Was Jesus a real person?
There are some questions that are hard to answer in the search for faith. Whether Jesus was an actual historical figure is not one of them. For any honest, competent historian there really is no credible disagreement that Jesus existed. The ancient historical evidence, both Christian and pagan, for Jesus of Nazareth is overwhelming. There is likely more solid documentation of his life than any other ancient individual. There is no real debate. Secular and religious scholars agree that Jesus was a real person in ancient Israel with a real following.
Jesus was a real person. Historians almost universally agree.
Are we surprised by that? I was when I first explored the issue. But if you remove the opinions that are driven by sheer bias, the historical community agrees that there was really a guy named Jesus in Israel who lived during the time of Jesus.
As a historian, I was amazed at the number and variety of reliable ancient sources that confirm the life of Jesus. The ancient secular sources that I studied for my history degree in college unambiguously mention Jesus and the early Christian church. The surviving accounts of the early church clearly present Jesus as not only a real person but one who was familiar and personal to the original disciples. The prominent Jewish historian of the day also mentions Jesus. Jews, Gentiles, and Christians all recorded the life of Jesus and this is just those works that have survived the past 2000 years.
As a lawyer, I was initially impressed by the sheer amount of references. Upon further examination, though it was the reliability of the evidence that blew me away. Many of the historical records preserved that mention Jesus and His people were written by people who were opposed to Jesus. It is in the form of witnesses testifying who were against Christianity. In a Court of Law, these are called adverse witnesses. They have no sympathy for the cause they are testifying on behalf or are outright opposed to it. Their supporting testimony is generally viewed as trustworthy because they have no reason to lie in support of a cause they dislike. It is like having the Police Commissioner testifying in court to provide an alibi for a professional criminal at a trial. The fact that it is so unlikely to happen makes the evidence offered even more credible.
What is the evidence? Let’s start with an overview of the Christian Sources.
Was Jesus a real person? The Christian Sources
As can be expected, the Christian sources for Jesus are abundant. The sheer amount of written
documentation from a historical perspective, though, is still quite surprising.
The Bible is Evidence
Evidence is defined as any matter or fact offered to prove or disprove the truth of a proposition. It does not have to completely prove the issue or answer the question in order for it to be evidence. It merely has to add weight to one side of an issue or the other. Thus, the presence of questions in a person’s mind about whether everything contained in a document is true, does not mean it is not evidence of truth on other issues.
For example, we have the Gospels and the letters of Paul, John, Peter, James, the writer of Hebrews and Jude that are contained in the Bible. These were originally separate works of the individual writers that were written at different times across the world. They then survived since the time of Jesus. There are no comparable contemporary ancient works attesting to the life of any other individual in existence. The Bible contains accounts from a variety of sources and is amazingly well-preserved and documented.
These early works of the church, at very least, show that a group of disparate authors all agree on one issue. That Jesus was a real person. Peter and John are said to have been friends and disciples of Jesus. James was the brother of Jesus. Luke states clearly that he not only accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys but that he thoroughly investigated the materials for his Gospel and for Acts. These are a lot of witnesses offered in support of the man Jesus. One does not have to agree with everything in the Bible to accept that there is a lot of evidence for Jesus contained therein.
We also have the letters of the early church fathers dating back to shortly after the Apostolic period. These were written by guys who did not meet Jesus in person. They did know intimately those who witnessed Jesus personally, the first disciples. Polycarp, for example, was said to have been a student of the Apostle John. Copies of his letter to the Philippians, which dates from around 110 AD, remain in existence. We also have works from Clement of Alexandria and Ignatius of Antioch, contemporaries of Polycarp from approximately the same time period. So in addition to the written works of John, for example, we have the works of Polycarp who knew John. They all testify clearly that Jesus was a real man who lived during that time…and happened to be the Son of God.
