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Jesus (7–2 BC/BCE to 30–36 AD/CE), also referred to as Jesus of Nazareth, is the central figure of Christianity, whom a majority of Christian denominations believe to be the Son of God.
Virtually all scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed. While there is little agreement on the historicity of gospel narratives and their theological assertions of his divinity most scholars agree that Jesus was a Jewish teacher from Galilee in Roman Judaea, was baptized by John the Baptist, and was crucified in Jerusalem on the orders of the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. Scholars have offered various portraits of Jesus, which at times share a number of overlapping attributes, such as the leader of an apocalyptic movement, Messiah, a charismatic healer, a sage and philosopher, or a social reformer who preached of the "Kingdom of God" as a means for personal and egalitarian social transformation. Scholars have correlated the New Testament accounts with non-Christian historical records to arrive at an estimated chronology of Jesus' life.
Christians hold Jesus to be the awaited Messiah of the Old Testament and refer to him as Jesus Christ or simply as Christ, a name that is also used secularly. Christians believe that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, performed miracles, founded the Church, died sacrificially by crucifixion to achieve atonement, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, from which he will return. The majority of Christians worship Jesus as the incarnation of God the Son, and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. A few Christian groups reject Trinitarianism, wholly or partly, as non-scriptural.
In Islam, Jesus (commonly transliterated as Isa) is considered one of God's important prophets. In Islam, Jesus is a bringer of scripture, and the product of a virgin birth, but not the victim of crucifixion. Judaism rejects the belief that Jesus was the awaited Messiah, arguing that he did not fulfill the Messianic prophecies in the Tanakh. Bahá'í scripture almost never refers to Jesus as the Messiah, but calls him a Manifestation of God.
The Christian gospels were written primarily as theological documents rather than historical chronicles. However, the question of the existence of Jesus as a historical figure should be distinguished from discussions about the historicity of specific episodes in the gospels, the chronology they present, or theological issues regarding his divinity. A number of historical non-Christian documents, such as Jewish and Greco-Roman sources, have been used in historical analyses of the existence of Jesus.
Virtually all scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed and regard events such as his baptism and his crucifixion as historical. Robert E. Van Voorst states that the idea of the non-historicity of the existence of Jesus has always been controversial, and has consistently failed to convince scholars of many disciplines, and that classical historians, as well as biblical scholars now regard it as effectively refuted. Referring to the theories of non-existence of Jesus, Richard A. Burridge states: "I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more."
Separate non-Christian sources used to establish the historical existence of Jesus include the works of 1st century Roman historians Josephus and Tacitus. Josephus scholar Louis H. Feldman has stated that "few have doubted the genuineness" of Josephus' reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20, 9, 1 and it is only disputed by a small number of scholars. Bart D. Ehrman states that the existence of Jesus and his crucifixion by the Romans is attested to by a wide range of sources, including Josephus and Tacitus.
The historical existence of Jesus as a person is a separate issue from any religious discussions about his divinity, or the theological issues relating to his nature as man or God. Leading scientific atheist Richard Dawkins specifically separates the question of the existence of Jesus from the attribution of supernatural powers to him, or the accuracy of the Christian gospels. Dawkins does not deny the existence of Jesus, although he dismisses the reliability of the gospel accounts. This position is also held by leading critic G. A. Wells, who used to argue that Jesus never existed, but has since changed his views and no longer rejects it.
In antiquity, the existence of Jesus was never denied by those who opposed Christianity and neither pagans nor Jews questioned his existence. Although in Dialogue with Trypho, the second century Christian writer Justin Martyr wrote of a discussion about "Christ" with Trypho, most scholars agree that Trypho is a fictional character invented by Justin for his literary apologetic goals. While theological differences existed among early Christians regarding the nature of Jesus (e.g. monophysitism, miaphysitism, Docetism, Nestorianism, etc.) these were debates in Christian theology, not about the historical existence of Jesus. A very small number of modern scholars argue that Jesus never existed, but that view is a distinct minority and virtually all scholars view theories that Jesus' existence was a Christian invention as implausible.
