Jesus is widely held to be one of the most (if not, the most) influential figures in history. Do we have historical evidence that Christ ever walked the face of the earth? I’m guessing the answer is we do not, as this would have been the easiest way to make Christianity’s claims credible. But how is it possible that there is no official record for the life of Jesus — a Man who, whatever His critics may say, was utterly unlike any other?
Without a doubt, Jesus of Nazareth is the most influential figure in history. A person of such enormous significance will naturally be a subject of our curiosity and fascination. This interest has resulted in a long, rigorous search into the ancient sources that speak about Him.
The New Testament has usually been the primary source ― and often the only source ― for studying about Jesus’ life, teaching, and ministry. But in the last 100 years, the Bible hasn’t enjoyed the same privileged position among most of the scholarship. New Testament scholars and other ancient historians have been keen on looking into extracanonical sources to understand Jesus, often placing a higher value on them than on the canonical sources.
The history of scholarship regarding the life and teachings of Jesus can be traced via three “Quests for the Historical Jesus”. These quests have, in various ways, sought to grasp the connection between the Jesus of history and the Jesus we read about in Scripture.
It was once popular to maintain that Jesus could not be known as a figure of history. Today, virtually all New Testament scholars affirm that Jesus was a historical person. The arguments that deny His existence are weak and inexplicable. With developments, these quests for the historical Jesus have resulted in increasing trust in the New Testament as a reliable source.
Today, virtually all New Testament scholars affirm that Jesus was a historical person
It is important to understand a couple of things from this very brief survey. First, several scholars betray their prejudice against the New Testament by quickly dismissing it as the main source for our understanding of Jesus. Second, in turning to the other sources, they implicitly bolster the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus by recognising references to Him outside the canonical works. It is to some of these extra-biblical references that the rest of the space in this answer will be devoted.
The Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37 – AD 100) was born Joseph Ben Mattathias into a priestly family. At the age of 29, he was a commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee when the Jewish revolt against Rome broke out. During the war, he surrendered to the Romans and became sympathetic to their cause. He became a Roman citizen after the war and worked as a writer under Roman emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. He also took a Roman name – Flavius Josephus – to honour his patrons.
Christians took a lot of interest in his writings because they supplied much information on a few New Testament figures such as John the Baptist, James (the leader of the early Jerusalem church), and Jesus. There is a broad agreement among scholars that Josephus wrote something like the following in his book, Jewish Antiquities:
“At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out (Ant. 18.63-64).”
In the same book, Josephus narrates the account of James’ execution and briefly makes another mention of Jesus:
“He assembled the sanhédrin of the judges and brought before it the brother of Jesus called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. When he had accused them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned (Ant. 20.200).”
Scholars are unanimous in affirming that the words “the brother of Jesus called Christ” are authentic.
Christians took a lot of interest in Josephus’ writings because they supplied much information on a few New Testament figures
Cornelius Tacitus is generally considered by scholars as the greatest Roman historian. He was the proconsul of Asia in AD 112-113, where he was the neighbouring administrator to his friend, Pliny the Younger. Tacitus wrote Annals, which describes events during the years AD 14 – AD 68 (from the death of Augustus through Nero). This was Tacitus’ best work and has been acknowledged by modern historians as our best source to learn about this period of history.
In Annals 15, chapters 38 through 45 describe the great fire in Rome during the reign of Nero (AD 64). The emperor blamed the Christians for this fire. In chapter 44, Tacitus writes the following:
“But neither human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered. Therefore, to put down the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts, whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular.”
This is an explicit reference to Christians and Christ.
Suetonius (AD 70 – AD 140) was a Roman writer, who practised law in Rome and was a friend of Pliny the Younger. For a short time around AD 120, he served as secretary to Emperor Hadrian. His best surviving work, ‘Lives of the Caesars’, narrates the lives and reigns of the first 12 emperors, from Julius Caesar to Domitian. In the fifth book of Lives, called ‘The Deified Claudius’, Suetonius makes a straightforward reference to Christ.
“He [Claudius] expelled the Jews from Rome since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chrestus.”
The best inference is that Suetonius misheard the name (the pronunciation of Christus and Chrestus would have been very similar) and misunderstood the report as talking about a Chrestus active in the Jewish community at the time. The broad consensus among scholars is that, when Jewish merchants and visitors in certain synagogues preached about Jesus Christ, there was a strong reaction to them. These were referred to as “disturbances” by Suetonius.
There are other classical writers like Pliny the Younger, Lucian of Samosata and others who have made direct mentions of Jesus in their writings. These references are important because there are people in every generation who don’t believe the historicity of the New Testament and would want to see evidence for Jesus outside the Scripture.
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