The Evidence for Jesus


The unit discussing the evidence for the existence of God set out to show that there was entirely valid and solid justification for a belief in some sort of creating deity outside the universe. But having a belief in a deity is not the same as having faith in Jesus Christ, the basis of Christianity. Indeed it would be possible to believe that some unknowable deity had created the universe in the distant past and yet have no confidence that the person of Jesus is rooted in history and reality at all.

St Paul said that if Jesus Christ is not risen from the dead then we are the most pitiable of men, because we have set our hope on a falsehood. But what if he never existed at all? Certainly there are many people who assume that Jesus is simply a fictional character in the New Testament and that the Church created this figure who never existed. If this were so then Christianity would be false and would not be deserving of acceptance because it is above all an historical faith which is rooted in a particular man who lived at a particular time and place, and it is claimed that his life changed the world.

The unit in this course which considers the reliability of the Gospels looks in some detail at the criticism which says that the books of the Gospels were written so long after the time of Jesus that they cannot contain any historically accurate information. In that unit we provide evidence which shows that in fact the Gospels are eye-witness accounts of the life of Jesus and that the Church was filled with those who had seen and heard and followed him, and were guarantors of the accurate transmission in verbal and written form of the account of his life and teaching. The Gospels are themselves the most powerful evidence for the existence of Jesus, but of course it is must be recognised that many of those who are interested in understanding the Christian Faith are looking for validation of the existence of Jesus outside and apart from the Gospels.

This evidence exists, and is overwhelming. Bart Ehrman, one of the most well-known writers on the early Church, but in fact no friend of traditional Christianity and an agnostic, says that ‘no serious historian doubts the existence of Jesus’, and that ‘we have more evidence for Jesus than for almost anybody from his time period’.
Where is this evidence then? Well it can be categorised as references to Jesus in non-Christian sources, references to Jesus in the Christian Scriptures, and references to Jesus in the writings of the earliest Christian communities.

In one of the other units in the Discovering Orthodoxy course we have considered the evidence for the reliability of the Gospels as eye-witness testimony. Therefore in this unit we will concentrate on the evidence outside of Scripture for the existence of Jesus. This will be presented as references in non-Christian writings, and references in the documents produced by Christians outside of Scripture.

One important witness is the first century Roman historian Tacitus, who describes the fire which destroyed much of Rome in 64 A.D. He reports..

Nero fastened the guilt . . . on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. . .

Now Tacitus is hardly sympathetic to the early Church, and therefore his reference can hardly be coloured by any personal commitment to Christianity. Yet we can see from this short passage that he was aware of a persecuted group in Rome called Christians, who followed a man who had been called Christus, who had himself been executed under Pontius Pilate in Judaea, where the Christian movement had begun, and from whence it had spread even as far as Rome. We may even conclude that he knew that the Christian movement was not simply an ethical one, but a religious one, because he speaks of it as a superstition. Indeed we can reasonably infer that he was aware of the rumours which spread about the Christians which were misrepresentations of the sacraments, since he speaks of the abominations of the Christians.

All of this is certainly consistent with what we learn from the Gospels. But Tacitus is not reporting what he has read in the Christian Scriptures, but what he knows for himself.

A little later, and we find Pliny the Younger, Roman Governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, writing in 112 AD to the Emperor Trajan to ask his advice about how to deal with the problem of those accused of being Christians. Pliny sends the Emperor an account of what he has learned from questioning various Christians and writes…

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.

In this passage we learn how the early Christian community expressed its faith to a hostile Roman state. Indeed we can imagine that Pliny was naturally a little confused. He was being encouraged on the one hand to persecute Christians because they were a subversive and dangerous sect, but his investigations seemed to show that they were in fact law abiding and committed to a virtuous way of life.

We do see that he understood that Christians offered hymns to Christ considering him to be a god, gathering to do so in meetings held early in the morning.

A third witness is Josephus, an important Jewish historian who lived about the same time as Christ. In his book, Jewish Antiquities, he mentions Jesus twice. In the first brief passage he says…

He assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some of his companions; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

This little passage is useful because it is not so much about Christ, rather it is about James, the brother of Jesus and only incidentally mentions Jesus. We know from other Christian sources that James had become the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, and that he was martyred by the Jews in about 63-69 A.D. Josephus was not a Christian, and this passage says nothing beyond what he would have considered to be historically true. James was the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ. This does not mean that Josephus considered him to be the Christ, the Messiah, but this is what he had been called.

