Is there any historical evidence on the existence of Jesus of Nazareth?

Jesus of Nazareth is the most documented and historically verifiable figure in antiquity. Evidence for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth is found in both the Bible and in secular sources.

(A) The Bible

The New Testament contains hundreds of references to Jesus Christ. The four Gospels of the Bible are bibliographical accounts of the life of Jesus. Please keep in mind that the normal objective measure of the reliability of historical documents is based on: 1) The number of available copies of ancient manuscripts and 2) the time span between the original version and the date of those copies still in existence today. So, when examined under this standard, the Bible proves to provide a treasure of proof and evidence that Jesus really existed.

Some of the earliest manuscript fragments of the New Testament are the John Rylands Fragment, Chester Beatty Papyrus, and the Bodmer Papyrus. These manuscripts were written between 50-100 AD. Copies of these papyri were reproduced in 125-200 AD. This means that the time span between the originals and the copies still in existence today is 29 years to 130 years. This puts all the manuscripts that were written anywhere from 50-100 years after the death of Jesus Christ. Additionally there are over 5,600 ancient manuscript copies of the New Testament giving it more copies to a degree than any other figure of ancient history. And these copies have a 99% accuracy when compared to each other.

This produces a high reliability especially when compared with other ancient writings like Plato, for example. Plato wrote his works from 427-347 BC. The earliest manuscript copy of Plato’s writing in existence today was written in 900 AD. That is 1,200 years after Plato’s death! And there are only 2 copies of these manuscripts in existence.

(B) Non-Christian Sources

Tacitus (56 – 120 AD)

Tacitus is considered to be one of the greatest Roman historians. Reporting on Emperor Nero’s decision to accuse the Christians for the fire that had ruined Rome in A.D. 64, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote:

“Nero fastened the guilt … on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of … Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome…” Tacitus, Annals 15.44, cited in Strobel, The Case for Christ, 82.

Pliny the Younger (61 –113 AD)

Pliny was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. In one of his letters, dated around A.D. 112, he sought Trajan’s council about the suitable way to conduct legal proceedings against those accused of being Christians. Pliny says that he needed to consult the emperor about this issue because a great multitude of every age, class, and sex stood accused of Christianity. Pliny, Epistles x. 96, cited in Bruce, Christian Origins, 25,27; Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 198.

Pliny gave some of the information he has known about these Christians:

“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.“ Pliny, Letters, transl. by William Melmoth, rev. by W.M.L. Hutchinson (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1935), vol. II, X:96, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 199.)

Flavius Josephus (37 – 100 AD)

Josephus was a first century Jewish historian. On two occasions, in his Jewish Antiquities, he mentions Jesus. The first reference stated:

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he … wrought surprising feats…. He was the Christ. When Pilate …condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared … restored to life…. And the tribe of Christians … has … not disappeared.” Josephus, Antiquities 18.63-64, cited in Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament”, 212.

The second reference described the condemnation of one “James” by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Josephus said, This James, was “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ.” Josephus, Antiquities xx. 200, cited in Bruce, Christian Origins, 36.

The Babylonian Talmud (70-500 AD)

There are only a few clear references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish rabbinical writings. The most significant reference to Jesus from this period stated:

“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald … cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.” The Babylonian Talmud, transl. by I. Epstein (London: Soncino, 1935), vol. III, Sanhedrin 43a, 281, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 203.

Lucian of Samosate (c. 125 – after 180 AD)

Lucian was a Syrian satirist and rhetorician. He wrote of the early Christians as follows:

“The Christians … worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account…. [It] was impressed on them by their original lawgiver 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.” Lucian, “The Death of Peregrine”, 11-13, in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, transl. by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949), vol. 4., cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 206.

There is overwhelming evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ, both in secular and biblical history. But the greatest evidence that Jesus did exist is the fact that literally thousands of Christians in the first century A.D., including the twelve apostles, were willing to give their lives as martyrs for Him. People will only die for what they believe to be true and real.

In His service,

BibleAsk Team

 

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