Historical Evidence for Jesus

Non-Christian sources:

Jewish Historian Flavius Josephus

  • Josephus makes a passing reference to Jesus, but the text has been obviously edited by a Christian, for no Jew who was not a follower of Jesus (as Josephus was not) would say these things about him:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man.  For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had  first come to love him did not cease.  He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him.  And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.   

– Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 §63 (AD 93) – Italics are almost certainly Christian embellishments.
  • While the text that has come down to us has obviously been embellished to support Christian claims, it nevertheless builds on an original, authentic attestation by Josephus to the reality of the historical figure of Jesus. What is reliable in Josephus’s account:
    • Jesus (called the messiah), a doer of spectacular deeds
    • Pilate condemned him to death upon the cross
    • Followers call themselves Christians.

Josephus also mentions Jesus in connection to his brother, James.

  • James, the brother of Jesus, was killed by Ananus, the Jewish High Priest, in 60 AD when there was gap in Roman governors

As this mention occurs later in the Antiquities, but is offered without any explanation of who this Jesus is, it is fair to suppose that Josephus had already mentioned Jesus (in Book 18). It therefore lends credence to the earlier, obviously edited first mention of Jesus

Roman: Tacitus (Annals XV (AD 109))

“Consequently, to get rid of the report [that he started the fire], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus” . . . Source of a “mischievous superstition”

Tacitus (Annals, Book XV (109 AD))
  • What is historically reliable:
    • Christus . . . suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus”
    • Source of a “mischievous superstition.”

Pliny the Younger

In his reports to the Emperor Trajan, Pliny reports the testimony of former Christians that

they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity (emphasis added). . .

(Letter 92 (c. 100 AD))

Pliny, judged that Christians professed “an absurd and extravagant superstition.”

Suetonius writing in 120 AD

  • Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome in 49 AD
  • Christians were considered a Jewish sect (and a Chrestus was a source of controversy) in Rome at that time.

Myth/Legend Explanation for the Story of Jesus

As an alternative to an historical Jesus, critics propose an account is highly improbable/impossible

  • Jesus is a legend
    • half-remembered and embellished accounts which were gathered scores of years after the events described.
  • Assumes
    • an historical Jesus
    • followers were not disciples – students trained to teach in master’s name (contra Josephus)
    • No church – community of cohesive followers rehearsing the master’s lessons (contra New Testament)
    • Can’t have a church to write the gospels and deny a church that allows the truth to be lost.
  • Jesus is a myth – an amalgam of pagan myths about
    • “a dying and rising god,”
    • “virgin birth,”
    • “sacred meal.”
  • Similarities of Jesus in the gospels to pagan myths is not at all close
  • No reason Jews or Romans would buy such a myth 50+ years after destruction of Jerusalem
  • Conflicts with standard Jewish theology
    • Jewish identity is monotheistic – abhors pagan gods
    • No expectation of personal resurrection
  • Pagan Greek/Roman – why worship a Jewish version of their own (or Egyptian, etc. gods)
  • Supposedly invented by Romans to pacify Jewish zealots
    • fails to do so – Christians continue to resist official Roman religious requirements and were persecuted for it
    • against Roman usual practice
    • no evidence for this invention

Ancient Critics of Christianity

None ever question whether there was a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived at the time of the Emperors Caesars Augustus and Tiberius. No ancient opponent of Christians, Jewish or Roman, ever contended that Jesus did not exist.

Modern Consensus

  • Not questioned by any serious scholar.
  • E.g., Bart Ehrman has made a career challenging orthodox Christianity on
    • Alternate versions of Jesus and Christianity
    • Bible has been re-edited, so not reliable
  • Does not doubt historical reality of Jesus
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