Did Jesus Exist?
Jesus of Nazareth is arguably the most influential person in history. Billions of people around the world know about the God of the Bible (the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) because of Jesus’ life, death, claimed resurrection, and teachings. As Bible scholar Robert Van Voorst puts it, Jesus has had an impact on the entire world through the spread of Christianity. Whether that be through directly shaping the beliefs, values, and practices of a society as in the case of Western cultures, or indirectly influencing minds and hearts of individuals within other cultures, Jesus has impacted billions.1 His followers love the God of the Bible and do their best to follow Him via obeying the “Golden Rule” espoused by Jesus in his famous “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31) but first taught in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4–5; Leviticus 19:18). Jesus has impacted the world on a level that is impossible to ignore. However, the question begs to be asked: Was he a real historical figure? Or was he a legend created by early Christians?
It may surprise you that we do not need to consult the New Testament to answer the question. In short, the answer is yes; Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure. We can be confident about this because non-New Testament material provides enough evidence to prove his existence. In fact, all of the non-New Testament material we will give below comes from non-believers in Jesus. The authors of the various texts were Jewish, Greek pagans, or Roman pagans. Their texts range from official government documents, to personal letters, to Talmudic texts, all dating from approximately 93 C.E. to 200 C.E. The information gathered from these sources mirrors that of the New Testament’s description of Jesus to a high degree. Bottom line, whether someone believes Jesus was the divine Messiah sent by God or not, the fact remains that he existed and made a profound impact on history.
What are these sources and what do they say? Each original document is interesting and worth investigating in its own right, but for the sake of brevity, I will provide a table of what each document is, where it can be found, who wrote it, what time frame it was written in, and what it discusses. Again, each has a great deal of information worth reading on its own, but for the sake of a summary, here is the following chart:
|Source||Summary of Content
|41–54||Claudius Caesar||Roman Caesar||Archaeological: The Nazareth Decree||A marble inscription prohibiting anyone from removing a body from a grave by “Ordinance of Caesar” was found in 1878 in Nazareth, the town in which Jesus grew up. It declared anyone found doing so would be punished by death. Jesus’ opponents argued his body was stolen instead of resurrected from the grave in 33 C.E.. This ordinance may be a direct response by Romans to try to avoid further “disturbances” like that of Jesus & his resurrection claims.|
|73||Mara bar Serapion||Syrian, Stoic Philosopher||The Letter of Mara bar Serapion||This writing says Jesus was thought to be wise and virtuous, considered to be King of Israel by many, put to death by Jewish leaders, and lived on in the teachings of his followers. His death was connected to the recent destruction of Jerusalem (70 C.E.)|
|96||Pliny the Younger||Roman Governor||Epistles 10.96||Followers of Christus (Latin for Messiah) met early in the mornings to sing hymns to Jesus, worshiping him as a god. They had high moral standards as people and refused emperor worship.|
|96||Trajan||Roman Caesar||Epistles 10.97||He ordered people who believed in Christ and would not recant to be put to death.|
|116||Tacitus||Roman Historian||Annals 15.44||He records Jesus was sentenced to crucifixion by Pilate. This “superstition” was momentarily checked in Judea but then soon spread to Rome.|
|120||Suetonius||Roman Biographer||Claudius 25, Nero 16||Disturbances were made in Rome because of disagreements over Christ. Nero punished followers of Jesus.|
|140||Lucian of Samosata||Greek Philosopher||Death of Peregrine, 11-13||Christians were mocked for worshipping “a man…[who] was crucified…and deny the gods of Greece.” They believe they will be immortal for all time.|
|late 300s||Babylonian Talmud||Jewish Sages / Abbye / Ulla||b. Sanhedrin 43a||Jesus was hanged on the eve of Passover. He practiced magic or sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy through different teachings.|
When we put all these together then, the following can be gleaned from non-biblical sources. Christian theologian and philosopher Norman Geisler writes:
(1) Jesus was from Nazareth; (2) he lived a wise and virtuous life; (3) he was crucified in Palestine [Judea] under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar at Passover time, being considered the Jewish king [by many]; (4) he was believed by his disciples to have been raised from the dead three days later; (5) his enemies acknowledged that he performed unusual feats they called ‘sorcery’; (6) his small band of disciples multiplied rapidly, spreading even as far as Rome; (7) his disciples denied polytheism, lived moral lives, and [they] worshiped Christ as Divine.2
Of course, each of these things are discussed at length in the New Testament, but it is remarkable that these claims about Jesus can be found outside of the New Testament’s pages. In the realm of history, historians often employ a tool known as multiple attestation. In short, it argues that something is more likely to be historically true if it has several sources independently corroborating a person, place, thing, or event. As such, the New Testament’s account is corroborated by more than eight individual authors who did not have personal or spiritual bias at play when writing about his existence.
The question for every reader then is, “In relation to Jesus’ historical existence, are you willing to go where the evidence leads?” If you believe Jesus did not exist, would you then apply the same kind of skepticism to Claudius Caesar of Rome, Rabbi Hillel of Jerusalem, or any other first-century historical figure? Are you allowing Jesus to play by the same rules as every other historical figure? And if not, then why? And if you are willing to let Jesus play by the same rules as all other historical figures, then welcome to the interesting world of the historical texts around him.
- Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1.
- Norman L. Geisler, “Jesus, Non-Christian Sources,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 384–385.