Was Jesus a real person? The Secular Historical Evidence
For an honest, competent historian there really is no credible disagreement that Jesus existed. It may be a controversial question in the areas of philosophy or religion. Yet, the ancient historical evidence, both Christian and pagan, for Jesus of Nazareth is overwhelming. There is no real debate. Secular and religious scholars agree that Jesus was a real person in ancient Israel with a real following.
Was Jesus a real person? Historians almost universally agree He was.
Are we surprised by that? I was when I first explored the issue. As a historian, I was amazed at the number and variety of reliable ancient sources that confirm the life of Jesus. As a lawyer, I was greatly impressed by not only the amount but the reliability of the evidence. It shows the inherent bias of our culture that one of the most clearly attested lives in the ancient world is still up for questioning. There is more evidence for Jesus than most other ancient historical figures.
We covered an overview of the multitude of Christian sources in Part I (Part I – The Christian Sources). Today we will look at the secular sources. They are truly amazing. In the realm of ancient history, the presence of multiple credible contemporary sources cannot be understated.
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 those 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.
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 who I wrote of previously, here Part I – The Christian Sources 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 which was 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 no fan of Christians. When he arrives at that portion of time in his history that dealt with Nero burning down Rome and blaming Christians, 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.
He may call Christians abominations, but the most prominent historian of Ancient Rome also confirms Pontius Pilate killed Christus, Christ, during the reign of Tiberius. He further clearly states that this Christ was the object of worship of those poor fools he despised in Rome during the years of Nero’s persecution. This took place after the great fire of Rome of 64 AD. This would place it 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. Amazing, 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 amazing 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. Pliny writes to the Emperor around 112 AD requesting direction on how to conduct a trial of Christians. Shockingly, if they admitted that they were indeed Christians, the short answer is that they would be executed. The investigation Pliny conducted in support of his trial revealed their crimes:
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 from Jerusalem to both the heart and the outskirts of the Roman Empire within a short time after Jesus’ Ascension.
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.
Christianity goes on to convert a majority of the Roman Empire, including eventually Emperor Constantine and his mother. It seems quite obvious that mother or son 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.
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. He conquered the most powerful Empire in all of history without a single army.
Was Jesus a real historical figure? Yes, most certainly! And so much more than that!
Calvary Catonsville –
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Pastor Tom Neary