One of the most misunderstood methodological issues that surrounds debates over the historical Jesus is the relevance of contemporary written sources (dating to the subject’s lifetime), or relatively early sources (dating to a couple decades of the subject’s life), when reconstructing a reliable biography of Jesus’ life. Very often comparisons are made to other historical figures, such as Alexander the Great, who (allegedly) do not have any contemporary sources for their lives, despite the reliability of our historical information about them. Apologists thus argue that the lack of contemporary sources for Jesus, and the fact that all ancient writings that mention Jesus date to a gap of decades or centuries after his death, do not make the historical Jesus more obscure or less knowable than other famous figures from antiquity.
As I exposed in apologist Lee Strobel’s interview with Craig Blomberg in The Case for Christ, this mistake is usually made by apologists confusing the earliest extant sources (those that have survived medieval textual transmission) with the earliest sources that were written (and available to subsequent historians) in antiquity. Strobel and Blomberg, for example, implied through ambiguous wording that Plutarch and Arrian (writing 400 years after Alexander) were the earliest biographers of his life , when actually the biographer Callisthenes of Olynthus was an eyewitness contemporary to Alexander, who traveled with him during his campaigns. Callisthenes’ biography is still partially preserved in fragments, which are read, studied, and used for information today by modern historians in edited volumes, such as Felix Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians. There were also several other eyewitness historians who recorded Alexander’s deeds, such as Anaximenes of Lampsacus, Aristobulus of Cassandreia, Eumenes, and Nearchus, among others.
Moreover, these early historical sources would have been available in libraries, such as the Great Library of Alexandria, and could be accessed by later biographers such as Plutarch and Arrian . Were it not for these contemporary written sources, and if there really had been no biography or history written about Alexander for a gap of 400 years after his death, modern historians would be far, far more skeptical of our ability to know the details of Alexander’s life (as is the case for many other ancient politicians who, despite being historical, had no extensive biography or history of their deeds written until hundreds of years after their death, such as Cyrus the Great, who certainly existed, but whose life is considerably more obscure than Alexander’s).
On the other hand, skeptics can often be overly skeptical in arguing that an absence of contemporary sources implies the non-existence of the person or event in question. For example, I do not consider it a good argument that Jesus did not exist, simply because nobody wrote about him until several decades after his death . The fact is that there were many poor and illiterate people in the ancient world that nobody wrote a single text about, but who still historically existed. Nevertheless, the absence of contemporary sources for Jesus does make the details of his life considerably more obscure, legendary, and irretrievable to historians. As such, the lack of contemporary or early written sources is not irrelevant to the debate of reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus.
So, when do contemporary or early sources matter in ancient history? As discussed above, this is a complex methodological issue, so spelling out some of the main criteria, and explaining how they are relevant to the problems of later myth-making, is now in order.
The first distinction that should always be made in discussing the contemporary sources that exist for a particular person or event is between: 1) those sources that are still fully extant, and 2) those sources that no longer survive, but are still partially preserved in titles, quotations, and fragments:
1) The fact is that most of the literature that was produced in antiquity has been lost over time. Ancient Greek and Latin literature was originally written on papyrus scrolls, which had a shelf life of about 300 years or so (Scribes and Scholars, pg. 34). As such, when copies were not made of a particular manuscript, it would gradually deteriorate over time until eventually being lost. Classicists now estimate that approximately 95-99% of all literature produced in antiquity was lost in this way .
There was, however, a major exception to this trend: Christian texts, and particularly those of the New Testament. After the fall of the Roman Empire, church monks took over the process of transmitting and preserving ancient texts. Not surprisingly, these monks had a greater interest in preserving Christian texts over Pagan ones. Accordingly Reynolds and Wilson (Scribes and Scholars, pg. 34) explain: “There can be be little doubt that one of the major reasons for the loss of classical texts is that most Christians were not interested in reading them, and hence not enough new copies of the texts were made to ensure their survival in an age of war and destruction.”
Often apologists like to emphasize the fact that vastly more manuscripts of the New Testament have come down from antiquity than other ancient texts. I have already explained in my article “Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context” the methodological reasons why the larger quantity of manuscripts for the NT has absolutely nothing to do with the historical reliability of the NT. But furthermore, these apologists often ignore the historical context behind why more of these texts exist. The primary reason why is because more effort was put into copying and preserving Christian texts during the medieval period .
