Whether you are an atheist, Catholic, humanist or alien conspiracy theorist, it is difficult to deny that a man named Jesus once existed.
No, I’m not talking about some kid named Jesus kicking a ball around in Brazil. I’m talking about the Jesus. The son of God. The Messiah. The guy whose birth we’re supposed to be celebrating on Christmas Day.
People often conflate believing that Jesus existed with believing in Jesus Christ. While evidence of the biblical version of Jesus is restricted to the factually dubious Bible, there are many sources that corroborate the historical existence of Jesus.
Whether or not Jesus was the son of God is another matter entirely, and one we won’t touch on here.
There is no archaeological, physical or written evidence that directly proves Jesus’ existence, but there are many sources that refer to him.
The lack of physical evidence doesn’t mean anything. There is little archaeological evidence of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, let alone any upper-middle-class Jewish person from around 20 CE.
Historians have as much physical evidence of Pontius Pilate’s life – an important Roman prefect of Judaea – than they have of Jesus’. Much of the evidence we rely on for historical accuracy is accumulated from multiple, independent written sources.
For example, if a Roman aristocrat wrote about seeing a man named Jesus be crucified, and a Jewish carpenter wrote that he made the cross to crucify a man named Jesus, then it would be safe to assume that a guy named Jesus was really crucified.
The more independent written evidence there is, the more easily verifiable the event or individual. When it comes to Jesus’ life, there are two forms of written evidence: Christian and non-Christian sources.
Christian sources can understandably be deemed bias, but they are still important historical documents that aren’t any less valid because they are written by Christians. For the sake of clarity, this article will split the sources into Christian, Jewish and non-religious references to Jesus.
- Pliny the Younger, a lawyer, author and magistrate in Ancient Rome, wrote in 112 CE about his frustrations with illegal congregations of Christians. Pliny refers to Christian practices and “depraved, excessive superstition”. This source is important as we know by 112 CE that Christians exist and believe in Christ.
- Suetonius, a Roman historian, mentions the deportation of Jews “on the instigation of Chrestus” in his book covering 41-54 CE, Lives of the Caesars. While he could be referring to a separate man named Chrestus, it is more likely an incorrect spelling of Christus. At the very least, Suetonius suggests that Christians were in Rome around 50 CE and potentially gives evidence of Jesus inspiring revolts in Rome.
- Tacitus, a Roman historian and senator, says Emperor Nero blamed a fire in Rome in 64CE on Christians. In his history, Annales, which covers 14-68 CE, he also writes, “The author of this name, Christ, was put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but even in the city.” Based on Tacitus’ writing we can extrapolate that Christians were in Rome circa 60 CE, that the religion came from Judea, and that they were named after ‘Christ’, who Pontius Pilate executed.
- Mara bar Sarapion was a Syriac Stoic philosopher in the Roman province of Syria who wrote a letter to his son that refers to Jesus of Nazareth. Written between 73 CE and the 3rd century, Mara referred to the poor treatment of “three wise men” and the execution of “the wise king” of the Jews. Seeing that Serapion was most likely a pagan, this is considered one of the earliest non-Christian references to the crucifixion of Jesus.
- Josephus was a Jewish military leader and aristocrat who made two references to Jesus Christ in his Antiquities of the Jews. In Book 18, Chapter 3, in what is known as the Testimonium Flavianum, he writes a passage that refers to Jesus as a wise man, a miracle worker, a leader of the Jews and a prophet “condemned to the cross” by Pontius Pilate. General scholarly view is that the skeleton of the Testimonium Flavianum is authentic, but portions of it have been subject to Christian modification. In Book 20, Chapter 9, Josephus refers to the death of Jesus’ brother “whose name was James”.
- There are passages in the Talmud – the central text of Jewish theology – that some scholars believe refer to Jesus. It is suggested that terms like “Yeshu” (Jesus) and “Yeshu ha-Notzri” (Jesus the Nazarite) are explicit mentionings of Jesus, but many scholars are reluctant to confirm this as evidence on etymological grounds. The clearest reference to Jesus in rabbinic literature is in Sanhedrin 43a, which states “on the eve of Passover they hanged Jesus the Nazarene”. At the least, the Talmud’s references to Jesus are important because while it tends to refer to him as a sorcerer or a magician, it never denies his existence.
- The greatest Christian sources that tell of Jesus’ life are the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament. Mark is written around 70 years after Jesus’ death and Matthew and Luke were written roughly 10-15 years after that and based on Mark’s original text. Bart Ehrman, the foremost expert on Jesus’ historicity, outlines the problem with these sources: they are full of contradiction and written decades after Jesus had already died by people who had never met him or witnessed anything he supposedly did.
- The Pauline epistles are the thirteen books of the New Testament that come from Paul’s letters and include details about Jesus’ life. Seven of the thirteen letters are considered authentic by the majority of scholars: Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, Corinthians, Galatians, 2 Corinthians and Romans. They are dated around 50-60 CE and hold the earliest surviving information about Jesus. The letters indicate Jesus was a real person, a Jew, had disciples, was crucified and resurrected.
- The Egerton Gospel refers to three papyrus of a previously undiscovered gospel found in Egypt and sold to the British Museum in 1934. Dated around 150 CE, the surviving fragments include four stories that are similar to stories published in the canonical Gospels of John, Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is highlighted by Ehrman as another independent account of Jesus’ life.
- There are of course also references to the life of Jesus in the non-canonical pseudepigraphical gospels of Thomas and Peter. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of quotes and sayings, while the Gospel of Peter focuses on the final period of Jesus’ life. These were both written between 100-200 CE and based on other people’s writings and oral accounts of Jesus, not first-hand experience. Modern scholars believe the Gospel of Thomas was written independently of the canonical gospels, which makes it important evidence of a historical Jesus.
So what was Jesus? Was he a revolutionary? A dissident? A sorcerer or a magician? Your idea of who Jesus was is largely up to your own beliefs.
It may be your prerogative to believe Jesus was a miracle worker who turned water to wine and cured the blind, but even if you don’t, the myriad documentary evidence makes it impossible to deny a man named Jesus existed as an important historical figure.
When considering the influence that Jesus wields across the world 2,000 years after his death, regardless of your level of religiosity, it’s hard to deny that he must have been a special individual.
If you are interested in historical studies of Jesus, I would suggest the following books: The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders, A Marginal Jew by John Meier, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John-Dominic Crossan and perhaps the best on the subject, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman.