The Christ Files: How Historians Know What They Know about Jesus

The Christ Files: How Historians Know What They Know about Jesus

4.0 1
by John Dickson

View All Available Formats & Editions

Uniquely among the world’s religions, the central claims of Christianity concern not just timeless spiritual truths, but tangible historical events. At the heart of the of the Christian faith are things that are meant to have happened in Palestine between 5 BC and AD 30. It’s as if Christianity happily places its head on the chopping block of public


Uniquely among the world’s religions, the central claims of Christianity concern not just timeless spiritual truths, but tangible historical events. At the heart of the of the Christian faith are things that are meant to have happened in Palestine between 5 BC and AD 30. It’s as if Christianity happily places its head on the chopping block of public scrutiny and invites anyone who wants to come and take a swing. Some of Christianity’s claims are so spectacular that they provoke a firestorm of questions, scrutiny, debate, and misinformation whenever they are discussed. The popularity of The Da Vinci Code and the frequent airing of TV documentaries delving into the darker uncertainties of Christianity show that such skepticism flourishes in the Western world today. In The Christ Files you will learn how historians know what they know about Jesus. Historian John Dickson embraces the need to examine Christianity’s claims in the light of history, opening readers to a wealth of ancient sources and explaining how mainstream scholars—whether or not they claim Christian faith personally—reach their conclusions. Christianity arrived on the historical scene at a time of great literary activity. While many texts penned by ancient philosophers, historians, poets, and playwrights can reliably inform us about Jesus himself and about the culture in which he lived, others are not so credible. Dickson skillfully highlights both types of sources along with the historical methods used to study Christianity’s claims. He also shows how historians asses the reliability of available data, and provides an honest but informed perspective on where historical issues are clear-cut and where personal faith comes into play. The Christ Files is a must-read for those looking to expand their understanding of early Christianity and the life of Jesus.

Product Details

Publication date:
Sold by:
Zondervan Publishing
File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Christ Files

How Historians Know What They Know About Jesus
By John Dickson


Copyright © 2010 John Dickson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-32869-8

Chapter One



READERS MAY BE SURPRISED TO LEARN THAT SCHOLARLY BOOKS and articles on the "historical Jesus" number in the tens of thousands. A vast industry has emerged in the last thirty years dedicated to uncovering the real Jesus—as opposed, it is thought, to the Christ presented by the church.

Some scholarly works are modest, trying only to clarify details, such as the extent of the Roman presence in Galilee (Jesus' home district), or the connections between Jesus and other first-century teachers, or the procedures of ancient crucifixion.

Other works are more ambitious, attempting to offer a comprehensive portrait of Christ based on the latest data and methods. Many of these are brilliant and move the scholarly discussion forward. Unfortunately, very few of them ever get read outside of academia.

Typically, the only studies to attract public attention are the "sensational" ones—those that contradict mainstream perspectives on the topic. These studies hit the headlines and make their way into Discovery Channel or BBC documentaries. The viewing public is left understandably perplexed and unaware that most of the best scholarship never reaches them.

It is a sad fact of scholarship (in many academic fields) that the most impressive work is too subtle, cautious and sophisticated—in other words, boring—to be considered newsworthy by the regular media outlets. The headline "Jesus overturned first-century dining rules" is hardly going to excite a newspaper editor, even though it is based on solid data. The headline "Jesus was gay" (Brisbane's Courier Mail, 29 August 2003) will cause a small media storm, even if it is based on the musings of an astrologer, PhD student and gay activist.

Even the major broadsheets can be seduced by the sensational over the scholarly. The Sydney Morning Herald of 2 April 2005 published the headline "Gospel according to Judas will finally be heard." In the article, which was lifted from Agence France-Presse, we were told how a "Gospel" attributed to Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus, was set to overturn traditional ideas about Jesus and Christianity. Most Herald readers, who tend to be a rather educated bunch, would have had no idea that the only authority quoted in the story, one Mario Roberty, was a lawyer and antiquities dealer, not a historian. Nor could they have known that no historian in any university in the world would dream of attributing this mid-second-century writing to the historical Judas (who lived and died a century before the "Gospel of Judas" was written).

