Is There Independent Confirmation of What the Gospels Say of Jesus?

George A. Wells

In this article, I shall focus on the contribution made to this oft-discussed question by the eminent New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman, professor of rel igious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Ehrman’s many books make him prominent among scholars in the field who, as Jacques Berlinerblau observes in The Secular Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2005), are rarely secularists but “to their immense credit” have produced “all the explosive materials” so damaging to traditional Christian beliefs, while “secular hermeneutics differs mainly in its critical orientation—its eagerness to detonate.” His point is that whether we wish to “detonate” or whether we find continuing faith plausible, we should be grateful to these exegetes, for it is due in part to them that in some countries people are free to believe or disbelieve religious claims without penalty.

Together with many Christian scholars, Ehrman has shown that Jesus’s virginal conception, childhood, and resurrection as narrated in the New Testament are not, from this evidence, defensible as historical events and that Jesus’s teaching as given in the Gospels is both to some extent morally flawed and also, in the first three Gospels, vitiated by apocalyptic delusions that are central to it. As he writes in Jesus Interrupted (Harper One, 2009), Ehrman is also well aware that “the Gospels are full of discrepancies and were written decades after Jesus’s ministry and death by authors who had not themselves witnessed any of the events of Jesus’s life.”

The subtitle of Ehrman’s 2009 book is Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). The reason for our ignorance, says Ehrman, is that “seminarians who learn the historical-critical method in their Bible classes appear to forget all about it when it comes time for them to be pastors,” and they then approach the Bible devotionally. He finds this natural enough for purposes of the pulpit but asks whether this attitude need be extended to their “adult education classes.” We might think that if they did not so extend it, they then would find themselves questioning in their classrooms what they had been affirming in their pulpits. But Ehrman denies that this need be so and stresses that in his own case, it is not real knowledge of the Bible and its problems that led him to become a confessed agnostic but rather his awareness of “so much senseless pain and misery in the world,” which he finds incompatible with the belief that “there is a good and loving God who is in control.” He works amicably with colleagues who, he says, are as critical of the Bible as he is and yet have remained Christians; he finds that he, they, and their Bible students, once they have “acknowledged that different parts of the Bible have different (even contrasting) things to say on important topics,” can go on to “evaluate these different biblical messages” and see which ones are particularly germane to “American Christians living in the twenty-first century.” Such “picking and choosing” has often been condemned as arbitrary, but Ehrman is surely right to say that “everyone already picks and chooses what they want to accept in the Bible.” I would suggest, as examples, that few Christians live in perfect confidence that God will always supply them with food and clothing (Matt. 6:25–33). Nor do most follow Jesus’s injunction to hate (Luke 14:26) or abandon (Matt. 19:29) their families in order to be his disciples. Many do not find nonresistance to evil (Matt. 5:39) acceptable.

Ehrman is well aware that what is so often taken for multiple attestation (reinforcement of, say, a miracle claim by virtue of its being recounted in multiple Gospels) is truly multiple only when the witnesses pronounce independently of each other. Thus “if the same story is found in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, that is not three sources for the story but one source: Matthew and Luke both got it from Mark.” What, then, does he find in these three Gospels that is attested independently elsewhere? He knows that Greek and Roman sources of the whole of the first century have “absolutely nothing” to say about Jesus. But he thinks that, in Tacitus, we do find, ca. 115 ce , “some confirmation” of what the Gospels record of his death.

 

Tacitus, writing of Nero’s punishment of Christians for allegedly setting fire to Rome, explains that these people derive their name and origin from Christus, who had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius (Annals 15:44). Tacitus did not draw this information from some official Roman record, for he gives Pilate an incorrect title (“procurator” when his title was “prefect”), and an official record would have named the executed man, not called him “Christ” (Messiah). “Research into archives,” said the historian A.D. Momigliano in “Popular Religious Beliefs and the Late Roman Historians” (in C.T. Cummings and D. Baker, eds. Popular Belief and Practice, Cambridge University Press, 1972), “was seldom and unsystematically practised by classical historians.” Their interests were centered on the present or the recent past, and so for study of the former they relied on “direct observation,” and for study of the latter on “oral tradition.” If they did go further back in time, they became “compilers from previous historians” not researchers in archives.