The Letters of the Early Church are Evidence
To these works are added the multitude of similar letters that come in the decades that follow. Even if we did not have the Bible itself, in these letters we see ample evidence of the impact of Jesus starting in the decades immediately after His death and resurrection. The letters contain many specific citations to Jesus’ teachings set out as direct quotes. They are so voluminous that we could reconstruct the doctrines of Christianity taught by Jesus from them alone. Papias, Iraneus, Justin Martyr, Origen, and many other early Christians wrote extensively about Jesus, the faith, and our core doctrines. The documentary evidence is substantial. An excerpt from Polycarp:
Wherefore gird up your loins and serve God in fear and truth,
forsaking the vain and empty talking and the error of the many, for
that ye have believed on Him that raised our Lord Jesus Christ from
the dead and gave unto him glory and a throne on His right hand;
unto whom all things were made subject that are in heaven and that
are on the earth; to whom every creature that hath breath doeth
service; who cometh as judge of quick and dead; whose blood God
will require of them that are disobedient unto Him.
The number of people alive today who knew Martin Luther King, Jr personally is declining with the passage of time. The brave folks that marched with him in Selma are becoming fewer with the passage of time. Yet, even if we put aside what King himself wrote, due to people recording their recollections and the stories they heard from others, his historical place will surely be memorialized. I never met the man, but there are too many people who knew him directly or whose parents or grandparents marched with Dr. King for me to believe that he did not exist. These Christian writers were in a similar circumstance.
Does this guarantee the truth of the accounts? No, but it does become clear that many people who were in the position to observe Jesus believed it and recorded their observations at the appropriate time period. Add to this the internal evidence from the letters and Scripture that has been confirmed through archaeological means and it is an impressive collection. Pontius Pilate was believed to have been a figment of the imagination of the writers of the Gospels until clear archeological evidence confirmed his existence.
Was Jesus a real person? The Secular Sources
The ancient secular historians provide evidence equally compelling of His existence as the Christians sources. In fact, from an evidentiary standpoint, they may be even more convincing. Skeptics may comfortably discard the writing of a Christian who supported Jesus by claiming bias. But what do they do with sources who actively despised Christians yet establish their worship of Jesus in Rome within 30 years of His Ascension?
Tacitus and Pliny each appear to despise Jesus and Christians with Pliny putting them to death. Yet, each man is used by God to testify of Jesus 2000 years after they wrote.
Tacitus and Pliny Testify for Jesus
Pliny and Tacitus may be strange names to us but they are very familiar to Roman historians. A large portion of the information we take for granted on the Roman Empire was written by these two historians. Both were members of the upper classes of Rome and were public officials who held high positions in the Roman Empire. They both also held Christians in great disdain. Writing in the same time period as the early church fathers, both men are considered very reliable historians. They each viewed all information with a skeptical eye. Tacitus’s Annals is considered to be a masterpiece and the pinnacle of Roman historical writing. These pagan historians each provide support for the historical Jesus.
In Annals written approximately 110-116 AD, Tacitus sets out the history of the Roman Empire from 14-68 AD. It is believed by many that as a Roman Senator he had access to the Empires records archive while compiling this history. Tactitus was also clearly no fan of Christians. He thought they were worthy of contempt. So when he records Nero’s burning down Rome and blaming Christians for it, his description is not meant to be sympathetic:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures 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 one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
Tacitus calls Christians wrongfully persecuted by the madman Nero abominations. This is terrible, of course, but look what he also does. The most prominent historian of Ancient Rome also writes of Pontius Pilate killing Christ during the reign of Tiberius as a background to this event. He further clearly states that this Christ was the object of worship of those he despised in Rome during the years of Nero’s persecution. This took place after the great fire of Rome of 64 AD or about 30 years after Jesus.
So by Tacitus’ own account, Christianity was alive and present in Rome 30 years after the man they worship, Christ, was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Mind-blowing, isn’t it?
