It may seem strange that there are still those who question whether Jesus of Nazareth actually existed. But this ignorance of the facts can be traced to late in the Nineteenth Century, at a time when even some Christians were being intimidated by what seemed to be strong scientific arguments against the supernatural in general, and Christianity in particular.
The thesis arose that the New Testament had been written decades after the events they describe, and that Jesus was, at most, a wise teacher, but not the Son of God and Messiah. And even though the early dates for the books of the New Testament have been widely accepted, based on research and historical accuracy, the idea remains that they are somehow unreliable as a record of actual historical events.
In fact, the evidence for the historicity of Jesus and the events of the New Testament are beyond all reasonable doubt. This evidence comes from a variety of sources, both Christian and non-Christian. The kind of evidence available is also varied, and the cumulative witness provided by them all leaves no question, purely on an historical level, of the life, sayings, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, known to his followers as Christ and Lord.
As an aside, it must be noted that Jesus Christ is not his name. “Christ” is the Greek word for the Hebrew word, “moshiach”, or Messiah, the one who was expected to come as a deliverer for the Jews. By the time of Jesus, the general expectation was that Messiah would be a political figure who would free the Jewish nation from Roman oppression. The early disciples, and those who followed them after Pentecost, recognised Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour, hence the phrase associated with him: Jesus Christ. Christ was a title, not a name.
There are a number of references to Jesus in what is called the Talmud. These were the collections of Jewish laws and regulations which were written down over the decades after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Naturally, these were not sympathetic references: Jesus was seen as a troublemaker who had been put to death on Passover eve for heresy. He is assigned insulting names, such as Ha-Taluy, “the Hanged One”, and Ben-Pantera, “Son of the Virgin”. Of course, this latter name does not mean the writers believed in the Virgin Birth, it was a way of mocking one who was said to have been born of a virgin. The main point is that the references were to an actual, historic figure, not a myth or legend.
Even more interesting are the chapters in history books written by the Jewish historian, Josephus. He was writing just after the fall of Jerusalem and had, in fact, taken part in the wars with the Romans at that time – for both sides. He wrote the History of the Jewish War, and the Antiquities of the Jews, published in 93 A.D., a history of his people from Genesis to his own day.
He writes about John the Baptist, and about Jesus “the so-called Christ”, as well as other individuals we know from the Gospels, such as Herod, Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas, the Pharisees and Sadducees, and others. His description of the death of Herod Antipas closely resembles that given by Luke in Acts, and Josephus also talks about the death of James, the brother of Jesus. There is a long and contentious passage in another of his works in which he speaks more fully about Jesus, but it is thought that the original text has been amended to be more favourable to Christian views. Nevertheless, the references by Josephus, and those in the Talmud, make clear that Jesus was indeed an historical figure, support the statements in the Gospels and Acts, yet are by no means written to support Christianity as such, or the deity of Jesus.
There are references to Jesus, usually indirectly, in some Roman historians, when they refer to the early Christians, who they see as being subversive and revolutionary because of their refusal to take part in Roman society’s religious and social practices. Tacitus and Suetonius both write of the Christians and their founder. Tacitus, when reporting on the fire that destroyed Rome under Nero, writes how the Emperor made the Christians the scapegoats:
“Christus, from whom they got their name, had been executed by sentence of the Procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was Emperor”.
It is one thing, however, to prove the existence of Jesus through historical records written by others, but the earliest and best records are those we find in the New Testament itself. These 27 books were written in different places over a period of fifteen to twenty years and by a range of individuals, each with their own approach and motive. These, especially the Letters of Paul, Peter, James, John and others will be examined next.