Did Jesus exist?

In recent years the historical existence of Jesus has been disputed by atheists and extreme skeptics. Such challenges have typically originated online, consisting of non-professional commentary from individuals with no relevant qualifications (with only very rare exceptions). The overwhelming scholarly consensus of professional historians considers the historical existence of Jesus to be conclusively established. This article surveys the historical sources typically cited as evidence for the existence of Jesus.

Historical evidence

There are no contemporary records of Jesus’ life; that is, none written during the time that he was alive. Even the gospels were written long after his death. The apostle Paul is in fact the earliest witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The following are sources outside the New Testament, commonly cited as witnesses for the historicity of Jesus. They are not all of equal value, and some of them do not contribute very useful historical data.

  1. Thallos (Greek historian), c. 55 CE.[1]

 The Christian historian Georgius Syncellus quotes a passage from 3rd century Christian historian Julius Africanus, who in turn quotes Thallos  referring to an eclipse.[2] Although Thallos treats the eclipse as a natural event, Africanus argues he is wrong, and that this was an act of God which took place at the crucifixion of Jesus.[3] The uncertainty of who Thallos was, what he wrote, and the lack of a direct reference to Jesus, means this source does not provide any useful information confirming the existence of Jesus.[4]

  1. Josephus (Jewish historian), c. 90s CE.

Josephus is considered the most important historical witness to the life of Jesus outside the New Testament, not only because he is the earliest but also because his work ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ (written during the 90s), contains two references to Jesus. The first reference is lengthy, and much of it looks like it was written by a Christian rather than a Jewish historian such as Josephus; see the words marked here in bold.

‘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; (64) and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross,b those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day,c 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.’[5]

It is certain that this reference contains a lot of material which is obviously not authentic, having been added by later Christians scribes when copying Josephus’ work.[6] [7] [8] Nevertheless the overwhelming majority of scholars believe that once these Christian additions are removed, there is still a genuine historical reference to Jesus in the text, which was written by Josephus. Here is an example of what the original text is typically understood to have looked like.

‘At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.’[9]

Very importantly, a 10th century Christian manuscript written in Arabic quotes this section of Josephus in a way which shows the writer (Agapius of Mabbug), had access to a text which did not suffer from the Christian additions of the oldest available Greek text.

‘At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.’[10]

This text was only published academically in 1971, [11] long after scholars had suggested a neutral ‘reconstructed’ version of the quotation from Josephus, with the most obvious Christian additions removed. The fact that this Arabic text is very similar to the reconstructed text, and is independent of the corrupted Greek version, strengthens the considerably the case that Josephus contains an authentic reference to the life and death of Jesus. This is acknowledged by the overwhelming majority of current scholars.[12] [13] [14]

The second reference to Jesus in Josephus contains a reference to James, called by Josephus ‘the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James’.[15] This reference has been far less disputed, since the mention of Jesus is incidental and since he is referred to as Jesus ‘who was called Christ’, indicating that the writer himself did not believe Jesus was the Christ.[16] [17]

  1. Pliny the Younger (Roman senator), c. 111-113 CE.

While he was the governor of Pontus-Bythinia from c. 111-113 CE, Pliny wrote to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with Christians.[18] However, Pliny’s letters tell us only about the beliefs and practices of the Christians in his day; he does not refer to Jesus specifically, and does not provide any independent information on Jesus as a historical figure.[19] Like Thallos, Pliny does not provide any useful information confirming the existence of Jesus.[20]

  1. Tacitus (Roman historian), c. 116 CE.

In his historical work ‘Annals’ (written around 116 CE), Tacitus refers explicitly to Jesus as the founder of Christianity, and his crucifixion by Pontius Pilate.[21]  Arguments that this passage was not written by Tacitus, and was inserted by later Christians, have failed to convince mainstream scholarship.[22] This remains one of the earliest historical references to Jesus, and to his crucifixion under Pilate.

