Sunday, April 10

Did Jesus Really Exist? Is There Any Historical Evidence?

You may have heard it said before, "There is no evidence, apart from the Bible, that Jesus of Nazareth ever existed." This claim, while understandable, is a fallacious one. The consensus among most scholars and historians is that there was a historical figure - it is merely what He actually did in His lifetime, what He thought about Himself, and His death and subsequent resurrection that stirs debate. Is there any evidence for the existence of Jesus? *Note: This entry is double-length. (Photo credit: Museo Epigrafico and Terme di Diocleziano, Wikimedia, Newmarket Films and Icon Productions  - Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ starring James Caviezel)

A few days ago, I had turned on the National Geographic channel, having seen that there was something on about "Who Really Killed Jesus?" Not ten minutes in, I heard the claim, "there's no historical evidence for Jesus." (paraphrased) This caught me by surprise. If the History Channel or National Geographic ever has something on about the Bible, I take it with a grain of salt. The fact that they claimed there was no evidence, however, caught me by surprise because no serious scholar I have ever read or met has questioned the existence of Jesus.

In this entry, we will examine the evidence for Jesus. According to Otto Betz, "no serious has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus."[1] Before we examine the non-biblical evidence for Jesus, we need to first look at God's Word. There are twenty seven different New Testament documents, from letters to Gospels. In past entries, we have given a case for the historicity, truth, and reliability of the Bible. Regardless of one's opinions, it does not change that the Bible is evidence for the existence of Jesus.

The church fathers Polycarp, Eusebius, Irenaeus, Justin, Origin, and others mentioned Jesus as a historical figure as well. However, we will investigate non-biblical sources for the historicity of Jesus, and attempt to build a Case for Christ from these sources. It is important to keep in mind that much of what may have been evidence for Jesus could have been lost when Jerusalem was burned or when Rome was burned. First off, we have Cornelius Tacitus. (born ca. 52-54 AD) In 112 AD, Tacitus wrote on the reign of Nero, and alludes to the death of Jesus and the residence of Christians in Rome.[2]

"But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hatred for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also."[3]

Tacitus also references Christians in his Histories, preserved by Sulpicius Severus, dealing with the burning of The Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Without using the Bible, from this reference alone we can determine that there was a man called Christus (Latin for Christ), that His followers were called Christians, that they existed in the 1st Century, that Christ was put to death by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, and that Christians were charged with the burning of Rome by Nero.

In the second century, a satirist named Lucian spoke scornfully of Christ and of Christians. Lucian conveys that Christ was "...the man crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world... Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws."[4] From this, we can glean that this man was crucified in Palestine, that Christians worshiped Jesus as God, and that they lived under the New Covenant found in the Bible.

In 120 AD, Seutonius, another Roman historian and court official under Hadrian, wrote, "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [another spelling of Christus], he expelled them from Rome."[5] In Lives of the Caesars, he records, "Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition."[6] While we cannot glean much from this passage, we can determine that Christians were around, followers of Chrestus (Christ), and that Nero tried to punish Christians.
4th Century Depiction of the "Good Shepherd"

Plinius Secundus, (also called Pliny the Younger, ca. 112 AD), wrote to Emperor Trajan regarding how to treat Christians. He conveyed that he tried to have them worship statues of Trajan, and made them "curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do." He also says that "They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to satisfy their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up."[7]

Here, Pliny affirms that Christians worshiped Christ as God, that they praised and worshiped, that they tried to live by the Ten Commandments, the like. Another writer is Tertullian, (197 AD) a Jurist-theologian of Carthage who wrote mentioning an exchange between Pontius Pilate and Tiberius, "Tiberius accordingly, in those days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from the truth of Christ's divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favor of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Caesar held to his opinion, threatening wrath against all the accusers of the Christians."[8]

While some historians doubt the historicity of this passage, if it is true, it indicates that even in the early days of Christianity, Jesus was worshiped as God, which is important. The reason this passage is disputed is merely because it was written by Tertullian - who wrote in defense of Christianity. Had he not been Christian, perhaps the passage would not be so question. Regardless of religion, however, the passage is still regarded by others as historical. Thallus, a Samaritan-born historian, mentions Christ, writing in 52 AD.

