Historical Jesus Theories (bibliography)

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 23, 2010 in Historical Jesus,Resources

jesus_computerized

Computer reconstruction based on 1st century Israeli skull.

There are many different theories of the Historical Jesus. Below are some of them (one book per scholar). Also see The Historical Jesus: Five Views.

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

Jesus the Myth

Jesus the Savior

Jesus the Wisdom Sage

Jesus the Social Prophet

Jesus the Spirit Man

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

mojo.rhythm October 23, 2010 at 5:09 am

What criterion do you use to determine authenticity when the Gospels are chock to the brim with pagan parallels, symbolic motifs, literary irony and superheroes doing magic tricks?

Who the heck knows.

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David Rogers October 23, 2010 at 6:17 am

What criterion do you use to determine authenticity when the Gospels are chock to the brim with pagan parallels, symbolic motifs, literary irony and superheroes doing magic tricks?Who the heck knows.  (Quote)

One could start by reading some of the above resources.

Since you seem already skeptical why not read Wright, Boyd/Eddy, Johnson and Stein. You, of course, are perfectly free to read the more skeptical too.

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David Rogers October 23, 2010 at 6:21 am

Ben Witherington’s “The Jesus Quest” provides a summary analysis of a number of the above resources.

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Chris October 23, 2010 at 8:34 am

The Apocalyptic Prophet list should have Dale Allison’s Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. It’s better than everything on the list except Sanders. It should definitely be included over Ludemann, at least if you’re trying to go with the most important books for each theory.

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Thomas October 23, 2010 at 10:54 am

For Earl Doherty, you should list his new book, “Jesus: Neither God nor Man,” a revised and updated version of “The Jesus Puzzle.”
http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Neither-God-Case-Mythical/dp/0968925928/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1287856258&sr=8-2

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Steven October 23, 2010 at 10:56 am

I think Jesus was like any other spiritual man of his time: someone who, for some reason or another, came to believe that he had found some deep truth about the universe and human relations. His heart was in the right place but his reason wasn’t (and again, these were superstitious times). I think it’s reasonable to think that Jesus did exist, did teach some sort of morals, and that he created some political trouble. What’s irrational to believe is that he came back to life, that he is the Son of God, etc.

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justsearching October 23, 2010 at 11:30 am

There were no Israelis until recent times.

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Rick B October 23, 2010 at 1:25 pm

I’m not sure Jesus existed as an historical person. Merely abdicating to convention, that ‘no serious person would doubt his existence’ does not answer my doubts. What are reliable historical evidences for his existence? Do those stack up to those about other minor [i.e. neither Roman, Greek or Egyptian; not rich; not politically powerful] figures in Roman times?

Reckon I’ll be doin some reading.

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lukeprog October 23, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Chris,

Added.

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Bram van Dijk October 23, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Having read the book by Theissen (not Thiessen) and Merz I’d also classify it as a Jesus the apocalyptic prophet book.

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Jaden October 23, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Rick B,

I’m no theist, but I think we can grant Christians the historicity of Jesus. I think that the Gospels, the Pauline epistles, Acts, and the various non-Christian sources that mention somebody like the Jesus that we know from the NT sources do well to establish (at least) that a guy named Jesus existed in 1st century Palestine and had something special to do with the rise of the early Christian communities. I don’t mean to argue from authority, but even if what I’ve outlined above is not the case, the fact that there are few professional historians who support ahistoricity seems to me a bit suspicious. Perhaps there’s a parallel here with creationists – using the tools of contemporary evolutionary biology, we’ve come up with (what most consider as) an approximately true account of the evolution of biological organisms. Creationists, a vociferous minority, disagree, perhaps as a result of religious biases. In the same way, historians have used their tools to examine the historical figure of Jesus and a majority have come away on the side of historicity. Jesus mythicists disagree and my intuition is that they do in part because of their suppositions, however justified, about the existence of God and Christian theology in general.

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Reginald Selkirk October 24, 2010 at 11:17 am

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Rick B October 24, 2010 at 11:20 am

Jaden,

While I understand where you’re coming from, in recent years I’ve become more skeptical: meaning that I require good evidence for claims people make. I still take a multivitamin, but I realize it does little for my long-term health and I furthermore enjoy urinating bright colors.

