Was Jesus a Real Person? Extrabiblical Evidence of His Existence

In his 2014 op-ed piece for The Conversation, Raphael Lataster asked the following question: “Did a man called Jesus of Nazareth walk the earth?” [1] He ultimately concluded that “…there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence – if not to think it outright improbable.”[2] This belief is sometimes held in the world of skeptics of which we live, but is it an accurate one? Are the reasons for doubting Jesus’ historical existence in fact “clear” and “good?” Certainly, if one could definitively prove that Jesus was not a historical figure, then he or she would hold the keys to the destruction of the Christian faith. However, in contrast to Lataster’s sentiment, the pool of evidence available to the proponent of Jesus’ historicity runs deep. To answer the skeptic who might hold any Christian-based evidence to be biased, this paper will examine some non-Christian sources that testify to a historical Jesus who was called Christ.

Tacitus, Roman Senator and Historian

Tacitus, a second-century Roman senator and historian, clearly believed that Jesus was a real person when he wrote about the 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 Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[3]

Being a non-Christian, Tacitus would only speak matter-of-factly about Christ if he believed the man to have existed. Additionally, he clearly identified himself as a non-Christian insomuch as he referred to the faith as “a most mischievous superstition.”

A. Wells argued three reasons for believing “Tacitus is here simply repeating what Christians had told him.”[4] First, Tacitus called Pilate a procurator rather than a prefect, which he states would have been a more applicable term for the given era. However, in a book review of Earl Doherty’s, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ, Richard Carrier writes, “Doherty repeats Wells’ mistaken claim that ‘procurator…was the title of [Pilate’s] post in Tacitus’ day, but in the reign of Tiberius such governors were called prefect.’”[5] Carrier continues, “A few years ago, correspondence with Wells on this point inspired me to thoroughly investigate this claim, and my findings will eventually be published. But in short, this sentence is entirely wrong. It seems evident from all the source material available that the post was always a prefecture, and also a procuratorship.”[6] Clearly Carrier—himself a non-Christian historian—believes that the title “procurator” is adequately used to describe the position of Pontius Pilate.

Wells next argues that Tacitus essentially identified Jesus by the title “Christus” rather than using his actual name, Jesus. However, Robert Van Voort argues two reasons that this does not discount Tacitus as a reliable resource:

First, the New Testament itself moved in the direction of using “Christ” as a proper name independent of “Jesus.’ This could have been reflected in the usage that perhaps reached Tacitus, just as it certainly was in the Christian usage that reached Pliny (Letters 10.96). Second, and more significantly, even if Tacitus did know the name ‘Jesus’ he presumably would have not used it in this context, because it would have interfered with his explanation of the origin of Christianoi in Christus, confusing his readers.[7]

Van Voort argues that not only does the omission of the name “Jesus” make sense since the name “Christ” had taken precedence in much of the New Testament, but he likely preferred its use since it shows direct connection to the Christians about whom this passage was written.

The third reason cited by Wells to doubt the validity of Tacitus identification of Jesus is that he “was surely glad to accept from Christians their own view that Christianity was of recent origin, since the Roman authorities were prepared to tolerate only ancient cults.”[8] However, in discussing nine specific reasons to trust the Tacitus account in counterpoint to Wells, Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson establish the integrity of Tacitus’ claims:

Tacitus does not quote his sources uncritically. In Annals 4.57 he questions the majority report of the historians. In 15.53 he considers Pliny’s statement absurd, and in 13.20 he notes Fabius Rusticus’ bias. B. Walker comments that Tacitus “was a persistent skeptic towards popular rumor, even when a rumor coincided with his own prejudices” and cites Annals 2.68 as an example.[9]

As a “skeptic towards popular rumor,” Tacitus would have taken measures to avoid establishing as factual information items that were only rumor, even if doing so would further his case.

Flavius Josephus, First Century Historian, on James

Flavius Josephus, a first-century historian, wrote that the early church leader, James, was in fact the brother of Jesus: “Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]….” [10] Josephus, a non-Christian Jewish historian, clearly identifies James as the brother of Jesus in the midst of describing a historical setting.

Josh McDowell and James Wilson describe an attempt by G. A. Wells to claim that the original text does not likely contain the words “who was called Christ;” rather, Josephus only mentions James as a leader of the Christian church. However, that supposition is quickly dispelled. McDowell and Wilson state the following:

But if the passage simply said “James and certain others” were arrested, the reader would be compelled to ask, “Which James?” James was another very common name, and Josephus almost always supplied details to locate his characters in history. If Josephus simply said, “James the brother of Jesus,” the reader must ask, “Which Jesus? You have already mentioned at least thirteen others named Jesus.”[11]

As pointed out by McDowell and Wilson, devoid of the description “who was called Christ,” the passage loses its context since James and Jesus were names commonly used during this period.

Another objection focuses on some translations of this passage where “so-called Christ” is substituted for “who was called Christ.” Once again, Wells takes exception, claiming that the passage directly quotes the Gospel of Matthew: “But the Greek does not have ‘so-called’ but ‘him called Christ,’ and this, so far from being non-Christian, is the exact wording of Mt. 1:16.”[12] But again, how does the use of the same language void this passage? We still have the problem of context, i.e., discussion about Christians, and without the context this writing of Josephus makes little sense.

