We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more

"Historical Jesus" Lesson Plan

Kenneth Atkinson
Associate Professor of Religion
University of Northern Iowa

Project/Course: Introduction to the New Testament
Actor/role: Student; undergraduate level
Syllabus Section: Historical Jesus

By reading the OBSO articles listed below along with the thematic essay that includes further links to OBSO material, students will learn how scholars study the New Testament and Jesus. It begins by considering the nature of the sources for Jesus' life and death, all of which were written decades later. Because the authors of the New Testament Gospels were not eyewitnesses, and wrote in a different language than Jesus spoke, scholars debate the accuracy of these books. This section explores some of the tools that biblical scholars use to help them determine what Jesus likely said and did, and how the ancient Christian community preserved stories about him.

Incorporation of OBSO into Course

Instructors should assign the following essays on the Historical Jesus. The OBSO material can be used in a variety of different ways depending on the type of course. The following are some recommended options.

Semester-Long Course

For a typical university course, students can read the background essays listed below in preparation for the class. The thematic essay below supplements this material and provides numerous hyperlinks to other related articles and supplementary material available on OBSO. Instructors can place the links on a web page to accompany the course. Students can also use this material to review for quizzes and exams. Instructors should assign passages in the Gospels for students to read along with the OBSO commentary.

Online Course

In an online course, instructors can place links included in the thematic essay online, along with a list of the essays, as the entire assignment. The thematic essay below can serve as the primary text. In addition, instructors may create a webpage of hyperlinks to other related articles and supplementary material available on OBSO. For an online course, instructors should assign students lengthy passages from the Gospels along with the OBSO commentaries. Students should begin by reading the OBSO essays (listed below) that deal with the Historical Jesus. Instructors can project several of these articles on a screen during class lectures. Relevant scriptural passages can also be displayed in class along with the adjacent commentary.


Students should begin by reading the background essays. They should then read the Gospel of Mark in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV). For both traditional and online courses, students should read the Gospel of Thomas. Instructors should provide links to selected Gospel passages to compare with the Gospel of Thomas. The thematic essay provides additional background information on the topic of the Historical Jesus along with links to further reading on OBSO. Students should be encouraged to explore these links to learn more about specific topics.

Background Essays

Historical Jesus

Jesus is clearly the central figure of the New Testament. Although most Christians would say that their faith is based on Jesus, this is only partly correct. Christianity is not merely founded on Jesus' life and death but primarily on his resurrection. The resurrection refers to the Christian belief that Jesus arose from the dead. This concept is surprisingly not clearly articulated in the Old Testament. But for Christians, Jesus' resurrection prefigures the resurrection of all believers that will take place at the end of history.


The four New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were never intended to be historically accurate accounts of Jesus' life and death. This, however, does not mean that they are fictional. Scholars believe they contain much factual information about Jesus. The Gospels were written decades after his death. Mark, the earliest, was produced around 65 CE while John, the latest, was completed around 95 CE. The Gospels seek to describe how Jesus the Jew taught a new understanding of God through his life and parables, which fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. Their authors' called their books Gospels, and not biography, because they did not want their writings to be mere historical accounts but theological works that would convince people of the truth of the Christian faith.


Scholars during the past century have spent much time examining the Gospels and Ancient Biography. When the New Testament writers set out to produce their Gospels, they had many models they could follow. Many pagan writers, such as Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus, wrote biographies of influential persons. Unlike contemporary biographies, which many believe should present a fair and balanced account of a person's accomplishments from birth to death, ancient biographers regarded their books as character studies. They did not include a detailed account of all the major events in a person's life but merely selected incidents to reveal their subject's character. Many ignore childhood and begin when the subject is an adult. The Gospels are a form of ancient biography. However, they were never intended to be fair and impartial accounts of Jesus' life or his character. Rather, they were written to convince readers to become Christians. Although they contain much historical material, the New Testament Gospels are primarily works of theology.

Quest for the Historical Jesus

New Testament scholars realize that the Gospels are biased. They were never intended to be impartial historical biographies Jesus' life but a theological presentation of it in light of the resurrection. The quest of the historical Jesus is the academic search to remove the theological layers in the Gospels to determine what Jesus actually said and did. This search takes its name from the pioneering work of the biblical scholar Albert Schweitzer, who wrote an influential book tracing the efforts to uncover the details of Jesus' life. Schweitzer and others before him, such as William Wrede, were convinced that the Gospels were not reports of historical facts but theological narratives. Both Schweitzer and Wrede realized that the early Christian Church shaped the Gospel traditions, and that some of Jesus' sayings may reflect later Christian teachings.

If you use the Bible Texts to compare how each Gospel writer presents Jesus' death, it will become apparent that these texts differ in many respects. Jesus' crucifixion is one prominent example. Mark, the earliest Gospel, places Jesus' Passover meal with his followers on Thursday evening, and his crucifixion the morning after the Passover meal was eaten. John, the latest Gospel, has Jesus eat a meal with his followers on Friday evening, and the crucifixion the day before the Passover meal was eaten. Scholars still debate which account is more reliable. Most believe that John changed the details for theological reasons to present Jesus as the "lamb of God" who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Passover lamb, whereas in Mark the Passover meal evokes images of the Old Testament Exodus, with Jesus portrayed like a new Moses leading Christians out of their sinful bondage.


Scholars and early Christians realized that some of the Gospels are more alike than others. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar. Both present orderly accounts of Jesus' life. In many instances, they are almost identical. Sometimes they follow word for word the original Greek. Scholars call them synoptics, from the Greek, meaning to "view together." Many ancient Christian Bibles contain numerical tables marking where a story in one of the Synoptic Gospels can be found in the other two.

