RESPONDblogs: A Conclusion on the Historical Jesus

 

historical_jesus

In a previous blog post, I posed the question – Did Jesus exist? Usually, people appeal to the New Testament for their evidence. Yet I also suggested that many people come to the Bible with presuppositions firmly in place. Namely that the Bible is biased and untrustworthy in its portrayal of Jesus and its evidence of him as a real person.

 

I do not believe the Bible misrepresents the person of Jesus or his true identity in any way. But instead of getting side-tracked onto defending the reliability and honour of the Bible, I decided to focus on the original question at hand – Did Jesus exist? And to answer this question, I have set the Bible aside. I have investigated 3 historical sources which are external to the Bible and provide evidence to the historical Jesus.

These sources are written by Roman Historians who were not professing Christians, they did not contribute to the Biblical canon in any way. In fact, their Roman background suggests more likelihood of hostility to the claims of Christianity. Yet as we examined their testimony, we found some particularly interesting facts surrounding the historical background to Jesus of Nazareth.

 

You can find my analysis of the sources here:

 

Suetonius

https://respondblogs.wordpress.com/2015/03/20/respondblogs-was-jesus-a-real-person/

Tacitus

https://respondblogs.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/respondblogs-did-jesus-exist-tacitus-thought-so/

Josephus

https://respondblogs.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/respondblogs-did-jesus-exist/

 

The responses I got from people who read these posts were interesting.

“But these sources only confirm the existence of the Christian Church, not Jesus of Nazareth.”

“But these sources only confirm the existence of an itinerating preacher named Jesus, and nothing else.”

“But these sources are not to be trusted. Someone told them something…and they just wrote it down. It doesn’t mean it’s true.”

 

It turns out that some people don’t just come to the Bible with presuppositions. They also come to the extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus armed with presuppositions too!

 

“But these sources only confirm the existence of the Christian Church, not Jesus of Nazareth.”

Not true at all. A plain reading of each of the sources gives clear evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person. The sources talk about the person of Jesus himself.

 

“But these sources only confirm the existence of an itinerating preacher named Jesus, and nothing else.”

Not true at all, they go much much further than that. These sources identify him as a real person, and go on to corroborate details in the Bible’s account of his life.

 

“But these sources are not to be trusted. Someone told them something…and they just wrote it down. It doesn’t mean it’s true.”

So are you saying that we cannot trust what history books say? Why not? What evidence do you have that history books cannot be trusted? Because if you are right  – then we can dismiss a lot of knowledge that we depend on today. History records that World War One started in 1914 and ended in 1918. Even though we were not personally eyewitnesses to it, we know this happened because it is part of our culture’s history. We know that and believe that – right? Well – the same argument applies to Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius. Using the 1st century historical sources at their disposal, at the turn of the 1st century they wrote about events that occurred 60 years earlier. This is how history is recorded, whether it is about World War One, the events surrounding the reign of Roman Emperor Nero or Jesus Christ.

 

So what data do these three non-Christian Roman historians actually give us about the historical Jesus? Here’s a summary:

  1. Christ, or Jesus, was a person who founded a movement called the Christians.
  2. He was the brother of James.
  3. He was called Messiah by some.
  4. He was a wise, virtuous man who was known for his good conduct amongst people.
  5. Perhaps he was the Messiah that the Old Testament Prophets spoke of and predicted.
  6. Jesus Christ was put to death by crucifixion.
  7. The Roman procurator Pontius Pilate ordered Jesus’ crucifixion during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14 to 37 A. D.).
  8. After his crucifixion, Jesus Christ caused his followers in Rome to cause an uproar by sharing his teachings.[1]

 

What information do these three sources give us about the first Christian claims about the person of Jesus Christ?

