What is the greatest question in Western history? It is probably safe to assert it’s the debate over whether the historical Jesus existed; and, if so—what was the nature of his person? Easter is a splendid time to revisit this topic. What does current scholarship say about the historical Jesus? Do historians still believe a man named Jesus of Nazareth lived approximately 2,000 years ago?
For Christians, Easter is a time to meditate upon the sufferings of Christ, His payment for sins upon the cross, and revel in His resurrection—the future hope of all Believers. And yet, if there were no actual Jesus, Christians would have little hope except that of symbolism. So did Christ actually exist, beyond stories and legends? What evidence is there outside of the New Testament? The volume Jesus Outside the New Testament, (2000 Eerdmans) by Robert E. Van Voorst, addresses this topic splendidly. (All quotes in this essay are Voorst’s, unless otherwise noted.)
Modern biblical skepticism was deeply influenced by the writings of philosopher George Hegel and acolytes. According to Voorst, Bruno Bauer was Hegel’s “left wing” student who developed a highly astringent interpretation of the Bible. Bauer unsurprisingly had a huge impact upon Karl Marx. Writes Voorst,
Bauer laid down the typical threefold argument that almost all subsequent deniers of the existence of Jesus follow. First, he denied the value of the New Testament in establishing the existence of Jesus. Second, he argued that the lack of mention of Jesus in non-Christian writings of the first century shows that Jesus did not exist; as does the few mentions of Jesus by Roman writers in the early second century. Third, he promoted the view that Christianity was syncretistic and mythical at its beginnings.
The most influential modern skeptic of the “historical Jesus” is George Wells. Gary Habermas’ sums up Wells’ argument by saying Wells claims the legend of Jesus was not written until after all those who knew him died. Habermas explains why virtually all scholars have abandoned Wells’ ideas:
Why do scholars reject Wells’ thesis? One does not impress scholars by maintaining a thesis at all costs, consistently resorting to extraordinary means to overlook any bit of data that would disprove one’s view. But at several points, this is clearly what Wells does. He often admits that a natural textual reading devastates his theories. Then he dismisses every historical reference linking Jesus to the first century, making some bizarre moves in the process. But it all seriously undermines his system, as well as eroding his credibility. Wells appears to declare virtually anything rather than admitting Jesus’ historicity. Yet, one by one, his house of cards collapses. This is precisely why the vast majority of scholars reject Well’s claims: he fails to deal adequately with the historical data.
Here are the following statements about Christ found in non-biblical writers.
Thallos, an author from antiquity gives the earliest possible reference for Jesus, from approximately 55 AD. He’s quoted in his lost three-part history of the Mediterranean, mentioning an eclipse around the date of the crucifixion which some claim could be the darkness that supposedly fell the day Jesus died (Matthew 27:45):
When Julius Africanus writes about the darkness at the death of Jesus, he added: “In the third (book) of his histories, Thallos calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun, which seems to me to be wrong (Toῦτo τò σκóτoς ἔκλειΨιν τoῦ ἡλiou Θαλλoς ἀπoκoλεῖ ἐν τρiτητῶν ῶτoρῶν, ὡς ἐμoῖ δokεῖ ἀλoγώς).”
2. Pliny the Younger
Pliny the Younger (61-112 AD) was a powerful Roman lawyer, senator and intellectual famed for his letters which were turned into ten popular books. In his tenth book is a letter written, #96, to Emperor Trajan asking for help with trials of accused Christians. Three times he mentions the Christians of Christ. This letter is not suspected of being a forgery by most historians. Pliny writes, in part,
They had met regularly before dawn on a determined day, and sung antiphonally a hymn to Christ as if to a god (carmenque Christo quasi deo dicere secum invicem). They also took an oath not for any crime, but to keep from theft, robbery and adultery, not to break any promise, and not to withhold a deposit when reclaimed.
Roman writer Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was another Roman lawyer and friend of Pliny the Younger. His famous Lives of the Caesars included the section on the Deified Claudius, mentioning what most scholars concede is an allusion to Christ, or Chrestus. He stated:
He [Claudius] expelled the Jews from Rome, since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chrestus (Judaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit).
Tacitus is generally accepted as greatest Roman historian. In his Annals, he mentions Christ in a passage which most scholars accept as authentic regarding the Emperor Nero:
But neither human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts [flagitia], whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate [Auctor nominis eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat]. 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. Therefore, first those who admitted to it were arrested, then on their information a very large multitude was convicted, not so much for the crime of arson as for hatred of the human race [odium humani generis].