The historical-critical method (or higher criticism) is used to examine the Bible for clues about the historical Jesus, whereby sayings and events that are more likely to be genuine in the opinion of scholars are used to construct their portraits of Jesus. Standard historical methods are used to discern the authorship of each book, and its likely date of composition.
The earliest extant texts which refer to Jesus are Paul's letters (mid-1st century), which affirm Jesus' crucifixion. Keulman and Gregory hold that the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, predates the four orthodox gospels, and believe it may have been composed around mid-1st century.
Biblical scholars hold that the works describing Jesus were initially communicated by oral tradition, and were not committed to writing until several decades after Jesus' crucifixion. After the original oral stories were written down in Greek, they were transcribed, and later translated into other languages. The books of the New Testament had mostly been written by 100 AD/CE, making them, at least the synoptic gospels, historically relevant. The Gospel tradition certainly preserves several fragments of Jesus' teaching. The Markan priority hypothesis holds that the Gospel of Mark was written first c. 70 AD/CE. Matthew is placed at being sometime after this date and Luke is thought to have been written between 70 and 100 AD/CE. According to the Q source hypothesis supported by a majority of modern scholars, the gospels were written not by the four evangelists themselves but derived from other sources. A minority of prominent scholars, such as J. A. T. Robinson, have maintained that the writers of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John were either apostles and eyewitness to Jesus' ministry and death, or were close to those who had been.
Scholars use textual criticism to determine which variants among manuscripts is original and how much they may have changed. Contemporary textual critic Bart D. Ehrman cites numerous places where he maintains that the gospels, and other New Testament books, were apparently altered by Christian scribes. Craig Blomberg, F. F. Bruce and Gregory Boyd view the evidence as conclusive that very few alterations were made by Christian scribes, while none of them (three or four in total) were important. According to Normal Geisler and William Nix, "The New Testament, then, has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book-a form that is 99.5% pure":p.367
Modern scholars consider the baptism of Jesus and his crucifixion to be the two historically certain facts about him, James Dunn stating that these "two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent". Dunn states that these two facts "rank so high on the 'almost impossible to doubt or deny' scale of historical facts" that they are often the starting points for the study of the historical Jesus. Bart Ehrman states that the crucifixion of Jesus on the orders of Pontius Pilate is the most certain element about him. John Dominic Crossan states that the crucifixion of Jesus is as certain as any historical fact can be.
Craig Blomberg states that most scholars in the third quest for the historical Jesus consider the crucifixion indisputable. Although scholars agree on the historicity of the crucifixion, they differ on the reason and context for it, e.g. both E.P. Sanders and Paula Fredriksen support the historicity of the crucifixion, but contend that Jesus did not foretell of his own crucifixion, and that his prediction of the crucifixion is a Christian story. Geza Vermes also views the crucifixion a historical event but provides his own explanation and background for it. 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. Meier states that a number of other criteria, e.g. the criterion of multiple attestation (i.e. confirmation by more than one source), the criterion of coherence (i.e. that it fits with other historical elements) and the criterion of rejection (i.e. that it is not disputed by ancient sources) help establish the crucifixion of Jesus as a historical event.
The term "Christ myth theory" is an umbrella term that applies to a range of arguments that in one way or another question the authenticity of the existence of Jesus or the essential elements of his life as described in the Christian gospels. One viewpoint is that there was no real historical figure Jesus and that he was invented by Christians. Another viewpoint is that there was a person called Jesus, but much of the teachings and miracles attributed to him were either invented or symbolic references. Yet another view holds that the Jesus portrayed in the gospels is a composite character constructed from multiple people over a period of time.
Supporters of the various Christ myth theories point to the lack of any known written references to Jesus during his lifetime and the relative scarcity of non-Christian references to him in the 1st century, and dispute the veracity of the existing accounts about him.
