By Katie Murphy
The Historical Evidence for Jesus
The search for the historical Jesus has been a topic that has fascinated scholars and laypeople alike since the Enlightenment. Although in recent decades many people may have come to the conclusion that Jesus never lived, or was an amalgamation of various Middle Eastern figures.
There are significant Roman, Jewish, and Christian accounts that describe the historical Jesus.
In fact, the vast majority of academics, historians, and archaeologists would argue with little disagreement that a man named Jesus from the province of Palestine was executed by the Roman Empire and that his followers eventually went on to found Christianity, the world’s largest religion.
Academics have not come to their conclusions due to personal faith or belief, but rather due to hard evidence and scholarship. The most prominent Biblical scholars who support the argument for a historical Jesus are atheists and they base their reasoning on reliable historical sources. There are significant Roman, Jewish, and Christian accounts that describe the historical Jesus.
Flavius Josephus’ account
The first source of evidence is from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Josephus in his youth had taken part in a failed rebellion against the Roman occupation of the Holy Land.
After his defeat he sided with the Romans and wrote Antiquities of the Jews, a history of Judaism and the Jewish people around 93 C.E. Josephus described Jesus as being a wise teacher who performed great miracles of healing in the Holy Land and was crucified under Puntius Pilate.
Josephus also mentioned James, Jesus’ brother and how Jesus fulfilled prophecies and was the Jewish Messiah. Although most historians would dismiss Josephus’ points regarding the supposed miracles working of Jesus and his fulfilment of prophecies, his account is invaluable because it corroborates with other sources regarding the crucifixion of Jesus and other key elements of the Christian narrative.
Another important historical source comes from Tacitus, the great Roman historian and senator. Tacitus was an important political figure in the early Roman Empire and had no possible sympathies to the Jewish people like Josephus may have.
Tacitus described in his Annals how cruel Emperor Nero started the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. but blamed the small community of Christians and began their persecution.
He also wrote that the Christians received their name from their founder, ‘Christus’ who was executed by Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius which matches up with the timeline laid out in the Gospels. Again, this gives a non-Christian account of the Crucifixion and the persecution of Christians.
Pliny the Younger is another Roman political figure who mentioned the early Christian Church but in very disparaging terms. He described the first Christian worship practices as consisting of chanting at dawn and worshipping Christ like a god. He also wrote that he received this information from two slave-women he had tortured who were deaconesses in the Church. This corroborates with writings in the New Testament which describes how there were deaconesses in the early Church as well as many slaves. Overall, Pliny dismissed Christianity as being merely a cult taken to extreme lengths.
The final historical source we use for evidence for the historical Jesus are the Pauline Epistles. The Pauline Epistles are letters from Christian leader Paul to the early Christian churches that he helped to set-up.
Paul had previously been a strict Jewish Pharisee but had converted to Christianity on a journey to Damascus around 33 C.E a few years after Jesus died. His letters which make-up thirteen out of the twenty-seven books of the canonical New Testament are among the earliest extant Christian writings, and were written within twenty-five years of Jesus’ death.
Although Paul’s letters are documents of faith, they do corroborate with other non-Christian writings insofar as they mention that Jesus was a Jewish man born in the Roman province of Palestine, that he had a brother named James, that he taught and appointed apostles to spread his message, and that he was executed by Roman authorities.
The non-Christian sources that mention Jesus Christ are very useful for scholars as they belonged to other faiths and therefore were not likely to have been biased in their favour.
The Pauline Epistles are also useful as source as they formed the most important points of the narrative of Jesus’ life extremely early on in the history of Christianity, before they could be corrupted or changed for religious or political reasons.
Indeed, many scholars argue that if we are to reject the historical figure of Jesus based on the evidence we have, then historians would have to reject nearly every other ancient historical figure on the same grounds.