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Historicity of Jesus Christ

 This article is part of the
Jesus series.
 Historical view of Jesus
 Christian view of Jesus
 Islamic view of Isa (Jesus)
 Jewish view of Jesus
 Other perspectives on Jesus
 Sources about Jesus
 Fictional portrayals of Jesus

Several scholars have investigated the historicity of Jesus Christ.

Taking a starting point loosely connected with the Tübingen school that initiated historical analysis of Biblical texts, which is generally referred to as the Higher criticism (q.v.), in the late 19th century, a number of radical critics have proposed that there was no historical Jesus at all. This position however, is a minority view among Biblical scholars. Among historians who are not Biblical scholars, the subtexts of Christian literature which reveal innate points of view and characteristic cultural bias, the documented activities of actual Christians and their influence on societal norms and culture are all of significance, while the 'historicity' of Jesus of Nazareth, minimally documented outside Christian sources, is not ordinarily addressed.

On the Christian side, the increased importance of the Christological argument for the existence of God in modern evangelical teachings have informed questions of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth with an enhanced urgency. The usual historian's criteria of authenticity, documentation, and the like, tend to be removed from ordinary historical discourse, to take up newly important places in Christological theology.

On the opposing side of the question, the most prolific of those Biblical scholars denying the historical existence of Jesus is a professor of German, George Albert Wells, who argues that Jesus was originally a myth. Another example is Earl Doherty, who suggests that Paul's idea of Jesus was derived from his reading of the Hebrew Bible. In this view, Paul never met or heard of any actual person named Jesus from Nazareth (or Bethlehem), but rather believed in a Jesus who died on some ethereal plane at the beginning of time, or some far-off time in history. The Jesus of Nazareth character was made up after Paul's time by a composite of Old Testament prophecies, with embellishments added by many people. In this view, the interpretation of the meaning of Jesus was also informed by messianic, apocalyptic and resurrectionist myths that were common during the late Hellenistic age.

Others contend that aspects of Jesus' life as related in the New Testament were derived from popular mystery religions in the Roman Empire at that time period. These religions worshipped saviour figures such as Isis, Horus, Osiris, Dionysus and Mithras, and Christian Gnosticism which flourished in the 2nd and 3rd centuries openly combined Christian imagery and stories with the beliefs and practices of Mediterranean mystery religions. Proponents of this view generally date the gospels much later than mainstream scholars and assert textual corruption in the passages supporting the existence of Jesus in Paul and Josephus as interpolated.

Most historians do not dispute the existence of a person named Jesus; evidence for Jesus' existence 2000 years ago are by historical standards actually rather strong. Jesus is obviously mentioned extensively within the Bible, but is also considered a historical figure within the traditions of Judaism, Islam, Mandeanism and alternative Christian traditions like Gnosticism. Apologists often contend that he gets a passing mention within historical accounts of the period, but sometimes without citing a source. John the Baptist, and James the Just are documented in Josephus, where Jesus Christ also receives a brief mention. See Josephus on Jesus and Tacitus on Jesus.

Moreover, historians generally agree that at least some of the source documents on which the Gospels are based were written within living memory of Jesus's lifetime. Historians therefore accept that the accounts of the life of Jesus in the Gospels provide a reasonable basis of evidence, by the standards of ancient history, for the historical existence of Jesus and the basic narrative of his life and death.

Recourse is not necessary to later pseudepigraphical writings, such as the much later alleged letter from Herod Antipas purporting to be directed to the Roman Senate defending his (Herod's) actions concerning both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, and said to be found among the records of the Roman Senate. Whatever their internal details, the very existence of such pseudepigraphical writings and of interpolations into authentic documents, which accumulate from the 2nd century onwards, to judge from internal evidence, has genuine historical value, in that they document a perceived need to supplement the documentation on the part of Christians who apparently felt the need to support the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth, by providing the kind of documents they felt ought to have existed.

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