Flavius Josephus and the Testimonium

Flavius Josephus, in the famous Testimonium given in Chapter 18 of Antiquities of the Jews, is purported to have written the following:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.[13]

Many historians argue that the Testimonium Flavianum is an obvious forgery inserted by Christians in the centuries following Josephus’s death. However, others have hypothesized that the Testimonium, though modified by scribes, does in fact contain the words of Josephus. For example, James Tabor proposes the following version of the Testimonium Flavianum:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonders. He drew many after him. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.[14]

When stripped of the Christian interpolations, the remaining text of the Testimonium retains its reference to the man Jesus and his association with those who were called Christians after him. However, Tacitus and Josephus do not constitute the entirety of evidence for the historicity of Jesus. We still have Lucian, a most anti-Christian historian.

Lucian: Master of Sarcasm

When speaking of Christians, Lucian makes reference to the “first lawgiver,” Jesus:

The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. 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 worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws.[15]

Lucian shows that he believes Jesus to be a real person when he claims that the Christians’ first lawgiver persuaded them to worship him rather than the Greek gods.

In refuting McDowell’s reference to Lucian, Jeffrey Jay Lowder notes that “Lucian is not an independent witness to Jesus.”[16] Much of his reasoning hinges around the fact that Lucian lived about a century and a half after Jesus. After conceding that Lucian did, in fact, strive to make his accounts historically accurate, he states the following:

Nevertheless, given that Lucian’s statement was written near the end of the second century, it seems rather unlikely that he had independent sources of information concerning the historicity of Jesus. Lucian may have relied upon Christian sources, common knowledge, or even an earlier pagan reference (e.g., Tacitus); since Lucian does not specify his sources, we will never know. Just as is the case with Tacitus, it is quite plausible that Lucian would have simply accepted the Christian claim that their founder had been crucified. There is simply no evidence that Lucian ever doubted the historicity of Jesus. Therefore, Lucian’s concern for historical accuracy is not even relevant as Lucian would have had no motive for investigating the matter.

However, Lowder’s conclusion does not rely on the evidence; rather, he makes several assumptions. First, his claim that “it seems rather unlikely” Lucian would be in possession of “independent sources of information concerning the historicity of Jesus” is complete conjecture lacking evidence. Lowder admits this when he observes that “since Lucian does not specify his sources, we will never know.” Second, Lowder claims that “Lucian’s concern for historical accuracy is not even relevant since Lucian would have had no motive for investigating the matter.” However, this is a false assumption. James Patrick Holding recognizes that Lucian, having significant disdain for the Christians “would certainly have satirized Christian belief in a fictional or historically doubtful personage mercilessly, if any such arguments existed at the time.”[17] Moreover, as noted by Holding, Lucian’s high position would have given him access to knowledgeable people and resources and thereby would have known if there existed any noteworthy doubt about Jesus’ existence.

Conclusion

Though some doubt the historicity of Jesus, that view is not supported by the evidence. While not Christians themselves—and even hostile to such in some cases—the Roman historians Tacitus, Flavius Josephus, and Lucian all refer to Jesus. Tacitus notes that his followers called him “Christ;” Lucian mocks his followers for following the teachings of this “crucified sophist;” and Josephus notes that Jesus was the brother of James and he had many followers who believed he was the Christ. As such, the Bible is not the sole source of evidence of the existence of Jesus. On the contrary, when relying on the extrabiblical, non-Christian sources discussed in this essay, one is justified in believing in the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

References

[1]Raphael Lataster, “Weighing up the evidence for the ‘Historical Jesus,’” The Conversation, 14 December 2014, accessed on 20 January 2019, https://theconversation.com/weighing-up-the-evidence-for-the-historical-jesus-35319.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tacitus, The Annals, Book 15, The Internet Classics Archive (2009), accessed on 27 January 2019, http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html.

[4] G. A. Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), 16.

[5] Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?, rev. ed.. (Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications, 2005), 202, quoted in Richard Carrier, “Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity (2002),” The Secular Web, accessed 4 February 2019, https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/jesuspuzzle.html.

[6] Richard Carrier, “Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistory (2002),” The Secular Web, accessed 4 February 2019, https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/jesuspuzzle.html.

[7] Robert Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans), 46.

[8] W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1965), 111, quoted in G. A. Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), 17.

[9] Bessie Walker, The Annals of Tacitus (Manchester University Press, 1990), 142, quoted in Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, Evidence for the Historical Jesus: A Compelling Case for His Life and His Claims (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1993), 48.

[10] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 20, ch. 9, ed. William Whitson.

[11] Josh McDowell and James Wilson. Evidence for the Historical Jesus: A Compelling Case for His Life and His Claims. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1993), 37.

[12] G. A. Wells. The Historical Evidence for Jesus. 211.

[13] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3. Edited by William Whitson.

[14] James Tabor, “The Ancient Jewish Historian Josephus on John the Baptizer, Jesus, and James,” accessed on 20 January 2019, https://jamestabor.com/the-ancient-jewish-historian-josephus-on-john-the-baptizer-jesus-and-james/.

[15] Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus, trans. A.M. Harmon, accessed on 10 February 2019,http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/lucian/peregrinus.htm.

[16] Jeffrey Jay Lowder. “Josh McDowell’s ‘Evidence’ for Jesus: Is It Reliable?” The Secular Web,accessed on 4 February 2019, https://infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jury/chap5.html#149.

[17]James Patrick Holding. Shattering the Christ Myth: Did Jesus Not Exist? (Place of publication not identified: Xulon Press, 2008), 71.

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