Did the historical Jesus exist?
If Jesus existed as a human being and did so many amazing things, surely somebody at the time would have written about him? Well, actually, no. The first time Jesus is mentioned outside the Bible is sixty years after he supposedly died.
By then, Paul had already spread the myth of a Jesus that he himself had never met, and the first gospels may have already been written. After these sixty years of silence, there are five ‘early’ independent reports that Christians most often quote:
- A discredited fourth-century attempt to insert Christian propaganda into a first-century history book.
- A passing second-century reference to the death of Christ, which gets Pontius Pilate’s job title wrong.
- Two uncontroversial second-century records of the existence of Christians in Rome and Asia Minor.
- A claim, made in the ninth century, that somebody else wrote, in the third century, about somebody else writing about a solar eclipse in a lost first-century document.
There is no independent record, in all of recorded history, of any of the following: his alleged bloodline from Abraham and David, his alleged virgin birth, his parent’s alleged flight from Herod, his alleged baptism by John the Dipper, his alleged preaching to large multitudes, his alleged miracles (walking on water, reviving corpses etc), the nature of his alleged trial or death, or his alleged return from being dead to being alive again.
Chronologically, these claims are:
- Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, in his Jewish Antiquities of 93 ad.
- Gaius Tacitus, a Roman historian, in his Annals of about 110 ad.
- Pliny the Younger, a Roman Governor, in his Letters of about 110 ad.
- Suetonius, a Roman historian, in his Lives of the Caesars of about 120 ad.
- Thallus, a first century historian, in an allegedly lost undated document.
1. Flavius Josephus
Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, in his Jewish Antiquities of 93 ad, was the first independent historian to refer to the existence of Jesus. Josephus was a thirty-year-old Jewish rebel during the revolt of 66 ad who miraculously survived a suicide pact among his troops, then switched sides and became a Roman citizen. In 93 ad he published the Jewish Antiquities, a twenty-book history of the Jews. This allegedly contained this reference to Jesus:
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.
Aside from not being contemporaneous, Jesus-mythologists have noted that this reference is weighted down with alarm bells.
- Josephus was a Jew, writing a Jewish history. He would never have called Jesus ‘the Christ’.
- This remarkable claim, which would have been great propaganda for early church leaders, seems to have gone unnoticed for nearly a quarter of a millennium.
- As late as 230 ad, Origen, one of the fathers of the church, was unaware of the claim; indeed he denied that Josephus believed Jesus was the Christ.
- It was 324 ad before Bishop Eusebius became the first person to quote this passage. Incidentally, this is the same Bishop who took another passage from Josephus, in which an owl appeared over King Herod’s head, and rewrote the owl as an angel.
- Even the Catholic Encyclopedia admits that ‘the passage seems to suffer from repeated interpolations.’ Top marks to whoever decided to use the word ‘interpolation’ as a euphemism for forgery.
Some Jesus mythologists believe that Christians ‘interpolated’ (great word!) all of this passage, as it seems to interrupt the flow of the narrative before and after it.
Another theory is that Josephus may have mentioned Jesus by quoting, more rationally, some extracts from an earlier document, and Christians later ‘interpolated’ (swoon!) all of the propaganda about Jesus being divine. On balance, I believe that something like this probably happened. This would be consistent with a later, shorter reference in the same book to James as being ‘the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ’, although even here it is unusual to see a person named by reference to his brother rather than his father.
The Catholic Encyclopedia concludes simply of the controversies that
The difficulty has not been definitively settled.
That is hardly a ringing endorsement of what is supposed to be the first independent historical record of Jesus.
2. Gaius Tacitus
A second independent record of Jesus was written about 110 AD. Gaius Tacitus was a Roman Consul who turned his attention to writing in his forties. His first major work, the Histories, was written around 105 ad. It chronicled the Flavian dynasty that ruled the Roman Empire during the final third of the first century.
His second major work, the Annals, was published about five years later. It covered the quarter century leading up to the Flavian dynasty, from the death of Augustus Caesar to the suicide of Nero. Here’s what Tacitus had to say about Jesus in the context of the spread of Christianity, and the burning of Rome, in 64 AD:
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 Judaea, 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. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car.
