The Historicity of Jesus Christ

February 17, 2012 | Pr. Finny Samuel |

The scholarly reconstructions of the history of Jesus of Nazareth based upon scientific-historical methods unquestionably prove that Jesus Christ was an integral part of World History. Pieces of evidence such as the New Testament documents, ancient Jewish/Roman writings, testimonies of patristic writers, and the impact of Christianity in history, converge to establish the historical reality of Jesus.

Though the documents of the New Testament clearly establish the irrefutable evidence of the existence of Jesus, rationalists and Bible critics refuse to accept them as the primary sources of historical information. Rather, by throwing bits and pieces of information in a one-sided and plausible-looking way, critics even trick the common man to dispute the historicity of Jesus.

Historians draw on scriptures, religious texts, other historical sources, and archaeological evidence to reconstruct the life of Jesus in his historical and cultural context. The sources they use include the analysis of Canonical Gospels, Talmud [the central text of mainstream Judaism], Gnostic Gospels, writings of Josephus, Dead Sea Scrolls, and other early documents.

Historical Records about Jesus

In addition to the writings by New Testament authors, (who were the first Christians), we can find several historical documentation by non-Christian Jews, Greco-Roman scholars, early antagonists of Christianity, Patristic writers, etc. as proof of historical existence of Jesus. Roman catacombs, writings in the Talmud, and the recent findings of archeological evidence of caves and other historical structures also help to shed light on the history of Jesus the Nazareth.

1. Ancient Documentations

The sources for the written historical evidence of Jesus can be categorized into 3, namely, Greco-Roman writers, Jewish writers, and Christian writers.

a) Greco-Roman sources.

This source includes the writings of non-Jewish and non-Christian Roman or Greek historians who referred to the history of Jesus because of the trouble the Christian movement was causing in the empire at the time. Most of these records are antagonistic to Christianity since the authors had nothing to gain or lose by admitting the historicity of the events.

Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 117): Tacitus was a senator and historian in the Roman Empire and is considered to be one of the greatest Roman historians. Both his major works, the Annals and the Histories have references to the movement of Christianity at that time. In his work “The Histories”, he refers the Christians as the group connected with the burning of Jerusalem temple in AD-70. His other work, “The Annals” is among the first-known secular-historic records to mention Christ, which Tacitus does in connection with Nero's persecution of the Christians. In Annals, which is written in c. 116 AD, there is a passage which refers to Christ, to Pontius Pilate, and to the mass execution of the Christians after a six-day fire that burned much of Rome in July 64 AD by Nero. Given below is the English translation of this reference:

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 Judæa, the first source of the evil but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired

Annals, [book 15, chapter 44]


Regarding his writing, following points are noteworthy:

  • It is believed by some scholars that Tacitus gained his information about Christ from official records, perhaps actual reports written by Pilate.
  • Jesus is referred to as "Christus", the Latinized Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah", which was a common practice among the pagan writers at that time.
  • The fact that Christ existed and was put to death by Pontius Pilate is supported in Tacitus's writings.
  • He refers to the resurrection of Jesus as "the superstition" which caused the early church to explode and "turn the world upside down", thus proving the scriptures in the New Testament.

Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) [61 AD – 112 AD]: Pliny the Younger was a lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome. He was also governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor about A.D. 112. He wrote to the emperor Trajan to seek advice on how to deal with Christians, who refused to worship the emperor and instead worshiped "Christus". In his correspondence named Epistulae X.96, he explains to the Emperor that he forced Christians under painful torturous inquisition to curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do.

In the same letter he explains Christians as follows:

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.

Pliny the Younger

Being required to “curse Christ” is evidence that Pliny reported this as a means to force reactions of the suspected Christians under a torturous inquisition. Also "a hymn to Christ as to a god" alleges that during that time Jesus had been accepted as both God and man.

Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus) (c. 69–140): Suetonius was a Roman historian and a court official under Emperor Hadrian, belonging to the equestrian order in the early Imperial era. He wrote the following in his work named “Life of Claudius” about the riots which broke out in the Jewish community in Rome under the emperor Claudius [This substantiates the recording of this event in Acts 18:2]:

As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he (Claudius) expelled them (the Jews) from Rome. (25:4)

Another one of his work named “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” [a series of biographies of twelve successive Roman rulers from Julius Caesar to Domitian] records the punishment that Christians were receiving in Rome during the time of Nero (64 A.D.) as follows:

Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christiani [Christians], a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition (26:2)

Suetonius' mentions of Chrestus and Christiani, is an important piece of evidence in scholarly discussions of the historicity of Jesus.

Thallus (or Thallos): Thallos was an early Samaritan historian who wrote in Koine Greek. Around AD 52-55, he wrote a three-volume history of the Mediterranean world from before the Trojan War to circa 50. Most of his work perished, but not before parts of his writings were repeated by Sextus Julius Africanus in his History of the World. In AD 221, while writing about crucifixion of Jesus, Julius quoted Thallus as follows:

On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in his third book of History, calls (as appears to me without reason) an eclipse of the sun. (18.1)

Mara bar ("son of ") Serapion: He was a Stoic philosopher from the Roman province of Syria. The letter he wrote in Syriac to his son sometime between 73 CE and the 3rd century, encouraging him to pursue wisdom, is said to have one of the earliest non-Jewish, non-Christian references to a historical Jesus. It mentions Jesus as follows:

What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that, their kingdom was abolished.

It is to be noted that:

  • Mara speaks of this wise Jew as a king, and "king" is prominently connected to Jesus at his trial, and especially at his death in the title of his cross
  • Mara's link between the destruction of the Jewish homeland and the death of the "wise king" is paralleled in Christian Supersessionism, where the destruction of Jerusalem is considered as a punishment for Jewish rejection of Jesus

Phlegon (Born about AD 80): Sextus Julius Africanus quotes another secular historian named Phlegon who has 2 books credited to his name: Chronicles and the Olympiads. Little is known about Phlegon, but he made reference to Christ. Like Thallus, Phlegon acknowledges that darkness fell upon the land about the time of Christ's death and attributes this to a solar eclipse.

"During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon." (Africanus, Chronography, 18.1)

Lucian of Samosata (Born 115 AD): Lucian was a well-known Greek satirist and traveling lecturer. He mocks the followers of Jesus for their ignorance and credulity, although he does credit Christians with a certain level of morality. In one of his works he refers to Jesus as follows:

….the man in Palestine who was crucified because he brought this new form of initiation into the world.

In another quote he mocks Christians as follows:

The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account… You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. … They scorn all possessions without distinction and treat them as community property. They accept such things on faith alone, without any evidence.

Though Jesus is not mentioned by name in these citations, there is little doubt that it is Jesus to whom Lucian is referring here.

Celsus: He was a 2nd-century Greek philosopher and opponent of Early Christianity. According to Origen, Celsus was the author of an anti-Christian work titled The True Word (True Discourse) which was a bitter assault upon Christ. Celsus, in seeking to discredit Jesus, sought to explain his miracles rather than claim they never occurred. However, Celsus never questioned the historicity of Jesus.

Porphyry (born about A.D. 233): Porphyry of Tyre studied philosophy in Greece, and lived in Sicily where he wrote fifteen books against the Christian faith. In one of his books, Life of Pythagoras, he contended that magicians of the pagan world exhibited greater powers than Christ. His argument was an inadvertent concession of Jesus’ existence and power.

b) Jewish sources.

Most Jews back away from the Christ of the church, the crucified Lord, but do not mind claiming the Jesus of history, the preacher of ancient Palestine, as their own.

