Uncovering the Historical Jesus

Anwesh Satpathy
15 min readJun 20, 2021


The city of Jerusalem is no stranger to invasion. The Babylonians were perhaps the first to siege Jerusalem. King Nebuchadnezzar’s army looted the city and reduced its walls to rubbles. The King Jehoiakim was executed ruthlessly and “commanded to be thrown before the walls”. Thousands of Jews were taken captive and deported to Babylon. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed. In the succeeding years, control of this holy land of the Jews passed over to various alien kingdoms- the Persians, Alexander, the Ptolemaic and the Seleucids. The Seleucid King Antiochus IV’s ruthless persecution of the Jews and his attempt to put an end to Jewish culture as a whole eventually led to the Maccabean revolt which resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem. The Jews ruled briefly for the next century till the Romans captured it in 63 B.C. The Romans were unique in that they were extremely accommodative of the religion and deities of their subjects. These deities were either added to the Roman Pantheon or merged with existing deity(Baal, for instance, was identified with Saturn). The Jews, on the other hand, being among the earliest monotheists were extremely hostile. This hostility befuddled the Romans. The poet Seneca remarked “the vanquished have given laws to the victors”. The Jews were unwilling to tolerate the tyranny of any foreign rulers, even if the said rulers were relatively tolerant. It was, after all, God who commanded them to settle on the land only after they’ve ensured every previous inhabitant, including animals(everything that breathes), were annihilated. This is not to say Judea was without any conflict. The Romans were ruthless in their persecution of rebels. Insofar as they aligned with the local populace, the lower class were almost completely excluded. Their alignment was largely with the aristocratic class who helped extract taxes. The upper class(referred to as Sadducees) maintained the temple, dominated over the general public and were collaborators of the Romans. It was under this background, of conflict and class divide, of colonization and persecution, that Jesus of Nazareth lived.


Whether he lived or not is not a matter of debate among scholars. Most scholars relevant to the field agree that he did live. However, an increasingly popular movement is growing which argues that there was no such person as Jesus. This movement, known as the mythicist view, argues that the historical Jesus did not exist. He is a creation, a propaganda tool, a fabricated religious myth. To try to find out who the historical Jesus was, it is important for me to elaborate on why I think there was such a person. As a non-Christian and a staunch atheist, I have no “skin in the game”. My belief in the existence of Jesus comes from a careful scrutiny of evidence, not from a deep faith. If you’re a Christian, you might nod your head as you read this section but I must warn you that I have no intention of defending Christianity(whose tenets I will critique in the succeeding sections).

It is true, as the mythicists claim, that we do not have a single physical archeological evidence for the existence of Jesus. The archeological evidence that Christians think we have are not enough to conclusively prove the existence of Jesus. Some of these have been conclusively refuted. The Shroud of Turin(alleged to be the burial cloth of Jesus),for instance, has been proven to belong to the 12th century. Thus, when it comes to archeological evidence, we virtually have none. This is because the archeological evidence that we do have from first century Palestine largely covers aristocratic upper class Jews. There is no reason for us to expect any archeological evidence, given that Jesus was a lower class Jew and like most lower class Jews, his existence was never mentioned.

Even for the existence of the powerful Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, we barely have any archeological evidence(barring some coins and one damaged inscription discovered only in the 1960s).

Neither do we have any Greek or Roman authors mentioning Jesus during his lifetime. This could be surprising for the modern reader, given how far we have come. However, barely 10% of the population were educated in ancient times. To be more specific, during the lifetime of Jesus, only 3% of Jews who lived first century Palestine(where Jesus lived) were literate. “Literacy” here does not mean the ability to write and read complex sentences. The majority of these “literate” people would have only been able to write their names and copy works. Among the “literate” Jews, almost everyone was from the upper class. The lack of any written work from Jesus himself(who in all likelihood was illiterate) or his direct disciples isn’t surprising.

What we do have is reliable non-Christian/Jewish sources which mention Jesus within a century of his death. Among the Roman authors, Jesus is mentioned by Pliny the younger, Tacitus and Suetonius. Written in 112 CE, some 82 years after the death of Jesus, Pliny mentions the Christians as a nuisance defying the then forbidden act of groups coming together. They were worshipping Christ as God. Tacitus, writing around 116 CE, provides us with more information about Jesus. While mentioning the persecution and execution of Christians by Nero, Tacitus writes:-

“The author of this name, Christ, was put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but even in the city [of Rome].”

The authors in question had no reason to falsify the narrative, given that they were anti-Christians. It is quite evident through these writings that existence of Jesus was not doubted. The best source that we have about first century Palestine are the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Almost everything that we know about the period that Jesus lived in comes from Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews”. We know from his work that the name Jesus was very common given that there are multiple Jesus’ mentioned throughout. Two of the references directly talk about the Jesus of Nazareth. The more reliable one refers to Ananus’ execution of James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”. Josephus was a staunch Jew, thus the sentence “who was called Christ(roughly translates to messiah)”, should be read here in a descriptive, even mocking tone.

This does not tell us much about Jesus himself, neither does it conclusively prove the existence of Jesus. To understand more about the historical Jesus, we need to look up to the gospel and Christian writings as historical source(they happen to be the earliest). The common objection would be the obvious biased nature of the gospels. However, we cannot discard documents simply because they are biased. We don’t discard Josephus or Tacitus or Sima Qian just because they were biased. We recognize their biases and then provide a rough approximation of the truth based on what we know about the writers and the historical background in which they were writing. When we do the same with the gospels/new testament, the results are very interesting, to say the least.

Contrary to what evangelical Christians believe, the Gospel weren’t written as eyewitness accounts. The first Gospel of the canonical Gospel(Mark) was written around 40 years after the death of Jesus. The Gospels weren’t written in Aramaic(the language that Jesus and his followers spoke) but in fluent Greek by believing Christians. We don’t know much about the authors themselves. The Gospel writers had a purpose but that purpose was not to write inerrant divinely-inspired scripture. Their purpose was to organize a narrative based on oral and textual sources on the life of Jesus. Some of what they wrote were historically accurate, others were made up to serve a purpose(more on this later). Matthew and Luke, written some 10–15 years after Mark, had access to both Mark and another independent source we now call “Q”(Quelle). We know “Q” existed because the stories narrated by Matthew and Luke(which are not found in Mark) are almost completely identical. Moreover, Luke explicitly tells us that he used many sources in the very beginning of the gospel(Luke 1–4):-

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught”

How many exactly? We don’t know. But we do know that Luke includes stories which are neither found in Mark nor in Matthew(ex- good Samaritan). It is extremely likely that these stories were sourced either from a written text or from oral tradition. Apart from the canonical Gospels, we have gnostic gospels like Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Peter. The latest canonical Gospel(John) is almost entirely different from the other three. Combining all these(Q,L{Luke’s source},M{Matthew’s source}, John,Mark,Matthew,Luke) we know for certain that there are 7 independent accounts, across diverse geographical boundaries, of the life of Jesus within 60–70 years of his death(barring the oral traditions).

We know that the stories themselves are much, much older and actually have Aramaic origins(the language Jesus spoke). This is because the Gospel writers left Aramaic “punchlines”(as Bart Ehrman calls them) in the texts. When Jesus is crucified, he cries out in Aramaic ““Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani”(my God, my God, why have you forsaken me) which Mark then translates for his Greek readers.

Some of the verses/stories make no sense in their Greek original but when translated back to Aramaic, their message is conveyed. Consider the story where Jesus is confronted by Pharisees when his disciples break Sabbath by eating grains. Jesus answers them:- “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Is Jesus saying that he(son of man) can break Sabbath because he created Sabbath? However, in the story its his disciples who break Sabbath, not Jesus. Thus, the last one seems redundant in Greek(Ehrman,2012). However, in Aramaic, the word for both “Son Of Man” and “Man” is the same(barnash). The Gospel writers translated “barnash” in the second line as “Son of Man” in order to make it explicit to their audience that the son of man is none other than Jesus. The right translation would read “So man is lord of the sabbath”, which is perfectly commensurate with the message given in the first sentence.

