Unless you’re just completely making things up, you need to use sources when writing history, this includes religious figures like Jesus. So what sources do you use to create a biography of a man believed by many to be the son of God? The written sources for the historical Jesus can be divided into 4 categories. You have Christian Sources, which can be divided in Canonical and non-Canonical sources, and you have Non-Christian sources which can be divided between Jewish and Pagan sources. In this video we’re gonna look at the Christian Sources for Jesus, and in Part Two we’ll look at the non-Christian Sources. Let’s go.
There are a surprising number of documents from the ancient Mediterranean that talk about Jesus, but they are not all reliable, or at least not all equally reliable. The biggest factor determining reliability is how close to Jesus’s lifetime was the source written, and the oldest sources for the life of Jesus are in the New Testament.
Now I’m sure some of you are wondering, is it appropriate to use the New Testament as a historical source? Mythicists reject the use of the Bible as a historical source outright because that’s kind of what makes you a Mythicist. But people tend to believe that because the New Testament is used as a sacred religious text it suddenly loses all validity as an objective historical text, but this is far from the case. This idea is a holdover from debates about the existence of God, where the Bible is not admissible evidence for God’s existence.
In a previous video I explained that the Bible is not really a single document, but rather a collection of documents, and each of these documents has an author. Although today they books of the New Testament are used as sacred religious texts, they weren’t necessarily written with that in mind. What you had were writers who wanted to record the life and deeds of their recently deceased Messiah, in accordance with their community’s traditions. They didn’t know their works would be taken by others later as the divinely inspired word of God. So in respect to those authors, we should treat these documents the way they treated them, and then judge their merit from there, and the oldest sources recording information about Jesus came from the Epistles.
If you’re familiar with the New Testament, you know that the Gospels are usually the first listed, but this is only because early Christians decided that the New Testament should be organized by narrative chronology, but in terms of when the documents are written, the Epistles are the oldest we’re aware of.
The Epistles are letters written to different early Christian communities across the Mediterranean, and scholars are uncertain as to who exactly wrote them. These letters address the issues that early Christian communities were facing. They don’t address the life of Jesus directly, but you can still tease details about him from them. For example from the Pauline Epistles you can learn that Jesus was a Jew, who’s primary audience was other Jews, and claimed to be fulfilling Jewish prophecy. From the Pauline Epistles you also learn that Jesus was believed by his followers to be descended from King David, which further enforces his role as fulfilling Jewish Messianic Prophecy. We also see in the non-Pauline Epistles clear references to a human Jesus.
The Epistles are usually dated to have been written sometime between the 40s and 60s CE. These documents are very important for historians of early Christianity because they paint a portrait of what the earliest followers of Jesus believed about Jesus. But if you want actual details about the life of Jesus, you need to look to the Gospels.
The four Canonical Gospels, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John and frequently divided into two groups. You have the books of Mark, Mathew, and Luke referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels” while, with the Gospel of John standing on its own. The reason Mark, Mathew, and Luke are called the “Synoptic Gospels” is because they are connected by their sources.
The Book of Mark is believed to be the oldest of the Gospels, written sometime between 70 and 80 CE. The Gospels of Mathew and Luke both reference many of the same events of Mark, wording them in very similar ways. All three of these Gospels are believed to be looking at the same set of sources, referred to as Q. Why Q? Because Q is the first letter of the German word for Source. This Source, Q, is believed to be a set of documents and eyewitnesses that were available to the author of Mark, and possibly to the authors of Mathew and Luke, but they are long gone by now, so we can’t be a hundred percent certain. And then there is the Gospel of John, which is believed to be taking from its own collection of written and oral traditional sources, referred to as J. While the book of Mark is dated to sometime between 70 and 80 CE, Mathew and Luke are usually dated to sometime in the 80s or 90s CE, while John is usually dated to sometime around 100 CE.
Along with the Epistles and Gospels there is also the Book of Acts, which is believed to have been written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke. The Book of Acts gives similar details about Jesus’s life that you can tease out of the Epistles of Paul. It is also noteworthy that the Book of Acts has its own set of sources separate from the Gospel of Luke. Scholars know this because the Gospel of Luke gives no mention about the death of Judas Iscariot, while Acts does. It should also be noted that the only other depiction of the death of Judas comes from the Gospel of Mathew, which gives a different account. For those putting together a biography of Jesus this is important because it means that you don’t have everyone building their narratives from the exact same set of sources, which means there are an even greater number of sources for the life and says of Jesus that we are not familiar with.
And of course there is the book of Revelation which, although light on the details of the life of Jesus, is still important because it’s author is clearly writing about a person who is believed to have been a flesh and blood person, and was written sometime between the 60s and 90s CE.
That covers the Canonical Christian Sources, but what do the non-canonical sources have to say about the life of Jesus?
There are numerous texts from early Church Fathers about Jesus, but the ones that interest Jesus Scholars are Papias of Hierapolis, and Quadratus of Athens.
Papias was born around 60 CE, so he didn’t know Jesus personally, but he did meet many of those who did, and so he compiled eye witness testimony into his five volume work Exposition on the Sayings of the Lord. Unfortunately, this collection of works has been lost since the late middle ages, but portions of it can be found in the writings of Early Church Historian Eusebius.
Quadratus, sometimes referred to as the first Christian Apologist, wrote a letter to the Roman Emperor Hadrian defending Christianity and the miracles of Jesus, claiming that the people Jesus had healed or brought back to life back were still alive by the early first century. These works are often used by apologists to defend the divinity of Jesus, but regardless of whether or not he was, both Church fathers are clearly dealing with people who knew Jesus, which gives even more credibility to the historicity of Jesus.
Beyond the early Church Fathers there are also the Apocryphal texts that were not accepted into the Bible due to their heretical theology. Most of these texts are not used by New Testament Scholars to learn about the historical Jesus, however they are useful in learning about the diversity of early Christianity.
One of these texts that is sometimes cited is the Gospel of Thomas, but because it only talks about supposed secret teachings of Jesus, and its second century authorship, it’s more useful as an example of how certain second century Christian Communities transmitted information than for any detail about the life of Jesus. If you want to learn more about the Gospel of Thomas I recommend you watch this video from the channel Religion for Breakfast. You can find that video by clicking the “I” in the upper right hand corner.
The Gospel of Thomas is believed by some to be a Gnostic Text. To learn more about the Gnostics I again would like to direct you to another good video about them from Religion for Breakfast.
The reason I bring up the Gnostics is because Mythicists have a strong fascination with the Gnostics. Read enough Mythicist literature and you’ll see the Gnostics referenced almost as much legends about Osiris. And so, because the Mythicists are so obsessed with the Gnostics, I feel it’s appropriate to bring them up here. Unfortunately, I’m not going to go into any more detail about them here because I’m going to have at least one video, most likely several, on the Gnostic-Christian theories of the Mythicists.
There are other Christian sources for the life of Jesus, but most of those were written well past any date of historical reliability, and serve more as an intellectual history of a community rather than primary sources for Jesus.