Is There Any Historical Proof for the Existence of Jesus?
Do 1st and 2nd century historians give us accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ?
In an earlier article, Did Jesus Exist or Is It All a Myth, I wrote about how it is very odd that we have no eyewitness accounts of Jesus, his life, and his teachings. No one wrote a thing about him during his supposed lifetime. We don’t even have any accounts of Jesus from someone who knew someone who knew Jesus.
Christian apologists often cite the Epistles of Paul or the historians of the 1st and 2nd century CE Jospehus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, and Suetonius as proof that the man we have come to know as Jesus Christ actually existed. Here is why their proof is no proof at all.
How are ancient historical documents authenticated?
Scholars often refer to the known dates of historical events to determine when a document was written. If the author mentioned who was ruler at the time of his writing, or if he mentions an historical event for which the date is known, the reference can be used to discern the date of the document.
Linguistics also comes into play. The use of certain language and words can help pin down when a document was written.
Authorship can be determined by comparing the writing style of a particular document from a known writer with the writing style of newly found document ascribed to the same author. If they don’t match, the new document is probably a forgery.
Documents are also dated by archeologists based upon where they were found and what was found near them. Carbon dating is also used.
Do the Epistles of Paul (4 BCE-64 CE) prove the existence of Jesus Christ?
A Jew, Saul of Tarsus, later known as St. Paul, is considered the founder of Christianity. He changed it from a Jewish sect to a separate religion. He took on the mission of converting Gentiles to Christianity. He is not a historian, but his Epistiles contain the earliest mentions of Jesus Christ.
According to the story that Paul himself tells in the Epistles, he was a Pharisee (a Jewish sect of the time) whose job was to persecute the new Jewish sect of Christians who were becoming a threat to the authorities among the Jews and the Romans. So Paul knew about the early Christians, but that does not mean that he knew anything about the actual man known as Jesus Christ. He himself was not an eyewitness and he did not base his writings on anything told to him by eyewitnesses.
Paul reported that around 37CE, he had a revelation from from God on the road to Damascus. According to his writings, he saw a blinding light, fell to the ground unconscious, heard voices, and became temporarily blinded. During this episode, Jesus appeared to him and spoke to him.
Some say his description is consistent with an epileptic seizure, (Epilepsy, at that time, was thought to indicate possession by a demon—perhaps Paul called his seizure a revelation to avoid the stigma of epilepsy.) Others suggest that Paul had a psychotic episode. It is also possible that Paul was affected by a fireball or meteor passing through the sky which accounts for the blinding light, being knocked to the ground, and temporary blindness.
The first of Paul’s Epistles was written fourteen years later around 52CE. (We have no earlier writings from him and know nothing about what he did for those 14 years.) Paul said that he met Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. However, he reports that he made no attempt to meet and talk with them or any of the other disciples. Just the opposite—there appears to have been a rift between Paul and the people who could have known Jesus. I think Paul and the early Christians had very different opinions about who Jesus was and what he taught.
Paul is quite insistent that he bases his ideas about Christ on his revelation and not upon any eyewitness account told to him.
For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.— Galatians 1:12
The early Christians believed that Christ was the Jewish Messiah and that he was sent to restore the Jews to power. He was put to death, but then resurrected, and he would return soon to complete his mission of freeing the Jews from Roman rule.
Paul mentions only Christ’s death, resurrection, and some post-death appearances. He does not mention any miracles, parables, or teachings of Jesus. There is nothing about healing the sick, driving out evil spirits, or raising the dead. He does not mention the virgin birth, the Sermon on the Mount, or the loaves and fishes that fed 5000 people. He doesn’t tell us anything that Jesus did during his lifetime; not even his final words on the cross. He doesn’t even give us historical references—no mention of Caesar Augustus, King Herod, or even Pontius Pilate.
So what exactly does Paul tell us? He tells us that there was a Jewish sect who thought that a person they called Jesus Christ was the promised Jewish Messiah and that this man died and was resurrected as was prophesized and that he, Paul, had a vision of this Christ. There is not much there that is of use to historians. Visions are not history.
Note: Only about half of the writings considered to be from Paul are now accepted by the majority of Biblical scholars as having actually been written by him. The others are considered forgeries.
Does the Jewish historian Josephus (37–100 CE) prove the existence of Jesus?