Saint Paul

The most damning evidence for the existence of Jesus comes from the unlikely source of Paul, whose earliest surviving letter dates back to just 20 years after the death of Jesus. Paul, of course, never met Jesus. But he did meet James, the brother of Jesus(whose existence, as we have seen, is attested by non-Christian sources) and the disciple of Jesus-Saint Peter. Paul’s letters provides us with a timeframe. We know that he had converted to Christianity before 40 AD because he mentions being persecuted by King Aretas, who died in 40 AD. Paul initially persecuted Christians before he converted into one. The conversion is dated around 31–36 AD. This would entail that within a year after Jesus’ death, Paul was not only aware of Christians but was actively persecuting them. Why was Paul persecuting followers of Christ? Because the old testament is quite explicit in its mention that the messiah is a triumphant God-like figure, who will rule over Israel and take it away from the oppressors. The messiah was never supposed to be crucified. Crucifixion was an embarrassment for early Christians. “Everyone who hangs on a tree is cursed”(Deuteronomy 21:23), says the Old Testament, referring to public humiliation of those guilty of capital offences. The reason crucifixion is mentioned is not because it fulfills old Testament prophecy but because the one thing that everyone knew for sure about Jesus was that he was crucified. In other words, they had to mention it because it was true.

But who was he? Who was Jesus of Nazareth? How did he become the most influential figure of Western civilization? What did he preach?

In first century Palestine, figures like Jesus were not rare. These self-proclaimed prophets/miracle-workers were said to have healed the sick and raised the dead. Many of them were also believed to have been ascended to heaven. Appollonius of Tyna, who lived around the same time as Jesus, was perhaps the most popular of these figures. The similarities are not proof that these figures did not exist at all. On the contrary, we know for sure that many of them did exist. Its just that the archetypes of that era seem too unbelievable to us. We have our own, albeit sometimes believable, archetypes. The rag to riches story. The underdog. The tragic/misunderstood genius.

Unlike wealthy educated preachers like Appollonius, Jesus was born in a lower class family in an entirely unremarkable village called Nazareth. It is extremely likely that he was illiterate. He is called a “tekton” i.e. carpenter(Mark 6:3), which during his time was akin to our contemporary minimum wage jobs(perhaps worse but not better). That we still remember him instead of hundreds of his contemporaries who preached a similar apocalyptic message is surprising, to say the least. These contemporaries are not nameless. All or most of them were executed in a similar manner as that of Jesus- Simon of Peraea, Simon bar Giora, Judas the Galilean etc. In fact, Judas the Galilean is explicitly mentioned in the New Testament(Acts of Apostles), where Gamaliel warns in a speech that the followers of Christ will end up having a similar fate as that of Judas the Galilean.

Jesus preached about the kingdom of God, the coming of the Son of Man, “in the glory of the Father with the holy angels”. Those who do evil will be “cast unto the furnace of fire”. When will this Son of Man come? In his own generation. Jesus is quite explicit about this in the earliest gospel:-

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.- Mark 9:1

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.- Mark 13:30

He is the messiah. He is one with God, claims John. Jesus is the Son of man. A divine being. It is only in the Gospel of John(the most recent one) that Jesus is unambiguously the son of God. The other gospels do imply he was the son of God but at the same time contain verses(such as the ones above) where the Son of God is referred to in the third person. It is likely that Jesus did not in fact think of himself as the literal Son of God(which was a later doctrine, the term itself, along with Messiah, is used often for kings and prophets in the old testament).

