Jesus – Did He Really Live?

Foreword

As Christians, we seek to fulfill the Great Commission and share the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). In today’s culture, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get engaged in an intelligent conversation with non-Christians about our faith without the ability to express our beliefs using logic and reason. To that end, we will present a series of papers that will take us to the starting point of Christianity, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Once we establish the truth of that claim using both biblical and extra-biblical sources, we can then begin to discuss the matters of faith in earnest.

By using skills and training in found in the discipline called “apologetics”, we will address the person of Jesus, His death and His resurrection. Specifically, we will answer these questions:

  • Did Jesus actually live?
  • What evidence is there of Jesus’ crucifixion and death?
  • Was Jesus buried and was His tomb later found empty?
  • Is there evidence that the empty tomb was the result of Jesus’ resurrection?

The purpose of this paper is to examine the first bullet point. Prior to any discussion of our faith, we must establish the existence of the person known to the world as Jesus Christ.

Introduction

Bertrand Russell, in his book Why I Am Not a Christian, writes, “Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him.”[1] While his quote is more than 80 years old, it expresses a sentiment that still exists today—one that Christians must address in order to justify the reason for their faith and belief in Jesus Christ. To do this, Christians must be prepared to offer solid extra-Biblical evidence to demonstrate that Jesus did exist. After establishing the historicity of Jesus, deeper discussions of the faith can then take place. To offer this proof, I will use eight well-regarded Roman, Jewish and post-apostolic writers and one text from the ancient world to show that Jesus was an actual person.

Roman Sources

The Roman historian Tacitus authored two works, Annals and Histories, covering the period between AD 14 and AD 70. In Annals 15.44, Tacitus writes,

“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, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”[2]

Tacitus suggests that Nero, the emperor of Rome between AD 54 and AD 68, focused on the Christian uprising for two reasons: first, to insinuate Christians had started the fire that destroyed Rome in AD 64, and second, to draw attention away from his suspected involvement in that fire. This shows that Tacitus acknowledged the existence of early Christians and their leader, “Christus.” Critics point out that Tacitus’ writing occurred in AD 115, more than 80 years after Christ’s death, and that he was not an eyewitness to Christ. His writings, however, are generally accepted as accurate sources of information regarding the Roman Empire and the events of the time in which he wrote. Further examination of the following writings regarding Christ will show that the notion of Christ as a myth is not true.

A contemporary of Tacitus, Pliny the Younger was known for executing Christians who would not recant their faith. In a letter to Emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger shares how he handled Christians brought to trial before him. In this letter, Lib. X, 96: C. Plinius Traiano Imperatori, he also makes observations about the practices of Christians, documenting their worship of Jesus, their standards for living and fellowship, and the inability of a true Christian to renounce their faith under penalty of death. The fact that this letter was penned indicates the influence and growth the early Christian Church was having shortly after the Resurrection. One of the criticisms of this letter is that it contains no specific reference to “Jesus of Nazareth.” Although that claim is certainly true, the letter and Emperor Trajan’s response clearly show that a group of people had been influenced by the teachings of Jesus, believed in His divinity, and were willing to die for their beliefs.

Suetonius is the last Roman historian to be discussed. A passage from his writings can be confirmed in the New Testament. Suetonius writes in The Twelve Caesars, “He [Claudius] banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.”[3] The disturbances Suetonius references are the riots in Rome in AD 49. Interestingly, a record of these riots can be found in Acts, “And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome [italics mine].”[4] This strong biblical evidence reinforces the historicity of the event Suetonius wrote about and the reliability of his reference to Jesus Christ. However, there is still a criticism of his work regarding the expression “at the instigation of Chrestus.” The problem here is twofold. First is the spelling of Chrestus, and whether it refers to Jesus Christ. The second is the year, AD 49, which is clearly after the death and resurrection of Christ. In examining the words “Chrestus,” and “impulsore,” Robert Van Voorst contrasts two possible translations and concludes, “That to translate them as ‘at the instigation of Chrestus’ conveys the basic meaning, but it mutes the judgment that Suetonius is making: Chrestus not only led an agitation, but was himself an agitator. The translation we have given, ‘because of the instigator Chrestus,’ preserves this point.”[5] To state it another way, “Jesus started the revolt” implies He was present, while “Jesus was the reason the revolt started” doesn’t necessarily mean he was present. This is also helpful to reconcile the date, AD 49. Jesus did not have to be alive if He was the reason the revolt started.

