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The historical reliability of the Gospels refers to the reliability and historic character of the four New Testament gospels as historical documents. Although some claim that all four canonical gospels meet the five criteria for historical reliability, others say that little in the gospels is considered to be historically reliable.
Most modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed, but scholars differ on the historicity of specific episodes described in the Biblical accounts of Jesus, and the only two events subject to "almost universal assent" are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate. Elements whose historical authenticity is disputed include the two accounts of the Nativity of Jesus, as well as the resurrection and certain details about the crucifixion.
According to the majority viewpoint, the Synoptic Gospels are the primary sources of historical information about Jesus and of the religious movement he founded. These gospels--the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of Luke--recount the life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The fourth gospel, the Gospel of John, differs greatly from the first three gospels. Historians often study the historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles when studying the reliability of the gospels, as Acts was seemingly written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, although there are passages in Acts that contradict Luke. There are different hypotheses regarding the origin of the texts. The gospels of the New Testament were written in Greek for Greek-speaking communities, that were later translated into Syriac, Latin and Coptic.
Historians subject the gospels to critical analysis, attempting to differentiate authentic, reliable information from possible inventions, exaggerations, and alterations. Since the gospel manuscripts include many variants, scholars use textual criticism to determine which variants were original. To answer this question, scholars have to ask who wrote the gospels, when they wrote them, what was their objective in writing them, what sources the authors used, how reliable these sources were, and how far removed in time the sources were from the events they describe. Scholars can also look into the internal evidence of the documents, to see if, for example, the document is making claims about geography that were incorrect, or if the author appears to be hiding embarrassing information. Finally, scholars turn to external sources, including the testimony of early church leaders, writers outside the church (mainly Jewish and Greco-Roman historians) who would have been more likely to have criticized the church, and to archaeological evidence.
When judging the historical reliability of the gospels, scholars ask if the accounts in the gospels are, when judged using normal standards that historians use on other ancient writings, reliable or not. The main issues are whether the original gospel works were accurate eyewitness accounts, and whether those original versions have been transmitted accurately through the ages to us. In evaluating the historical reliability of the Gospels, scholars consider a number of factors. These include authorship and date of composition, intention and genre, gospel sources and oral tradition, textual criticism, and historical authenticity of specific sayings and narrative events.
The genre of the gospels is essential in understanding the intentions of the authors regarding the historical value of the texts. New Testament scholar Graham Stanton states that "the gospels are now widely considered to be a sub-set of the broad ancient literary genre of biographies." Charles H. Talbert agrees that the gospels should be grouped with the Graeco-Roman biographies, but adds that such biographies included an element of mythology, and that the synoptic gospels also included elements of mythology. E.P. Sanders states that “these Gospels were written with the intention of glorifying Jesus and are not strictly biographical in nature.” Ingrid Maisch and Anton Vögtle writing for Karl Rahner in his encyclopedia of theological terms indicate that the gospels were written primarily as theological, not historical items. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis notes that "we must conclude, then, that the genre of the Gospel is not that of pure 'history'; but neither is it that of myth, fairy tale, or legend. In fact, 'gospel' constitutes a genre all its own, a surprising novelty in the literature of the ancient world." Some critics have maintained that Christianity is not founded on a historical figure, but rather on a mythical creation. This view proposes that the idea of Jesus was the Jewish manifestation of a pan-Hellenic cult, known as Osiris-Dionysus, which acknowledged the non-historic nature of the figure, using it instead as a teaching device.
Scholars tend to consider Luke's works (Luke-Acts) to be closer in genre to "pure" history, although they also note that “This is not to say that he [Luke] was always reliably informed, or that - any more than modern historians - he always presented a severely factual account of events.” New Testament scholar, James D.G. Dunn believes that "the earliest tradents within the Christian churches [were] preservers more than innovators...seeking to transmit, retell, explain, interpret, elaborate, but not create de novo...Through the main body of the Synoptic tradition, I believe, we have in most cases direct access to the teaching and ministry of Jesus as it was remembered from the beginning of the transmission process (which often predates Easter) and so fairly direct access to the ministry and teaching of Jesus through the eyes and ears of those who went about with him." Nevertheless, David Jenkins, a former Anglican Bishop of Durham and university professor, has stated that “Certainly not! There is absolutely no certainty in the New Testament about anything of importance.”
