Jesus on the cross.
His story is perhaps the most famous on Earth.
Yet how much history is really known about the man at the center of Christianity is a subject of much debate, with scholars in agreement over some elements of Jesus of Nazareth's life and hotly divided on others.
There are no "eyewitness" accounts written about Jesus during his lifetime, so historians have to rely on interpretations of the four main canonical gospel texts, mostly scrawled several decades after his death.
Untangling the man from the myth is a delicate undertaking, but should be of interest to those of all faiths, said Tobias Hagerland, a doctoral candidate at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
"I think it's natural for human beings to ask questions 'why' something happened, and those are not exactly the questions dealt with in the Gospels," said Hagerland. "It could be of interest both to Christian believers and to critics of that religion to know which aspects of Christianity are rooted in historical facts and which are derived from religious convictions and experiences that cannot really be evaluated from an historical point of view."
Jesus not a total mystery
The "Jesus" of history isn't a complete mystery to Biblical scholars, who often make a distinction between the man and the religious figure depicted in the scriptures.
"We do know some things about the historical Jesus — less than some Christians think, but more than some skeptics think. Though a few books have recently argued that Jesus never existed, the evidence that he did is persuasive to the vast majority of scholars, whether Christian or non-Christian," said Marcus Borg, a retired professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University and current fellow of the Jesus Seminar, a group of preeminent academics that debate the factuality of Jesus' life as portrayed in the Bible.
The following "facts" about Jesus would be affirmed by most history scholars, Borg said:
- Jesus was born sometime just before 4 B.C. He grew up in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee, as part of the peasant class. Jesus' father was a carpenter and he became one, too, meaning that they had likely lost their agricultural land at some point.
- Jesus was raised Jewish and he remained deeply Jewish all of his life. His intention was not to create a new religion. Rather, he saw himself as doing something within Judaism.
- He left Nazareth as an adult, met the prophet John and was baptized by John. During his baptism, Jesus likely experienced some sort of divine vision.
- Shortly afterwards, Jesus began his public preaching with the message that the world could be transformed into a "Kingdom of God."
- He became a noted healer, teacher and prophet. More healing stories are told about Jesus than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition.
- He was executed by Roman imperial authority.
- His followers experienced him after his death. It is clear that they had visions of Jesus as they had known him during his historical life. Only after his death did they declare Jesus to be "Lord" or "the Son of God."
Factuality not important
In between those points, the historical details are hard to verify, says Borg, who believes that the importance of the less "plausible" stories found in the Bible — such as the resurrection — lies not in whether they actually happened but in what they meant to Jesus' followers.
"If we understand these stories as parables about Jesus — as metaphorical narratives about him — then the question of their factuality vanishes as an important question," Borg told LiveScience. "[With] this approach," he continued, "it does not matter whether Jesus was born of a virgin or changed water into wine or walked on water. To those who insist on their factuality, I would say: 'Fine — let's not argue about that. Now, let's talk about what they mean.'"
Some parts of the Bible likely strayed from history for emphasis, Hagerland agrees. The public's negative reaction to Jesus' preaching of forgiveness is one example, he said.
"The reactions as depicted in the Gospels must have been exaggerated because, as far as we can know from historical research, no first-century Jew would have considered the proclamation of forgiveness blasphemous," Hagerland said. "It is far more likely then, that the controversy over Jesus' proclamation of forgiveness is not grounded in an historical exchange, but was brought into the episode for rhetorical purposes."
While crucifixion was a punishment consistent with Roman law during Jesus' time, historians say, the circumstances of Jesus' crucifixion certainly morphed in the decades following his death, according to Borg.
"Historically, Jesus was executed by the authorities — Roman imperial authority in collaboration with high-ranking priestly authority. Historically he did not 'die for the sins of the world,' but he was killed by the powers that ruled his world," Borg said.
"His followers found meaning in his death," Borg continued, and even though Jesus likely considered himself a prophet, the titles ascribed to him, "as messiah, Son of God, Lord, and so forth are probably post-Easter affirmations by his followers [and] testimonies to the significance that he had come to have in their lives. As testimonies, they are powerful affirmations about Jesus. And for Christians, true, even though they probably don't go back to Jesus himself."