I of recent was challenged by how many people are getting to accept the rather bogus claims of Jesus mythicist. No thanks to the Internets with the turning in of both junks and facts as the day go by. It isn’t surprising that anybody can wish anything this days, provided there is a Facebook status to post it, or a blog. Meanwhile, claims aren’t self proving, it has to pass through scholarly scrutiny, which this article cannot exhaustively supply you with.
Many objections have been raised about the reliability of the four gospel as an historical document for studying Jesus existence. Let’s assume that the gospel writers cannot be trusted on the truth about the historical Jesus, and that because they may have their biases which could have impaired their record about Jesus Christ. This however doesn’t implies that their account can be jettisoned solely on ground of possible bias. If that be the case, such methodology would also be admissible such case as accepting the reliability or non of the account of a Jew on the Holocaust, or that of an Igbo writer about the mass genocide in the south East of Nigeria during the civil war. Of course we know that is silly.
Let’s plunge into history to see if there are evidence for Jesus as an historical person or he was just a figment of some people’s imagination. In this article, I will examine “early’ Greco -Roman and Jewish sources, not exhaustively, but sparingly. It is worthy of note that these sources are what scholars called HOSTILE SOURCES, that is to mean sources that are unsympathetic to the gospel, and have both physical and emotional detachment from Christ’s supposed disciples.
Tacitus—or more formally, Caius/Gaius (or Publius) Cornelius Tacitus (55/56–c. 118 C.E.)—was a Roman senator, orator and ethnographer, and arguably the best of Roman historians. His name is based on the Latin word tacitus , “silent,” from which we get the English word tacit. Interestingly, his compact prose uses silence and implications in a masterful way. One argument for the authenticity of the quotation below is that it is written in true Tacitean Latin1. Tacitus’s last major work, titled Annals , written 116–117 C.E., includes a biography of Nero. Tacitus actually wrote about Nero, who suspectedly issued a secret order to set on fire a town where he wanted to carry out a building project, and to cover up, Nero turn the blame on the Christians who were then publicly ridiculed prior to the incident.
This was the occasion where he mentioned Christians who he personally helped in the supervision of their punishment and trial. Hear him:
[N]either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, 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 [ Christus in Latin], 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
There are certain things to note in Tacitus writing,
1) Christ was the founder of Christianity. That corroborates the gospel document.
2) Christ was executed during the reign of Tiberius under the procurator Pilate.
3) The beliefs about Christ was after all a superstition that started in Judea
4) That it found its way by whatever means to Rome just as other rather “nonsense’ also find their way to Rome.
I must need state that Tacitus used the word “christus’ not as a title, but rather as a name. And this is not far from the fact that Jesus was distinctly referred to as “Christus’ by his disciples seeing many people bear his name “Yeoshua’ in the ancient Jews. And hence, Tacitus who probably had no or little knowledge of “the Jewish messianic’ school of thought refered to him by the name he was prominently called.
Many New Testament scholars date Jesus’ death to c. 29 C.E.; Pilate governed Judea in 26–36 C.E., while Tiberius was emperor 14–37 C.E3
Been himself a proconsul of Asia, Tiberius likely supervised trials and questioned people accused of been a christian as his friend Pliny the Younger did by asking Christians to recant, else, face the brutal side of justice. So it is safe to say he probably would’ve had access to information about Christus and how he was executed even though he didn’t quote the source where he got his material from, which isn’t of much significance if you consider his style viz a viz other classical writers who hardly mentioned their source(s). Moreover, it is almost certainly sure that Tacitus was one of the Roman best historian. Though, we can only get as little information about Jesus from him, been himself a skeptic and opposer of the Christian faith who was unconcerned about the rather ambiguous theology of the claims, works and mission of Jesus, it can still be inferred that he was never in denial of the existence of Jesus, though a skeptic himself.
Of importance is the historical narrative of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish aristocrat who was a commander in Galilee before Jerusalem in the early days of first Jewish revolt against Rome in 66-70 CE, who later lived in Rome on surrendering to be a prisoner of war. It was his prophesy that Vespasian would be an Emperor which came to pass that led to his been freed by Emperor.
