Before I started the Alpha course I didn’t know there was evidence to suggest Jesus really lived, outside of what could be found in the bible. If I’m honest, without reading the bible at all, I was edging towards Jesus being a fictional character. I’d heard a few stories from the bible and I had decided that he was just a symbol for how you should live your life, a nice idea. I never realised Jesus actually existed and was a prominent figure within history.
Of course, a lot of the evidence for Jesus does come from the New Testament. For me, the fact that the books contain different narratives and slightly different versions of events makes it less likely to be an elaborate collaborative fabrication. It is more likely that they are all drawing on similar memories or sources to write their versions. This accounts for why the stories are similar but not exactly the same because although memories are acceptable sources, after forty years some things could be remembered more clearly than others.
I was discussing this with my Dad and he brought up a good point that resonated with me. ‘If four contemporary Roman authors wrote about a Roman General, would anyone ever question if he ever existed?’ it got me thinking, they wouldn’t have any reason to believe he didn’t exist. So, why when four contemporary authors write about Jesus, do people question his authenticity? Part of me thinks that maybe people say Jesus didn’t exist because they haven’t read the gospels and, like I used to, believe that he was a figment of people’s imaginations. While a more cynical side of me believes that maybe people do not want Jesus to have existed and do not want him to have performed miracles because that would be incredibly strong evidence to suggest he was the Son of God and we should be living our lives in accordance with his laws.
Through my own research I have found that there is evidence outside the bible to suggest not only that Jesus lived but also that people did believe he was the Christ. Tacitus was a Roman historian (often regarded as the best Roman historian). During his last major work he included a biography of Nero. In 64 A.D. there was a fire in Rome, no one knew how it started. A rumour began to circulate that Nero had started it so that he could rebuild part of Rome. In order to deflect the criticism off of himself, Nero blamed the Christians for the fire. This worked because Christians were already a persecuted group in Rome due to the fact they always met in secret and refused to worship the Emperor, making them an easy target for Nero. A translated part of the biography of Nero written by Tacitus says:
‘[N]either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts… whom the crowd called “Christians.” The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate… Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and became popular.’
This is a separate source from the New Testament that suggests that Jesus lived. It also suggests that people followed Jesus as the founder of Christianity. It gives specific details that link with what we know from the New Testament, for example, that Pontius Pilate executed him. Some people argue that because this was written after the gospels it could be that he had read them and that is why he regarded the Christ as the founder and he had read about the death of Jesus and that is why he included it in his writings. Intrigued by this I looked further into the life of Tacitus, I found that he was a high level scholar and it seems unlikely that he would draw on sources that he would regard as irrelevant to him because it is acknowledged that he hated Christians so the gospels wouldn’t be of any interest to him. It would be unlikely that Tacitus would document an execution that he didn’t believe actually happened.
The second piece of compelling evidence comes from Josephus. Josephus was a Jewish priest who grew up in Palestine but lived in Rome. He was also a scholar who most famously wrote ‘The Jewish War’ and ‘Jewish Antiquities’. The Jewish Antiquities mentions Jesus twice. The lesser of these two appearances is when Jesus is used to identify his brother, James, who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Josephus was describing his execution but because it was such a common name and his father’s name was so common, Josephus decided to use Jesus’s name as he was well known at the time. The translation can be seen below:
‘Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favourable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned’
This would suggest that Jesus was a real person and that he was seen as the messiah. There were many men named Jesus in the book so in order to identify which Jesus he meant and in turn which James he was writing about he referred to him in the way many people would recognise him. It wouldn’t make sense for Josephus to call Jesus the messiah if that wasn’t what people called him, otherwise no one would know which Jesus he was writing about and in turn wouldn’t know which James he meant. The prolonged way of saying Jesus’ name would not have made sense if Jesus’ hadn’t existed. This may seem like insignificant but it is probably the most compelling piece of evidence for me because no one is suggesting someone may have altered the wording, it almost feels innocent… like he wasn’t trying to confirm Jesus’ life but to use someone who a lot of people knew about and had met in order to identify someone else. The only way the sentence makes any sense in the book is if Jesus was a real person. Therefore he must have existed.
The second appearance of Jesus in the book can be seen in the transcription below:
‘Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him, for on the third day, he appeared to them restored to life. The prophets of God had prophesied this and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out.’
There are a lot more disputes over this passage. A lot of scholars disagree as to whether the whole thing is a forgery. This seems unlikely as a lot (not all) of the language fits with Josephus’ other writing. Some believe it is completely authentic; this is also relatively unlikely because some of the phrases sound more Christian than his normal way of writing. Most people agree that it is mostly authentic but with some changes added over the years. The parts that people are most sceptical about are ‘if indeed one ought to call him a man.’, ‘He was the Messiah.’ And ‘for on the third day, he appeared to them restored to life. The prophets of God had prophesied this and countless other marvellous things about him.’ As for the rest of the extract it is widely agreed by academics that it is reliable and authentic. This extract would suggest to us not only that Jesus existed as a person but he was also crucified because Tacitus only suggested that Pilate executed Jesus, there was no suggestion of how.
These two different sources both agree on three very important facts, Jesus was a real person, Pilate executed Jesus and others regarded him as the Christ. These are all facts that add a lot of proof towards the gospels that also describe these events.
To end this blog on the question ‘did Jesus exist?’, I want to leave on a note that left me with a lot of food for thought… If he wasn’t the Son of God, why didn’t he give up when times got tough? Jesus throughout his life was persecuted and condemned, so if he didn’t truly believe he was the Son of God serving his God, why wouldn’t he just give up? He died because he was the Son of God; he died because he truly believed he was going to make the world a better place. I cannot imagine anyone going through what Jesus went through for something that wasn’t true.
What are your thoughts? Did Jesus exist? Was he a just a storyteller or a great teacher? Was he a conman? Was he just a metaphorical symbol of how a human should act? Or was he the Son of God?
See you next time, when we delve deeper into whether or not Jesus really died? The medical evidence, the events surrounding his death and the resurrection.