Once again this passage says nothing which is not found in the Gospels. James was indeed a relative of Jesus, either a cousin or half-brother. Josephus is writing about people who would have been known to him since he was born in 37 A.D. and would have been perhaps 30 years of age when James was killed. Indeed he was the leader of the anti-Roman Jewish forces in Galilee during the Jewish revolt which began in 66 A.D. and so could reasonably be expected to be well informed about the martyrdom of James, and his relation to Jesus, who was called the Christ.

In another more controversial passage he writes as follows…

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.

It has been suggested that some aspects of this passage have been modified by later Christian copyists. Perhaps this is so. Yet if we remove those phrases which seem most positively Christian we can reasonably conclude that in this section of his history Josephus had intended to refer to Jesus as a wise man, a doer of wonderful works and a great teacher. He could reasonably have intended to refer to his condemnation and crucifixion, and the fact that the Christian community of his time was named after him and was still in existence.

Once again, there is no contradiction between the Christ of the non-Christian witness and that of the Gospels. We see again that there is solid evidence that Jesus lived and died in Judaea, that he was crucified, and that his followers took their name of Christians from him.

A fourth non-Christian witness is found in the Babylonian Talmud. This is a collection of Jewish writings first compiled between 70 A.D. and 200 A.D. and representing the rabbinical teachings preserved from the first century.

In a reference to Jesus it says…

On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald . . . cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”

Yeshu, is of course the Hebrew pronunciation of Jesus, which is a Greek form of his name. We know that crucifixion could also be described as hanging, and St Paul writes in Galatians…

Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”

Therefore the early Jewish tradition also preserves this report of Jesus being killed on the eve of the Passover. This is hardly a sympathetic source, and there is no reason for the person and name of Jesus to be recorded among the Jews if he had not existed. Indeed we see that he is remembered as a false teacher as far as the Jews were concerned, and one who worked miracles by means of sorcery or magic. This is once again very consistent with the Gospels which reflect the same attitudes being held by the Jewish leaders.

Finally, in this consideration of non-Christian evidence, we may refer to Lucian of Samosata, a second century satirist who poked fun at the Christians. He writes…

The Christians . . . worship a man to this day–the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . . . [It] was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.

We see from this passage that Lucian knew that the Christians worshipped the man who had been the founder of their faith. He nowhere suggests that this person did not exist, but he believes him to have been only a man. He knows that this man, who is of course Jesus, was crucified because of his teachings, but that the Christians worship him, even though he was crucified, and they seek to follow his teachings.

This passage is a little later than the others, but it indicates clearly that educated Greek speaking commentators knew that the Christian religion was based on the life of a man, Jesus, who had lived and died by crucifixion, and who was considered more than a man by his followers, indeed he was considered to be divine.
All of this continues to be consistent with the narratives found in the Gospels, even though it records the knowledge and understanding of non-Christians, and even those who were openly hostile to Christianity and the Christian community.

But of course there are also many writings available to us, outside of the Gospels, written by Christians themselves in the first centuries, which express their own knowledge and understanding of the Christian faith, and of Jesus Christ, to whom they had committed themselves.

One important witness is Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor. He was probably born about 60 AD and produced a series of writings which, although they have been lost, were quoted by the Eusebius, the first Church historian who knew them. He was a disciple of the Apostle John, who lived in Ephesus and did not die until almost the end of the first century. Papis lived on an important trade route from Palestine and so was ideally placed to meet those who had known Jesus themselves, or had learned about Jesus from those who had been eyewitnesses. He writes..

I will not hesitate to add also .. what I formerly learned with care from the Elders and have carefully stored in memory, giving assurance of its truth. For I did not take pleasure as the many do in those who speak much, but in those who teach what is true, nor in those who relate foreign precepts, but in those who relate the precepts which were given by the Lord to the faith and came down from the Truth itself. And also if any follower of the Elders happened to come, I would inquire for the sayings of the Elders, what Andrew said, or what Peter said, or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and for the things which other of the Lord’s disciples, and for the things which Aristion and the Elder John, the disciples of the Lord, were still saying. For I considered that I should not get so much advantage from matter in books as from the voice which yet lives and remains.

