Someone recently told me “I have no reason to think your Jesus ever lived or died.”
The comment seems absurd to those who live within the orb of Christianity, but are there grounds to question the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth?
The question really entails two questions. The first question has to do with whether this character named Jesus did indeed live two thousand years ago. If he did, the second question has to do with whether the nature of this historical figure indeed matched the description passed down to us in the Christian Scriptures.
Both of these questions are important. The first question asks whether secular history attests to the historicity of Jesus the Christ. The second question asks whether Jesus has been reshaped beyond recognition over the centuries by legend and myth.
I will attempt to address the first question in this post and the second in a later post.
Does secular history attest to the existence of Jesus the Christ?
While it is intellectually absurd to ignore the historical significance of both the early Christian writers and the Christian Scriptures altogether, let us set them aside for now and look to the other written records which enlighten our knowledge of historical figures.
It is, of course, unnecessary to consider works that predate Jesus Christ’s life. With the death of Jesus Christ in AD 30 (or possibly AD 33), we’ve only to wait a few years until AD 37 when one Titus Flavius Josephus is born in the very city where Jesus died. This is significant because Jesus was a young man when he died, rose, and ascended (approximately 33 years old). Josephus would have grown up in a Jerusalem where the contemporaries of Jesus Christ were middle aged.
It is not until c. AD 97 that Josephus publishes his Antiquities of the Jews in which he makes two direct references to Jesus Christ. The first is rather comprehensive:
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 and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. Antiquities 18.3.63-64
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 (20.9.200):
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.
Josephus also makes reference to John the Baptist (18.5.116ff).
Next, 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 arrested and executed many Christians described them to the Roman emperor, Trajan:
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food. (Letters 10.97).
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 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 of Nazareth. We could more readily dismiss the existence of Julius Caesar or Nero—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,