The History of Jesus
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.
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:
Some points to note about the narrative from Tacitus:
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:
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)::
In another of his works, Suetonius records the punishment that Christians were receiving in Rome during the time of Nero (64 A.D.):
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:
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:
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):
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:
Points to note:
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.
Points to note from the sections that are undisputed:
The second writing from Josephus (not in any dispute) concerns the condemnation of James, the brother of Jesus:
Key points to note:
Christian Sources - The Early Church on the History of Jesus
The New Testament
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.
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:
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
1. "The New Evidence that Demand a Verdict", by
John McDowell. Nelson.
What Do the Scriptures Say? - by Edward C. Wharton: http://www.scripturessay.com/cev1.html
Life of Christ -
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.