The evidence for Jesus must come from reliable historical, secular sources; the Gospels are so full of contradiction about Jesus that its writers can agree on neither the date of his birth, his lineage, the circumstances of his birth, the date of events in his lifetime, or even which acts occurred, and in what sequence. They disagree as to the ruler under which he was executed, the number and reaction and circumstances of his resurrection. Even modern novelists who portray their narrators as unreliable do so to portray some kind of truth, but this literary convention is modern, and cannot be applied to the NT.

So what I’m looking for is an accounting of the primary, secondary and tertiary evidence for Jesus’ existence and life. If, as the gospels claim, he was a great teacher who attracted mobs numbering in the thousands, and who was known of by the Roman authorities and all the major Jewish priests of the day, how is it that no one mentions Jesus during his lifetime? Well-known and reliable historians were alive and documenting events during the period 10 BCE and 40 CE, when Jesus might have lived. But all sources mentioning Chrestus or Jesus date in the earliest to be written after Jesus’ death.

I’d suggest that there are more historians who’d agree with me than are willing to admit it professionally. The strong disincentive [loss of their professional standing, job, etc.] they would face were they to seriously entertain the idea motivates them not to rock the boat. It’s also easy to take the subtle but easier tactic of finding evidence once your conclusion has been reached: the question, ‘What historical evidence points to Jesus’ life on earth?’ doesn’t even begin to question his existence, and will therefore never critically look at the evidence in question.

I don’t think your analogy to creationism is apt: the pseudoscience now known as Intelligent Design [ID] has a traceable history, clear religious motivation, and is utterly without scientific merit. Its only success comes from the gullibility and stupidity of the American (Australian, too, come to think about it) public, massive funding from the religious right and a unified campaign strategy to repeal the first amendment.

I’m also not sure that my presuppositions – i.e. that Christian theology is bogus and the god it describes internally contradictory – really play much of a role here, except as motivation. Let’s say we found a long lost document from a primary source who had witnessed Jesus speaking and attracting mobs of people to hear him. This would be very good evidence for his existence; I would be inclined to believe Jesus was an historical figure. That wouldn’t sway my convictions on christian theology or the question of god(s) much at all, but it would point towards a legitimate historical basis for the religion. We’d probably even answer questions like the ones I and other skeptics raise about the [lack of] documentation of Jesus.

Instead, what I want to insist on is a rational, consistent, scientifically historical argument for an historical Jesus. Having seen so many people try to give one, and fail, I’ll suggest it can’t be done given the sources we have today. This is why I must disagree with you and say, “No, the Christians have not proved their Jesus exists. Why grant them this as a matter of principle, if it’s not been proven?” I don’t believe that the mere fact of 1.5 billion people’s belief is any proof of anything.

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Reginald Selkirk October 24, 2010 at 11:30 am

Jaden: I’m no theist, but I think we can grant Christians the historicity of Jesus…

I have no trouble believing someone named Jesus (actually, it’s Jeshuah, a form of Joshua. Jesus is the Greek translation) lived around that place and time. Big whoop, it was a very common name. You might as well claim someone named Pedro is living in the Mexican state of Oaxaca today.

Beyond that, your arguments do not convince me.

The Pauline epistles, Gospels, etc. were written significantly later than the events described therein. There is absolutely no verification from secular sources. I presume your claim for historicty would be separate from a claim of fatuality for the supernatural story components, but even some of the non-miraculous events described in the New Testament (the census, the massacre of the innocents) are fictitious to a very high probability.

Most of the folks who specialize in the question of Bible history are believers, so have buy-in. You need to look beyond their saying so to the evidence they provide for it, and judge whether the same standards are being applied as in other similar questions. When you say “historians have used their tools to examine the historical figure of Jesus,” exactly which tools are you speaking of? What tools, and what evidence? If you are going to compare the evidence for the historicity of Jesus to the evidence put forward in support of evolution, I’m going to laugh in your face.


But even if a historical Jesus existed, this would not be evidence for the supernatural components of the story, so in a way it doesn’t even matter.

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lukeprog October 24, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Reginald,

How could I forget that one? :)

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Jaden October 24, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Rick and Reginald,

I have to admit that I don’t have an adequate response to what you’ve said, in large part because I’m not trained in history and don’t know much about the historical Jesus debate past the couple of books and articles I’ve read. Your responses are well-argued and almost convincing if it weren’t for my stubborn inclination to agree with biblical historians on this question. Perhaps they argue for historicity because of religious bias, perhaps because they’re using faulty historical methods. I don’t know and I’m thoroughly confused. And a bit pissed that there’s so much apologetic stance-taking on the subject. The Christian apologists usually make me feel like a one-sided brute for giving ahistoricity a thinking through and now I feel like an ignorant accommodationist. Bah!

