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

jesus-4Hello C,

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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Please keep in mind that the normal objective measure of the reliability of historical documents is based on: 1) The number of available copies of ancient manuscripts and 2) the time span between the original version and the date of those copies still in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 which were written between 50-100 AD. Copies of these papyri were reproduced in 125-200 AD, meaning that the time span between the originals and the copies still in existence today is 29 years to 130 years, putting all these manuscripts beings 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 that dwarfs any other figure of ancient history. 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) Secular History

Some of the more important historical evidences of Jesus include the following:

Cornelius Tacitus (AD55-120) Roman historian:  Most acclaimed works are the Annals and the Histories.  The Annals cover the period from Augustus Caesar‘s death in AD14 to the death of the Emperor Nero in AD68, while the Histories begin after Nero’s death and proceed to the reign of Domitian in AD96.  In the Annals, Tacitus alludes to the death of Christ and to the existence of Christians at Rome.  See Annals XV,44: But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome.  Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities.  Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also.”  (The misspelling of Christ as “Christus” was a common error made by pagan writers). It is interesting that Pilate is not mentioned in any other pagan document which has survived.  It is an irony of history that the only surviving reference to him in a pagan document mentions him because of the sentence of death he passed on Jesus the Messiah.

Suetonius:  Roman historian and court official during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. Suetonius wrote in his Life of Claudius: “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”  (Life of Claudius 25.4).  Chrestus is a misspelling of Christus; the spelling probably assumes that the spelling of Jesus’ title “Christos” was the same as ate ChiRho symbol which was also a literary device which indicated a quote worthy of note = the ‘chrestus” symbol.  Claudius’ expulsion of the Christians form Rome is mentioned in Acts 18:2.  This event took place in 49AD. In his work Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius also wrote: “Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”  Assuming Jesus was crucified in the early thirties, Suetonius places Christians in the Roman capital less than 20 years later and he reports that they were suffering for their faith and dying for their conviction that Jesus had really lived, died and that He had risen from the dead!

Pliny the Younger: Roman governor in Bithynia AD112 wrote to Emperor Trajan to seek advice as to how to treat the Christians. He recounts that he had been killing Christian men, women, and children.  He is concerned that so many have chosen death over simply bowing down to a statue of the emperor or being made to “curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do.” (Epistles X, 96).

Tallus: Tallus was a secular historian who (circa AD52) wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean from the Trojan War to his own time. The document no longer exists but it was quoted by other writers like the Christian, Julius Africanus, who wrote around AD221.  He quotes Tallus’ comments about the darkness that enveloped the land during the late afternoon hours when Jesus died on the cross.  Julius wrote: Tallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun unreasonably, as it seems to me (unreasonably of course, because a solar eclipse could not take place at the time of the full moon, and it was at the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died.” Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18.1 The importance of Tallus’ comments is that the reference shows that the Gospel account of the darkness that fell across the earth during Christ’s crucifixion was well known and required a naturalistic explanation from non-Christians.

Phlegon: Julius Africanus also quoted another secular scholar whose works are now lost. Phlegon wrote a history called Chronicles.  Phlegon also comments on the darkness at the time of Christ’s crucifixion:  “During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon.” Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18.1
(The 3rd century Christian apologist Origen also references Phlegon’s record of this event in his work Celsum, 2.14,33,59 as does the 6th century writer Philopon (De.opif.mund. II, 21).

Mara Bar-Serapion: Syrian stoic philosopher who wrote a letter from prison to his son circa 70AD. He compares Jesus to the philosophers Socrates and Pythagoras.

Josephus ben Mattathias (also known as Flavius Josephus):  37-100AD, Jewish priest, general and historian.  He wrote two great works of Jewish history: The Jewish War, written in the early 70’s and Jewish Antiquities, which was finished about AD94. In his work, Jewish Antiquities, there is a passage that has created heated debate among scholars for many decades:  “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.  And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.” Antiquities, XVIII, 33.

Lucian of Samosate: Greek satirist later half of 2nd century spoke scornfully of Christ and the Christians but never argued that Jesus never existed. “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day, the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account…” The Death of Peregrine, 11-13.

The Babylonian Talmud: “It has been taught:  On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu.  And an announcer went out, in front of him, for 40 days (saying): ‘He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray.  Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and plead in his behalf.’ But, not having found anything in his favor, they hanged him on the eve of Passover.” Sanhedrin 43a; df.t.Sanh. 10:11; y. Sanh. 7:12; Tg. Esther 7:9  (Another version of this text reads: “Yeshu the Nazarene.”  Yeshu or Yehoshua is Hebrew (or Aramaic) for Jesus in English this name is also translated “Joshua.”  The Old Testament hero bore the same name as Jesus the Messiah.  “Hanged” is another way of referring to a crucifixion; see Luke 23:39 and Galatians 3:13.

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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