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Did Jesus Exist?
An Extra-Biblical Approach to the Life and Ministry of Jesus
Jesus is unequivocally at the center of the Christian faith. The life and ministry of Christ set the world on fire as the kingdom of God was proclaimed to all of humanity, causing Christians throughout the ages to live their lives based upon the teachings He established. However, how can we know for sure that Jesus existed? Although the Bible affirms His existence, how can one prove the existence of Christ to someone who denies the historical validity of the scriptures (seriously think about how you would answer this)? Is the story of Jesus simply a myth concocted thousands of years ago or can He truly be regarded as a real and historical figure?
Disclaimer: While the Gospels serve as the most important texts regarding the life and ministry of Jesus, it is best to establish a framework of His existence using non-Biblical sources that both believers and non-believers can accept as historical fact. The Gospel accounts may then be used to fill in the gaps of this framework and create a harmonious and strong case for Jesus and Christianity as a whole.
The investigation into the historical validity of Jesus’ life begins with consulting what early non-Christian historians wrote regarding Him. The historical evidence for Jesus is not limited to the accounts examined below as there are indeed many more writings of Christ scattered throughout history. However, the accounts below are some of the most convincing and are virtually unquestioned by a majority of scholars.
The first significant historical figure who attests to the existence of Jesus is none other than Roman historian Tacitus. Tacitus is infamously known for his written pieces known as the Annals and furthermore, is regarded by scholars as one of the greatest Roman historians to ever live. In 64 AD, a devastating fire took place in Rome under the reign of Emperor Nero. In an attempt to circumvent public outcry and criticism of the fire, Nero placed the blame for the events on Christians. Tacitus, in his recollection of this, notes:
“Nero created scapgoats and subjected to the most refined tortures those whom the common people called ‘Christians’, hated for their abinable crimes. Their name comes from Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius, had been excecuted by the procurator Pontius Pilate.
The writings of Tacitus are evidently clear as he confirms the life of Jesus by noting that Christ was indeed crucified under the reign of Tiberius Ceaser at the hands of Pontius Pilate. It is therefore an obvious conclusion that if Jesus was crucified, He must have also existed. Additionally, this account of Tacitus is incredibly harmonious with the Gospel accounts of Jesus as the Gospels also note that Christ lived during the reign of Tiberius and was executed at the hands of Judean governor Pontius Pilate, thus hinting at the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts.
Secondly, Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus writes of a man named Jesus in the context of His brother James. Josephus is regarded by modern scholars as one of the greatest Jewish historians of the ancient world, therefore allowing him to be a sound non-Christian source. Additionally, Josephus’ works cannot be regarded as accounts based purely on hearsay as he lived in Israel and therefore, witnessed the spread of Christianity firsthand (he may have even witnessed the preaching of the apostles as well). Josephus, in his writings known as the Antiquities, states:
…Albinus was but upon the road; so he [a high priest known as Ananus] assembeled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others… he delivered them to be stoned.
This text describes the acts of the Jewish high priest, Ananus, who sought to kill James the brother of Jesus. Ultimately, it is clear from the excerpt above that Josephus verifies the death of a man named James who was called the brother of Christ. Therefore, of course, if James is regarded as a historical figure, so too is his brother Jesus.
The writings of both Tacitus and Josephus assert that there was indeed a man known as Jesus Christ who lived and had a group of followers known as Christians. The fact that a pagan and Jewish historian can both confirm the life of Christ in addition to the Christian sources indeed proves that Jesus did in fact exist and thus, can be regarded as a historical figure. However, the events of Jesus’ life are then subject to criticism as questions regarding the contrast between the Biblical and historical Jesus arise.
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*Thanks for reading the first newsletter of Chasing Truth. Huge shoutout to Eric for helping out with the website and social media logos. Stay tuned the rest of Easter weekend for more!
-“Evidence That Demands A Verdict” by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell
-Habermas, Gary R., "Ancient Non-Christian Sources" (1996)