5 Things We Know Are Absolutely True About Jesus

Andrew Springer
8 min readJan 29, 2024

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that Jesus was a real man in a real place in a real time with a real message. We’re so inundated with Christian propaganda that usually, when white Americans think of Jesus, we think of our white skinned, long haired, blue eyed best friend.

That’s absolutely not who Jesus actually was. As I wrote last month, I’ve come to believe, in a fully documentable and scholarly way, that the religion about Jesus, Christianity, was not the religion of Jesus, nor was it something he intended to start. (1)

But in order to fully understand what his original message was and what it means for us today, we must first examine who Jesus — the man, the myth, the legend — actually was.

No, Jesus didn’t look like this — he definitely wasn’t white.

As such, there are generally five things all scholars agree on, whether they consider themselves Christians or not, about the real Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus.

1. Jesus was real.

Yes, Jesus was a real man who actually existed. There’s simply too much evidence, from the Bible and also from non-Biblical sources, for a person named Jesus to be a complete fabrication of any one person or group. There is no serious scholar today who believes that Jesus didn’t exist. (2)

2. Jesus led a movement.

There’s also no doubt this man led some sort of religious/spiritual movement. A big part of how we know Jesus existed is that Jesus had followers who wrote a lot about him. This large body of writing helps prove that somebody named Jesus existed: there are just too many writings from too many sources with too many viewpoints and too many differences about the details for Jesus to be a fabrication.

Some of those writings are in the Bible, deemed by the early church to be important, like the writings of Paul. Some of those writings came later; some were declared true while others were rejected. Either way, this guy had followers, people who thought he or his message was somehow different or special. On top of that, we have non-Christian sources, both Jewish and Roman, who wrote about those followers. (3) Simply by writings alone, Jesus is one of the two best-attested Jews who lived in ancient Palestine. (4)

3. Jesus was Baptized by John

At some point in his life, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. It’s one of the few events that is described in all four canonical Gospels (each time, a little bit differently). Scholars believe this story is true because of something called the “criteria of embarrassment.” If Jesus is the messiah, why would he go out and be part of another (lesser) person’s movement?

Traditionally, in water purification rituals like baptism, the baptizer is superior to the baptizee. This was true then as it mostly is now; in most denominations only ordained clergy can perform the sacrament of baptism. Only can a ritually pure person make another, less ritually pure person more pure. As such, in the headline of the story — John baptizes Jesus — John is superior to Jesus.

The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1475

Scholars believe this story is true because it’s too “embarrassing” to make up. The story of John baptizing Jesus must have been common knowledge, and it couldn’t simply be avoided or left out of the narratives about Jesus’s life. It needed to be explained in some way.

As such, in each of the Gospels’ retelling of Jesus’s baptism does John somehow become inferior to Jesus. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, after the ritual, the heavens open up, a dove lands on Jesus, and the Holy Spirit makes a heavenly proclamation.

In Matthew, John doesn’t even want to baptize Jesus, saying Jesus should baptize him, while in Luke we’re informed that Jesus and John are actually related (there’s nothing to suggest this is historically true). (5) And in John, the last written Gospel, probably 60 years after Jesus’s death, John fully proclaims before the ritual that Jesus is “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!”(6)

In none of the Biblical stories is Jesus’s status in relation to John left ambiguous: Jesus is clearly superior to John. Scholars believe that if this story wasn’t true, the gospel writers would have no need to even include it in their stories. Thus because there must be some truth to it, they had to explain this apparent contradiction.

4. Jesus was executed by crucifixion.

Similarly to the reasons above, scholars are unanimous that Jesus was executed by crucifixion by the Romans. First, the writings we have about Jesus all attest to this. It is nearly unanimous across Christian and non-Christian writings that Jesus was executed in such a manner. Of course all the canonical gospels report this, as do the letters of Paul, which predate the Gospels by 30 or 40 years. The Jewish historian Josephus confirms this explicitly: Jesus was executed via the cross by the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. We might doubt this story if perhaps only half the stories said Jesus died this way — or that Jesus died at all. But there’s no disagreement among the texts: Jesus was crucified.

The 17th-century painting Christ Crucified by Diego Velázquez.

And, similarly to the story of Jesus’s baptism by John, scholars believe this story had to be included by early Christian writers because of the criterion of embarrassment. The story of your messiah, the savior of the world, being executed by the state is a major embarrassment. Think about it: if a religious leader today, who some felt was the coming messiah who somehow would save the world, was executed by lethal injection — would you think that’s proof that this man was who his followers said he was? It was an embarrassing circumstance that had to be dealt with.