In any case, Tacitus had no motive for ferreting out possible archival or other material about what was for him a superstitious perversity, for his purpose went no further than to give his educated readers some indication of wherein it consisted. He clearly felt he could not expect them to know this already, so little impact had Christianity then made upon cultured Romans. A perceptive eighteenth-century French scholar, C.F. Dupuis, compared what Tacitus says about Christ with what a French historian might be expected to say for the benefit of his readers if he had occasion to mention an Indian sect that had won some adherents in France, namely that these people were called “Brahmins” after a certain Brahma who had lived in India at a certain time past. Such a statement would clearly not imply that the writer had properly investigated the matter.

Tacitus would have been glad to accept from Christians their own admission that Christianity originated only recently, for, as Ehrman himself has stressed, the Roman authorities were willing to tolerate only ancient cults. He may himself have heard something of Christians from his experience as governor of the province of Asia, where he could have had the same kind of trouble with them that his friend Pliny experienced as governor of the neighboring province at about the same time. Albert Schweitzer states in the second and later editions of his famous survey of the history of life-of-Jesus research, Geschichte der Leben-Jesu Forschung (Tübingen: Mohr, 1913 and later), that Tacitus’s reference to Jesus’s death at Pilate’s hands at best establishes that this is what the church of the early second century believed. E.P. Sanders’s verdict delivered in The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin Press) stands: “Roman sources that mention Jesus are all dependent on Christian reports.”

As for Jewish testimony, Ehrman accepts the historian Josephus as an independent confirmatory source, even though he, like Tacitus, was writing at a place where (Rome) and
at a time when (ca. 94 ce) he could well have heard about Jesus from Christians. As an Orthodox Jew, he should have been dismissive or even downright hostile if he mentioned Jesus at all. But the relevant paragraph in his Antiquities of the Jews is a glowing appreciation of him, and Ehrman, with almost all commentators, allows that at least the obviously Christian words in it could not have come from Josephus. Had he believed what they assert, he would not have confined his remarks here to a brief paragraph. Ehrman does, however, accept a trimmed-down version of it as authentic. I quote next his rendering of it, where he has put square brackets around what he calls “a few choice insertions,” leaving a residual text which he takes as confirming “some of the most important aspects of Jesus’s life and death as recounted in the Gospels.”

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one should call him a man, for] he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. [He was the Messiah.] And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. [For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him.] And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.

We note that here Jesus is not merely called “Christ” but is actually named.

Ehrman gives no indication that numerous scholars have shown that the whole passage is intrusive into its context. It breaks the thread of the narrative at the point where it occurs, and its removal leaves a text that runs on in the proper sequence. Moreover, there is an ancient table of contents of the Antiquities that omits all mention of the passage. Louis H. Feldman in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity (edited with G. Hata, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987) says that this table is already mentioned in the fifth- or sixth-century Latin version of the Antiquities, and he finds it “hard to believe that such a remarkable passage would be omitted by anyone, let alone by a Christian summarizing the work.” Ehrman is well aware that the transmission of Josephus’s work was almost entirely effected by Christians. The Jews hated him as a traitor because of his behavior in their war with Rome (66–73 ce). He was popular with Christians partly because he stressed the supposed superiority of biblical ethics to Graeco-Roman morality but far more because he gives detailed descriptions of the appalling suffering during the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in ce 70, which Christians regarded as God’s decisive punishment of the Jewish people for their rejection of Jesus as reflected in the words of the Jerusalem mob at Matt. 27:25: “His blood be on us and on our children.”

One of the marks by which an interpolation can be recognized is the failure of later writers to mention it when reference to it can be expected as relevant to the subject they are discussing. It is then significant that, although this paragraph in Josephus’s text would have suited the purposes of the church fathers admirably, none before Eusebius (in the fourth century) quotes it. We know from Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho (ca.135 ce) that Christians were charged by Jews with having “invented some sort of Christ for themselves” and with believing “a futile rumor.” The obvious Christian reply would have been to point triumphantly to the passage in Josephus. But Justin does not do so, and Feldman in Josephus in Modern Scholarship, 1937–1980 (De Gruyter,1984) is able to name two church fathers from the second century, seven from the third, and two from the early fourth, all of whom knew Josephus’s work and cited it but “do not refer to this passage, though one would imagine it would be the first passage that a Christian apologist would cite.” Even after Eusebius, a century passes before the passage is again referred to, and this suggests that some time elapsed before all or most copies of Josephus then available came to include it. All this Feldman admits to be an argument from silence, “but as a cumulative argument it has considerable force.” The passage is indeed found in all the extant Greek manuscripts and Latin translations, but our earliest manuscript for this part of the Antiquities dates only from the eleventh century and so may well derive from an interpolated copy. Ehrman himself has pointed to the importance of keeping in mind that whereas today we are accustomed to printed copies that are identical, in the ancient world books were copied by hand, and every individual copy was a scribal artifact that could be as faithful or as deviant as the scribe or his patron chose.

