What Can We Historically Know about Jesus of Nazareth?

By  Brian Chilton.


As we come close to a Christian holiday, people often begin to ask, “Can we know that these events actually took place?” When it comes to Christmas, greater ambiguity exists as to particular elements pertaining to the life of Jesus (e.g. the date of Jesus’ birth) than it does for Easter. Part of this comes from the fact that the Gospels are part of a literary genre known as “bioi” (Licona 2010, 203), or ancient biographies and only focused on the core attributes of the person’s life. While we may not know the precise date of Jesus’ birth with great certainty, this doesn’t mean that we cannot know the most important aspects of Jesus’ life. Many skeptics will ask during the holidays, “How is it that we can know that anything actually took place in history? What can we know about the life of Jesus?” This article will provide a brief—and that is an understatement—evaluation about how history is evaluated and what can be known about the historical Jesus.


Is history knowable?


Skeptics will often claim, “We cannot know anything about history because we cannot know that the person recording a particular event is telling the truth.” This mentality is termed historical subjectivism which is defined by Norman Geisler as the argument “that the substance of history, unlike that studied by empirical science, is not directly observable” (Geisler 1999, 318). But if this is the case, then nothing past the present moment can truly be known with any certainty. What about that precious childhood event that shaped you? Well, extreme historical subjectivists would claim that such an event is unprovable as it is possible that you just thought that the event took place. Taken to its conclusion, the historical subjectivist has no means of knowing whether George Washington was truly the first President of the United States or whether King Henry VIII actually initiated the English Reformation. The historical realist believes that history is knowable. Historians obviously fit within the historical realist category. Luckily, there are ways that an event and/or person is deemed “historical.” The historian uses certain methodological tools to gauge the tenability of an event of history.


How is an event determined “historical”?


Since history is by its nature unobservable, the historian must gauge the probability that an event occurred or that a person lived. Nothing can be known with 100% certainty—not even scientific theories. Thus, history is gauged by the probability that what is written is true. These tools include, but are not limited to, the following.


-Multiple, independent sources (Habermas & Licona 2004, 37)—that is, several voices addressing the same event and/or person.


–Enemy attestation (Habermas & Licona 2004, 37) is the voice of the enemy of the person of history being studied. One can claim bias by a supporter, but if an enemy says the same thing about a person then the person(s) involved in an event can be deemed historical.


-“Embarrassing admonitions” (Habermas & Licona 2004, 38) are statements that are given in a history and/or biography that would bring embarrassment to the writer and/or movement.


-“Eyewitness testimony” (Habermas & Licona 2004, 39) is the account of those who witnessed the event and/or person being studied.


-“Early testimony” (Habermas & Licona, 39) refers to the time that the biography and/or history is written as compared to the event and/or person being addressed. Thus, a writer in the 1700s would hold more credulity than a person writing in the 2010s about the real life of John Adams.


–Arguments to the best explanation (Licona 2010, 108) refers to whether a hypothesis pertaining to an event of history holds the best explanation or whether alternatives do. Licona adds that this practice includes “Explanatory scope…Explanatory power…Plausability…Less ad hoc…[and] Illumination [sic]” (Licona 2010, 109-110). Space will not permit the explanation of these divisions, but may be addressed in future posts.


-Arguments from statistical inference (Licona 2010, 114) is the practice of weighing the possibility that a certain person, fact, or event is more probable existing or occurring than not. So, what can we know of Jesus using these practices?


Using these methodologies, what can we know about the historical Jesus?


Actually, quite a bit! Gary Habermas presents what he calls the Minimal Facts Approach. These are facts about the life of Jesus that are agreed upon by the vast majority of historical scholarship—both skeptical and evangelical alike! They are:


“1) Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.


2) He was buried, most likely in a private tomb.


3) Soon afterward, the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent, having lost hope.


4) Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his interment.


5) The disciples had experiences that they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.


6) Due to these experiences, the disciples’ lives were thoroughly transformed, even being willing to die for this belief.


7) The proclamation of the resurrection took place very early, at the beginning of church history.


8) The disciples’ public testimony and preaching of the resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and buried shortly before.


9) The Gospel message centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus.


10) Sunday was the primary day for gathering and worshipping.


11) James, the brother of Jesus and former skeptic, was converted when, he believed, he saw the risen Jesus.


12) Just a few years later, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) became a Christian believer due to an experience that he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus” (Habermas 2003, 9-10).


That’s quite a bit! But, Habermas also notes that if one accepts the early creeds and early writings of the church fathers, then one can also know that “Jesus was born of Mary (Ignatius), who was a virgin (Ignatius; Justin), and he had a brother named James (Josephus). Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem, located about five miles from Jerusalem, and it is recorded that his birth could be verified by the records of Cyrenius, who was the first procurator of Judea (Justin). Later, Jesus was visited by Arabian Magi, who had first seen Herod (Justin). He was also from the town of Nazareth (creeds: Acts 2:22; 4:10; 5:38)” (Habermas 244).




