Was Jesus Christ a real, historical person? Did he actually exist? We begin with the most broad of questions regarding Jesus, and it’s one we need to answer. If the answer is no, then the implications are clear. If Jesus is merely a mythical figure—like a unicorn or the tooth fairy—then his story may be inspiring, but he’s not worthy of our faith. A fictitious Jesus can’t do anything about our spiritual condition, he can’t provide a way for us to enter into relationship with God, and he’s unable to resurrect us from the grave. If Jesus was not a real, historical person, then our search ends here and biblical Christianity is a lie. But if the evidence shows the historicity of Jesus, then we can move on from here to explore other questions about him.
In approaching this question, we must first consider the historical context of the first century. There were no hospitals at the time and no birth certificates to be filed somewhere. They also didn’t have the kind of media we do that report widely on all the latest trends and happenings. Today, we expect mountains of documenting evidence for practically everything, but most of our knowledge of ancient people—even very famous ones—comes from relatively few sources.
For example, Tiberius was emperor of Rome from 14-37 CE (or AD), which includes the time when Jesus would have been crucified. This man was Caesar of the whole Roman world, and yet we have only four sources from which to draw the details of his reign. And only one of these sources was actually alive during the time of Tiberius. So our expectations need to match the historical realities. We just don’t have a lot of historical references to even famous people from ancient times.
What kinds of sources do we have to support the historical existence of Jesus? Let’s break them down.
A very important Jewish source is the historian Josephus. His references are significant for a few reasons. He wrote within the first century (his Antiquities was written around 94 CE). He was a first century Jew, and so he understood the historical and cultural settings. And his subject matter was not primarily concerning the Christian religion. His comments about Jesus are only brief references—not his main point—and so they are written in a neutral manner that appeals to us today.
In Antiquities, he mentions Jesus twice. Later copies of the first reference were corrupted but, thankfully, scholars have determined the text that most agree is genuinely from Josephus:
Around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. He was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who gladly accept the truth. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, [but] those who had first loved him did not cease [doing so]. To this day the tribe of Christians named after him has not disappeared.
There is wording here that no Christian of the period would have used. They would never describe Jesus as merely a “wise man.” Neither would they say that Jesus was “a worker of amazing deeds.” This could apply equally to a sorcerer, which is precisely what their Jewish opponents accused Jesus of being. Christians at this time emphasized Jesus as the Savior, not as a teacher. There is no mention by Josephus of the resurrection, and Christians of this period would never have left this out. And the terminology “tribe of the Christians” was not a Christian expression; however, it fits the context of Josephus quite well. For these reasons, this passage from Josephus is widely regarded as original.
(Remember, we’re not trying to find historical references that affirm the Christian faith in its entirety. We’re only trying to see whether there are ancient sources that confirm Jesus existed, that he was a real, historical person.)
He assembled the sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. When he had accused them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
Notice the almost casual way Josephus uses Jesus to explain to his readers who James was. This kind of off-hand reference is very valuable to historians. It shows that not only did Jesus exist, he was well known by this time.
Much later, the Babylonian Talmud (dated between 400-500 CE) includes a number of not incredibly kind references to Jesus. Here are some examples:
Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and led Israel astray.
It was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (the Nazarene) was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”
Among the many references are what have come to be known as the “ben Pandera” stories (meaning “son of Pandera”). These describe Jesus as being the illegitimate son of Pandera, a Roman mercenary “who begot a child with Joseph’s adulterous wife, Mary, during her menstrual period.”
It may seem strange to use these references to support the existence of Jesus because they’re so obviously hostile. Of course, this fits what we know of this period of history. Many of the Jews at this time were hostile to Christianity and to the person of Jesus. But what’s interesting is that even in their extreme opposition to Jesus they never question his existence, or even that he somehow worked miracles. These accusations actually serve as kind of a backhanded confirmation Jesus existed, that he performed wonders, and even that he was widely reputed to have been born of a virgin.