Critical scholars have developed a number of criteria to evaluate the probability, or historical authenticity, of an attested event or saying represented in the gospels. These criteria are applied to the gospels in order to help scholars in reconstructions of the Historical Jesus. The criterion of dissimilarity argues that if a saying or action is dissimilar to, or contrary to, the views of Judaism in the context of Jesus or the views of the early church, then it can more confidently be regarded as an authentic saying or action of Jesus. One commonly cited example of this is Jesus' controversial reinterpretation of the Mosaic law in his Sermon on the Mount, or Peter's decision to allow uncircumcised gentiles into what was, at the time, a sect of Judaism. The criterion of embarrassment holds that the authors of the gospels had no reason to invent embarrassing incidents such as the denial of Jesus by Peter, or the fleeing of Jesus' followers after his arrest, and therefore such details would likely not have been included unless they were true. Bart Ehrman, using the criterion of dissimilarity to judge the historical reliability of the claim Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, notes that "it is hard to imagine a Christian inventing the story of Jesus' baptism since this could be taken to mean that he was John's subordinate." The account of the "baptism" of Jesus is extremely suspect as it does not agree with the Jewish Mikvah, that the Lord partook of (the mikvah is called baptism; and has very different intentions generally associated with baptism). In the mikvah procedure the person, seeking repentance or ritual purity, goes into the water on their own (no one prays over them or puts them under water). The only help another person gave them was to hold their clothes or to prepare them how to use a built up mikvah (flowing water but not a natural flowing body of water). People sought the mikvah for teshuvah (repentance) and could believe for healing of the body, when it was sought. John's statement to The Lord that He did not need the Mikvah, can be understood by John's knowledge of the Lord's Identity.
The criterion of multiple attestation says that when two or more independent sources present similar or consistent accounts, it is more likely that the accounts are accurate reports of events or that they are reporting a tradition which pre-dates the sources themselves. This is often used to note that the four gospels attest to most of the same events, but that Paul's epistles often attest to these events as well, as do the writings of the early church, and to a limited degree non-Christian ancient writings. The criterion of cultural and historical congruency says that a source is less credible if the account contradicts known historical facts, or if it conflicts with cultural practices common in the period in question. It is, therefore, more credible if it agrees with those known facts. For example, this is often used when assessing the reliability of claims in Luke-Acts, such as the official title of Pontius Pilate. Through linguistic criteria a number of conclusions can be drawn. The criterion of "Aramaisms" as it is often referred holds that if a saying of Jesus has Aramaic roots, reflecting Jesus' Palestinian context, the saying is more likely to be authentic.
Most scholars hold to the two-source hypothesis which claims that the Gospel of Mark was written first. According to the hypothesis, the authors of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke then used the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical Q document, in addition to some other sources, to write their individual gospels. These three gospels are called the Synoptic gospels since they are all very similar. Scholars agree that the Gospel of John was written last, by using a different tradition and body of testimony. In addition, most scholars agree that the author of Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles. Scholars hold that these books constituted two halves of a single work, Luke-Acts.
Strictly speaking, each gospel (and Acts) is anonymous. The Gospel of John is somewhat of an exception, although the author simply refers to himself as "the disciple Jesus loved" and claims to be a member of Jesus' inner circle. During the 2nd century, each canonical gospel was attributed to an apostle or to the close associate of an apostle.
Tradition holds that the Gospel of Mark was written by Mark the Evangelist, as St. Peter's interpreter. Numerous early sources say that Mark's material was dictated to him by St. Peter, who later compiled it into his gospel. The gospel, however, appears to rely on several underlying sources, which vary in form and in theology, and which tell against the story that the gospel was based on Peter's preaching.
The theory that the Gospel of Mark was written first and is the earliest of the Gospels is not without its problems. For example, its author seemed to be ignorant of Palestinian geography. Mark 7:31 describes Jesus going from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee by way of Sidon (20 miles farther north and on the Mediterranean coast). The author of Mark did not seem to know that you would not go through Sidon to go from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee, and there was no road from Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the 1st century, only one from Tyre. Catholic scholars have interpreted this passage as indicating "that Jesus traveled in a wide circle, first north, then east and south".
According to the majority viewpoint, this gospel is unlikely to have been written by an eyewitness. While Papias reported that Matthew had written the "Logia," this can hardly be a reference to the Gospel of Matthew. The author was probably a Jewish Christian writing for other Jewish Christians.
Some scholars uphold the traditional claim that Luke the Evangelist, an associate of St. Paul who was probably not an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry, wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles. Others point out that Acts contradicts Paul's own letters and denies him the important title of apostle, suggesting that the author was not a companion of Paul's.
