Did Jesus Even Exist? Part 1: a look at Roman and Jewish historical sources

What lies at the centre of Christianity? Man or myth?

One question that began surfacing in scholarly circles in the 1800’s is whether or not Jesus even existed. What is interesting is that there is little to no evidence of such questions the further back in history one looks. It is as though one has to put comfortable distance between themselves and this 1st century man in order to be taken seriously when questioning Jesus’ actual, mere physical existence.

The following list of references should make it clear that Jesus’ existence is more than a probability: it is a question that should, in all fairness, be put to rest. One thing the reader may want to take note of is that in the first century AD, writing materials were not as commonly available as they are today. Most information, therefore, was passed on orally. Writing materials were relatively expensive and were not as readily available to the average household as paper and books are today. Homes did not possess libraries full of books and magazines, and texts were usually property of synagogues or government officials. This helps to set the stage for our inquiry into the records concerning the man named Jesus of Nazareth. Would he have walked and talked in our modern times, the written and recorded material concerning his life would be incredibly more abundant.

Furthermore, early Roman and Jewish officials did not yet realize the magnitude of the Jewish peasant’s influence. Radical, messianic cults were a dime a dozen and Palestine was a remote, unimportant part of the Roman Empire. As Jesus said to his followers, the “mustard seed” of His life and ministry would eventually grow into the “biggest of all trees”. The historians around the time of early Christianity would have no reason to take special note of the burgeoning movement. As time went on, the Christian movement gained a momentum that would eventually dwarf Judaism and take over the Roman Empire. This was not evident from the outset, and may explain why early government and Jewish records (as far as we can tell 2,000 years later) make very little mention of the man which we know of today as the most influential person in history.

One last note: is it altogether impossible that Roman and Jewish historians willfully neglected to give the executed heretic an official, historical nod of recognition? Could it be that their aversion to the “Jesus movement” could have coaxed them to snub Christians and their icon? All these matters should be taken into account before laying final judgment.


TACITUS (AD 55-120)

Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian who lived through the reigns of over half a dozen Roman emperors. His works include the Annals and Histories, totaling 30 books. Tacitus recorded one reference to Christ and two to early Christianity. The following excerpt is found in Annals, written about AD 115 and concerns the great fire in Rome:

…Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on… Christians… Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of… Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition… broke out… in Judea

The rest of the excerpt details how Christians were severely tortured and killed by Nero. Tacitus himself adds that these executions seemed unnecessary and cruel, driven by Nero’s lust for inflicting pain, and not motivated by justice.

Being an official government historian, his work would be reviewed and approved by Rome. Also, much if not all of his information would be derived from official government sources. This fact makes it reasonable to assume knowledge of Christians and their “superstition” concerning Christ was well known. This parallels the notion of a post-crucifixion “superstition” held by Christians that Jesus had come back from death. A notion which the Book of Acts describes happened after the crucifixion. It is also interesting to note the historical reference Tacitus makes to Tiberius’ reign being in place during Jesus’ execution. This places the crucifixion in the appropriate time frame, corroborating the New Testament authors’ claims. Another roman author, Sulpicus Severus quotes Tacitus’ lost works, reporting that the latter spoke of the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70. In Severus’ account, Tacitus again mentions Christians being present.

SUETONIUS  AD 69-140

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillas was the official chief secretary to Emperor Hadrian (who reigned AD 117-138), and had access to imperial records. Suetonius is yet another Roman historian who made mention of Christians and the object of their “superstition”: Chrestus (variant spelling of Christ). The following is an excerpt from his work:

Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them form the city.

One interesting aspect of this quote is that the Book of Acts (18:2) mentions that Paul met a Jewish couple that had left Rome under Emperor Claudius’ command that all Jews be deported.

JOSEPHUS

Flavius Josephus (AD 37-97) was a Jewish historian working for Roman commander Vespasian. Around AD 90-95, Josephus made two specific mentions of Jesus. One of which was made via a simple mention of James “the brother of Jesus”:

“He, thinking that a favorable opportunity presented itself—Festus being dead and Albinus still on the road—summoned the court of the Sanhedrin, brought before it the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ—James was his name—with some others, and, after accusing them of transgressing the law, delivered them over to be stoned to death.  This action aroused the indignation of all citizens of the highest reputation for moderation and punctilious observance of the law; and they sent a secret message to King Agrippa, petitioning him to restrain Ananus from similar proceedings in future . . . Some of them, moreover, went to meet Albinus on his way from Alexandria and explained that it was illegal for Ananus to convene a meeting of the Sanhedrin without his consent.”

Origen (A.D. 185-254), an early church father quotes this passage three times in his writings. Eusebius (A.D. 260-341) mentions James’ execution in a separate text. Another paragraph describes Christ as a resurrected miracle worker. Seeing as Josephus was Jewish and a known anti-Christian, it is highly unlikely that this quote is accurate. Furthermore, Origen states that Josephus flat out refused to call Christ the Messiah. However, Professor Schlomo Pines of Hebrew University in Jerusalem discovered an Arabic manuscript in 1972, which contained a different version of this exact same reference from Josephus. It was much more demure in nature and consequently, more believable seeing as its Arabic origin would have placed it outside the later Roman Christian church’s influence. Here is the Arabic text:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from 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 recounted wonders.

This version of the Josephus quotation simply states non-controversial facts concerning Jesus. Namely, that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate, was known as “good” man, had disciples who believed in his resurrection and was “perhaps” the prophesied Messiah. Such a report could conceivably have originally come from Josephus and have later been manipulated to create the Christian-friendly quote first mentioned above. Nevertheless, it is more than likely that Josephus made some mention of Jesus, which was later tainted. Josephus also mentioned Herod’s killing of John the Baptist, and he also mentions the High Priest Ananias.


THALLUS

Circa AD 52, Thallus wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean. Most of his works are lost, but he was quoted by Julius Africanus around AD 221:

On the whole worlds there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.

Africanus rebukes Thallus’ claims that an eclipse caused the darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion, seeing as the Jewish Passover is held during the full moon. Yet, there is no way to confirm that Thallus made any claims connecting the strange darkness to Jesus’ execution. So we do not know if Thallus’ AD 52 writing acknowledges the crucifixion. However, the possibility exists and therefore this writing is worthy of note. I personally would not use it as evidence if I were publicly debating the issue.


PLINY THE YOUNGER

Roman author and administrator serving as governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. Of his major works, the tenth and final book (~AD 112) mentions Jesus and the Christian movement. He speaks of their influence in smothering the surrounding pagan religions and their unwillingness to turn from their religion even upon penalty of death. Pliny himself interrogated and ordered their executions. Furthermore, he speaks of the rumors surrounding the early Christian church:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food – but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.

Once again we see ancient, non-biblical reference to the Christians’ worship of Christ. Further, we see a report on what is possibly early Christian communion (“reassemble to partake of food”). Pliny’s disclaimer that the Christians were only eating food “of an ordinary and innocent kind” is probably in reference to their reputation for sometimes drinking human blood. Tertullian (A.D. 160-225), a church father, references not only this above quote by Pliny the Younger, but also Emperor Trajan’s answer (see below).

EMPEROR TRAJAN

This ruler wrote in response to Pliny the Younger’s letters inquiring on how to best deal with Christians. Trajan essentially replied asking Pliny to show mercy and fairness.


EMPEROR HADRIAN

Hadrian (ruled AD 117-138) wrote to Minucius Fundanus the Asian proconsul, issuing a statement demanding fair treatment of Christians brought to court. This emperor echoes the pleas of Trajan, requesting that no injustice be brought to bear on the followers of Christ.