He even took the name Flavius, after the family name of his patron, the emperor Vespasian, and set it before his birth name, becoming, in true Roman style, Flavius Josephus. Most Jews viewed him as a despicable traitor. It was by command of Vespasian’s son Titus that a Roman army in 70 C.E. destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple, stealing its contents as spoils of war, which are partly portrayed in the imagery of their gloating triumph on the Arch of Titus in Rome4
He was supported by the patronage of three successive emperor (Vespasian, Titus, his son and Dominican, Titus’s brother). Under the guidance and direct protection of Rome, Josephus took it upon himself to present the case for Judaism to a rather pagan Roman state. His argument was from the moral and philosophical depth of Judaism as a religion. And his appeal written in greek was to the educated aristocrats of his days. His book, the Jewish war didn’t contain mention of Jesus except in some possible later addition in some versions. Jewish antiquity however mention Jesus twice, albeit shortly. And that was with reference to James, the brother of Jesus, the leader of the church in Jerusalem. In the temporary absence of a Roman governor between Festus’s death and governor Albinus’s arrival in 62 C.E., the high priest Ananus instigated James’s execution. Here is how Josephus described it:
Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah.….James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned5
Though, Josephus merely mentioned Jesus in relation to James, we can still deduce some important historical element about Jesus from his writing:
1) He made specific mention of Ananias, the priest as being instrumental to the death of James. It should be noted that the derogation in his tone was probably as a result of ancient power and ideological tussle between the Pharisaic and Sadducee sect. Josephus been himself a pharisee, seems to find the act of killing James to be associated with the fact that Ananias was a Sadducee. That doesn’t necessarily implies that the Pharisaic lot were entirely tolerant of the christian faith. Though it has to be stated that the greater number of them believed, while it wasn’t recorded by gospel evangelists whether or not the Sadducees believed.
2) James was the brother of Jesus, who-is-called-the-christ. Josephus being in a better position historically than Tacitus, been a Jews, wrote of Jesus in a style different from Tacitus’s. He specifically mentioned Jesus, and probably used the phrase who-is-called-the-christ to specify which of the Jesus he was speaking about. He been an apologist of Judaism(if we can call him that) may not be a believer in Jesus, and hence, could only have written who-is-called-the-christ and not “who-is-the-christ’. The phrase only could imply a descriptional one and not a declarative statement. It is safe to from this state that James who Josephus wrote about couldn’t be the brother of a non existing Jesus, to Josephus, who happened to be a first century historian Jewish historian, Jesus was a real person.
3) The account of James death couldn’t have been a forgery or later addition by christians who had the tradition of how James died. A Christian forger who is well versed in the Christian tradition of how James was killed, would’ve been careful to align the historical details with the account Luke presented in Act of Apostles chapter 12. Luke recorded for example that it was Herod that killed James with the SWORD, implying a state execution while, Josephus claimed he was stoned to death by the order of Ananias the high priest. This disparity in account points to the independence of Josephus account as well as that of the church tradition, and hence its credibility in studying the existence of Jesus.
The Jewish Talmud
This collection of Jewish rabbinic writings, dating from the third to the sixth centuries C.E., shows that even Jesus’ enemies affirmed his existence. It would’ve been a great polemic against Christians if Rabbinic writing had stated that Jesus didn’t exist. One passage says that on “the Passover Yeshu [Jesus] the Nazarean was hanged,” which is historically correct6. Another states “May we produce no son or pupil who disgraces himself in public like the Nazarene”—a title often applied to Jesus7. He was said to have performed magic by the power of Beelzebub. If he didn’t exist, isn’t that the opportunity to counter the christian claim of his existence? To these Rabbi, their challenge with Jesus wasn’t that he didn’t exist, but that his claim was altogether nonsensical.
Lucian of Samosata, Pliny the younger, Mara Bar-Serapion and many more classicists wrote of Jesus Christ, though not as though detailing his history for historical consumption. These all are what scholars called hostile sources to the gospel.
There is this objection by Jesus atheist that if Jesus existed, Philo of Alexander, an Jewish historian, who was said to have live around the time of Jesus would have written about him. But that is non sequitur. It doesn’t necessarily follow that since Philo didn’t wrote about him, his existence is altogether doubtful. It is probable that Philo didn’t know about this Palestinian peasant whose teachings was unlike that of Theudas, or Judas of Galilee, who sparked up a revolt in the era before Jesus. No one could’ve place any significance on the history of a prophet whose only teaching is “peace’ in a war oriented world. This is not to mention that Christians were the ones who delivered the writing of Philo, and hence, could’ve forged it to include Jesus if they felt threatened that Jesus existence could be questioned if events surrounding his person were not included in Philo’s writings.
Moreover, there are very good archeological findings compiled by Peter Williams, an assistant professor in Communications and Worldviews at Gimlekollen College, NLA University, Norway, in his book Digging for evidence. Stating all of these would require making an archeological case which is beyond the scope of this article.
It is more plausible to assert that an historical personality like Alexander the great whose existence is hardly questioned, never existed than to claim Jesus never existed. Why so? It was not until few centuries after his death that his biography was written, meanwhile most of the records about Jesus was between the first century. To deny that Jesus of Nazareth never walked the face of the earth at a particular time, about the first century is to wash off certain historical personages with sentimental skepticism. According to Michael Grant, a professor of classical history we can no more deny that Jesus existed than we can deny the existence of some classical historical personages.
1) Norma P. Miller, Tacitus: Annals XV. (London: MacMillan, 197).
2) Annals XV. 44 as translated in Van Voorst, Jesus outside, pp 42-43.
4) Jewish Antiquities, XX. 200 (or in whiston’s translation of Jewish Antiquities XX. 9.1)
5) Jewish Antiquities XX 9.1 in whiston’s translation as translated by Meier, Marginal Jew, vol.1, p.57
6) Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 432, Munich codex
7) Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 17b, footnote, Munich codex