There are no credible non-biblical sources from the time of Jesus' life that ever mention he existed. The earliest source was the historian Flavious Josephus in 94 CE, which was around 60 years after Jesus' death in 30 CE. As far as biblical sources, the earliest is from the Apostle Paul between 50 and 60 CE, whose account failed to mention much of the stories, sayings, and miracles told in the Gospels despite having been in contact with Jesus' original disciples. Thus, the most detailed records come from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John found in the New Testament.
The Validity of the Gospels
According to most scholars, the earliest gospel was the book of Mark (60-70 CE), which combined with a missing document/tradition referred to as "Q" make up the majority of Matthew (80-90 CE) and Luke (90-100 CE). John, on the other hand, follows a very different tradition from the other three, and many scholars argue that virtually all of it is fictional. Comparing Mark to Matthew and Luke, there are a number of interesting differences which imply differing agendas of the gospel writers. For instance, Matthew and Luke tend to alter passages from Mark which show Jesus as critical of his disciples, emotional, ignorant of some fact, or incapable of performing miracles. As an example, compare the difference between these passages:
- Mark 8: 11 The Pharisees arrived and began arguing with Jesus. They tested him by demanding from him a sign from heaven. 12 He sighed deeply in his spirit and said, "Why do those living today demand a sign? I tell you with certainty, no sign will be given to this generation." 13 Leaving them, he got into a boat again and crossed to the other side.
- Matthew 16: 1 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He replied, "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' 3 and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah." Jesus then left them and went away.
- Luke 12: 54 He said to the crowd: "When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, 'It's going to rain,' and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, 'It's going to be hot,' and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?
The first passage clearly shows Jesus refusing to perform miracles for the skeptical Pharisees, the second explains that he won't perform miracles because they are wicked, and the third says nothing about Jesus performing miracles. This is clearly evidence that the authors of the Gospels were willing to manipulate the truth in order to promote their new religion.
Beyond alterations, there are also many examples of major non-purposeful differences among the Gospels. For example:
- Matthew and Luke both have genealogies of Joseph, Jesus' non-biological father (since Yahweh was the real baby-daddy) in order to prove that Jesus was descended from King David. Yet, neither of these genealogies matched in length nor in content.
- Neither Mark nor John mentions anything about a virgin birth.
- According to Matthew 2:1, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (73 BCE – 4 CE), while in Luke 2:2 he was said to have been born during the first census of Israel (6-7 CE).
- Matthew 2: 1-6 mentioned Jesus was born in Bethlehem, while Luke 2: 1-7 and Mark 6:1 said he came from Nazareth.
The Jesus Seminar
How could anyone determine what Jesus actually said and did when the sources of his life are so clearly unreliable? Well, that's exactly what the members of the Jesus Seminar sought to accomplish. Comprised of 150 liberal New Testament scholars and intellectuals from Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Unitarian backgrounds, they used social anthropology, history, and textual analyses to work it all out. In the end, they determined only 18% of sayings attributed to Jesus likely originated from him, which did not sit well with many conservative Bible scholars. Many have attempted to discredit the seminar by launching a number of not-too-unreasonable criticisms regarding their assumptions and methodologies. However, given the poor quality of the Biblical sources, it's really anyone's guess what Jesus said. At least the seminar used logical approaches in their analysis, which were both thoroughly debated and democratically voted upon.
Major Conclusions of the Jesus Seminar:
- Jesus was an itinerant Hellenistic Jewish sage and faith healer who preached a gospel of liberation from injustice in startling parables and aphorisms.
- Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah.
- Jesus did not claim to be God.
- Jesus did not believe that his execution was necessary in order for those who trust in him as Lord and Savior to be saved from eternal damnation.
- Jesus believed the Kingdom of God had already arrived in 1st century Palestine and was visible in the way he and his followers treated each other. On the other hand, John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle viewed the Kingdom as coming at a time in their future, sometime in the 1st century.
So who was Jesus? Well, many scholars believe he was not who most Christians believe him to have been. In the end, no one really knows. However, there is something we can say with certainty: the Bible is not a reliable source for the life and sayings of Yeshua ben Yosef (Jesus).
Wikipedia on the Historicity of Jesus
Good Article about the Gospel of John
Good Description of the Jesus Seminar
Wikipedia on Comparing Gospels