Did Jesus ever exist?

Paul Derengowski, ThM

 

At first glance the question itself seems incredible, for how could anyone actually deny the existence of Jesus?  After all, isn’t Jesus’ existence the reason that Christianity exists?  And doesn’t history provide ample evidence that Jesus indeed did walk the earth?  Nevertheless, it is this kind of question that keeps popping up from time to time, mostly by those who have an antipathy toward the Christian faith.  And with the advent of the third wave of Historical Jesus critics, namely those who claim to represent the Jesus Seminar, such questions and criticisms are not likely to go away soon.  So, how should the Christian respond to the question?  Is there objective evidence that Jesus did exist outside the biblical narratives?  Moreover, is the Bible even reliable as a source of historical information?  Or must one simply rely on blind faith and superstition to answer the questions of the skeptics and critics, who after all, have all the evidence on their side?

Secular & Jewish History

From the historical perspective, there are several non-Christian sources that are frequently cited as evidence that Jesus was a historical person, and that Christians were his followers.  Those sources are not necessarily flattering in their comments, with some of them being downright hostile.  Nevertheless, they are sources which help to clearly rebut the notion that Jesus did not exist.  For example, one of the first Roman writers to mention Jesus is the person of Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, or Pliny the Younger for short.  Pliny, in a letter written to the Emperor Trajan, inquires what to do with the Christians under his rule.  He wrote, “Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them.” 1  He then goes on to mentions the punishment he had meted out, and then reports,

They [the Christians] affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, 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 eat in common a harmless meal. 2

Another Roman writer, Suetonius, makes a brief mention of a person by the name of Chrestus in his Lives of the Caesars.  He wrote, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius Caesar] expelled them from Rome.” 3  Although the identity of just who Chrestus is has been debated fairly extensively, with some such as Stephen Benko postulating that Chrestus was a Jewish radical, 4 rather than an allusion to the person of Jesus through his teachings, the linguistic and historical evidence seem to point to Jesus rather than anyone else. 5

A third Roman historian, and perhaps the greatest one of them all, was the person of Tacitus.  In one of his later Annals, and while describing the details of the fire that burned Rome, Tacitus gives a detailed account of Nero’s actions to cease the speculation that he was the one that ordered Rome’s destruction, and shift the blame to the Christians.  Amid the order Christ is not only mentioned, but also some very graphic details of the persecution that took place during Nero’s reign.  Tacitus wrote,

So far, the precautions taken were suggested by human prudence: now means were sought for appeasing deity, and application was made to the Sibylline books; at the injunction of which public prayers were offered to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpine, while Juno was propitiated by the matrons, first in the Capitol, then at the nearest point of the sea-shore, where water was drawn for sprinkling the temple and image of the goddess.  Ritual banquets and all-night vigils were celebrated by women in the married state.  But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order.  Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians.  Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.  First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race.  And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.  Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car.  Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man. 6

Turning to pagan sources, two which stand out, yet both which were also hostile, are Lucian and Celsus.  Lucian of Samosata was a Greek satirist and writer who lived between 120 and 190 A.D.  In one of his works, The Death of Peregrinus, Lucian manages to concoct a story about a man, Peregrinus, who starts out by killing his father, yet ends up becoming intimately associated with the Christians of his day as he desperately sought notoriety for himself.  Peregrinus turns out to be Lucian’s illustration of the person of Jesus that the Christians end up making a god as he manages to dupe them into believing that he’s something truly special.  According to Lucian’s tale,

It was then that he [Peregrinus] learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine.  And–how else could it be?–in a trice he made them all look like children; for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself.  He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. 7

The poor wretches {Christians} have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody, most of them.  Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws.  Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence.  So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes along them, the quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk. 8

Close behind Lucian was the pagan Celsus (writing around 175 A.D.), who among other things argued that Jesus was conceived by an adulterous mother, with him being the illegitimate son of her infidelity.  Moreover, Celsus impugns the character of Jesus further by asserting that he engaged in sorcery to achieve his magical feats, and to trick those who followed him.  Because of Celsus’ malicious attack on both Christ and Christians, Origen was asked to write a rebuttal of Celsus’.  He obliged in his Against Celsus, where much of what Celsus said and wrote is preserved.  According to Celsus as recorded by Origen,

And since, in imitation of a rhetorician training a pupil, he [Celsus] introduces a Jew, who enters into a personal discussion with Jesus, and speaks in a very childish manner, altogether unworthy of the grey hairs of a philosopher, let me endeavor, to the best of my ability, to examine his statements, and show that he does not maintain, throughout the discussion, the consistency due to the character of a Jew.  For he represents him disputing with Jesus, and confuting Him, as he thinks, on many points; and in the first place, he accuses Him of having “invented his birth from a virgin,” and upbraids Him with being “born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, as illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant of Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God.”“Origen Against Celsus,” Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 4:408.[/ref]