Tacitus never met Jesus himself, but he clearly treats the crucifixion as a certainty. He also identifies Pontius Pilate as the Roman official involved. This reference is amazing for its simplicity and unintended confirmation of one of the most important questions in history.
Was there a real Jesus? Tacitus says “Yes”.
Was there a real Pontius Pilate who ordered Jesus killed? Tacitus says “Yes”.
Did Christians worship that Jesus as God in Rome 30 years after His Ascension? Again, Tacitus says “Yes”.
As a university history graduate who concentrated on Roman History, this answer astounds me to this day. We read so much Tacitus in our studies, it was part of just about every single class. It is overwhelming evidence by itself.
Pliny’s works are even more unintentional in their testimony. He was acting as a Governor in a portion of modern-day Turkey at the time of his works. Pliny writes to the Emperor around 112 AD requesting direction on how to properly conduct trials of Christians. Being Christian was their alleged crime and, shockingly, if they admitted to following Jesus they would be executed. Pliny in his letter sums up what he found in his investigation of the Christians of the day:
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.
Pliny certainly goes on to execute the ordered judgment on members of the early church. Despite this, he also establishes that the early church spread quickly and extensively from Jerusalem to throughout the Roman Empire within a short time after Jesus’ Ascension. These are likely the Christians reached on the missionary journeys of Paul detailed in the Book of Acts.
Christianity goes on in the one hundred years that follow to convert a majority of the Roman Empire, including eventually Emperor Constantine and his mother. It seems quite obvious the Emperor was in perfect position to confirm Jesus existence. Constantine could have simply checked the Roman archives to see whether Tacitus’ reference in Annals to the man Pontius Pilate killed was accurate. Even if we were to argue that Constantine’s conversion was for political gain, it strains credibility to argue that he would agree to follow a man who never existed.
Did we notice what is not present in either Tacitus’ account or Pliny’s letter to the Emperor? Neither man ever makes the claim that Jesus did not exist. Neither man claims that the Christ was the result of mass hypnosis or any of the other trendy theories that try to explain away Jesus. They don’t like Christians, they willingly kill them and don’t follow Jesus but they never even hint that He did not exist. It would seem that this would have been the simplest way to stomp out the religion they so clearly detested. Yet, they did not do so because it was simply an obvious truth that would be absurd to argue against. Other writers who could be included in this section:
Mara Ben Serapion, writing as early as 73 AD:
What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defense? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates? Famine and plague came upon them as a punishment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the “new law” he laid down.
Suetonius (69 AD -122 AD), another Roman historian writing of the reign of Emperor Claudius which was from 41 AD to 54 AD:
Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (Christ), he expelled them from Rome.
During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long-standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city.
The Evidence of Josephus
Josephus was another contemporary of Pliny, Tacitus, and the early church fathers. His story is all the more interesting because he was an Israelite. He was a child of Abraham. Josephus was born in Jerusalem in approximately 37 AD. This was just a few short years after Jesus. Josephus was born into a priestly family. As a result, he would have been taught the Scriptures from an early age. After reaching adulthood, Josephus dedicated his life to fighting against Rome. It is an interesting testament to just how lost Israel was at the time. A man born to be a priest chosen to serve God instead spent his time in armed rebellion against Rome. He took part in the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule until he was captured in 69 AD. He then switched sides and became a loyal Roman citizen and advisor to the Roman General Titus. It is while Josephus is acting in this capacity that Titus destroys Jerusalem and enslaves Israel. He is obviously on the front lines of the Jewish Wars.
Josephus then heads to Rome to live out the remainder of his life. As a member of a Jewish priestly family who rejected Jesus and fought against the Romans, Josephus would have been opposed to the newly born Christian church. The majority of the early persecutions recorded in the Book of Acts, for example, were done by the Jewish religious leaders. These were Josephus’ people. After his defection to the Romans, Josephus’ sympathies for Christians certainly would not have increased. Like his two contemporaries, Pliny and Tacitus, Roman citizens initially looked on Christians with contempt. Josephus is very much a witness adverse to the cause of Christ.