Jesus-mythologists have noted these points about this record:
- Though somewhat overshadowed by the unpleasant nature of Nero, this does suggest that a person known as Christus once existed. Tacitus was a disciplined historian, and is likely to have satisfied himself that what he wrote was accurate. Despite this, the claim has been challenged on various grounds.
- It is far from contemporaneous, being written almost eighty years after the supposed event.
- It is merely a passing reference while discussing something else, to explain how the Christians got their name.
- Tacitus did not base the reference on official records as, if they had existed, they would have called the victim Jesus and given Pilate his proper title of prelate.
3. Pliny the Younger
A third independent record of Jesus was written in about 110 AD. Pliny the Younger was a Roman politician who published ten books of his Letters. One was written around 110 ad, when Pliny, in his late forties, was Governor of a Roman Province in what today is Turkey. Pliny was seeking the advice of the Roman Emperor Trajan on how to deal with people brought before him accused of the ‘contagious superstition’ of Christianity. He wrote that:
They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, 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 eat in common a harmless meal.
From this custom, however, they desisted after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your commands, I forbade the meeting of any assemblies. After receiving this account, I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavour to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to officiate in their religious rites: but all I could discover was evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition. I deemed it expedient, therefore, to adjourn all further proceedings, in order to consult you.
Jesus-mythologists have noted two points about this record:
- The letter refers to the spread of Christianity eighty years after the supposed death of Jesus, not to the historical accuracy of Jesus as a person. As an aside, it is interesting that women officiated at the Christian rites.
- Also, this is not a major issue for Pliny: it is among a series of letters to the Emperor raising minor administrative queries, like prize moneys for athletes and freedoms of the city.
Trajan’s reply certainly showed no major concern about the spread of Christianity:
You have adopted the right course in investigating the charges against the Christians who were brought before you. It is not possible to lay down any general rule for all such cases. Do not go out of your way to look for them. If indeed they should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that where the party denies he is a Christian, and shall make it evident that he is not, by invoking our gods, let him (notwithstanding any former suspicion) be pardoned upon his repentance. Anonymous informations ought not to he received in any sort of prosecution. It is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and is quite foreign to the spirit of our age.
4. Gaius Suetonius
A fourth independent record of the possible existence of Jesus was written in about 120 AD by Gaius Suetonius, who was a Roman historian who worked for Pliny and various Emperors. His many works ranged from the academic Grammatical Problems and Lives of the Grammarians to the more populist Greek Terms of Abuse and Lives of Famous Whores.
In about 120 ad, in his major work, Lives of the Caesars, he says of the Emperor Claudius that:
As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.
Now, Chrestus may be a misspelling of Christus, but it is also the correct Latin version of a different Greek name. So this passage means one of two things: either
- There were Christians in Rome at the time of Claudius, causing trouble in the name of their Christ, whose name was misspelled by an expert in linguistics; or
- There was a Jew in Rome called Chrestus, directly causing trouble.
Either way, the passage proves nothing about the historical accuracy of Jesus as a person.
This is the weakest claim by far. George Syncellus, a ninth-century Christian, was writing about the gospel story that the earth went dark when Jesus died. He quoted Julian Africanus, a third-century Christian, as having written:
Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the Sun in the third book of his Histories.
Thallus was a pagan historian who lived in either the first or second century ad. But there are three problems with this claim:
- The alleged original document does not exist.
- Nobody else who quoted Thallus before the ninth century had ever mentioned this.
- Even if Thallus had said this, his alleged quote does not even mention Jesus.
Surely an all-powerful God could have inspired his defenders to come up with a better argument than this?
Taking all of the five references together, the most that can be said about the life of Jesus is this.
- During the reign of Tiberius, Pontius Pilate may have executed a criminal called Jesus. I believe that this probably happened; Jesus was a common name and the Romans executed many criminals.
- If he existed, this Jesus was not a major figure, as nobody other than his followers wrote about him for over half a century.
- Whether or not he existed, his name became the symbol of a religious movement that spread to at least Rome and Asia Minor.
- There is no independent record, in all of recorded history, of any of the following: his alleged bloodline from Abraham and David, his alleged virgin birth, his parent’s alleged flight from Herod, his alleged baptism by John the Dipper, his alleged preaching to large multitudes, his alleged miracles (walking on water, reviving corpses etc), the nature of his trial or his death, or his alleged return from being dead to being alive again.