The oft quoted C.S. Lewis once stated that the identity of Jesus may be found in only three possbilities. He is either, Lord, Liar, or Lunatic. In other words, he is who he says he is…..the Lord and Messiah OR he just pulled off the greatest hoax of history by deception and lies OR he is just simply a mad man with grandiose ideas of being deity. Professor Bart Ehrman at UNC Chapel Hill, offers a third option…… “Legend”. Ehrman is well known as an author and educator who believes the Jesus we traditionally believe in is a legend. The following material is offered as resource material for those who are honestly questioning and searching for answers. The scope of this article is limited to simply asking, “Is there evidence to support the idea that Jesus is a historical person?” I invite you consider this material and check out the links to other sources referenced within.
One source estimates that 350 books were written between 1910-1950 on the identity of Jesus. With so much having been written, it is no wonder that opinions are diverse as to the true identity of Jesus Christ. This lesson will present evidence from a variety of sources which affirm that he did indeed live. The scope of these lessons is not to attempt to prove Jesus is the Son of God, but only to go so far as to establish that believing that he did live is based upon reliable and verifiable records. The diligent inquirer will likely desire to look further into these matters. Links to additional resources will be referenced at the end of this lesson.
– Since the mid 1980’s the Jesus Seminar, founded by Robert Funk, has gotten the most press….before that Albert Sweitzer wrote the 1906 Quest of the Historical Jesus. For an objective look see Jeffrey L. Sheler, Is the Bible True?, 1999. (At the time of publication, Sheler was the U.S. News & World Report religion writer)
For a more robust examination of these personalities and their views see the following resources. The Real Jesus of History by Joel Stephen Williams http://doesgodexist.org/Phamplets/TheRealJesusOfHistory/TheRealJesusOfHistory.html
Also: Dr. William Lane Craig’s Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/rediscover1.html
What can be learned from historical accounts?
– Various historians, even those of Jewish backgrounds verify the fact that Jesus Christ is indeed a character of history. The following references are representative but not exhaustive.
Pliny the Younger
Pliny the Younger was a Roman author and administrator who served as governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. He was a nephew of a natural historian known as Pliny the Elder. In his tenth book of letters dated about 112 AD he speaks of Christianity in the province of Bithynia. He was responsible to the emperor Trajan to keep him posted on the activities of the Christians. Pliny dealt personally with the Christians who were turned over to him. He interrogated them, inquiring if they were believers. If they answered in the affirmative he asked them two more times, under the threat of death. If they continued firm in their belief, he ordered them to be executed. Sometimes the punishment included torture to obtain desired information, as in the case of two female slaves who were deaconesses in the church. If the person was a Roman citizen, they were sent to the emperor in Rome for trial.
In one of his letters he included the following description of the early Christians and their practices:
They (the Christians) were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. Letters, X: 96, translated by William Melmoth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935), vol. II.
Celsus on Jesus
Celsus lived in during the 2nd century, CE. Origen is refuting him in the 3rd century. Celsus’ writings no longer survive in tact, but we have access to some of his work when Origen quotes passages for the purpose of refutation. The following is one such passage.
Origen, Contra Celsum 1.28
Translation, quoted from Mead.
Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her own hands. His mother had been turned out of doors by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery [with a soldier named Panthéra (i.32)]. Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard. Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain (magical) powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god.
Baraitha Bab. Sanhedrin 43a
The translation is informed by both Goldstein:22,109ff and Mead:178f,210f.
There is a tradition (in a Barraitha): They hanged Yeshu on the Sabbath of the Passover. But for forty days before that a herald went in front of him (crying), “Yeshu is to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and seduced Israel and lead them away from God. Anyone who can provide evidence on his behalf should come forward to defend him.” When, however, nothing favorable about him was found, he was hanged on the Sabbath of the Passover.
Ulla commented: “Do you think that he belongs among those for whom redeeming evidence is sought? Rather, he was a seducer [of whom] the All-merciful has said: ‘Show them no pity… and do not shield them.’ (Deut 13.8b NRSV) In Yeshu’s case, however, an exception was made because he was close to those who held [political/religious] authority.”
