Things I’m Asked: What historical evidence is there for Jesus

Christianity is not a culturally derived religious philosophy that gradually evolved over the years. Christianity is based on the historical reality of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This claim is hugely significant, for if it can be shown that the New Testament accounts of Jesus are nothing but myths and exaggerations formed incrementally over the years by overzealous adherents, Christianity disappears in a puff of smoke leaving nothing behind but moralism.

So let’s take a look at the historical evidence of Jesus.

John, the disciple who was closest to Jesus begins his epistles (letters) with these words:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touchedthis we proclaim concerning the Word of Life. The life appeared, we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us (1 John 1:1-3).

John is making it quite clear that he is writing from his first-hand experiences of Jesus. He is not at all interested in promoting myths that developed about him many years later. Peter and the other apostles said similar things. Luke records them in Acts saying: We are witnesses to these things (Acts 5:32).

Christopher Hitchens who, when he was alive, was one of the most vociferous “New Atheists,” made the claim that there is, ‘no firm evidence whatever that Jesus was a “character in history”’.[1] In order for the New Atheists to say such things, they need to ignore scholarly research and embrace selective rhetoric… then pass it off as informed comment. Hitchens’ claim is shocking in its untruth. His comments are driven by his atheistic agenda, not by academic research.

George Eldon Ladd, professor of New Testament exegesis and theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, in California, says this: “Unlike other world religions, modern man has the means of actually verifying Christianity’s truth by historical evidence.” [2] Some of this evidence comes from a chap called Josephus.

Josephus was born around 37AD, just 7 years after Jesus’ death. He was a Jewish military leader who sought to defend Galilee from the invading Romans in 67AD. General Vespasian (who later became emperor) captured him and Josephus abruptly changed his allegiance and agreed to become an interpreter and advisor to the Romans. The Romans gave him a villa in Rome and supported him while he wrote a history of the Jewish people called Jewish Antiquities in 90AD. In this work, Josephus writes: (and I’m careful here to exclude any controversial sections that some historians think were added later):

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man … for he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people who accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks … When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. (Jewish Antiquities, 18,63-64).

Another person who wrote about Jesus was Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56-120AD). Tacitus was proconsul of Roman Asia. He wrote the Annals of Imperial Rome, a history of the emperors Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero. Only some parts of the Annals have survived. One section of the surviving literature gives an account of the great fire of Rome that raged for six days, destroying 14 of the 18 city districts. Tacitus mentions that Nero tried to deflect the blame for the fire from himself to Christians. He wrote:

Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of man, loathed for their vices, who the crowd called Christians.

Christ, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate (Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, 15.44).

Yet another near-contemporary of Jesus was Pliny the Younger (c. 61-112AD). He was sent by Trajan to sort out the disorganized province of Bithynia, south of the Black Sea. Pliny wrote about the rapid spread of Christianity and the fact that he had interrogated some captured Christians to find out about their faith. The letter he wrote to give an account of this is significant because it takes the existence of Jesus Christ for granted (Pliny, Letter 96).

And there are other early witnesses to the historical Jesus, such as the Stoic philosopher, Mara bar Serapion (born 50AD), and Lucian of Samosata (AD 115-200).

The historical evidence of Jesus’ existence is overwhelming – particularly when you add the significant details recorded in the gospels. We need to remember that these gospel accounts of Jesus’ life were written at a time when those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life could have challenged the truth of their contents.

There is no record of any challenge ever occurring.

 

[1] Christopher Hitchens God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything 2007,

[2] G.E. Ladd. The Knowledge of God: The Saving Acts of God, 1962, 7-13

Dr Nick Hawkes is a scientist, pastor, apologist, writer and broadcaster. He also describes himself as an absent-minded, slightly obsessive man who is pathetically weak due to cancer and chemo, who has experienced, and needs to experience, the grace of God each day.

He blogs and records podcasts at nickhawkes.net

Nick told his life story to Eternity https://www.eternitynews.com.au/good-news/deadly-storms-heroin-addicts-cancer-and-my-faith/