Was Jesus a real person?
For an honest, competent historian there really is no credible disagreement that Jesus existed. It may be a controversial question in the areas of philosophy or religion. Yet, the ancient historical evidence, both Christian and pagan, for Jesus of Nazareth is overwhelming. There is no real debate. Secular and religious scholars agree that Jesus was a real person in ancient Israel with a real following.
Was Jesus a real person? Historians almost universally agree He was.
Are we surprised by that? I was when I first explored the issue.
As a historian, I was amazed at the number and variety of reliable ancient sources that confirm the life of Jesus. The ancient secular sources that I studied in college to learn about the intricacies of the Roman Empire mention Jesus and the early Christian church. I outlined the Christian Sources for Jesus in The Christian Sources.
As a lawyer, I was greatly impressed by not only the amount but the reliability of the evidence. A good portion of the witnesses testimony preserved was in the form of uninterested or adverse witnesses. In a Court of Law, these are witnesses who range from having no connection or sympathy with the cause they are testifying on behalf to those who are outright opposed to it. It is like having the Police Commissioner providing an alibi for a professional criminal at a trial. The fact that it is so unlikely that the source supports the case makes the evidence offered even more credible.
I discussed two of these adverse witnesses, Tacitus who despised Christians and Pliny who killed Christians in Part II – The Secular Sources. Despite their dislike of the early Christian church, these men have credibly testified for Jesus for the past 2000 years.
The Evidence of Josephus
Josephus was another contemporary of Pliny, Tacitus, and the early church fathers. His story is all the more interesting because he was an Israelite. He was a child of Abraham. Josephus was born in Jerusalem in approximately 37 AD. This was just a few short years after Jesus. Josephus was born into a priestly family. As a result, he would have been taught the Scriptures from an early age. After reaching adulthood, Josephus dedicated his life to fighting against Rome. It is an interesting testament to just how lost Israel was at the time. A man born to be a priest chosen to serve God spent his time instead in armed rebellion against Rome. He took part in the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule until he was captured in 69 AD. He then switched sides and became a loyal Roman citizen and advisor to the Roman General Titus. It is while Josephus is acting in this capacity that Titus destroys Jerusalem and enslaves Israel. He is on the front lines of the Jewish Wars.
Josephus then heads to Rome to live out the remainder of his life. As a member of a Jewish priestly family who rejected Jesus and fought against the Romans, Josephus would have been opposed to the newly born Christian church. The majority of the early persecutions recorded in the Book of Acts, for example, were done by the Jewish religious leaders. These were Josephus’ people. After his defection to the Romans, Josephus’ sympathies for Christians certainly would not have increased. Like his two contemporaries, Pliny and Tacitus, Roman citizens initially looked on Christians with contempt. Josephus is very much a witness adverse to the cause of Christ.
Josephus wrote two main works that survive, The Jewish Wars and The Antiquities of the Jews recounting his personal observations as well as the greater history of the Jewish people. Despite his personal biases, Josephus records the following about Jesus and John the Baptist, each from Antiquities:
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 when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.
Josephus mentions John the Baptist, James and Jesus, who is called the Christ in a work that was completed by 94 AD. This was only 50-60 short years after the events took place. This would again be like Martin Luther King, Jr. or John F. Kennedy in contemporary historical reference. Do we have any doubt that they existed?
Further, Josephus was born in Jerusalem in 37 AD. He spent the next 30 years living alongside the Apostles and church fathers. He would have been well aware of the explosive growth of the church during this amazing period as well as its persecution by the religious leaders, his people. He was in Jerusalem when Paul returns after his missionary journeys, for example, and may have been part of the riot against Paul. As a result, when Josephus writes of James, John the Baptist, and Jesus Christ, he clearly presents them as real people. Interestingly, he also discusses them with very little introduction. They are familiar names for his readers. Josephus is a great witness for Christ.
His final reference is the most extensive:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Each of the three references supports the assertions of the Bible and the early church fathers. They are also corroborated by Tacitus and the Secular Sources. The Christians, the Romans, and the Jews all agree that Jesus was a real person who was killed by Pontius Pilate. They all agree that Christians worship Him as God. In a fascinating combination of sources, writing no later than 324 AD the early church historian Eusebius quotes the last of the three passages, the Testimonium Flavianum as it is known, in almost its entirety in his work on the history of the early church as affirmation of the truth of Jesus.
There is disagreement among scholars as to the entirety of the Testimonium Flavianum. In short, some argue that Josephus would not have written so positively about Jesus since he was a Jew. Despite this, it is still generally agreed that this section does indeed speak of Jesus as originally written.
So Was Jesus a Real Person? Surely! The proof?
- The eyewitnesses to Jesus agree that He was a real person and recorded their lives with Him and His teachings.
- The early Christians who learned directly from those eyewitnesses also agree that Jesus was a real person and wrote of His teachings. They were taught by those who heard Jesus directly.
- Roman historians writing specifically about the time period at issue reference Jesus, His followers and His death at the hand of Pontius Pilate.
- Josephus grew up in Israel in the years following Jesus and had a front-row seat for its destruction. He mentions Jesus, James and John the Baptist as real people.
The number of varied and independent historical references to one man who lived 2000 years ago is just staggering. It would be like if you watched a Ken Burns documentary and read books by Tom Brokaw and Doris Kearns Goodwin and each independently mentioned the same really important figure. Yet, this figure had no official governmental role, was not a general or politician, had no money and lived in an obscure part of the world before dying the death of a criminal. Add in the fact the many sources for Jesus are just the ones that survived the past 2000 years and we get a glimpse of the overwhelming evidence and impact Jesus had on the world. It is like God testifying through the documents themselves.
This is only a small sample of the existing evidence for the man Jesus. If we are struggling with finding faith or with our faith, I pray that this would be a starting point for a full investigation of the issue. As a person whose livelihood depends upon scrutinizing facts and weighing evidence, once I began a full investigation of the historical Jesus my faith only grew stronger. There is no other single man whose fingerprint is so clearly present throughout the historical record. He conquered the most powerful Empire in all of history without a single army.
Was Jesus a real person? Yes, most certainly! And so much more than that!