2) Despite the sample bias that exists in the surviving corpus of ancient texts that have come down from the medieval period, there was a much greater body of Pagan literature that existed in antiquity. In the case of Alexander the Great, there was the Great Library of Alexandria, among other libraries, which preserved numerous biographies of Alexander’s life written by contemporary eyewitnesses. These biographies could be accessed by later writers in antiquity, so that later historians (even when writing 400 years after Alexander’s death) did not have to rely on a process of telephone.
As such, when it comes to the reliability of later biographers, such as Plutarch and Arrian, it is important to remember that they had access to these earlier works. Moreover, unlike the authors of the Gospels, Plutarch and Arrian extensively quote and interact with their earlier materials, as I explain in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament.” For example, the biographer Plutarch, as historian J. Powell explains in “The Sources of Plutarch’s Alexander” (pg. 229), quotes no fewer than 24 earlier sources by name in his Life of Alexander. In contrast, the Gospel of Luke does not provide the name of a single written source that the author consulted. This is a vastly important issue to consider when assessing the reliability of these texts and their relation to contemporary evidence.
So long as extensive fragments and information exist for lost works, such as the lost biographers of Alexander the Great, they can still be considered contemporary sources. There are, of course, Christian texts that also perished in antiquity (e.g. Papias of Hierapolis’ Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord), but none are as relevant to the historical Jesus as Alexander’s biographers are to the historical Alexander the Great . The reason why is that there are no known eyewitness, contemporary sources of the same caliber as Callisthenes of Olynthus that ever existed for Jesus — lost, fragmentary, or otherwise.
Scholars through source analysis have sought to identify earlier sources that lie behind the Gospels and other texts that refer to the life of Jesus. Among these are the Q (Quelle) source, the pre-Markan Passion Narrative, the Signs Gospel behind John, M sources unique to Matthew, L sources unique to Luke, and so on. There are a number of reasons, however, why these hypothetical sources are not the same as the lost biographies of Alexander the Great:
1) It should first be noted that all of these sources are hypothetical, and none were named or identified in antiquity. This is very different from a source like Callisthenes of Olynthus, who is explicitly quoted by later authors, and who also has extensive fragments preserved of his lost work. The authors of the Gospels name none of these hypothetical sources, and it is possible that they did no interact with them at all. Scholars like Mark Goodacre in the Case Against Q, for example, doubt that the Q (Quelle) source even existed, and Werner Kelber in The Passion in Mark has called into question whether a pre-Markan Passion narrative ever existed.
As such, it is not certain among scholars that these earlier Christian sources even existed to begin with (even if many scholars, and in some cases the majority, think that their existence is probable). No such scholarly dispute exists in the case of Alexander’s lost biographies, and we possess the actual names and some quotations of them.
2) Alexander’s lost sources are attached to known eyewitnesses, such as Callisthenes, whereas none of the hypothetical Christian sources listed above can be attached with certainty to a known figure. Even if the Q (Quelle) source existed and was used by the authors of Matthew and Luke, for example, we do not know who would have written this hypothetical document. It could easily have been just another unknown author and non-eyewitness writing decades later (most scholars place the Q source around 40-80 CE). The author of Luke (1:1-2) does state that there were earlier written accounts of Jesus, which were inspired by traditions allegedly handed down by eyewitnesses; however, the author of Luke names none of these sources nor identifies any specific eyewitnesses who would have been behind them. As such, we have considerably more obscurity about the earliest sources for Jesus than we do for Alexander the Great.
3) The lost biographies of Alexander would have been much larger and substantive works than anything that existed for Jesus. Alexander’s biographies were extensive historical works that covered in detail his different campaigns and actions. These works were edited and made available in libraries, where later historians could have access to them. It is not like there was some great library that existed in Galilee or Jerusalem for Jesus (as there was a great library for Alexander at Alexandria), where the later Gospel authors could go to interact with extensive contemporary histories written during Jesus’ ministry. Jesus and his companions were probably all mostly illiterate (discussed further here).
