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Recent scholarship and the search for the historical Jesus

Many assume, and some triumphantly boast, that the scholarship of the past 150 years has gutted the New Testament gospels and their story of Jesus. And no wonder: Popular articles and documentaries appear every year — often at Christmas and Easter — suggesting that Christian belief rests more on mythology, even on flat-out historical fabrication, than on genuine history. Moreover, a small but noisy movement, mostly among atheists and agnostics on the Internet and mostly disdained by scholars in relevant disciplines, now confidently declares that Jesus himself never existed at all — not even as a merely mortal Jewish teacher or peasant reformer. (See my previous column titled "The evidence for Jesus is early and powerful.")

As its subtitle indicates, Robert Hutchinson’s interesting and accessible book “Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth — and How They Confirm the Gospel Accounts” argues, to the contrary, that scholarship increasingly supports the four gospels rather than undercutting them.

Among the highlights of Hutchinson’s discussion are these:

• The 2012 announcement of seven previously unknown New Testament papyri — one of which, a text from the gospel of Mark, may date to the first century of the Christian era — seems to contradict suppositions that the biblical accounts were created long after the death of Jesus. And these manuscripts are presumably copies of even earlier writings.

• One young secular scholar in Britain now argues that Mark’s account, usually reckoned to be the earliest of the four canonical gospels, wasn’t written half a century after Jesus but, rather, within perhaps five or 10 years of his crucifixion.

• For a long time, it’s been assumed that the New Testament gospels rest on anonymous and doctrinally prejudiced reports that had circulated for decades prior to being written down in their ultimate form, and that, as folklore and rumor typically do, they had grown considerably in the telling. However, excellent recent scholarship argues that, on the contrary, the gospels are based on eyewitness testimony from identifiable, named individuals.

• For decades, many scholars have contended that ancient Christian leaders suppressed early Gnostic “gospels” in favor of the theologically biased and less women-friendly narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Some have claimed that such documents provide an earlier and more accurate view of Jesus than the canonized documents do. Increasingly, though, scholarship recognizes that the Gnostic texts aren’t earlier — they were actually written between one and three centuries after Jesus — and that they’re sometimes extremely misogynistic.

• One of the arguments commonly made against the reality of Jesus is that Nazareth itself, his supposed hometown, didn’t even exist in the first century. The Old Testament and the ancient historian Josephus never mention it, and there were no archaeological traces of it. As one writer quipped, we know that Jesus isn’t real just as we know that the Wizard of Oz isn’t real because both Nazareth and the Land of Oz are fictional. In 2008, one such skeptic even published a book titled “The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus.” Unfortunately for his thesis, it was just a year later that archaeologists discovered the remains of a first-century stone house only a few steps from Nazareth’s beautiful Basilica of the Annunciation — a house that, its excavator suggests, might even be the very house in which Jesus grew up. (See my previous column titled "Archaeology and the boyhood of Jesus in Nazareth.")

• Tangible archaeological proof of the existence of key New Testament figures such as the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, the high priest Caiaphas, and perhaps even James, the half-brother of Jesus, has now been found.

• Some scholars have long suggested that first-century Jews were expecting a militant messiah who would liberate them from Roman oppression, which is probably true for most, but also that the idea of Jesus as a suffering and dying Savior was invented in order to excuse his obvious failure to expel the Romans. Now, though, a Hebrew-language tablet dating to the early first century has been found that seems to speak not only of a suffering and dying messiah but even, possibly, of an expectation that he would rise from the dead after three days.

• During the 20th century, many scholars maintained that belief in Jesus as a divine savior arose 50 or even 100 years after his death. Newer research, though, contends that it emerged very early, within perhaps a year or two of his crucifixion.

Recent scholarship, far from being an enemy to Christian faith, may have become a powerful ally.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs, chairs, blogs daily at, and speaks only for himself.