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Jesus of Nazareth – Myth or Historical Figure?

January 13, 2012

Was Jesus just a myth or was he in fact a historical person in history?

As one skeptic wrote, “The majority of people in the world today assumes or believes that Jesus Christ was at the very least a real person. Perhaps he wasn’t really “the Messiah”, perhaps he was not “The Son of God”, and perhaps he didn’t actually perform miracles and rise from the dead, but he really was a great moral teacher who traveled around Galilee with followers and got arrested by the Jews and crucified by the Romans right?

Not likely.

In fact, a close examination of the evidence shows that the best explanation for the story of “Jesus Christ” is what we call “mythology”. The case that I will be outlining here is that there never was any “Jesus Christ” nor any meaningful real life basis for the story of “Jesus Christ”.” {1}

Are persons, like the one above, making the claim that Jesus never existed justified in their beliefs?  This post will look at some very strong and reliable extra-biblical evidence to the contrary.

1) Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 AD)

has been called the greatest historian on ancient Rome. He lived during the reign of several Roman emperors and was a Roman historian and a governor of Asia [Turkey] in AD 112. He wrote two major works: Annals and the Histories.

The following passage is a quote from the Annals: 

“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 centre 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.” – Annals 15.44

Examination of this passage – New Testament historian, F.F. Bruce is quoted saying, “Tacitus had to receive his information from some source and this may have been an official record. It may even have been contained in one of Pilate’s reports to the emperor, to which Tacitus would probably have had access because of his standing with the government.The term Christian is introduced and is still the name for those that follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.

  • Christus, or latin for Christ, is mentioned as the name for the origin of this most “mischievous superstition”.  Historians hold this as reliable source for reference to the historical Jesus.
  • Pilate is mentioned in this passage as being the one to decide Jesus’s fate on the cross.
    • “Christus suffered the extreme penalty at the hands of one of our procurators Pontius Pilate” 

What is a procurator? – Procurators were appointed to govern, with small troop detachments, certain lesser provinces. These procurators exercised both financial and judicial authority, even in capital cases, but were usually subject to the general authority of the governor of a major province in the region. {2}

  • Pilate is also mentioned in the Bible as being the one to decide Jesus’s fate.
    • John 18:28-31 –  Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor….So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”
  • “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.”
    • This may not be evidence for Jesus in particular but does collaborate much of what the early church fathers wrote about their trials and executions by roman officials.  Their writings state that most of them were either burned at the stake, hung on crosses, or thrown in an arena with beasts that would tear them apart.
      • “We do not give up our confession though we be executed by the sword, though we be crucified, thrown to wild beasts, put in chains, and exposed to fire and every other kind of torture. Everyone knows this. On the contrary, the more we are perse- cuted and martyred, the more do others in ever-increasing numbers become believers and God-fearing people through the name of Jesus” – Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 110.3, 4
      • It becomes evident that the entire crime with which they charge us does not consist in any wicked acts, but in the bearing of a name. The issue is not the name of a crime, but the crime of bearing a name. Again and again it is the name that must be punished by the sword, the gallows, the cross, or the wild beasts.”Tullian, To the Heathen I.3

2) Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (AD 61-113),

or Pliny the Younger, was the governor of Bithynia (AD 112) and a Roman senator. He wrote to emperor Trajan asking for guidance on how he should treat the Christians in his province.

The following passage is a quote from Epistles X96:

“Christians were meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to do wicked deeds, never commit fraud, theft, adultery, not to lie nor to deny a trust. . . ” – Epistles X96

Examination of this passage –

  • Again the term “Christian” is written in this writing independent of any other.  This is the name given to those who follow Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.
  • “The followers of Christ sang hymns to him as if he were a god.”
    • Christians sang hymns to Jesus 2000 years ago and still do today.  This is because we, the Church, have always viewed him as God manifest in the flesh.
      • “We have realized that the only homage truly worthy of him is not to consume by fire the things he created for our nourishment but rather to consecrate them to our use and to the use of those who need them and to thank him for these things by sending up homage to him with words of prayer and with hymns.”Justin, First Apology 13

3) Gaius Suetonius Tranquilla

was a Roman historian (AD 117-138) under Hadrian (AD 76-136). He was also the secretary of state and authored a book entitled Life of Claudius.

The following passage is a quote from Life of Claudius

Because the Jews at Rome caused constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [Christ], he [Claudius] expelled them from the city [Rome]. – Life of Claudius 25.4

Examination of this passage –

  • Suetonius describes Jews who caused disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.  Who else could this be but the same Jesus Christ who was independently written about by other Roman historians?
  • Acts 18:2 reads, “There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them.
    • This verse in Acts collaborates Suetonius’s account of Claudius expelling Christians, those who follow Jesus, from Rome.

All three of the writers we have discussed so far were not Christians.  They were Roman Officials!  They had no socio-religious obligation to write about Jesus because they did not follow him.  In fact, they worked for the same government who executed Jesus and his followers.  Their intention  for writing was not to promote Jesus or his followers but to write history as they viewed it.  Because of their objective viewpoint and authenticity as historical documents, even skeptic historians agree that they serve as strong extra-biblical sources pertaining to Jesus as a person of history.  It is not a matter of opinion but a matter of fact – Contrary to my skeptical friend’s opinion.  Below are a list of just a few of the vast majority of scholars who would agree with this conclusion.

Scholarly Accounts of Jesus’s Life as Reality – not fiction

“Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus strands as the founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct state is represented by the oldest Palestinian community.” Bultmann (1958) 13

“To doubt the historical existence of Jesus at all…was reserved for an unrestrained, tendentious criticism of modern times into which it is not worth while to enter here.” Bornkamm (1960)

I am of the opinion (and it is an opinion shared by every serious historian) that the theory [“The Jesus never lived, that he was purely mythical figure”] is historically untenable.” Marxsen (1970) 119

“To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory.” It has ‘again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars.’ In recent yeas ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’ – or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in diposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.” Grant (1977) 200

“Wells thesis [the Jesus never existed] is controversial and not widely accepted.” – M. Martin (1991) 67

“Contemporary New Testament scholars have typically viewed their [ i.e., Jesus mythers] arguments as so weak or bizarre that they relegate them to footnotes, or often ignore them completely.” – Van Vorrst (2000) 16

“There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that anymore.” Burridge and Gould (2004) 34

“The total evidence is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence.” – Maier (2005) 1

“No serious historian of any religious or nonreligious stripe doubts that Jesus of Nazareth really lived in the first century and was executed under the authority of Pontius Pilate, the goverener of Judea and Samaria.” – C.A. Evans in Evans and Wright (2009) 3

Peace and Love

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{2} –

One Comment
  1. sharon goltz permalink

    Very Good! I have never read or studied ancient history and find this interesting! Good work and good research!

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