I will say more later about the origin of the New Testament Gospels and the recent "discovery" of hidden Gospels. At this point I'll simply note that mainstream scholarship on the Gospels is almost never reported in the Australian media. The British and US media, so far as I can tell, are only slightly better on this score.


All of this highlights something that is well worth knowing about the scholarly game. In any field of academia, and especially in New Testament studies it seems, scholarship tends to fall into three broad camps, or three points along a continuum: sceptical, mainstream and apologetic.

Somewhere out on the left-hand margin is what you might call sceptical scholarship. Experts here ply the scholarly craft of naysaying and hyperscepticism. They relish offering new theories that call into question the results of broader scholarship. Most of them have PhDs from reputable universities, but few of them publish their work in the usual academic forums. They prefer to write directly for the public. Some well-known sceptical scholars include Barbara Thiering (Jesus the Man, Doubleday, 1992), Bishop John Shelby Spong (Jesus for the Non-Religious, Harper Collins, 2007), and George A. Wells (The Jesus Legend, Open Quest, 1996). Wells is perhaps the only modern scholar—a professor of German language, however, not a historian—to argue Jesus never existed. Two far more serious scholars who are nonetheless renowned in academic circles for an overreaching kind of scepticism include Robert Funk (The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Macmillan, 1993) and Gerd L|demann (Jesus After Two Thousand Years: What He Really Said and Did, SCM, 2000).

On the other margin (the right fringe if you like) is what you might call apologetic scholarship. Experts here are already convinced about the truths of Christianity and spend their time defending traditional belief from those who attack it (especially the sceptical scholars). Like the sceptical scholars, most apologetic scholars (sometimes called simply Christian "apologists" from the Greek word for "answer" or "defence") have very good credentials, but they tend to bypass the normal process of academic review and publish directly to the public. They often perform an invaluable service to the Christian community, providing rigorous answers to the claims of sceptics. Some of the important names here include Josh McDowell (More Than a Carpenter, Tyndale, 1987), Gary Habermas (The Historical Jesus, College Press, 1996), and Lee Strobel (The Case for the Real Jesus, Zondervan, 2007).

Between these two margins is what you might call mainstream or middle scholarship. This is where the vast majority of professional scholars are to be found. Mainstream scholars rarely hit the headlines or the shelves of popular bookstores, but their work appears regularly in the hundred or so major peer review journals dedicated to the subject area. "Peer review," by the way, is a quality control mechanism used in most academic fields. It basically means that to get one's research published in a reputable journal it must first be read and approved by at least two international scholars (not connected to the author). Once an article is deemed worthy of publication, it will appear in the relevant journal and form part of the ongoing scholarly conversation. It will then be cited and critiqued or endorsed in any future article or monograph (scholarly book) on the topic.

On the whole, mainstream scholars have little interest in debunking or defending Christianity; they are neither staunch sceptics nor devout apologists. Some are believers, others are not. The important thing to know is that they just get on with the business of analysing the New Testament and related material in the way historians treat any other comparable historical source from the period: whether Caesar, Seneca or Tacitus on the Latin side or Plutarch, Epictetus or Lucian on the Greek. Some of the most important names/works in this large scholarly middle include the following.


Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (Harper and Row, 1988)

Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah [in two volumes] (Doubleday, 1994)

James Charlesworth, The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide (Abingdon, 2008)

John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus (HarperSan Francisco, 1991)

Craig A. Evans and Bruce Chilton, editors of Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (Brill, 1999)

Joseph Fitzmyer, A Wandering Aramean (Scholars Press, 1979)

Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (Macmillan, 2000)

Richard Horsley, Archaeology, History and Society in Galilee (Trinity, 1996)

John Kloppenborg Verbin, Excavating Q (Fortress Press, 2000)

John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew [in four volumes and counting] (Doubleday, 1991-present)

Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (SCM, 1979)

Ed Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin, 1993)


Birger Gerhardsson, The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition (Hendrickson, 2001)

Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (SCM, 2000)

Rainer Riesner, Jesus als Lehrer [trans. Jesus as Teacher] (Mohr Siebeck, 1981; not yet translated into English)

Peter Stuhlmacher, Jesus of Nazareth—Christ of Faith (Hendrickson, 1993)

Gerd Theissen (with Annette Merz), The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Fortress Press, 1998)


Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006)

Marcus Bockmuel, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (Cambridge University Press, 2001)

James Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans, 2003)

Sean Freyne, Jesus, a Jewish Galilean (T & T Clark, 2005)

Pheme Perkins, Jesus as Teacher (Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus (Oxford University Press, 2002)

Christopher Tuckett, Q and the History of Early Christianity (T & T Clark, 1996)

Geza Vermes, The Religion of Jesus the Jew (Fortress Press, 1993)

N. T. (Tom) Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress Press, 1996)

When appropriate, I will draw readers' attention to the work of these and other scholars. Not because I endorse everything written by these experts. I do not. As will become apparent, I want to provide people with easy access to the major findings of mainstream scholars.


Let me hasten to add that I have no delusions about where along this spectrum of scholarship the current book lies: frankly, nowhere. This is not an academic work and I do not for a moment want to suggest to readers that what follows is a careful distillation of the current scholarly debate about Jesus. My goals and approach are quite different.

Nevertheless, readers may wish to know from which scholarly camp, or from which point on the spectrum, this book draws its inspiration and, more importantly, its information. My feelings about sceptical scholarship will be obvious already. I think the best that can be said for it is that it puts Jesus in the headlines every now and then—even if it is as the "gay" Messiah or the misunderstood husband of Mary Magdalene.

It may surprise some readers, particularly those in church circles, to learn that I feel only slightly better about apologetic forms of scholarship. While I share the spiritual perspective of many Christian apologists (I too wish to highlight the significance of Christ), on historical questions I feel less affinity. It seems to me that for all the benefits they bring (in critiquing sceptical scholars and building the confidence of Christians), apologetic scholars tend to overstate their historical case. They tend to exploit all of the possible arguments for a "biblical Jesus" and present them to the public as proof positive. Sceptical scholars develop the naysaying case in the same way. Hence, while I am sympathetic to the aims of Christian apologists, I have drawn almost nothing from them in the writing of this book, preferring instead to lean on the scholarly mainstream.

In what follows I intend to keep within the bounds not only of the historically possible, but also the truly plausible. Certainty, by the way, cannot really be achieved in the study of history. Virtually nothing about the past can be proven in the mathematical sense. Historical evidence allows us to talk about probabilities rather than certainties. In many ways, it is like legal evidence. "Beyond reasonable doubt" does not mean certain; it means that a particular conclusion is so well supported by the evidence that to doubt it, or to insist on an alternative explanation, is unreasonable. Many historical conclusions are of a similar nature. People will always be able to find alternative explanations of historical data (this is a preoccupation of sceptical scholarship), but the question will always be asked by mainstream experts: are the alternatives reasonable? Virtually any scholarly scenario concerning Jesus is possible; only a few would be regarded by most in the scholarly fraternity as plausible and probable.

At times my approach in this book will mean I have to be circumspect about things I actually believe to be true. For instance, when I mention Jesus' reported miracles, readers will notice that I make no attempt to prove Jesus did in fact heal the sick, restore sight to the blind and so on. This is not because I do not accept these things; it is simply because I think the historical sources are incapable of proving (or disproving) things like healings. In this, and many other instances, I find the assessment of mainstream scholars more realistic as a historical conclusion: while historians cannot say Jesus actually healed the sick, they can, and generally do, say that Jesus did things which those around him believed to be miraculous. Whether or not you and I concur with this belief depends not on historical considerations but on philosophical assumptions (such as what we regard as possible in the universe). And that is beyond the scope of this small book.