Jewish Sources

Jesus created no small stir in His claims of divinity, provoking opposition within the Jewish community. Yet we see references of His life in the highest of Jewish authorities, Josephus and the Talmud.

Josephus was a Jewish aristocrat who served as a commander of Jewish troops in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (AD 66-73). After his capture, he helped the Romans, eventually found favor with the emperor, and came to be known as Flavius Josephus. Van Voorst states, “Although Josephus saw himself as a life-long Jew, other Jews viewed him as a self-serving traitor.”[6] His writings in Jewish Antiquities gave rise to one of the most contested writings of today, the Testimonium. In it, Josephus writes,

“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 among 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.”[7]

Because Josephus saw himself as a life-long Jew, it is unlikely he would have alluded to Jesus as the Messiah, which would lead us to question the italicized words. The majority of scholars today agree they were not of Josephus’ hand and were interpolations. Yet, if we disregard the italicized words, we still have ample evidence of Jesus within this work. We find that He was a wise man, a doer of good works, a teacher, attracted both Jew and Gentile, died on the cross at the hand of Pilate, and that His followers were still active at the time of Josephus’ writing.

Along with Josephus, the Babylonian Talmud is a reliable Jewish source to confirm the existence of Jesus. Sanhedrin 43a of the Talmud states,

“On the eve of Passover Yeshua was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favour let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!”[8]

Additional references in the Talmud mention Jesus’ healings and disciples.[9] Some scholars argue that the information contained therein is sketchy at best because of the lack of detail. But in an interview with Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, professor of history at Miami University, as quoted by Lee Strobel, says, “Jews, as a whole, did not go into great detail about heretics…. There are a few passages in the Talmud that mention Jesus, calling him a false messiah who practiced magic and who was justly condemned to death. They also repeat the rumor that Jesus was born of a Roman soldier and Mary, suggesting there was something unusual about his birth.”[10] According to Dr. Yamauchi, to see a lack of detail about a so-called heretic in the Talmud is consistent with Jewish writings at the time. Therefore, there is nothing odd about how they refer to Jesus, and we can affirm the Talmud as a reliable source for the historicity of Jesus.

Post-Apostolic Christian Sources

Writings of the post-apostolic Church provide more evidence of the existence of Jesus. While they probably had some access to what would become the books of the New Testament, their own writings helped to cement the knowledge of the historical Jesus. “One of the most important apostolic documents, Clement of Alexandria’s letter to the Corinthian church, is generally considered to be the earliest, extra-New Testament Christian writing.”[11] In this letter, written in 96 AD, Clement of Alexandria testifies to the authority of the Christian faith by stating that “Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. So then Christ is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ.”[12] Some may question the authorship of this letter because its prologue states, “The Church of God which sojourneth in Rome…”[13], while most letters of the day would begin with both the author’s name and perhaps a title. However, there is ample evidence of Clement as a presbyter of the church, beginning around 70 AD, and his subsequent role of bishop later on. Virtually all modern scholars attribute the writing of 1 Clement to him.

Within a few years of 1 Clement, the bishop at Antioch Ignatius was condemned to die in Rome. It is interesting to note that he was a student of John the Apostle and was appointed as bishop of Antioch by Simon Peter himself, so his knowledge of Jesus came from firsthand sources. As he traveled to Rome for his execution, he took time to write six letters to churches, and one letter to a friend. In his letter to the Ephesians written between AD 110 and AD 115, he wrote, “For our God Jesus Christ was according to the dispensation of God conceived in the womb of Mary, of the seed of David, by the Holy Ghost; he was born and baptized, that through his passion he might purify water, to the washing away of sin.”[14] Ignatius confirms the biblical prophecy of Jesus’ lineage to the House of David, and that he was also “born and baptized.” Similar statements can be found in his other letters.[15] It should be noted that, of the 15 epistles thought to have been written by Ignatius, eight have been found to be lacking and were probably fakes. This is generally accepted by most scholars who have suggested they were written after Ignatius’ death. This does not detract, however, from remaining seven letters being generally accepted as authentic.

To consider the next post-apostolic Christian writer, we must look to a Roman historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, as he is the only documented source of a fragment of the writing attributed to Quadratus of Athens. In a letter to the Roman emperor, Quadratus focuses on the miracles of Jesus Christ. In this letter, he states,

“But the works of our Saviour were always present, for they were genuine: — those that were healed, and those that were raised from the dead, who were seen not only when they were healed and when they were raised, but were also always present; and not merely while the Saviour was on earth, but also after his death, they were alive for quite a while, so that some of them lived even to our day.”[16]

Quadratus lived after the death and resurrection of Jesus, yet from his writing, he knew of people who had been healed and raised from the dead, either by Jesus or by His disciples. These eyewitnesses confirm the existence of Jesus and His works. That Quadratus does not refer to such miracles in his own time is not a concern. Only a few fragments of his writing exist, and this does not show that he did not write of miracles in his own time, only that we have no record of it.