We can see from this text that Papias, living in the first century and writing as an older man in the second century, had been able to hear from eye-witness of Jesus themselves about what he had taught and done, and also from many of those who knew other eyewitnesses and had shared with Papias what they had learned from them. One thing we can be sure is that Papias writes as though all of these named figures, many of them Apostles and their followers, were real people known to him and to many others, and he turned to them as authoritative witnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ whom neither he, nor those whom he met, had any doubt had really existed and lived in the Holy Land.

In another passage relating to Papias we learn..

The residence of the Apostle Philip with his daughters in Hierapolis has been mentioned above. We must now point out how Papias, who lived at the same time, relates that he had received a wonderful narrative from the daughters of Philip…

Eusebius then goes on to describe the story that Papias had heard from the daughters of Philip. This does not need repeating here. But the important point is that in Hierapolis the Apostle Philip had lived, and his daughters continued to live during the life time of Papias. The Christian faith which Papias describes is not one preserved only in the Holy Land, and therefore only vaguely understood in Asia Minor, and liable to many corruptions. On the contrary, during the first century those who had known Jesus and had learned directly from those who had known Jesus, could be found everywhere, even in the town where  Papias lived. The idea that a great conspiracy existed to create the fictional character of Jesus is impossible because it would require the assistance of thousands of people scattered in various different countries across the Roman Empire. On the contrary, what makes most sense is that Jesus truly existed, and his teachings were faithfully passed on by his disciples.

Very early in the life of the Church, between 50 and 70 AD, a text was compiled which has come down to us as the Didache. It was a simple description of Church life in the area where it was written. It has much to say on many topics, but in the section dealing with the eucharist it says..

Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup:

We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever..

And concerning the broken bread:

We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever..

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

Whatever else we might consider about the description of the eucharist, and we will return to this source in later modules, we can be sure that Christ is viewed in the same way as we discover in the New Testament. Those who wish to share in the eucharist must be baptised in the name of Jesus who is the Lord. And he appears in the prayers for both the cup and the bread as Jesus the Servant of God.

We need not go into great detail, but it is clear that as far as the Didache is concerned Jesus certainly existed, and is the source of the teachings which are preserved in the Gospels, since the Jesus of the Didache and the Jesus of the Gospels are the same one who said, ‘Give not that which his holy to the dogs’.

One last Christian source is the early Letter to the Corinthians by Clement of Rome. This was probably written about 80 AD, and was sent to the Corinthians by one of the leaders of the Roman Church because they had still not resolved all of the arguments which had led St Paul to write to them twice.

There is so much in this letter, but if we restrict ourselves to the question, ‘Is there evidence for the existence of Jesus’, then we will immediately be able to answer positively. The very first paragraph assumes the existence of Jesus, saying..

The Church of God which sojourns in Rome to the Church of God which sojourns in Corinth, to them which are called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to you and peace from Almighty God through Jesus Christ be multiplied.

Now why would Clement of Rome refer to Jesus Christ if he had not existed at all? There were too many people living in Rome who had lived in the Holy Land, or had known people who had lived there. It would not be possible either to be deceived if he had not existed, or to deceive others. Clearly Clement, as the leader of the Roman Church, believes not only that Jesus existed, but that he is the Christ, the Messiah that was to come into the world.

Indeed he says a little later..

The scepter of the majesty of God, even our Lord Jesus Christ, came not in the pomp of arrogance or of pride, though He might have done so, but in lowliness of mind, according as the Holy Spirit spake concerning Him.

This little passage can be understood as describing the relationship of Jesus with God. He is the scepter of the majesty of God. But we can also see that he is aware that he ‘came’ from some where, implying that he was more than a mere man. And that though he could have come in glory, nevertheless he chose to come in humility. All of this seems to reflect closely the message of the Gospels and the New Testament. Yet it bears witness to the truth about the existence of Jesus from outside the canon of Scripture.

If we will not accept this great mountain of evidence for the existence of Jesus, and there is much more, then we must assume that very large numbers of people all independently agreed to tell lies about his existence such that the secret was never revealed throughout the first century. And we must believe that even up to the end of the first century the Apostle John, whom many of these writers knew well, was continuing to lie and make up stories about Jesus, the man who we are to believe never existed. It doesn’t make sense and isn’t reasonable at all.

As the agnostic  Bart Ehrman says. ‘no serious historian doubts the existence of Jesus’, and ‘we have more evidence for Jesus than for almost anybody from his time period’.

Since this is so, and Jesus clearly existed according to the evidence, it is reasonable to ask that the teachings of Jesus be considered as they are presented in the Gospels by the eyewitnesses of the Lord.

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