Did Jesus Really Exist?
By Paul L. Maier, The Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History, Western Michigan University
“No, he didn’t!” some skeptics claim, thinking that this is a quick, powerful lever with which to pry people away from “the fable of Christianity.” But the lever crumbles at its very first use. In fact, there is more evidence that Jesus of Nazareth certainly lived than for most famous figures of the ancient past. This evidence is of two kinds: internal and external, or, if you will, sacred and secular. In both cases, the total evidence is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence. And yet this pathetic denial is still parroted by “the village atheist,” bloggers on the internet, or such organizations as the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
The Internal Evidence
Aside from the many Messianic predictions in the Old Testament, not one of the four Gospels or the 23 other documents in the New Testament would make an ounce of sense if Jesus had never lived. Did the whole cavalcade of well-known historical personalities in the first century A.D. who interacted with Jesus deal with a vacuum? Did Herod the Great try to terminate an infant ghost? Did the Jewish high priests Annas and Caiaphas interview a spirit? Did the Roman governor Pontius Pilate judge a phantom on Good Friday, or Paul and so many apostles give their lives for a myth?
No one doubts that the above names are well known from both sacred and secular sources, as well as archaeological evidence, and are therefore historical. The same is clearly true of Jesus of Nazareth. But why, then, is Jesus not permitted the “luxury” of actually having lived as did the rest of these? Why the double standard here?
From the internal, biblical evidence alone, therefore, Jesus’ existence is simply categorical. And yet there is an abundance of additional extrabiblical information on this question.
The External Evidence: Christian
Another long paragraph could be devoted to writings of the early church fathers, some of whom had close contact with New Testament personalities. Jesus’ disciple John, for example, later became bishop of the church at Ephesus. One of his students was Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and a student of his, in turn, was Irenaeus of Lyons. The centerpiece in all of their writings was Jesus the Christ (“Messiah”).
Apart from such living personal links to Jesus, both geographical and temporal tangencies appear in Justin Martyr. Born of pagan parents around A.D. 100 in Nablus (between Judea and Galilee), Justin tried and abandoned various philosophical schools until he found in Christianity the one true teaching. As a native of the Holy Land, Justin mentions sites associated with Jesus, such as the Bethlehem grotto in which he was born, and even such details as Jesus working as an apprentice carpenter in the shop of his foster father Joseph, where they specialized in producing such agricultural implements as yokes for oxen and plows.
External Evidence: Jewish
The Jewish rabbinical traditions not only mention Jesus, but they are also the only sources that spell his name accurately in Aramaic, his native tongue: Yeshua Hannotzri—Joshua (Jesus) of Nazareth. Some of the references to Jesus in the Talmud are garbled—probably due to the vagaries of oral tradition—but one is especially accurate, since it seems based on written sources and comes from the Mishna—the earliest collection of writings in the Talmud. This is no less than the arrest notice for Jesus, which runs as follows:
He shall be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and lured Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. Anyone who knows where he is, let him declare it to the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.
Four items in this statement strongly support its authenticity as a notice composed before Jesus’ arrest: 1) The future tense is used; 2) Stoning was the regular punishment for blasphemy among the Jews whenever the Roman government was not involved; 3) There is no reference whatever to crucifixion; and 4) That Jesus was performing “sorcery”—the extraordinary or miraculous with a negative spin—is quite remarkable. This not only invokes what historians call the “criterion of embarrassment,” which proves what is conceded, but accords perfectly with how Jesus’ opponents explained away his miraculous healings: performing them with the help of Beelzebul (Luke 11:18).
Moreover, the first-century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, twice mentions “Jesus who is called the Christ” in his Jewish Antiquities. In the second of these, he tells of the death of Jesus’ half-brother James the Just of Jerusalem (20:200). And two books earlier, in the longest first-century non-biblical reference to Christ, he tells of Jesus midway through his discussion of events in Pontius Pilate’s administration:
At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people 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. 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 reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day. (18:63)
This is the recent, uninterpolated text that replaces the traditional version which, unfortunately, had suffered early interpolation. For a more detailed evaluation of Josephus and his references to Jesus, please see my separate article on Josephus in this series.
External Evidence: Secular
Cornelius Tacitus, one of the most reliable source historians of first-century Rome, wrote in his Annals a year-by-year account of events in the Roman Empire under the early Caesars. Among the highlights that he reports for the year A.D. 64 was the great fire of Rome. People blamed the emperor Nero for this conflagration since it happened “on his watch,” but in order to save himself, Nero switched the blame to “the Christians,” which is the first time they appear in secular history. Careful historian that he was, Tacitus then explains who “the Christians” were: “Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus” (15:44). He then goes on to report the horrors that were inflicted on the Christians in what became their first Roman persecution.
Tacitus, it should be emphasized, was not some Christian historian who was trying to prove that Jesus Christ really lived, but a pagan who despised Christians as a “disease,” a term he uses later in the passage. Had Jesus never even existed, he would have been the first to expose that pathetic phantom on whom such cultists placed their trust. Were no other references to Jesus available, this passage alone would have been sufficient to establish his historicity. Skeptics realize this, and so have tried every imaginable means to discredit this passage—but to no avail. Manuscript analysis and computer studies have never found any reason to call this sentence into question, nor its context.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus also recorded events of the first century in his famous Lives of the Twelve Caesars. He, too, regarded the Christians as a sect “professing a new and mischievous religious belief” (Nero 16) and doubtless cited “Christus” as well, spelling his name “Chrestus” (Claudius 25). That the vowels “e” and “i” were often interchangeable is demonstrated by the French term for “Christian” to this day: chretien.
Pliny the Younger was the Roman governor of Bithynia—today, the northwestern corner of Turkey—and about the year 110 he wrote the emperor Trajan (98-117 A.D.), asking what to do about the Christians, a “wretched cult” whom he mentions eight times in his letter. Christ himself is cited three times, the most famous instance referring to Christians “…who met on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ, as if to a god…” (Letter No. 96). Trajan’s response, interestingly enough, suggests that Christians not be hunted out. (Ibid., No. 97). But again, if Christ were only a mythical character, these hostile sources would have been the first to emblazon that fact in derision.
Other ancient secular sources, such as Theudas and Mara bar Serapion also bear witness to the historicity of Jesus. But any further evidence clearly comes under the “beating a dead horse” category so far as this article is concerned. Nothing more is necessary in view of the overpowering evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was no myth, but a totally historical figure who truly lived. Skeptics should focus instead on whether or not Jesus was more than a man. That, at least, could evoke a reasonable debate among reasonable inquirers, rather than a pointless discussion with sensationalists who struggle to reject the obvious.