Now, we’re not getting ahead of ourselves and claiming these wonders and the virgin birth as true just yet. (We’ll discuss these things in a future study.) But the vehemence of the opposition to these ideas does show these were well-established claims. The intensity of the hostility toward Jesus makes us wonder why they didn’t simply question Jesus’ existence, or argue that he never performed miracles at all. Apparently, this was not an option for these Jewish critics.
In his Annals, Tacitus describes the rapidly spreading rumors that Nero himself had burned Rome, and Nero’s attempts to deflect the public’s rage away from himself (written around 116 CE):
But neither human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts, whom the crowd called Christians. The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular. Therefore, first those admitted to it were arrested, then on their information a very large multitude was convicted, not so much for the crime of arson as for hatred of the human race. Derision was added to their end: they were covered with the skins of wild animals and torn to death by dogs; or they were crucified and when the day ended they were burned as torches. Nero provided his gardens for the spectacle and gave a show in his circus, mixing with the people in charioteer’s clothing, or standing in his racing chariot. Therefore a feeling of pity arose despite a guilt which deserved the most exemplary punishment, because it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but for the ferocity of one man.
This passage again shows Jesus referred to as an historical figure, and it’s accepted as authentic by all scholars. (There are also references to Jesus by Pliny the Younger and possibly Suetonius.)
Lucian of Samosata, in The Death of Peregrinus, 165 CE, speaking of Peregrinus’ experiences among the Christians, writes:
He was second only to that one whom they still worship today, the man in Palestine who was crucified because he brought this new form of initiation into the world.
And, in another place, writing of Christians:
Having convinced themselves that they are immortal and will live forever, the poor wretches despise death and most willingly give themselves to it. Moreover, that first lawgiver of theirs persuaded them that they are all brothers the moment they transgress and deny the Greek gods and begin worshiping that crucified sophist and living by his laws.
You can see in these quotes how even someone hostile to the Christian faith can provide valuable testimony of the historical existence of Jesus Christ.
Around 175 CE, Celsus wrote True Doctrine, an entire work dedicated to opposing the Christian faith. Around 250, the Christian scholar Origen responded with Against Celsus, in which he answers Celsus point by point. Celsus seemed to draw heavily from the current Jewish critics of Jesus. He ridicules Jesus for being born of a poor family from a poor village. He claims Jesus fabricated the story of his virgin birth, and that he was actually the son of an adulterous woman (who had been driven out by her carpenter husband) and a soldier named Panthera. He says Jesus learned magical arts in Egypt, and that these powers made him so prideful he claimed to be God.
The majority of Celsus’ arguments against Christianity are philosophical, not historical. While again we see someone trying desperately to put Jesus’ history in a negative light, for some reason he never challenges that history. And this makes me ask: Why not? We’ve seen just a few examples of the fierce early opposition to Jesus, yet not one critic ever questioned his existence. It seems they realized the historicity of Jesus was unassailable.
Today, we see much the same thing. Hardly any scholars question the historical existence of Jesus. The few who do are generally viewed as a kind of radical fringe in Jesus studies. Just as we sometimes run across irrational Christians who can make other believers look silly, so non-Christian scholars seem embarrassed by this tiny, but loud, contingent who irrationally deny the historical existence of Jesus. The overwhelming consensus of the broadest sweep of Jesus scholars is that the historicity of Jesus is unquestionable.
You should also notice we’ve quoted from Jewish sources, Roman sources, and Greek sources, but no Christian sources. In limiting ourselves this way, we’ve actually been more narrow in our study than any Jesus scholar would be. Even non-Christian critics, who don’t accept the New Testament Gospels as divine Scripture, believe these early writings about Jesus reveal an actual historical person. But, as we’ve shown above, we have plenty of evidence even if we don’t consider the early Christian documents.
So, to answer the question we began with: Yes, we do know that Jesus really existed. If anyone challenges whether Jesus existed in history, they just show themselves to be ignorant of current scholarship. But were parts of Jesus’ story “borrowed” from other religions? We’ll look at this challenge next week.
Note: to keep these posts as readable as possible, I’m not including footnotes showing my sources for this information. I will happily provide citations for anyone who wants them.
The historical Jesus series:
Did Jesus really exist? [see above]