Reader’s Question: Are there historical evidences that Jesus Christ lived and died?
In his article entitled The Quest for the Mythical Jesus, Robert Price discusses ‘the series of realisations about methodology and evidence that eventually led me to embrace the Christ Myth Theory’. The Professor of Biblical Criticism at the Council for Secular Humanism’s Centre for Inquiry Institute argues that even if Jesus really did exist, he is lost in the sands of time. ‘There may once have been an historical Jesus’, he writes, ‘but for us there is one no longer. If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth’.
I believe that in advancing the Christ Myth Theory, Robert Price has deliberately refused to consider the overwhelming evidence for the historical Jesus.
In this brief article, I turn to extra-biblical sources to look for evidences for Jesus. I argue that in the works of non-Christian authors of the 1st and 2nd centuries there can be found sufficient evidence of the existence of the man Jesus. I believe that these Jewish and pagan sources are reliable precisely because their authors were antagonistic to Jesus and his early followers. The clear references to Jesus or the Christ in their writings conclusively shows that the historical Jesus is not the figment of the imagination of the early Christians or a myth – as Price has argued. I will also explain why I think that on the basis of the historical evidence it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus was crucified, and that he rose from the dead.
The Historicity of Jesus
The first non-Christian author that provided evidence for the existence of Jesus is Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who was born in AD 37 (or 38) and died in AD 97. Born into a priestly family, Josephus became a Pharisee at the age of nineteen. After the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, Josephus moved to Rome, where he became the court historian for the Emperor Vespasian.
In his work entitled, Antiquities of the Jews, published around AD 90-95, Josephus gave an account of John the Baptist that is in complete agreement with the record in the Gospel of John. In Book 18, Chapter Five, Josephus writes:
‘Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment for what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism …’
The accuracy of Josephus’ account of John the Baptist suggests that what he said about Jesus in the same document must also be reliable. This especially applies to the Arabic version of Antiquities, whose authenticity is endorsed by reputed scholars such as Professor Schlomo Pines of the Hebrew University. This is what Josephus wrote concerning Jesus in Antiquities 18:3:
‘At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he appeared to them three days after his resurrection and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders’.
The second reference to Jesus is found in Antiquities 20:9, where Josephus describes the trial and sentencing of James and other disciples:
‘After the death of the procurator Festus, when Albinius was about to succeed him, the high-priest Ananius considered it a favourable opportunity to assemble the Sanhedrin. He therefore caused James the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and several others, to appear before this hastily assembled council, and pronounced upon them the sentence of death by stoning’.
The evidence is so overwhelming that Professor Pines could write:
‘In fact, as far as probabilities go, no believing Christian could have such a neutral text; for him the only significant point about it could have been its attesting the historical evidence of Jesus. But the fact is that until modern times this particular hare (i.e. claiming Jesus is a hoax) was never started. Even the most bitter opponents of Christianity never expressed any doubt as to Jesus having really lived’.
The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus
We turn now to inquire if there are convincing evidence from non-Christian sources for the crucifixion and death of Jesus. All the canonical Gospels report the torture and execution of Jesus. However, there are Gnostic Gospels that claim that this did not happen. For example, in the First Apocalypse of James, Jesus is depicted as consoling James with these words: ‘Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed. And this people has done me no harm’.
In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus made it clear that he did not die and that it was someone else – Simon of Cyrene – who died in his place:
‘I did not die in reality, but in appearance … in error and blindness …[they] saw me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was rejoicing in the height over all … And I was laughing at their ignorance’.
Islam makes a similar claim: that Jesus was not crucified, and therefore did not die on the cross. In the Quran, we read:
They denied the truth and uttered a monstrous falsehood against Mary. They declared: “We have put to death the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the apostle of God”. They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did.
Those that disagreed about him were in doubt concerning him; they knew nothing about him that was not sheer conjecture; they did not slay him for certain (4:157-158).
Are there extra-biblical sources, penned by pagan authors that corroborated with the accounts in the canonical Gospels about Jesus’ death? The answer is Yes.
In his historical account entitled, Annals (written at about 115 AD), Cornelius Tactitus (ca. 55-201 AD) the Roman historian offers this account of the great fire in Rome during the reign of Nero:
‘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 has 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’.
Tacitus wrote about Christus (which is Greek for Christ) who suffered ‘the extreme penalty’ (death) at the hands of Pontius Pilatus during the reign of Tiberius. He said that the ‘mischievous superstition’ (i.e., Christianity) was checked for a while (after Jesus’ death), but broke out again.
The second century Greek satirist, Lucian, also wrote about the death of Jesus in his work entitled, The Death of Peregrine. ‘The Christians’, Lucian asserts, ‘worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account’. The Syrian author, Mara Bar-Serapion similarly alluded to the execution and death of Jesus in a second century manuscript:
‘What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgement 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’.
I have already cited the passages from Antiquities by Josephus that explicitly reported that ‘Pilate condemned him [Jesus] to be crucified and to die’ (18:3). The first century writer Thallus even corroborated with the Gospel account of the darkness that covered the sky at Jesus’ crucifixion, but attributed it to the eclipse of the sun. Although Thallus’ work is no longer extant, the third century scholar Julius Africanus referred to it, rejecting Thallus’ naturalistic explanation of the phenomenon: ‘Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun – unreasonably, as it seems to me’.
Perhaps the best evidence of the death of Jesus is from the Talmud. In its earliest period of compilation known as the Tannaitic period (70-200 AD), we have this remarkable passage about Jesus’ death:
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 practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf”. But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.
‘Hanging’ is synonymous to crucifixion (see Galatians 3:13, where crucifixion is described as hanging on a tree). There is therefore plenty of extra-biblical material that testified to the crucifixion and death of Jesus.