The passage also occurs at exactly the point at which one would expect a Christian interpolation to be made; for Josephus is here recording the behavior of Pilate, prominent in Christians’ minds since the time of the Gospels, so that if Josephus had written of him without mentioning Jesus, Christian scribes would have seen this as an omission to be rectified.

Dr. Alice Whealey’s conclusion to her study of the reception of this Josephan paragraph from antiquity to the twentieth century (Josephus on Jesus, Peter Lang, 2003) is that the authenticity of this “most discussed passage in all ancient literature,” often considered to be “the only extant extra-biblical evidence to the historicity of Jesus,” has after four hundred years of discussion “still not been settled.” She shows how during the eighteenth century the passage came to be regarded as a Christian forgery and how the whole discussion was nevertheless reopened by twentieth-century scholars. Josephus, as we saw, could, like Tacitus, have said something about Christians based on hearsay. A Christian scribe could well have seen fit to replace any such remarks either with the whole passage as it now stands or with a neutral text later expanded into the present eulogy by a further Christian hand. But, as Sanders has said, “failing a fluke discovery” we shall never know what Josephus actually wrote at this point.

Josephus made one further (much shorter) reference to Jesus, and I have discussed them both in some detail in my books The Jesus Legend and The Jesus Myth (Open Court, 1996 and 1999). (Both books have somewhat misleading titles, for, although they show that there is a good deal of myth about Jesus in the New Testament, they do not impugn his historicity.) All that Ehrman offers to justify his positive evaluation of the longer of the two Josephan passages is an endnote stating that the Catholic scholar J.P. Meier has given “a full discussion” of it in his 1991 Jesus book A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Doubleday, Anchor Bible Reference Library). But even Meier allows that the rejection of the entire passage as a Christian interpolation still “has its respectable defenders,” although it “does not seem to be the majority view.”

 

If, then, we look in vain for pagan or Jewish evidence that would independently confirm the Gospels’ records of Jesus’s ministry and death, we ask whether the rest of Christian literature makes good this failure. Consider the Epistles, or letters, ascribed to Paul; those that most scholars agree are from his hand are also agreed to be earlier than the Gospels. There are also other New Testament Epistles that, if not quite so early, were obviously w
ritten independently of the Gospels, presumably before they had become widely known and accepted as significant. It is here, surely, that we may look for confirmation that Jesus ministered in Galilee early in the first century, was acquainted with John the Baptist, and died in Jerusalem at the behest of the governor, Pontius Pilate. In fact, however, in none of these documents is there any reference to when it was or in what circumstances he had lived on Earth. There is no mention of a Galilean ministry; no mention of Bethlehem, Nazareth, or Galilee; no suggestion that Jesus spoke parables or performed miracles; and no indication that he died in Jerusalem (a name never used in these writings in connection with him).

Paul’s Christian experiences began when the risen Jesus called him to his service by appearing to him, thus convincing him that the eagerly awaited resurrection of the dead had already begun (1 Cor. 15:8, 20). Paul regarded Jesus as fundamentally a supernatural personage, “the power of God and the wisdom of God” who had assisted God in the creation of all things (1 Cor. 1:24; 8:6). God subsequently sent him, as his own son, as a sacrifice for sin “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3); “likeness” indicates Paul’s unwillingness to represent him as in any way sinful, so that to this extent Jesus was not incarnated as a completely normal human being. Nevertheless, he was “born of a woman” under the (Jewish) law (Gal. 4:4), a descendent of David “according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3), and a “servant to the circumcision” (Rom. 15:8). During that time he was “emptied” of supernatural powers (Phil. 2:7) and so must have lived a life quite unlike that of the Gospel figure who worked wonders that made him famous throughout “all Syria” (Matt. 4:24). All that Paul records of Jesus’s ministry is his crucifixion for our redemption. He makes mystical statements about it, such as: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” and referring to Christ “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). That is not unlike what we find in the pagan mystery religions, where the initiates partake in the destiny of the deity. Various religious brotherhoods of the time were anxious to believe that after death their members would be rewarded and compensated for all the unhappiness of their lives. The creed of a brotherhood served to identify it, and Paul’s “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23) seems to have been just such a sectarian shibboleth.

Since Paul specifies this crucifixion as the very substance of his preaching, he might be expected at least to allude to when and where this important event occurred, if that was known to him. But he does not and certainly does not corroborate the Gospels’ accounts. In his letters there is no cleansing of the Temple, which according to Mark and Luke triggered the resolve of the chief priests and scribes to kill Jesus. There is no Gethsemane scene; no conflict with the authorities; no thieves crucified with him; no weeping women—not a word about time or place and no mention of Pilate. What Paul does say is that the crucifixion was effected by “the rulers of this age” who did not realize that Jesus is “the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:6, 8). Although apologists take this as a reference to Caiaphas and Pilate, it is widely agreed that for Paul, these world rulers are some kind of evil, supernatural demonic power. His wording resembles the title given in the fourth Gospel to the supreme demonic being, “the ruler of this cosmos” (John 12:31; 16:11). (Paul himself uses “this age” and “this cosmos” interchangeably: they are equated at 1 Cor. 1:20 and 3:18f.). These hostile forces he sometimes calls not rulers but principalities, powers, dominions, or thrones. Ephesians 2:2 mentions “the ruler of the power of the air,” and in Ephesians 6:12 the “principalities, powers and world-rulers of this darkness” are expressly said to be not “flesh and blood” but rather “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” The article archōn (ruler) in Kittel’s standard Theological Dictionary of the New Testament observes that Paul is “not referring to earthly rulers” and that arguments to the contrary “are not convincing.”

To understand Paul and the Epistle writers who soon followed him, we need to be more conversant with the psychology of mysticism than with the history of Palestine. For the early post-Paulines (Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians, not written by Paul and dated shortly after the authentically Pauline letters) are equally vague about the earthly Jesus. Though these three letters are ascribed to Paul in the canon, the New Testament scholar Christopher Tuckett in Christology and the New Testament (Edinburgh: University Press, 2001) endorses the “widely held view” that they are pseudonymous and that Paul’s authoritative position “led to other people writing ‘letters’ in his name.” The opening chapter of Colossians stresses, even more than Paul had done, that “our Lord Jesus Christ” is fundamentally a supernatural personage, and designates him: “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him were all things created, in heaven and upon earth, . . . all things have been created through him; and he is before all things, and in him all things consist.”

Tuckett allows that “quite how all this can be said of a human being living in the recent past is not easy to understand.” Quite so—and I show in my books of 1996, 1999, and 2005 (Can We Trust the New Testament, Open Court) that the remaining New Testament Epistles that can be dated early (Hebrews; James, 1, 2, and 3; John; and 1 Peter) throw little if any more light on the Jesus we know from the Gospels. Christian scholars, aligning the Christ of the Epistles as one and the same person with the Jesus of these Epistles, have to posit what Tuckett calls an “enormous amount of christological development that had already taken place by the time of Paul.” This they admit to be very “surprising.”

In contrast to what we find in all the early Epistles, much in the Gospels seems to be based on traditions about an early first-century Galilean preacher who called the Jews to repentance in view of a catastrophic judgment of mankind soon to be effected by a supernatural figure called “the Son of Man” (never mentioned in the canonical Epistles). In The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Blackwell, 1963), Rudolf Bultmann hinted that these “life of Jesus traditions” about a Galilean prophet were originally quite independent of the Pauline lore about a preexistent Christ who lived in heaven before his incarnation and redemptive death and that the two streams of tradition were first brought together (and then only to some extent) in the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the canonical four. “The author’s purpose,” said Bultmann, “was the union of the Hellenistic kerygma about Christ whose essential content consists of the Christ-myth, as we learn it from Paul, . . . with the tradition of the story of Jesus.”

Mark does state that Jesus’s death was redemptive (10:45; 14:24) but does not labor the point, as Paul has done. What Mark does, strikingly, is to give the crucifixion of the Pauline tradition a setting in time and place consonant with the lifetime of the Galilean preacher. In thus combining a passion narrative with sayings and narrative of a ministry, Mark took a decisive step; for in the upshot only Gospels containing a passion narrative were authorized for use in the emerging Catholic church.

