The historicity of Jesus concerns the degree to which sources show Jesus of Nazareth existed as a historical figure. It concerns not just the issue of "what really happened", based upon the context of the time and place, but also the issue of how modern observers can come to know "what really happened". A second issue is closely tied to historical research practices and methodologies for analyzing the reliability of primary sources and other historical evidence. It also considers the question of whether he was a Nazirite.
An overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars and Near East historians, applying the standard criteria of historical investigation, find that the historicity of Jesus is more probable than not, although they differ about the beliefs and teachings of Jesus as well as the accuracy of the details of his life that have been described in the gospels. While scholars have criticized Jesus scholarship for religious bias and lack of methodological soundness, with very few exceptions, such critics generally do support the historicity of Jesus, and reject the Christ myth theory that Jesus never existed.
The historicity of Jesus is distinct from the related study of the historical Jesus, which refers to scholarly reconstructions of the life of Jesus, based primarily on critical analysis of the gospel texts. Historicity, by contrast as a subject of study different from history proper, is concerned with two different fundamental issues. Firstly, it is concerned with the systemic processes of social change, and, secondly, the social context and intentions of the authors of the sources by which we can establish the truth of historical events, separating mythic accounts from factual circumstances.
The historical reliability of the gospels refers to the reliability and historic character of the four New Testament gospels as historical documents. Some scholars state that the authorship of the gospels is pseudepigraphic and unknown and little in the four canonical gospels is considered to be historically reliable.
Most scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed, but scholars differ on the historicity of specific episodes described in the biblical accounts of Jesus. The only two events subject to "almost universal assent" are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and that between one and three years later he was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate. Elements whose historical authenticity are disputed include the two accounts of the nativity of Jesus, the miraculous events including turning water into wine, walking on water and the resurrection, and certain details about the crucifixion.
The Synoptic Gospels are the primary sources of historical information about Jesus and of the religious movement he founded. These religious gospels—the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of Luke–written in the Greek language recount the life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of a Jew named Jesus, who spoke Aramaic. There are different hypotheses regarding the origin of the texts because the gospels of the New Testament were written in Greek for Greek-speaking communities, that were later translated into Syriac, Latin, and Coptic although some say a version of the Gospel of Matthew may have been composed in Aramaic.
The fourth gospel, the Gospel of John, differs greatly from the first three gospels. Historians often study the historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles when studying the reliability of the gospels, as the Book of Acts was seemingly written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke.
Historians subject the gospels to critical analysis by differentiating authentic, reliable information from possible inventions, exaggerations, and alterations. Since there are more textual variants in the New Testament (200–400 thousand) than it has letters (c. 140 thousand), scholars use textual criticism to determine which gospel variants could theoretically be taken as 'original'. To answer this question, scholars have to ask who wrote the gospels, when they wrote them, what was their objective in writing them, what sources the authors used, how reliable these sources were, and how far removed in time the sources were from the stories they narrate, or if they were altered later. Scholars can also look into the internal evidence of the documents, to see if, for example, the document is misquoting texts from the Hebrew Tanakh, is making claims about geography that were incorrect, if the author appears to be hiding information, or if the author has made up a certain prophecy. Finally, scholars turn to external sources, including the testimony of early church leaders, writers outside the church (mainly Jewish and Greco-Roman historians) who would have been more likely to have criticized the church, and to archaeological evidence.
There is widespread disagreement among scholars on the details of the life of Jesus mentioned in the gospel narratives, and on the meaning of his teachings, and the only two events subject to "almost universal assent" are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate.
According to New Testament scholar James Dunn, nearly all modern scholars consider the baptism of Jesus and his crucifixion to be historically certain. He states that these "two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent" and "rank so high on the 'almost impossible to doubt or deny' scale of historical 'facts' they are obvious starting points for an attempt to clarify the what and why of Jesus' mission." John P. Meier views the crucifixion of Jesus as historical fact and states that based on the criterion of embarrassment Christians would not have invented the painful death of their leader. The criterion of embarrassment is also used to argue in favor of the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist as it is a story which the early Christian Church would have never wanted to invent. Based on this criterion, given that John baptised for the remission of sins, and Jesus was viewed as without sin, the invention of this story would have served no purpose, and would have been an embarrassment given that it positioned John above Jesus.