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were both written by the same author. The most direct evidence comes from the prefaces of each book. Both prefaces were addressed to Theophilus, and Acts of the Apostles (1:1-2) says in reference to the Gospel of Luke, "In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day He was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles He had chosen." (NIV) Furthermore, there are linguistic and theological similarities between the two works, suggesting that they have a common author. Both books also contain common interests. The book of Acts has been most commonly dated to the second half of the 1st century. Given that, therefore, Luke was written by the same person who wrote Acts, and that Acts must have been written in the early 60s AD (the book ends before the death of Paul, which most probably occurred during the Persecution of the Christians under Nero between AD 64 and AD 68), it would seem that Luke was written around AD 60.
In the majority viewpoint, it is unlikely that John the Apostle wrote the Gospel of John. Rather than a plain account of Jesus' ministry, the gospel is a deeply meditated representation of Jesus' character and teachings, making direct apostolic authorship unlikely. Opinion, however, is widely divided on this issue and there is no widespread consensus.
|Gospel||Traditional author and apostolic connection|
|Gospel of Matthew||Saint Matthew, a former tax-collector, one of the Twelve Apostles.|
|Gospel of Mark||Saint Mark, a disciple of Simon Peter, one of the Twelve|
|Gospel of Luke||Saint Luke, a companion of Saint Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles|
|Gospel of John||Saint John, one of the Twelve, referred to in the text as the beloved disciple|
Textual criticism deals with the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts. Ancient scribes made errors or alterations (such as including non-authentic additions). In attempting to determine the original text of the New Testament books, some modern textual critics have identified sections as additions of material, centuries after the gospel was written. These are called interpolations. In modern translations of the Bible, the results of textual criticism have led to certain verses, words and phrases being left out or marked as not original.
For example, there are a number of Bible verses in the New Testament that are present in the King James Version (KJV) but are absent from most modern Bible translations. Most modern textual scholars consider these verses interpolations (exceptions include advocates of the Byzantine or Majority text). The verse numbers have been reserved, but without any text, so as to preserve the traditional numbering of the remaining verses. The Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman notes that many current verses were not part of the original text of the New Testament. "These scribal additions are often found in late medieval manuscripts of the New Testament, but not in the manuscripts of the earlier centuries," he adds. "And because the King James Bible is based on later manuscripts, such verses "became part of the Bible tradition in English-speaking lands." He notes, however, that modern English translations, such as the New International Version, were written by using a more appropriate textual method.
Most modern Bibles have footnotes to indicate passages that have disputed source documents. Bible Commentaries also discuss these, sometimes in great detail. While many variations have been discovered between early copies of biblical texts, most of these are variations in spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Also, many of these variants are so particular to the Greek language that they would not appear in translations into other languages.
Two of the most important interpolations are the last verses of the Gospel of Mark and the story of the adulterous woman in the Gospel of John. Some critics also believe the explicit reference to the Trinity in 1 John to have been a later addition.
The New Testament has been preserved in more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Ethiopic and Armenian. Even if the original Greek versions were lost, the entire New Testament could still be assembled from the translations. In addition, there are so many quotes from the New Testament in early church documents and commentaries that the entire New Testament could also be assembled from these alone. Not all biblical manuscripts come from orthodox Christian writers. For example, the Gnostic writings of Valentinus come from the 2nd century AD, and these Christians were regarded as heretics by the mainstream church. The sheer number of witnesses presents unique difficulties, although it gives scholars a better idea of how close modern bibles are to the original versions. Bruce Metzger says "The more often you have copies that agree with each other, especially if they emerge from different geographical areas, the more you can cross-check them to figure out what the original document was like. The only way they'd agree would be where they went back genealogically in a family tree that represents the descent of the manuscripts.
In "The Text Of The New Testament", Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland compare the total number of variant-free verses, and the number of variants per page (excluding orthographic errors), among the seven major editions of the Greek NT (Tischendorf, Westcott-Hort, von Soden, Vogels, Merk, Bover and Nestle-Aland) concluding 62.9%, or 4999/7947, agreement. They concluded, "Thus in nearly two-thirds of the New Testament text, the seven editions of the Greek New Testament which we have reviewed are in complete accord, with no differences other than in orthographical details (e.g., the spelling of names, etc.). Verses in which any one of the seven editions differs by a single word are not counted. ... In the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation the agreement is less, while in the letters it is much greater" Per Aland and Aland, the total consistency achieved in the Gospel of Matthew was 60% (642 verses out of 1071), the total consistency achieved in the Gospel of Mark was 45% (306 verses out of 678), the total consistency achieved in the Gospel of Luke was 57% (658 verses out of 1151), and the total consistency achieved in the Gospel of John was 52% (450 verses out of 869). Almost all of these variants are minor, and most of them are spelling or grammatical errors. Almost all can be explained by some type of unintentional scribal mistake, such as poor eyesight. Very few variants are contested among scholars, and few or none of the contested variants carry any theological significance. Modern biblical translations reflect this scholarly consensus where the variants exist, while the disputed variants are typically noted as such in the translations.
