“The implication is that the Biblical evidence for Jesus is biased because it is encased in a theological text written by committed believers. What they really want to know is: Is there extra-Biblical evidence from the first century A.D. for Jesus’ existence?” (John P. Meier, “The Testimonium,” Bible Review, June 1991.)
When it comes to the study of history, there are a variety of sources one can turn to—current texts written by historians about the particular time one is researching, or older volumes recounting events from that era, which were written closer to the time, and from a different historical perspective than that of our contemporary age. Obviously these types of sources have value, as a way of giving an overview of a bygone era, and sifting through the available information and synthesising it in a comprehensible form. On the other hand, such works tend to have, even if unintentionally (though often quite intentionally), “spin” embedded in them, which might reinterpret the actions of bygone eras in a less-than-entirely-accurate way. Examples of this phenomenon were evident to me as early as grade-school and high school history classes, when I would discuss what I’d learned with my parents. Within little more than one generation, for example, Louis Riel went from being cast as a traitorous brigand to a misunderstood hero. Or, for an example more familiar to our American readers, if you’ve ever wondered why a Catholic men’s charitable organisation would want to name itself after Christopher Columbus (and indeed, hold him up as someone whose life is worthy of emulation), then you have a sense of the problem of historical research based solely on later textbooks.
To attempt to ascertain a clearer and more accurate picture of the time being studied, the “Holy Grail”, so to speak, is what are known as “primary source documents”. These are texts written by people who lived during or very close to the time being studied. To read in their own words the thoughts and experiences of a person of particular interest is generally considered the best way to know the facts of the matter—both as to what happened, and why. For example, reading letters and memoires of Crusaders goes a long way to debunk much of the anti-Crusade literature circulated for the past couple of centuries. To read trial records from the Inquisition does the same in that case, as well. Of course, this takes a lot more work, which is why the textbooks are usually the go-to. Nevertheless the fact remains, that the primary sources are the most ideal sources.
Unfortunately, when discussing the historicity of a figure who allegedly lived 2000 years ago, the ravages of time limit the availability of those sources. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, who wrote very little, if anything at all, we have nothing directly from Him. What we do have, though, are copious writings about Him, and biographies of Him, from those with first-hand experiences. Yet in this modern age of scepticism, these are pretty much automatically discounted as credible witnesses, because they actually deign to speak favourably of Jesus. Because they’re religious documents about a religious figure, the assumption is that they can’t, at the same time, be historically reliable documents about a historical figure. In other words, the modern sceptic says simply, “The Gospels don’t prove that Jesus existed, because they were written to prove that Jesus existed.”
We’ll come back to examining the Gospels in a later article, in order to determine whether they’re reliable witnesses to the existence of Jesus, but in the meantime, the question remains—is there any documentary evidence that Jesus existed 2000 years ago, that comes from sources that are independent of Christianity? As it turns out, despite the passage of time, there are several documents that refer to Jesus that have come down to us. For the sake of brevity, I will cite only a couple. As it is, when answering the challenge of the mythicists saying that there’s no evidence that a real Jesus ever existed, just one well-attested source should be sufficient.
The first bit of evidence that we’ll look at comes from the Roman historian, Tacitus, who, toward the end of his life, wrote a history of the early emperors, from Tiberius to Nero, called The Annals (c. AD 116–117). When writing about Nero, Tacitus delves a little into the Great Fire, and the subsequent scapegoating and persecution of the Christians in AD 64:
[N]either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts … whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ [Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate … Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular. (As quoted in this thorough and scholarly article)
Notably, Tacitus is renowned for his thorough work as an historian, and scholars are all but unanimous in his reliability and the authenticity of this particular passage—in which we have certain concrete facts about “Christus”: That He was from Judea, had founded a religious movement, and had been crucified under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar.
Our other source is the famous Jewish historian, Josephus, who mentions Jesus not once, but twice, in his work Jewish Antiquities (c. AD 93-94). In Book XX, in the context of writing about Annas the High Priest (whom he refers to as “Ananus”), Josephus mentions St. James, the “brother” of Jesus, citing his martyrdom as the reason Ananus lost his position as high priest:
Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned. (Same source as above—seriously, go read that article. You know, after you finish mine!)
This passage doesn’t go into much detail—it’s really a sort of off-the-cuff reference to Jesus, which is one reason why scholars view this passage as authentic. James, being a common name in that day, needed to be identified somehow, so Josephus says “He’s the brother of Jesus”. Except Jesus was a pretty common name as well, so Josephus, who didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah, nevertheless noncommittally refers to His claim to fame just to make sure his readers know which James and which Jesus he’s writing about: “who is called Messiah”.
Of course, Josephus was writing about the Jews to the Romans, who very likely had very little idea (at this time) who “Jesus” was or what a “Messiah” was, so even this identification wouldn’t necessarily have meant much to them—unless Josephus had already discussed Jesus earlier on, which leads us to the second passage (which was really the first) from Book XVIII:
Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him, for on the third day, he appeared to them restored to life. The prophets of God had prophesied this and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out. (Again, same source. Italics in original, and indicate likely Christian additions to the original text of Josephus.)
This quotation is rather more controversial, because of certain phrases that seem rather more pro-Christian than one would expect from a non-Christian Jewish historian collaborating with the Romans. There was a time that scholars wanted to throw out the whole passage as a Christian forgery, but more recent scholarship has determined that the bulk of the text is likely authentic, but that certain portions have been inserted by Christian copyists. These are the portions italicised above. Nevertheless, even without those interpolations, Josephus refers to Jesus as a “wise man”, a “teacher”, who did “surprising deeds”, who was denounced by the ruling religious leaders of the day, and crucified by Pilate.
As such, in these three quotations from two non-Christian authors, who lived within the generation immediately after Jesus Crucifixion, and who are renowned historians of their age, we have clear references to a man in Judea named Jesus, who was a religious leader who taught the people and worked wonders of some sort, who was denounced by the leaders in Jerusalem and crucified by Pilate. While it’s certainly not the whole picture of Jesus, it’s certainly very compelling testimony to His historical existence.
Next Friday, we’ll look at some archaeological evidence for Jesus’ existence.
* I am indebted to Dr. Lawrence Mykytiuk’s article, Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible for a comprehensive breakdown of the Tacitus and Josephus quotations, as well as a wealth of documentary information that I could in no wise condense into this article.
Read the other posts of the series Was Jesus Real:
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