When one turns to Jewish literature, one finds a mix of historical information in the person of Josephus, and perhaps some of the most hostile rhetoric to date concerning Jesus’ person in the writings of the Talmud and especially the Toledoth Yeshu.  In Josephus, who was a Jewish military leader turned Roman mediator, we have not only a history of the nation of Israel, but two references to the person of Jesus from a Jewish perspective that is helpful in quashing the notion that Jesus did not exist.  In his Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.3, Josephus describes Jesus as a “wise man,” “a doer of wonderful works,” and one who not only was put to death by Pilate, but was later resurrected.

3. (63) 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; (64) and when Pilate, at the suggestion of 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. 9

In Josephus’ second mention of Jesus he does so indirectly as he explicates on the circumstances leading to the death of Jesus’ brother, James.  According to Josephus the High Priest of the Sadducees, Ananus, had a son by the same name who “was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent.”  And ceasing the opportunity after the death of the Roman ruler Festus, and with the Roman procurator Albinus “upon the road,” Ananus the younger “assembled the sanhedrin judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” 10 Therefore, in Josephus one has two very reliable references to the person of Jesus that clearly contradict any notion that he did not exist.

In the Babylonian Talmud there is a brief mention of the person of Jesus which is somewhat unusual, probably due to its Jewish origin.  The passage in Sanhedrin 43a depicts Jesus’ execution as one brought on as a result of his practice of sorcery and his enticement of some of the Jews into apostasy.  It also speaks of a herald warning of Jesus’ demise 40 days prior to the event, with care taken by his accusers to make sure that he was indeed guilty of the crimes before caring out his sentence. 11  Although it is somewhat historical at odds with the biblical account, it nevertheless speaks of a real person whom the Jews despised, and were at least willing to make mention of in one of their most important publications.

GEMARA:  And a herald precedes him etc.  This implies, only immediately before [the execution], but not previous thereto.  [In contradiction to this] it was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged.  For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy.  Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’  But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!–‘Ulla retorted: Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defence could be made?  Was he not a Mesith [enticer], concerning whom Scripture says, Neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him?  With Yeshu however it was different, for he was connected with the government [or royalty, i.e., influential]. 12

The last of the Jewish writings to be included here, as an example of Jesus’ existence, is found in perhaps one of the most vitriolic and libelous writings found in Judaism.  Those writings are known as the Toledoth Yeshu, or The Generations of Jeschu or Tradition or Life of Jesus.  So caustic are the comments made about Jesus that very few have taken the time or made the effort to pursue or preserve its contents.  In fact, there are only a handful of English translations that have ever been made from its native Hebrew.  In it Jesus is called a “bastard,” a “rogue,” and a “sorcerer.”  His conception and birth are explained as illegitimate, and his death and resurrection as ruses, consummated with his body being stolen by a gardener wanting to prevent Jesus’ followers from further the resurrection story, who then buried the body in a stream, dug it up at the request of Queen Helene of Israel, and then had it dragged through the streets of Jerusalem.  The following is an excerpt of Jesus’ beginnings as a human.

1.  The beginning of the birth of Jeschu.  His mother was Miriam [a daughter] of Israel.  She had a betrothed of the royal race of the House of David, whose name was Jochanan.  He was learned in the law and feared heaven greatly.  Near the door of her house, just opposite, dwelt a handsome [fellow]; Joseph ben Pandera cast his eye upon her.

It was at night, on the even of the Sabbath, when drunken he crossed over to her door and entered in to her.  But she thought in her heart that it was her betrothed Jochanan; she hid her face and was ashamed . . . He embraced her; but she said to him: Touch me not, for I am in my separation.  He took no heed thereat, nor regarded her words, but persisted.  She conceived by him . . .

At midnight came her betrothed Rabbi Jochanan.  She said to him: What meaneth this?  Never hath it been thy custom, since thou wast betrothed to me, twice in a night to come to me.

He answered her and said: It is but once I come to thee this night.

She said to him: Thou camest to me, and I said to thee I was in my separation, yet heeded’st thou not, but did’st thy will and wentest forth.  When he heard this, forthwith he perceived that Joseph ben Pandera had cast an eye upon her and done the deed.  He left her; in the morning he arose and went to Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach.

He said to him: Know then what hath befallen me this night with my betrothed.  I went in to her after the manner of men . . .; before I touched her she said: Thou hast already this night come once to me, and I said to thee I was in my separation, and thou gavest no ear to me, [didst] thy will and wentest forth.  When I heard such words from her, I left her and [went forth].

Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach said to him: Who came into thy mind?

He answered: Ben Pantera, for he dwelleth near her house and is a libertine.

He said to him: I understand that thou hast no witness for this thing, therefore keep silence; I counsel thee, if he have come once, then can he not fail to come a second time; act wisely; at that time set witnesses against him.

Some time after the rumour went abroad that Miriam was with child.  Then said her betrothed Jochanan: She is not with child by me; shall I abide here and hear my shame every day from the people?

He arose and went to Babylon.  After some [time she bore] a son, and they called his name Joshua after his mother’s brother; but when his corrupt birth was made public they called him Jeschu. 13

More could be said in behalf of Jesus’ existence from other historical records such as those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gnostic writings of the Gospels of Thomas and Peter, and even those of the Early Church Fathers and the Qur’an.   Nevertheless, for the sake of this writing the already mentioned references should supply ample reason from history for the rational to believe that from both secular and Jewish sources the person of Jesus did exist.  On the other hand, there is another historical source that provides the most reliable starting point in determining Jesus’ reality, which critics unduly bristle when it is mentioned, and that is the Bible.  Therefore, let us look briefly at some reasons why the Bible, and more particularly the New Testament, is such a reliable source of information about the historical Jesus.

New Testament Reliability

For the first 1800 years of the church’s existence the Bible was not questioned as to its veracity.  Generally it was thought to be absolutely trustworthy and authoritative in all matters of related to Christian faith and practice.  It is has only been within the past couple of hundred years that one aspersion after another has been cast toward the Bible, much of it coming from those claiming to be Christians, or at least by those paying some kind of lip service to Christianity.

Yet, if one word could describe all of the criticisms that have been hurled at the Bible, and New Testament Christianity, it might be the word hyperbole.  It’s not that the form or source critics did not contribute something of value to the study of the Bible, or that the redaction or mishrashic critics did not do the same.  It’s that as is the case so often with those claiming to be critics or “scholars,” what started out as possibly a noble effort went over the top and became exaggerated.  After a while the Bible was not the inspired Word of God.  Instead, it became a hodge-podge of loose-ended fabrications and stories that dishonest men threw together for subsequent generations to take and make of it what they would.  And unfortunately, that is exactly what happened, which is why we see so much relativistic thought in our world today.  The Bible has become meaningless in so many instances, simply because of all the hyperbole that has been propagated about it for the past 200+ years, and largely it has destroyed an honest search for not only What it truly represents, but Whom it represents.

Nevertheless, for those who refuse to buy into all the exaggeration the Bible, and more particularly, the New Testament, provides a reliable witness concerning the historical reality of the person of Jesus Christ.  In fact, the New Testament has by far better manuscript support for the events described in it than any other ancient historical text, comprising better than 5,000.  According to the Aland’s, “Of the 5,400 known manuscripts of the New Testament, about 1,300 are written on paper (2 uncials, 698 minuscules, and 587 lectionaries; in 11 minuscules and 5 lectionaries parchment and paper sheets are found together).” 14 The late F. F. Bruce argued that,

The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no-one dreams of questioning.  And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.  It is curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians. 15

Another area that biblical critics have overstated the case is in the area of alleged contradictions.  The argument typically goes, the Bible was written by human authors.  Human authors err.  Therefore, the Bible contains errors.  Two fundamental flaws in this kind of argument are the Bible being a human product, and, the total absence of any verifiable contradiction.  First of all, the Bible is not a human production, even though humans were used by God to help put His message on paper.  The Bible is the inspired Word of God, meaning that He is the author, not human beings (1 Tim. 3:16; 1 Pet. 1:20-21).  Since the Bible is inspired, which literally means “breathed out” or spoken by God, and since God cannot err, then the Bible cannot err either.  Second, despite all the efforts to provide a legitimate example of an error, the evidence thus far has proved fruitless.  There may be difficulties, or things that have yet to be explained, but far as definite errors are concerned, there are none. 16 When taken in the context of the historicity of Jesus, one may rest assure that when reading about his life and times, one is reading a historically true account.

