Today some claim that Jesus is just an idea, rather than a real historical figure, but there is a good deal of written evidence for his existence 2,000 years ago
How confident can we be that Jesus Christ actually lived?
The historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth is both long-established and widespread. Within a few decades of his supposed lifetime, he is mentioned by Jewish and Roman historians, as well as by dozens of Christian writings. Compare that with, for example, King Arthur, who supposedly lived around AD500. The major historical source for events of that time does not even mention Arthur, and he is first referred to 300 or 400 years after he is supposed to have lived. The evidence for Jesus is not limited to later folklore, as are accounts of Arthur.
What do Christian writings tell us?
The value of this evidence is that it is both early and detailed. The first Christian writings to talk about Jesus are the epistles of St Paul, and scholars agree that the earliest of these letters were written within 25 years of Jesus’s death at the very latest, while the detailed biographical accounts of Jesus in the New Testament gospels date from around 40 years after he died. These all appeared within the lifetimes of numerous eyewitnesses, and provide descriptions that comport with the culture and geography of first-century Palestine. It is also difficult to imagine why Christian writers would invent such a thoroughly Jewish saviour figure in a time and place – under the aegis of the Roman empire – where there was strong suspicion of Judaism.
What did non-Christian authors say about Jesus?
As far as we know, the first author outside the church to mention Jesus is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote a history of Judaism around AD93. He has two references to Jesus. One of these is controversial because it is thought to be corrupted by Christian scribes (probably turning Josephus’s negative account into a more positive one), but the other is not suspicious – a reference to James, the brother of “Jesus, the so-called Christ”.
About 20 years after Josephus we have the Roman politicians Pliny and Tacitus, who held some of the highest offices of state at the beginning of the second century AD. From Tacitus we learn that Jesus was executed while Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect in charge of Judaea (AD26-36) and Tiberius was emperor (AD14-37) – reports that fit with the timeframe of the gospels. Pliny contributes the information that, where he was governor in northern Turkey, Christians worshipped Christ as a god. Neither of them liked Christians – Pliny writes of their “pig-headed obstinacy” and Tacitus calls their religion a destructive superstition.
Did ancient writers discuss the existence of Jesus?
Strikingly, there was never any debate in the ancient world about whether Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. In the earliest literature of the Jewish Rabbis, Jesus was denounced as the illegitimate child of Mary and a sorcerer. Among pagans, the satirist Lucian and philosopher Celsus dismissed Jesus as a scoundrel, but we know of no one in the ancient world who questioned whether Jesus lived.
How controversial is the existence of Jesus now?
In a recent book, the French philosopher Michel Onfray talks of Jesus as a mere hypothesis, his existence as an idea rather than as a historical figure. About 10 years ago, The Jesus Project was set up in the US; one of its main questions for discussion was that of whether or not Jesus existed. Some authors have even argued that Jesus of Nazareth was doubly non-existent, contending that both Jesus and Nazareth are Christian inventions.
It is worth noting, though, that the two mainstream historians who have written most against these hypersceptical arguments are atheists: Maurice Casey (formerly of Nottingham University) and Bart Ehrman (University of North Carolina).
They have issued stinging criticisms of the “Jesus-myth” approach, branding it pseudo-scholarship. Nevertheless, a recent survey discovered that 40% of adults in England did not believe that Jesus was a real historical figure.
Is there any archaeological evidence for Jesus?
Part of the popular confusion around the historicity of Jesus may be caused by peculiar archaeological arguments raised in relation to him. Recently there have been claims that Jesus was a great-grandson of Cleopatra, complete with ancient coins allegedly showing Jesus wearing his crown of thorns. In some circles, there is still interest in the Shroud of Turin, supposedly Jesus’s burial shroud. Pope Benedict XVI stated that it was something that “no human artistry was capable of producing” and an “icon of Holy Saturday”.
It is hard to find historians who regard this material as serious archaeological data, however. The documents produced by Christian, Jewish and Roman writers form the most significant evidence.
These abundant historical references leave us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. The more interesting question – which goes beyond history and objective fact – is whether Jesus died and lived.==========
Here’s the historical evidence from non-Christian sources that Jesus lived and died
A wealth of written evidence exists to prove Christianity is not based on a fairy tale.
The historical record that confirms the existence of Jesus includes writing from both Roman and Jewish historians, rabbinical literature, and anti-Christian commentators who lived during Christianity’s earliest days:
1. The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-100)
The first non-Christian author to mention Jesus is thought to be the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (born Yosef ben Matityahu), who wrote a history of Judaism in about the year 93, the famous Antiquities of the Jews. In his writings he mentions a number of figures from the New Testament, including Jesus, John the Baptist, and Jesus’ “brother” James.
In the Antiquities, Josephus writes:
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 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 18:3:3).
This passage is somewhat controversial, however, and while scholars accept that Josephus mentioned Jesus, they suspect that a Christian scribe amended the passage to portray Jesus in a positive light.
The following passage, in which Josephus mentions Jesus and his “brother” James, firmly establishes the existence of Jesus:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananus] 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).
2. Tacitus (A.D. 56-120)
Scholars point to the Roman historian Tacitus for confirmation that the crucifixion of Jesus actually took place. Writing in his Annals, he records the death of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate:
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 centre 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.
3. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62-11)
The writings of a Roman governor in Asia Minor, Pliny the Younger, establish that early Christians worshiped Jesus as a god. Here he is, summing up what he learned after interrogating Christians:
They (Christians) were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food, but of an ordinary and innocent kind (Epistles 10.96).
4. Jewish Rabbinical literature
A number of works of classical Jewish rabbinic writing (the Babylonian Talmud in particular) contain references to Jesus.
Summarizing these allusions in his book Jesus of Nazareth, historian Joseph Klausner, writes:
There are some reliable theories regarding the fact that his name was Yeshua (Yeshu) of Nazareth; that he practiced sorcery (that is to say that he performed miracles, as was common in those days) and seduction and led Israel astray; that he mocked the words of the wise and discussed Scripture in the same way as the Pharisees; that he had five disciples; that he said he had not come to revoke the Law, nor to add anything to it; that he was hung upon a piece of wood (crucified) as a false authority and seducer on the eve of the Passover (which fell on a Saturday); and that his disciples cured diseases in his name (J.Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, p.44)
5. Satirist Lucian, born (c. AD 125 – 180)
The pagan author Lucian of Samosata, while ridiculing Christians, accepted that Jesus actually existed:
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 their 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. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. (Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus)
6. Philosopher Celsus (2nd century)
The 2nd-century Greek philosopher Celsus, while arguing against Christianity, also accepted that Jesus existed. Here he writes that Jesus performed his miracles through sorcery:
O light and truth! He distinctly declares, with his own voice, as ye yourselves have recorded, that there will come to you even others, employing miracles of a similar kind, who are wicked men, and sorcerers; and Satan. So that Jesus himself does not deny that these works at least are not at all divine, but are the acts of wicked men; and being compelled by the force of truth, he at the same time not only laid open the doings of others, but convicted himself of the same acts. Is it not, then, a miserable inference, to conclude from the same works that the one is God and the other sorcerers? Why ought the others, because of these acts, to be accounted wicked rather than this man, seeing they have him as their witness against himself? For he has himself acknowledged that these are not the works of a divine nature, but the inventions of certain deceivers, and of thoroughly wicked men.