Even if earlier sources like Q, the pre-Markan Passion Narrative, the Signs Gospel, M, and L existed, therefore, these would have been considerably shorter and less methodologically rigorous texts than anything written by a historian like Callisthenes. They would have probably all been anonymous collections of sayings, or summary outlines of things like Jesus’ crucifixion or (alleged) seven great miracles, that circulated within early church communities and were not edited by public libraries (which also would have made them far more susceptible to later redactions and interpolations). Such sources would have been considerably more sparse than what was available to Alexander’s later biographers, such as Plutarch and Arrian.
So, not only do contemporary written sources exist for Alexander the Great (even ignoring archeological evidence, which is also vastly more abundant for Alexander than Jesus), but they are also better in every conceivable way than the written sources that exist for Jesus — both extant or lost. The apologist will now respond that we should not expect there to be better evidence for Jesus. After all, Alexander the Great was a wealthy politician surrounded by literate people, who even had a library dedicated to him in Alexandria. Jesus, in contrast, was a poor itinerant prophet, who was surrounded by mostly illiterate people, and who did not receive the same public honors after his death. True. But this consideration does not eliminate the relevance of contemporary sources.
There are, in fact, two different kinds of appeals to contemporary sources that are based on two entirely different kinds of arguments. There are: 1) arguments from silence based on the lack of contemporary sources, and 2) arguments from insufficient or unreliable evidence:
1) Arguments from silence are used to argue that a lack of contemporary or early sources for a particular person or event implies the non-existence of that person or event. I have discussed previously when arguments from silence are valid in my article “Outside Corroboration as a Historical Criterion and the Validity of Arguments from Silence.” To summarize: arguments from silence are valid when contemporary evidence should be expected as a result of the person or event in question, particularly when the person or event in question is highly public or extraordinary.
For example, in another article that I wrote on this same issue, I responded to an apologetic claim that there are no contemporary or early sources that exist for the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the burials of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This argument was made in an attempt to show that historians should not expect contemporary accounts even for highly extraordinary events, such as the eruption of a massive volcano. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius happened in the Bay of Naples during the 1st century CE, which belongs both to a period and region where extensive literary activities were taking place. If no contemporary or early sources had mentioned this event, then the validity of arguments from silence may have been called into question by this counter-example. However, I demonstrated in the article that the apologists completely got their historical information wrong and missed a number of very early sources that mention the volcanic eruption. These sources were furthermore all independent of each other (showing that multiple contemporary accounts do exist when actual extraordinary events take place in literate regions).
In the case of the historical Jesus, arguments from silence based on a lack of contemporary or corroborating evidence are sometimes valid and sometimes not. When it comes to the Jesus of the Gospels, who allegedly had the entire Earth go dark at his crucifixion, tore the curtain in the Jewish Temple in twain, and then flew into space in broad daylight, these arguments are valid. It is very obvious that such tall tales were later embellishments and exaggerations of Jesus, and it is not surprising that not a single contemporary knows anything of these events (as I explain here). When it comes to a more minimal, obscure historical Jesus, however, these arguments are not valid. If Jesus was nothing more than an obscure peasant, then we should not necessarily expect that anything contemporary would have been written about him. This is why such arguments from silence do not incline me to doubt the existence of a historical Jesus.
2) Appeals to a lack of contemporary or early sources need not be taken as implying that the person or event in question did not exist. This was how apologist Cliffe Knechtle once tried to misinterpret a statement that I had made about there being no contemporary busts or statues of Jesus, as there are for figures like Alexander the Great and Tiberius Caesar. Cliffe responded that we should not expect there to have been busts produced of a poor Galilean peasant. But that was never the point! Of course there will always be less archeological remains for obscure people in comparison to kings and politicians. The point that I was making is that such evidence makes it possible for modern historians to know considerably more about Alexander and Tiberius than Jesus. In the case of Alexander and Tiberius, we have contemporary busts that give us a rough (though idealized) portrait of what they probably looked like. In the case of Jesus, we have no physical description or artifact of any kind from his life.
None of this implies that Jesus did not exist. It implies that we are very limited in what we can know with any certainty about the historical Jesus. We will always have more historical information for famous generals and emperors who changed the world and made a large footprint on contemporary records. We will also always know less about obscure people who never had such an impact. Because of this, modern historians are able to reconstruct far more reliable biographies for people like Alexander the Great and Tiberius Caesar. The details of these two men’s lives are far less obscure to history. Jesus just happened to be someone of less public prominence, so that we have considerably less reliable information about him.