David Strauss, the 19th century founder of Christ myth theory.Among the variants of the Jesus myth theory, the notion that Jesus never existed has little scholarly support, and although some modern scholars adhere to it, they remain a distinct minority; most scholars involved with historical Jesus research believe that his existence can be established using documentary and other evidence.
In the context of historical theories, the hypothesis that Jesus never existed is a rather recent topic, and in antiquity his existence was never doubted, even by those who were critical of Christian teachings. In the early 18th century, friction between the church establishment and some theologians, coupled with the growing emphasis on rationalism, resulted in discord between the English deists and the church, and John Toland, Anthony Collins and Thomas Woolston planted the seeds of discontent.
The beginnings of the formal denial of the existence of Jesus can be traced to late 18th-century France, and the works of Constantin-Volney and Charles Dupuis. The more methodical writings of David Friedrich Strauss caused an uproar in Europe in 1835, and Strauss became known as the founder of Christ myth theory, his approach having been influenced by the epistemological views of Leibniz and Spinoza. Strauss did not deny the existence of Jesus, but believed that very few facts could be known about him and characterized the miraculous accounts in the gospels as "mythical". At about the same time in Berlin, Bruno Bauer supported somewhat similar ideas. Although both Strauss and Bauer drew on Hegel, their views did not coincide, and often conflicted. Karl Marx, a student and at the time a close friend of Bauer, was significantly influenced by him, as well as Hegel and Strauss, setting the stage for the denial of Jesus within communism.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Arthur Drews, William B. Smith and John M. Robertson became the most recognized proponents of the Christ myth theory. However, these authors were not performing purely atheist attacks on Christianity, e.g. Drew did not consider religion as outdated, but argued for a different form of religious consciousness. W. B. Smith argued for a symbolic interpretation of gospel episodes and contended that in a parable such as Jesus and the rich young man never existed and symbolically referred to the land of Israel. Smith also argued that Jesus never healed anyone physically, but only spiritually cured them of their paganism. J. M. Robertson on the other hand viewed the gospel accounts as a collection of myths gathered by a large number of anonymous authors, over time.
When Marxist–Leninist atheism became part of the state ideals in communist Russia in 1922, the theories of Arthur Drew gained prominence there. The communist state not only supported the Christ myth theory but embellished it with scientific colloquialisms, and school textbooks began to teach that Jesus never existed, making Russia a bastion of Jesus denial. These ideas were rebuffed in Russia by Sergei Bulgakov and Alexander Men, copies of whose book began to circulate underground via typewriters in the 1970s to reintroduce Christianity to Russia.
In the 20th century, scholars such as G. A. Wells, Alvar Ellegård, and Robert M. Price produced a number of arguments to support the Christ myth theory. Non-scholarly works on the Jesus myth theory have since been published by mass-media authors such as Doherty, Freke and Gandy. In parallel, a number of historians and biblical scholars such as Paula Fredriksen, Geza Vermes, E.P. Sanders and others involved in the quest for the historical Jesus performed detailed analyses of historical and biblical documents. Almost all of these scholars accept the existence of Jesus, but differ on the accuracy of the details of his life within the biblical narratives. Robert Van Voorst stated that among "New Testament scholars and historians the theory of the non-existence of Jesus remains effectively dead as a scholarly question".
The Christ myth theory is still being debated in the 21st century, with Graham Stanton stating in 2002 that the most thorough analysis of the theory had been by G. A. Wells. But Wells' book Did Jesus Exist? was criticized by James D.G. Dunn in his book The Evidence for Jesus. And the debates continue, e.g. Wells changed his views over time and while he used to argue that there was no historical evidence supporting the existence of Jesus, he later modified his position, and in his later book The Jesus Myth accepted the possible existence of Jesus based on historical sources, although still disputing the gospel portrayals of his life.