Methodology and Foundation

The following steps constitute a sound method by which to search for the historical Jesus.

Understand the key tools

Many of the most important New Testament documents have a complex history. This can only be properly explored if one has a reasonable understanding of these tools: Descriptions of these tools can be found in most books on "New Testament Introduction".

Investigate the external evidence

The main sources of evidence external to the New Testament are the works of Josephus: "Antiquities of the Jews" and "Wars of the Jews".
Josephus was a Jew who first fought against the Romans in 66-67 CE, then changed sides. He obtained imperial patronage and went to live in Rome. This gave him the opportunity to write extensively on the history of the period.
Whereas the Christian authors of the New Testament were vigorously promoting their faith, Josephus was setting out to write history, and was only mildly pro-Jewish. If one makes allowance for one blatant mediaeval Christian interpolation, and a general tendency to exagerration, Josephus' testimony is relatively reliable.
Josephus provides at least minimal independent evidence relating to:

Establish a foundation

In order to end up with a consistent picture, it is advisable first to establish a foundation, i.e. the key facts around which to build the wider picture.

Using multiple independent attestation

This is a powerful criterion when it is applicable. Unfortunately its field of application is very narrow. The problem is the high degree of inter-dependence of the New Testament authors. Paul influenced Au_Mark. Mark was used by Au_Matt. Matt was used by Au_Luke. Mark was almost certainly known to Au_John.
Looking outside the New Testament, Josephus provides an invaluable service to the investigator in confirming the historicity of John the Baptist, Jesus himself, and his brother James. He also reveals the true character of Pilate.
The only important alternative Christian source is the so-called 'Gospel of Thomas'. But this is almost certainly a late gnostic production dependent directly or indirectly on one or more of the four gospels. This would seem to leave us without any multiple independent attestation beyond what we have from Josephus.
However we can be reasonably confident of the authenticity of teachings which are common to the document containing the sayings of Jesus known as the logia,  [1] which originated in the Jesus community in Jerusalem, and the letters of the strongly pro-Gentile Paul. Such teachings can be traced back to within about 15 years of the crucifixion.  [2] They include:

Using Redaction Criticism

This is the most important of all the tools aimed at establishing historicity. We need to be continually aware of the various New Testament authors' primary aims, accepting only statements which are contrary or at least peripheral to those aims.
Both Paul and Au_Mark aimed to present Jesus as the Son of God. They were also keen to present a message which would be acceptable to Gentiles.
Additionally Au_Mark aimed to denigrate Paul's rivals, the first disciples (see E.Trocme,The Formation of the Gospel according to Mark) and to hide any evidence that the original movement's religious aspirations were associated with patriotism (see S.G.F.Brandon,Jesus and the Zealots).

Jesus taught that the 'kingdom of God' was coming

The phrase "the kingdom of God" occurs eleven times in the logia (spread over all four of its sections) and six times in letters written by Paul. This makes it virtually certain that Jesus himself taught about the kingdom of God. Indeed it must have been the central theme of his teaching. Mt 10:7, Mk 9:1 and Lk 11:2b (all in the logia) indicate that Jesus believed the kingdom was "coming".

Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities

Crucifixion was a uniquely Roman form of punishment. The crucifixion of Jesus was an embarrassment to Paul (1 Cor 1:23). It clearly did not help him in his missionary endeavours. Who would invent such a demise for their hero? This is the most certain of all the events in the life of Jesus.
Of course we might well ask why the logia makes no mention of it. Actually we should not be too surprised. Different people deal with traumatic events in different ways. Paul tried to bluff his way out of it (1 Cor 1:24). The editor of the logia had long before suppressed it. His community deliberately focussed their attention on the future, re-interpreting Jesus' role as that of the "Son of Man" (Dan 7:13-14) who was soon to return to earth in the clouds.

Jesus came to believe that he was the Messiah

Many people find this assertion difficult to accept. However the evidence for it is extremely strong, and as it constitutes a vital key to understanding the historical Jesus, it must be tackled 'up front'.
  1. The story of Jesus' anointing late in his ministry looks like a distorted account of a ceremonial anointing of the Messiah (= "the anointed one", c.f. 2 Sam 5:3 and Mark 12:35). This is especially true in the earliest account, in which Jesus' head is anointed (Mark 14:3, as in Matt, but contrast Luke and John).
  2. Jesus' dramatic entry into Jerusalem on a donkey bears the hallmark of historicity. The events in our earliest account (Mark 11:1-11) are clearly modelled on the messianic prophecy of Zech 9:9. But Au_Mark studiously avoided making the connection explicit. If Au_Mark had invented the story, he would surely have quoted Zech 9:9 (as did Au_Matt), or presented the adoring crowd as welcoming the coming King (as did Au_Luke). That Au_Mark was embarrassed by the label "Messiah" being attached to Jesus is clear from his attempt to dissociate the label from its certain connection with King David (Mark 12:35-37). Au_Mark knew full well that the label had a nationalistic element as well as a religious element. But to offend the loyal citizens of Rome, where his gospel was probably first published, would not have been the best way to bring about their conversion or to support their nascent faith.
  3. The inscription on the cross: "The King of the Jews" (Mark 15:26), although taken by Au_Mark ironically as a religious truth, may well have been a sarcastic comment by the Roman authorities on the aspiring Messiah-King.
  4. Above all there is no way that the label "Messiah" could have become attached to Jesus  after the crucifixion. For the Jewish scriptures contained no prophecy of a Messiah who was to die, let alone die an ignominous death at the hands of a foreign power. The idea current in some circles that a crucified wisdom teacher was somehow transformed into a Messiah beggars belief.

Summary: the key facts about the life of Jesus

List the criteria for historicity of the details

The criterion of multiple independent attestation is important, but its use has already been exhausted (see above). We are unfortunately left with negative criteria.
Reject a saying or event if any of the following apply:
  1. It appears to be a development of an earlier form of the saying or event (as established by Form Criticism). But in this case the earlier form can be passed on to the last two of these tests!
  2. It supports the particular author's specific aims (as established by Redaction Criticism).
  3. It is inconsistent with scientific knowledge or external historical or archaeological evidence.
  4. It is inconsistent with the key facts indicated above.

Notes for this page

1. For a detailed description of the logia, go to  "The first collection of the sayings of Jesus"
2. The logia will be dated to ca. 45 CE.
3. Paul is often accused of telling women to be silent and subordinate (1 Cor 14:34). However the 276 letters of 1 Cor 14:33b-36 are inconsistent with the widespread evidence elsewhere in the Corinthian correspondence for a mean page size of close to 800 letters. Therefore it must be a non-Pauline interpolation. Convincing evidence of my page hypothesis is now provided on the following page on this site:
Page sizes as confirmation of the page hypothesis