This is even further complicated by the fact that Deuteronomy clearly states that anyone “guilty of a capital offense” that is “hanged from a tree” is cursed. (7) This was commonly understood in Jesus’s time to include crucifixion (which of course happened on the wood of a tree). Indeed, the book of Acts refers to Jesus’s crucifixion as “hanging on a tree” three separate times. (8)

Any Jew who heard of this potential messiah being crucified would have surely understood Jesus to be cursed, per Jewish law. Paul even admits this as a “stumbling block” for potential Jewish Christians and “foolishness” to gentiles. (9) If it weren’t well known or not true, Paul and other writers could have simply ignored it. But they couldn’t — and scholars today think it’s true.

5. Jesus’s message was about a “Kingdom of God”

This brings us to our last point that New Testament scholars are in virtual agreement upon: the central message of Jesus of Nazareth was about a coming “Kingdom of God.” (10) The Greek word for Kingdom, basileia (βασιλεία), occurs 163 times in the New Testament, and appears in texts that were written independently of each other.

For example, the phrase “Kingdom of God” appears in the writings of Paul thirteen times, and in Matthew, Mark, and Luke eighty-five times. (11) It’s believed the writers of these “Synoptic Gospels” did not use the letters of Paul as a source for information — there is little to no overlap in the texts’ meaning or message — except for the continuous use of the phrase “Kingdom of God” (or its related term, “Kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew). To scholars, this is called multiple attestation and helps confirm the belief that this phrase originated with Jesus himself.

A rendering of the Christian “Kingdom of God” from the AI took Midjourney — via Reddit.

Frustratingly, however, in none of the surviving evidence does Jesus give a clear definition of what this Kingdom is, how and when it will come (or if it’s already coming), or who will be allowed in. A reader of the gospels knows that Jesus speaks only in vague parables about what this coming Kingdom will be like, and seems to suggest that access to this kingdom will be based on righteousness or moral behavior. Paul, of course, offers his own views on this Kingdom, most notably that the admittance to this kingdom, at least for Gentiles, will be based on whether or not they believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus.

Modern American Protestantism has equated this Kingdom with the modern notion of heaven — a place where those who accept the doctrines of sacrificial atonement and the trinity (Jesus is the son of God who’s actually God and was crucified to take the punishment for sin that God himself demands) will have everlasting peace for the rest of eternity after death. (12)

This, however, was not the original message of Jesus of Nazareth, and clearly not what he meant when he said God’s Kingdom is coming. This is a corruption of his message that’s been developed over time by his most elite and powerful followers, who then perpetuated their ideas through technology and power structures of their own time. (Going even further, the Marxist in me believes they only believed and propagated Christianity because it kept them rich and powerful, but that’s for another day.)

So what did Jesus mean then? We’ll be diving into that, and what I think he meant, in the coming weeks.

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Footnotes

  1. This was the way one scholar says Howard Thurman distinguished Christianity from the message of the historical Jesus: “Thurman distinguished between the ‘religion about Jesus’ and the ‘religion of Jesus.’ The ‘religion about Jesus’ has failed the oppressed.” Mitzi J. Smith, “Howard Thurman and the Religion of Jesus: Survival of the Disinherited and Womanist Wisdom”, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 17, 3 (2019): 271–291, doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/17455197-01703003.
  2. See Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time (San Fransisco: HarperOne, 1994).
  3. The two most important of these are the Roman historian Tacitus, see Annals, 15.44, and the Jewish historian Josephus, see Antiquities of the Jews, 18.63–64 and also 20.9.
  4. According to noted New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, the other is Josephus. https://ehrmanblog.org/the-gospels-and-the-existence-of-jesus/.
  5. Matthew 3:13–17, Luke 1.
  6. John 1:29.
  7. Deuteronomy 21:22–23.
  8. Acts 5.30; 10.39; 13.29.
  9. 1 Corinthians 1:23.
  10. Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 251.
  11. Scot McKnight, “Kingdom of God” in The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus, Evans, Craig A., ed. (Milton: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008), 354–358.
  12. If this sounds crazy and nonsensical, that’s because it is.

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Andrew Springer

Emmy winning journalist, producer and entrepreneur. Co-founder of NOTICE News, follower of Jesus. 🏳️‍🌈🌹 Weekly newsletter: https://bit.ly/jesusmovementemail