Amy-Jill Levine has summarized the situation by stating that "there is a consensus of sorts on the basic outline of Jesus' life" in that most scholars agree that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and over a period of one to three years debated Jewish authorities on the subject of God, gathered followers, and was crucified by Roman prefect Pontius Pilate who officiated 26–36 AD. There is much in dispute as to his previous life, childhood, family and place of residence, of which the canonical gospels are almost completely silent.
Scholars attribute varying levels of certainty to other episodes. Some assume that there are eight elements about Jesus and his followers that can be viewed as historical facts, namely:Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
He called disciples.
He had a controversy at the Temple.
Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.
Jesus was a Galilean.
His activities were confined to Galilee and Judea.
After his death his disciples continued.
Some of his disciples were persecuted.
Scholarly agreement on this extended list is not universal.
The Mishnah (c. 200) may refer to Jesus and reflect the early Jewish traditions of portraying Jesus as a sorcerer or magician. Other references to Jesus and his execution exist in the Talmud, but they aim to discredit his actions, not deny his existence.
Since the 18th century, three separate scholarly quests for the historical Jesus have taken place, each with distinct characteristics and based on different research criteria, which were often developed during that phase. The portraits of Jesus that have been constructed in these processes have often differed from each other, and from the dogmatic image portrayed in the gospel accounts.
Currently modern scholarly research on the historical Jesus focuses on what is historically probable, or plausible about Jesus.
The mainstream profiles in the third quest may be grouped together based on their primary theme as apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish Messiah and prophet of social change, but there is little scholarly agreement on a single portrait, or the methods needed to construct it. There are, however, overlapping attributes among the portraits, and scholars who differ on some attributes may agree on others.
While there is widespread scholarly agreement on the existence of Jesus, and a basic consensus on the general outline of his life, the portraits of Jesus constructed in the quests have often differed from each other, and from the image portrayed in the gospel accounts. There are overlapping attributes among the portraits, and while pairs of scholars may agree on some attributes, those same scholars may differ on other attributes, and there is no single portrait of the historical Jesus that satisfies most scholars.
Nearly all modern scholars of antiquity, which is the majority viewpoint, agree that Jesus existed and most biblical scholars and classical historians see the theories of his non-existence as effectively refuted. There is no evidence today that the existence of Jesus was ever denied in antiquity by those who opposed Christianity. Geoffrey Blainey notes that "a few scholars argue that Jesus... did not even exist," and that they "rightly point out that contemporary references to him were extremely rare." Bart Ehrman concedes, "Jesus is not mentioned in any Roman sources of his day", while maintaining that other sources do support his existence whereas Richard Carrier and Raphael Lataster assert that there is no independent evidence of Jesus’s existence outside the New Testament.
Certain scholars, particularly in Europe, have recently made the claim that while there are a number of plausible Jesuses that could have existed, there can be no certainty as to which Jesus was the biblical Jesus, and that there should also be more scholarly research and debate on this topic.
The Christ myth theory is the proposition that Jesus never existed, or that if he did, he had virtually nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and the accounts in the gospels. This theory has very little support among current scholars. Historically however, mythicist viewpoints were noted to varying degrees within academia and some even became part of the mainstream scholarship, such as the viewpoint of David Strauss. The theory enjoyed brief popularity in the Soviet Union, where it was supported by Sergey Kovalev, Alexander Kazhdan, Abram Ranovich, Nikolai Rumyantsev, Robert Wipper and Yuri Frantsev. Later, however, several scholars, including Kazhdan, had retracted their views about mythical Jesus and by the end of the 1980s the support for the theory became almost non-existent in Soviet academia.
More recently Richard Carrier argues in his book On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, that there is insufficient Bayesian probability, that is evidence, to believe in the existence of Jesus. Furthermore, he argues that the Jesus figure was probably originally known only through private revelations and hidden messages in scripture which were then crafted into a historical figure, to communicate the claims of the gospels allegorically. These allegories then started to be believed as fact during the struggle for control of the Christian churches of the 1st century. Philip R. Davies has opined that a recognition that the historicity of Jesus is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability and R. Joseph Hoffmann at the Jesus Project noted that Jesus is getting more vague, ambiguous, and uncertain the more scholars study him, rather than the other way around.
Other than Carrier, notable experts who have published peer reviewed books on the historicity of Jesus using the most current scholarship available on the subject include: Dale Allison, Bart Ehrman, Amy-Jill Levine and Geza Vermes, all of whom believe that the historical Jesus existed and oppose the Christ Myth Theory, but who tend to see the historical Jesus as a Jewish preacher who never claimed to be God nor had any intention to found a religion. However some authors disagree with this consensus.