The Historical Jesus
Vol: 169 Issue: 10 Saturday, October 10, 2015
I received an email castigating me for teaching the words and sayings of a ‘mythical historical figure’, with the writer speculating that if it weren’t for people as dumb as me, John Kerry would be president today.
According to my correspondent, Jesus wasn’t a genuine historical figure, but was instead a composite of a number of historical figures from His era.
He dismissed what he termed “obscure references in Josephus,” arguing that there is no genuine historical evidence for the life of Jesus outside the Bible.
And he thinks I’m dumb?
The ‘obscure’ references by Josephus are not exactly ‘obscure’ — and they are not exactly the only historical references to Jesus apart from the Bible.
Josephus was a historian who lived from 37 A.D. to about 100 A.D. He was a member of the priestly aristocracy of the Jews, and was taken hostage by the Roman Empire in the great Jewish revolt of 66-70 A.D.
Josephus spent the rest of his life in or around Rome as an advisor and historian to three emperors, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. For centuries, the works of Josephus were more widely read in Europe than any book other than the Bible.
They are invaluable sources of eyewitness testimony to the development of Western civilization, including the foundation and growth of Christianity in the 1st Century.
Josephus mentions Jesus in Antiquities, Book 18, chapter 3, paragraph 3.
“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.”
Scholars argue that the phrase, ‘He was the Christ’ was added at some later time. But scholars agree the bulk of the passage is unchanged.
In any case, Josephus also mentions John the Baptist and Herod in Antiquities, Book 18, chapter 5, paragraph 2:
“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.”
Josephus mentions James, the brother of Jesus, in Antiquities, Book 20, chapter 9, paragraph 1:
“Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done.”
Those are not exactly ‘obscure’ references, as I noted earlier.
Then there is the testimony of the Roman historian, Tacitus. Reporting on Emperor Nero’s decision to blame the Christians for the fire that had destroyed 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. . . “
Note several things here. First, the date. 64 AD was only a bit more than thirty years after the Crucifixion. Consider, for a moment, the assassination of JFK.
Many books and movies have been made offering dozens of conspiracy theories about who killed JFK, but nobody would publish one that denied he died of gunshot wounds in Dallas in November, 1963.
Or that JFK wasn’t a real person or that the assassination never happened.
There are too many living eyewitnesses to that event for it to be denied — even though it happened forty years ago.
Tacitus writes of ‘Christus’ (Latin for ‘Christ’) and notes His Crucifixion (Rome’s ‘extreme penalty’), dates it as taking place during the reign of Tiberius, references Pontius Pilate and confirms that Jesus was already a genuine historical figure of some notoriety Who spawned a ‘superstition’ so pervasive it had, only thirty years after His Death, already spread from Judea to Rome.
While Josephus was a Jew (albeit a Roman sympathizer), Tacitus was a Roman historian with no love lost for either Christus or Christians — note he refers to Christian worship as ‘abominations.’
It is no stretch to find in Tacitus’ account an indirect testimony attesting to the conviction the early Church believed Jesus rose from the grave after His Crucifixion.
Tacitus’ account of the ‘evil of Christianity’ is that of an unbeliever trying to explain the growth of a bizarre new religion based on the worship of a man who had been executed as a criminal by Rome — within living memory of those who received his report.
Tacitus had no reason to ‘invent’ Jesus and even less reason to want to propagate His religion.
Then there is the written accounts of Pliny the Younger to the Roman Emperor Trajan in the early part of the 2nd century.
In one of his letters, dated around A.D. 112, he asks Trajan’s advice about the appropriate 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.
At one point in his letter, Pliny relates some of the information he has learned 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’s account confirms the Christian practice of assembling to worship on a ‘certain fixed day’ where they sang hymns to Christ, ‘as if He were a god’. Unlike other gods of the time, the worship of Jesus was the worship of a Man Who had once lived on earth.
