Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Sources about Jesus Christ
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Sources about Jesus Christ

The written sources about Jesus Christ's lifetime are used in modern scholarship to investigate the information about the life of Jesus.

Table of contents
1 The Gospels in the Bible
2 Non-orthodox early Christian sources
3 Other Sources
4 See also

The Gospels in the Bible

The only sources for the life of Jesus which most historians accept as containing even some historically reliable information about the life of Jesus are the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which present a narrative of Jesus' life and death. According to modern scholarship these documents were written within a span of time from about 30 to 70 years after the crucifixion of Jesus (i.e., within 60 - 100). This is important to historians, because it means the original documents were written within living memory of the events.

Also, some of the details of Jesus' life and teachings are attested prior to the writing of the Gospels, in the letters of Paul, which were written in the 50s and 60s, about 20 to 30 years after the crucifixion.

The infancy gospels of Matthew and Luke also present narratives of Jesus's childhood, but these are considered by modern scholars not to be reliable historical evidence because they include different details and in some places appear to contradict each other and are believed to have been written at a later date than the Gospels.

Non-orthodox early Christian sources

From the late 20th century non-canonical and Gnostic Christian sources for Jesus have been increasingly cited as historical sources for the life of Jesus and his teachings. Previously, non-canonical Christian writings had been fragmented and limited in quality owing partly to the fact that some of their esoteric teachings were secret, but largely due to a series of campaigns by the orthodox Church and Roman Empire from the fourth century (Council of Nicaea) to repress various alternative early Christian sects and their writings, which according to orthodox belief were heretical.

Most knowledge about Gnostic and other alternative early Christian sects had been transmitted through the obviously biased secondary source of polemics against heresy. The most famous and valuable of these polemics is Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons, an orthodox Christian bishop, which descibes in some detail, though obviously from his perspective, a number of different alternative Christian doctrines and systems of teaching current in the second century.

Archaeological finds and reappraisals of ancient libraries have led to a rediscovery of a number of non-canonical Christian texts. The first major discovery was an incomplete copy of the Gospel of Peter, found in a monk's grave at Akhmim in Upper Egypt in the late 19th century. Although clearly a Docetic work, it preserves a version of the Passion that some scholars argue is independent of the gospels.

The major find of the 20th Century was a library of gnostic and Christian materials discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Once the Nag Hammadi library was fully translated in the 1970s it provided a deeply fascinating discovery for anyone interested in early Christian and Gnostic beliefs about Christianity and the spiritual teachings of Jesus. Dating the Nag Hammadi material places them in A.D 350-400. However, scholars sharply disagree about dating the original texts, which is vitally important to Christians and historians, because the earlier the dating the more likely the teachings can be attributed to Jesus himself. Debate among scholars and Christians has tended to become more narrowly focused on the reliability of the Gospel of Thomas, probably because it shows the least obvious gnostic influence. A number of scholars have suggested that it is an independent transmission of teaching from Jesus created at approximately the same time as the Biblical Gospels within living memory of Jesus in the second half of the 1st century, while scholars on the other extreme dismiss it as derivative development of the 2nd century AD. Others have focused more specifically on the question of which of the 114 sayings can be reliably attributed to Jesus and which may be later creations or adaptations.

Even with the find of the Nag Hammadi library it is difficult to know what the Gnostic Christian sects actually believed, or if there was any consistent core of teachings; but it is clear that the Gnostic Christians fundamentally disagreed with the orthodox Christians in their understanding of Jesus. Their writings represent a far more private and "Eastern" perspective on Jesus' teachings, producing a diversity of views and practice, compared to which the current differentiation between the main Christian denominations is minor. These writings have proved attractive among liberal Christians and New Ageists in modern times.

Besides these gnostic writings, other non-canonical Christian writings that are sometimes use to either reconstruct the life of Jesus (or the early tradition of his teachings) include:

While these works are not part of the New Testament canon, they were circulated among various Christian communities in the early centuries of the Church; most are available in some form today, although original manuscripts are not available for all of them.