TALMUD

Jews had a tremendous volume of oral history prior to the 2nd century AD. Rabbi Akiba compiled this information into a written text before his AD 135 death. His student, Rabbi Meir revised it and Rabbi Judah completed it in AD 200. The final text was called the Mishnah and a commentary was produced on it called the Gemaras. The Mishnah and Gemaras together form the Talmud.

The Sanhedrin 43a portion of the Talmud reports on Jesus:

On the eve of Passover Yeshu 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. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!….

The New Testament Greek kremamenos used in Galatians 3:13 also means “hanged”, yet specifically refers to the crucifixion. The customary penalty for apostasy within Judaism was stoning, which could explain the story of the herald proclaiming Jesus’ imminent stoning long before Jesus was officially executed by the Romans. As the New Testament attests, the Jewish religious leaders lusted for Jesus’ death for some time before it actually came about. Crucifixion was solely a Roman convention, and as the bible records, the Jewish leaders finally resorted to appealing to Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. Yet they had plotted to kill Jesus long before the crucifixion but never found an opportunity or a proper context. Note that the Talmud records (as does the New Testament) that no one publicly defended Jesus.  Elsewhere in the Talmud, a mention is made of five disciples of Jesus being executed for their unwillingness to deny Him.

TOLEDOTH JESU

This anti-Christian manuscript gives an interesting account of a gardener named Juda foiling the apostles’ plan to steal Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. Juda apparently did so by burying Jesus in a second, separate tomb. Finding the original tomb empty, the apostles immediately declared the risen Christ. Juda then sold Jesus’ body to Jewish religious leaders who then proceeded to drag the dead body of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem. Justin Martyr has written of the Jewish leaders’ promoting similar stories to compete with the burgeoning belief in Christ’s Resurrection. Of obvious significance is that all these competing stories are attempts to explain away an empty tomb!

LUCIAN approx. ~ A.D. 125-180

This second century satirist had a dim view of Christians and their movement. Nevertheless, his quotations on this new religion bring insight to the popular knowledge concerning Christ and His followers in the AD 100’s:

The Christians… worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account…. These misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion…. It was impressed on them by their original lawgiver (Christ) that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws…. This they take … on faith… they despise all worldly goods… regarding them merely as common property.

Elsewhere in his writings, Lucian reports that Christians held “sacred writings” from which they read and taught frequently.

MARA BAR-SERAPION

The British Museum owns the manuscript of a letter written between the first and third century AD. A Syrian by the name of Mara Bar-Serapion wrote to his son from prison, mentioning Socrates, Pythagoras and Jesus as good, wise men killed for no good reason by their contemporaries. He further references Jesus as the Jewish King. Very obviously making reference to Christian claims and not to accepted Jewish custom.


RECAP:

If we look at three separate types of sources: 1. Historians of the 1st and 2nd centuries who were paid by Governments hostile to Christianity (Roman & Jewish), and  2. Religious institutions who strongly opposed Christ before and after His Crucifixion (Jewish) and finally 3. Third party observers, we see, among other things, the following information:

  1. A man named Jesus was tortured and crucified by Pontius Pilate during the time of Tiberius’ reign.
  2. Jesus’ followers worshipped him as a God and were rumored to gather and “partake of food” and perhaps drink blood (a misunderstanding of communion wine).
  3. Jesus’ followers were named Christians and they were willing to die for their “superstition”.
  4. Emperors such as Nero and Pliny regularly tortured and killed Christians.
  5. The “superstition” of the Christians was “contagious” and it was decreasing the activity of competing religions. Furthermore, people of all ages and classes were joining the movement.
  6. Christians were known for their moral behavior, and their unjust torture and execution sometimes stirred compassion from the general public.
  7. The location of Jesus’ tomb was known, and was indeed found empty after his death and burial.

CONCLUSION: One must look at the above stated evidence and ask themselves, is it possible that these things could be written about a man who never existed? Please be open-minded. And remember that the above-stated case does not even include the letters written between the 2nd century church fathers, the Gnostic gospels or the New Testament. We have tied one arm behind our backs in order to present this case.

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