Authors such as Raymond Brown have presented arguments that the Gospels actually contradict each other in various important respects and on various important details. W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders state that: "on many points, especially about Jesus’ early life, the evangelists were ignorant … they simply did not know and, guided by rumour, hope or supposition, did the best they could".
More critical scholars see the nativity stories either as completely fictional accounts, or at least constructed from traditions that predate the Gospels. One example is the nativity narratives found in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1:1-17 ) and the Gospel of Luke (Luke 3:23-38 ). Each gives a genealogy of Jesus, but the names, and even the number of generations, differ between the two. Apologists have suggested that the differences are the result of two different lineages, Matthew's from King David's son, Solomon, to Jacob, father of Joseph, and Luke's from King David's other son, Nathan, to Heli, father of Mary and father-in-law of Joseph. However, the scholar Geza Vermes points out that Luke makes no mention of Mary, and questions what purpose a maternal genealogy would serve in a Jewish setting.
Raymond E. Brown states that there is an obvious contradiction regarding the death of Judas Iscariot: "Luke's account of the death of Judas in Acts 1:18 is scarcely reconcilable with Matt 27:3-10." In Matthew 27:3-8 , Judas returns the bribe he has been given for handing over Jesus, throwing the money into the temple before he hangs himself. The temple priests, unwilling to return the defiled money to the treasury, use it instead to buy a field known as the Potter's Field, as a plot in which to bury strangers. In Acts 1:18 , on the other hand, Judas uses the bribe money to buy the field himself, and his death is attributed to injuries from having fallen in this field. Other scholars state that the contradictory stories can be reconciled.
In addition to the internal and textual reliability of the gospels, external sources can also be used to assess historical reliability. There are passages relevant to Christianity in the works of four major non-Christian writers of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries – Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger. However, these are generally references to Early Christians rather than a historical Jesus. Of the four, Josephus' writings, which document John the Baptist, James the Just, and Jesus, are of the most interest to scholars dealing with the historicity of Jesus (see below). Tacitus, in his Annals written c. 115, mentions Christus, without many historical details (see also: Tacitus on Jesus). There is an obscure reference to a Jewish leader called "Chrestus" in Suetonius. (According to Suetonius, chapter 25, there occurred in Rome, during the reign of emperor Claudius (c. AD 50), "persistent disturbances ... at the instigation of Chrestus". Mention in Acts of "After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome."
Paul of Tarsus, a 1st-century Pharisaic Jew who experienced a conversion to faith in Jesus, dictated letters to various churches and individuals from c. 48–68. Though there are debates on Paul's authorship for some of these epistles, almost all scholars agree that Paul wrote the central corpus of these letters (such as the Epistle to the Romans and 1 Corinthians). Jerome Murphy-O'Connor believes that the historical Jesus is fundamental to the teachings of Paul, who rejected the separation of the Jesus of faith from the Jesus of history. While not personally an eye-witness of Jesus' ministry, Paul states that he was acquainted with people who had known Jesus: the apostle Peter (also known as Cephas), the apostle John, and James, described as the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19). Likewise, Paul alludes to Jesus' humanity and divinity, the Last Supper, his crucifixion, and reports of his resurrection.
The authors whose works are contained in the New Testament sometimes quote from creeds, or confessions of faith, that obviously predate their writings. Scholars believe that some of these creeds date to within a few years of Jesus' death, and developed within the Christian community in Jerusalem. Though embedded within the texts of the New Testament, these creeds are a distinct source for Early Christianity. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 reads: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." This contains a Christian creed of pre-Pauline origin. The antiquity of the creed has been located by many Biblical scholars to less than a decade after Jesus' death, originating from the Jerusalem apostolic community. Concerning this creed, Campenhausen wrote, "This account meets all the demands of historical reliability that could possibly be made of such a text," whilst A. M. Hunter said, "The passage therefore preserves uniquely early and verifiable testimony. It meets every reasonable demand of historical reliability." Other relevant creeds which predate the texts wherein they are found that have been identified are 1 John 4:2: "This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God", "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, this is my Gospel", Romans|1:3-4: "regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.", and 1 Timothy 3:16: "He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory," an early creedal hymn.