As such, appeals to a lack of contemporary or early sources are valid when arguing that such a lack impairs our ability to know about the person or event in question. We may never expect to have such evidence, since it may have never been produced. But it still affects what we can know about the past, and it is primarily this second form of argument that is relevant to why there is little reliable historical evidence for Jesus.
It should also be noted, however, that the evidence for Jesus is not only less than that for famous politicians. There are other less powerful and wealthy figures from antiquity that are still considerably better attested than Jesus. For example, the historical Socrates, who lived in 5th century BCE Athens (a time and region far more literate than Galilee in the 1st century CE), is a figure who, like Jesus, wrote none of his own works and is only known through the writings of others. However, we possess a number of contemporary, eyewitness sources for Socrates’ life, such as Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon (among other fragmentary sources). The evidence for the historical Socrates is thus far greater than that of the historical Jesus. So, Jesus is not just more obscure than politicians, but also other figures from antiquity. This does not at all imply that Jesus did not exist, but it should be taken into consideration when apologists exaggerate the amount of historical evidence that exists for Jesus.
The reason why historians look for contemporary or early sources is because the details of the past can be obscured over time and replaced by later speculation and myth-making. Early sources closer to the event are thus less likely to be contaminated by a later process of telephone. In the case of both Alexander the Great and Jesus, legendary accounts of their lives began to circulate only a few decades after their deaths . However, as Kris Komarnitsky explains in “Myth Growth Rates in the Gospels: A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule,” the pace of legendary development took place at a considerably more rapid pace for Jesus, because of a lack of public interest and records for Jesus’ life. Whereas for Alexander the Great, the historical core of his biography was far better preserved through all of the various records that were produced during his kingship.
Apologists often appeal to Sherwin-White’s (dated) claim that two generations (the time in which the earliest accounts of Jesus were written) was too short a time for legendary development to have displaced the historical core of Jesus’ biography. As Komarnitsky explains in the article linked above, however, Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule, even when it was first published back in the 1960’s, never received widespread support among Classicists (it has instead mostly been popularized by apologist William Lane Craig’s later quote mining of it). A major reason why is that the comparison with Jesus was unlike most of the other historical figures in Sherwin-White’s analysis, who were of considerably greater public interest and had contemporary records for their lives.
As Komarnitsky explains:
“That Sherwin-White did not fully consider the effects of public interest in a figure on the preservation of the historical core after his or her death is evident by the fact that every example he gives in his myth-growth-rate essay of people whom the historical core was preserved — Pisistratus (tyrant of Athens), Hipparchus (tyrant of Athens after Pisistratus), Gaius Gracchus (politician), Tiberius Caesar (emperor), Cleomenes (king), Themistocles (military commander), and all forty-six people in Plutarch’s Lives (every single one a statesman, general, king, emperor, lawmaker, politician, tyrant, or consul) — all are figures of significant public interest.
But what about the presence and influence of firsthand eyewitnesses on the oral tradition, someone might ask. Although a few of Jesus’ closest followers were probably eyewitnesses to a large part of his ministry (such as the Apostles), in an enthusiastic religious movement driven by belief in Jesus’ resurrection and imminent return (I think these were sincerely held beliefs that were not the result of legendary growth), these followers may by themselves have been unable to contain the growth of legend and displacement of the historical core among those in the growing church who did not know Jesus when he was alive or were not eyewitnesses of the specific events being distorted. The ability of a few of Jesus’ closest followers to contain the growth of legend would have been further hampered if the legends were growing in several different locales, for in this case they would have had the nearly impossible task of being present everywhere, stamping out all of the unhistorical legends…
…In conclusion, the Gospels are an understandable exception to what classical historians normally deal with, because classical historians rarely if ever deal with the written records of a highly revered religious figure who had very little contemporary significance to anyone but his followers when he was alive and to his worshippers after his death and where the entire written record comes only from those who worshipped him.”
As such, when dealing with the historical Jesus of Galilee versus the historical Alexander the Great, we not only have less substantial sources for Jesus (anonymous hagiographies) than Alexander (eyewitness historians), but also a considerably bigger problem of legendary development contaminating the sources for Jesus that we even possess. This makes reconstructing the details of the historical Jesus’ life a considerably greater problem than reconstructing the historical Alexander. This is why there has been a “Quest for the Historical Jesus” in Biblical Studies, but no such problem for Classicists reconstructing the life of Alexander. The two historical situations are simply not the same.
