Religious Studies 435 -- Robert A. Kraft, University of Pennsylvania

Sources for the Life of Jesus (or, Ancient Traditions about Joshua/Jesus)
Distribution III: Arts and Letters

Brochure Description:

From as far back as we can get, competing traditions about Jesus and his significance are attested, some of which found their way into the "New Testament" collection, while others survived elsewhere in the early Christian world. Close examination of these ancient materials exposes a variety of obstacles to reconstructing a convincing historical picture of the man and his message, but along the way a great deal can be learned about the historical enterprise, whether exercised in the form of the controversial "Jesus Seminar" or in less publicized efforts. This is not a "Bible School" class, but it may result in a rewarding experience of academic enlightenment – and excitement!

Online course materials can be accessed through the instructor's home page.


Primary Goal: To understand what factors are at work in the origination, recording, transmission and application of information about memorable figures of the past (or present) such as Joshua (Jesus) who came to be called by his followers "the Messiah" (Christ).

Means to the Goal: Familiarity with the ancient sources (including fragmentary ones) that make claims about Jesus' life and status; familiarity with the diverse attitudes towards Jesus in antiquity; familiarity with modern theories about the relationships of the ancient materials.

Assignments and Course Work: No textbooks have been ordered for this course, since it is possible to do all the required reading online, following the links listed below and/or finding others of you own. The first two weeks of the course should be spent sampling the online resources to be aware of what is there and how to use it. After that we will spend most of our time reading the ancient source materials and discussing their significance for understanding their background and context as well as their relation to other early sources and claims (who, when, where, why, what, wherefore?). Along the line, we will also attempt to keep informed about what modern scholarship (and popular interest) has done with this evidence, but the focus will be on antiquity.

For those who may wish (also) to have hardcopy publications in hand, or to do other background reading, recommendations may be found on the web page for RelSt 135.


Previous class notes from this course
Modern books for reviewing and some online reviews
Some key web sites (search for others through, etc.): ""; "Jesus Archive"; Early Christian Writings

(see also the materials for RelSt 135, including class notes):
Working Backwards through the Sources and Traditions

The Greco-Roman ("Hellenistic") Melting Pot
Christianities in the Ancient World (see also RelSt 535)
Judaisms in the Ancient World (see also RelSt 525)


Astronomical evidence ("star" of Bethlehem)
Calendric calculations (passover on Saturday)
Crucifixion evidence (nail through heel bone example)
"Shroud of Turin" (also here) and Related Claims

  • Image caused by the resurrection, see also Veronica's kerchief tradition
  • Blood and wounds on the Shroud
  • Scientific tests (C14, pollen, weave, DNA?, etc.)

  • Jacob/James Ossuary [2002]: "Jacob son of Josef and brother of Yeshua"

    ANCIENT LITERARY SOURCES ABOUT JESUS (to about the year 200)

    References by "Outsiders"
  • Greco-Roman -- Tacitus, Suetonius
    ( see also Pliny Younger and Galen on Christians, cynical references by Lucian of Samosata)
  • Jewish -- Josephus (see also references in later rabbinic materials)
  • Other -- see the cryptic Syriac Mara bar Serapion letter

    Early Christian Sources 1 (see also "") -- Elements of Form and Content

    Attributed to Jesus' own writing: Abgar correspondence

    Sayings/Discourse attributed to Jesus:
       Relatively Short/Simple : G.Thomas (see also this site), the "Q" stratum
       Connected Discourses: Johannine discourse stratum, Epistle of the Apostles, Nag Hammadi ("gnostic"), etc.

    Narratives about Jesus on earth:
       General: G.Mark, "Secret Mark," etc.

       Last Days, Resurrection: "G.Peter," G.Nicodemus (Acts of Pilate), etc.
       "Miraculous" events -- e.g. feeding of multitudes
       Baptism traditions
       Birth & Early Life: Book ("Protevangel") of Jacob/James, Infancy G.Thomas, P.Cairo 10735, etc.
          (compare also Matthew and Luke)
       Genealogies of Jesus (see also Matthew 1 and Luke 3)

    Stories about Associates of Jesus (e.g. death of Judas)

    Early Christian Sources 2 (see also "") -- Syntheses of Form and Content (problems)

    The "Synoptic Gospels" Type Synthesis: Matthew, Luke, P.Oxy 1224, P.Oxy 840, G.Ebionites, G.Hebrews, G.Nazarenes

    The Johannine Type Synthesis: G.John and its sources, P.Egerton 2 (also here)

    Beyond the Synoptics and John: Diatessaron, "Ps-Matthew"

    Perspectives on Jesus in the Ancient Sources

    Jesus Effects "Salvation" -- All Else is Superfluous
    Jesus as "Martyr" and/or Sacrifice
    Jesus as Wise Teacher
    Jesus as Revealer of Heavenly Mysteries
    Jesus as Healer and Miracle Worker
    Jesus as Everything

    : Lessons in Scholarly/Academic Method

    Overview of source and method problems

    Jesus in the hands of Modern Historians and Critics: "the Jesus Archive"
    Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus
    Rudolph Bultmann and the Relevance of Jesus
    "The Jesus Seminar": Searching for the Authentic Jesus in the Sayings Material and Beyond
    Jesus the Unknown and/or Unknowable

    Jesus in the hands of Modern "Novelists" (e.g. Letters of Pilate, The Last Temptation)
    Jesus in literature and verbal representation
    Jesus in film and visual representation (e.g. PBS specials)
    Jesus on the InterNet !

    //end (updated 1 October 2002)//