5. Mara Bar Serapion: The Wise Jewish King
An ancient letter was discovered from early first millennium, written by Mara Bar Serapion to his son. This was a Jewish family, dealing with the fury of Rome after the Jerusalem rebellion was put down. The letter is dated anywhere from 70 AD to the second century. It appears to mention Roman occupiers and Christ as “Wise King.” Here is the excerpt:
What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defense? What advantage did the Athenians gain by murdering Socrates, for which they were repaid with famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by burning of Pythagoras, because their country was completely covered in sand in just one hour? Or the Jews [by killing]130 their wise king, because their kingdom was taken away at that very time? God justly repaid the wisdom of these three men: the Athenians died of famine; the Samians were completely overwhelmed by the sea; and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, are scattered through every nation. Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the new laws he laid down.
6. Lucian of Samosata
Lucian of Samosata (115—200 AD) was a celebrated Greek satirist and traveling speaker. His book, The Death of Peregrinus (Περì τς Περεγρíνoυ Tελεύτης), (165 AD), is about a famed pagan who converted to Christianity. Lucian wrote,
This period [Peregrinus] associated himself with the priests and scribes of the Christians in Palestine, and learned their astonishing wisdom. Of course, in a short time he made them look like children; he was their prophet, leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He explained and commented on some of their sacred writings, and even wrote some himself. They looked up to him as a god, made him their lawgiver, and chose him as the official patron of their group, or at least the vice-patron. He was second only to that one whom they still worship today, the man in Palestine who was crucified because he brought this new form of initiation into the world [έκενoν ὅν ἔτ σέβoυσ, τòv ἄνθρωπoν τòν έν τ Παλαστíν άνασκoλoπσθέντα, ὅτ κανὴν ταύτην τελετὴν ές τòν βíoν].
7. Celsus: Christ the Magician
Famed NeoPlatonist writer Celsus composed an attack on Christianity titled True Doctrine (Aληθῆς Λόγoς). Early Church Father Origen discussed Celsus’ claims:
Celsus portrays the Jew having a conversation with Jesus himself, refuting him on many charges. First, he fabricated the story of his birth from a virgin; and he reproaches him because he came from a Jewish village and from a poor country woman who made her living by spinning. He says that she was driven out by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, when she was convicted of adultery. Then he says that after she had been driven out by her husband and while she was wandering disgracefully, she secretly bore Jesus. He says that because (Jesus) was poor he hired himself out as a laborer in Egypt, and there learned certain magical powers which the Egyptians are proud to have. He returned full of pride in these powers, and gave himself the title of God.
Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37—100 AD), aka Joseph ben Mattathias, is one of the most important writers of antiquity. He survived Rome crushing the Jewish revolt in 66 AD. His book Jewish Antiquities has a passage most scholars accept as authentic,
He assembled the sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus called Christ [‘I??o? ?o? ???o???o? X????o?], whose name was James, and some others. When he had accused them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
Another very famous passage in Josephus is offered in modified form, because most scholars agree the original was tampered with. Voorst attempts to reformulate the original passage using all known copies:
Around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who gladly accept the truth. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, [but] those who had first loved him did not cease [doing so]. To this day the tribe of Christians named after him has not disappeared.
After the fall of Jerusalem, the Jews produced the Mishnah, a massive work of scholarship, purported to present the oral half of Moses’ Code from Sinai. A famed example is here:
It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. A herald went before him for forty days [proclaiming], “He will be stoned, because he practiced magic and enticed Israel to go astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favor come forward and plead for him.” But nothing was found in his favor, and they hanged him on the day before the Passover.
Consider two ancient proofs of an early, living Jesus. In Jordan, an archaeologist says he discovered the world’s oldest church in 2008 in a cave, dating from AD 30-70. (Others dismiss the claim as ‘ridiculous.’) Another proposal of the world’s oldest church was unearthed in 2009 under Israel’s Megiddo Prison, where archaeologists say…“inscriptions, including a reference to Jesus, was found, along with the foundation of a building from the 3rd or 4th century C.E.”
Believers in Christ of the New Testament have every right to worship Him with the full knowledge even the most atheist of scholars generally accept Jesus of Nazareth actually existed. Happy Easter!
Kelly O’Connell is an author and attorney. He was born on the West Coast, raised in Las Vegas, and matriculated from the University of Oregon. After laboring for the Reformed Church in Galway, Ireland, he returned to America and attended law school in Virginia, where he earned a JD and a Master’s degree in Government. He spent a stint working as a researcher and writer of academic articles at a Miami law school, focusing on ancient law and society. He has also been employed as a university Speech & Debate professor. He then returned West and worked as an assistant district attorney. Kelly is now is a private practitioner with a small law practice in New Mexico. Kelly is now host of a daily, Monday to Friday talk show at AM KOBE called AM Las Cruces w/Kelly O’Connell
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