  1. The followers of Jesus, the Christians, followed him as their teacher.
  2. There were many followers known as Christians who were both Jew and Gentile.
  3. When Christ died, the Christian movement…or the superstition…ended for a short time.
  4. Jesus Christ’s followers reported publically that:
    1. Jesus had been raised from the dead (surely the mischievous teaching that Tacitus and Suetonius make reference to).
    2. Jesus had appeared to them on the third day after his crucifixion.
  5. The Christ movement broke out again very quickly and they continued to proclaim his teachings.[2]

 

 

When you remember Jesus Christ’s social status during his life (he was essentially a peasant)…it is truly striking that so much detail exists on him in Roman Historical works. There is more written about political leaders like Caesar, Nero and Cicero; Jesus Christ was a no-one by comparison. Yet in spite of his obscurity, “if you limit yourself just to people at Jesus’ socio economic status … lower class peasant … there isn’t anyone from the ancient world that comes close to the amount of evidence we have for Jesus.”[3] And I have only just touched on some of the evidence available for Jesus. There is so much more.

 

Further, scholars we would not call themselves Christians look at this data and are under no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth existed, that he was a real person.

 

“John Dominic Crossan: ‘That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.’”[4]

“Crossan: ‘I take it absolutely for granted that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Security about the fact of the Crucifixion derives not only from the unlikelyhood tat Christians would have invented it but also from the existence of two early and independent non-Christian witnesses to it, a Jewish one from 93-94 C.E. and a Roman one from the 110s or 120s C.E.’”[5]

“Gerd Ludemann: ‘It is certain that Jesus was crucified around the year 30.’”[6]

“Ludemann: ‘The fact of Jesus death as the consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.’”[7]

 

Did Jesus of Nazareth exist? Human history says yes.

 

On a personal note – I am pleased that historians took time to record these details. But in my experience, I know more about Jesus through personal experience than ancient history. Jesus is the most exquisite, heart changing, life transforming person you will ever meet. You see…he is not primarily someone you meet in the pages of history. He is someone you encounter in your life today; he is not dead, he is risen and alive today. He is not just a person from the past, he is the living Lord who is not distant but right now is longing to walk beside us each day of our lives.

 

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” Hebrews 1:1-3, NIV

 

 

 

[1] Gary Habermas, “The Historical Jesus Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ Select chapters by Gary R. Habermas,” Dr. Gary R. Habermas Online Resources, Information, Media, accessed February 4th, 2015, http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/historicaljesus/historicaljesus.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bart Ehrman and Justin Brierly, “Did Jesus Exist?,” Unbelievable Podcast Saturday 18th August 2012, accessed January 31st, 2015, http://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Did-Jesus-Exist-Bart-Ehrman-Q-A-Unbelievable.

[4] Clay Jones, “Jesus Wasn’t a Real Person? That’s Dumb!”, Clay Jones, accessed March 25th, 2015, http://www.clayjones.net/2010/08/jesus-wasnt-a-real-person-thats-dumb/.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

RESPONDblogs: Did Jesus Exist?

suetonius

Jesus.

 

There have been many canvases painted, books written, stained glass windows mounted and movies made about him. There are many different opinions today on who he was and what he actually said. But he lived such a long time ago; isn’t it possible he has been made up? Perhaps Jesus is just a mythical talisman people use to salve their fears, legitimize their ministries, justify their philosophies and excuse their behaviour. Is Jesus a myth?

 

No – I’m going to do a series of posts where I will outline my reasons for asserting the historicity of Jesus, and I will base this position on historical sources external to the New Testament.

Why?

Because so many people come to the Bible with a pre-conceived notion that it must be biased in its portrayal of Jesus. But what if extra-Biblical historical sources, from people with no pro-Christian theological bias…and sometimes some anti-Christian bias… did refer to the person of Jesus? And what if they also corroborated many many details that we read about Jesus in the New Testament Gospels? Would you be interested?

 

These sources fall into three categories, “(1) classical (that is, Greco-Roman), (2) Jewish and (3) Christian.”[1] I will focus on the first two.

