Thursday, August 9, 2007

Biblical Jesus: Consistent With History

A claim which I heard recently disturbs me, not because I cannot debate it, but because it is completely ridiculous. This claim is that we have little to no evidence that Jesus existed. While outside evidence is not trustworthy in terms of theology, it does prove to be consistent with the Bible’s claims that Jesus not only existed, but was crucified, and had a massive following soon after the crucifixion.

As far as Jewish evidence, the Dead Sea Scrolls are of help indirectly. They do not offer anything that would change the New Testament picture of Jesus, which is a validation in itself. The Scrolls are further evidence of the Jewish world which surrounded Jesus, making his existence even more plausible.

Josephus, a Jewish historian, actually deals directly with the existence of Jesus. In his work The Antiquities, Josephus says “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man…”and continues on to talk about historical facts surrounding Jesus’ existence. There are things in certain passages that were probably added later because they are not consistent with Josephus’ views, like the phrase “if indeed one ought to call him a man”, implying that even Josephus believed Jesus was indeed more that a man. Josephus, however, did not believe this. But, the fact remains that Josephus does mention Jesus, and entire passage of his work is devoted to what happened to this man, and the fact that there was a “tribe of the Christians, so called after him,” that Josephus makes reference to. Josephus also mentions the crucifixion.

Another piece of Jewish evidence outside the New Testament is the Talmud. The Talmud is a group of writings by early Jewish Rabbis, which not only mention Jesus, but mention his miracles as well. The work talks about many strange occurrences which are unlikely that Jesus was involved in, but do attribute Jesus’ miracles to sorcery and magic. Why would this be necessary to write about if a man who didn’t exist didn’t practice miracles either? Obviously from the attempt to explain miraculous works, Jesus not only had to exist, but had to spark the controversy in the first place by doing things seen as miraculous works. Even though the Talmud does not state that Jesus was who he claimed to be, it still shows that people before the fourth century believed Jesus existed and did miracles.

Other sources are from the Romans, who also happened to be wonderful historians. There are four sources that we know of mentioning the rein of Tiberius, the emperor under whose reign Jesus was crucified. One of the sources, Suetonius, talks about Jewish disturbances from something or someone called “Chrestus”, which is thought to be a spelling of “Christus”. What can be for sure, though, is that Suetonius was well aware of the existence of a group called Christians at the time. He says in his writings, “punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” His work is very historically accurate, and there is therefore no reason to discredit his testimony of the existence of Christians. If there were Christians, then there had to be a Christ.

Tacitus and Pliny the Younger are also sources used for drawing evidence of the existence of Jesus. Tacitus was known for absolutely despising Christians, and even so still affirmed that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was aware of the enormous amount of people that passionately followed Jesus. Pliny the Younger discussed the group of Christians, and addressed their passion, attributing it to carrying cultish practices “carried to extravagant lengths”. However, despite his low view of Christians, Pliny still did recognize that this new religion was definitely something big, and recognized how widespread Christianity had become by the end of the first century.

In addition to Jewish and Roman sources, there are later Gnostic sources that are used as evidence that Jesus existed. The “agrapha” refers to sayings of Jesus not found in the canonical gospels. There are many writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas, that were written generations later and are not accurate, but they are almost entirely dependent upon the original canonical gospels. It is important to recognize that these were largely not written by Christians, and were either disregarded by the church or were held in limbo by a few select Christian groups until ultimately throwing them out. Also, contrary to popular belief, they were about throwing out the human aspect of Jesus and turning him into a purely spiritual presence. In no way did these works deny His deity. Therefore, it is not likely that there would be so many spin-off works based on the gospels if the canonical books themselves were not held in extremely high regard from very early on.

In summary, as said in the book Jesus Under Fire, the external (outside the Bible) information we have available to us include: Jesus was a Jewish teacher, many people believed his healings and exorcisms, he was rejected by the leaders, crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius, he died and was followed by people who believed he was alive, spreading far beyond Palestine by A.D. 64, and all types of people worshipped him as God by the beginning of the second century. There is absolutely no basis for the claim that there is no evidence that a significant and world changing Jesus existed.


Tim said...


Good post. Given your hard-headed take on this, you might enjoy reading Jean Baptiste Bullet's book The History of the Establishment of Christianity Compiled from Jewish and Heathen Authors Only, translated by William Salisbury, London: 1776. You can find a copy here.

Sarah said...

My hard head and I thank you for the recommendation! :)

Tim said...


Don't get me started recommending books -- that's one department where I don't have an "off" switch ... ;)