Julius Africanus, writing c. 221, while writing about the crucifixion of Jesus, refers to the historian Thallus. He wrote, "This darkness Thallus, in his third book of History, calls (as appears to me without reason) an eclipse of the sun." It is not known when Thallus lived, or whether his History made any reference to the crucifixion. Lucian, a 2nd-century Roman satirist, wrote, "the Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account… You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws." Celsus wrote, about 180, a book against the Christians, which is now only known through Origen's refutation of it. Celsus apparently accused Jesus of being a magician and a sorcerer and is quoted as saying that Jesus was a "mere man". F. F. Bruce noted that Celsus, in seeking to discredit Jesus, sought to explain his miracles rather than claim they never occurred.
The church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (264 – 340) cited a statement of the 2nd-century pagan chronicler Phlegon of Tralles that during the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (AD 32/33) "a great eclipse of the sun occurred at the sixth hour that excelled every other before it, turning the day into such darkness of night that the stars could be seen in heaven, and the earth moved in Bithynia, toppling many buildings in the city of Nicaea". In the same passage, Eusebius cited another unnamed Greek source also recording earthquakes in the same locations and an eclipse. Eusebius argued the two records had documented events that were simultaneous with the crucifixion of Jesus. Tertullian, in his Apologetics, tells the story of the darkness that had commenced at noon during the crucifixion; those who were unaware of the prediction, he says, "no doubt thought it an eclipse". Though he does not mention the claims of others, he suggests to the church's critics that the evidence is still available: "You yourselves have the account of the world-portent still in your archives." The early historian and theologian, Rufinus of Aquileia wrote of the apologetic defense given by Lucian of Antioch, around 300 AD. Lucian, like Tertullian, was also convinced that an account of the darkness that accompanied the crucifixion could be found among Roman records. Ussher recorded Lucian's words on the matter, presumably also to church critics, as “Search your writings and you shall find that, in Pilate’s time, when Christ suffered, the sun was suddenly withdrawn and a darkness followed.”
Flavius Josephus, a Jew and a Roman citizen who worked under a couple Roman emperors, wrote near the end of the 1st century. In the Testimonium Flavianum, Josephus says Jesus "was the Christ. When Pilate, upon the accusation of the first men amongst us, condemned him to be crucified, those who had formerly loved him did not cease to follow him, for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, as the divine prophets foretold, along with a myriad of other marvellous things concerning him." Concerns have been raised about the authenticity of the passage, and it is widely held by scholars that at least part of the passage has been altered by a later scribe. For example, where the version now says "he was the Christ", its original form may have been "he was thought to be the Christ." Judging from Alice Whealey's 2003 survey of the historiography, it seems that the majority of modern scholars consider that Josephus really did write something here about Jesus, but that the text that has reached us is corrupt. There has been no consensus on which portions have been altered, or to what degree. In the second, brief mention, Josephus calls James "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ." The great majority of scholars consider this shorter reference to Jesus to be substantially authentic (although the parallel passage is missing from The Jewish War). About a decade after Josephus' writings, Pliny the Younger (c. 61 - c. 112), a Roman governor, wrote to Emperor Trajan concerning how to deal with Christians, who refused to worship the emperor, and instead worshiped Jesus. His letters show the Christians in his day to be very strongly devoted, and enough of a problem for him to request advice from the emperor.
Tacitus, writing c. 116, included in his Annals a mention of Christianity and "Christus", viewed by most scholars as a reference to Jesus. In describing Nero's persecution of this group following the Great Fire of Rome c. 64, he wrote, "Nero fastened the guilt of starting the blaze and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome." There have been suggestions that this was a Christian interpolation but most scholars conclude that the passage was written by Tacitus. R. E. Van Voorst noted the improbability that later Christians would have interpolated "such disparaging remarks about Christianity". Suetonius (c. 69–140) wrote in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars about riots which broke out in the Jewish community in Rome under the emperor Claudius. He said, "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [ Claudius ] expelled them [the Jews] from Rome". The event was noted in Acts 18:2. The term Chrestus also appears in some later texts applied to Jesus, and Robert Graves, among others, consider it a variant spelling of Christ, or at least a reasonable spelling error.