  1. Suetonius (Roman historian), c. 120 CE.

In his work ‘Lives of the Caesars’ (c. 120 CE), Suetonius refers to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome by the emperor Claudius, which Suetonius says was ‘since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chestus’.[23] The vast majority of scholars consider this passage to be genuine,[24] and the word ‘Chrestus’ was a common mistaken spelling of ‘Christus’ (meaning ‘Christ’ in Latin).[25] Nevertheless, this passage speaks of Jews making disturbances in Rome as a result of ‘Chrestus’, which does not seem to be a reference to Jesus (who was never in Rome). Although Suetonius refers elsewhere to Christians (whom he calls ‘Christiani’), he does not do so in this passage; consequently, this reference in Suetonius is of little use in establishing the historicity of Jesus.[26] [27] [28]

  1. Mara bar Serapion (Syrian writer), c. 73-150 CE.

An non-Christian Syrian writer named Serapion, in a letter to his son (the date of which is still uncertain and debated), refers to a ‘wise king of the Jews’, for whose death God held the Jews responsible, punishing them by exiling them from Judea and scattering them throughout the earth.[29] The only surviving copy of this letter is dated to the seventh century, and Serapion does not name Jesus, but the context suggests he is the ‘wise king’ referred to.[30] [31] This provides some evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

Conclusion

As a result of these sources, Jesus’ existence is considered well established by professional historiography, and the idea that he did not exist is typically not taken seriously.

‘The theory of Jesus’ nonexistence is now effectively dead as a scholarly question.’ [32]

Although details of the life of Jesus are still hotly disputed, there is still a very broad agreement on the key events of his life. The following statements are are all agreed on by the overwhelming consensus of peer reviewed professional scholarship on the historicity of Jesus, from those as conservative as Witherington, Blomberg and Habemas, through those less conservative such as Theissen,[33] and Sanders,[34] to those as skeptical as Ehrman (agnostic),[35] Vermès (Jew),[36] [37] [38]and Lüdemann (atheist).[39] [40]

  1. Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, during the reign of Herod the Great.
  2. He had a father (biological or not), called Joseph.
  3. He was baptized in Galilee.
  4. He became an intinerant teacher.
  5. He proclaimed the kingdom of God.
  6. He conducted a healing ministry which involved certain genuine acts of healing.
  7. He taught a subversive and counter-cultural socio-religious ethic expressed in wisdom sayings and parables; Mark 2:19; 3:27; 4:21; 10:25; 12:17, Matthew 5:38-48; 6:9-23; 7:7-8; 11:7-8; 18:12-14; 18:23-25; 20:1-15, Luke 6:20-21; 6:41-42; 9:58; 9:59-60; 10:30-35; 11:24-26; 12:22-31; 13:6-9; 13:20-21; 14:16-24; 15:11-32; 16:1-8a; 17:33; 18:1-8; 20:46 are all considered authentic sayings of Jesus by the Jesus Seminar.
  8. He associated and identified with social outcasts.
  9. He criticized the established Jewish religious elite.
  10. He was arrested and crucified during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate, for being a public nuisance and social threat.
  11. He died at around 30 years of age.

__________________________________________________

[1] Also spelled ‘Thallas’ or ‘Thallus’.

[2] ‘Around 55 C.E., a historian named Thallos wrote in Greek a three-volume chronicle of the eastern Mediterranean area from the fall of Troy to about 50 C.E. Most of his book, like the vast majority of ancient literature, perished, but not before it was quoted by Sextus Julius Africanus (ca. 160–ca. 240), a Christian writer, in his History of the World (ca. 220).2 This book likewise was lost, but one of its citations of Thallos was taken up by the Byzantine historian Georgius Syncellus in his Chronicle (ca. 800).’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 20 (2000).

[3] ‘This fragment of Thallos used by Julius Africanus comes in a section in which Julius deals with the portents during the crucifixion of Jesus. Julius argues that Thallos was “wrong” (ἀλογώς) to argue that this was only a solar eclipse, because at full moon a solar eclipse is impossible, and the Passover always falls at full moon. Julius counters that the eclipse was miraculous, “a darkness induced by God.” Thallos could have mentioned the eclipse with no reference to Jesus. But it is more likely that Julius, who had access to the context of this quotation in Thallos and who (to judge from other fragments) was generally a careful user of his sources, was correct in reading it as a hostile reference to Jesus’ death. The context in Julius shows that he is refuting Thallos’ argument that the darkness is not religiously significant.’, ibid., pp. 20-21.

[4]The question of identity aside, the value of this fragment is slight. At best all that it shows is that someone in the first century had learned of the tradition of the darkness at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and then attempted to explain it in natural terms.’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 455 (1998).