This does not mean, however, that we cannot know anything about the historical Jesus. Historians from the 19th century to the present have rigorously analyzed the ancient sources that mention Jesus and come to a consensus that some of them contain reliable information about the historical Jesus’ life. These sources, however, are a small minority of the texts that mention Jesus to have come down from antiquity. When I first started this blog, I refuted an apologetic claim that there were only 10 sources for the Roman emperor Tiberius 150 years after his death, compared to 42 sources for Jesus in the same timespan. This apologetic created the impression that the evidence for Jesus is greater than that of even more prominent figures from antiquity, such as Roman emperors. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
To begin with, the apologetic claim was egregiously inaccurate, and had missed over 75% of the literary sources that mention Tiberius during that period (not to mention epigraphical and papyrological sources). The actual number was closer to 45 sources for Tiberius within 150 years. But, furthermore, when one re-crunched the numbers, the sources for Tiberius were vastly earlier. In terms of contemporary sources, there are 14 sources that mention Tiberius during his lifetime, including 100+ epigraphical sources and ~100 papyrological sources, in comparison to 0/0/0 contemporary sources for Jesus.
But that wasn’t even the greatest problem. As I mention in subsection 8 of my refutation of the 10/42 apologetic, not all historical sources are equal. The 45 literary sources for Tiberius within 150 years that survive are vastly more reliable than the 42 for Jesus. To begin with, the statistic included a number of NT texts that mention “Christ” and refer to faith in Jesus, but contain little to no details about the historical life of Jesus, such as the Epistle of Jude. Moreover, the list included outright forgeries, such as 2 Peter, which few mainstream scholars think contain reliable information about the historical Jesus. A number of the authors on the list were very late and contain information that even apologists do not think is reliable. For example, nobody in Biblical Studies thinks that the church father Papias is correct when he records the following saying of Jesus:
“As the elders who saw John the disciple of the Lord remembered that they had heard from him how the Lord taught in regard to those times, and said: ‘The days will come in which vines shall grow, having each ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in every one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five-and-twenty metretes of wine.'”
Yet Papias is still included in the 10/42 statistic, despite the fact that he preserves no reliable or independent information about the historical Jesus. The same goes for some of the Pagan sources on the list. No modern historians, for example, believe Celsus when he claims that Jesus had a Roman father named Pantera. These sources are thus largely irrelevant to reconstructing the life of Jesus and only serve to inflate the number of sources for Jesus in the statistic.
Critical historians who have assessed the reliability of the sources for Jesus have identified 6 primary sources that are most relevant to reconstructing the life of Jesus. It should also be noted that these sources are among the earliest that are listed in the 10/42 statistic (most, if not all, dating to the 1st century CE), and that historians, including apologists, dismiss many of the sources that date after these as unreliable or legendary. Once more, therefore, earlier sources matter for studying the historical Jesus. The 6 primary sources are:
1) The seven undisputed letters of Paul (particularly Galatians and 1 Corinthians), including pre-Pauline creeds, such as in 1 Cor. 15:3-7. These letters date from the early 50’s CE to the late 60’s CE, about two to three decades after the life of Jesus, making Paul our only “early source” for Jesus. It should also be noted that Paul provides very few explicit or direct details about the historical Jesus . NT scholar Bart Ehrman explores some of the reasons why in his blog post “Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?.”
2-4) The Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), and particularly common traditions and sayings found in all of them. These sources date from 70 CE to the early 2nd century CE, about forty to seventy years after the life of Jesus. It should also be noted that the Synoptic Gospels are not independent accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, but are heavily interdependent in their source material. The author of Matthew borrows from 80% of the verses in Mark, and the author of Luke borrows from 65% of the verses in Mark.
5-6) The Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas, which are the least reliable. Despite the fact that they offer a considerably different portrait of Jesus than the Synoptic Gospels, scholars find little reliable information in these sources that is not already found in the sources above. These sources date from the late 1st century CE to the early 2nd century CE, about sixty to a hundred years after the life of Jesus.