Records in Talmud:

The Talmud is a central text of mainstream Judaism. It takes the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs, and history. References to the history of Jesus in the Talmud do not question that Jesus Christ existed - the issue they quarrel with is the Christian belief in His virgin birth. The Babylonian Talmud in a few rare instances likely or possibly refers to Jesus using the terms "Yeshu," "Yeshu ha-Notzri," "ben Satda," and "ben Pandera". These references probably date back to the Tannaitic period (70–200 CE). There are several Talmudic passages that are said to be referring to Jesus. These references accuse that Jesus (who is called Ben Pandera) was born out of wedlock after his mother had been seduced by a Roman soldier named Pandera (or Panthera). It further calls Jesus as a magician and states that he was executed on the charge of seducing Israel to idolatry. It also despises virgin birth and portrays Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the descendant of princes, but strayed from her husband, to play the harlot with carpenters. (b.Yebamoth 49a; m Yebam. 4:13, b. Sanh. 106a, b. Sabb. 104b).

  • The defamatory account of His birth seems to reflect knowledge of the early Christian tradition that Jesus was the son of the Virgin Mary. The Greek word for virgin, parthenos, might have been distorted into the name Panthera to create the story of illegitimate birth. The creation of this story also proves that the concept of virgin birth required a rebuttal by the Jewish authorities.
  • The notion that Mary was descended from "princes" is consistent with the genealogy given in the gospel of Luke, which records her lineage dates all the way back to King David. The allusion to "carpenters" is an obvious reference to Joseph.
  • Notice that the response did not include a denial of Jesus' existence - only that it said he was born under other circumstances.
  • By accusing Jesus to have performed magic, Talmud accounts for the miracles done by Jesus.
  • It also mentions his execution on the day before Passover, thereby substantiating that fact written in the New Testament.

Jewish historians

Jewish writers typically separated Jesus the Jew from the Christianity that incorporated him, approving of the former but disliking the latter.

Titus Flavius Josephus [Joseph ben Matityahu] (37 – c. 100 CE): Josephus was a 1st-century Romano-Jewish historian and hagiographer of priestly and royal ancestry who recorded Jewish history, with special emphasis on the 1st century CE and the First Jewish–Roman War. His most important works were “The Jewish War” (c. 75 CE) an account of the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation (66–70) and “The Antiquities of the Jews” (c. 94 CE) which outlines the history of the world from a Jewish perspective.
In the book “The Antiquities of the Jews”, Jesus is mentioned twice. Some parts of the first passage [Antiquities 18. 3:3], which is otherwise known as “Testimonium Flavianum”, is disputed by some scholars that it has been altered by a later scribe. Following is the English translation of the text with disputed areas grayed out.

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, is not extinct at this day.

From the portions that are not disputed, it is pretty much clear that Josephus testifies the following:

  • The existence of Jesus.
  • The miracles done by Jesus. (wonderful works)
  • Jesus drew multitudes to him with wise teaching
  • Jesus was accused by then religious people
  • Jesus was condemned by Pilate
  • Jesus was crucified.
  • Christianity was ever growing since then.

In “The Antiquities of the Jews” the second passage that mentions Jesus concerns the condemnation of James, the brother of Jesus and this part is not in any dispute by scholars.

And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus… Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

Antiquities 20, 9:1 by Josephus
  • Josephus substantiates the mentioning of James in the Bible as the brother of Jesus. (Galatians 1:18-19)
  • The reference to Jesus in this passage is as if he had mentioned about Jesus before. (Which he did in Book 18)
  • This passage gives the hint that James was unjustly accused and sheds light on the persecution of Christians at that time.

c) Christian sources.

The earliest Christian sources of documentation on the historicity of Jesus include biblical manuscripts on New Testament books and the writing of Patristic authors written between the 1st and 4th centuries.

