Did Jesus really exist? I have read comments from skeptics who sincerely doubt that He lived. Raphael Lataster, professor of the University of Sydney, said in an online Washington Post article (December 18, 2014) that there are “no existing eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus. All we have are later descriptions of Jesus’ life—events by non-witnesses, most of whom are obviously biased.” Even the “reasonable” accounts by ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus are “shrouded in controversy,” he said.
The skeptics then dismiss outright all testimony of the four Gospels—all written within 60 years of Jesus’ death (the earliest manuscript of the Gospel of John, known as “P52,” is dated to about AD 125, confirming that the Gospels were written before the end of the first century). And they brush aside testimony from the Apostles that they were eyewitnesses (cf. 2 Peter 1:16). But I will write about the historical reliability of the New Testament, and the Four Gospels in particular, in a later article. For now, let’s just focus on what non-Christian writers in the ancient world said about Jesus.
In the first century we are blessed to have the writings of the Jewish/Roman historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37?-101?). He originally fought on the side of the Jews in their rebellion against Rome, but eventually switched sides. Because of his books we have a first-hand account of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and life in Israel in the first century. He specifically mentioned Jesus twice as a real, historical figure.
Even Christian scholars admit that, yes, scribes copying Josephus’ works probably added the words that Jesus “is the Christ,” and that “he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold them and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him…” The evidence is that those particular phrases are emendations by later scribes. But aside from that, what are we left with from Josephus? He said this about Jesus: “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. … For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. … And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared (Antiquities, XVIII, 3,3).”
In his writings, Josephus mentions the following historical people: Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, Agrippa, Herod Antipas and his brother Philip, Berenice, Annas, Festus, Felix, and Ananias the High Priest. He even names John the Baptist (Antiquities XVIII, 5,2)! Of course, all of these people appear in the four Gospels or the book of Acts, so that means they can’t be real, right? He also mentions Caesar Augustus, Cleopatra, Marc Antony, Antiochus IV, Archelaus, and Caesar Claudius (to name a few VIPs from the ancient world). Josephus even cites James, specifically saying that he is the brother of Jesus (Antiquities XX, 9,1). No historian worth his salt doubts the historicity of any of these people, but Josephus mentions Jesus twice and somehow that means that Jesus did not exist? Sure. That makes perfectly good sense. Or not.
And we also have the testimony of pagan authors: Consider Lucian of Samosata (c. AD 120-180) a Greek playwright who lived 100 years after Christ. He said, “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account … [they] worship the crucified sage and live after his laws. (The Death of Peregrine, 11-13).” Note that this satirist of the ancient world does not question the historicity of Jesus. He accepts that there was a man crucified under Roman law who has followers in his day.
The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (c. AD 55- c.117) wrote: “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 Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular (Annals XV, 44).” Tacitus wrote about Jesus as a real person, put to death by one of his own guys. By the way, Pilate is not mentioned by any other pagan author. So should we then say that Pilate never existed?
Pliny the Younger (Roman governor in Asia Minor in AD 112) had this to say: “[The Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang 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 (Letters of Pliny the Younger, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935, vol II, X:96).”
Suetonius is an interesting Roman historian. In his work Divus Claudius (Chapter 25), he records how the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because of some agitation they were making over the Christians: “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [Christ], he expelled them from Rome.” It is confirmed in Acts 18:2 that among the expelled Jews were Aquila and Priscilla, the dynamic duo that greatly helped the Apostle Paul. We know that this incident recorded by Suetonius occurred in AD 49. Note that Suetonius plainly mentions Jesus Christ as a historical character in the same vein as other historical happenings.
Even the Jewish faith, in the Babylonian Talmud, treats Jesus as a real man who really walked the earth and was executed: “On the eve of the Passover, Yeshu was hanged … since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover (Babylonian Talmud, London: Soncino, 1935, vol III, Sanhedrin 43a, p 281).”
It’s pretty clear that Roman and Jewish authors in the ancient world accepted Jesus of Nazareth as a real historical person. Why can’t we?