[5] Josephus, ’Antiquities’, 18.63-64, in Whiston (ed.), ‘The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged’ (1987 ed.).

[6] ‘The clause “if indeed it is right to call him a man” suggests that Jesus was more than human. This looks like a Christian scribe’s correction of the christological implications of calling Jesus only “a wise man.”’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 91 (2000).

[7] ‘The crux of this problem is the curt sentence “He was the Christ” (ὁ Χριστὸς οὗτος ἦν). Leaving aside the issue of how intelligible this statement would have been to Josephus’s Gentile audience,43 this sentence looks like a confession of Jesus as Messiah.’, ibid., p. 91.

[8] ‘The entire sentence, “For on the third day he appeared to them alive again, because the divine prophets had prophesied these and myriad other things about him” is filled with Christian content.’, ibid, p. 92.

[9] Meier, ‘A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume One, The Roots of the Problem and the Person’, p. 61 (1991).

[10] Brown, ‘The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1 and 2: From Gethsemane to the Grave,  a Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels’, p. 375 (1994).

[11] A 12th century Syriac text by Michael the Syrian, published at the same time, is very similar to the text of Agapius.

[12] ‘Hence the most that can be claimed is that Josephus here made some reference to Jesus, which has been retouched by a Christian hand. This is the view argued by Meier as by most scholars today, particularly since S. Pines drew attention to a less obviously Christian version of the  ‘Testimonium’ which is quoted in Arabic translation in a tenth-century Christian work.’, Wells, ‘The Jesus Legend’, p. 28 (1996).

[13]Most scholars today consider the passage authentic, but think it has been extensively altered to reflect core Christian beliefs (italic type in the quotation above indicates those parts of the Testimonium that are usually considered obvious additions by a Christian hand).’, Neufeld, ‘Recovering Jesus: The Witness of the New Testament’, p. 40 (2007).

[14]Most scholars are confident that Josephus wrote something like this because the later mention of the Christ in the James citation from Antiquities 20.200 assumes a previous mention of this figure.’, Bock, ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods’, p. 55 (2002).

[15] ‘Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin 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];’, Josephus, ’Antiquities’, 20.200, in Whiston (ed.), ‘The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged’ (1987 ed.).

[16]That, indeed, Josephus did say something about Jesus is indicated, above all, by the passage — the authenticity of which has been almost universally acknowledged — about James, who is termed (A XX, 200) the brother of “the aforementioned Christ.”’, Feldman, ‘Inroduction’, in  Feldman & Hata (eds.), ‘Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity’, p. 56 (1987).

[17]The overwhelming majority of scholars holds that the words “the brother of Jesus called Christ” are authentic, as is the entire passage in which it is found.25 The passage fits its context well. As for its content, a Christian interpolator would have used laudatory language to describe James and especially Jesus, calling him “the Lord” or something similar. At least, as in the passage to be considered next, he would have used the term “Christ” in an absolute way. Josephus’s words “called Christ” are neutral and descriptive, intended neither to confess nor deny Jesus as the “Christ.” Thus Josephus distinguishes this Jesus from the many others he mentions who had this common name.’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, pp. 83-84 (2000).

[18] ‘Because he has not been present at such trials before his appointment to Bithynia (to judge from what follows), Pliny has several questions: How should Christians be punished? What are the grounds for investigation, and how far should investigation be pressed? Are any distinctions to be made for age, or for renouncing Christianity? Are Christians to be punished just for being Christians, “for the mere name of Christian,” even though they may not be guilty of “crimes associated with the name”?’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 24 (2000).

[19]Pliny does not deal explicitly with the “historical Jesus.” If he has learned anything in his investigations and interrogations about Jesus, he does not relate it to the emperor.’, ibid., p. 28.

[20] ‘None of these features, of course, add to our knowledge of the Jesus of history.’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 459 (1998).

[21] ‘The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate’, Tacitus quoted in Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 41 (2000).

[22]The textual integrity of this section has on occasion been doubted. The text has some significant problems, as attested by the standard critical editions.59 These and other difficulties in interpreting the text have also led to a few claims that all of it, or key portions of it, has been interpolated by later hands.60 But there are good reasons for concluding with the vast majority of scholars that this passage is fundamentally sound, despite difficulties which result in no small measure from Tacitus’s own compressed style. The overall style and content of this chapter are typically Tacitean. The passage fits well in its context and is the necessary conclusion to the entire discussion of the burning of Rome. Sulpicius Severus’s Chronicle 2.29 attests to much of it in the early fifth century, so most suggested interpolations would have to have come in the second through fourth centuries.’, ibid., pp. 42-43.

