Is there any historical evidence for Jesus?

Problem

Christians like to claim that there is a lot of historical evidence for the existence of Jesus and yet all the evidence they ever produce is found in their bible. Surely we can't assume that just because Jesus is in the bible he has been proved to have existed.

Summary answer

In another part of this course we discuss the problem of the historical reliability of the gospel accounts about Jesus. However even if we were to ignore that the gospels exist there is still plenty of evidence for the existence of Jesus.

There are other historical documents quite apart from the bible that give us quite a good view of who Jesus is. It is not strange that no one wrote about him during his lifetime because he was then just another person - even if one who was doing some remarkable things. We simply do not have accounts of the life of everyone who ever lived. Only after the start of Christianity did he become interesting to historians.

We learn from the other historical documents of the time that Jesus lived, taught, performed miracles and was killed by crucifixion. We even learn that his close followers then claimed he had risen from the dead.

Even without the gospels and from the words written by his opponents we get a good picture of who Jesus is that is consistent with the gospel accounts.

Fuller answer

Exploring the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus. We begin looking outside the Bible and end with the gospels.

Evidence apart from the New Testament

Let's begin exploring history by ignoring what the Bible has to say about Jesus. I'm not saying I think the Bible is historically inaccurate but I want to show that even without the Bible we can discover some important things about Jesus.

Why is there no written evidence from the period when Jesus was alive?

Because there are not many references to Jesus in the writings of his day some people have claimed that Jesus did not exist. Yet we must understand that during this time there was no means of mass communication. It was quite possible for important events to take place without many people hearing about it. Even today there are a lot of things happening around the world that most people never hear about. It is significant that none of the early critics of Christianity ever disputed the existence of Jesus, if they accepted his existence then why should we who are so many more years distant do so? Surely if Jesus never existed then pointing that out would be an excellent way of attacking Christians, but early on (when this would have been obvious if true) why does nobody do so?

There is a lot of evidence from critics of Christianity

Anyway there is still quite a bit of evidence about Jesus from manuscripts written by his contemporaries apart from the Bible.

  • The writings of early heretics.
  • The traditions in the Gnostic writers.
  • Gospels and epistles excluded from accepted scripture.
  • The words of early church fathers, philosophers and Christian critics.

These writers produced theories about Jesus that are not consistent with Christian belief but none of them dispute the fact that Jesus actually existed. Attacks made by anti Christian Jews in the 2nd century suggest a belief amongst some that Jesus was an ordinary man, born as a result of Mary's adultery with Panthera, a Roman soldier. And the Babylonian Talmud (a Jewish writing) asserts that Jesus practiced magic, and was hanged on the evening of the Passover. Yet not one of them casts any doubt on the existence of Jesus.

There are other historians of the time who wrote about Jesus

Tacitus, the Roman historian writes: "To dispel the rumours Nero substituted as culprits, and treated with the most extreme punishments, some people, popularly known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was emperor by order of the procurator Pontius Pilate. But the deadly cult, though checked aforetime, was now breaking out again not only in Judea, the birthplace of this evil, but even throughout Rome." Annals XV, 44.

Suetonius talks of the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in the reign of Claudius. This was, "at the instigation of Chrestus", which many understand to be a misspelling of Christ.

The author Thallus is quoted by Julius Africanus in a passage which appears to refer to the darkness which accompanied the crucifixion.

The Roman Governor Pliny, corresponding with his Emperor Trajan, records that Christians "recite by turns a form of words to Christ as God".

Maraben Serapion, who appears to have been neither Jewish or Christian, wrote in a letter which can be viewed in the British Museum, that the Jews executed "their wise king".

Perhaps the most famous bit of evidence comes from a Jewish historian called Josephus. He twice mentions Jesus (some argue that the passages are so Christian in what they say that they must have been added to by someone else but the writing is in the style of Josephus and speaks in a way that a Christian would not about Jesus):

"About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising facts and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He was over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah ... When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him ... On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him, and he has still to this day not disappeared."

Even if the passage had been altered in some way it still affirms the existence of Jesus.

So then even if we had no other documents about Jesus we would have enough to say that he existed and that he did some pretty remarkable things.

Then of course there are the Gospels

The Gospels in the Bible have been shown to be remarkably accurate on historical matters. Often things which are questioned by critics are proved to be true by Archeology. This is not the place for a lengthy defence of the Bible but there can be no real doubt that Jesus existed and did some pretty remarkable things in first century Palestine.