QUESTION: Despite the fact that there is no historical evidence outside of the Bible to prove that Jesus actually existed – no artifacts of something he owned or wore, no works of his carpentry and most curious of all, no self-written manuscripts from Jesus himself, only hearsay about Him coming from others, it begs the question: With the gospels claiming great multitudes of people who knew about him, including the scribes mentioned in the Bible, why do you think it is so hard to prove that such an important man in history actually existed when we can easily prove the existence of other historical figures who lived centuries before him?
First, I would challenge you on two assumptions you’re making above. (1) Is there no historical evidence outside of the Bible of Jesus? and (2) Can we truly “easily” prove the existence of other ancient figures who lived before Jesus? With these, I’d like to ask two more questions: (3) Despite the New Testament being the best attested historical documents from ancient times, why is it viewed with such skepticism when other much less reliable ancient documents are rarely questioned? and (4) If the same skepticism that is applied towards Jesus were applied to other ancient figures, would “proving” the existence of these other ancient figures be any more convincing?
There are at least 10 ancient non-Christian sources that mention Jesus of Nazareth. All are dated after the New Testament (NT), so the NT is still our best source for learning about Jesus (which I’ll say more about later), but to have information about Jesus from non-Christian sources is significant because the likeliness that the source writers would put a biased positive slant on the information about Jesus is slim. Likewise, if the information comes from someone actually opposed to Christianity, we can assume a biased negative slant is likely (at worst) or a neutral, unbiased view (at best). So, to have an opponent of Christianity confirm information that appears in the NT is significant.
On the other hand, we have to be fair and honest and not make these sources more (or less) than what they say. Some of the sources may not so much be saying something about Jesus directly (though some do), but reporting information about what ancient Christians believed about Jesus. Still, these are useful because they tell us important information about early Christianity. The one thing that becomes clear is that Christians considered Jesus God from early on, they were highly moral, and these Christians were willing to die for their belief that Christ rose from the dead.
Here is some information these ancient non-Christian sources confirm, which are in harmony with the NT:
- Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Caesar.
- He lived a virtuous life.
- He was considered a wonder-worker.
- He had a brother named James.
- He was acclaimed to be the Messiah.
- He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
- He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover.
- His disciples believed he rose from the dead.
- His disciples were willing to die for their belief.
- Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome.
- His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God.
- After Jesus’ execution, Christianity disappeared from public view briefly, but then abruptly grew.
(This list is adapted from the book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. More in depth critiques of these ancient documents are in The Historical Jesus by Gary Habermas and The Jesus Legend by Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd.)
Of these ancient non-Christian sources, the following 3 are considered the best because they’re the closest to the actual events and written by ancient historians who have been shown to be trustworthy:
Josephus, Jewish historian (written about 90-95 AD)
#1 – “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”
#2 – “Upon [procurator] Festus’ death, Caesar sent Albinus to Judea as procurator. But before he arrived, King Agrippa had appointed Ananus to the priesthood… [He] was rash and followed the Sadducees, who are heartless when they sit judgment. Ananus thought that with Festus dead and Albinus still on the way, he would have his opportunity. Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin, he brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law, and condemned them to be stoned to death.”
Pliny, Roman senator (written about 111 AD)
“I have asked them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not go unpunished… They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery… This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they called deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”
Cornelius Tacitus, Roman proconsul & historian (written in 115 AD)
“Therefore, to stop the rumor [that the burning of Rome in 64 AD had taken place by his order], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus [Christ], 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. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty: then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
Skeptics, of course, question these documents, especially Josephus’ work, accusing Christians of corrupting Josephus’ original words. Some claim Josephus, a non-Christian Jew, would never write so favorably about Jesus. Others claim these were written after Jesus’ lifetime, so they’re based only on hearsay. My challenge to these skeptics, then, is for them to provide evidence for these claims. As Christians, we’re constantly asked, “Where’s the evidence?” So, if these documents were doctored, where are the early manuscripts before the supposed corruptions? If these reliable historians decided to write based on hearsay, what proof do we have of this? Let’s be fair; anyone can make a claim, but where’s the evidence? Much is possible, but what is plausible based on the evidence?
Interestingly, at one time there only existed manuscripts of Josephus with phrasing slightly different from the sections I quoted above that contained what seemed like additions that favored the Christian view of Jesus. Both Christian and non-Christian scholars were skeptical of specific words and phrases. Then, an earlier Arabic version was discovered without the questionable words and phrases, proving that scribes had added to the words of Josephus, but also confirming the authenticity of the Jesus passages. There has never been any ancient manuscript of these writings of Josephus discovered that don’t include the passages about Jesus or Jesus’ brother James (or John the Baptist, who only appears elsewhere in the NT).