Mark, however, assimilated
only some of the Pauline-type material, and we have to wait until the fourth Gospel before we find Jesus’s preexistence also taken into an account of his life. In his masterly 2010 survey of The Rise of Christian Beliefs (Fortress Press, 2010—surely the culmination of his life’s work), the Finnish New Testament scholar Heikki Räisänen notes the “apt” observation of H.-J. Kuschel that, while “the universal christology of Paul and the Deutero-Paulines” (letters ascribed to Paul but likely not written by him) does not know any material directly relating to Jesus’s life, the first three of our Gospels, replete with such biographical matter, know nothing of his preexistence. “These two things,” says Kuschel, “hardly seem to fit together.” Indeed they do not, and only with the fourth Gospel do we first find any attempt to “square the circle” by linking them.

In early Christianity, the “life of Jesus” stream of tradition was extremely variegated, being based largely on oral material. In a recent symposium, Trajectories Through the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers (edited by A. Gregory and C. Tuckett, Oxford University Press, 2007), Helmut Koester in “Gospels and Gospel Traditions in the Second Century” has pointed to discoveries over the past fifty years that have shown “the existence at an early time, possibly as early as the second half of the first century, of written collections of sayings of Jesus” and also “the development of dialogues of Jesus with his disciples”—“interpretations of traditional sayings” of his. By no means all of this material ascribes suffering and death to him. Räisänen observes that a “soteriological interpretation of Jesus’s death”—that is, a view that Jesus’s death was redemptive—is “either missing from, or is only of minor significance in many first- and even second-century writings.” Further, what we know as “the Easter experiences” are by no means always important, or even present at all, in all of them. A signal example is the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945, which contains only sayings of Jesus—as Ehrman notes in his Lost Christianities (Oxford University Press, 2003): “no birth, no baptism, no miracles, no travels, no trials, no death, no resurrection.” In this Gospel, salvation has nothing to do with Jesus’s death and resurrection but is accorded to those who can rightly interpret his enigmatic sayings recorded in it.

Koester shows that the fluidity of life-of-Jesus material continued well into the second century, when there was a “proliferation of gospel literature,” some of it independent of the canonical Gospels, from which material could be freely combined with other matter, reworked, and expanded. It all voiced an understanding of Jesus far removed from that of the Paulines and other early Epistles.

In a 1984 symposium, From Jesus to Paul, edited by P. Richardson and J.C. Hurd (W. Laurier University Press), the Toronto theologian S.G. Wilson admitted with characteristic frankness that the relation between the Christ described by Paul and the Jesus of the Gospels seems sometimes to be a topic that is “instinctively avoided because to pursue it too far leads to profound and disturbing questions about the origin and nature of Christianity.” Ehrman, aware of the topic’s importance, addresses it in chapter 22 of his excellent historical introduction to the early Christian writings titled The New Testament (3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2004). There, he acknowledges how little Paul tells about “the traditions concerning Jesus, or indeed about the historical Jesus himself,” and even asks: “Do Jesus and Paul represent the same religion?” Ehrman concludes that he must leave his readers to decide that for themselves. However, in his 2009 book he aligns himself with the consensus that Paul’s Jesus does not merely have some similarities with the Jesus of the Gospels but that Paul to some extent corroborates their records.

A favorite example of such corroboration, which Ehrman too adduces, is one of the occasions when Paul uncharacteristically appeals to the authority of “the Lord” to support his own teaching (concerning, in this case, divorce: 1 Cor. 7:10). But for Paul, “the Lord” designates the risen Lord, not the historical Jesus. It is a title associated with the resurrection (Rom. 10:9), and scholars have repeatedly shown that early Christian seers gave directives in the name of the risen Lord as the obvious way of supporting the rulings they wished to inculcate. Paul himself expressly records (2 Cor. 12:8–9) what “the Lord” had said personally to him in answer to a prayer—and the speaker could only have been the risen Lord, for Paul did not know Jesus before his resurrection, and as a Pharisaic persecutor of Christians would not have prayed to him before the risen one called him to his service. Räisänen notes that chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Revelation provide “a vivid illustration that a Christian prophet could present his topical message as an utterance by the risen Jesus.” He gives Paul’s “words of the Lord” at 1 Thessalonians 4:14–17 as a further example (234, 382n.42) and adds that, in time, “quite a few such utterances” may well have been taken for statements made by the historical Jesus and so assimilated into the Gospels. In such cases, the influence will have gone not from life-of-Jesus material to Paul but from him and other early Christian prophets to form supposedly authentic life-of-Jesus material.