  • New Testament books

The twenty-seven books of the New Testament proclaim and verify the history of Jesus Christ. All of the New Testament had been completed within sixty years or so after Jesus’ death. Of those 27 books, no less than 10 were penned by personal companions of the Lord. And Paul, an eyewitness of the resurrected Savior, wrote thirteen or fourteen of the remainder. Liberal scholars have tried to relegate New Testament books to the second-century A.D. (or later), and have suggested that these documents are productions of unknown authors in order to repudiate them as primary sources of historical information. It is interesting to note, however, that even some radical theologians have conceded the strong evidence for the early composition of the New Testament. Though Jesus is the central theme throughout the New Testament, the Pauline Epistles, the Gospels, and the book of Acts are the books that play a major role in confirming the historicity of Jesus.

Pauline Epistles (Epistles of Paul, or Letters of Paul): The thirteen New Testament books which present Paul as the author, states the historical Jesus as fundamental to the teachings. While not personally an eye-witness of Jesus' ministry, Paul states that he was acquainted with people who had known Jesus: the apostle Peter (also known as Cephas), the apostle John, and James, the brother of Jesus.

Gospels: The four gospels found in the New Testament—the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke, and the Gospel of John—are fuller, detailed accounts of Jesus and are the primary sources of historical information about Jesus. The gospels of the New Testament were written in Greek for Greek-speaking communities that were later translated into Syriac, Latin, and Coptic. These gospels are judged by most scholars to be reliable, historical testimony of eye-witnesses.

Acts of the Apostles: The book of the Acts of the Apostles gives a detailed account of the emergence of the Christian church in the aftermath of Jesus' ministry. Many prominent scholars and historians view the book of Acts as being quite accurate and corroborated by archaeology while agreeing with the Pauline epistles.

  • Patristic writers

Next to the apostles of Jesus, the most extensive sources of writings that attest to His existence are those of the early church fathers - leaders, teachers, or apologists in the emerging Christian movement. Between the end of the first and eighth centuries A.D., these Patristic writers authored volumes of works testifying the historicity of Jesus. The testimony of the “church fathers” certainly is more compelling than the trifling objections of biased critics.

Ignatius (A.D 35 - 108): Ignatius of Antioch also known as Theophorus was the third Bishop of Antioch, and was a student of John the Apostle.En route to his martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius wrote a series of letters which have been preserved as an example of very early Christian theology. One of the references is quoted below:

"Jesus Christ who was of the race of David, who was the Son of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and on earth and those under the earth; who moreover was truly raised from the dead, His Father having raised Him, who in the like fashion will also raise us also who believe on Him." (Trallians, 9)

Polycarp (A.D 69-155): Polycarp was a 2nd century Christian bishop of Smyrna. He spoke passionately of Christ, and wrote against certain heretics of his day. Irenaeus (c. A.D. 130-200) said that Polycarp had personal association with the apostle John, and with others who “had seen the Lord”.

Justin Martyr (A.D 103–165): Justin Martyr was an early Christian Apologist. He was a learned man and became a professor of philosophical Christianity in his own private school in Rome. In his work “First Apology” [Defense of Christianity] written around A.D 150, he mentions that his claims concerning Jesus' crucifixion, and some miracles, could be verified by referencing the official record, the "Acts of Pontius Pilate".It is clear that Justin assumed that the reports about Jesus must have been preserved in the Imperial Archives which kept a record of all government activities.
Given below are some of the quotes from his Book “First Apology”.

"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 also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judea."

First Apology, 34

"For at the time of His birth, Magi who came from Arabiaworshipped Him, coming first to Herod, who then was sovereign in your land."

Dialogue with Trypho, 77

"For when they crucified Him, driving the nails, they pierced His hands and feet; and those who crucified Him parted His garments among themselves, each casting lots for what he chose to have, and receiving according to the decision of the lot."

Dialogue with Typho, 97

"Accordingly, after He was crucified, even all His acquaintances forsook Him, having denied Him; and afterwards, when He had risen from the dead and appeared to them, and had taught them to read the prophecies in which all these things ere foretold as coming to pass…"

First Apology, 50

Tertullian (A.D 160 – 225): Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, anglicized as Tertullian was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. He also was a notable early Christian apologist and a polemicist against heresy. In his “Apology” he says that Emperor Tiberius debated the details of Jesus' life before the Roman Senate.