Thanks for the responses, though. I’ll think about it.

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Rick B October 24, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Jaden,

Sorry to have come on so strong. I’m just trying to be a good skeptic and apply the same standards to Jesus (Yeshua, Chrestus, etc.) as we apply to everyone else.

As I said above, I’m out to do some reading. And maybe I’ll change my mind.

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Jaden October 25, 2010 at 12:12 am

Oh, no worries, it wasn’t anything you said and you didn’t come off too strong. It’s just that it seems like there are so many intelligent people out in the world making incompatible claims about everything from sociology to the attributes of God. When Ph.D’s are battling it out in the journals, I’m hesitant to say that I’m justified in knowing much of anything. It’s a predicament that comes with being human, I guess (but for some reason, it’s incredibly frustrating sometimes). Just an off-topic thought/rant.

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bram van dijk October 25, 2010 at 1:10 am

Luke,
Did you completely remove the book by Theissen and Merz? You shouldn’t have. It’s one of the best IMHO.

It shows a lot of different aspects of Jesus. They don’t really make a choice between the different aspects, though, as I said, the apocalyptic prophet one is probably the strongest one.

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lukeprog October 25, 2010 at 2:33 am

bram,

Yes, but you’re right, it doesn’t really fit the rigid category breakdown I’m giving for this post.

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Rob October 25, 2010 at 9:12 am

Nice compilation, Luke. I’ve read Ehrman, Crossan and Borg from this list. IMO, Ehrman paints the most believable picture of Jesus as a 1st century apocalyptic prophet. I’ve read several Ehrman books, and thought “Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium” was one of his best.

Crossan – and especially Borg – seem to essentially view Jesus as a radical Jew with a liberal social agenda… maybe someone worth voting for in an election, but certainly not a god to be worshipped.

I’ve listened to a couple of lectures by Dale Allison, and enjoyed his talks – but I have yet to ready any of his work… might have to look for a used copy on Amazon (via the CSA link, of course) BTW – if anyone wants hear them, a couple of his lectures are available free on iTunesU: http://deimos.apple.com/WebObjects/Core.woa/BrowsePrivately/new.duke.edu.1493346064.01493346069.1490419648?i=1108794474

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Dwayne Mayor October 25, 2010 at 9:28 am

You definitely want to include William Herzog’s magisterial study Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation under “Jesus as a social prophet.” It is widely considered one of the definitive works of the socio-historical school.

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lukeprog October 25, 2010 at 9:36 am

Thanks, Dwayne!

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JMauldin October 25, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Though I greatly enjoy “Jesus is Dead,” I think “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man” is a more inclusive work to include from Robert Price on the historical Jesus issue.

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James Smith January 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Many people would think it strange that not one contemporary account of any Jesus has ever been found. The earliest mention is the gospel of Mark. This was written from 40 to over 100 years after the alleged events, depending upon which “expert” you ask.

The Romans, who kept very good records otherwise, do not mention anyone who was so influential socially, politically, and religiously. If this were a non-religious historical figure, such as Benjamin Franklin, and no mention of him was made until the middle 1800s, his actual existence would be heavily disputed. But we are not supposed to question religion. It’s “disrespectful”. That seems to be another way of saying, “Shut up and accept without thinking.”

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W J Miller January 22, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Hello, that a great listing .
Do you know of any online libraries where i could find these book to read? I am disabled and can not get out of the house easily. I am also on assistance and don’t have a lot of money to buy the books. I need to be able to use my text-audio reader as well.

