The Gospels As Historical Sources For Jesus,The Founder Of Christianity

Professor R. T. France

1. The four canonical gospels are indispensable.

1.1 The lack of relevant evidence outside the gospels makes them the necessary starting-point of any investigation of the historical Jesus.
1.1.1 In the first century or so after the death of Jesus there are very few references to Jesus in non-Christian literature.
(a) The brief notice in Tacitus Annals xv.44 mentions only his title, Christus, and his execution in Judea by order of Pontius Pilatus. Nor is there any reason to believe that Tacitus bases this on independent information-it is what Christians would be saying in Rome in the early second century. Suetonius and Pliny, together with Tacitus, testify to the significant presence of Christians in Rome and other parts of the empire from the mid-sixties onwards, but add nothing to our knowledge of their founder. No other clear pagan references to Jesus can be dated before AD 150/1/, by which time the source of any information is more likely to be Christian propaganda than an independent record.
(b) The only clear non-Christian Jewish reference in this period is that of Josephus Antiquities XVIII.63-64, the so-called Testimonium Flavianum. Virtually all scholars are agreed that the received text is a Christian rewriting, but most are prepared to accept that in the original text a brief account of Jesus, perhaps in a less complimentary vein, stood at this point /2/. Josephus' passing mention of 'Jesus, the so-called Messiah' in Antiquities XX.200 is hard to explain without some previous notice of this Jesus, especially since Josephus elsewhere makes no reference to Christianity, nor even uses the term Christos of any other figure. The different and less 'committed' version of the Testimonium preserved in a tenth-century Arabic quotation from Josephus/3/, while it is unlikely to represent the original text, does testify to the existence of an account of Jesus in Josephus' work underlying the Christianized text. But reconstruction of what Josephus wrote is necessarily speculative.
(c) Rabbinic traditions about Jesus /4/ recall him as a sorcerer who gained a following and 'led Israel astray', and so 'was hanged on the eve of the Passover'. Some of the relevant passages may date from the second century AD, but they are very obscure, and bear little relation to the Jesus his own followers remembered. Their polemical nature and their lack of interest in factual data does not create confidence in their potential as historical evidence for Jesus.
1.1.2 Early Christian references to Jesus outside the canonical gospels fall into two categories.
(a) Practically all surviving Christian writings of the first century are found in the New Testament. In the letters of Paul, in the early preaching as Luke reports it in the Acts of the Apostles, and in various references in the other New Testament books, we gain a basic perspective on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, crucified and raised from death, on whom the early Christians based their hope of salvation. These references to Jesus are made in a context of faith, to which biographical interest takes second place. They do in fact add up to a fairly consistent, if minimal, portrait of Jesus as a remembered figure of history, and their factual content is not negligible /5/. But a historian who had only this material to work on could hope for only the most meagre record of Jesus' life and teaching.
(b) From the second century and later come a large number of Christian writings, many of which purport to give an account of what Jesus said and did. These 'apocryphal gospels' vary from novelistic accounts of improbable marvels surrounding Jesus' birth and childhood (especially the Protevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) to elaborate discourses on Gnostic cosmology presented as the post-resurrection teaching of Jesus to his disciples (several such were found at Nag Hammadi, notably the Sophia of Jesus Christ). A high percentage of these works are clearly written within the framework of a Gnosticized Christianity (indeed some are Christian adaptations of pagan Gnostic writings /6/), and their portrait of Jesus is tailored accordingly. The difference in tone from first-century Christian writings is thus remarkable, and leaves the historian with a fundamental choice: either he accepts the earlier accounts and so dismisses the 'Gnostic' Jesus as a later perversion, or he alleges a large-scale coverup by 'orthodox' Christianity which successfully suppressed earlier evidence of a Jesus whose magical propensities and esoteric teaching formed the historical basis of the 'Gnostic' version of Christianity-a more authentic version which is now labelled 'heretical' only because it had the misfortune to be the eventual loser in the battle with 'orthodoxy' /7/. This paper proceeds on the assumption that the earlier evidence is to be preferred. This is not to deny, however, that some authentic tradition about Jesus may have been preserved outside the New Testament. This is in fact inherently likely, and scholars have argued that some stories, such as that of the encounter of Jesus in the temple with Levi the Pharisee /8/, or sayings such as the frequently quoted 'Be approved moneychangers' /9/, are likely to have a basis in fact. Such isolated fragments, however, are not a significant contribution to our knowledge of Jesus.
