Evidence for the Historical Jesus

Recently, I watched a debate where a critic of Christianity made the statement that there was no historical evidence to support the Jesus of the Bible that existed in Jewish literature.  The Christian in the debate made a tolerable answer, but I felt that he had missed a major point of the argument.  In this essay, I would like to do two things.  First, I would like to pose the question as to just what does constitute historical evidence and second, what historical evidence is there in the world?

To begin with, we need to ask what constitutes “historical evidence” before we can honestly set evidence on the table for discussion.  The Historical Method, which is the method used by historians to relate the history of peoples, events, and cultures can be summarized by a series of principles[1]:

  1. Archaeological Relics are the most reliable witnesses to an event because they were actually present at the time the event took place.
  2. Primary source material is the most reliable witness, followed by secondary sources and then tertiary sources, etc…
  3. The more independent sources testify to an account, the more credible the account becomes.
  4. When looking at source data, one must take into account the sympathies, biases, and agenda of the author.
  5. The less biased a witness is, the more credible the witness.

These are the criteria of those who practice what is called the “Historical Critical” method, which is dominant in historical evaluation today.

In light of the above criteria, I would begin by suggesting that the Biblical text itself satisfies all of the above requirements to be considered reliable primary source data of the most credible degree.  Manuscript evidence of the Bible dates back to the first century AD, during the lifetime of some of the original 12 Apostles.  It is primary source data in that it records first-hand accounts of the life, the works, the teachings, the miracles, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  These early witnesses are also testified to by first and second century manuscripts, themselves constituting either primary or secondary witnesses.  Given the large amount of independent sources that corroborate the Biblical account, the biases can be recognized as minimal.  In additional, since all of the Biblical writers, save perhaps Luke, were Jewish, even the New Testament counts as primary Jewish source evidence.  Those who reject the Bible because of its religious nature have allowed their own biases to cause them to be inconsistent in their methodology.  Yet, in addition to the primary source material contained in the Bible, we additionally have references like the following to support the life and ministry of Jesus Christ:

  • Josephus (a Jewish historian in the Roman court) in Antiquities, Book 18, Chapter 3 mentions Jesus as “a wise man” and a doer of “wonderful works.”  Though this text is debated, here Josephus also attributes Jesus as a teacher and Christ who was executed.
  • In Book 20, Chapter 9 of Antiquities, Josephus also mentions James as the brother of Jesus “who was called Christ.”
  • Tacitus (a late 1st century Roman Historian) in his Annals 15.44 mentions “Christus” as the namesake of the Christians and that this Christus was executed in Judea during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of Pontius Pilate.
  • Thallus (a Roman historian writing in the mid first century) records an unusual eclipse as well as an earthquake during the time of Passover in Judea.  The eclipse was unusual because Passover was held at the time of the full moon where eclipses do not take place naturally.
  • The Babylonian Talmud (Hebraic tradition and commentary) records that on the eve of Passover “Jeshu” was hanged.  Jeshu is a Jewish name for Jesus.
  • Mara Bar-Sarapion (a Stoic Philosopher in the mid to late 1st century AD from Syria wrote the following in a letter to his son: “What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given”

It should be noted that this list contains only a small sampling of the extra-Biblical evidence to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  We have not begun to talk about some of the archaeological evidence like the “James Ossuary.”  We also have deliberately kept Christian writers out of the discussion, though there are many.  The bottom line is that there is an abundance of evidence to support the existence of the Historical Jesus—even in the Jewish writings.  If we were to include Christian writings, layers upon layers of textual evidence would be added. Ultimately, to deny the historicity of Christ is like trying articulate a new scientific law without ever having taken the time to test it in the lab; it is intellectually dishonest.  Those who deny the Bible as Historical evidence are not being honest with their methodology and the evidence that is available.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_method — footnote 1: Thurén, Torsten. (1997). Källkritik. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.

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