Historical Documentation for Jesus (Part 1)
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Imagine for a moment that you did not have a Bible to learn about Jesus. How would you know that He ever lived on earth? Would it be possible to prove His existence? In modern times, there has been skepticism about the historical validity of Jesus’ existence.
In this multi-part series, we will review non-Biblical historical sources concerning the existence of Jesus of Nazareth and His earliest followers.
Consider for a moment: millions of people lived in the Middle East during the first century AD. We do not know much if anything about most of them. They lived their lives, died, and became lost to time. Archeologists occasionally dig up some artifact with a name on it from that time, but we rarely learn anything about these people.
Of the people we learn about in ancient records and archaeological finds, many of them either did something famous or infamous or they held some position of importance in a kingdom or empire. Said another way, the people mentioned in history did something significant enough to be remembered by others who lived in that time period.
To ascertain whether Jesus lived on earth, we will begin by examining the historical record to see if He is mentioned and what these records say about Him. Documentation about His followers are also important, as they may contain helpful information.
Josephus lived from about 37-100 AD. He belonged to the Jewish priestly lineage and through a series of events came to serve the Romans. He wrote some of the most valuable works on Jewish history in existence, including one called Antiquities of the Jews (likely composed about 93 AD). It provides us with two references to Jesus, which are listed below:
“Now about this time lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of men who receive truth with pleasure; and drew over to him many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. And When Pilate, at the information of the leading men among us, had him condemned to the cross, those who had loved him at first did not cease to do so. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day” (idem, 18.3).*
*In my quote I have removed the parts of Josephus that are considered later additions to the original text (called interpolations).
“…as Festus was not dead, and Albinus was still on the road, so 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 having accused them as breakers of the law, he delivered them over to be stoned” (ibid, 20.9).
What do we learn from these quotes?
– Jesus was considered a wise man who did surprising deeds, and was known as a teacher of truth.
– He won over many Jews and Greeks.
– A ruler named Pilate heard accusations against Jesus by the highest Jewish authorities.
– Jesus was condemned to be crucified.
– Those who loved him formed a group known as Christians, who were named after him (implying that Jesus was called Christ by them). They still existed during the time Josephus composed his work (later first century AD).
– Jesus had a brother named James.
– Some people called Jesus the Christ.
The next author we will review is the Roman historian Tacitus, who lived from approximately 55-118 AD. The Annals is an historical work he composed that chronicled events from 14 AD through 68 AD. This included the reigns of various Emperors, including Nero.
In book 15, we learn that Nero wanted to build a city named Neronia (named after himself). One problem is that a section of the old city of Rome stood in the way of this plan. Perhaps not surprisingly, part of the old city of Rome burned down.
The Roman people demanded that the source of this crime be revealed. In their minds, someone had to pay the price for this damage. Nero tried offering sacrifices to the Roman gods and even giving gifts to the people, but these actions did not appease them. People still suspected that Nero intentionally burned the city to make room for new project. Somehow Christians were blamed for the disaster and subsequently punished. Tacitus wrote the following:
“But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiation of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report (that he started the fire), 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 Judea, 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 of 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 by 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. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed” (idem, 15.44).
What do we learn from this text?
– Christians were a religious sect existing in Rome during the reign of Nero. This was about 64 AD or a little over 30 years from the time Jesus is believed to have died.
– They were hated by the populace for their abominations. (Side note: This is similar language that Tacitus uses of Jewish people; the concept of an abominable religion likely came from the rejection of the Roman pantheon – see The Histories, 5.4-5). Because they are mentioned as a separate class of people, they had distinctive beliefs from pagan Romans (so they could be identified as different).
– They were named Christians after their founder Christus. This is the Latin term for Christ.
– Christus suffered the extreme penalty (crucifixion) during the reign of Emperor Tiberius Caesar.
– When this occurred, Pontius Pilate was the regional ruler in Judea (called procurator by Tacitus, which is a detail we will review in a future article).
– The movement of Christus started in Judea and eventually came to Rome.
– Tacitus mentions that “an immense multitude was convicted” of being a Christian. This means Christianity had spread considerably in Rome and the surrounding areas. The movement could not be considered insignificant nor was it new in the city of Rome. In other words, it existed for some time prior to Nero’s persecution.
– Christians suffered terribly in this persecution.
Next week, we will look at three more historical sources and summarize their collective findings about the life of Jesus! (CLICK HERE to read Part 2 of this series)
To read more about this subject, download our free booklet: How Do We Know Jesus Really Lived? (CLICK HERE to download)
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3, 20.9. Whiston’s Translation revised by Rev. A.R. Shilleto, Vol. 3, London: George Bell and Sons, York Street, 1889. pp 274-275, 405.
Tacitus. Annals, 15.44. Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, MacMillan and Co., 1894, pp 304-305.