1.1.3 Archeological evidence for Jesus is in the nature of the case only background evidence. It may tell us much about the world he lived in; it may illuminate the background to certain stories in the gospels /10/; it may help us in deciding between suggested locations of places mentioned in the gospels/11/. But it cannot be expected to offer us direct evidence of a figure whose position in society was not such as to make him the subject of inscriptions.
1.2 The explanation for this lack of evidence is to be found in the nature and scale of the early Christian movement.
1.2.1 From the point of view of Roman history of the first century, Jesus was a nobody. A man of no social standing, who achieved brief local notice in a remote and little-loved province as a preacher and miracle-worker, and who was duly executed by order of a minor provincial governor, could hardly be expected to achieve mention in the Roman head-lines. Even his fellow-countrymen who did not respond to his mission would not be likely to think much of him once his execution had put paid to his claims.
1.2.2 If Jesus was to be noticed it would more likely be through the success of the movement which he founded. As we noted above, it is Christianity rather than Jesus which first makes an appearance in Roman records. In the light of the political prominence which Christianity achieved in the fourth century, it is natural for us to envisage it as an imposing movement from the beginning. But sociological studies indicate first-century Christianity as a predominantly lower-class movement, with only a very limited appeal to the influential classes. And the careful reader of Paul's letters and of the Acts of the Apostles does not gain the impression of a mass movement, but rather of small, rather isolated groups of Christians banding together for mutual support in a hostile environment. Such groups are not the stuff of which news stories are made.
1.2.3 Christianity was a religious movement which did not in its early years have political ambitions. We are surrounded by such movements today. For all our awareness of their presence, it is seldom that we feel it necessary to mention them in ordinary speech and writing. They may be quite large, and for their adherents they may be the focus of all that is important; some of them may, for all we know, be destined to become world-changing forces. But for those of us who are outside them they are, for the time being, barely worthy of notice.
1.3 Seen in this light, the scanty nature of early non-Christian evidence for Christianity, and for Jesus in particular, is hardly surprising. It rings true to the historical reality of the situation. And if that is the case, it is inevitable that our knowledge of the beginnings of Christianity will be dependent almost entirely on Christian records. We are fortunate that quite full early Christian records have in fact survived, in the form of the four first-century gospels. Indeed the availability of four separate records by different authors of the same person in ancient history is a rare, if not a unique, phenomenon.

2. The acceptability of the gospels as historical sources.

2.1 The literary genre of the gospels.
2.1.1 It has long been an accepted dictum of New Testament scholars that the gospels are not biographies. In the sense that they do not set about their task in the way a modern biographer does this is undoubtedly true. Their records are highly selective, have only a loose chronological framework, focus one-sidedly on matters of theological significance, and tell us little or nothing about their subject's psychology or personal development. In these ways, however, they are much closer to the type of 'biography' which was fashionable in the ancient world /12/. To commend the teaching and example of a great man by means of a selective and 'moralizing' anthology of his sayings and deeds was an accepted approach. Many such 'biographies' were of heroes long ago, and are largely mythical and valueless as historical sources; but in the case of a more recent figure there is no reason a priori why authentic historical reminiscences should not form the basis for such a 'life'.
2.1.2 The primary cultural milieu for the gospels is Jewish, and prominent among Jewish literary techniques of the early Christian period is midrash /13/. This category has been applied to the gospels, with the suggestion that the source of much that they attribute to Jesus is a scripturally-inspired imagination rather than historical tradition. It must be insisted, however, (a) that 'midrash' (however that slippery word is defined) was far from being the dominant factor in Jewish writing about recent history, however strongly it may have influenced their retelling of ancient, sacred stories, and (b) that while the framework around which midrash was composed was a pre-existing sacred text, the framework of the gospels is a narrative about Jesus, into which scriptural elements may be introduced as the narrative suggests them, rather than vice versa. There may be much to be learned by comparing the gospel writers' methods with those of midrashists, but there is no meaningful sense in which the gospels in themselves can be described in literary terms as midrash /14/.
2.1.3 It is in fact widely agreed that there is no pre-existing literary category into which the gospels will fit. While they may use elements of existing techniques, and may in various respects resemble other genres, in themselves they are sui generis, a specifically Christian literary development. This means that their aims and methods are to be assessed not by extrapolation from those of other literature, but by studying them in their own terms.
2.2 The nature of the tradition incorporated in the gospels.
2.2.1 The length of time between the events and their recording in the gospels is not much more than two generations, even on the latest dating now proposed. The majority of New Testament scholars still date Mark's gospel shortly before or shortly after AD 70, Matthew and Luke roughly 80-90, and John close to the end of the first century. No part of this scheme, however, is uncontested, both the relative dating of the gospels /15/ and the overall period of their composition being increasingly debated. While J. A. T. Robinson's view that all the gospels were completed before AD 70 has few adherents in its entirety, many are now prepared to argue that both Matthew and Luke could have been written in the sixties (and therefore, for most scholars, Mark would be still earlier) /16/. This would give barely more than one generation between the events and the final Synoptic record of them.
2.2.2 The view of the nature of the tradition during this period which has been dominant in twentieth-century scholarship has been that associated with the form-critical school of Rudolf Bultmann. According to this view most of the stories and sayings of Jesus were remembered as independent oral 'pericopes', which were preserved or altered as the needs of the various churches required, with little concern for the historical basis of the material. During this oral period much was lost, much was changed, and much may have been added to the tradition which had no origin in the historical ministry of Jesus. When the material came to be written down and organized into a continuous 'narrative', the shape of this narrative was contributed by the writer's literary skill rather than by historical reminiscence. Thus what we may expect to find in the gospels is primarily the beliefs of the second and third-generation churches, rather than the history of Jesus. Such historical material as may be preserved in the gospels must be specifically detected by the application of agreed 'criteria of authenticity' /17/, on the assumption that what does not pass such a test may not be claimed as historical evidence for Jesus.
2.2.3 At the opposite extreme is what has come to be known as the Scandinavian approach /18/. This view is based on the observation that oral tradition as it was practised in rabbinic circles was by no means as fluid as the form-critical approach suggests. Large tracts of legal and other teaching material were memorized verbatim, and transmitted unaltered from generation to generation by men specially trained for the purpose. It is suggested that Jesus selected and trained his apostles as guardians of a tradition which was designed for easy memorization, a tradition which included not only his teaching but also key incidents of his ministry. On this view we have in the gospels not the result of a haphazard process, but the tradition as Jesus intended it to be remembered. This view has rightly been criticized on the grounds that Jesus and his disciples were not apparently a rabbinic school dealing in legal formulae, that much of what we have in the gospels is more in the nature of anecdote than of formal tradition, and that in any case a verbatim transmission is ruled out by the considerable variations between accounts of the same incident or teaching in the different gospels. It is, however, questionable whether the original proponents of this approach ever intended such an exact analogy between the gospels and the products of rabbinic schools. But they have done us the service of reminding us that in the Jewish world oral tradition is not synonymous with unreliability. Their study has recently been extended to the area of Jewish primary education, where the same emphasis on accurate memorization has been observed /19/ . In such a milieu we might expect a much closer relationship between the gospel records and the historical ministry of Jesus than form- criticism has typically envisaged.