 

The first Greco-Roman source is Gaius Suetonius, the Roman writer, lawyer and historian. He was chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian, and he wrote a history called On the Lives of the Caesars. His historical accounts were written with the aid of this Roman government documentation. Reporting on events in 49 C.E. he says,

“He [Emperor Claudius] banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.”[2]

(The translator of Suetonius’s account notes that “Chrestus” is a variant spelling of “Christ”.)

A second related comment from Suetonius states that,

“After the great fire at Rome … Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.”[3]

 

Taken together, these records from Suetonius tell us some important details:

1 – Jews were expelled from Rome

2 – it was Christ who caused these Jews to make a disturbance…leading to their expulsion

3 – these Jews had a belief that was described as mischievous by Suetonius, and also described the same way by Tacitus (as we will see later)

4 – the term “Christians” was coined to describe this Jewish group who followed the teachings of Christ

 

Sceptic Richard Carrier denies the historical Jesus completely; he has decided that Jesus is a mythical and fictional invention. Richard says of the expulsion of the Jews from Rome that, “This incident was more likely city-wide violence ginned up by a Jewish [rabble rouser] named Chrestus.”[4] But Richard has problems with this:

  • He cannot produce any evidence of this supposed rabble rouser.
  • there is no evidence of any Jew being given that name; “among hundreds of Jewish names in the catacombs of Rome, there is not one instance of Chrestus being the name of a Jew”[5].

It is much more likely that Suetonius is not mentioning a person named Chretus; rather he is repeating an error in his source. He is referring to Jesus (passing on the assumption that his name was Christ), but misunderstood him to be an “agitator who lived in Rome in 49 C.E.”[6]

 

Richard Carrier continues; “it cannot plausibly be argued that [Suetonius] meant Jesus, who was neither alive nor in Rome at any time under Claudius.”[7] Carrier is pointing out that, because these Roman disturbances are dated to between 41 and 54 A.D. when Claudius was emperor, there is clearly a time discrepancy. Jesus was crucified years earlier; how can he provoke disturbances if he is already dead?

Yet Carrier is forgetting that the early Christian Church clearly declared Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. Surely Suetonius was only reporting clearly what was occurring during Claudius’s reign; namely that the Jewish Christian disturbances were claimed to be instigated by the resurrected Jesus. It is likely that these disturbances were, “sparked by disagreement about who Jesus was and/or what he said and did.”[8]

 

Richard Carrier also denies that the Suetonius quote corroborates anything written in the New Testament[9], but actually the opposite is true. Suetonius second quote describing the aftermath of the fires in Rome corroborates a small detail mentioned in Acts chapter 18 that affects the friends of Jesus; namely that, “Paul met a Jewish couple from Pontus … who had recently left Italy because Claudius had demanded that all Jews leave Rome.”[10]

 

Given the well documented Christian Resurrection preaching and the corroboration of a Christian expulsion from Rome, it would seem reasonable to agree with the majority scholarly opinion that Suetonius mentions the person of the historical Jesus, not a lost Jewish rabble rouser named Chrestus.

Did Jesus exist? Suetonius certainly thought so. Next up – TACITUS

  [1] Lawrence Mykytiuk, “Did Jesus Exist? Search for Evidence Beyond the Bible”, Bible History Daily, accessed March 12th, 2015, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/did-jesus-exist/.

[2] Gary Habermas, “The Historical Jesus Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ Select chapters by Gary R. Habermas”, Dr. Gary R. Habermas Online Resources, Information, Media, accessed February 4th, 2015, http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/historicaljesus/historicaljesus.htm.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Richard Carrier, HITLER HOMER BIBLE CHRIST The Historical Papers of Richard Carrier 1995-2013, (Philosophy Press 2014), 377.

[5] Mykytiuk, “Did Jesus Exist?”.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Carrier, HITLER HOMER, 377.

[8] Mykytiuk, “Did Jesus Exist?”.

[9] Carrier, HITLER HOMER, 376.

[10] Habermas, “The Historical Jesus Ancient Evidence”.