Finally, when manuscript evidence and alleged contradictions fail to undermine biblical reliability, the charge that the Bible was written hundreds of years after the fact or that when the biblical writers did write, they merely copied and pasted ideas culled from Hellenistic culture or from circulating pagan stories.  The first criticism is typically predicated on biblical ignorance, the latter on who really influenced who at the inception of the Christianity.  For in the former case, all of the biblical documents were already in existence before the end of the first century, with the first of the apostle Paul’s letter (Galatians) composed around 48 A.D.  Moreover, as New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg points out, “Additionally, as with the disciples of the ancient Jewish rabbis, Jesus’ followers may well have privately kept written notes while passing along the tradition orally in public.” 17  Those notes would eventually turn into our biblical gospels, meaning that long before the Bible actually became one consolidated unit, it was already in existence in separate letters and books.  Those letters and books would then have a direct impact upon the Hellenistic culture in which Christianity was birthed, meaning that whatever apparent parallels that might have existed between Hellenistic, Romanism and Christianity; it is that Hellenism and Romanism borrowed from Christian beliefs to concoct their myths, while Christians borrowed some of terminology from Hellenistic thinkers to not only express Christian verity, but to help it relate its message to the Hellenistic culture as well.  In either instance, though, the historicity of Jesus remained a fact, as was already demonstrated from some of the classical non-biblical writers who made allusions to Jesus in their writings.

CONCLUSION

Did Jesus ever exist?  Of course he did.  Both secular and biblical evidence point to that fact, and only someone that is completely ignoring the evidence would say otherwise.  Nevertheless, this is question will continue to pop up, and probably more so as we see the approach of the Lord’s return.  Ironically, during the last days there is going to be a proliferation of false Jesus’ walking about seeking to fool men into following them, with perhaps our contemporary times being a prelude to those days, given the number of individuals today claiming to be either a reincarnation of Jesus, or simply Jesus himself.  The idea obviously is that even among the fakes, frauds, and phonies, belief in a historical, living Jesus is a reality.

Therefore, even if doubt and skepticism continues to rise concerning Jesus’ existence, it will never be the consensus opinion, most likely because the person of Jesus, in the short time while he walked the earth, made too great of an impact upon humanity for it to absolutely resolve that he never existed.  Moreover, given what the Bible says concerning the sending of the Holy Spirit, and all people being created in God’s image, there is no possible way that God is going to allow humanity to forget Jesus.  He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no man comes to the Father except through him, and God is not done, at least at the time of this writing, of bringing men unto Himself.  So, let the heathen rage if they will, but as far as Jesus’ existence is concerned, it is an incontrovertible fact, and only a willing blindness and extreme hyperbole of the facts would suggest otherwise.

Notes:

  1. The Letters of Pliny the Younger, “XCVII, To the Emperor Trajan,” translated by William Melmoth (Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2007), 234.
  2. Ibid., 235.
  3. Suetonius, translated by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 2:51.
  4. “Sometimes the contending factions became so volatile as to carry their demonstrations into the streets, thus calling forth the intervention of the magistrates, among them Gallio . . .This could have happened in Rome at the relatively early date of 49, but in this case we must assume that Suetonius confused the founder of the Christian religion with somebody who lived in Rome around this time, an unlikely possibility . . . In point of fact, the name Chrestus was very common in Rome.  We may, therefore, with some justification assume that Suetonius was indeed referring to a person by the name of Chrestus.  If such is the case, then it remains only to ask what was the nature of the disturbances caused by this Chrestus.”  Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984), 18-19.
  5. The expulsion of the Jews in 49 A.D. by Claudius coincides with a reference made by Luke in the Book of Acts which reports that after Paul left Athens, he went to Corinth, “And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all Jews to leave Rome.”  (Acts 18:2).
  6. The Annals of Tacitus, translated by Clifford H. Moore in the Loeb Classical Library, 4 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937), 4:283, 285.
  7. Lucian translated by A. M. Harmon, Loeb Classical Library ,” 8 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936), 5:13.
  8. Ibid., 5:15.
  9. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged,  translated by William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 480.
  10. Ibid., Antiquities, 20.9.1.
  11. The Mishnah, or interpretation, for Sanhedrin 43a makes the following comment leading into the subsequent comments found in the Gemara.  “MISHNAH: If then they find him innocent, they discharge him; but if not, he goes forth to be stoned.  And a herald precedes him [crying]: so and so, the son of so and so, is going forth to be stoned because he committed such and such an offence, and so and so are his witnesses.  Whoever knows anything in his favour, let him come and state it.”  Sanhedrin 43a,” translated by Rabbi Dr I. Epstein, in the Babylonian Talmud (London: The Soncino Press, 1935), 282.
  12. Ibid.
  13. G. R. S. Mead, Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.? (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1968), 258-59.
  14. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 77.
  15. F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000 reprint), 15.
  16. See the introductory comments by Geisler and Howe, “How to Approach Bible Difficulties,” for an excellent response to the charge that the Bible contains errors in their book When Critics Ask (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 11-27.
  17. Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 24-25.