[23] Suetonius quoted in Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 30 (2000).

[24] ‘We conclude with the overwhelming majority of modern scholarship that this sentence is genuine.’, ibid., p. 31.

[25] ‘“Christus” was often confused with “Chrestus” by non-Christians, and sometimes even by Christians.’, ibid., p. 34.

[26] ‘Although Suetonius did view Christ as an historical person capable of fomenting unrest,55 his glaring mistakes should caution us against placing too much weight on his evidence for Jesus or his significance for early Christianity.’, ibid., p  39.

[27] ‘The “Jews” may really refer to Christians, who in the first century were viewed as no more than a sect within Judaism itself; or the designation may refer to Jews who quarreled with Christians (along the lines of what we find in Acts). Of the two, the latter interpretation is the more probable.’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 457 (1998).

[28] ‘The confusion involved is hardly the work of artifice or contrivance, but certainly weakens the historical value of the text.’, Dunn, ‘Jesus Remembered’, volume 1, p.  142 (2003).

[29] ‘What advantage did the Athenians gain by murdering Socrates, for which they were repaid with famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, because their country was completely covered in sand in just one hour? Or the Jews [by killing]93 their wise king, because their kingdom was taken away at that very time? God justly repaid the wisdom of these three men: the Athenians died of famine; the Samians were completely overwhelmed by the sea; and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, are scattered through every nation.’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 54 (2000).

[30] ‘The text contains no specific Christian ideas — except for the expression “the wise king of the Jews,” which may refer to Jesus127 — and therefore is presumably of pagan authorship.’, Possekel, ‘Evidence of Greek Philosophical Concepts in the Writings of Ephrem the Syrian’, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, volume 580, number 102, p. 29 (1999).

[31] ‘The value of this curious comment lies in the apparent fact that by the end of the first century Jesus was regarded in at least some non-Christian circles as the Jews’ “wise king.”’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 456 (1998).

[32] Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 14 (2000).

[33]  Thiessen & Merz, ‘The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide’, pp. 569, 571-572 (1998).

[34] ‘Sanders offered a more concise sketch in The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993). – Jesus was born c. 4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great; – he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village; – he was baptized by John the Baptist; – he called disciples; – he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities); – he preached “the kingdom of God”; – about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover; – he created a disturbance in the Temple area; – he had a final meal with the disciples; – he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest; – he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.’, Broadhead, ‘Jewish Ways of Following Jesus: Redrawing the Religious Map of Antiquity’, pp. 64-65 (2010).

[35] Ehrman, ‘Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium’ (1999).

[36] Vermès, ‘Jesus and the World of Judaism’, pp. 11-12 (1984).

[37] ‘Why, then, was Jesus crucified? In Vermes’s subsequent volume, ‘The Religion of Jesus the Jew’, he succinctly summarizes his conclusion: “The arrest and execution of Jesus were due, not direclty to his words and deeds, but to their possible insurrectionary consequences feared by the nervous authorities in charge of law and order in that powder-keg of first-century Jerusalem… He died on the cross for having done the wrong thing (caused a commotion) in the wrong place (the Temple) at the wrong time (just before Passover)” (x).’, Keck, ‘Who is Jesus? History in Perfect Tense’, p. 41 (2001).

[38] ‘”The Synoptists are unanimous in presenting him as an exorcist, healer and teacher. They also emphasize that the deepest impression made by Jesus on his contemporaries resulted from his mastery over devils and disease, and the magnetic power of his preaching.”’, Vermes, quoted by Scott, ‘New Options in An Old Quest’, in Greenspoon et al. (eds.), ‘The Historical Jesus Through Catholic and Jewish Eyes’, pp. 7-8 (2000).

[39] Lüdemann, ‘The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did’, pp. 77, 83, 96-97 (1999), and ‘Jesus After Two Thousand Years: what he really said and did’, pp. 689-690 (2001).

[40] ‘Lüdemann even concludes that ‘the activity of Jesus in driving out demons is one of the most certain historical facts about his life’ (Jesus 13).’, Dunn, ‘Jesus Remembered’, p. 677 (2003).

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