Tiberius accordingly, in those days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from Palestine of events which had clearly shown the truth of Christ's divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favor of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Caesar held to his opinion, threatening wrath against all the accusers of the Christians.

2. Archeological evidences

Remarkably, over the last few decades, significant evidence revealing the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus has been uncovered!

a) Roman Catacombs

Under or near Rome (Italy) at least forty ancient catacombs were discovered in recent years. These tombs were used both for burial and memorial services and celebrations of the anniversaries of Christian martyrs. It has been estimated that there are some 600miles of these subterranean passages, representing 1,175,000 to 4,000,000 graves. The catacomb vaults are filled with artwork like paintings, Latin inscriptions in Greek characters, and graffiti with the initials of the Greek words for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior", which testifies to the deep faith in Christ that was embraced by legions in the capital of the Roman Empire.

b) Ancient Landmarks and other excavations

  • The Church of the Nativity is generally considered a credible historical site, with the traditional cave of Christ’s birth being marked by the ornate Star of Bethlehem.
  • Christ’s childhood town of Nazareth is still active today.
  • A first-century Galilean fishing boat, matches the biblical record for the vessels used by Christ’s disciples, was recently unearthed from the mud and preserved.
  • Capernaum, a town often visited by Jesus, is widely excavated and protected. This includes synagogue at Capernaum and the house of Simon Peter.
  • In Jerusalem, we still see the foundations for the Jewish Temple Mount, which is the location of the 1stand 2nd Jewish Temple.
  • Other remarkable archaeological sites in Jerusalem include Pool of Bethesda, Pool of Siloam, Chorazin, the Mount of Beatitudes where Sermon on the Mount was done, Jacob's well where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, Caesarea Philippi where Peter confessed, Garden of Gethsemane, etc.
  • We find more evidence for Jesus and the leaders presiding over his trial and crucifixion, including an inscription that mentions the Roman procurator of the time, Pontius Pilate, and the actual bones of the Jewish High Priest of the time, Caiaphas, preserved in an ornate ossuary (bone box).
  • In 1961 the first archaeological evidence concerning Pilate was unearthed in the town of Caesarea; it was an inscription of a dedication bearing Pilate’s name and title.
  • 1,950 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, a public works project building a water park in November 1990 accidentally uncovered an ancient burial cave. The inscription in the burial chamber was that of the Caiaphas family. The remains of a 60-year-old man were found in the burial cave that may have been the High Priest Caiaphas.

The list goes on and on. Quite a number of Biblical structures have been excavated proving that archaeology can be used to demonstrate that the people, places, and events of the Bible are real.

3. Impact of Christianity in history

Christianity has made a huge impact on world history. Our very calendars were set to indicate how long it has been since Christ's birth, although the humans who calculated it may have been mistaken. At the time Christianity started spreading through the Roman Empire religion had fractured into the main Roman religion which was comprised of the Parthenon of Roman Gods and mystery cults. Christianity attracted several people since it was absolute in its teachings and appealing unifying force in it. This unity was seen by Constantine as a way to reunite the Roman Empire and help to move the Romans from a collection of groups bound by money and the sword into a cohesive and unified Empire. Survived by several trials and tribulations, Christianity still wins hundreds of souls each and every day in different parts of the world.

Conclusion

Historical evidence has become more supportive of the fact that Jesus can be proved historically to have lived, to have been a dominant figure during his lifetime and of a major concern to the establishment of the Temple and of Rome.

For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

Jesus Christ did not come to condemn man, He came to save man from his sins. Have you reserved your place for eternal life by accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? If not, its still not late. Jesus said:

I am the way, the truth, and the life.

John 14:6

Yes. Jesus Christ is the only way to Salvation.

There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.

Acts 4:12

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

Romans. 10: 9,10

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