What can we say about the history of Jesus? Is it reasonable to conclude that Jesus never existed, based on the weight of all the historical evidence? Or is it more reasonable to conclude that Jesus was an unparalleled historical figure; that not only was he a great teacher and “doer of wonderful works”, but that something extraordinary – perhaps even supernatural – happened in history to spark a movement that “turned the world upside down”.
Christianity presents a founder who is unmatched in history – one who really lived, taught unlike any other, performed miracles that testified of His authority, really died, and really rose from the dead to be seen by literally hundreds before His ascension.
Either He existed, and was who He claimed to be – Lord and Savior; or not. If He did exist, fulfill prophecy, perform miracles, die in our place, and rise again, then you, I — we all — have to deal with the ramifications of this.
Consider the written historical evidence of Jesus from these varied sources …
1. Non-Christian, non-Jewish sources (principally Roman, Greek). These consist of the writings of a number of Greek or Roman historians, and refer to the history of Jesus because of the trouble the Christian movement was causing in the empire at the time. The records are normally antagonistic, since they have nothing to gain by admitting the historicity of the events.
2. Jewish sources – Josephus, the Talmud. Josephus, a Jewish aristocrat turned politician, was recruited by the Romans during the first Jewish revolt to act as a mediator and write a historical record of events at the time. He records that Jesus was a wise man that did many wonderful works, and that many people – both Jews and Gentiles – followed after him. The Talmud, written by Jewish sources at the time, is (not surprisingly) unfriendly toward the founder of Christianity. The important point, however, is that Jewish sources do not deny that Jesus was a real historical figure — they only promote a different interpretation of of his conception.
3. Christian sources – the Gospels, early church fathers and historians. The four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are judged by most scholars to be reliable, historical testimony of eye-witnesses. These gospels, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of Paul and the other Apostles, are judged to have been written from 40 A.D. to 100 A.D. — all within a few decades of the life of Jesus. The early church fathers were the leaders and teachers in the church who followed the apostles – many were also disciples of these same apostles.
Non-Christian, Non-Jewish Historians Comment on the History of Jesus
Cornelius Tacitus (c. A.D. 55-120)
A Roman historian who lived through the reign of over a half-dozen Roman emperors1, Tacitus has been called “the greatest historian of ancient Rome. His most famous works are the Annals and the Histories. The Annals covers from 14 A.D. to approximately 68 A.D. (the death of Augustus up to the time of Nero), while Histories proceeds from 68 A.D. (Nero’s death) to 96 A.D. (the time of Domitian).
Here is what Tacitus wrote concerning the history of Jesus, and the existence of Christians in Rome:
“But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the price 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 hated 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.” (Annals XV, 44)1.
Some points to note about the narrative from Tacitus:
- He mistakenly refers to Jesus as “Christus”, however this was a common practice among the pagan writers at that time
- He supports the fact that Christ existed, and was put to death by Pontius Pilate – agreeing with the Christian scriptures
- He alludes to “the pernicious superstition” which broke out, was repressed, but then spread even more – even throughout the city of Rome itself. This may indeed be referring to the core belief which caused the early church to explode and “turn the world upside down” — that Jesus had died indeed, but that He had also risen from the grave. .
Thallus, a Samaritan-born historian who lived and worked in Rome about 52 A.D., “wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean world from the Trojan was to his own time.” (Habernas, VECELJ, 93). Although the original writings of Thallus are lost to us, Julius Africanus, a Christian historian of the late second century (2221 A,D.), was familiar with them and quotes from them. One very interesting passage from Thallus relates to the darkness that enveloped the land at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. Julius Africanus writes as follows:
“Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as 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.” (Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18.1)
Points to note:
- This quote testifies that the gospel accounts of darkness falling upon the land about the time of Christ’s death were well known, and thus required a naturalistic explanation from non-Christians1.
- Thallus did not dispute that Jesus has been crucified — he was more concerned with coming up with another explanation for the darkness that enveloped the land.
Another Roman historian, Suetonius, a court official under the emperor Hadrian, stated in his Life of Claudius (written about 120 A.D.) that Christians were expelled from Rome because of Christ (whom he calls Chrestus)::
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome”. (Life of Claudius, 25:4)1
In another of his works, Suetonius records the punishment that Christians were receiving in Rome during the time of Nero (64 A.D.):
“Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” (Lives of the Caesars, 26.2)
This “superstition” undoubtedly refers to the conviction by early Christians that Christ had been crucified and risen from the dead.
Pliny the Younger
C. Plinus Secundus, called Pliny the Younger to distinguish him from his uncle, was governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor about A.D. 112. He wrote to the emperor Trajan to seek advice on how to deal with the problem of Christians in his province. He recounted to Trajan in his letters that he had been killing so many, he was considering whether he should continue killing anyone who professed to be a Christian, or only certain ones. He explains that he made them bow down to statues of Trajan, and “curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do.“ In the same letter he say of the people who were being tried:
“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 do any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up.” (Epistles X, 96)
Another secular authority, Phlegon, wrote a book entitled Chronicles, which was quoted by Julius Africanus. Like Thallus, Phiegon acknowledges that a darkness fell upon the land about the time of Christ’s death, and like Thallus he attributes this to a solar eclipse:
“During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon.” (Africanus, Chronography, 18.1)
In the British Museum we have the text of a letter written by a Mara Bar-Serapion to his son, encouraging him to pursue wisdom. This letter, written by this Syrian and probably Stoic philosopher, is dated about 70 A.D. He compares Socrates, Pythagoras and the King of the Jews (which by context points to Jesus):
“What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished.”
Jewish Historians Comment on the History of Jesus
The Talmud is comprised of two separate books of Jewish writings. The first is the Mishnah, which is the Jewish code of Jurisprudence. It was compiled sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), and was completed in A.D. 200. This great body of case law became the object of Jewish study from which grew a body of commentaries called Gemaras. Together these two works comprise the Talmud.
References to the history of Jesus in the Talmud do not question that Jesus Christ existed – the issue they quarrel with is is with the Christian belief in His virgin birth. They record (not surprisingly) that He was born under shameful circumstances:
The Babylonian Talmud: “R. Shimeon ben Azzai said [concerning Jesus]: ‘I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress'”. (b.Yebamoth 49a; m Yebam. 4:13)
In another passage we are told that Mary, “who was the descendant of princes and governors, played the harlot with carpenters” (b. Sanh. 106a)
In another passage we find: “His mother was Miriam, a women’s hairdresser. As they say, …”this one strayed from her husband'” (b. Sabb. 104b).
Points to note:
- These are evidences that Jesus’ virgin birth was a claim of the early Church, and that it required a rebuttal by the Jewish authorities.
- The notion that Mary was descended from “princes” is consistent with the genealogy given in the gospel of Luke, which records her lineage dates all the way back to King David. The allusion to “carpenters” is an obvious reference to Joseph.
- Notice that the response did not include a denial of Jesus’ existence – only that he was born under other circumstances.
Josephus ben Mattathias (c. 37/38 A.D.- sometime after 100 A.D.) has been described as a Jewish aristocrat, a priestly politician, a reluctant commander of rebel troups in Galilee during the first Jewish revolt again Rome (66 – 73 A.D.), a Jewish historian in the pay of the Roman emperors, and a supposed Pharisee. After capture by Vespasian in 67 A.D., Josephus served the Romans as mediator and interpretor during the rest of the revolt. He is famous for two great historical works: The Jewish War (written in the early 70’s), and Jewish Antiquities, finished about 93-941.
There are two passages in his Jewish Antiquities that are of particular interest. The first records testimony about Jesus, his life and impact during the rule of Pilate. Parts of this passage have been disputed by some, based on the contention that Josphus, being a Jew, would not have said some things in the passage. There is some evidence that later scribes elaborated on the original text. I have bolded the sections which are not in dispute by scholars, so that the reader can clearly see those sections which are agreed by most scholars to be the historian’s original words.
“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 menu among 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 and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” (Antiquities, XVIII, 3, 3).2
Points to note from the sections that are undisputed:
- Josephus records not only that a Jesus lived, but that he was wise and a doer of “wonderful works” (which can easily be interpreted to mean his miracles).
- He credits Jesus with such wise teaching that he drew many to him, including both Jews and Gentiles. This was in fact what worried the religious leadership at the time – that Jesus was drawing so many that their power base might be in jeopardy
- He corroborates what is taught in the gospels – that Jesus was accused the religious leadership, condemned by Pilate, and crucified on a cross.
The second writing from Josephus (not in any dispute) concerns the condemnation of James, the brother of Jesus:
“... Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.” (Antiquities XX, 0.1).