The extant writings of the first century Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus included two references to Jesus. The mentions occur in his work Antiquities of the Jews written around 93–94 CE, about 60 years after the date of Jesus’ death and about 50 years after Paul began to write about Jesus. There are three sentences referencing Jesus (Book 18, Chapter 3, Paragraph 3).This passage known as theTestimonium Flavianum. It is most likely a forgery—even most Christian scholars do not believe it to be true. It is believed to have been inserted into the text during the fourth century by a Catholic Church historian named Eusebius
Its placement interrupts the narrative that Josephus is writing. It doesn’t relate to the paragraph before or after, but those two paragraphs relate to each other.
Its brevity argues against it authenticity. Josephus wrote 20 volumes and covered his subjects, even the accounts of minor events, in great detail. Yet, all he has to say about Jesus Christ can be contained in three sentences? It strains credulity.
Older manuscripts of Josephus’ work do not contain this mention of Jesus and earlier church historians made no reference to this passage.
There is also a mention of “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” (Book 20, Chapter 9, paragraph 1) and a reference to John the Baptist (Book 18, Chapter 5, Paragraph 2).
- Josephus tells us that James was stoned to death on the order of the High Priest Ananus. The mention of Jesus probably refers to the Jesus mentioned later in the same passage, "Jesus son of Damneus." The "who was called Christ" part was inserted into the text by some scribe. Prior to this insertion, this passage was never thought to be about Jesus Christ.
- The story Josephus tells about John the Baptist may be authentic but it does not correspond to the story told in the Gospels. In Matthew 14:1-12, John the Baptist is beheaded on the order of King Herod at the request of a dancing girl who had been offered whatever she might ask for because her dancing had so pleased him; in Josephus, there is no dancing girl. Both accounts mentioned that Herod feared John the Baptist as a threat to his rule because John the Baptist was so popular with the people. (One of these two stories, if not both, must be wrong.) John the Baptist is estimated to have died in 28-29 CE.)
Some Christian apologists say that the very fact that Josephus and the Bible stories do not match is proof that the passages were written by Josephus. (A cleric fabricating text would have been more careful to make them match.) In any event, Josephus is not an eye-witness, nor does he have an eye witness report; if he actually wrote the passage he is telling the stories that he heard.
It should also be noted that there are many references to men with the name of Jesus in Josephus’ work—both Jesus and James were very common names. There is nothing else in the text to indicate that he is talking about the brother of Jesus Christ.
Does the Roman historian Pliny the Younger (62-113 CE) prove the existence of Jesus?
There is a short passage in the works of the Roman historian, Pliny the Younger, sometimes cited as evidence for the existence of Jesus. In 110 CE, Pliny, who was proconsul of Bithynia, a province in Asia Minor, wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan concerning a group of mystics, “Christiani,” who were causing trouble and would not renounce “Christos” as their god or bow down to the image of the Emperor.
The “Christiani” was described as a group worshiping Serapis –a Graeco-Egyptian god introduced during the 3rd century BCE on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm. If so, “Christos” may have been the god Serapis, and not a man who had been crucified in Judea. The god Serapis—was called not only Christos but also "Chrestos," centuries before the purported birth of Jesus.
“Christ” is a tile meaning “Lord”; there is nothing in the letter to indicate that “Christos” refers to the man we today call Jesus of Nazareth.
But we have even another reason to doubt the authenticity of this letter—it is very similar to a letter allegedly written by Tiberianus, Governor of Syria, to Trajan, which has been exposed as a forgery. Pliny's letter is not quoted by any early Churchman—it is quite likely a 5th century forgery.
The only argument in favor of it being genuine is the same as for Josephus—how could the Church be so bad at forgery?
Does the Roman politician and historian Tacitus (c. 56-120 CE) prove the existence of Jesus Christ?
Tacitus wrote in his history, Annals, (written around 107 CE,) that the Roman Emperor Nero (37-68 CE) blamed the burning of Rome during his reign on "those people who were abhorred for their crimes and commonly called Christians." The passage in Annals (Book 15 Chapter 44.) states that these fire-setting agitators were followers of a certain "Christus" or “Christos,” who, in the reign of Tiberius, "was put to death as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate.” The passage ends, “Those who confessed to being Christians were at once arrested, but on their testimony a great crowd of people were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson, but of hatred of the entire human race.”
There are many reasons to believe that this passage was not written by Tacitus. It was probably done in the fifth century by a churchman and known forger, Sulpicius Severus (363 CE to 425 CE). This text is present almost word-for-word in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus, mixed in with obviously false stories. Severus could not have obtained his material from Tacitus because because neither Christian apologists nor pagan historians prior to, or contemporary with, Severus mention this passage. It may have later been inserted into Tacitus by other copyists.
There are many other reasons to doubt the authenticity of this passage.