Who gets into the kingdom of God? This goes into what I consider to be the heart of his teaching. The son of man will separate people in the same manner the “shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” To his right, he will welcome the people to the kingdom of god for “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Perplexed, the righteous ask “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”. He answers “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

This theme shows up again and again. Jesus was not simply advocating for the oppressed, he was advocating for a utopia. A Kingdom where the rich will not be allowed. He does not just say “blessed” are the poor, the peacemakers, those hungry, the hated and those who weep. He also says “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”

The Kingdom of God is not for the rich. This message of Jesus had clear political implications. It was a provocation, a call to resistance, perhaps even a rebellion against the Romans and the elites. It is for this crime, this message, that he was crucified. This is further attested by the fact that he “overturned the tables of Money” and drove away sacrificial animals from the temple. He accused the priests of having turned it into a “den of thieves”.

trial of Jesus

This was the last straw. Calling himself the “king of Jews” directly questioned the authority of Romans. He had to be taken out lest he explicitly challenges the Romans.

It is most likely not true, as Reza Aslan argues in his beautifully written book “Zealot”, that Jesus was advocating for a violent rebellion(if he was, it was most definitely not a part of his public ministry). A consistent theme throughout the New Testament is the pacifist message of Jesus. He asks his followers to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, do good to those who hate them and pray for those who persecute them.

As his disciple and betrayer Judas Iscariot identified him to the authorities, one of the disciples slew the ear of one of those who had come to arrest him. Jesus admonished him saying “Put your sword back in its place, for all those who draw the sword shall perish by the sword”. While this scene is consistent with the pacifist teachings of Jesus, it does raise some objections. Why, for instance, were the disciples of Jesus armed? It is most likely that they were not armed. Had they been armed, indeed, had they attacked the soldier, they would have been arrested along with Jesus. The narrative was probably created by the early followers of Jesus to justify/illustrate the “punchline”(which was likely a part of Jesus’ actual teachings){Ehrman}.

Flagellation of Christ

After the Romans condemned him to crucifixion, he was stripped and scourged in a barbarian manner(standard procedure). He carried the heavy cross, in all likelihood covered in wounds and wearing a crown of thorns, to a place called Golgotha(Calvary) where he was to be crucified. He must have been jeered on as he walked towards his death. Crucifixion shouldn’t simply be understood as capital punishment. The rituals accompanied it had a specific purpose. Crucifixion was reserved for the worst sorts of criminals, the ones who conspired against the state. Its purpose was to publicly humiliate the victims. To warn the public that this crime will not be tolerated. It was a spectacle of the worst kind. Thus, it might surprise people that Jesus is crucified alongside two “thieves”. Most popular translations use either “thieves”, “robbers” or “criminals”. Why would thieves be crucified and publicly humiliated? The original word used to refer to those crucified alongside Jesus in the gospels is “lestai”,who, according to Josephus were Jewish “bandits” rebelling against the Romans. Jesus, too, was crucified for sedition. This was uncomfortable for the Gospel writers as it had clear political implications and their aim was to write about Jesus, the resurrected son of God and not Jesus the rebel. This is why it is the Jews, and not the Romans, who are responsible for the crucifixion(according to the Gospels). The Roman prefect Pontious Pilate washes his hands off and declares “I am innocent of this man’s blood”. This scene is completely ahistorical and contradicts everything we know about Pilate, who was so cruel that he was removed by the Romans from his post for his slaughtering of Samaritans. The Gospel writer’s attempt to remove the political connotations is made explicit when Luke changes the term “lestai”(bandits/revolutionaries) to “kakourgoi”(evildoers).

Condemned of sedition, Jesus dies in intense agony and pain. He cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”. His God did not save him from intense suffering. In his last moments, Jesus must have felt a moment of doubt. About the goodness of his creator. If not his existence itself. He was, after all, a human being.

The Jesus of history is much more compelling than Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ knew he was going to die. He came to suffer. He was a divine being. He knew he was going to be resurrected. He was not of this world but of the heavens. He was the logos. The Jesus of history, on the other hand, was born in a relatively remote village(Nazareth) to a family of low class carpenters. The Jesus of Nazareth preached non-violence and the coming of a just kingdom. He exalted the oppressed. Washed the feet of his disciples. Challenged the elites, the rich, the high priests and the authority of one of the most powerful empires in history. For these beliefs, he died. Neither his sufferings nor his teachings were in vain. The fact that I’m writing this 2000 years later attests to that. This Jesus, to me, is much more compelling than the one who performs miracles and raises the dead.