Key points to note:
- The reference to “Jesus the so-called Christ” does not make sense unless Josephus had referred to Jesus earlier in his writings (which he did — in XVIII, 33)
- This passage from a third party historian corroborates the historical passage in the Acts of the New Testament, which also states that James the brother of the Lord was accused unjustly and stoned.
- The James Ossuary is a recent archeological find which further testifies of the existence of James as the brother of Jesus.
Christian Sources – The Early Church on the History of Jesus
The twenty-seven books of the New Testament proclaim, verify and often assume the history of Jesus Christ1. The books of the New Testament – ie,. the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the book of Acts, and the letters of the Apostles have all been dated to between 40 A.D. and 100 A.D. by most scholars — within one or two generations of the life of Jesus. They were authored mostly by eye-witnesses of the life of Jesus – His apostles and disciples, and according to most scholars, are historically reliable. For a full treatment of the reliability of the New Testament, please see “The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict”, by Josh McDowell.
Early Church Fathers
Next to the apostles of Jesus, the most extensive source of writings that attest to His existence are those of the early church fathers – leaders, teachers or apologists in the emerging Christian movement. The following is but a sampling:
Identified through tradition as a disciple of Peter, Paul and John, Ignatius wrote seven letters while on his way to Rome to be executed.
“Jesus Christ who was of the race of David, who was the Son of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and on earth and those under the earth; who moreover was truly raised from the dead, His Father having raised Him, who in the like fashion will also raise us also who believe on Him.” (Trallians, 9)
Most scholars agree that Justin Martyr was one of the greatest Christian apologists who ever lived. He was a learned man, and became a professor of philosophical Christianity in his own private school in Rome. Born around A.D. 100, he was scourged and beheaded for his faith around A.D. 167.1 Here are a few samples from his writings concerning the history of Jesus:
“Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judea.” (First Apology, 34).
“For at the time of His birth, Magi who came from Arabia worshipped Him, coming first to Herod, who then was sovereign in your land.” (Dialogue with Trypho, 77)
“For when they crucified Him, driving the nails, they pierced His hands and feet; and those who crucified Him parted His garments among themselves, each casting lots for what he chose to have, and receiving according to the decision of the lot.” (Dialogue with Typho, 97)
“Accordingly, after He was crucified, even all His acquaintances forsook Him, having denied Him; and afterwards, when He had risen from the dead and appeared to them, and had taught them to read the prophecies in which all these things ere foretold as coming to pass…” ((First Apology, 50)
What Can We Say About the History of Jesus?
The indisputable conclusion from all of these friendly and unfriendly historical sources is that there really was a Jesus of Nazareth in history. A Jesus who lived a life unlike any another other before Him or since; one who taught like any other teacher has ever taught; one who performed real miracles that defied the laws of nature and testified to His divinity; one who really died on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem; one who made claims unlike any other; and one — and the only one – who really rose from the dead.
Jesus made claims unlike any other person who ever lived, and His actions testified of His claims - for example, he claimed to be “one with the Father”. And that He alone was “the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He further said that “o man comes to the Father but by me.” He said that He was “the good shepherd that lays down His life for his sheep”, and then He did just that – laid down His sinless, perfect life so that mankind could have a way back into a relationship with his creator.
The truth is that we are all created to be in relationship with our maker. But sin has broken this relationship. We all have a “God-sized” hole in our hearts – a hole that we try to fill with all sorts of things – possessions, success, money, sex, etc. But in the end none of this truly satisfies. In reality there is only thing that can fill this void: Jesus. Why? Because He bridges the gap between us and our Maker.
Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus? If you do, then you have everything to look forward to – in this life, and in the life to come. You were made for a purpose, and your daily walk with Jesus will help you come to realize His purpose in your life and fulfill it. If you don’t have a relationship with your Creator, you can! Here is a link to Billy Graham’s web site that can show you how…
Steps to Peace with God ==> http://www.billygraham.org/SH_StepsToPeace.asp
Hard copy Sources
1. “The New Evidence that Demand a Verdict”, by Josh McDowell. Nelson. 2. “The Complete Works of Josephus”, translated by William Whiston, Commentary by Paul L. Maier. Kregel Publications.
Links to Sources on the Web
What Do the Scriptures Say? – by Edward C. Wharton: http://www.scripturessay.com/cev1.html
Life of Christ - http://www.lifeofchrist.com/history. Links to historical web sites, a medical commentary on the death of Christ, maps of the Roman empire, Israel and Galilee, links to sites on ancient rulers, and a timeline for the life of Christ.