The aim of The Christ Files is to provide readers with an introduction to the major sources of our knowledge of the man from Nazareth. I do not intend to give an account of what we find in those sources—that is for other books. I simply want to offer an explanation of the basic data and methodology upon which historians build their understanding of Jesus.

We begin our tour through the ancient sources with the latest set of documents telling us about Jesus.


Excerpted from Christ Files by John Dickson Copyright © 2010 by John Dickson. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
There is a huge need for intelligent scholarship to be effectively communicated beyond the academy, a role that Dickson fulfills brilliantly. Informed by scholarship, yet highly readable on a nontechnical level, this work is a very useful introduction to historical discussion about Jesus. The DVD is superb, communicating the best of scholarship in a way that ordinary viewers can appreciate. I cannot imagine an introductory New Testament or Gospels course where it would not be useful. -- Craig Keener, , Professor

Confusion about the historical Jesus is epidemic today. Here John Dickson clears the fog and explains with scholarly acumen and compelling arguments precisely how we know what we know about Jesus. In one stroke, he combines first rate scholarship with a clarity found among only the best teachers. This is the book I'll recommend to my students for years to come. -- Gary M. Burge, , Professor

John Dickson is an exciting young Australian scholar who has demonstrated his ability to write both at the most sophisticated technical level for fellow New Testament professionals and for the average-level reader with little knowledge of the Bible---and for people virtually anywhere in between. This slim volume aims more at the ordinary reader, to correct popular misconceptions about what historians do and don't know, and may or may not plausibly infer, concerning the Jesus of history and his first-century world, without presupposing any kind of religious belief or unbelief. But don't be misled by the book's simplicity and clarity; it is based on wide-ranging knowledge of the field and on the finest and most cutting-edge scholarship. -- Craig L. Blomberg, PhD, , Professor

In a world of many books about the historical Jesus, there are very few which summarize the historical evidence, Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian, as well and as succinctly as John Dickson does in The Christ Files. The accompanying DVD is also a first rate resource for introducing almost anyone to the discussion about the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. In an increasingly less Christian world, here is some first rate historical detective work that provides effective presentation without apologizing for the NT evidence. Highly recommended. -- Dr. Ben Witherington III, , Professor

This attractive book is concerned not so much to tell us what can be known about the life of Jesus as rather to help people who want to know how to evaluate by strictly historical methods the conclusions set forth by contemporary writers who present bizarre reconstructions of him and to see how professional ancient historians give us a firm basis for accepting the New Testament documents as reliable sources for what he did and taught. This is a sober, well-informed guide based on sound scholarship. -- Howard Marshall, , Professor

There are many excellent books on the historical Jesus, but few written with the same clarity and balance as John Dickson's The Christ Files. While well-versed in the world of critical biblical scholarship, Dickson writes like a journalist, gently guiding readers through the maze of essential questions in the search for the real Jesus. Skeptic and believer alike will find Dickson's approach and cautious conclusions a breath of fresh air in a debate too often characterized by sensationalistic, headline-catching claims on the one side and fundamentalist naivety on the other. -- Mark L. Strauss, , Professor

Finally, an honest response to sensationalized stories about the life of Jesus. Dickson addresses with refreshing directness the real questions about Jesus’ life and death and examines a sweeping collection of sources in providing full and fair answers. The accompanying video supplements and expands on the book in several important ways: by showing pictures of Rome, Jerusalem, and other important historical sites, by interviewing top-notch scholars, and by chatting with average people about real issues. This series should be part of every church’s education curriculum. -- Lynn Cohick, , Associate Professor

Meet the Author

John Dickson (PhD, Macquarie University, Sydney) is a senior research fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University; co-director of the Centre for Public Christianity; and senior minister at St. Andrew’s Roseville. The author of more than a dozen books, he is the host of two major historical documentaries for Australian television and is a busy public speaker in corporations, universities, churches, and conferences.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Christ Files: How Historians Know What They Know about Jesus 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good, authoritative, mainstream treatment. Inclines me to view the dvd.