Did Jesus exist? Is he a real, historical figure?
Last week we started a new series called I’ve Got Questions About Jesus, looking into the debates and evidence around various aspects on the life of Jesus. We started with the question ‘Did Jesus exist?’ The next two weeks we’ll follow this up with ‘Did Jesus claim to be God?’ and ‘Did Jesus rise from the dead?’
Whilst most serious historians of the ancient world will agree that Jesus did exist, there seems to be a growing percentage of the general population who question his existence. How can we know that he’s not a made up person, a man and not merely a myth?
The question needs to be taken seriously. British history features a series of characters who never existed, but who are endlessly reinvented in films or TV series; think King Arthur, Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes.
Fortunately there is good evidence, conclusive evidence, that Jesus existed. We studied evidence from three sources; Christian historians, Jewish historians and Roman historians.
The earliest mentions of Jesus come from the New Testament. The letters of Paul can be dated to 48 – 64 AD. That means possibly as early as fifteen years after his death, we have references to the life of Jesus. That’s within a very short historical framework.
Shortly after this, the gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, plus the book of Acts, were all written sometime between 65 – 95 AD. They are obviously our main source for details of the life of Jesus, and give us reams of information.
Shock horror – New Testament claims that Jesus existed! I know this is not exactly hold-the-front-page news, but it’s still an important source where we begin our search. Some might claim that the New Testament manuscripts have been changed over time, leaving us with a version twenty centuries later of embellished Chinese Whispers. But the theory of textual criticism has successfully argued against this regarding the Bible. We can have confidence that the New Testament words we read are 98.5% accurate as the words written by the original authors, and dated from thirty to sixty years of the life of Jesus.
These books give us the details of Jesus’ life, but there are many other contemporary sources that testify to his existence.
The Jewish historian Josephus wrote two books in the late 1st century; The Jewish Revolt tells the story of their war with the Romans from 66 – 70 AD, and The History of the Jewish People tells the history of the Jews up to 70 AD. The second book twice mentions Jesus of Nazareth, and also confirms the existence of John the Baptist, and his death at the order of Herod Antipas as described in the gospels.
The most famous passages Josephus wrote states:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (History of the Jewish People, c. 94 AD)
Here we have a passage clearly confirming that Jesus existed, he was a travelling rabbi who gathered a following, and he was crucified under the orders of Pontius Pilate. Josephus was no Christian – he has no ideological or religious bias – he’s just recording history, and recording Jesus’ place in it.
There are also two Roman historians who wrote about that period, Suetonius and Tacitus, that also confirm the existence of Jesus.
Suetonius states in his account of the Life of Claudius, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” Suetonius spells his name incorrectly, and falsely understands him to have been living in Rome, but most historians agree that the Chrestus he is referring to is Jesus of Nazareth.
More impressive testimony then comes from Tacitus, in his Annals. Explaining that after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD there was a rumour that Emperor Nero had started the fire himself, Tacitus writes:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures 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 one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. (Annals, c. 115 AD)
A Roman historian is confirming that Jesus existed, he was crucified under the orders of Pilate, and that his followers had reached Rome and seen converts by 64 AD, just over thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Constructing a Timeline
We can’t be definite on some years, but we can have a good idea of a timeline for Jesus’ ministry and death.
Luke tells us that John the Baptist began his ministry in the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius. That’s September 28 – August 29 AD. Jesus began his ministry some time soon after this.
We know from several sources that Pilate was governor of Judea from 26 – 36 AD. So Jesus’ ministry had definitely ended by 36 AD, possibly before.
We also know that during the period 29 – 36 AD, i.e. the years that Jesus could have been preaching, the Passover Festival started on a Saturday just twice, in 30 AD and 33 AD. Since Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and it was the day before the Passover started, he must have been killed on one of those two years, making the crucifixion date either Friday 07 April 30 AD or Friday 03 April 33 AD.