Thallus' writings can no longer be found, and what we know of his works we find in other sources. Thallus had written a history of the Mediterranean world since the Trojan War. In 221 AD, Julius Africanus made reference to the work of Thallus. "'Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun - unreasonably, as it seems to me' (unreasonably, of course, because a solar eclipse could not take place at the time of the full moon, and it was at the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died)."[9, 10] From this and other historical sources (Phlegon, Tertullian) we can determine that the darkness which came across the world during the Crucifixion was an actual event.

Yet another source is a letter of someone named Mara Bar-Serapion. In The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, F.F. Bruce notes that in the "...British Museum [there is] an interesting manuscript preserving the text of a letter written some time later than A.D. 73, but how much later we cannot be sure. This letter was sent by a Syrian named Mara Bar-Serapion to his son Serapion. Mara Bar-Serapion was in prison at the time, but he wrote to encourage his son in the pursuit of wisdom, and pointed out that those who persecuted wise men were overtaken by misfortune. He instances the deaths of Socrates, Pythagoras and Christ:"[11]

"'What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given.'"[12]

The Jewish Talmuds refer to Jesus in several places. The Babylonian Talmud writes that Jesus was "...hanged on the eve of Passover." He is referred to as "Ben Pandera" often (also Ben Pantere), or "Jeshu ben Pandera." Many believe that "Pandera" is a play on words, "a travesty on the Greek word for virgin 'parthenos,' calling him a 'son of a virgin.' Joseph Klausner, a Jew, says 'the illegitimate birth of Jesus was a current idea among the Jews..." The Sanhedrin 43a refers to the disciples of Jesus.[13] The Baraila contains the following insightful comments:

"On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth) and the herald went before him for forty days saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) is going forth to be stoned in that he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone knowing aught in his defence come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defence and hanged him on the eve of Passover." Elsewhere in the Jewish Talmuds, it is clarified that he was killed via crucifixion.  Paul himself applies "hanging" in reference to Jesus, citing Deuteronomy 21:23. (See Galatians 3:13)[14]

There are several other interesting references to Jesus in the Talmud. The Jewish Authorities never denied that Jesus performed miracles and signs, but they attributed those miracles and signs to acts of sorcery. (See Matthew 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22) Lastly, we will examine Josephus, though there are a few other historical references to Jesus. Josephus was a 1st century historian born ca.37 AD. He became a Pharisee at age 19, and in 66 AD, he was the commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee. Josephus was captured by the Romans. Josephus wrote several works, much of which historians, scholars, and archaeologists have been able to investigate, leading to important finds, both Biblical and non-Biblical.[15] Josephus mentions Jesus in The Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.33:

"Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works - a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day."[16]

This passage is one of the most hotly debated passages in the works of Josephus. Before we further examine the passage, let us look at another reference Josephus makes to Jesus. In The Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1 we read, "when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority.] Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned."[17]

Roman portrait bust allegedly of Josephus
In the second passage from Josephus, concerning James brother of Jesus, it has been argued that Jesus was referred to as Christ merely so that the reader could understand which James he was talking about. Scholars hotly dispute that Josephus actually wrote part of the first text (often referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum), with the knowledge that Josephus was a dedicated Jew, certainly not Christian. Had he been Christian, he likely would have added more about Jesus or other figures of the day, though several places he does mention Emperor Tiberius and Pilate. He also mentions John the Baptist, though at greater length than Jesus, suggested that if a Christian interloper modified Josephus' text concerning Christ, adding phrases such as "...if it be lawful to call him a man," "He was the Christ," "he appeared to them alive again the third day...," etc. 

It is generally accepted that what Josephus likely wrote was as follows: “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”[18]

There are a few points to bear in mind when examining this "reconstructed text." First of all, Josephus would have had no issue with calling Jesus a wise man, or a doer of surprising feats. Jesus was well known as a miracle-worker, this was likely accepted by him. Also, this passage contains things that a Christian interloper likely would not have said, such as Jesus having "won over" many people. The Gospels never indicate that Jesus preached to the Gentiles. He did visit Gentile territory when he came upon the two demon possessed men (one of them Legion), but He did not stay long enough.