2.2.4 A recent modification of this approach has been to compare the gospel traditions with the phenomena of informal tradition in a Middle Eastern peasant culture /20/. Here, while the formal controls of rabbinic tradition are lacking, and in some types of oral material a considerable degree of latitude may be allowed in the telling of a story, the main structure and key phrases, sayings, etc. are fixed by community memory to the extent that however often a story may be told in different circles with varying detail or coloring, it will still remain in all essentials the same story, with the same punchline etc., as when it started. Other material in such a culture will have a more unvarying form, where the exact words matter, as in proverbs or poems. This mixture, it is suggested, is closer to the phenomena of the gospels than either of the previously considered approaches, and encourages a strong confidence in the essential reliability of the gospels while allowing for a considerable variation in detail which gives full play to the individual personality and views of each gospel writer.
2.2.5 It should be noted that all these models assume an essentially or even entirely oral tradition for most of the period before the writing of the gospels. This is an assumption which should at least be questioned. There is no a priori reason why written records of Jesus' teaching and actions may not have been preserved from shortly after the events themselves. Most scholars in fact speak of a written source or sources (in addition to Mark) used by Matthew and Luke. It is not clear why this lost 'document' (known for convenience as 'Q') should be the only or the earliest such record. May we not give more weight to Luke's statement (Luke 1:1) that 'many' had already attempted to compile accounts of Jesus' ministry?
2.3 The roots of scepticism as to the historical value of the gospels.
2.3.1 Problems in harmonizing with external data. A notorious case is Luke's reference to a Roman census under the governorship of Quirinius at the time of Jesus' birth. The historical problems are well known, and the case against Luke's accuracy here is a strong one /21/. But such problems are few, because in the nature of the case the vast majority of the content of the gospels simply does not overlap with secular history. It should be pointed out, moreover, that the same Luke whose work is criticized on account of the census problem also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, where the overlap with recorded history is far greater, and in this area Luke's accuracy in referring to the details of political institutions and appointments in Asia Minor and Greece was sufficient to cause the archeologist Sir William Ramsay to change from an inherited scepticism to a warm regard for Luke as a careful and responsible historian /22/. The bearing of external data on the historical reliability of the gospel writers is not all in one direction.
2.3.2 Problems in harmonization between the gospels. Perhaps the most notorious example here is that of the four gospels' accounts of the finding of the empty tomb, and of Jesus' subsequent appearances to selected disciples. It is well known that the details of these stories vary so widely that most scholars have declared any complete harmonization impossible. Be that as it may, it should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the essential story, the finding of an empty tomb early on the first day of the week by women who had reason to expect to find the body of Jesus there, is common to all the accounts. The same is true in general of discrepancies between the gospels: they concern details rather than the essential content (and in most cases the discrepancy in detail is far less than in the case of the resurrection stories). Often the discrepancy is over the apparent chronological order of the events- but it is questionable how far a chronological order is always what the writers intended in the first place. Generally the narrative discrepancies are of the type mentioned above in Middle Eastern story-telling, which leave the essential story-line unaffected. Problems of harmonization are the regular experience of any ancient historian who is fortunate enough to have two sources to compare, and do not in themselves lead him to question the integrity of his sources. Interpreters of the gospels will differ over the weight they assign to such discrepancies, but it would be hard to justify the view that they are sufficient to cast doubt on the essential portrait of Jesus which the gospels share.
2.3.3 Theology and history. Modern study of the gospels has rightly emphasized the role of the gospel writers as theologians. They are not dispassionate compilers of traditions, but write with a message to convey. Their theological interpretation of Jesus and his teaching can be discerned in the distinctive way each has 'angled' his account, both in order to draw out aspects of Jesus which are important to the author himself, and also in order to make the record relevant to the needs and interests of the church for which he is writing. From this observation it has seemed a natural step to some to assume that their theological motivation has taken precedence over, or even eliminated, their historical interest. The simplistic equation, 'If a theologian then not a historian', while seldom explicit, seems to have been at the root of much recent writing on the gospels. It need only be stated to be seen to be absurd. There is no logical incompatibility between having an axe to grind (whether theological or other) and writing careful and accurate history. Indeed it may be questioned how many of the world's great historians have been dispassionate chroniclers, with no message to convey to their readers other than the bare facts.
