The Human Jesus: How Much Do We Really Know About Him?

Our sources of information about Jesus are almost entirely limited to the four New Testament gospels. There are also certain non-Christian reports that help to confirm a few of the events in Jesus’s life including especially his crucifixion. Biblical historians, however, maintain that the gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death. That being the case, many ask: How reliable are the gospels as historical documents? What do we really know about the historical Jesus? Let’s break down Jesus’s life into a few key stages and assess the evidence.

Jesus’s birth and childhood. Do we have a firm fix on when and where Jesus was born? It may surprise you to know that this evidence is not as conclusive as might be expected. The Gospel of Matthew states that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod the Great (2:1). We know that Herod’s death occurred in 4 BCE. If Matthew is correct, Jesus would have been born before that. In fact, Matthew goes on to say that Herod, in his attempt to execute the young messiah, ordered the deaths of children age two and under (2:16). If this is accurate, then Jesus may have been as old as two when the children were killed resulting in a birth year of about 6 BCE.[1] But is Matthew’s account historically accurate? It is obvious that Matthew intends with his gospel to show how Jesus’s life mirrors the lives of the Israelite patriarchs including especially Moses. For example, just as pharaoh sought to kill newborn Hebrew babies which almost resulted in the death of the deliverer Moses (Ex 1:15-22), so a later potentate tried to kill young Jewish babies in order to eliminate the messiah. Just as the patriarch Joseph was taken to Egypt (Gen 37:28), so was Joseph, Jesus’s father, sent to Egypt with his family in order to escape Herod’s homicidal plans (Matt 2:13-15). And just as Moses came out of Egypt (Ex 12:51; cf. Hos 11:1), so did Jesus (Matt 2:19-21); both set out for the promised land. Is there any way to bolster our confidence in this account of Jesus’s origins?

Unfortunately, the Gospel of Luke does not offer much help. That author sets the birth of Jesus at the time of a registration of “the whole inhabited world…taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1-2). Most readers probably already know that this was not a historical event; it is a composite account of events that took place at several different times. None of the events involved “the whole inhabited world.” Conclusion: We don’t really know when Jesus was born. Most scholars accept Matthew’s dating but the evidence is not particularly strong. (As for the actual date, it’s anyone’s guess. December 25 is as good a date as any.)

Where was Jesus born? In this case, Matthew and Luke both agree that the birth took place in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:4). That indicates that the location of Jesus’s birth was part of a tradition older than the Gospels of Matthew (ca. 85 CE) and Luke (ca. 85-90 CE). However, by locating Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, the authors continue to try to demonstrate how Jesus’s life fulfills prophecies found in the Jewish scriptures. The famous King David was born in Bethlehem (1 Sam 17:12). Hundreds of years later, the prophet Micah predicted that David, or a king like him, would come again to liberate Israel: “As for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah…from you a king will emerge who will rule over Israel on my behalf, one whose origins are in the distant past” (Micah 5:2).

It seems nearly certain that Jesus was descended from the line of David; both Paul (Rom 1:3) and the gospels attest to it. Paul knew James, the brother of Jesus, and James would have been of the same lineage. However, this is not as meaningful as might appear. By the time of Jesus, who lived a thousand years after David, there were many who could conceivably trace their ancestry back to David. So far as we know, they did not purport to be the messiah and were certainly not all born in Bethlehem. Conclusion: We do not have much evidence to support Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. Of course, it is a possible location but the prophetic usefulness of Bethlehem for messianic claims makes the city suspect.

Where did Jesus grow up? The gospels are unanimous that Jesus grew up in Galilee, specifically in Nazareth. Commentators and some historians are almost unanimous in identifying this datum with a village now known as Nazareth. However, the earliest biblical mention of Nazara comes from Mark’s gospel (1:9) and therefore dates to about 40 years after Jesus’s death. Paul never mentioned it. In fact, there is no mention of Nazareth made in the Hebrew Bible or in any non-Christian source until a third- or fourth-century inscription from Caesarea listing priestly courses in Galilee.[2] In this case, according to the inscription’s discoverer Michael Avi-Yonah, the name Nazareth is “derived in this source from the root nsr (to guard).” These mishmarot (“guards’) refer to the division of personnel in the Jerusalem temple, that is, the twenty-four priestly courses, one of which, according to this inscription, was located in a place called Nazareth.