Scholars continue to debate the sources for these synoptic accounts. After looking closely at them , scholars realized something interesting about them. Most of Mark is included in Matthew and Luke, sometimes verbatim. But Matthew and Luke often contain nearly identical material that is not found in Mark. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke used a source, which principally contained sayings of Jesus, called the Q Source. This name is taken from the German word Quelle ("source") since a German scholar came up with this theory. Although some scholars doubt its existence, the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas among the Nag Hammadi Texts argues in favor of Q's existence. This account, written in an ancient language known as Coptic (portions of an earlier Greek version have also been discovered), contains 104 short sayings of Jesus. Scholars also believe that Matthew and Luke used other sources, which they call M and L, respectively. Scholars continue to debate the issue of the sources used by the writers of the Synoptic Gospels. It is a complex topic, and many experts devote their entire academic careers to it (see further, Proposed Solutions to the Synoptic Problem).


The Gospel of John is very different than the Synoptics. It is a theological interpretation of Jesus' life and death. Unlike the Jesus of the Synoptics, which tells short stories known as parables, the Jesus of John tends to deliver very extended theological sermons. Because Jesus often identifies with traditional Christian symbols such as light, life, water, bread, shepherd, and the vine, most scholars believe that John's author often explains current Christian symbols in light of Jesus' life. He also associates many practices, such as baptism, back to Jesus. Unlike the Synoptics, John portrays Jesus as emphasizing his divine origin. The miraculous deeds are signs intended to prove that his testimony about himself is true. Jesus performs seven miraculous signs in this Gospel. Many scholars believe that the author took these from an earlier document containing accounts of Jesus' miracles, which they call the book of signs. There is some evidence that John was revised after its completion. It contains two endings, which suggests that it was updated to reflect the situation of a later Christian community that included John, the Beloved Disciple.


When scholars read the Gospels they want to go back to the earliest source possible. They want to separate historically accurate material about Jesus from stories that Christians may have made up about him in light of Old Testament Scripture. They have devised several tools to help them in their quest to uncover the historical Jesus. The first is the criterion of independent attestation (see Jesus Christ). This criterion refers to the fact that a story about Jesus is more likely to be authentic if it is preserved in several different texts. For example, the Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified by the order of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. The Roman historian Tacitus also mentions this information (see Pilate, Pontius). Because Tacitus was a pagan and disliked Christianity, historians consider his testimony good historical evidence to support the Gospel claim that Pilate played a role in Jesus' death.

The second tool, known as the "criterion of dissimilarity," refers to difficult passages in the Gospels that Christians were not likely to have made up. These texts often cause theological problems or conflict with later Christian practices. Perhaps the best known is Jesus' association with John the Baptist. All the Gospels connect the two, and some explicitly claim that John baptized Jesus. Because Christians traditionally believe that baptism is for the forgiveness of sin, this story could imply that Jesus had sin. It is unlikely that later Christians would have fabricated this episode since it is theologically problematic: it is more likely that a later author would have made up a story in which Jesus baptized John.

The third criterion, "contextual credibility," states that sayings and stories about Jesus must fit the context of his time. Because Jesus was a first century CE Palestinian Jew, any story that conflicts with traditional Jewish practices is less likely to be authentic. For example, the Gospel of John frequently refers to the "Jews," and John 9:22 claims that anyone who believes in Jesus will be expelled form the synagogue. This was a later problem but was not an issue Jesus' lifetime since Christianity had not yet begun. It likely reflects practices at the time of John's composition when Christianity had officially separated from Judaism.


Another example of contextual credibility involves the field of linguistics. Jesus spoke Aramaic; the Gospels are in Greek. If a saying attributed to Jesus can easily be converted back into Aramaic, it is likely that the Greek preserves an ancient teaching that may go back to Jesus. Although the Gospels would have been more historically reliable and thus useful for scholars if they had been written in Aramaic, there is a reason why they are in Greek. Few people in the Roman Empire spoke Aramaic; Greek was perhaps the most widely spoken language. This enabled the Christian Gospels to have a wide readership, which greatly facilitated the spread of the Christian message.


Despite the many advances made in the quest for the historical Jesus, scholars still disagree over what type of teacher Jesus was and the extent of pagan influences on his life. Some see him as an apocalyptic prophet who taught about the approaching end of time and God's judgment. Others stress the Greco-Roman background, which they believe had influenced Judaism before Jesus' birth. One scholar has even argued that Jesus was a type of cynic philosopher in Jewish garb. Scholars continue to debate these and other theories. Because there are so many books claiming to have uncovered the historical Jesus, some scholars have simply given up on the quest and argue that these works merely reveal the Jesus researchers want to find.

Further Reading

  • Allison, Dale C. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1998.
  • Becker, Jürgen. Jesus of Nazareth. Translated by J. E. Couch. New York: de Gruyter, 1998.
  • Crossan, John D. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991.
  • Dunn, James D. G. The Evidence for Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985.
  • Eharman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Horsley, R. A. Sociology and the Jesus Movement. 2nd ed. New York: Continuum, 1994.
  • Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew. 4 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1991–2009.
  • Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus (first complete English edition from 1913 German edition). London: SCM, 2000.
  • Theissen, Gerd, and Annette Merz. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Translated by J. Bowden. London: SCM, 1998.

Visit Lesson Plans main page

Oxford University Press

© 2021. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice