In recent years, the internet and its many self proclaimed experts have brought about a vocal resurgence of those who deny Jesus’ existence. It is not brought up among laymen you meet on the street, and it is seldomly questioned among serious experts in the field. Did Jesus actually exist?
The first time I heard about “mythicism” (the belief that Jesus was merely a mythical character, not a real person), I was utterly shocked. How could anyone deny the existence of such an influential figure? It also made me think: What solid historical evidence is there, not only in Christian sources, but in ancient sources outside the Christian tradition for this man?
What Historians Say
When investigating matters such as these, I find it important to turn to what the experts have to say, that is, people who live and breath the historical material we are working with. I consistently find, to the chagrin of mythicists, that Jesus’ existence is conceded by almost all historians in the field, regardless of their other fascinating beliefs about him. Even very skeptical historians, who have no interest in pleasing Christians, say things like:
As we have seen, mythicism hasn’t impressed experts in the field. Lest I be accused of an argument from authority, lets now survey some of the references to Jesus in non-Christian ancient sources.
On the hypothesis that Jesus existed, it is at least somewhat plausible that Jesus may receive some sort of mention in non-Christian literature, given the sizable (yet still small) splash Christianity made in its’ first century of existence. Now, if Jesus did not exist, it is very unlikely that a Roman historian like Tacitus would treat Jesus as a historical person that actually lived.
In Annals 15.44, written in the first decade or so of the 2nd century, Tacitus mentions the historical Christ. In this reference, Tacitus reports that Nero blamed the Christians, whose founder was a crucified man named Christ, for the Fire of Rome in 64 AD:
Tacitus wasn’t exactly complimenting Christians, thus ruling out interpolation (meaning this wasn’t added later by Christian scribes).
After reading this text you may ask: Why is it so unlikely that Tacitus would mention Jesus if Jesus never existed? Why should I care about what this guy said? Here’s one reason: he’s a reliable historian (and is regarded as such by professionals). In fact, he’s regarded as among the most reliable of Roman historians. Scholars praise Tacitus for being suspicious and skeptical.
Ronald Martin, a Tacitus expert, remarks that:
There are many examples in which Tacitus exemplifies a careful approach to history. He consulted Roman records quite often (Annals book 3, book 12, etc.), and he was no fan of unreliable sources. The clearest example of this is in his denouncing of using hearsay to do history in Annals 4.11:
To say the least, Tacitus was not one to jump on the bandwagon of unfounded myths. If Jesus weren’t a real person, the probability that Tacitus would mention his crucifixion under Pilate (without very good evidence) is very low. We’ll now turn to another non-Christian historian, Josephus.
Jesus Christ is mentioned twice by the Jewish writer Flavius Josephus in his history of the Jewish people, “Antiquities of the Jews”. Josephus’ first reference of the historical Jesus is Antiquities 18.3.3:
Writing in the mid 90s AD, it is one of the most controversial passage in all of antiquity. Though Josephus’ general reliability is not in question, there is much question with regards to how much of it (if any), originally appeared in Josephus. It is well known that there contain some additions or changes, most obviously;
-“he was the Messiah”
-“he appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him”
Josephus was a Jew. Given this, it’s quite unlikely that he would have questioned whether Jesus was “just a man” or claimed that Jesus was the Messiah. To resolve this, a number of scholars have proposed a reconstruction of the passage. This is largely because of how similar the terminology is to other portions of Josephus, and it’s departure from traditional Christian terminology of the period.
As James Patrick Holding articulates, and I’m paraphrasing, the idea that a Christian scribe (someone who also had the works of, and did not interpolate, people like Philo) would conjure up the passage entirely is rather improbable. Scribes did not usually make such major additions. It would truly be “an act of unparalleled scribal audacity,” as Steve Mason, a world renowned Josephan scholar, puts it.
Is there anything else to support a reconstruction? We don’t have time or space to cover all of the reasons for a reconstruction, so I’ll focus on an argument for the authenticity of the phrase “he was believed to be the Christ.” This particular argument comes from Alice Whealey. It is well known that Jerome, the fourth century church father, quoted the Testimonium. In his quotation, he included the phrase “he was believed to be the Christ” instead of “he was the Christ.” In recent years, Whealey has used the 12th century ‘Chronicle’ from Michael the Syrian, which reads similarly. Put simply, Whealey says:
Moving on, Josephus’ second mention of Jesus comes off-the-cuff in a much more textually secure passage:
The death of James the brother of Jesus, following Festus’ death (which gave Ananus more power to do such things), happened in 62 AD. On the hypothesis that Jesus is a pure mythological construct, it is very unlikely that Josephus would mention him as being the brother of James, as it is very difficult to have a brother if you didn’t even exist. However, if Jesus did exist, and James really was his brother, it is no surprise that Josephus would mention him nonchalantly.
Not known as a historian, Lucian of Samosata was a very clever rhetorician of the 2nd century. In a comedy titled, “The Passing of Peregrinus,” Lucian invents a man who turns to Christianity, and, in the course, Jesus is indirectly mentioned:
There’s no question that the man crucified in Palestine (that Christians still worship) was Jesus Christ. But what makes this reference to the crucifixion more probable on historicity than on mythicism? For reasons similar to Tacitus, Lucian had a deep respect for historical rigor. Lucian, though not exactly someone most would expect to be a history buff, also wrote a short letter on “The Way to Write History,” where he echoes how important it is to tell accurate history:
Further, as an elite of his day, he would have been in the right place in society to know such things about the origin of Christianity. We can say with confidence that, if Jesus was known to be a myth, Lucian would not have made mention of his crucifixion in Palestine (a real historical place) or that Christians still worshipped him.
Cumulatively, the non-Christian evidence clearly favors a historical Jesus. It far outweighs mythicism based on these three non-Christian sources alone. We have two of the most reliable of ancient historians mentioning things about Christ within a century of his death, and another historically tenable source just a few decades later. These short references however do not present the full portrait of the evidence at hand, and it is to the Christian sources we will turn for a fuller picture of this man in part 2 of this series.