Because there is a limited amout I wish to say about the historicity of Jesus, unlike the rest of the site, this page will not be a series of essays on other pages, but one long page. Navigation links are at the bottom.
This page only covers the historical evidence of Jesus - things such as the historicity of the Bible, whether the resurrection can be proven etc are contained in Authenticity & Reliability of the Bible
There are two questions to be asked about the 'historical' Jesus:
For Christians, the most important documents relating to Jesus are the four Gospels in the Bible. These purport to be eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus in the first century CE (Common Era). There are, however, several questions which should be raised about these documents. The first is who wrote them?.
Now, although the gospels are given in the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (of whom two were eyewitnesses, with another possibility being John Mark), we do not actually know they were by these people. It is thought there are possible references within the gospels to the authors. In the case of Mark, that is at Mark 14:51-2:
As for the Gospel of Matthew, it is difficult to see any sort of self-reference within the text. Matthew uses 92% of the Gospel of Mark, 'fleshed-out' as it were, which may well mean that Matthew was not an eyewitness of Jesus, as if he were, why would he use someone else's writing? Because of this, most modern Biblical scholars believe someone who was not an eyewitness, but who did have a copy of either the Gospel of Mark or 'Q' (thought to be a collection of sayings used by Matthew, Mark and Luke).
The Gospel of Luke has perhaps the highest claim to an actual author. It begins:
The Gospel of John does seem to mention the author in the text, under the name of the 'Beloved Disciple':
Dating the Gospels has also been a problem, and makes them less reliable as sources. Scholars debating the date of John's Gospel have said “the wide limits of A.D. 90-140 have now been reached" (Barrett) for a variety of reasons which I won't go into here. Mark's Gospel is thought to have been written in c70AD, Matthew and Luke, because they are thought to have used Mark, but to have come before John, are dated to c80CE. (More information is at http://home.earthlink.net/~kirby/xtianity/dating.html). This means that not only can we not be sure that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, but they were also written at the least 37 years after the death of Jesus! This both adds to the difficulty in saying that eyewitnesses wrote the gospels (people did not live as long in ancient times as they do now, because of disease, and in this case, persecution by the Romans and the Jewish Wars occuring in the meantime), but also adds to the possibility that the actual facts of Jesus' existence had become blurred. After that amount of time it is entirely possible that bits and pieces from other religions had been added to what Jesus really said and did (more on this later), and/or that things had become substantially distorted and 'mythologised'. This could also mean that there was no 'Jesus', but people were told there had been - any lack of people who had actually met him would ensure no one would contradict what the gospel-writers said.
So it seems that the gospels may well be secondary sources, with a possibility that the facts of Jesus' existence (if he did exist) have been distorted within them. In other words, they are not particularly good historical evidence of his existence, or of what he said and did.
There are some (not many) non-gospel sources which refer to Jesus, and which Christians say prove the historical existence of Jesus. These are the writings of:
The Josephus passage is among the most celebrated as proving that Jesus existed:
Tactitus wrote that:
Pliny wrote a letter to the emperor Trajan saying:
Thallus is said to have written that Jesus' death was accompanied by earthquake and darkness. His original work has been lost and it was cited only in Julius Africanus' work in the third century. This is the only reference to unusual meterological events occuring after the death of Jesus outside the New Testament, which is strange as such things were routinely recorded. It is impossible to determine whether Thallus actually wrote this, when he wrote this or if the events actually happened as there is no other evidence.
The Talmud says Jesus was the illegitemate son of a Roman soldier called Pandera (or Pandira) who worked magic. However, most of that material derives from 200-500CE and is the Jewish reaction to the spread of Christianity. It is not a contemporary reference but a reaction to a movement.(For anti-Christian parts of the Talmud, including those referring to Jesus, refuted, please see http://crnews.pastornet.net.au/jmm/aasi/aasi0151.htm)
Many Christians also make reference to the "Acts of Pilate" whicih Justin Martyr said was Pilate's report to Rome of the crucifixion of Jesus. Several other early church writers also referred to this, including Euseubius, who said there was a forged copy of that report circulating in his day. At the present time, the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus claims to have this report within it, and there is also another report. The second report, called " The letter of Pontius Pilate which he wrote to the Roman Emperor, concerning our Lord Jesus Christ. is thought by most historians to have been written in the fifth century. The Gospel of Nicodemus is thought to have been written c150-200 which leaves a small possibility that it has a copy of the report of Pilate in it, but the gospel is not accepted by most Christians as being authentic, and most historians doubt that it has the report of Pilate either.
There are some other historical sources, but these are the main (and earliest) ones, so I will not cover them. There is a possibility that Jesus did exist, as vouchsafed by the historical evidence, but the practise of the Christian church in destroying records of Jesus (at one time, anyone attempting to preserve writings which were hostile to him was subject to the death penalty) and of falsifying various others (such as Josephus) has paradoxically made it unlikely we will ever be able to say with certainty that Jesus existed.
Although in the previous section we have seen that it is not certain that Jesus actually existed, we will look at the various things people have thought that the historical man actually was. This 'quest' for the historical Jesus began in the 18-19th Centuries, and is divided into three sections.
This sought to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith - in other words, to strip away the layers of interpretation which followers had added on to the motives and thoughts of Jesus and show what he thought of things, using historical data.
