Did Jesus of Nazareth Actually Exist? By John Jones Christianity is a belief that stands or falls on the basis of its historical claims. If Jesus di

Jesus Portrait

Did Jesus of Nazareth Actually Exist?

By John Jones

Christianity is a belief that stands or falls on the basis of its historical claims. If Jesus didn’t actually exist, why waste your time with going to church, reading the Bible, or following Jesus’ teachings? As a child I was convinced that Santa Claus was real. I was motivated to do the right thing by the thought that he “sees you when you’re sleeping and knows if you’ve been bad or good.” If I wanted presents at Christmas time, I needed to make Santa happy. Now that I’m older, I’m no longer motivated to do good because of the presents Santa might bring. Do Jesus and Santa deserve to be in the same category: Happy men who bring presents if you are a good person? Can we know anything about Jesus outside of the Bible? Was he a historical person or just a myth?

Would you be surprised to hear that there is more historical documentation about Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth, than of Tiberius Caesar, the emperor of Rome at the same time? Some might say that the Christian writings are biased towards their own religion and would, of course, claim that Jesus was real and was a miracle worker. However, the sources we are about to view come from witnesses who were opponents to Christianity and all accepted that Jesus was a real person and that there was something different about him and his followers.

Testimony by a Traitor

Josephus was a Jewish general who surrendered his armies to Rome in exchange for an advising position to the emperor. He wrote the histories of the Jewish people and served as a translator for the Roman armies who eventually destroyed Jerusalem.

[The high priest Ananias] convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned. Antiquities of the Jews 20.200.

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of the people. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, condemned him to be crucified. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. Antiquities of the Jews 18.63-64.

The Most Important Roman Historian of the First Century

Tacitus was a Roman senator and historian shortly after the time of Christ. On the fire in Rome in A.D. 72, he wrote:

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 Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome…Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilt: then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much for the crime of firing the city, but for hatred against mankind. Annals of Rome 15.44.

This quote provides us with a remarkable fact: Crucifixion was the most abhorrent fate that anyone could undergo, and that there was a movement based on a crucified man has to be explained. Why worship a man who was historically known to have died the most shameful death possible? The Christian answer is that he was raised from the dead. This testimony is so important because it was given by an unsympathetic witness to the successful spread of Christianity, based on a historical figure- Jesus who was crucified by Pontius Pilate. It’s amazing that Tacitus reported that an immense multitude held so strongly to their beliefs that they were willing to die rather than deny Jesus.

How do I deal with this, Boss?

Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bithynia, wrote this letter to Emperor Trajan trying to ascertain the official way to deal with the people called Christians.

I have asked them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished…They also declare that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor to Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery…This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women… I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths. Letters 10.96.

Let’s pretend we didn’t have any of the New Testament or other Christian writings. Even without them we would still have a considerable amount of historical evidence about Jesus.

Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Caesar.
He lived a virtuous life.
He was a wonder-worker.
He had a brother named James.
He was acclaimed to be the Messiah.
He was crucified under the government of Pontius Pilate.
He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover.
His disciples believed that he rose from the dead.
His disciples were willing to die for their belief.
Christianity spread rapidly and as far as Rome.
His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshipped Jesus as God.

Without even addressing the Bible or writings by later Christians, there is ample evidence to support the Bible’s claims about Jesus of Nazareth. The previous list demonstrates the historically documentable facts about him. These things are not simply myths or traditions, they actually happened.

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