- There is no other mention of Christians in Tacitus’s voluminous writings. In fact, the word “Christians” was not in use in Rome during the time of Nero. The sect was called “the Nazarenes” or other names. They were not considered to be a group separate from the Jews.
- There is no other evidence that Nero, who ruled from 54 CE to 68 CE, persecuted Christians. Tacitus never mentions this persecution in his other writings.
- Pontius Pilate was a prefect, and not a procurator, and Tacitus would surely have known that. (However, some say Pilate held both titles or that procurator was the term used in the time of Tacitus and it meant the same thing as prefect..)
- The passage refers to vast multitudes being convicted. At that time there were not vast multitudes of Christians in Judea.
- Some linguistic scholars say that this passage is not written in the style of Tacitus. (However, the passage is too short for a definitive analysis.)
Moreover, even if this was written by Tacitus, it still proves nothing about the existence of Jesus Christ. Tacitus mentions "Christos" tangentially only in the context of explaining the origins of Christians. He was probably only reporting what he had heard from Christian sources and, thus he is not providing independent evidence. When Tacitus used records as his sources, he usually cited them.
Does the Roman historian Caius Suetonius (c. 70-130 CE) prove the existence of Jesus Christ?
Suetonius wrote a set of biographies of twelve successive Roman rulers (from Caesar to Domitian) titled, De Vita Caesrum. Other works by Suetonius concern the daily life of Rome and describe the politics and oratory of the time. He also wrote biographies of famous writers, poets, and historians.
The passage in Suetonius's Life of Claudius, written around110 CE, states that the Emperor Claudius "drove the Jews out of Rome, who at the suggestion of Chrestus were constantly rioting."
Claudius reigned from 41-54 CE. Christ was purported to have been crucified around 30 CE, so the agitator called Chrestus who was causing trouble in the 50’s CE could not have been the supposed preacher of the 20’s CE. Furthermore Chrestus does not refer to the word “Christ,” but to the Greek word for “good” or “useful.” It was a common proper name at the time especially for slaves. Suetonius was clearly talking about the Jews being expelled from Rome, not the Christians.
In his Life of Nero, Suetonius blames Nero for the fire. However, he also makes an isolated comment that refers to "Christiani," whom he calls "a race of men of a new and villainous, wicked or magical superstition," who "were visited with punishment." Could this be another forgery? Even if it is authentic, it refers only to a Jewish sect, and not to an actual person.
Bart Ehrman is a Biblical scholar who believes that Jesus Christ existed as a real person, but even he recognizes that many books of the New Testament are not only not written by people to whom they are attributed, but that they are deliberate forgeries.
Do we have ANY proof from 1st and 2nd century historians of the existence of Jesus Christ?
These oft-cited historians and their supposed isolated passages that Christian apologists cite as references to Jesus Christ do nothing to prove his existence. What they do prove is that the early church was quite fond of forgery, and at the same time, quite bad at it.
Even if the passages were authentic, it would prove nothing except that these first century historians were aware of a Jewish sect who were followers of someone they called Christ or Christos.
It turns out that there is a person who was in exactly the right place and time to witness the events in Judea in the first half of the first century CE. He was the leader of the large Jewish community of Alexandria. Although he lived in Egypt, he spent time in Jerusalem as an ambassador of the Egyptian Jews to the Romans. He had family and social ties to Judea and to Herod and other rulers in the region. He was Philo of Alexandria, sometimes called Philo Judaeus (c 25 BCE--50 CE).
Philo was a prolific writer who often wrote about religious philosphy. He is noted for his attempts to blend Hebraic and Hellenistic philosophy. His works were preserved by the early Catholic Church because his philosophy was thought to be consistent with the ideas of Christianity. Yet Philo says not a word about Jesus, not a word about Christianity, and not a word about any of the events described in the New Testament. In all this work, Philo makes not a single mention of his alleged contemporary, Jesus Christ. He does not mention him as a Jewish revolutionary dangerous to the rule of Rome, as a Messiah to the Jewish people, of as the son of God who could perform miracles.
As Nicholas Carter writes in his book The Christ Myth: "No sculptures, no drawings, no markings in stone, nothing written in his own hand; and no letters, no commentaries, indeed no authentic documents written by his Jewish and Gentile contemporaries, Justice of Tiberius, Philo, Josephus, Seneca, Petronius Arbiter, Pliny the Elder, et al., to lend credence to his historicity."
The only history we have for Jesus Christ comes from the Bible, especially the Gospels. However, the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts and were not written by the disciples whose names they bear. But that is a subject for another article.
Tell the world what you believe about Jesus Christ.
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© 2015 Catherine Giordano
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