jesus was undoubtedly a historical figure who most likely did and said about 15-20% of what we find in the Bible. Much of the rest of the New Testament reflects things that Jesus may have said and done, but it has been interpreted by the early christians in such a way as to make it impossible to know the original historical facts. So these scholars provide some sort of minimum of what we can confidently believe about Jesus.

At the other end of the spectrum, many professing christian scholars believe that almost all the New Testament is not just believable, but also able to be established historically.

But the majority of historians conclude something between these extremes. Here are some examples of what they conclude we can know:

  • Marcus Borg: "some judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example, Jesus really existed, and he really was crucified, just as Julius Caesar really existed and was assassinated......We can in fact know as much about Jesus as we can about any figure in the ancient world."
  • E P Sanders: ".... we have a good idea of the main lines of his [Jesus] ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died."
  • G Stanton: "Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered."
  • E P Sanders: "That Jesus' followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know."

Thus the mainstream of historians conclude that quite a lot of what is recorded about Jesus actually occurred.

michael grant

The late Michael Grant was an eminent historian who wrote more than 50 books on the history of the Roman Empire. Importantly for the question we are discussing here, he was not a believer. His book, Jesus: an Historian's Review of the Gospels, draws the following historical conclusions about Jesus, using the same methods he used in his other historical investigations:

  • Did Jesus exist?: "[The Jesus myth] has again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars .... no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus."
  • Is the New Testament historical?: "the picture they [the gospels] present is largely authentic .... information about Jesus can be derived from the gospels."
  • Jesus acting as God: "Jesus introduced a very singular innovation. For he also claimed that he himself could forgive sins."
  • Why did Jesus die?: "Jesus lived his last days, and died, in the belief that his death was destined to save the human race."
  • Grant also concludes that Jesus' tomb was really empty, though he does not believe in the miracle of the resurrection.

Thus Michael Grant's conclusions support, and perhaps go a little further than, the consensus of historians.

what may we conclude

While I have tried to present the historical information fairly, I must make it clear that I write as one who has concluded that the historical evidence supports belief in Jesus. But this is not the only option.

I think it is impossible for a fair-minded person to believe Jesus never existed - the weight of historical study does not allow this. So we are faced with a couple of options, either .....

  1. ..... on the basis of the historical evidence we can believe that Jesus truly came from God, and then we can trust (in faith) the rest of the New Testament that historians cannot verify, or .....
  2. ..... we accept that a man named Jesus lived and taught and died, but that he was mistaken about the more radical claims that he made to represent God on earth.

What do you reckon?

For further reading, I recommend:

  • Michael Grant's book on Jesus.
  • John Dickson: A Spectator's Guide to Jesus. A historian who believes in Jesus presents the historical evidence in a fair-minded way.
  • A more detailed summary on my website - also provides links to websites by both christians and atheists.


  1. you offer some fascinating resources. i believe in Him as our savior, however I have also always believed that His message, and the Word of God has become warped over time to suit the men who spread it. your post has given me some new insight to ponder.

  2. Thanks for your interest and your comment.

    I'm pleased to hear of your belief, and pretty much in agreement that the message has got a bit warped. The church and christians today, particularly in the affluent west, seem to have lost something and replaced it with a message that suits them/us better.

    But having said that, I have a question and a comment.

    Question: When you say "men", are you inferring that it is male dominance that is the major issue with you, or have I just read that into it?

    Comment: While I believe the message has become a little distorted, I can't believe it has been substantially lost for two reasons:

    1. The historians I quote confirm a fair bit of the message.

    2. I find it impossible to think that God would be so ineffectual as to send Jesus and then allow the message to be lost pretty soon afterwards.

    So I conclude that the gospels and the rest of the New Testament preserve the truth, and we can still know the truth if we'll only take off our blinkers and listen.

    An example. The church has often been allied with the state, and has even blessed armed conflict (e.g via military chaplains, and prayers for victory, and by thinking that Muslims are the enemy). But if we stop listening to patriotism, we can easily hear Jesus saying "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you", and follow his example of forgiveness rather than revenge. It's still all there.

    Best wishes.


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