2.3.4 The perspective of early Christianity. The belief that the gospel materials would have been significantly modified and expanded during the period between Jesus' life and the writing of the gospels presupposes that primitive Christianity was unconcerned with the historicity of its traditions. It supposes that when a story or saying was presented in a significantly altered form, this would either not have been noticed, or would have been accepted and approved, and no-one would have objected 'But it wasn't like that'. Such a view fits well with a modern existentialist philosophy for which faith must be independent of history, and truth consists more in the effect on the hearer than in correspondence with the way things happened. But it is questionable how far such a view fits the concerns of early Christianity, as we can reconstruct them from the New Testament itself /23/. It may be suggested that the more immediately applicable models are those proposed above of the Jewish world of Jesus' day and of the continuing values of Middle Eastern peasant culture. Here 'getting the facts right' is an essential part of good teaching and storytelling, and it must be proved rather than assumed that this was not also the case in the early Christian church.
2.3.5 The supernatural dimension. Undoubtedly the most powerful motive for questioning the historical reliability of the gospels has been the fact that they record ideas and events which are foreign to most modern Western scholars' conception of what may be accepted as 'historical'. At the narrative level we find angels, miracles, the raising of the dead, a visionary experience of Jesus speaking with men who died centuries earlier, and Jesus' own bodily resurrection. At the level of thought, the gospels envisage a God who controls events, to whom man is accountable, with a future prospect of heaven or hell, and Jesus as the one who determines a man's destiny. Here is a total world-view with which modern secular culture cannot be comfortable, and which in the view of many scholars has forfeited any claim to be regarded as 'historical'. Even if the men of those days believed in such a world, modern science would seem to rule out such happenings, and those who wrote as if such things really happened are ipso facto discredited as purveyors of history. But it is a matter of fact that there are many in the world today, yes even in the scholarly world, for whom such a world-view is not excluded. They may have doubts about this or that specific incident or saying, but they would regard the a priori exclusion of the 'supernatural' dimension as a dogmatic prejudice. The issue thus boils down ultimately to a difference of views not only over literary conventions or tradition technique but more fundamentally over the view of reality which the gospels presuppose.
2.4 On such grounds as we have noted, it may be argued that at the level of their literary and historical character we have good reason to treat the gospels seriously as a source of information on the life and teaching of Jesus, and thus on the historical origins of Christianity. Ancient historians have sometimes commented that the degree of scepticism with which New Testament scholars approach their sources is far greater than would be thought justified in any other branch of ancient history /24/. Indeed many ancient historians would count themselves fortunate to have four such responsible accounts, written within a generation or two of the events, and preserved in such a wealth of early manuscript evidence as to be, from the point of view of textual criticism, virtually uncontested in all but detail /26/. Beyond that point, the decision as to how far a scholar is willing to accept the record they offer is likely to be influenced more by his openness to a 'supernaturalist' world-view than by strictly historical considerations.

3. Conclusion.

If the argument sketched out above is valid, any responsible reconstruction of Christian origins must find its starting-point in the first- century gospel records, not in the hints of an alternative view of Jesus contained in second-century literature from the Gnostic wing of Christianity, nor in the attempt to assimilate Jesus to non-Christian parallels in the history of religions. The four canonical gospels will not answer all the questions we would like to ask about the founder of Christianity; but, sensitively interpreted, they do give us a rounded portrait of a Jesus who is sufficiently integrated into what we know of first-century Jewish culture to carry historical conviction, but at the same time sufficiently remarkable and distinctive to account for the growth of a new and potentially world-wide religious movement out of his life and teaching.


  1. For other suggested references in the history of Thallus and in a letter by an otherwise unknown Mara bar Serapion see F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament (London: Hodder, 1984) 29-31; neither is certainly a reference to Jesus or Christianity.
  2. For a survey of scholarly views up to 1969 see P. Winter's excursus in E. Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, vol. I (new edition by G. Vermes, F. Millar and M. Black. Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1973) 428-441.