While the geographic location that eventually became identified with the place of Jesus’s childhood was inhabited since the Middle Bronze Age, we have no clear evidence that this village was ever called Nazareth until well into the Christian era. And there are, again, prophetic reasons for associating Jesus with such a name. According to Matthew 2:23, “He [Jesus] went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene [Gk Nazōraios].’” Nazarene may also derive from the Hebrew word for “branch” or “shoot,” a botanical term employed by the prophet Isaiah to predict the future descendant of David: “A branch (nsr) shall grow out of his [Jesse, that is, King David’s father’s] roots” (Isa 11:1). Followers of Jesus were, according to early texts including the Acts of the Apostles (24:5), sometimes referred to as Nazarenes even though they were not from Nazareth. Perhaps the word meant something else than Jesus’s home town. Conclusion: We can’t really be sure, despite the confidence shown by most commentators, that the root nsr when connected with Jesus refers to his birthplace. It may instead refer to claims that he was the Messiah. It seems certain, however, that Jesus hailed from somewhere in Galilee since he seems to have spent most of his time there and gathered his leading followers from the region.

What about Jesus’s family? What do we know about them? The authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus’s father and mother were named Joseph and Mary (Mark agrees that Jesus’s mother was named Mary [6:3]; John agrees that Jesus’s father was named Joseph [1:45, 6:42]). These were common names for Jewish men and women in the time of Jesus and there is no particular reason to doubt them. Mark’s tradition that Mary was Jesus’s mother predates the year 70; the tradition that Joseph was Jesus’s father was known prior to about 80 CE. The Gospel of Mark also names four of Jesus’s brothers: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon (6:3). The same passage also alludes to sisters of Jesus. Read on its own, this casual introduction of Jesus’s siblings gives the impression that they were additional children of Joseph and Mary (Mark does not feature a virginal conception story). But given Matthew’s and Luke’s emphasis on Mary conceiving Jesus by the Holy Spirit, Christian reflection led to the later belief that Mary never conceived a child in the natural way – she was always a virgin. This tradition can be traced to the second-century Gospel of James. In that apocryphal gospel, Jesus’s brothers and sisters are made children of an elderly Joseph from a prior marriage. Conclusion: The names of Jesus’s brothers are likely historical whatever their maternal origins. We know about Jesus’s brother James through the writings of Paul, the earliest New Testament author. Though the other brothers and sisters are not mentioned again in the New Testament,[3] they are referenced in some later Christian writings.

Jesus in His Teens. Jesus’s pre-missionary years are often referred to as the “lost years of Jesus.” Only one story of Jesus’s adolescent years is featured in the gospels. Luke describes Jesus sitting in the temple and conversing intelligently with the authorities who were “astonished at his understanding” (2:47). Scholars suggest that Luke has taken this story from the first-century Jewish historian Josephus who described himself as doing the same thing. In his biography, Josephus bragged that, “When I was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for the love I had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law” (Life 2.9). Conclusion: We know next to nothing about Jesus’s teen years (but see below).

Jesus’s Adulthood. When did Jesus begin his mission? The answer is not what you might think. The Gospel of Luke suggests that Jesus began preaching when he “was about thirty years old” (3:23). But most scholars agree that Pilate crucified Jesus in the year 30 CE. If Jesus was thirty in 30 CE, he would have been born well after the reign of Herod the Great, which, as we saw, conflicts with the information given by Matthew. Given that the date of the crucifixion is historically defensible, and that Matthew’s birth estimate is accurate, Jesus would actually have been about 36 years old when he was crucified. The life expectancy for men at that time was only about forty. Therefore, Jesus was approaching his life expectancy when he set out to meet John the Baptist. What was he doing all that time?

Occasionally, people speculate as to whether Jesus was ever married. There is certainly nothing written about Jesus’s wife or any of his children in the New Testament. That doesn’t necessarily imply that Jesus was never married. It is fatuous and grasping at straws, however, to infer that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife. There is no credible evidence that she was even romantically involved with Jesus. We can only say that it was typical of young Jewish men to marry. But it was not unheard of that some might choose to remain celibate. We cannot point to John the Baptist, as some do, as evidence of Jewish men who did not marry. We simply don’t know enough about John’s life to make that case. But there was a group of apocalyptic Jews who moved out to the shores of the Dead Sea to live by themselves organized as a celibate male sect. They may have been Essenes or one of their subgroups. If Jesus had been married, his wife likely died before his mission since she is never mentioned anywhere. It is possible that the two had children but they did not live long enough to be remembered. In the time of Jesus, as many as half of the children born died before the age of five.

Joseph must also have died sometime during Jesus’s late teens or early adult years. This seems likely since we are not told that Mary remarried. Jesus, and perhaps a brother or two, must have been old enough to support the family without Joseph. Otherwise, Mary would have had to seek a new husband for financial and legal support. Joseph is described in the gospels using the Greek word tekton (Matt 13:55; cf. Mark 6:3), often translated as carpenter but with a wider meaning; “builder” might be a better translation. Most structures of that day were built of stone and Jesus was likely skilled in the trade. This put the family in a somewhat higher social group than peasant farmers. Conclusion: For most of his life, Jesus worked as a builder in Galilee.

