Is there proof that Jesus existed as an historical person?
In past columns of Theology 101, we have explored the question of God’s existence. We have examined several classical arguments that attempted to approach the question by making an appeal to human reason. Now, we must turn our attention to another, equally significant challenge for Christians. Did Jesus really exist as an historical person? Is there any historical proof that he did?
While believers can answer these questions by pointing to the New Testament, which testifies to Jesus’ existence in its every line, naysayers will often dismiss it as evidence. They will argue that it cannot be trusted as a source because it was produced by committed believers and is, therefore, biased. Consequently, what these folks want is extra-biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence.
The Biblical Archeology Review addressed this very topic with the publication of Lawrence Mykytiuk’s article, “Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible.” Mykytiuk is an associate professor of history, the department of history librarian, and associate professor of library science who specializes in biblical studies and the history of ancient Israel at Purdue University. What follows is a brief summary of the two strongest pieces of historical evidence he discovered in his research.
A “Tacit” approval from Rome
Cornelius Tacitus, Roman senator, orator, ethnographer and historian, published his last major work, Annals, in the years 116-117 A.D. It is a book that includes a biography of Nero. This is significant because in 64 A.D., Nero attempted to blame Christians for a fire he was suspected of ordering in part of Rome. This precipitated Tacitus’ mention of Christians, a group he despised by the way:
“[N]either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts … whom the crowd called “Christians.” The founder of this name, Christ [Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate … Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular.”
This passage, as we can see, corroborates several historical details offered by the New Testament. While Mykytiuk notes that Tacitus does not reveal the sources he used (not unusual at the time), he was certainly one of the best historians of his time in Rome. For this reason, Mykytiuk argues that Tacitus is a credible piece of evidence for Jesus’ existence.
The testimony of a Jewish priest and historian
Further evidence of Jesus’ existence comes from an account by Josephus, a Jewish priest who commanded forces in Galilee during the first Jewish Revolt against Rome from 66-70 A.D. He actually surrendered and was a prisoner of war during the revolt. However, he was freed by the Roman emperor Vespasian, who became Josephus’ patron. This made Josephus a traitor for many Jews, especially after Vespasian’s son Titus commanded the Roman army to destroy Jerusalem and to loot and burn the Temple in 70 A.D.
Nonetheless, in his Jewish Antiquities, Josephus mentions Jesus two times. The more significant of the two references is actually only incidental as it is used to identify Jesus’ “brother” James as the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Josephus writes:
“Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way [he arrived in 62 A.D.], called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah [or Christ] … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.”
Mykytiuk explains that few scholars doubt the authenticity of the account. He further asserts this serves as credible evidence of Jesus’ existence precisely because the passage is not about Jesus, but uses Jesus to identify James. The second reference is longer. However, scholars dispute it is original to Josephus with many claiming it represents a later addition at least in part by Christians.
The rest of the story
Mykytiuk uncovered several other references to Jesus in ancient non-Christian texts. He also makes the point that we really do not know of any ancient person who seriously argued against Jesus’ existence. Yes, some made fun of Jesus or even held that his execution was just, but they did not deny his existence. For those interested in learning more, Mykytiuk’s complete article can be found at www.biblicalarchaeology.org
For Further Reflection
Consider prayerfully reading the following Scripture passages:
Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received. - Luke 1:1-4
For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all. This was the testimony at the proper time. For this I was appointed preacher and apostle (I am speaking the truth, I am not lying), teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. - 1 Timothy 2:5-7
Why would the testimony of these passages be discounted simply because they are offered by committed believers? Should that fact give their testimony more credibility? Why or why not?
Who said the following?
If, in his pride, he considers God as a challenge, he will deny him; and if God becomes man and therefore makes himself vulnerable, he will crucify him.
A) Venerable Fulton Sheen
B) St. Francis of Assisi
C) St. Dominic
D) Pope Leo XIII
Answer: A) Venerable Fulton Sheen