Almost all of the other sources for Jesus that are mentioned in the statistic, after these, are later and contain little or no independent information about his life. For example, the 10/42 statistic appealed to non-Christian sources like Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius. But, even if the passages in these (later) authors that appear refer to Jesus are valid (I discuss their relevance in my 10/42 article), they do not record information about Jesus that is independent to what is already known from the sources listed above. Tacitus (Ann. 15.44), for example, only says that “Christus” was crucified under Pontius Pilate, but this claim tells nothing more than what we know from the Gospels. In all likelihood, Tacitus probably learned this information from Christian claims already circulating in his community, and not from any independent knowledge that he had of the historical Jesus.
The reality is that we only have two major bodies of evidence for most of the details of Jesus’ life: the apostle Paul’s letters and their sources, and the Synoptic Gospels and their sources. It should also be noted that Paul was not an eyewitness of Jesus; however, Paul did know eyewitnesses like Peter and James, and thus provides a (limited) window into the first generation of Christianity. The large majority of scholars doubt that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, as I explain in my article “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels,” so their relation to the events that they relate is even more ambiguous. Nevertheless, these sources have been vetted by modern historians over the last two centuries of biblical scholarship, and experts have reached a consensus that they contain some probable details about the life of the historical Jesus (which are by no means the majority of claims made in these texts, the majority of which are legendary, unreliable, or at least disputable).
The details of Jesus’ life that are agreed upon by a consensus of modern scholars include:
- Jesus was a historical Jew who probably lived in the early 1st century CE.
- Jesus was probably a native of Galilee.
- Jesus probably had a brother named James (referenced in Gal. 1:19), a father named Joseph, and a mother named Mary.
- Jesus was likely baptized by John the Baptist.
- Jesus, like John, was probably an apocalyptic prophet who taught about a coming Kingdom of God (this theory was first developed by Albert Schweitzer, and has been expanded by modern scholars, such as Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman).
- Jesus’ ministry got him into trouble with either the Roman or Jewish authorities (or both) at Jerusalem.
- Jesus was executed by crucifixion, probably when Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect of Judea (26-36 CE).
- Within a couple years after Jesus’ death, some people believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead (as is evidence by the creed in 1 Cor. 15:3-7, which most scholars date to 2-5 years after the death of Jesus. I discuss this creed and its relevance further here).
The above is a summary of the most that I think we can say about the historical Jesus, based on the consensus of modern biblical scholars. It should be noted that there is no universal agreement among scholars for what caused the belief in Jesus’ resurrection after his death. However, as I explain in my article “Knocking Out the Pillars of the ‘Minimal Facts’ Apologetic,” I think that the early Christians’ deification of Jesus and claims about his resurrection can be very plausibly explained as the result of cognitive dissonance rationalization in the face of grief.
This theory is developed more by Kris Komarnitsky in “The Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Christian Origins,” who draws parallels with other messianic movements after the death of their messiah figure, most notably those of the failed Jewish messiahs Sabbatai Zevi and Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Likewise, NT scholar Bart Ehrman has developed a theory in How Jesus Became God that goes all the way from the historical Jesus’ teachings, to his death, to the belief in his resurrection, and to Jesus’ eventual deification, which can explain all of these developments in purely natural terms. Even mainstream Christian scholars, such as Dale Allison in Resurrecting Jesus, acknowledge that there are at least plausible theories for how Christianity could have emerged due to purely natural causes. As such, the belief in Jesus’ resurrection hardly required an actual miracle to emerge.
The details of Jesus’ life that I do not think are reliable and are probably the result of legendary development include the following (these details are also not accepted by any consensus of modern scholars, even if individual scholars may accept them):
- Jesus was descended from King David (for problems with the genealogies of Jesus, see Paul Davidson’s article “What’s the Deal with Matthew’s Genealogy”).
- Jesus was born in Bethlehem (for problems with the nativity stories, see Richard Carrier’s article “The Date of the Nativity in Luke”).
- King Herod attempted to kill Jesus as an infant by slaughtering all of the male children in Bethlehem after he was born (I explain why this is almost certainly a later invention here).
- Jesus performed genuine miracles (as I explain in my article “History and the Paranormal,” historians cannot prove paranormal claims like miracles using the historical method. Furthermore, the belief in miracles attributed to Jesus can be explained as the result of legendary development or other natural causes).
- Jesus claimed to be the equivalent of God the Father (Bart Ehrman explains why this is a later development in How Jesus Became God).