  3. S. Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its Implications (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971).
  4. The main passages are Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, 107b, and the uncensored text of Sanhedrin 67a. Also Tosefta, Hullin 2:22-24.
  5. This aspect of the New Testament is explored by G. N. Stanton, Jesus of Nazareth in New Testament Preaching (SNTS Monograph 27. Cambridge University Press, 1974).
  6. E.g. the Sophia of Jesus Christ is apparently a Christianized version of the Letter of Eugnostos the Blessed, a non-Christian Gnostic work found in the same collection of Gnostic writings at Nag Hammadi.
  7. This is the approach especially of Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (London: Gollancz, 1978). At a more popular level it is used in I. Wilson, Jesus: the Evidence (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1984).
  8. The story, contained in Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 840, may be found, with discussion, in J. Finegan, Hidden Records of the Life of Jesus (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1969) 226-230.
  9. The saying occurs as a quotation some fifteen times in patristic literature between the second and fifth century. For references see G. W. H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford University Press, 1961) 1400. For discussion see J. Jeremias, Unknown Sayings of Jesus (ET. London: SPCK, 1957) 89-93.
  10. E.g. the pool of Bethesda, described in John 5:2f. See J. Wilkinson, Jerusalem as Jesus knew it (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978) 95-104.
  11. E.g. the rival locations for Jesus' crucifixion and burial; see J. Wilkinson, ibid. 144-150.
  12. C. H. Talbert, What is a Gospel? (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977) has argued for a close literary relationship between the gospels and Greco-Roman biographies. Despite important criticisms of Talbert's total thesis by D. E. Aune in R. T. France & D. Wenham (ed.), Gospel Perspectives II (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981) 9-60, much of his comparative material is relevant to a literary categorization of the gospels.
  13. See especially M. D. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew (London: SPCK, 1974); J. Drury, Tradition and Design in Luke's Gospel (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 1976).
  14. Gospel Perspectives III (ed. France & Wenham. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983) is devoted to a critique of the approach to the gospels as 'midrash'.
  15. In particular the recent revival of the Griesbach Hypothesis, which puts Matthew first and Mark last among the Synoptic Gospels. See especially W. R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem (Dillsboro: Western North Carolina Press, 1976), and many subsequent studies.
  16. For a recent and persuasive argument for a date in the early sixties for both Matthew and Luke see R. H. Gundry, Matthew, a Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 559-609.
  17. The standard approach, based on that of Bultmann, is set out in N. Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (London: SCM, 1967) 38-47. For a full survey and criticism see R. H. Stein in France & Wenham (ed.), Gospel Perspectives I
  18. (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980) 225-263.
  19. This approach is associated particularly with the work of H. Riesenfeld and B. Gerhardsson. The most substantial work is B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript (Acta Seminarii Neotestamentici Upsaliensis 22. Uppsala, 1961), while the results of this study for the gospels are popularly presented in idem, The Origins of the Gospel Traditions (ET. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).
  20. R. Riesner, Jesus als Lehrer (WUNT 7. Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1981).
  21. In a significant paper by K. E. Bailey entitled 'Informal, Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels'. The paper has been widely read, and should be published in the near future.
  22. The case against Luke is forcefully put in the classic excursus in E. Schurer, op. cit., vol. I pp. 339-427. For an assessment more favourable to Luke see I. H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 99-104.
  23. See W. W. Gasque, Sir William M. Ramsay: Archeologist and New Testament Scholar (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966).
  24. For interest in the 'biography' of Jesus in the first century church see G. N. Stanton, op. cit.; also C. F. D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament (London: SCM, 1967) 100-114.
  25. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 1963) 186-192. Cf. the remarks of the Hanson brothers in A. T. Hanson (ed.), Vindications (London: SCM, 1966) 41f, 94f.
  26. Two significant passages in the traditional text of the gospels are textually doubtful, viz. Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53 - 8:11. What is significant is that it is precisely as exceptions that these two stand out. No other passage of more than a verse or two is seriously contested as part of the original text.