Seeing that history is knowable, that history can be verified by particular methodologies, and the wealth of information that can be known of Jesus of Nazareth using these methodologies, the Christian should take comfort in knowing that his or her faith is based upon actual events. So, when the believer celebrates this holiday season, they can worship with the full weight of trust in the biblical record without worrying about the doubts that the skeptics may bring. Enjoy the holidays and remember…Jesus is truly the reason for the Christmas season!


Click to see Original Article Source.


Sources Cited:


Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.


Habermas, Gary R., and Michael R. Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004.


Habermas, Gary R. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996.


The Risen Jesus & Future Hope. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.


Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove; Nottingham, UK: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2010.

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12 replies
  1. Andy Ryan says:

    Don’t the reports we have of the life of Jesus fail exactly the tests that Brian Chilton sets out in the section “How is an event determined “historical”? There seems no comparison to the other examples he gives, George Washington and King Henry VIII.

    We can’t talk about ’embarrassing details’ because we don’t know who actually wrote the Gospels – if they’re anonymous then they can’t be embarrassed by them. And they weren’t written at the time Jesus was actually living, so are neither contemporaneous nor eyewittnesses. Even the ‘arguments from statistical inference’ is a bit iffy here, as criminals guilty of the crimes Jesus was crucfied for would much more commonly be left on the cross to rot away or be eaten by wild animals.

    “Due to these experiences, the disciples’ lives were thoroughly transformed, even being willing to die for this belief.”

    Which disciples do we know definitely died for that belief? Some martydoms seems to be a matter of ‘tradition’ rather than based on historical evidence. What we need here is disciples who weren’t just put to death, but died AFTER turning down the opportunity to save their lives by recanting their claims of a ressurection.

    • toby says:

      “We can’t talk about ‘embarrassing details’ because we don’t know who actually wrote the Gospels – if they’re anonymous then they can’t be embarrassed by them.
      What we need here is disciples who weren’t just put to death, but died AFTER turning down the opportunity to save their lives by recanting their claims of a ressurection.”

      Precisely, sir. These arguments are tenuous bunk. I think if anyone in the past was killed for being a christian they likely were killed simply because they were christian and not some aspect of their beliefs. “You’re christian? You’re a heretic and must be killed.” I highly doubt they were put on public trial and told to recant the resurrection and be spared. Perhaps the lack of writings on their death is because they did recant. There’s some embarrassing information for them.

      • Louie says:

        Perhaps nobody wrote about these things because they were to busy watching rain fall on the rocks, and waiting for life to come about.

          • Louie says:

            Derp indeed… I couldn’t resist, I find it comical when I read the bunk that you guys use to try and debunk the biblical account. If one were to apply the same standards to a science text book, you’d find the text book has more questions and holes in it than a book written over 2000 years ago. Oh well, have a Merry Christmas boys, Elvis has left the building.

        • Andy Ryan says:

          Louie, there’s not that much for us even to debunk. You’ve got anonymous accounts that often contradict each other, written decades after the deeply unlikely events they describe, not backed up by external sources. Derp indeed.

          • Louie says:

            You guys brought the derping into this, and I apologize for stooping to that level and will not resort to ridicule, as I don’t need it. I’ve read many posts by you, Andy; and had several interesting conversations with you on this site. You love to type long sentances that make several points that are not true (such as the one above), in hopes that someone will reply and miss refuting them all. Doing this allows you to “win” the debate, whatever that is worth. That sentance you typed above is so bad, I will not even bother refuting it. However, you seem like a smart guy, and I challenge you to do what I did a few years back… Wipe the slate clean and apply the same standards to your own worldview that you do others. If you are as smart as I think you are, you are going find that you’ve been lied to by those you trusted most. In your search for the truth, you’ll become increasingly skeptical of everything you read, since some of the things you simply took as “true” are rooted on miracles/fantasies far less probable than any in the bible. It was an eye opening time for me when I did it. Anyway, I am taking time off for the holidays (no access to the internet) so I’ll be unable to reply for quite a while. I wish you a Merry Christmas, and a truth filled New Year.

          • toby says:

            You’ve got anonymous accounts.
            They often contradict each other.
            They are written decades after the deeply unlikely events they describe.
            They are not backed up by external sources.

            I have restated Andy’s statements in the preferred format.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            Louie, not once have I ever said ‘you’ve not responded to all my points therefore I win’, or anything remotely similar. I don’t think I’ve ever claimed I’ve ‘won’, in fact. And I don’t tend to write particularly long sentences either.

            You write VERY long paragraphs however, making your posts harder to read than they need to be.

