Throughout many years, skeptics assumed there was no evidence that Jesus ever existed without searching for the evidence. During the first and second century BC, famous historians and officials of ancient Rome and Judea questioned Jesus' work such as raising people from the dead, healing or his own resurrection. The skeptics, however, didn't question Jesus' existence. This new doctrine emerged recently due to the long time frame that can make any historical figure look like a myth.
To find the evidence that Jesus had actually lived, let’s examine some historical sources outside the Bible. Unfortunately, there is little documentation left for any person from the time of Christ. The majority of the ancient historical documents have been lost through time during wars, fire, theft, bad weather and deterioration.
Some people dated the birth of Jesus to 6 or 7 BC, due to the fact that Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was a Roman governor of Syria. However, he first became a governor in 1 or 2 BC as recorded in Luke and then he got re-elected around 6 or 7 BC. Besides the Gospel of Mathew, the medical doctor, Luke The Physician, also recorded Jesus’ birth.
Many secular historians mentioned Jesus’ name in their work such as Aristides The Athenian, Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, Hegesippus, Clement of Rome and more. There were nine early non-Christian secular writers in total who mentioned Jesus as a real person within 150 years of his death. If we want to consider Christian and non-Christian sources, there were forty-two who mentioned Jesus, compared to just ten for Tiberius. There are still books and various letters that have been preserved over many centuries and presented as existed evidence of the life of Christ.
Roman HistoriansHistorians in Rome kept the detailed records of events and people of the empire. Since Jesus was not involved in political or military affairs of Rome, there were only two Roman historians who mentioned him in their writings thus acknowledging him as a real person - Cornelious Tacitus and Lucian of Samosata.
A second-century theologian, Justin Martyr, wrote:
Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, 35 stadia from Jerusalem, in which Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registries of the taxing under Cyrenius your first procurator in Judea (First Apology, chapter 34).
Martyr confirmed records of Jesus’ birth in Judea, but he was a theologian, thus skeptics won’t accept his support account as a valid proof.
Tacitus (full name Publius/Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, AD 55 - 120) was a Roman historian, a Roman senator, ethnographer, and orator. As a professional historian, he had to use valid records from the government sources that passed critical investigation. When he used to be a proconsul of Asia earlier in his career, very likely he interviewed many people on trials who accused of being Christians.
He was involved in judgment and punishment of those whom he found guilty. His historical records confirmed Jesus’ crucifixion that was done by Pontius Pilate. In Tacitus’ The Annals of Imperial Rome, he recounted the major historical events from the years shortly before the death of Augustus up to the death of Nero in AD 68. In his work, he mentioned Christus (Greek for Christ) who had lived during the reign of Tiberius and who was executed by Pontius Pilate. He wrote the following:
Consequently, to get rid of the report (Great Fire of Rome), 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 Judea, …but even in Rome… (The Annals of Imperial Rome, XV, 44).
Book XV of Tacitus’s Annals was kept in the 11th -12th-century Codex Mediceus II - collection medieval manuscripts located in the Bibliotheca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, Italy. The following quote confirms that Jesus existed, he was the founder of Christianity that was originated in Judea and later spread to Rome:
… whom the crowd called ‘Chrestians.’ The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate …” (Codex Mediceus 68 II, fol. 38r, the Bibliotheca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, Italy.)
The fourth-century emperor, Julian the Apostate (called such because he rejected Christianity after being raised in it) wrote:
Jesus, whom you celebrate, was one of Caesar’s subjects. If you dispute it, I will prove it by and by; but it may be as well done now. For yourselves allow, that he was enrolled with his father and mother in Cyrenius…But Jesus having persuaded a few among you, and those the worst of men, has now been celebrated about 300 years; having done nothing worthy of remembrance; unless anyone thinks it is a mighty matter to heal lame and blind people, and exorcise demoniacs in the villages of Bethsaida and Bethany (Cyril Contra Julian, VI, 191, 213).
Many New Testament scholars date Jesus’ death to c. 29 C.E. Pilate governed Judea in 26-36 C.E., while Tiberius was emperor in 14-37 C.E.
Lucian of Samosata
Lucian of Samosata (c. 115–200 C.E.) was a Greek satirist and author of The Passing of Peregrinus. Lucian was a former Christian who later became a famous Cynic and revolutionary. When writing a biography, in two sections of Peregrinus Lucian made a satirical reference to Jesus without mentioning his name:
It was then that he learned the marvelous wisdom of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And— what else?—in short order he made them look like children, for he was a prophet, cult leader, head of the congregation and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books, and wrote many himself. They revered him as a god, used him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector—to be sure, after that other whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. For having convinced themselves that they are going to be immortal and live forever, the poor wretches despise death and most even willingly give themselves up. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living according to his laws.” (In Lucian Selected Dialogues; translated by Craig A. Evans)
Lucian was a non-Christian secular writer and most likely obtained all his information from sources independent of the Christian doctrines and New Testament books. His statements are separated from theological doctrines and serve as independent evidence of Jesus’ living and his crucifixion by Romans.