- Jesus was crucified simultaneous to a three hour darkness that covered the Earth and the ripping of the curtain in the Jewish Temple (Carrier elaborates on why the darkness is almost certainly an invention here. The ripping of the Temple curtain is mentioned by neither Philo of Alexandria nor Josephus, despite being an extraordinary occurrence that would have pertained to the writings of both. The ripping of the curtain is instead almost certainly a fictional story telling device, elaborated upon here).
- After his execution, women found Jesus’ burial place empty as the first sign of his resurrection (this claim is accepted by a number of, mostly Christian, NT scholars; however, as I explain in my article about the minimal facts apologetic, there is no consensus of scholars that accepts this claim).
- Jesus, after his death, physically appeared to his disciples, face to face, in an earthly setting (the fact is that the Gospels do not even record a consistent location for where the post-mortem sightings of Jesus took place. Mark includes no post-mortem appearances in the narrative, and Matthew has Jesus appear to his followers in Galilee; however, Luke and John instead have Jesus appear to his followers in Jerusalem. Paul in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 is the first writer to mention post-mortem appearances, but specifics neither that these were physical nor that they occurred in any earthly setting. For explaining how stories of these post-mortem sightings could emerge as the result of purely natural causes, see here).
- Jesus genuinely rose from the dead (the consensus in the scholarly community is that the resurrection of Jesus is a philosophical and theological matter that must be bracketed as beyond the scope of historical analysis. I rebut apologetic attempts to historically “prove” the resurrection here and here).
- Jesus ascended to Heaven in broad daylight (the ascension of Jesus is only mentioned in Luke 24:50-53, which places it in the vicinity of Bethany, and Acts 1:7-12, which further specifies the Mount of Olives. Strangely, the Gospel of Matthew 28:16-20 seems to imply that Jesus’ last meeting with his disciples was on a mountain in Galilee, some 70-80 miles North of Bethany, though it says nothing of the ascension. Jesus’ ascension is almost certainly a theological and storytelling device, and not a single author from the 1st century CE outside the New Testament knows anything of it. The story itself was also probably influenced by the ascension of Elijah in 2 Kings 2:1-18, which is elaborated upon further here).
The above provides an outline of what I think that we can say about the historical Jesus, and what are probably later legendary developments. As can be seen, the absence of early or contemporary sources is relevant to this analysis. Many of the stories that I identify as legendary belong to later and less reliable sources. If we had better sources, perhaps we could say more, but that fact is that we do not. One of the great achievements of modern biblical scholarship is that we can say anything about the life of the historical Jesus at all.
It should also be noted that one can accept all of the minimal historical details of Jesus outlined above, and still walk away reasonably unconvinced of the resurrection of Jesus and the core claims of Christianity. Many biblical scholars and former Christians — such as Bart Ehrman, Hector Avalos, and my own mentor Christine Thomas — have done so. The evidence for Jesus is not extraordinary, despite apologetic exaggerations to the contrary. Nevertheless, there is a limited degree of evidence for the historical Jesus, and such evidence points towards the obscure, itinerant apocalyptic prophet described above. This figure, of course, was exaggerated and embellished by legendary accounts since not long after the time of his death. Such exaggerations inspired the legendary figure that is now worshiped in modern Christianity today. That Jesus, however, who is prayed to and worshiped in church, has not been proven by historical evidence. The Jesus of faith is a matter of faith, and the Jesus of history is only an obscure figure of the past, most of whose life details have been lost today.
 As it turns out, an Ancient History Ph.D. student at UNC, who was a former colleague of mine in the UofA Classics M.A. program, found even another error in Strobel’s interview. He pointed out that, even among the extant sources that come down through medieval manuscripts, Plutarch and Arrian are still not the “earliest biographies.” We have surviving copies of the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus’ Historiae Alexandri Magni, which predates both Plutarch’s and Arrian’s biographies. So, even when remarks in Strobel’s interview are given allowance for only referring to surviving texts (which is very ambiguous in its wording and misleading to the readers), Strobel and Blomberg are still incorrect.
