Once in a while I hear about someone who claims that Jesus never existed. Perhaps you have had this challenge thrown at you. Let’s take a moment to look at the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth.
Historians will tell you that the first evidence we have of Jesus are the gospels in the New Testament. Skeptics and unbelievers are not happy about that. They claim that since the gospels are obviously “biased” toward Jesus, and that since they have reports of Jesus doing fantastic things like raising the dead and healing the blind, we must throw out everything the gospels say about Him. For these people, only secular reports of Jesus are allowable as evidence of His existence.
Of course, there is something quite amiss with this objection. There is no explaining Christianity without an actual Jesus. There is no way that the early Christians could have invented all those stories, made up all His sayings, and convinced thousands of people of these lies. The idea is absurd. Even the most skeptical historians believe that Jesus actually existed for this simple reason. It turns out, then, that the New Testament documents are indeed the best evidence that Jesus really lived. Unbelievers may not like what those documents say, but denying the existence of Jesus altogether is not a realistic option.
Is Jesus mentioned outside the New Testament in any ancient documents? Yes, He is.
One of the earliest references to Jesus is found in the writings of the Jewish rabbis. Here is what they said about Him:
“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 practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!” (b. Sanh. 6.1h)
Now they have their facts wrong, it is clear. The passage is not trying to be historically accurate about the death of Jesus but is more anti-Jesus propaganda than anything else. But it is evidence for the existence of Jesus nonetheless. The date for this passage is the late first- or early second century AD (probably the latter). In other words, this passage was probably first written within about a generation of Jesus Himself.
Another early reference to Jesus outside the New Testament is a statement in the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who lived from 37 AD to about 100 AD. That is, he was born right around the time of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus and lived to the end of the first century, the very time when Christianity was spreading throughout the Roman empire (as Acts attests), and again, only one generation after Jesus lived. Josephus actually mentions Jesus twice. Here is where Josephus mentions Jesus Himself:
“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. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among 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, because the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the sect of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” (Ant. 18.64)
Most scholars would say that this passage has been edited and expanded from its original version (and I would agree). It is not likely that Josephus would have said that it might not be lawful to call Jesus a man. After Josephus’ time, Christian scribes copied his works and so some of this description is probably due to Christian copyists “improving” Josephus’ description of Jesus. But even if they did, here is the point: there was a reference in the original text that Christian scribes felt they needed to improve. That is, Josephus had indeed mentioned Jesus.
The second time Josephus mentions Jesus is in connection with His brother, James. Josephus says:
“Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of 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.” (Ant. 20.200)
Note how the lesser-known James is identified by the more well-known Jesus. Note also that by the time Josephus wrote this, “Christ” had basically become Jesus’ second name (as we see already developing in the New Testament).
Here are two early sources, within a generation of Jesus himself, and certainly in the lifetime of His disciples, in which people who were not disciples of Jesus mention Him as an actual historical figure. Yes, Jesus really existed.
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