Thank you

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daniel almeida April 17, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Rick B, I’m no theist, but I think we can grant Christians the historicity of Jesus. I think that the Gospels, the Pauline epistles, Acts, and the various non-Christian sources that mention somebody like the Jesus that we know from the NT sources do well to establish (at least) that a guy named Jesus existed in 1st century Palestine and had something special to do with the rise of the early Christian communities. I don’t mean to argue from authority, but even if what I’ve outlined above is not the case, the fact that there are few professional historians who support ahistoricity seems to me a bit suspicious. Perhaps there’s a parallel here with creationists – using the tools of contemporary evolutionary biology, we’ve come up with (what most consider as) an approximately true account of the evolution of biological organisms. Creationists, a vociferous minority, disagree, perhaps as a result of religious biases. In the same way, historians have used their tools to examine the historical figure of Jesus and a majority have come away on the side of historicity. Jesus mythicists disagree and my intuition is that they do in part because of their suppositions, however justified, about the existence of God and Christian theology in general.

I agree with you 100%. Not that I have anything against jesus mythicism- but they are known for getting certain facts wrong (Just read apologetic responses to them). However, when it comes to the other theories- like apocalypticism- they resort to possibilities rather than pobabilities.

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daniel almeia April 17, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Nice compilation, Luke. I’ve read Ehrman, Crossan and Borg from this list. IMO, Ehrman paints the most believable picture of Jesus as a 1st century apocalyptic prophet. I’ve read several Ehrman books, and thought “Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium” was one of his best.Crossan – and especially Borg – seem to essentially view Jesus as a radical Jew with a liberal social agenda… maybe someone worth voting for in an election, but certainly not a god to be worshipped.I’ve listened to a couple of lectures by Dale Allison, and enjoyed his talks – but I have yet to ready any of his work… might have to look for a used copy on Amazon (via the CSA link, of course) BTW – if anyone wants hear them, a couple of his lectures are available free on iTunesU: http://deimos.apple.com/WebObjects/Core.woa/BrowsePrivately/new.duke.edu.1493346064.01493346069.1490419648?i=1108794474

I’m really into this stuff, thanks. Hey, by the way- are there any other recomendations? I am interested in more recent material- mostly stuff that responds to apologists. Sorr, but I gotta make sure it’s a fair fight (plus there are like 10 apologetic responses for every 1 atheit theory).

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Rick B April 17, 2011 at 8:59 pm

I’ve changed a few things in the following quote:

I’m no fairie-ist, but I think we can grant Fairie-ists the historicity of Ikkus [the One True Fairy]. I think that the Gospels, the Pauline epistles, Acts, and the various non-faerieist sources that mention somebody like the Ikkus that we know from the NT sources do well to establish (at least) that a fairy named Ikkus existed in 1st century Palestine and had something special to do with the rise of the early Faerieist communities. I don’t mean to argue from authority, but even if what I’ve outlined above is not the case, the fact that there are few professional historians who support ahistoricity seems to me a bit suspicious. Perhaps there’s a parallel here with Christians – using the tools of contemporary literary analysis, we’ve come up with (what most consider as) an approximately true account of the evolution of the bible. Atheists, a vociferous minority, disagree, perhaps as a result of non-religious biases. In the same way, historians have used their tools to examine the historical figure of Ikkus and a majority have come away on the side of historicity. Ikkus mythicists disagree and my intuition is that they do in part because of their suppositions, however justified, about the existence of Ikkus and Fairy-ology in general.

Daniel Almeia, you still haven’t provided any evidence to support historicity. Which is why I’ve provided a quote in support of the popular figure of Ikkus, the well-known and historical founder of Fairyism. It’s not a good argument. It’s not convincing. If you could find a set of people, the majority of whom support the flat-earth theory, would that make it true? Of course not. So why do so in this case?

I did go ahead and read The Jesus Puzzle, and Doherty provides some compelling arguments to disbelieve arguments in favor of Jesus’ historicity. Although some of his arguments are weak, his main premise is well supported and draws on widely-held views of the bible – views supported by mainstream christian theologians.

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James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil April 18, 2011 at 3:57 am

If there was a Jesus/Joshua/Jeshua wandering around performing miracles, causing social and political upheavals and being very publicly executed, isn’t it odd that the Romans never mentioned him? The Romans kept very good records otherwise, but there is not one contemporary account of this “messiah” anywhere. The first mention is in the gospel of Mark, written from 40 to 110 years after the “events”.

If there was no mention of George Washington until the late 1800s and then some “biographer” started writing about about an amazing man who defeated the most powerful nation on earth with a rag-tag band of amateur soldiers and became the first leader of a new, very large (by European standards) nation. Wouldn’t you be a bit suspicious about the authenticity?

But if it’s religion, it has a free ride on truth, taxes, and common decency.

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