Pliny’s historical account, penned some seventy years after the Crucifixion, reflects Pliny’s understanding that Christians were worshipping an actual historical person as God!
Pliny notes that Christians bound themselves by a solemn oath not to violate various moral standards, which find their source in the ethical teachings of Jesus.
In addition, Pliny’s reference to the Christian custom of sharing a common meal likely alludes to their observance of communion.
There are even a few clear references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish rabbinical writings compiled between approximately A.D. 70-500.
The rabbis of that era had every reason to argue AGAINST a historical Jesus — they were trying to stamp out Christianity as a false religion.
A part of the Talmud composed between AD 70 and AD 200 recounts;
“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.”
‘Yeshu’ (or Yeshua’) is Hebrew for Jesus. The Talmud says he was ‘hanged’ — another term for crucifixion. Galatians 3:13 declares that Christ was “hanged”, and Luke 23:39 applies this term to the criminals who were crucified with Jesus.
The passage also tells us why Jesus was crucified. It claims He practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy!
Since this accusation comes from a distinctly hostile source, (as with Tacitus or Pliny) it isn’t that surprising that Jesus is described somewhat differently than in the New Testament.
What would be surprising, IF Jesus was NOT an actual historical Person, is that the Talmud would mention Him at all.
The passage references the miracles of Jesus, since the Talmud credits His practice of ‘sorcery’ to explain away what were evidently miracles too well attested to by eyewitnesses to be denied.
Lucian of Samosata was a second century Greek satirist. In one of his works, 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.”
Note that Lucian confirms that 2nd century Christians worshiped a ‘man’ “who introduced their novel rites” confirms that He was crucified, and credits Him as ‘their original lawgiver’.
In summary, then, we can learn seven critical pieces of information about the historical figure known as Jesus Christ, WITHOUT EVER CRACKING A BIBLE to do so.
First, both Josephus and Lucian indicate that Jesus was regarded as wise.
Second, Pliny, the Talmud, and Lucian imply He was a powerful and revered teacher.
Third, both Josephus and the Talmud indicate He performed miraculous feats.
Fourth, Tacitus, Josephus, the Talmud, and Lucian all mention that He was crucified.
Tacitus and Josephus say this occurred under Pontius Pilate. And the Talmud declares it happened on the eve of Passover.
Fifth, there are possible references to the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection in both Tacitus and Josephus.
Sixth, Josephus records that Jesus’ followers believed He was the Christ, or Messiah.
And finally, both Pliny and Lucian indicate that Christians worshipped Jesus as God!
That is hardly the only historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ. There are also the lives of the Apostles, all of whom (except for John) were given the choice between denying their eyewitness testimony of Jesus, or face a horrible execution.
Since each of them were eyewitnesses, they would know whether or not their testimony was true.
And it is beyond comprehension that they would all willingly face a death as painful as that suffered by James, or Peter or Jude or Thomas — if they knew it was a lie.
(Or even if they had a slightest doubt, one might imagine.)
There was no honor or glory involved in being an Apostle. Being a follower of Jesus made them apostates to their own religion.
It meant being disowned by all family and friends. It meant economic hardship, homelessness and, most of the time, living the life of an outlaw on the run.
In short, there was absolutely no incentive for advancing the case for Christ (in the natural) and every reason in the world to deny Him.
Unless He WAS the Christ that they testified had healed the sick, raised the dead, and appeared alive three days after His crucifixion and was seen by upwards of five hundred witnesses.
1st Corinthians 15:6 reveals;
“After that, He was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.”
Paul notes that, while some of those witnesses had died at the time of the composition of his letter to the Church at Corinth, the majority of them were still alive and able to confirm or deny his account.
And there is no credible record of any of those eyewitnesses ever recanting their testimony.
“We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:” (2nd Peter 1:19)
Jesus Christ was a real Person who made a real Promise to His Church.
“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I WILL come again, and receive you unto Myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” (John 14:2-3)
Even so, come, Lord Jesus!
Originally Published: December 6, 2004