We come finally to the resurrection of Christ. Since the second century, there have been a number of sceptics who tried to refute the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Recently, Richard Cevantis Carrier, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, has tried to debunk the historicity of the resurrection in his books and articles. Carrier sought to do this by reviving the old hallucination theory and dressing it up in a new garb. The origin of this hypothesis can be traced to 19th century writers such as David Strauss and Ernest Renan.
According to this theory, the disciples of Jesus were so emotionally attached to their Master that after his death, they hallucinated about him, believing that he has risen from the dead. Carrier writes:
I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence … is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another … In the ancient world, to experience supernatural manifestations of ghosts, gods, and wonders was not only accepted but encouraged.
Theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg, Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and historians like Gary Habermas have provided compelling arguments for the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. These scholars have marshalled the historical evidence to show that it is not unreasonable to conclude that the resurrection of Christ really took place.
Space does not allow me to develop their arguments in detail. I will simply summarise them, placing special emphasis on the historical facts on which they are established.
The Empty Tomb
The first historical fact is that the tomb in which the body of Jesus was placed was found to be empty by the women on the Sunday following the crucifixion.
Now, the reliability of the story of the burial of Jesus was never in question. This was because of the involvement of Joseph of Arimethea, who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Almost every scholar agrees that since a member of the ruling class was instrumental in the burial of Jesus, the narrative is unlikely to be fictitious. Furthermore, because it was Joseph who provided the tomb, it is unlikely that the women went to the wrong tomb on that first Easter morning. If they had, the mistake could have been easily corrected and the right tomb located.
The Jewish authorities could also have easily exhumed the body of Jesus from the tomb to prove once and for all that the claims of Jesus’ disciples about his resurrection are false. Instead, they concocted the story that the disciples have stolen the body (Matthew 28:11-25). In the fifth century, an anti-Christian document called the Toledoth Jesu revived the theory that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body. But the Toledoth Jesu is deemed too late and unworthy as a source. Be that as it may, the stolen body hypothesis shows that the tomb was indeed empty.
In addition, we must also note that the disciples of Jesus did not go to some far away place to preach about Christ’s resurrection. Instead, they began preaching in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus had died and was buried. As the Lutheran scholar Paul Althaus has rightly pointed out, proclamation about the resurrected Christ ‘could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb has not been established as a fact for all concerned’.
Resurrection Appearances and Witnesses
The second historical fact related to the resurrection of Jesus is the numerous witnesses who saw the risen Lord. The earliest account of the resurrection comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Here, Paul lists a very wide range of eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ. Some of these witnesses saw him individually, while others encountered the risen Christ as a group. They saw him at different times and under different circumstances.
The indication that most of the eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ were still alive is significant. Scholars have understood this statement as an open-ended invitation for the Corinthians to inquire for themselves whether this is true, since many who witnessed the risen Christ were still with them. Mention of James, the brother of Jesus, is also significant. This is because James did not believe in Jesus during his earthly ministry (John 7:2-9). But after Jesus’ resurrection, James did not only become a follower of Christ, but also an apostle who exercised leadership in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18). Paul recognised James’ apostleship in Galatians 1:19.
The Gospel accounts of the appearances of the resurrected Christ are also diverse. There were multiple, independent accounts of these appearances. According to William Lane Craig:
‘This is one of the most important marks of historicity. The appearance to Peter is independently attested by Luke, and the appearance to the Twelve by Luke and John. We also have independent witness to Galilean appearances in Mark, Matthew and John, as well as to the women in Matthew and John’.
What about the theory forwarded by scholars like Richard Carrier that the disciples of Jesus thought that they had seen the resurrected Christ, but in fact were merely hallucinating? Gary Habermas has roundly refuted this hypothesis in fine paper entitled, ‘Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: The Recent Revival of Hallucination Theories’. Again space does not allow a more thorough treatment. I provide a simple summary.
There are several reasons why the hallucination hypothesis is untenable.
Firstly, most psychologists dispute the reality of group or mass hallucinations. Rather, they maintain that hallucinations are private, individual events. But Paul said that more than five hundred encountered the risen Christ as one time. It is highly unlikely that these five hundred witnesses had hallucinated.
Secondly, the wide variety of times and places that Jesus appeared, together with the fact that the witnesses come from diverse backgrounds, is a huge obstacle to the hallucination hypothesis. As Habermas explains:
Men and women, hard-headed and soft-hearted alike, all believing that they saw Jesus, both indoors and outdoors, by itself provides an insurmountable barrier for hallucinations. The odds that each person would be in precisely the proper frame of mind to experience a hallucination, even individually, decrease exponentially.
Thirdly, studies have shown that hallucinations generally do not transform lives. However, even critics have noted the radical transformation of Jesus’ disciples. The same band of followers, who appeared fearful when their Master was crucified, suddenly became bold witnesses who were willing to die for their faith, after claiming to have seen their risen Lord.
There are also other important points that should be noted. Why did the ‘hallucinations’ suddenly stop after 40 days? Why did it not spread wider, to other believers or disciples? The hallucination hypothesis appears unable to stand under the weight of such evidence and arguments.
The overwhelming extra-biblical evidence for Jesus shows that the New Testament accounts are extremely reliable. The NT’s account of the historical Jesus is corroborated by numerous pagan texts. But the NT has much more to say about this man than the fact that he existed. It testifies that the man Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal Word of God (John 1:1-14), the Saviour and Lord of the universe he has brought into being (Colossians 1:15-17). It tells us that Jesus Christ is the way, and the truth and the life (John 14:6) and that ‘whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).