1.9 The Historical Jesus
If, as some claim, there is no evidence that Jesus of Nazareth ever existed, then the very existence of Christianity is difficult to explain. It is asking an awful lot to expect anyone to believe that millions of people over the last 2,000 years have based their beliefs on someone who never existed, and to have such an intense faith in him that they were motivated to spread their faith in him world-wide, often at the risk of persecution and death. Christians and Jews generally have no difficulty accepting that Mohamed once lived, whilst rejecting his claims and teaching. Indeed we accept that most famous historical characters existed without demanding a critical review of the evidence. Frequently analyses have been made of widely accepted historical events, e.g. that the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, and have found the concrete evidence relatively hard to come by.
The fact that some so intensely deny the very existence of Jesus of Nazareth is surely indicative of an over reaction, a desire to find a convenient excuse not to face up to the reasons for accepting his Messiahship. This appears especially true when it is appreciated that the early Jews themselves accepted that a person called Jesus had existed in the first century. The following historical evidences for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth show that in no way can he be dismissed as a theological invention of men. Much helpful information in this section has been gleaned from Gary Habermas, ‘Ancient Evidence For The Life Of Jesus’.
1. Tacitus was a Roman historian whose two major books about the first century (“Annals” and the “Histories”) both mention Jesus and Christianity. He wrote in the “Annals” (about 115 AD):
“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 Pilate”.
The emperor Tiberius reigned from 14-37AD, during which period Christ was killed, according to this record. Tacitus also describes how the beliefs of this group “broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of (these ideas), but even in Rome”, and he goes on to describe how the Christians were widely hated, and many put to death in Rome. All this accords with the New Testament record of Jesus, the disciples and the apostles first spreading their teaching in Judaea, and then throughout the Roman world, including Rome, with great opposition to them.
2. Suetonius, another Roman historian, commented on the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD): “Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he (Claudius) expelled them from the city”. “Chrestus” is another spelling of “Christ”. Incidentally, Acts 18:2 describes how a Jewish couple named Aquila and Priscilla had to leave Rome because of the persecution of the Jews.
Suetonius comments later about the persecution of Christians at the time of Nero: “After the great fire at Rome...Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief”. This reference to the existence of a group called “Christians” in the first century suggests that a person called “Christ” existed earlier in that century.
3. F.F.Bruce (“Christian Origins” pp.29,30) draws attention to the fact that there are references to a history of the Eastern Mediterranean written by a historian called Thallus about 52AD. Bruce shows elsewhere (“The New Testament Documents”, p.113) that a scholar named Julius Africanus quoted from Thallus, mocking his description of the darkness at the crucifixion of Jesus as due to the eclipse of the sun. This suggests that Thallus wrote an account of the crucifixion of Jesus which occurred some years before he wrote his history in 52AD.
4. Pliny, a Roman Government official, mentions at length the existence of a very active group of people called Christians in the latter years of the first century. Their keeping of the memorial service is referred to by him: “They 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” (“Letters of Pliny”, translated by W.Melmoth, Vol.2, X:96). The Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian both mentioned the problem of dealing with Christians. For references to this, see “Letters of Pliny”, Vol.2, X:97 and Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, IV:IX respectively. The existence of this group since the first century and their extraordinary tenacity during persecution would suggest that they were followers of a real historical character who lived in the first century.
5. The Talmud, a Jewish holy book, in Sanhedrin 43a refers to the death of Jesus. It is acknowledged that this part of the Talmud dates from the early period of that book’s compilation (i.e. 70-200AD).
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (Jesus) was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going 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 in his behalf’. But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover”.
“Hanged” can be an idiom for crucifixion - it is used like that in the New Testament (Gal. 3:13; Lk. 23:39). This passage describes the Jews wanting Jesus stoned (in accordance with Mosaic law, presumably?), but mentions that actually he was hanged. The explanation for this is given by the New Testament description of how the Jews had to use Roman law to effect the death of Jesus - which would have been by hanging.
Sanhedrin 43a also describes how five disciples of Jesus were judged and sentenced to death, again showing that the Jews traditionally have believed in the existence of the historical Jesus. Sanhedrin 106b even says that Jesus was 33 years old when he died; exactly as required by the New Testament. Maier (“First Easter”, pp.117,118) quotes from the fifth century Jewish document “Toledoth Jesu”, which claims that the disciples tried to steal the body of Jesus after his death, but a gardener named Juda heard of their plans and removed the body of Jesus elsewhere, handing it over later to the Jews. Justin Martyr writing in 150AD records that the Jews sent out special messengers to claim that the body of Jesus had been stolen (“Dialogue with Trypho”, 108), and Tertullian (“On Spectacles”, 30) has a similar account when he wrote in 200AD.
Between them these strands of evidence show that the Jews of the early centuries AD believed in the existence and violent death of the historical Jesus.
6. The Greek playwright Lucian, writing in the second century, pokes fun at the Christians who “worship a man to this day (who) was crucified” (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13, in “The Works of Lucian”, vol.4, translated by Fowler and Fowler).
7. Josephus is the most well known historian of the first century. In his “Antiquities”, written 90-95AD, he mentions James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”. He also speaks in another section of the same book in terms which clearly corroborate the New Testament picture of Jesus.
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man...For he was one who wrought surprising feats...He was Christ...he appeared to them alive the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him”.
So pointed is this passage that some have claimed that it is an interpolation. That there is still reason for using this passage to support the contention that there was a man called Jesus of Nazareth who lived in the first century is provided by the following considerations:
? Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 1:XI) quotes this section of Josephus.
? Respected scholars support this first reading as being original, and can show that this section is written in the same style as the rest of Josephus’ work (See Daniel Rops, “The Silence of Jesus’ Contemporaries”, p.21; J.N.D. Anderson, “Christianity: The Witness of History” p.20; F.F.Bruce, “The New Testament Documents” pp.108,109).
? There is no textual evidence for this being an interpolation.
? Professor Schlomo Pines claims that the Arabic edition of Josephus’ works had been discovered which was almost certain to be the original. The passage referred to above occurs there, but without the obvious doctrinal statements concerning the resurrection and Messiahship of Jesus which were made in the extract given above. This seems reasonable, seeing Josephus was a Jew. Pines first made his findings public in articles in “The New York Times”, Feb.12 1972, in which he quotes the debated passage of Josephus about Jesus from the Arabic version: “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and he was known to be virtuous. And many people among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders”.
This account fits in admirably with that of the New Testament.