Believe on the Evidence: "The Historical Existence of Jesus"
Updated: Jan 5, 2021
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. - 1 John 1-2
The Bible asks us to accept a paradox: while Jesus was the Son of God, an eternal being with divine powers, he was also a human, who was born like other humans, lived like other humans, and died like all humans ultimately do. His divine nature can only be accepted from the inspiration of the Scriptures, but we can still search to see if there is any evidence for his earthly existence.
The writer of 1 John tells us that John and his contemporaries had such evidence; tangible, visual, memorable. But for those coming after that time, what evidence should we seek?
Jesus lived in a time when there were no news or social media. His three-year public ministry as an impoverished, itinerant preacher, ending with his ignominious death by crucifixion, would make it unlikely that contemporaneous religious or government figures would record any aspect of his life, or that any such records might survive until our time.
With the spread of Christianity, Jesus’ obscurity disappears. When the Gospels are first written down from older oral accounts (in the period between ~60 AD and ~90 AD, or about 30-60 years after Jesus was killed), they served as eye-witness testimony to events in Jesus life. While those original manuscripts of the Gospels have vanished, we have later copies that are close in age to the lifetime of Jesus (~ 4 BC to about ~30 AD); for example,
A fragment of the Gospel of John from ~125 AD
A manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew from ~250 AD
Some might question the reliability of testimony from Jesus’ followers, and look for evidence supplied by non-believing ancient sources. In the event, those also exist: The Jewish-Roman historian Josephus wrote Antiquities of the Jews around 94 AD as an account of the Jewish people with history up to the Jewish War beginning in 67 AD. Josephus, born Yosef ben Matityahu to Jewish parents in Jerusalem, was not a Christian but makes mention of an incident that was a contributing factor in the subsequent Jewish rebellion (Ch. 9, Book 20 of the Antiquities). Following the death of the procurator Festus, a man named Ananus assumed the high priesthood for the Temple, and condemned “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others”. Josephus mentions these events only as a prelude to Ananus’ removal from office, but in doing so synchronizes the death of the procurator Porcius Festus (the same Festus who tried the Apostle Paul in Acts 25) with the murder of Jesus’ brother (compare Acts 21:18 and Galatians 1:19); that is, sometime between 62 and 67 AD. The oldest manuscript we have of Josephus’ Antiquities is from the 9th century.
A second source we can use for evidence of Jesus’ existence is from the Roman senator and historian Tacitus. Tacitus wrote his Books of History from the Death of the Divine Augustus (more commonly referred to today by the nickname “Annals”) in the early 2nd century AD. In the 15th book he relates how the Emperor Nero blamed the Great Fire of Rome (64 AD) on the Christians, mentioning that they took that name from “Christus” who was executed by Pontius Pilate during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius; that is, sometime between 29 and 37 AD. The oldest manuscript we have of Tacitus’ Annals is from the 11th century.
We can compare the evidence for the existence of Jesus against that of other persons from ancient history. As an example, consider Gaius Julius Caesar, the Roman general, consul and dictator. Caesar wrote a series of accounts on his campaigns in Gaul and Britain called The Gallic Wars and events from his struggle with Pompey for supremacy in Rome called The Civil War. The oldest of the manuscripts of Caesar’s writings dates from the 9th century AD.
Among Caesar’s contemporaries, the Roman historian Sallust and the scholar Cicero wrote accounts which mention Caesar and events of his day. The oldest manuscript for Sallust’s work is from the 10th century, while the oldest manuscript of Cicero’s writing is from the 5th century.
We get additional detail of Caesar’s live from the Roman historian Suetonius and the Greek biographer Plutarch writing in the 2nd century AD. The oldest manuscripts of these writers are from the 9th and 10th centuries, respectively.
By comparison, we can see that while Caesar may provide much greater detail concerning his life and activities than Jesus, the age of the manuscripts from which we take this information is no better than that of the manuscripts attesting to Jesus. The details of this comparison are summarized in the table in Appendix A. Similar comparisons can be made between the lifetimes of other notable ancient figures; for example, Aristotle or Plato, and the dates of the oldest manuscripts which attest to their existence, which also show lengthy time spans.
But there is another way to look at this evidence: no ancient writer can be found to have asserted that Julius Caesar never existed. Did any ancient writer charge that Jesus never existed? The answer is “No” and while an argument from silence must always be received with caution, it seems that all the ancient writers in the first few centuries after Jesus lived accepted his existence. They might consider him a teacher, a magician, or a skeptic, but no source can be found that suggests he wasn’t a real person.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 4th century that anyone felt the need to defend the physical existence of Jesus. This was not in response to an attack from non-believers but to a heresy in the Roman church which held that Jesus was only a spirit and not a physical being.
The Works of Flavius Josephus, translated by William Whiston, Baker Book House, 1974. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, translated by C.F. Cruse, Baker Book House, 1955. The Cambridge History of Latin Literature, P.E. Easterling, E. J. Kenney, editors, Cambridge University Press, 1982. The Text of the New Testament (2nd Ed.), B.M. Metzger, Oxford University Press, 1968. Plutarch: Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (Complete and Unabridged), A.H. Clough (Editor), 2010 Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Classics, 2007.
All Bible references from the New International Version (NIV)