Alan Kerkeslager has published an excellent review of the book “Jesus outside the New Testament” by Robert E. Van Voorst. The review is reproduced below and is taken from

Among the specialized studies of non-canonical sources relevant to the quest of the historical Jesus is a growing bibliography of works by Robert Van Voorst. In the present book, Van Voorst provides a highly readable general survey of the non-canonical sources that have attracted the most attention in efforts to expand the database of evidence for the study of the historical Jesus. The simple act of gathering together in one short volume such a wide array of sources would have been sufficient in itself to make this book extremely useful. But Van Voorst demonstrates that he is also a reliable guide to these sources by the judicious manner in which he surveys the research on them and the equanimity with which he evaluates their significance for the study of the historical Jesus.

The book is dominated by the twin issues of understanding the historical Jesus and demonstrating his existence. Chapter 1 opens with a summary of contemporary research on the historical Jesus for the general reader. It then offers a fascinating survey of modern writers who have denied that Jesus even existed. Van Voorst acknowledges the legitimacy of their questions, such as why references to Jesus are relatively absent from early non-canonical sources. But he recognizes that the existence of Jesus is essentially a non-issue in mainstream historical scholarship. As a result, he wisely relegates apologetic concerns to the background and concentrates most of his attention in the rest of the book on evaluating whether a given source provides a witness to the historical Jesus independent of the canonical Gospels.

Chapter 2 surveys possible references to Jesus in the works of early classical authors, including Thallos (dated to ca. 55 C.E.), the younger Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Mara bar Serapion, Lucian, and Celsus. Chapter 3 then surveys early Jewish sources, including the Dead Sea Scrolls (in which Van Voorst rightly finds no reference to Jesus), Josephus, and rabbinic texts. An added bonus is his study of the Toledot Yeshu traditions. Among the conclusions reached in these two chapters on non-Christian sources is the verdict that the authors of these materials probably derived their information ultimately from Christians.

Chapter 4 surveys the sources behind the canonical Gospels, including L, M, Q, and the Johannine signs source. Chapter 5 surveys the Jesus material scattered throughout later early Christian literature (the agrapha), the Nag Hammadi texts, and various apocryphal texts. The entire Gospel of Thomas, the fragments of the Secret Gospel of Mark, and a large portion of the Gospel of Peter are reproduced verbatim.

A single paragraph at the end of chapter 5 provides the closing synthesis of the entire book. Van Voorst concludes that non-canonical sources provide valuable “corroboration” of the New Testament witnesses to Jesus, but the most important source of information about the historical Jesus is still the New Testament itself.

The book ends with a bibliography and indices of modern scholars, topics, and ancient sources. The style throughout is refreshingly clear and specialized vocabulary is carefully but economically explained. Van Voorst organizes his arguments well and displays a keen sensitivity to current debates in his choices of what sources to include and how much space to devote to each text.

The book is a marvellous achievement and deserves a wide reading even by those who are already familiar with the sources. Nuggets of insight and illuminating suggestions often appear in the details and in the footnotes. For example, Van Voorst makes the intriguing proposal that Tacitus may have learned about Christians as part of his responsibilities as a member of the priestly college of the Quindecimviri sacris faciundis (p. 52). Inevitable trivial disagreements over minor points will not prevent one from admiring the caution, sensitivity, and literary skill that Van Voorst employs in his arguments. Most scholars will not seriously dispute his conclusion that the New Testament still remains the most important collection of sources for the study of the historical Jesus.

My own reaction to this book is overwhelmingly and justifiably positive. Hence the following comments should be understood merely as the obligatory discharge of the reviewer’s duty to point out the one weakness in the book. This is that Van Voorst could have taken a bit more seriously the possibility that non-canonical sources may contain some authentic traditions that contradict the canonical Gospels. He takes a critical approach to the canonical Gospels and recognizes the danger that one may eliminate authentic Jesus material if one uses the canonical Gospels as a basis for evaluating the authenticity of non-canonical Jesus material (pp. 184-85, 215). But he still seems to attribute normative value to the canonical texts and the sources behind them.