It began with Professor Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) who was Professor of Oriental Languages at Hamburg. His work, published posthumously in 1778, "Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger" (The Goal of Jesus and His Disciples) was the starting point for the quest. He saw Jesus as a political claimant for the throne of Israel who anticipated a worldly kingdom and was executed as a political revolutionary. He expected God to help him achieve political authority, and cried out in desolation on the cross when it became clear God was not going to help him. The disciples were also desolate, bbut stole Jesus' body and announced that he was a new type of Messiah, and thus founded the church.
One whose influence can still be felt, although his name is not often mentioned, is Paulus. He harmonised the four gospels (put them all together to make one narrative) and tried to rationalise the miracles. He said that, for example, at the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus did not miraculously create lots of bread and fish, but by his example inspired the 5,000 to share the food they had brought with them with each other.
One of the most important scholars in the first quest was David Friedrich Strauss, who wrote "Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet" when he was 28. He advocated unbiased work on the New Testament, and suggested that the Synoptics were the most historical gospels - a view still held today by the majority of scholars. He believed the gospels should be characterised as myth, and said that, aside from the bare framework, most of the gospels were based on Old Testament stories, not facts from Jesus' life. He also made the distinction between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history.
Possibly the most well known of all the 'questers' was the brilliant Albert Schweitzer, who wrote Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung (usually called 'The Quest for the Historical Jesus') in 1906, which marked the end of the first quest. He noted that people who search for the historical Jesus usually find a Jesus they agree with! All previous scholars had sought to 'modernise' Jesus, to make him relevant to their particular time, rather than looking at him in his own time. He also noted that they practically ignored the fact that Jesus was Jewish, both in their writings and in the iconography of the day. He saw Jesus as an eschatological (end of the world) prophet, expecting a son of man to be sent by God to bring this end upon them. When this figure did not appear Jesus then thought he must be the son of man, and expected his death on the cross to bring about the end of the world. The disciples then changed his meaning when this did not happen, and moved the end of the world to some unspecified future time. Schweitzer's work effectively stopped all the quests for the historical Jesus for fifty years, although Bultmann in the third quest (the one we're in now) picked up his ideas.
This was initiated by E. Kasemann in 1953, who was a pupil of Bultmann (of whom more later) when he lectured on the Jesus of history. He said it is dangerous to separate the Christ of faith (on whom more work had been done in the period of 1906-1953) from the Jesus of history. If the two are separated then there is no control over the Christ of faith - he was possibly harking back to the Nazi claim that Jesus was an anti-semite. The main scholars of this were Kasemann, G. Bornkamm and N. Perrin, who utilised the greater knowledge of Jewish life and culture in the first century which was then appearing due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls on the 1940's. They fixed what could be said about Jesus, such as that he was Jewish, and lower-class, for example. They tried to work out how to find out whether Jesus had actually said the things the gospels assert that he said. They utilised two criterions for this: the criterion of dissimilarity (if its not a Jewish or early Christian idea then Jesus must have said it - e.g. the son of man sayings. Unfortunately this forgets that Jesus was actually Jewish and so therefore could be supposed to be influenced by the Old Testament and the time in which he lived), and the criterion of multiple attestation.
From the 1980's to the present day. This came out of work done on the noncanonical gospels, and cultural anthropology.
The Jesus Seminar, the now infamous group of North American scholars who started meeting in 1985. They gathered all the recorded sayings of Jesus up until 300ce from canonical and non-canonical sources. They voted as a group on whether they were said by him or not (with four different coloured balls, probably the thing most known about them). They only found genuine sayings in the synoptic gospels and the Gospel of Thomas. Even then, only 18% were found to have been said by Jesus. They said Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist but left him because he did not like the ascetic lifestyle of the baptist. Jesus believed the Kingdom of God was a present reality and worked as a social critic and sage. He was not the messiah or an eschatological prophet, nor was he particularly religious. There was no particular reason for Jesus to have died, they said that that was the result of his being caught up in a disturbance in the Temple which he did not instigate.
J.D. Crossan in 1991 published "The Historical Jesus" which said Jesus was a peasant Cynic philosopher. (The Cynics denied the social values of the world - such as eating with tax collectors etc). Jesus was against hierarchies and gender divisions and believed the Kingdom of God was a present reality. He advocated a 'brokerless kingdom' with no intermediary between men and God, this was the reason he moved around, so that he was not seen as an intermediary figure. Healings symbolically included everyone in the kingdom. He was killed because he created a disturbance in the Temple when he spoke out about his non-hierarchical ideas, and he was crucified and his body was eaten by dogs (a normal practise for crucified people - vultures would dislodge bits of flesh to the dogs beneath the crosses), this was the reason no one knew where his body was.
N. T. Wright wrote "Jesus and the Victory of God" in 1996. He sees Jesus as an eschatological prophet who taught the Jews that their exile was soon to be ended. (Jews in the 1st Century believed they were still in exile because of the Roman rule in Israel) The miracles were prophetic symbols that the eschaton (end of the world) was soon to come. His was a renewal movement which had a great deal of symbolism in it, such as the twelve disciples representing twelve tribes of Israel, and not fasting/mourning because he was in exile, but feasting because the exile was soon to be over. He brought a new covenant which was not the Temple and the Law but adherence to Jesus. Jesus died because the Jewish leaders believed him to be a false prophet.