During his later years, Jesus apparently abandoned his trade and set off toward the Jordan River to meet the new prophet who was making news. John the Baptist was announcing that God was about to enter into human history, to reward the righteous and destroy the wicked. In order for that to happen, the nation of Israel had to renew its righteous status; it must repent. To that end, John urged the repentance of every Israelite and condemned those who would not participate. God would not overthrow Israel’s oppressors if the nation was unworthy. John set about to make it worthy. This must have struck a chord with Jesus who got himself baptized and, at least according to one gospel, helped to baptize others (John 3:22, 26). But Jesus took John’s end-time message to the next level, challenging Satan himself, the leader of God’s earthly and supernatural opponents. We don’t know if John healed or exorcised but there is no doubt that Jesus did. Many believed that it was Satan who afflicted the sick and Satan who infested the possessed. Jesus would begin reducing the devil’s claims on Jewish people one person at a time. While some today may not believe in faith healing or the exorcising of demons, attributing both to psychosomatic illness, both activities were accepted as valid in Jesus’s time. There were, of course, other healers and exorcists at work in Jesus’s day both Jewish and pagan. People in that period believed that divine forces were at work, for better or worse, in nearly every aspect of human life. Conclusion: Jesus practiced a ministry of teaching, healing, and exorcising.

Jesus’s Death. Nothing is more certain among biblical scholars and historians than that Jesus was crucified under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. Who would make that up? There are also reports of Jesus’s crucifixion in both pagan and non-Christian Jewish sources. The gospel stories of Jesus’s last days, however, are a combination of authorial creativity, biblical prophecy, and historical memory. It is hard to sort it all out today. What seems certain is the account of the titulus posted on Jesus’s cross, attested to by all four gospel authors: “[Jesus] King of the Jews” (Matt 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:27; John 19:19 adds “the Nazarene”). This placard was, of course, intended to be sarcastic but it indicates why this man was being crucified. Claiming to be a national leader absent any authorization from Rome was insurrection. Pilate was in charge of putting down insurrection in Judea. Whether Jesus himself claimed to be a king or messiah, or whether it was others who made the claim about him, is a question much debated. But it is not historically valid to put too much stock in the speeches created for the dramatis personae involved in the passion of the Christ. We don’t know who, if anyone, was there to witness and hand down the text of Jesus’s conversations with the various authorities, assuming they took place at all. It is hard to imagine someone like Pilate wasting much time in discussions with an accused insurrectionist.

Other than the content of Jesus’s teaching (a subject for another time) and the faith-claim by his followers that he rose from the dead, there is not much more we can say about the historical Jesus. Of course, these subjects are perhaps even more important to believing Christians than the bare-bones outline of Jesus’s life story. It is religious faith that ensures continued widespread interest in Jesus, the Jewish man of history. Without that, it is hard to imagine much attention being paid to a first-century stonemason.

[1] BCE, “before the Common Era,” and CE, “the Common Era,” are modern replacements for BC and AD. If it seems odd that Jesus can be born “before Christ,” chalk it up to medieval finagling with calendar substitution.

[2] Avi-Yonah, Michael, Stephen Phann, Shlomo Hasson and Shaked Gilboa, “Nazareth,” in Skolnik, F. and M. Berenbaum, Enclyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., Vol. 15, (Macmillan, 2006), pg. 41.

[3] The New Testament Letter of Jude is thought by a few commentators to have been written by Jesus’s brother but that is far from certain.

2 thoughts on “The Human Jesus: How Much Do We Really Know About Him?

    1. Exactly. Hollywood’s frequent depiction of Jesus as a 20-something young man is not historically correct, as far as we know. Based on the actuarial tables for men at the time of Jesus he could expect to live to about 40 years of age. Thus, Jesus was approaching his latter days when he decided to visit John the Baptist. What motivated Jesus to do so? Barring supernatural explanations, could he have been suffering from an illness, perhaps a terminal one? Was his health otherwise in decline? (People died for many reasons not generally terminal today like infections caused by rotting teeth, cuts, bug bites, etc.) Did Jesus know that he might not have much time left and decided to visit John to obtain forgiveness for past sins (as John was seemingly offering)? It does seem odd that Jesus waited so long. John’s activities must have been a prime motivator for Jesus’s behavior. Jesus’s baptismal experience certainly changed his life. In any event, Jesus didn’t last much longer anyway. Could he have been more prone to risk arrest and execution sensing he didn’t have much longer to live? This is all sheer speculation but it gets us thinking about Jesus the human being and not just Jesus the divine being.


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