[the] Christ; (64) 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 and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. Antiquities 3:3
While questions have been raised about Josephus’ authorship of this passage, scholars generally agree that if it was altered, the nucleus of the statement still comes to us directly from the pen of Josephus.
An undisputed reference is made later in the same work (9:1):
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 sanhedrim 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.
While Josephus makes reference to John the Baptist (15:2), we move on to AD 116 to find our next significant historical reference to Jesus Christ. Publius Cornelius Tacitus was born in AD 56, approximately 26 years after the death of Jesus Christ. Tacitus was a Roman senator who refers to Jesus Christ in the surviving portions of his Annals (15:44).
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration [the burning of Rome] was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, 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, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.
The key significance of these two sources is that while both of them are chronologically very close to the original historical figure, neither is Christian. Neither has any reason to favour Christians—indeed, it is apparent that Tacitus had little but contempt for the Christians. Other sources give more indirect evidence to the existence of Jesus Christ. For instance, Pliny the Younger (AD 61 – c. AD 112) who tortured and executed many Christians described them to the Roman emporer, Trajan:
They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively 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 falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of a meal–but ordinary and innocent food. (Epistulae X.96)
This is just one of many testimonies to the early, widespread acknowledgement of the historical Jesus Christ. For those familiar with Western history, it is patently inconceivable that the origin and explosive growth of Christianity was not based on the historical figure, Jesus Christ.
If one admits Christian authors as testament to the existence of Jesus Christ—indeed one must (the vast majority of scholarship in the last twenty centuries comes from Christianity)—the references multiply. In the first century alone, authors that refer to Jesus Christ as a historical figure include Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Barnabas, Papias, etc. In the second century, we find Mathetes, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, etc.
It is an intellectual impossibility to reasonably dismiss the historical figure, Jesus Christ, as an invention. Indeed, it is impossible to explain Western society as we know it sans the existence and personality of Jesus the Christ. We could more readily dismiss the existence of Julius Caesar—indeed the Roman Empire as a whole.
Whatever we do with this historical figure, we cannot rub him out of history like so much chalk on pavement. His mark on our world is embedded far more deeply than the pavement itself. To rub it out, we must first rub out historical credence, scholarly integrity, reasonable credulity, and indeed rationality itself.
I urge you to take the person and work of Jesus Christ seriously, for if he did live, and die, and rise, then you will stand before him some day to account for your response to him.
The grace of Jesus Christ to you,
*Note: Reprinted with permission from InFocus, © 2012. All rights reserved.