I began to fall away from the Catholic faith during my high school years. One of the big questions I had at the time was, “How do I know that Jesus even existed?”
Back then, this wasn’t high on most people’s lists of doubts, but, my, how things have changed. As we delve deeper into the season of Advent, we watch for the annual appearance of blog posts, magazine articles, and TV shows asserting that the very person whose birth we are about to celebrate never lived at all.
For example, a lapsed Christian and fellow Canadian named Tom Harpur (author of The Pagan Christ) recently opined that historians don’t have “a shred of historical evidence for the existence of Jesus.” A Catholic layman might read that and find the notion disturbing. This guy has written some books! As a published author, he must know of what he speaks.
But it’s important to know that Jesus-deniers such as Harpur represent the tiniest minority of voices on this issue. They really are considered to be the lunatic fringe, and no reputable scholar of history takes them seriously, no matter how much noise they make in the media.
The Facebook Challenge
John Dickson, who holds a doctorate in ancient history and is a senior research fellow at Macquarie University, got so tired of these false claims that three years ago he took to Facebook with a challenge: if anyone could give him the name of a single professor possessing a Ph.D. in ancient history who claimed Jesus never existed, he would eat a page from his Bible.
So far, Dickson has not had to “consume the word” in that literal sense!
Indeed, there’s a reason why Dickson could confidently make that challenge: there’s a veritable mountain of historical evidence for the existence of Jesus, both inside and outside the Bible. This is why no credible historians—even skeptical or anti-Christian scholars—doubt it. They don’t have to believe the Bible is the word of God, or even merely that it’s a good historical source, in order to affirm that Jesus was a real historical figure.
Even non-Christian writers and historians provide us with an abundance of evidence. Let’s take a look at perhaps the most important of those writers.
1. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62-113):
They (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 of an ordinary and innocent kind (Epistles 10.96).
“Pliny Jr.” was a Roman governor in Asia Minor, not to be confused with his father, Pliny the Elder, the naturalist who died when Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. Pliny wrote to Emperor Trajan asking what ought to be done regarding the proliferation of Christians in his territory. Pliny explains what he had learned from interrogating these believers: especially noteworthy is their habit of Sunday worship, with a very early reference to belief in Jesus as divine.
As scholar Craig Evans notes, these Christians were likely slaves. The way Pliny treated them—even torturing them for information—means they were probably not Roman citizens. They awoke very early in order to worship before their work began, as slaves would have had to do. They also vowed not to do many of the immoral things that Roman slaves often did, including committing theft and sexual sin.
Of particular note is Pliny’s description of what, in all likelihood, was the celebration of the Eucharist. Some in the empire believed the Christians to be cannibals, because they had heard chatter about believers consuming the “body” and “blood” of a certain individual. Pliny, perhaps in response to this, notes that the food was “of an ordinary and innocent kind.” In other words, Pliny was describing the “accidents” of bread and wine, which Christians believed were transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
2. Tacitus (A.D. 60-120):
Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue (Annals 15.44).
Tacitus is considered one of the greatest Roman historians. Here he situates the death of Jesus in history—as does the Apostles’ Creed—linking it with the involvement of another known historical personage: Pontius Pilate, who governed Judea under Emperor Tiberius. Tacitus also verifies that the death of Jesus did not stop the movement he founded, which eventually established itself in Rome.
An interesting sidebar: some moderns have even doubted the historical existence of Pontius Pilate! This was laid to rest, though, by the 1961 discovery of a first-century stone inscription dedicated to Pilate in Caesarea Maritima.
3. Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-100), the great Jewish historian of the times, was born shortly after the death of Jesus, and wrote about him in a famous (and famously disputed) passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum (“The Testimony of Flavius Josephus”). It’s disputed because most scholars believe that later Christian interpolators doctored the text to make it appear that Josephus was attributing more to Jesus than what, in all likelihood, Josephus actually had done. Since Josephus was not a Christian, it’s hardly plausible that he composed these disputed sections. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to spot what likely didn’t come from Josephus’s own hand (indicated below by brackets):
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one ought to call him a man], for he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people who accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. [He was the Messiah.] When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. [On the third day, he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.] And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared (The Antiquities of the Jewish People 18.3.3).
If we delete the dubious portions of this passage, we still have solid evidence that Josephus wrote about Jesus as a historical figure. Josephus also corroborates much of what we know from Jesus’ biographies, the Gospels: namely, that Jesus was known as a miracle worker and convincing teacher and was condemned to death by the Jerusalem priesthood (“men of the highest standing”).
Josephus mentions Jesus again later on when discussing the death of James, the relative of Jesus who became the bishop of Jerusalem. This latter passage is relatively undisputed in terms of its authenticity:
Possessed of such a character, Ananus [the high priest] thought that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus was dead and Albinus was still on the way (Festus and Albinus were Roman governors.). And so he convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others (The Antiquities of the Jewish People 20.9.1).
What we have here are three ancient, non-Christian writers who confirm the existence of Jesus. And in the case of Pliny and Tacitus, we have two “hostile witnesses” who are not at all sympathetic to the claims of Christ or his followers. There are other ancient, non-Christian writers who also corroborate the existence of Jesus. But this brief sampling should be enough to convince a reasonable person that, despite the bizarre claims that seem to rise to the surface every December, the Jesus whose birth we will commemorate at Christmas was indeed a historical figure who walked the Earth.