The Talmud, a series of religious documents created by Jewish scholars between 200 and 500 AD, refer to Jesus using the term "Yeshu." These references probably date back to the 2nd century. One important reference relates the trial and execution of Jesus and his disciples, saying "On the eve of Passover they hung Yeshu and the crier went forth for forty days beforehand declaring that "[Yeshu] is going to be stoned for practicing witchcraft, for enticing and leading Israel astray....But no one had anything exonerating for him and they hung him on the eve of Passover". These early possible references to Jesus have little historical information independent from the gospels, but they do seem to reflect the historical Jesus as a man who had disciples and was crucified during Passover. F. F. Bruce noted that, in attempting to discredit Jesus, the passage sought to explain his miracles rather than claim they never occurred. Around the time these passages were being written, Mara (a Syrian Stoic) was imprisoned by the Romans and wrote a letter to his son. In it he said, "For what benefit did...the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them? For with justice did God grant a recompense...and the Jews, brought to desolation and expelled from their kingdom, are driven away into every land." CCEL Some scholars believe this describes the fall of Jerusalem as the gods' punishment for the Jews having killed Jesus. The Dead Sea scrolls are 1st century or older writings that show the language and customs of some Jews of Jesus' time. According to Henry Chadwick, similar uses of languages and viewpoints recorded in the New Testament and the Dead Sea scrolls are valuable in showing that the New Testament portrays the 1st century period that it reports and is not a product of a later period.
There is no archaeological evidence supporting the existence of a historical Jesus or any of the apostles, although various other details mentioned in the gospels have since been verified by archaeological evidence, such as the actual existence of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, the procurator who ordered Jesus' crucifixion, and the Pool of Bethesda.
Luke's reliability as a historian is questioned. Thomas Howe examined Luke's description of Paul's sea journeys, including Luke's references to thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands, and stated that he could not find any mistakes. However Powell states that Luke’s knowledge of Palestinian geography seems so inadequate that one prominent scholar was led to remark “Jesus route cannot be reconstructed on a map, and in any case Luke did not possess one”. Powell states that “if Luke intended to write history he did so poorly, but he did not so intend. Luke was a theologian, not a historian. A narrative which includes supernatural phenomena such as angels and demons is problematic as a historical source."
Mark is the primary source for information about Jesus. It was possibly composed at Rome. New Testament scholars generally credit its account of Jesus as a Galilean holy man, including his baptism by John the Baptist, his reputation as an exorcist and healer, his preaching about the coming Kingdom of God, his band of close disciples, the disruption he caused at the Temple, his betrayal, and his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. In 1901, William Wrede challenged the historical reliability of the gospel, concluding especially that Mark portrays Jesus as secretive about his messianic identity because the historical Jesus had never claimed to be the Messiah. Form criticism later revealed that the narrative comprises fragments put in order by Mark, or by someone before him. While the majority of scholars consider Jesus to have been an apocalyptic prophet, as he appears in Mark, a minority of prominent contemporary scholars argue that his coming kingdom was to be a social revolution rather than a supernatural apocalypse.
Matthew was most likely written at Antioch, then part of Roman Syria. Most scholars hold that Matthew drew heavily on Mark and added teaching from the Q document. While Matthew arranged this material into compilations, such as the Sermon on the Mount, much of the material goes back to the historical Jesus. The infancy narrative, however, is apparently an invention. Matthew presents Jesus' ministry as limited to the Jews, though the resurrected Jesus later commissions the disciples to preach to all the world. Geza Vermes judges that the ministry of Jesus was exclusively for Jews and that the order to proclaim the gospel to all nations was an early Christian development.
Luke was written in a large city west of Palestine. Like Matthew, Luke drew on Mark and added material from Q. Luke also includes a large amount of unique material, such as the parable of the good Samaritan, and many of these parables seem to be authentic. Luke emphasizes the universal nature of Jesus' mission and message, but Geza Vermes concludes that this theme is not authentic to the historical Jesus. As is the case with Matthew, much controversy has surrounded the Lukan birth narrative.
John was composed at Ephesus. Many scholars believe that Jesus' teaching in this gospel cannot be reconciled with that found in the synoptics, and prefer the synoptics for a view of Jesus' teaching.
Attention paid to noncanonical sources is a feature of current historical Jesus research. In particular, the Q source and the Gospel of Thomas have both taken on increased significance for scholars. Some scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan, even argue that noncanonical sources are to be preferred over canonical sources. The gospel of Thomas includes many parallels to authentic parables, aphorisms, and beatitudes found in the synoptics, and two of its unique parables bear the hallmarks of Jesus' authentic style of teaching.