 Furthermore, even if Plutarch and Arrian did not directly access the earlier writings of Alexander’s historians, they still had access to source collections that compiled their materials. As J.E. Powell (“The Sources of Plutarch’s Alexander,” pp. 229-230) argues:
“Plutarch cites by name no fewer than twenty-four authorities. The list is headed by those Letters of Alexander which form almost the sole source of the digressions illustrative of character: they are expressly cited in altogether more than thirty places. Next … come Aristobulus, Chares and Onesicritus, cited half-a-dozen times each; then Callisthenes quoted thrice, and Duris, Eratosthenes and the ephemerides, or official diaries, twice each. There remain the following sixteen names, which appear once only: Anticlides, Antigenes, Aristoxenus, Clitarchus, Dinon, Hecataeus of Eretria, Hegesias, Heraclides, Hermippus, Istrus, Philip of Chalcis and Philip the Chamberlain, Philo of Thebes, Polyclitus, Ptolemy and Sotion.
[T]he great majority of these authors can never have been in Plutarch’s hands. His citation of them must be derivative. Indeed, it can be made probable that in composing the Life Plutarch used only two books: the collection of Alexander’s letters for the character-sketches, and for the main narrative a large variorum compilation on the history of Alexander, the same compilation of which Arrian’s Anabasis is principally a judicious epitome.”
Through earlier source collections, such as the variorum that Powell discusses, therefore, the gap between Alexander’s first historians (who wrote during and shortly after his lifetime) could be bridged to later authors like Plutarch and Arrian, who wrote several hundred years later.
 Notably, professional mythicist historian Richard Carrier in On the Historicity of Jesus (which, on a personal note, I am quoted in twice on pp. 23 and 412) does not make this argument, but instead argues that the sources that we do have for Jesus — not simply an absence of sources — are best interpreted (in Carrier’s opinion) as referring to a mythical person. This article does not endorse Carrier’s myth hypothesis, however, it does acknowledge that Carrier’s peer-reviewed approach to mythicism is the best scholarly defense of the theory and does not make the same methodological errors common to other, less professional mythicist arguments.
 To be fair, a good deal of Christian literature also perished during the process of textual transmission from antiquity to the present. However, it is probably a fair estimate that a larger proportion of Pagan literature perished than Christian literature, owing to the fact that there was greater interest in preserving Christian literature during the medieval period.
 Another possible cause for why more Christian manuscripts have survived is because the early church made use of the codex, as opposed to papyrus scrolls. The codex replaced the papyrus scroll as the main writing medium for literature in late antiquity. Because of this change, many earlier texts that were preserved in papyri scrolls were lost. As Reynolds and Wilson (Scribes and Scholars, pg. 35) explain, “The change from roll to codex involved the gradual but wholesale transference of ancient literature from one form to another. This was the first major bottle-neck through which classical literature had to pass. It must have been somewhat reduced in the process, but the losses are not easily specified or assessed. There was the danger that little-read works would not be transferred to codex form, and in time their rolls would perish. A voluminous author, if some of his rolls were not available at a critical moment, might never recover his missing books.” Since codices had already been commonly used for copies of Christian texts (in addition to the fact that Christian monks dominated the apparatus of textual transmission after late antiquity), they were less likely to be lost in this bottleneck.
 Probably the most important lost Christian texts that would be relevant to the study of the historical Jesus are the other letters written by the apostle Paul that do not belong to the seven authentic letters of Paul in the New Testament. Since Paul was a near contemporary of Jesus, who recorded a few details about his life, we would probably know more about the historical Jesus if we had more of Paul’s epistles. On the other hand, the Pauline epistles that have survived probably belonged to an edited collection put together in the 2nd century CE. It may, therefore, be something of a misnomer to say Paul’s other letters were “lost,” since many of them may have never been put into an edited collection to begin with.
 As classicist Richard Stoneman (The Landmark Arrian, pgs. 388-389) explains: “Soon after his death, Alexander’s life story was written up by an anonymous author … This work, known as the Alexander Romance, emphasized the fabulous elements of Alexander’s story and added many new fables … This work seems, however, not to have been known to the Romans until it was translated by Julius Valerius in the fourth century C.E.; this has led to the mistaken view, still shared by many, that the Greek original was not written until shortly before that date. Probably it arose much earlier, perhaps in the early third century B.C.E. The Alexander Romance is a fictional biography that … is of interest as indicating the way that the memory of Alexander was shaped a generation or two after his death.”
 For a list of the historical information that I think the undisputed Pauline epistles do provide, see my my discussion here.