What is taken for the strongest evidence for linking Paul’s Jesus with the Jesus of the Gospels is that Paul’s list of persons who had seen the risen Jesus includes men known personally to him, and they—it is claimed—had known Jesus during his ministry. Thus the Cephas known personally to Paul is equated with Peter, the disciple in the Gospels; and Paul’s “James the brother of the Lord,” again a personal acquaintance, is taken to have been one of the brothers of the Galilean Jesus. If so, it would be hard to believe that Paul had not learned from these two men much more about Jesus’s earthly life than is apparent from his letters. Ehrman himself disputed the equation Cephas=Peter in his carefully argued article “Cephas and Peter” (Journal of Biblical Literature 109 [1990] but seems now to accept it. And James and the other “brethren of the Lord” mentioned by Paul may well have been members of a “brotherhood”—a group of Messianists not related to Jesus but zealous in the service of the risen Lord. Just as Paul’s “words of the Lord” can be understood as words of the risen, reigning Christ, the church’s Lord—likewise “the Lord” in his phrase “brother/brethren of the Lord”—may well designate the risen Lord rather than the historical Jesus. In Acts, the Jerusalem Christians are called “the brethren,” and 2 Cor. 8:18 mentions a “brother” who is “famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel.” Paul also mentions a faction at Corinth whose members called themselves “of Christ” and who were not in full agreement with other Christian groups there, differently named (1 Cor. 1:11–13). If, then, there was a Corinthian group called “those of the Christ,” there may well have been a Jerusalem one called “the brethren of the Lord” whose members were as little related to, or personally acquainted with, the pre-crucifixion Jesus as were the Corinthians.

If this looks like special pleading, I would refer readers to my 2009 book, Cutting Jesus Down to Size (Open Court) for fuller discussion of these important issues. Here I will only ask: Can we really believe (as even Räisänen does) that Paul was personally acquainted with the brother of the Jesus of the Gospels and therefore must have known from him—and indeed from other followers of Jesus whom he supposedly knew—that this Jesus ministered in Galilee and died in Jerusalem at the behest of Pontius Pilate, and yet that Paul and other early Epistle writers chose to make no mention of these and many other supposedly biographical facts about the Jesus they worshipped?

It is when we come to Christian writings, in and outside the canon, that are known to have been composed late enough for the Gospels (or at any rate some of their underlying traditions) to have been current that we do find clear allusions to relevant biographical material about Jesus in a way that is, in the earliest documents, unknown. These later writings include, within the canon, 1 Timothy (one of the three Pastoral Epistles ascribed to Paul but generally admitted to be later compositions) and 2 Peter (probably the very latest of the twenty-seven canonical books). Outside the canon, there are the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, the short manual on morals and church practice known as the Didache, the Epistles of Barnabas and Polycarp, the so-called second Epistle of Clement, and the two Apologies of Justin Martyr. Significant biographical material is present in all these writings and in others of similar date.

There is, then, no doubt that in the first half of the second century, Christian writers refer to Jesus in a way that is unknown in the earliest documents. I have repeatedly insisted that until this distinction is recognized as fundamental, there will be no adequate understanding of Christian origins. It is one illustration of the enormous diversity of attitudes and ideas among early Christians, whose doctrines could differ in almost every respect. Räisänen concludes his 2010 survey by noting that, in view of this diversity, there was absolutely no inevitability that Christianity would develop, as it has done, into the mainstream varieties of today. Its future was “completely open, at least during the first two centuries.”

Finally, how Paul and other early Christian writers could come to worship a crucified Messiah not to be identified with the early first-century Galilean preacher of the Gospels is a question that must be faced but cannot be addressed in the compass of this article.

George A. Wells

George A. Wells is emeritus professor of German at the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the origins of Christianity and on German intellectual history.


In this article, I shall focus on the contribution made to this oft-discussed question by the eminent New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman, professor of rel igious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Ehrman’s many books make him prominent among scholars in the field who, as Jacques Berlinerblau observes in The Secular …

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