Based on Q and traditions reconstructed from the canonical Gospels, Van Voorst adopts the view that the historical Jesus was a Jewish eschatological prophet (p. 172). This has clearly contributed to his negative evaluation of the Secret Gospel of Mark and the “Gnosticizing” elements in the Gospel of Thomas (pp. 202-203, 211, 216). This might not merit comment if it were not that details about Jesus in non-canonical sources that conflict with details from the canonical Gospels are also dismissed in like manner (pp. 69-70, 90, 116, 215-17). Van Voorst certainly is correct in pointing out the tendentious nature of various non-canonical sources (pp. 68, 212-13). But he somewhat undercuts his own attempt to weigh the independent value of these sources by so readily giving them a negative evaluation when placed against the equally tendentious canonical sources. Fortunately, Van Voorst usually gives other reasons to agree with many of his conclusions. The final product is essentially sound, hale, and healthy.

For those who would like a trustworthy and readable introduction to early non-canonical sources related to Jesus, this book should be placed at the very top of the list. The balance, clarity, brevity, and scope of this book commend it as a textbook for courses at any level. While it may be of special interest to scholars and students, this book may be strongly recommended to anyone with an interest in the contemporary study of the historical Jesus.

[This review was published on the Review of Biblical Literature website, a site founded by the Society of Biblical Literature]


Another decent review of "Jesus Outside the New Testament" is provided by Christopher Price at

The origins of the modern Jesus Myth may be traced back to 19th century historian Bruno Bauer. As he became more and more sceptical of the historical worth of the New Testament, he finally reached the point of denying the historicity of Jesus himself. Few scholars paid him much heed at the time but his work was praised by Frederick Engels - the collaborator of Marx. But as a few more commentators adopted the Jesus Myth, the scholarly community responded with various tracts and articles and speeches (many of which were put forth in German). This opposition was diverse including Jewish, liberal, conservative, Catholic, and Protestant scholars. Eventually, in the early 20th century, some leading scholars published book-length treatments of the Jesus Myth. These scholarly responses seem to have resolved the question as far as historians and New Testament scholars were concerned.

Van Voorst is one of the few contemporary New Testament scholars to devote much time to the Jesus Myth. His treatment is the latest from a respected New Testament scholar that I have found. In Jesus Outside the New Testament, Van Voorst devotes most of Chapter 1 to discussing the Jesus Myth, including a helpful overview of its historical development. At the end of the chapter, Van Voorst helpfully summarizes seven grounds upon which New Testament scholars and historians have continuously rejected the Jesus Myth. The seven points largely focus on G.A. Wells, "since his is both contemporary and similar to the others."

1. Misinterpreting Paul
Jesus Mythologists routinely misinterpret Paul's relative silence about some biographical details of the life of Jesus. "As every good student of history knows, it is wrong to suppose that what is unmentioned or not detailed did not exist. Arguments from silence about ancient times ... are especially perilous." (Page 14). As Van Voorst explains, "we should not expect to find exact historical references in early Christian literature, which was not written for primarily historical purposes. Almost all readers of Paul assume on good evidence that Paul regards Jesus as a historical figure, not a mythical or mystical one." (Page 15).

2. Dating the Gospels
Van Voorst points out that Jesus Mythologists are forced to offer radically late dating of the Canonical Gospels. Such efforts are not justified by the evidence because Mark was "probably written around the year 70" and Matthew and Luke "probably date to the 80s." Van Voorst also notes that the late dating of the gospels "cannot explain why the Gospel references to details about Palestine are so plentiful and mostly accurate." (Ibid.)

3. Reading Too Much Into Gospel Development
Mythologists often claim that evidence of literary development and errors in the Gospels support the idea that Jesus did not exist. But as Van Voorst points out, "development does not necessarily mean wholesale invention, and difficulties do not prove non-existence." (Ibid). In other words, being well-written does not make you fiction. Nor does making mistakes.

