In previous articles I gave three arguments for the existence of God. So, it seemed to me that the next logical step would be to talk about Jesus. It seems hard to believe, but there are still some people who believe that Jesus never existed. So, in the article I will explore the question, “Is Jesus For Real?” Did he really exist?
For the overwhelming majority of historians, Christian and non-Christian, atheist and agnostic, there is no doubt that the man named Jesus (or Yeshua) from a village called Nazareth did, in fact, live in 1st century Israel. Many may not agree that he was born of a virgin, did miracles, that he rose from the dead or that he was the Son of God. But they would agree that he existed. Case closed, right?
Not so fast. Today, due to the rise of the internet and a generation of people who gather much of their information from there, a growing number of people now claim that Jesus never existed. Even though the medium is new, this is an old argument that has been answered many times before. It’s just in a new package. The works of Jesus deniers do not measure up to historical standards of research, but they are influencing many in this generation of social media. Non-believers read their blogs and books, as do Church-attending young people. So, I believe this is a question that should be addressed. That’s what I’m going to do in this article. In subsequent articles I will address issues like the virgin birth, Jesus’ miracles, the resurrection and if he really claimed to be the divine Son of God.
Thomas Paine, one of early America’s influential thinkers and author of Common Sense and The Age of Reason, said of Jesus Christ, “There is no history written at the time Jesus Christ is said to have lived that speaks of the existence of such a person, even such a man.”
In his famous essay “Why I Am Not a Christian,” Betrand Russell wrote, “Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we know nothing about Him.” Are Paine and Russell right?
Beyond the New Testament accounts there are those of non-Christian writers—extrabiblical writings–that verify that Jesus the Christ did in fact live. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus lived at the time of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. After the destruction of Jerusalem, Josephus moved to Rome and served the Emperor Vespasian as his court historian. He wrote The Antiquities of the Jews in AD 93. In book 18, chapter 3, paragraph 3, he wrote,
About the time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man…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.
Josephus also referred to “James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ.”
The first reference I quoted is the most debated by scholars, but the second is not. Scholars believe that since Josephus was a Jew, it is unlikely that he would have spoken of Jesus in such glowing terms. The early church father Origen wrote that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. However, historians believe that the majority of the text is genuine and is written in the style of Josephus. So, where does that leave us?
At the very least, Josephus mentions a man, who many followed, by the name of Jesus. Josephus, who was not a follower of Jesus, believed such a man did exist in 1st century Israel.
In 1972, Professor Schlomo Pines of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem released the results of a study on an Arabic manuscript containing Josephus’ statement about Jesus. It includes a slightly different rendering of the entire passage. I quote a shortened portion of it here:
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship.”
Whichever version is the most accurate, or whichever you prefer, they both refer to a man named Jesus, living in the 1st century, who had many who followed him, was condemned by Pilate and crucified. It’s claimed by some that the first version may have been tampered with by later Christian scribes. But both describe a man named Jesus.
Dr. James Charlesworth of Princeton Seminary, a scholar with a long list of accomplishments and specialties, one of which is a specialization on the writings of Josephus, wrote this…
We can now be as certain as historical research will presently allow that Josephus did refer to Jesus, providing corroboration of the gospel account.
Pliny the Younger
Pliny the Younger was a Roman author and administrator who served as the governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. Ten books of Pliny’s correspondence are still in existence today. In the tenth book, written around AD 112, he speaks of Christianity in the province of Bithynia and also provides some facts about Jesus. Here is one account that he wrote regarding the Christian worship of Christ:
They (the Christians) 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, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery…
I quote only part of the account because it is rather lengthy.
Now, although that doesn’t provide direct evidence for the existence of Jesus, later in this same lengthy letter Pliny does refer to the teachings of “Jesus,” which provides us with circumstantial evidence of Jesus. Historians believe that Pliny’s writings are authentic. At this point in the development and spread of Christianity, there were tens of thousands of followers of Jesus. It’s even possible there may have been a few people still living at that time who had actually seen and heard Jesus. It’s also likely that there were even more who had seen and heard one of Jesus’ disciples. It’s even more likely that there were some living who knew those who were disciples of early apostles, such as Polycarp who was a disciple of the apostle John.
Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian who lived between (AD 55—120) and was known as Rome’s greatest historian of his day. He wrote at least one reference to Christ and two to early Christianity in his works Annals and Histories. In AD 115 in Annals, he wrote about the great fire that destroyed Rome. In order to get rid of the report that emperor Nero was to blame, Tacitus wrote that 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 Tiberias at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus…”
Did you notice the phrase “exquisite tortures?” Tacitus was no fan of Christians or Christ. He seems to have thought that Christians and Christus got what they deserved.
The Babylonian Talmud
Another significant source of evidence for the existence of Jesus may surprise many people. It’s the Jewish Babylonian Talmud consisting of an ancient record of Jewish history, Jewish laws, and rabbinic teaching. These laws and teachings had been handed down orally from generation to generation for centuries before they were finally committed to writing in the 6th century AD. As a hostile anti-Christian source, it should surprise no one that the Talmud rejects the deity of Jesus and attempts to attack his character. However, it mentions Jesus a number of times. For example, in Sanhedrin 43a it states, “Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and deceived and led Israel astray.”
It also states:
“Jesus the Nazarene was hanged and a herald went forth before him forty days heralding, Jesus the Nazarene is going forth to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and instigated and seduced Israel to idolatry.” Then it continues, “But since they did not find anything in his defense they hanged him on (Sabbath eve and) the eve of Passover.”
“Hanged” is a reference to crucifixion.
And there are other references in the Talmud:
- Jesus as a sorcerer with disciples (b Sanhedrin 43a-b)
- Healing in the name of Jesus (Hullin 2:22f; Shabbat 124:4/13; ben Abodah Zarah 27b)
- As a torah teacher (Hullin 2:24 Hullin is not technically part of the Talmud but is part of general Talmudic literature. It’s a tractate of a document known as the Tofesta.)
- As a son or disciple that turned out badly (Sanhedrin 103a/b; Berakoth 17b)
- As a frivolous disciple who practiced magic and turned to idolatry (Sanhedrin 107b)
- Jesus’ execution (b Sanhedrin 43a-b)
- Jesus as the son of Mary (Sanhedrin 67a)
Clearly the Babylonian Talmud does not glorify Jesus, as one might expect. Despite the negative comments in the Talmud concerning Jesus, nevertheless, it does admit to his existence, to say the least. And many others writers, like Suetonius, another Roman historian (AD 120); Lucian of Samosata, a Greek satirist (AD 170); and Mara Bar-Serapion, a Stoic philosopher (AD 70), Thallus, and Lucian all confirmed in written history that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died. Even if you deny his virgin birth, his miracles or his resurrection, the fact that a real man named Jesus from Nazareth, who had disciples, did many good works that amazed people, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, did actually live in 1st century Israel.
I’m going to pick up here next time in Part 2 as I examine the evidence for Jesus’ existence from Christian extra-biblical sources.