We christians believe the gospels tell us the truth about Jesus. But if questioned, do we know why we believe that? And could we explain it to a sceptic who wouldn’t accept the Bible as giving us truth?
I think the only place to start with a sceptic is with the facts that secular historians generally agree on. This will be less than we believe, but will be a starting point that all but the most desperate sceptic can accept.
Historical scholars don’t believe that everything recorded in historical documents is true. Instead they test everything (see The gospels as history for more about this), concluding that some things are well established, somethings seem unlikely to be true and some things cannot be determined one way or the other.
Most historians who have studied the New Testament period agree that, even by the demanding standards of secular historical study, we can be confident that Jesus was a real person (contrary to the views of some extreme sceptics – see The Jesus myth theory), and of many details of Jesus’ life. For example, E P Sanders, a respected and agnostic secular scholar, concluded:
“Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died.” and “the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”
Most historians would agree with this, a few would be more sceptical and a larger number would be more positive about how much we can know. The information below represents a summary of careful and respected scholars who represent the broad consensus of New Testament scholarship, not the highly sceptical or strongly christian scholars.
What most historians are confident of
The following summary of what can be confidently asserted historically is drawn from E P Sanders (an agnostic), N T Wright (a christian) and Michael Grant (a non-believer), though others give similar lists:
- Jesus’s time of birth, location of childhood, and baptism;
- he called disciples (probably 12 of them) and associated with outcasts (uncommon for a Rabbi in his day);
- he effected cures and exorcisms (G Stanton: “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered.”; E P Sanders: “I think we can be fairly certain that initially Jesus’ fame came as a result of healing, especially exorcism.”);
- he preached “the kingdom of God” in Galilee and called people to repent – he believed he was the Messiah, inaugurating the Kingdom of God and that repentent sinners were eligible for the kingdom (P J Tomson: “Although he apparently considered himself the heavenly ‘Son of Man’ and ‘the beloved son’ of God and cherished far-reaching Messianic ambitions, Jesus was equally reticent about these convictions. Even so, the fact that, after his death and resurrection, his disciples proclaimed him as the Messiah can be understood as a direct development from his own teachings.”);
- welcoming ‘sinners’ was part of his teaching and he claimed to be able to forgive people’s sins (M Grant: “Jesus introduced a very singular innovation. For he also claimed that he himself could forgive sins.”);
- he believed his death would be redemptive (M Grant: “Jesus lived his last days, and died, in the belief that his death was destined to save the human race.”);
- he created a disturbance in the temple in Jerusalem, had a final meal with his friends, was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities and was executed by the Roman Governor, Pilate
- his tomb was really empty and his disciples ‘saw’ him (in what sense is debated) after his death (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”).
Some christians may be offended by the way historians pass critical judgment on the New Testament, but looked at from another perspective, this is a remarkable set of ‘facts’ for us to build on. Almost everything we hold to be important is touched on here.
Of course a small number of scholars are more sceptical and contest that we can trust many other aspects of the gospels. On the other hand, there are many more scholars who argue that the historical evidence allows them to believe that the New Testament is almost entirely accurate history, with only a few small historical matters in significant doubt. Eminent Aussie historian, E Judge: “An ancient historian has no problem seeing the phenomonon of Jesus as an historical one. His many surprising aspects only help anchor him in history. Myth and legend would have created a more predictable figure. The writings that sprang up about Jesus also reveal to us a movement of thought and an experience of life so unusual that something much more substantial than the imagination is needed to explain it.”
This lowest common denominator of facts about the life and message of Jesus forms a good basis for the personal faith of those who, like me, feel it is important to have an objective, rational basis for our faith. Equally, they form a good basis of discussion with sceptical, rational, non-believers.
In my experience, discussions with sceptics can get into all sorts of alternative hypotheses about Jesus, some of them quite fanciful, a maze which it can be difficult to escape from. But being able to quote the views of some of the most respected secular historians helps to escape that maze.
EP Sanders quotes from Jesus and Judaism and The Historical Figure of Jesus
Michael Grant quotes from Jesus: an historians review of the gospels
NT Wright information from MA Powell’s Jesus as a Figure in History
G Stanton quote from Message and Miracles in M Bockmuehl’s The Cambridge Companion to Jesus.
PJ Tomson quote from Jesus and his Judaism in M Bockmuehl’s The Cambridge Companion to Jesus.
E Judge quote from his Foreword to The truth about Jesus by P Barnett.
Recommended reading: John Dickson: A spectator’s guide to Jesus and Jesus: a short life.