Also, when we look at the reconstructed text, it seems to paint Christians and Christianity in a bit of a negative light. Josephus seems surprised that there are still Christians around, illustrating a bit of a hostile tone in this line. This is also why early Christian Apologists did not cite this passage, and likely why Origen mentions that Josephus did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah.[19]. If Christians wrote the entire passage, Josephus writes not long after about John the Baptist - and at greater length. Had Christians edited this passage in a major way, they likely would have added more, but it seems as if not much was "tweaked." One last consideration: 

Jim Caviezel as Jesus (From Passion of the Christ)
"a 10th century Arabic translation of the Testimonium has been discovered and it is quite close to the reconstructed passage... A good number of reputable scholars believe the author of the Arabic version of the Testimonium had access to a version of Antiquities whose textual tradition pre-dated the Christian interpolation. Thus, the Arabic text likely helps confirm the reconstructed version of the Testimonium..."[20] There are other writers that refer to Jesus, both Christian and non-Christian, such as Justin Martyr and others. Celsus, a critic of Christianity, wrote a attack on Christianity, titled True Doctrine. In it, he argues that Jesus was a magician and a sorcerer.

No historical reference denied the existence of Jesus let alone that He performed miracles, simply that they changed the source of His miracles. However, from the above texts (and others), we can conclude: "This evidence arguably confirms that Jesus existed (Pliny, Tacitus, Josephus) and had a brother named James who was killed when Ananus was high priest (Josephus). Jesus was known to be a wonder worker (Josephus, Celsus), a wise man and a teacher (Josephus) and was regarded by his followers as divine (Pliny). He was crucified (Tacitus, Lucian, Josephus) under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius (Tacitus, Josephus) and his crucifixion seems to have been accompanied by a very long darkness (Thallus). This crucifixion, far from squelching the movement, seems to have been a catalyst for its growth (Tacitus). By 49 CE it was large enough to have incited a riot, resulting in Claudius kicking all Jews out of Rome for awhile, thus confirming Luke’s report in Acts (Suetonius). By the early sixties CE the movement had become so widespread that Jesus’ disciples could be plausibly blamed by Nero for a city-wide fire (Tacitus). And by the turn of the century it had spread all the way to Bythnia where it was large enough to cause problems for the governor (Pliny)."[21]

There is a general consensus among scholars, historians, and archaeologists that Jesus existed. Something to consider: if Jesus did not exist, how did a myth create such a worldwide impact as to radically change the course of history of 2000 years? Why did no one of Jesus' day question his historicity if they knew him to be pure myth? According to F.F. Bruce, "Some writers may toy with the fancy of a 'Christ-myth,' but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the 'Christ-myth' theories."[22]
Troy Hillman

[1] Betz, Otto. What Do We Know About Jesus? SCM Press, 1968. Print.
[2] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands A Verdict. 1st ed. Arrowhead Springs, San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1972. 84. Print.
[3] Tacitus, Cornelius. Annals XV.44. Print.
[4] Lucian. The Passing Peregruis.
[5] Seutonius. Life of Claudius, 25.4.
[6] Seutonius. Life of the Caesars, 26.2.
[7] Secundus, Plinius. Epistles X.96.
[8] Tertullian. Apology V.2.
[9] Bruce, F.F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th revised ed. Downers Grove, III. 60515: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972. Print.
[10] Strobel, Lee. The Case For Christ. 1st ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998. 82-84. Print.
[11] Ibid, [9].
[12] Ibid.
[13] Klausner, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1925. Print.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid, [2]. pp. 88.
[16] Josephus (Translated by William Whiston, A.M.). Josephus: The Complete Works. Nashville, Tennesse: Thomas Nelson, 1998. 576. Print.
[17] Ibid. pp. 645.
[18] Boyd, Greg. "Corroborating Historical Evidence of the New Testament." Christus Victor Ministries. Christus Victor Ministries & Greg Boyd, 2008. Web. 8 Apr 2011. .
[19] Origen. Against Celsus, 1.45; Commentary on Matthew, 10.17.
[20] Ibid, [18].
[21] Ibid, [18].
[22] Ibid, [9].