It is interesting and surprising to note that Jesus of Nazareth is never mentioned by any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of the entire 1st Christian century. And, if one wants to know what Jesus said and did, we can’t turn to other writings either because they just don’t exist. So, then, what are our ancient sources of information for knowing what Jesus did and said and how reliable do scholars of the gospels deem them to be? Read on to find out.
Greek and Roman Sources
In terms of basic chronology, Jesus’s public ministry occurred sometime in the late ’20s of the 1st century CE. He was executed around the year 30.
We have lots of sources written by Greek and Roman authors. We have histories, we’ve got biographies, we’ve got literature of all kinds, we have personal letters that people sent back and forth, we have inscriptions on buildings and Jesus of Nazareth is never mentioned in any of those writings.
That, however, shouldn’t be surprising because 99.99% of people are also not mentioned.
Jesus is mentioned, very briefly in just a few sentences, by one Jewish source of the 1st century, the historian Josephus. He was very active in Jewish affairs in the 1st century, and he wrote a large number of books describing what Jewish life was like, also giving us a good bit of Jewish history.
And yet, even Josephus tells us almost nothing about what Jesus actually said and did. What he does include are a few sentences devoted to the major points of Jesus’s life.
Ironically, what we also have are later accounts of Jesus from non-canonical gospels. These are gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did that did not make it into the New Testament. They are, however, questionable in their reliability as everyone agrees that these are almost entirely later and highly legendary.
And, so, we come to our best sources of information. These are the four accounts of Jesus’s life in the New Testament: the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The other 23 books of the New Testament say almost nothing about Jesus’s actual life, about what was happening between the time he was born and the time he died. But we do have the four gospels.
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The Four Gospels
Most casual readers of the Bible and probably most non-readers of the Bible simply assume that these books, the four gospels, present straightforward biographical accounts of the life of Jesus. If Mark says Jesus did something, it’s something he really did. If John’s Gospel reports a speech of Jesus, Jesus spoke those words just as they are reported, that’s the common view.
Since the development of modern methods of historical scholarship, however, especially in the 19th century and going on till today, scholars have realized that it’s not that simple.
We can’t simply quote a verse from one of the gospels and assume it’s relating history as it really happened, any more than we can do so with an account of any other ancient figure, whether we’re talking about Moses or Socrates or the Prophet Muhammed.
The reason is because these sources do not quote Jesus verbatim. We need to also emphasise that these gospels were all authored anonymously. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the later names associated with them. But the authors don’t give us their names or indicate that they were followers of Jesus or disciples or disciples of the disciples.
We do know that they were written by Greek-speaking Christians who were living 40 to 60 years after the death of Jesus. And they were reporting what they had heard from storytellers about the things Jesus said and did.
Jesus died in the year 30 and we have very good reasons to believe that these gospels were written 40 to 60 years later. Hence, logically, the only way they could have got their stories were through the stories that would have been circulating by word of mouth for decades before the accounts were written down.
One can probably guess how authentic they would be.
Different Stories about Jesus
Many people assume that in ancient cultures they preserved oral cultures, oral traditions accurately and didn’t change them. And, yet, scholars have shown that this is actually not true.
It’s clear that these accounts about Jesus were changed over the years from one storyteller to the next. One way for knowing that is that the gospels themselves have numerous differences in telling the same stories and sometimes these differences are actual discrepancies in what they report.
To observe this first hand, all we need to do is take two or more accounts of the same story in any of the gospels. It could be the story of Jesus’s birth in Matthew and Luke, the account of his death in any of the gospels, or the account of his resurrection and make a very detailed comparison.
If we read one of the accounts and scrupulously compare what Matthew says with what Mark and then Luke and then John recount, we’ll find irreconcilable differences between them.
It shows that people are changing the stories. And that’s the problem with simply quoting a verse here or there to prove what Jesus actually did or said. Different gospel sources report different things. That’s not a problem per se, but sometimes the differences are actual contradictions.
This is what scholars have to deal with. Unless scholars of the gospels apply some rather common sensical rules to figure out what, in our sources for Jesus’s life, probably goes back to what actually happened and what represents some kind of distortion or even invention in the historical record, it would be hard to know anything with certainty.
Common Questions about Decoding Jesus of Nazareth
We have lots of sources written by Greek and Roman authors. We have histories, we’ve got biographies, we’ve got literature of all kinds, we have personal letters that people sent back and forth, we have inscriptions on buildings
Most casual readers of the Bible and probably most non-readers of the Bible simply assume that the four Gospels present straightforward biographical accounts of the life of Jesus.
Jesus is mentioned, very briefly in just a few sentences, by one Jewish source of the 1st century, the historian Josephus.