One of the surest ways to establish someone’s existence is through official documents. Justin Martyr, who, by Gary Habermas’ observation, was “the major Christian apologist of the second century.”[17] In his First Apology he writes, “Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judea.”[18] The debate continues on Justin Martyr’s use of the Gospel accounts, but one thing is clear: He did refer to the official Roman records (census) that would have established the birth of Jesus. Of particular interest is the likelihood that he did not use the Gospel account of Luke, which is the only place in the New Testament that mentions Cyrenius. Luke 2:2 mentions Cyrenius by name: “(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.).”[19] Due to the parenthesis in the KJV, it is thought this verse was added later for clarity. Also, there is some debate on the estimated date of the census referenced, but that can easily be resolved by the general study of ancient near eastern cultures where a census was conducted often, especially in the Roman and Egyptian empires.

In looking at these post-apostolic writers, some might suggest they had a vested interest in the existence of Jesus Christ, and that they used the Gospel accounts as evidence for their writings. With Clement and Ignatius, it is well known they had relationships with the original apostles (Simon Peter and John), so their historical knowledge of Jesus comes directly from those who knew Christ intimately. We also have evidence as to the reliability of the Gospel accounts as a good, historical source, as documented in chapter 3 of Josh McDowell’s The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. If we were to consider this Christian evidence alone, then the argument that the writers had a vested interest might ring true, and therefore could be suspect. However, when their statements about the historicity of Jesus are in agreement with the other non-Christian sources cited in this paper, we have confirmation as to their veracity.

           

Conclusion

This paper covers but a few of the many historical sources of proof outside of the Bible that Jesus of Nazareth walked this earth more than 2,000 years ago. By examining Roman, Jewish and post-apostolic sources, it has been shown that, taken together, these sources confirm the historicity of Jesus Christ. Even renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens, in reference to Jesus Christ, admitted, “I actually do think there must have been such a person.”[20] Likewise, atheist Richard Dawkins, when asked if he believed Jesus Christ existed, replied, “I suspect he probably did.”[21] These renowned atheists find themselves sharing some common ground with Christians in acknowledging that Jesus did exist. Otto Betz offers us this concluding thought, “… no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus.”[22] I prefer a simpler statement: “Jesus Wasn’t a Real Person? That’s Dumb!”[23]

[1] Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian,” in Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed. George Allen (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1957), 16.

[2] Tacitus, Annuals 15:44.

[3] Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Twelve Caesars Claudius 25.

[4] Acts 18:2 (English Standard Version).

[5] Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), 31.

[6] VanVoorst, 82.

[7] Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 125.

[8] McDowell, 55.

[9] Talmud, Tosefta Hullin 2:22f, Jerusalem 14:4/13, Sanhedrin 43a.

[10] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 113.

[11] Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996), 230.

[12] Habermas, 230.

[13] Clement of Rome, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, 1 Clem prologue: 1.

[14] Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, 4:9.

[15] For additional references to the historical Jesus made by Ignatius, see Ignatius’ Letter to the Magnesians, Letter to the Trallians, Letter to the Romans, Letter to the Philadelphians, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Letter to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna.

[16] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV 3:2.

[17] Habermas, 235.

[18] Habermas, 235.

[19] Luke 2:2 (King James Version).

[20] Christopher Hitchens, “The Great God Debate,” The Hugh Hewitt Blog, posted June 6, 2007, http://www.hughhewitt.com/the-great-god-debate-3/ (accessed October 8, 2013).

[21] Richard Dawkins, “Dawkins and Hewitt on the Historical Jesus,” The Salvo Mag Blog, posted on October 22, 2009, http://salvomag.com/blog/2009/10/dawkins-and-hewitt-on-the-historical-jesus/ (accessed October 8, 2013).

[22] Otto Betz, What Do We Know About Jesus (Westminster, UK: SCM Press Limited, 1968), 9.

[23] Clay Jones, “Jesus Wasn’t A Real Person? That’s Dumb!” Clay Jones Blog, posted August 24, 2010, http://www.clayjones.net/2010/08/jesus-wasnt-a-real-person-thats-dumb/ (accessed October 8, 2013).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s