What Josephus writes is not contradictory to him being a non-Christian Jew. Josephus doesn’t write that Jesus rose from the dead; he writes that Jesus’ disciples reported that he rose from the dead. What Josephus is writing is a neutral report based on investigation. Josephus wrote this within the lifetime of people who would’ve witnessed the ministry of Jesus. The quote from the two Roman sources would’ve been written when people who were young during Jesus’ ministry were still living.
What’s interesting is that Josephus and Tacitus mention Jesus being put to death by Pontius Pilate. Despite this, some skeptics in the past have even challenged the claim that Pilate ever existed, not just Jesus. But in 1961 archeologists found an inscription on a Roman building naming Pontius Pilate as the perfect (governor) of Judea. Tacitus, being part of the Roman elite himself, had easy access to records, and it would’ve been extremely sloppy historical writing for him to claim this Roman leader executed a make-believe Jew.
The medieval Catholic Church claimed to have all sorts of artifacts belonging to Jesus and his apostles, but no one takes those seriously anymore – and with good reason. (Conversely, the Shroud of Turin is an interesting mystery worth looking in to.) Frankly, if we had some artifacts that belonged to Jesus or archeological evidence other than the documents mentioned above and the NT documents (which are solid historical documents), I honestly don’t think it would make a difference to a skeptic. I’m saying this as a former skeptic and atheist, and someone who still approaches everything with a good dose of skepticism. After all, we have 13 letters written by Paul himself and a thorough account of Paul’s ministry in the book of Acts that spans about 30 years, including specific historical people and places, and still some skeptics have claimed he never existed just because they’re collected in the NT (which, to me, shows a bias and a disregard of history).
There are people who also disbelieve the moon landing, the Jewish Holocaust, the Sandy Hook school shooting (saying it was a staged event with actors), and the deaths of Elvis, Osama bin Laden, and Tupac. To be clear, I’m perfectly aware that providing evidence for these modern events is much easier than for the life of an ancient rabbi, but my point is that some people make up their minds about things and, after that, no amount of evidence will dissuade them. Doubt can be cast upon everything if that’s how we choose to approach things.
Furthermore, the NT documents are extremely reliable ancient records by historical standards, especially compared to other documents about other ancient people – people whose existences are never questioned:
ALEXANDER THE GREAT
We have 2 sources for our information about Alexander the Great. Both of these sources were written about 400 years after Alexander the Great lived.
We have 5 sources that give us the information we know about Caesar Augustus. One is a funeral writing, written at his death. One was written 50–100 years after his death. The last three were written 100–200 years after his death.
JESUS OF NAZARETH
For Jesus, we have 4 sources – the four Gospels found in the NT, each individually investigated, each containing both complimentary and unique information. The 4 Gospels were written 25–60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, which means within the lifetime of those who knew Jesus and witnessed his ministry. (Jesus was crucified about AD 30–33, and all of the Gospels were written before AD 100.) Two of the Gospels – Matthew and John – were written by Jesus’ actual apostles, where the other two – Mark and Luke – were written by disciples of Jesus’ apostles, Paul and Peter. This means the 4 sources we have for best knowing about Jesus’ life come from eyewitnesses.
Also, how does the NT do compared to other ancient manuscripts?
- For Aristotle, we have 49 ancient manuscripts.
- For Sophocles, we have 193 ancient manuscripts.
- For Plato’s tetralogies, we have 7 ancient manuscripts.
- For the NT, we have 5,686 ancient manuscripts in the original Greek, either in part or in whole. Plus, there are about 9,000 other ancient manuscripts of the NT books in other languages.
I think it’s safe to say, the only reason anyone doubts the NT record is because it reports miraculous events.
Finally, let’s keep in mind that Jesus was a rabbi from the backwaters of the Roman Empire whose ministry only lasted 3 years. The fact that we know anything about him 2,000 years later is incredible. Despite Jesus not being the type of person ancient historians wrote about (they wrote primarily about rulers and conquerors), he has arguably become the most famous and influential person in the history of the world. Whether a believer or a skeptic, that has to make you wonder about what sort of man he was. Furthermore, if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, what possible reason did his disciples have – what did they possibly gain – by dying for this lie? Why would the disciples, as eyewitnesses (not fervent followers hundreds of years later), die for something they very well knew was a lie?