There is widespread disagreement among scholars on the details of the life of Jesus mentioned in the gospel narratives, and on the meaning of his teachings, and the only two events subject to "almost universal assent" are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate.
According to New Testament scholar James Dunn, nearly all modern scholars consider the baptism of Jesus and his crucifixion to be historically certain. He states that these "two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent" and "rank so high on the 'almost impossible to doubt or deny' scale of historical 'facts' they are obvious starting points for an attempt to clarify the what and why of Jesus' mission." John P. Meier views the crucifixion of Jesus as historical fact and states that based on the criterion of embarrassment Christians would not have invented the painful death of their leader. The criterion of embarrassment is also used to argue in favor of the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist as it is a story which the early Christian Church would have never wanted to invent. Based on this criterion, given that John baptised for the remission of sins, and Jesus was viewed as without sin, the invention of this story would have served no purpose, and would have been an embarrassment given that it positioned John above Jesus.
Amy-Jill Levine has summarized the situation by stating that "there is a consensus of sorts on the basic outline of Jesus' life" in that most scholars agree that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and over a period of one to three years debated Jewish authorities on the subject of God, gathered followers, and was crucified by Roman prefect Pontius Pilate who officiated 26–36 AD. There is much in dispute as to his previous life, childhood, family and place of residence, of which the canonical gospels are almost completely silent.
Scholars attribute varying levels of certainty to other episodes. Some assume that there are eight elements about Jesus and his followers that can be viewed as historical facts, namely:
- Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
- He had a controversy at the Temple.
- Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.
- His activities were confined to Galilee and Judea.
- After his death his disciples continued.
- Some of his disciples were persecuted.
- Scholarly agreement on this extended list is not universal.
The Mishnah (c. 200) may refer to Jesus and reflect the early Jewish traditions of portraying Jesus as a sorcerer or magician. Other references to Jesus and his execution exist in the Talmud, but they aim to discredit his actions, not deny his existence.
Since the 18th century, three separate scholarly quests for the historical Jesus have taken place, each with distinct characteristics and based on different research criteria, which were often developed during that phase. The portraits of Jesus that have been constructed in these processes have often differed from each other, and from the dogmatic image portrayed in the gospel accounts.
Currently modern scholarly research on the historical Jesus focuses on what is historically probable, or plausible about Jesus.
The mainstream profiles in the third quest may be grouped together based on their primary theme as apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish Messiah and prophet of social change, but there is little scholarly agreement on a single portrait, or the methods needed to construct it. There are, however, overlapping attributes among the portraits, and scholars who differ on some attributes may agree on others.
The criterion of embarrassment developed during the second quest was applied to the Baptism of Jesus.
While there is widespread scholarly agreement on the existence of Jesus, and a basic consensus on the general outline of his life, the portraits of Jesus constructed in the quests have often differed from each other, and from the image portrayed in the gospel accounts. There are overlapping attributes among the portraits, and while pairs of scholars may agree on some attributes, those same scholars may differ on other attributes, and there is no single portrait of the historical Jesus that satisfies most scholars.
Nearly all modern scholars of antiquity, which is the majority viewpoint, agree that Jesus existed and most biblical scholars and classical historians see the theories of his non-existence as effectively refuted.[nb 9] There is no evidence today that the existence of Jesus was ever denied in antiquity by those who opposed Christianity. Geoffrey Blainey notes that "a few scholars argue that Jesus... did not even exist," and that they "rightly point out that contemporary references to him were extremely rare." Bart Ehrman concedes, "Jesus is not mentioned in any Roman sources of his day", while maintaining that other sources do support his existence whereas Richard Carrier and Raphael Lataster assert that there is no independent evidence of Jesus’s existence outside the New Testament.