The Jews handed down a large amount of oral tradition from generation to generation. This material was organized according to subject matter by Rabbi Akiba before his death in 135 A.D. His work was then revised by his student Rabbi Meir. The project was completed about 200 A.D. by Rabbi Judah and is known as the Mishnah. Ancient commentary on the Mishnah was called the Gemaras. The combination of the Mishnah and the Gemaras form the Talmud.
In the section indexed as Sanhedrin 43a is this statement:
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 favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!
This quotation was taken from the reading in The Babylonian Talmud, trans. by I Epstein (London: The Soncino Press, 1935), vol. III Sanhedrin 43a, p. 281.
The Gospel Accounts-
It is helpful to keep in mind that the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus as recorded in scripture are dated some years after the earthly life of Jesus. Mark – approx. A.D. 60 Matthew & Luke approx. A.D. 70-80 John approx. A.D. 90 Even though these are written 30 or more years after the ascension of Jesus, there was evidence and testimony of his existence much earlier. Consider Luke’s words in Luke 1: 1ff “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account….”
Granted, this testimony comes from the Bible itself, but it is consistent with how histories, records and literature of the time was preserved. Oral tradition, that is, passing along information by way of unwritten record was done with more diligence than is sometimes given credibility. Luke, who is a physician, arguably more skilled in analysis of facts and specifics, mentions that he “carefully investigated” his findings.
The fact that there is little outside the Biblical accounts to verify the historicity of Jesus are frustrating to those who search but it is typical of other sources of that period. Even documentation of Roman history of this same time period is sparse considering the enormous power and expanse of the Roman Empire.
Much more can be said about the sources Luke and other utilized in writing their accounts than we will take time and space to explore. Other references found within this presentation will offer more details for those who would like to dig deeper.
Other considerations in this lack of contemporary written records of Jesus may seem simplistic but are nevertheless a factor in our discussion. Keep in mind that at the time Jesus lived:
Literacy was limited – Mass printing was not available – Oral transmission of information was considered a standard – Preservation methods of documents was less than desirable. All these factors help to normalize the reality that few written records are available.
Other Points to Consider-
The apostle Paul’s writings dated earlier than other NT books 1 Corinthians, for instance is dated approx. A.D. 55. Note his words in 1 Cor. 15:3-14 “…for what I received, I passed on to you…”
Paul was schooled under Gamaliel (see Acts 22:3) Paul, no only was a persecutor of the early Christians, he was expertly trained to examine evidence in his training in law. His teacher, Gamaliel, was a Pharisee and a supremely qualified teacher. In Acts 5: 34ff there is a narrative where Gamaliel is spoken of as “honored by all the people”. At that time he addresses the Sanhedrin in regards to charges being lodged against Peter and other apostles. He mentions Theudas and Judas the Galilean who were leading revolts. He concludes: “for if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
This is significant in helping bring into focus that although the Gospel accounts are dated later, Paul’s writings, which are some of the earliest, express as a basis that Jesus is historical, that he is the Son of God and that he was resurrected from the dead. Paul was no novice in the skill of argumentation and presenting evidence. He most certainly would not have made arguments for the fact of the resurrection if he knew that his contemporaries would expose it as myth.
An early confessional creed of Christians is found in the words of Paul in 1 Tim. 3:16:
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit,
seen by angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world
taken up in glory. (RSV)
I want to restate that the purpose of these materials is not to attempt to prove anything. This is an exercise in presenting evidence that must be examined by anyone who is questioning the historicity of Jesus, his teachings, his life, his death and resurrection. I invite you to continue to examine additional evidence keeping in mind that this is the most important inquiry you will ever make.
For Additional Materials and continued research
For a link to articles including ancient references to Jesus see Alan Humm’s material at: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~humm/Topics/JewishJesus/
Dr. William Lane Craig’s article “The Evidence For Jesus”
Gary Habermas, Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus
Jeffrey L. Sheler, Is the Bible True? (Sheler draws upon years of experience as religion writer of U.S. News and World Report.) His work is as balanced as any I have seen.
Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ
Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, When Skeptics Ask