            What I do notice is that you fail to respond to ANY of the points I made in my post. You say we offer bunk, without posting any examples or refutations. Out with it, man!

    • Brian Chilton says:

      Perusing the comments, I have noticed several objections. I would like to address some of them here.

      First, one must remember that the 12 minimal facts presented in the article are those things that are historically agreed upon by nearly all historians–both Christians and non-Christians. Even agnostics such as Bart Ehrman concede these 12 facts.

      Second, there are good internal and external reasons for holding to traditional authorship. While this does not hold the consensus that is enjoyed by the 12 minimal facts, one can at least say that Matthew’s Gospel stemmed from the testimony of Matthew, even if there were later redactors. Mark received his information from Simon Peter, something that holds far more consensus than one may imagine. Luke reported what he received from various sources. John contains the testimony of the apostle John (or another at the same level as John) either directly or indirectly (by means of an amaneuensis, that is, an ancient secretary). Habermas notes that within the 5 Gospels, there are at least 5 independent sources: material original to Mark, material original to Matthew, material original to Luke, material original to what scholars call “Q,” and material original to John.

      Third, embarrassing details are embarrassing even if we are talking about second generation Christians, which the majority of scholars concede that the NT was completed by 100 AD (or CE). To report that the women were the first to see Jesus alive and that they were brave while the men were not are two embarrassing details that would not have been made up. There are other embarrassing details such as these.

      Lastly, even if it is not known who penned the Gospels, ancient creeds, hymns, and formulations point back to the original church. One of the most important of these traditions is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. This testimony is one received by the apostle Paul. Paul received this information in or around 35 AD (or CE). This is only 2-5 years from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Seeing that this was the established tradition, the tradition itself dates back to the time of Jesus.

      Concerning these issues, I will write further in how Christianity stands the scrutiny of these historical tests in the weeks ahead at “Bellator Christi” found at http://pastorbrianchilton.wordpress.com. I will send the articles to the staff here at CrossExamined.org to use at their discretion.



      • Andy Ryan says:

        ” To report that the women were the first to see Jesus alive and that they were brave while the men were not are two embarrassing details that would not have been made up.”

        Do you not see the problem in this argument? If a detail lends credence because it’s not the sort of thing one would make up, then that itself gives a good reason for making the detail up! Thus the argument from embarrassing details is a self-defeating argument.

        It’s like deliberately choosing an unreliable alibi so that when people point out he’s unreliable you can say “Exactly – if I was going to have a false alibil I’d have chosen someone more convincing!”

      • Ben says:


        Thank you for addressing the objections. I certainly agree with some of the things you say. For instance, the embarrassing details are indeed embarrassing to later Christian authors. And even anonymous documents like the Gospels are indeed historically valuable, penned by some of the very first Christians.

        Let me also address one of the objections you missed. About the disciples dying for their beliefs, it is fairly well-documented (the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan, and The Martyrdom of Polycarp, etc.) that Christians were given the opportunity to recant before facing execution. So, it is likely that some of the disciples did indeed die for their beliefs, refusing to recant.

        On the other hand, it still seems to me that apologists go way too far in trying to build their case. Sure, maybe the disciples were given the chance to recant. Then again, maybe they weren’t. For example, I doubt very much the Christians accused by Nero of setting fire to Rome were given the chance to recant. How do we really know?

        And then, I’m not at all confident that those 12 so-called facts really are accepted by the majority of Biblical scholars, much less by a *consensus*. For example, Habermas estimated that only about 2/3 of Biblical scholars accept the empty tomb. Now, that’s a majority, sure, but not much of one. Some of these other facts sound embellished beyond what historians would be willing to admit, such as the the disciples’ lives were “thoroughly transformed.”

        As far as embarrassing details go, sure, some of them really are embarrassing, such as that Jesus was crucified at all. But the women at the empty tomb? This does not sound to me the least bit embarrassing, especially when we consider that the empty tomb was reported by men also, and that the belief in the risen Jesus was based primarily on the post-resurrection appearances anyway, instead of an empty tomb.

        The “creed” that some scholars believe is in 1Cor15 is poorly understood, as we really don’t know when or how it originated, nor exactly what Paul added to it. In fact, we really don’t know for sure that it is an earlier creed at all. All we can say is that it looks like one.

        I suppose the general problem with all this is that we are trying to rest an incredible claim on very shaky evidence. If all we were trying to do is establish that, say, Jesus was crucified and that there was an empty tomb, okay, maybe that’s feasible. But remember, you are trying to establish, using spotty evidence from an ancient world which, let’s face it, we really don’t understand very well, that the laws of nature were suspended by a deity in order to reanimate the corpse of a man three days dead. It just doesn’t seem like a reasonable goal given the tools available.


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