Josephus wrote two main works that survive, The Jewish Wars and The Antiquities of the Jews recounting his personal observations as well as the greater history of the Jewish people. Despite his personal biases, Josephus records the following about Jesus and John the Baptist, each from Antiquities:
he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.
Josephus mentions John the Baptist, James and Jesus, who is called the Christ in a work that was completed by 94 AD. This was only 50-60 short years after the events took place. This would again be like Martin Luther King, Jr. or John F. Kennedy in contemporary historical reference. Do we have any doubt that they existed?
Further, Josephus was born in Jerusalem in 37 AD. He spent the next 30 years living alongside the Apostles and church fathers. He would have been well aware of the explosive growth of the church during this amazing period as well as its persecution by the religious leaders, his people. He was in Jerusalem when Paul returns after his missionary journeys, for example, and may have been part of the riot against Paul. As a result, when Josephus writes of James, John the Baptist, and Jesus Christ, he clearly presents them as real people. He also discusses them with very little introduction. This attests to the fact that they are familiar names for his readers. Josephus is a great witness for Christ.
His final reference is the most extensive:
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 amongst 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.
Astoundingly clear, isn’t it? Josephus’ motivations in writing this section are uncertain. There are some who allege that he was a closet Christian. There are others who allege that it has been altered to some extent to make it more sympathetic to Christians. There is disagreement among scholars as to the entirety of the Testimonium Flavianum. In short, some argue that Josephus would not have written so positively about Jesus since he was a Jew. Despite this, it is still generally agreed that this section does indeed speak of Jesus as originally written.
Each of the three references of Josephus supports the assertions of the Bible and the early church fathers. They are also corroborated by Tacitus and the Secular Sources. The Christians, the Romans, and the Jews all agree that Jesus was a real person who was killed by Pontius Pilate. They all agree that Christians worship Him as God.
In a fascinating combination of sources, writing no later than 324 AD the early church historian Eusebius quotes the last of the three passages, the Testimonium Flavianum as it is known, in almost its entirety in his work on the history of the early church as affirmation of the truth of Jesus.
So Was Jesus a Real Person? Surely!
- The eyewitnesses to Jesus agree that He was a real person and recorded their lives with Him and His teachings.
- The early Christians who learned directly from those eyewitnesses also agree that Jesus was a real person and wrote of His teachings. They were taught by those who heard Jesus directly.
- Roman historians writing specifically about the time period at issue reference Jesus, His followers and His death at the hand of Pontius Pilate.
- Josephus grew up in Israel in the years following Jesus and had a front-row seat for its destruction. He mentions Jesus, James and John the Baptist as real people.
The number of varied and independent historical references to one man who lived 2000 years ago is just staggering. It would be like if you watched a Ken Burns documentary and read books by Tom Brokaw and Doris Kearns Goodwin and each independently mentioned the same really important figure. Yet, this figure had no official governmental role, was not a general or politician, had no money and lived in an obscure part of the world before dying the death of a criminal. Add in the fact the many sources for Jesus are just the ones that survived the past 2000 years and we get a glimpse of the overwhelming evidence and impact Jesus had on the world. It is like God testifying through the documents themselves.
This is only a small sample of the existing evidence for the man Jesus. If we are struggling with finding faith or with our faith, I pray that this would be a starting point for a full investigation of the issue. As a person whose livelihood depends upon scrutinizing facts and weighing evidence, once I began a full investigation of the historical Jesus my faith only grew stronger. There is no other single man whose fingerprint is so clearly present throughout the historical record.
Consider this fact: Jesus conquered the most powerful Empire in all of history, Rome without an army, a single sword or any threat of force. The Evidence for Jesus is overwhelming.
Calvary Catonsville – A Calvary Chapel in Maryland
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Pastor Tom Neary