In Lucian Volume V book Lucians put his commentary and criticism on historical events. He highly criticized other writers who distorted history to please their masters, and those who filled historical gaps with their personal narratives: “The historian’s one task is to tell a thing as it happened. He may have private dislikes, but…” (06:44)
Lucian had a proven track of historical accuracy and verification. He believed Jesus was only an ordinary man who lived, preached and died. He never referred to Jesus as God or a divine entity, and there were never any doubts about Jesus’ existence.
Roman OfficialsThere were a few letters from the Roman government officials who mentioned Jesus and his followers. Pliny the Younger and Emperor Trajan Pliny the Younger was a lawyer, author, and an imperial magistrate under Emperor Trajan (AD 56-117). In AD 112, Pliny wrote to Trajan about his desire to force Christians to reject Christ and to worship Roman gods or Caesar instead. In the letter, he was asking Emperor Trajan for counsel on dealing with Christians.
Pliny had never performed a legal investigation of Christian and thus consulted Trajan on what to do next. In his letter, Pliny stated that Christians worshipped Christ as if he was God himself and didn’t worship the gods of Rome. It was a time when many Christians were persecuted for their faith and there was a lot of evidence existed regarding Christ as it was preserved until today.
They (the 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 food of an ordinary and innocent kind. (Pliny the Younger)
According to the early historians, Jesus’ great-nephew and other relatives were alive as well as associates of the original apostles. They can easily verify his existence. Also, there were a few lost documents that existed in Jesus’ time such as trial records, records of his birth and it was even referenced by early authors who wrote about Jesus.
Celsus was a 2nd-century Greek philosopher who criticized early Christianity. He was an author of the On The True Doctrine, which survives exclusively in quotations in Contra Celsum, a refutation created in 248 by Origen of Alexandria.
On the True Doctrine was written 175 to 177 CE and it is the earliest known comprehensive criticism of Christianity. It was a time period when Christianity was growing during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Celsus was interested in Ancient Egyptian religion and had knowledge of Hellenistic Jewish logos-theology. He wrote a lot of statements to disprove the divinity of Jesus by saying that “Jesus performed his miracles by sorcery.”, but never denied his actual existence. He contended that Christians were not without success in business, he wanted them to be good citizens, to retain their own belief, but worship the emperors and join their fellow citizens in defending the empire.
In The Early Christian World, Volume 2 by Taylor & Francis, Celsus does not deny the fact of Jesus’ miracles but rather concentrated on the means by which they were performed. Under the influence of rabbinical sources, Celsus attributes Jesus’ miracles to his great magical skills:
Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain [magical] powers… He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god…It was by means of sorcery that He was able to accomplish the wonders that He performed… Let us believe that these cures, or the resurrection, or the feeding of a multitude with a few loaves…These are nothing more than the tricks of jugglers…It is by the names of certain demons, and by the use of incantations, that the Christians appear to be possessed of [miraculous] power…. (The Early Christian World, Volume 2 by Taylor & Francis)
Celcius was trying to dismiss miracles performed by Jesus by calling them illusionistic tricks. Then he offered another explanation and called the miracles “demonic possession”. He believed that Christians themselves invented the virgin birth story and divinity of Jesus.
However, instead of denying the alleged events, Celcius was offering his own alternative theories. He wrote that Jesus came from a village in Judea and was a son of a Jewish woman. She was convicted of adultery with a Roman soldier and was turned down by her husband, a carpenter by trade.
There was a similar passage written in the Jewish Talmud, so it was highly likely Celcius utilized religious sources for some of his arguments. Celcius made a conclusion that Jesus was merely a man and not a god. Even though Celcius denied Jesus’ divinity, he never denied his existence.
Gaius Suetonius TranquillusImage source
Suetonius (AD 69 to 130) was a major Roman historian who recorded the life of Roman rulers such as Julius Caesar and Domitian. Unfortunately, the majority of his books are lost and only a few have survived. Suetonius has also mentioned Jesus in his work:
As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” (Life of Claudius 25.4)
While it is not clear whether Suetonius referred to Christ himself in this quote or used “Chrestus” word in original Latin as a title, there was seven uses of the word Chrestus in the New Testament: (Mt 11:30; Lk 5:39, 6:35; Rom 2:4; 1 Cor 15:33) where authors associated God with Chrestus meaning “Good Lord”, as an ongoing tradition.
The vast majority of the Christian authors such as Tertullian used the name “Chrestus” when referring to Jesus. Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus) was an early Christian writer and lived in the Roman province. Despite being conservative, Tertullian originated new doctrinal concepts and advanced the development of the early Church doctrine.
In his writings, he stated that the name Chrestus was not spelled correctly even if it relates to the name of the founder of Christianity.
The work of Thallus (~AD 52) is preserved only in fragments. Similar to the other accounts, he has mentioned a “midday darkness” event that occurred during the Jesus crucifixion on the Passover. The secular historians such as Julius Africanos and Phlegon van Tralles also wrote about the solar eclipse event thus leaving a good evidence of confirmation during the period of Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus reign.
There was a debate going on between secular historians who tried to explain the phenomenon with scientific terms instead of it being a supernatural event. While some were trying to dismiss the darkness as some supernatural event, others argued the solar eclipse can’t physically occur during the full moon due to the position of the planets.
Mara Bar-SerapionMara Bar-Serapion (AD 70) resided in the Roman province of Syria and was a Syriac Stoic philosopher. The records revealed that he was neither a Jew, nor a Christian, and was probably a pagan gods worshipper. He became famous because of one letter he wrote Syriac to his son, Serapion Junior:
What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand…What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: The Athenians died of hunger. The Samians were overwhelmed by the sea. The Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good. He lived on in the teachings of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good. He lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good. He lived on in the teaching that He had given. (Mara Bar-Serapion, AD 73)
Here he provides a short summary of curses people got for the persecution of the saints. He also confirms Jesus preached the gospel of the Kingdom and later was crucified.
Jewish HistoriansRoman historians and Roman officials were not the only people who mentioned Jesus in their writings. There were some Jewish sources that contained a direct reference to Jesus’ existence.
Flavius JosephusImage source
Josephus (AD 37-100) was a Romano-Jewish historian, scholar, and hagiographer who grew up as an aristocrat in first-century Palestine. In his book Antiquities of the Jews, 20-volume historiographical work, Jesus was mentioned twice. In his other book, The Jewish War, he didn’t mention Jesus. Any reference to Jesus was probably added by others at a later date and not by Josephus himself.
The first short reference to Jesus was in Antiquities of the Jews. He wrote about Jesus’ brother James, who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. When the Roman governor was absent temporarily, the high priest Ananus executed James. Josephus wrote about the death of James and called him “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ” (Antiquities of the Jews, XX, 9, 1). As a result, Ananus later lost his position as a high priest.
So [Ananus] assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned. (Antiquities of the Jews, XX 9.)
There was more than one James in Josephus’ book and he had to specify what James he is referring to. Jesus’ real name was Yeshua in Hebrew where Yeshua means “Salvation” and the concatenated form of Yahoshua means “Lord who is Salvation”. He added the phrase “who is called Messiah,” or since he was writing in Greek, “Christos” in Greek.
In the New Testament, James was called “the brother of the Lord” or “of the Savior” and they didn’t use “the brother of Christos” title because there were thousands of people named “Jesus”. In addition, this passage was not written specifically about Jesus. Jesus and his brother were not even a primary focus of his topic. The longer passage in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities (Book 18) that refers to Jesus is called the Testimonium Flavianum.
There are several citations made by the other authors that are existed, carrying the evidence that this document existed way before the 10th century. In the genuine work of Flavius Josephus, both of the passages testify that Jesus has existed, performed “wonderful works”, had a brother James (James the Just), and was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Flavius was a high profile historian who verified his information and most likely interviewed the apostles themselves.
The Babylonian TalmudImage source
Yeshua (Christ) was mentioned in the following sources:
- Talmud, the Jewish tradition of the Mishnah and the Gemara. (The Jewish Encyclopedia 1907 edition). Sabbath 104b and 116b; Sanhedrin 43a, 67a and 107b; and Sotah 47a. sections
- The “Jesus of Nazareth” article from The Jewish Encyclopedia (1907 edition)
- The “Jesus Christ” and “Talmud and Midrash” articles from The New Encyclopedia Britannica (1981)
- The “Jesus” article in the Encyclopedia Judaica
The Talmud, old rabbinical literature, has a reference to the Yeshu of Nazarene who was “hanged” (Jewish idiom for crucified) on the eve of the Passover:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged 40 days earlier before the execution date. Before the execution event, Herod announced that Yeshua was going to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.
In this passage, the writers of the Talmud were mostly concerned about the practicing of sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. They didn’t dismiss Jesus as a myth.
Skeptics may wonder if Jesus existed, how come he didn’t write anything? There are numerous historical figures that didn’t leave any original writings. Socrates, the ancient Athenian philosopher, only exists in his students' writings. There is not a single document exist that contains his original works. However, it doesn’t mean that Socrates was an imagination of his students.
Alexander the Great became a king of Macedonia. He was a handsome, arrogant leader and military genius who moved through towns and kingdoms of Greco-Persia until he conquers it all. The history of Alexander was collected from a few ancient sources that were written 300 or more years after he died. There were no direct eyewitness writings that can confirm that Alexander ever existed. Despite that, historians are convinced that Alexander really existed via archeological findings and his impact on history.
The same applies to Jesus who became known to the world through the writing of his disciples. Israeli scholar Shlomo Pines and a world historian Will Durant have said that no first-century Jew or Gentile ever denied the existence of Jesus. Even skeptics never have any doubts that Jesus existed. There are many independent accounts proving that Jesus was a historical figure. He existed as a man, his personal name was Yeshua (Jesus), he had a brother named James (Jacob), Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed, as both Tacitus and Josephus stated, and his execution was done by crucifixion, according to Josephus.
These different historical sources offer valuable information concerning the life of Christ. They reveal immutable facts that Messiah was Jewish, healed the diseased and sick, preached the gospel of the Kingdom, was betrayed and crucified.
Did Jesus Exist? Historical Proof
4/ 5By July Via