4. Absence of Opposition
Van Voorst notes that Jesus Mythologists have failed to "explain to the satisfaction of historians why, if Christians invented the historical Jesus around the year 100, no pagans and Jews who opposed Christianity denied Jesus' historicity or even questioned it." (Ibid.) I agree fully with this assessment and find this to be one of the least discussed but most obvious flaws in the Jesus Myth. I would only add that, since Jesus Myths necessarily require a period of development from Mythical Spirit Being to Man God, the absence of internal Christian conflict on this issue (in light of the prevalence of other internal dissension) adds significantly to the weight of this point.

5. Dismissed Non-Christian Evidence
Jesus Mythologists rely partially on "well-known text-critical and source-critical problems" in ancient Non-Christian references to Jesus, but go beyond the evidence and difficulties by claiming that these sources have no value. They also ignore "the strong consensus that most of these passages are basically trustworthy." (Ibid).

6. Agendised "Scholarship"
Jesus Mythologists are not doing history, but polemics. "Wells and others seem to have advanced the non-historicity hypothesis not for objective reasons, but for highly tendentious, anti-religious purposes. It has been a weapon of those who oppose the Christian faith in almost any form, from radical Deists, to Free thought advocates, to radical secular humanists and activist atheists like Madalyn Murray O'Hair." (Page 16).

7. Absence of a Better Explanation
Van Voorst concludes by noting that Jesus Mythologists have consistently failed to offer a better explanation for the origins of Christianity than the existence of Jesus as its founding figure. Though various mythical origins have been attempted, they are even more deficient in corroborative evidence than the existence of Jesus. "The hypothesis they have advanced, based on an idiosyncratic understanding of mythology, have little independent corroborative evidence to commend them to others." Ibid. Obviously, the fanciful--and completely unsupported--reconstructions of early Christianity mandated by the Jesus Myth have proven an insurmountable obstacle.

It is for all these reasons Van Voorst concludes, that "biblical scholars and classical historians now regard it as effectively refuted." (Ibid).

Though Van Voorst's opening chapter is worth the price of admission, the rest of his book is an excellent review of the ancient evidence for Jesus "outside the New Testament." Though not targeted at the Jesus Myth per se, Van Voorst's analysis and conclusions deal blow after blow to it. Jesus Outside the New Testament is the best introduction to all of the usual topics, from the Roman references--Thallus, Suetonius, Pliny, and most importantly Tacitus--to the Jewish sources--Josephus and the Talmud--to post New Testament Christian writings.

The term "introduction," however, may be deceiving. Van Voorst deals with each subject in accessible depth, addressing often overlooked objections to such passages as Tacitus' references to Jesus (shown to be without merit). He takes these objections seriously and concedes their merit (admitting that Pliny is not "a witness to Jesus independent of Christianity") or refutes them decisively (showing that Josephus provides two "non-Christian witnesses to Jesus").

Finally, a surprising but welcome feature of this book is that it devotes an entire chapter to "Jesus in the Sources of the Canonical Gospels." This chapter is packed with excellent discussions (and bibliographical references) about the sources of Matthew, Luke, and John. Each section lays out the likely contents of these sources in convenient charts and provides informed discussions of their origins.

Perhaps the most insightful discussion is of "L"--Luke's unique material--which Van Voorst concludes was likely a "complete" pre-existing source of material about Jesus. Next he provides enlightening discussions of "M"--Matthew's unique material--and the Gospel of John's "Signs Source." He caps off the chapter with an excellent overview of the "Q" question, accepting the established consensus that it was a source for Matthew and Luke, but chiding its reconstructions by scholars such as Burton Mack and John D. Crossan--noting that "attempts to draw a firm distinction between sapiential and apocalyptic material and to force them into different strata" are "probably wrong." (Pages 166-67). Any Jesus Mythologist who attempts to dismiss these Gospels as second century writings or simply expansions of the Gospel of Mark must deal with the arguments summarized so effectively in this chapter because the real question is not necessarily when they were written, but the nature and province of their sources. So far as I have seen, however, none have.

This book belongs on the shelf of everyone interested in the study of the historical Jesus. I highly recommend it.