Other Sources

Historical sources cited as evidence for the life of Jesus include Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger, written between 93 and 112. None of these authors provide first-hand or contemporary accounts. They affirm only the existence and execution of Jesus, his founding of Christianity at around the time the Gospels state (e.g., under governorship of Pontius Pilate), and the existence of Christianity as a religion at that time.


Probably the most important reference to Jesus is by Josephus in Jewish Antiquities which is a history of the Jewish people. There is a reference to Jesus and a separate reference to James the Just (Jesus' disciple, brother, and leader of Jesus' followers in Jerusalem after his death) and some of his followers being killed by stoning for blasphemy. Unfortunately for historical purposes, many historians consider the reference to Jesus by Josephus to have been the subject of alteration by a Christian transcriber, opinions vary along the continuum from it being subject to only minor alteration to that of it being a completely spurious entry. The reference to James is generally considered to be reliable.

Letters of Herod

There are copies of a few "letters of Herod and Pilate connecting Roman history with the death of Christ at Jerusalem" found in a sixth or seventh century Syriac manuscript, copies of correspondence between the two and reports sent from them to the emperor concerning Jesus. However, there authenticity is considered doubtful by many if not most scholars. Aside from these, there is no evidence of any record of Jesus generated by the Roman bureaucracy, unsurprising if the Christian movement was insignificant at the time.


Another important source is The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine written by Eusebius of Caesarea by 324. The great value of Eusebius' History lies in the quotations which it contains from earlier ecclesiastical writers. The works of many of them are lost, and are known to us only through the extracts made by Eusebius. Most notably Hegesippus (who is quoted giving detailed reference to James the Just in 165-75 [1]) and Sextus Julius Africanus. Eusebius was able to make use of the Christian libraries of Caesarea and Jerusalem.


References to Jesus in the Jewish Toledoth Yeshu compiled in the twelfth century but preserving traditions that go back to the 6th century are even less detailed. There is mention of the late 2nd century BCE Yeshu Ha Notzri who had some disciples, and was executed, and a certain early second century CE Ben Stada who practiced some form of "sorcery" (Sanhedrin 43a). There are traditions about Ben Stada's illegitimate birth and attempts to link him with a certain early first century Ben Pandera (Shabbat 104b, Sanhedrin 64a) whose disciples were healers and respected by Rabbis Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and/aka Eliezer ben Dama. The currency of this last story around 180 is corroborated by the anti-Christian polemic philosopher, Celsus, who reported hearing the story from an anonymous Jew.

The Toledoth Yeshu combines the traditions of these three men whose lives spanned four centuries (from the second century BC to the second century CE) and other characters like the 5th century Rabbi Tanhuma Bar Abba into one satirical and cautionary would-be messiah tale. It starts with the story of his allegedly illegitimate birth reports that in the time of King Jannaeus, a certain Miriam of noble blood, while engaged to Jochannan of David's line had an affair with a certain mid first cnetury BC Joseph Pandera and that the late second century BC Yeshu Ha Notzri was the result of this affair. Ben Pantera so means "Son of Pantera". It should be noted that the name of this alleged father means Panther in Aramaic. The chronological mess is because this is not taken to be a historic account but a satirical folk-tradition.

The word "panther" was also used as a metaphor for unbridled sexual desire (according to who?), so this could have begun as an allegation that Jesus was born out of wedlock because of his mother's sexual waywardness. Another theory is that the story of "pantheras" comes later than the chistian accounts as a deliberate distortion of and play on the Greek word for virgin, "parthenos".

See also

Topics related to Jesus
Christology | as Christ & Messiah; | his Resurrection | Jesus in Islam | Jewish views | Other views of Jesus | Sources about Jesus | Historicity of Jesus | Fictional portrayals |edit|