Was Jesus Real? | A Historical Look

(13 Minute Read)
Jesus of Nazareth is the focal point of Christianity. He is the essence of it all because without him the New Testament would mean nothing and the Old Testament would have not been fulfilled. Over the years, I've heard many atheist simply shrug Jesus off as a myth as if he never existed. What if he did? What if there were non-biblical sources to prove it? And what if we could even prove that the resurrection of Jesus is the most likely explanation for why Christianity is here today? Well, let's do it.
Non-Biblical Sources:
Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD)
Josephus was a first century historian that was born in Jerusalem. Regarding Jesus he wrote:
 "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." - Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews Book 18, Chapter 3, 3
Interpolation (a remark interjected in that may be biased)The popular view is that this section is not authentic in its entirety, with that being said it is mostly authentic with the original probably reading:
"At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out." - Jesus Remembered by James D. G. Dunn 2003 pages 141–143
For extra context, in chapter 5, he did discuss John the baptist stating:
"Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's [Antipas's] army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of 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; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him."
Furthermore, Josephus continued to write about Jesus in Chapter 20:
 "Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest." - Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews Book 20, Chapter 9, 1
Interpolation? Most scholars agree this text is either fully authentic or very close to the original text. When Josephus singles out Jesus by stating he was "called Christ" he is doing so to show a difference between Jesus Christ and the other people named Jesus at the time. This passage is used to show that Jesus was an actual historical person by modern scholars. This idea is supported by Louis H. Feldman as he has stated that "few have doubted the genuineness" of Josephus' reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20, 9, 1 ("the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James"). 
Tacitus (56-120 AD)
Tacitus was a Roman senator and historian. Regarding Jesus or "Christus" he writes:
"Nero fastened the guilt of starting the blaze 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.” - Tacitus, Annals 15.44
Interpolation? Most scholars agree that Christian corruption is not present here as Christians are clearly described as "abominations". This logical idea is supported by R. E. Van Voorst as he noted the improbability that later Christians would have interpolated "such disparaging remarks about Christianity". -Robert E. Van Voorst (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Wm. B. Eerdmans. p. 43
For arguments sake we would briefly like to discuss criterion of embarrassment. This is a form of analysis that says an account likely to be embarrassing to its author is presumed to be true as the author would have no reason to invent an account which might embarrass him or her. The above passage by Tacitus is an example of this.
Mara bar ("son of ") Serapion (Lived in the 1st century, and wrote around 73 AD)
Mara bar Serapion was a Roman philosopher. In a letter he wrote to his son who was also named Serapion he described in a passage which most consider to be Jesus: "What are we to say, when the wise are dragged by force by the hands of tyrants, and their wisdom is deprived of its freedom by slander, and they are plundered for their superior intelligence, without the opportunity of making a defence? They are not wholly to be pitied.  For what benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death, seeing that they received as retribution for it famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, seeing that in one hour the whole of their country was covered with sand? Or the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them? For with justice did God grant a recompense to the wisdom of all three of them. For the Athenians died by famine; and the people of Samos were covered by the sea without remedy; and the Jews, brought to desolation and expelled from their kingdom, are driven away into every land. Nay, Socrates did “not” die, because of Plato; nor yet Pythagoras, because of the statue of Hera; nor yet the Wise King, because of the new laws which he enacted."
Theologian Robert Van Voorst thinks there is little doubt that the reference to the execution of the "king of the Jews" is referring to the death of Jesus. He also makes it clear that a likely reason he did not want to directly use the name "Jesus" is because of the ongoing persecution of followers of Christ at the time. It is worth nothing that in the New Testament "INRI" is inscribed into the cross of Jesus. INRI stands for "king of the Jews".
Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD) 
Pliny was a Roman lawyer, author, and magistrate. Pliny wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan around the year 112 AD to ask for help on how he should deal with Christians. Pliny explains how christians of the time would gather and sing to Christ as if he was a god. He also explains how they commit to not doing crime and follow laws, but says Christianity is harmful to a political association perspective. Trajan responded with these points:
  • Do not seek out the Christians for trial
  • If the accused are found guilty of being Christian, then they must be punished
  • If the accused deny they are Christians and show proof that they are not by worshipping the gods, then they must be pardoned
  • Anonymous accusations should not be considered
    Some believe there are other non-biblical sources that point to Jesus, while that may be true we did not feel confident in them. From what we went over above (non-biblical), we can conclude the evidence shows that:
    • Jesus was a historical person that lived in the 1st century AD
    • Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate
    • Jesus was baptized by John the baptist
    • Jesus had followers that were willing to die for their beliefs
    • Jesus did wonderful works or startling deeds
    • Jesus was thought of as wise
    • Christians were growing by the numbers quickly, and were trying not to commit crime
    • Christians treated Christ as a god, and were persecuted for it
    • James was the brother of Jesus
    • The death of John the baptist seems to match both scripture and Josephus's account
    Indeed, Jesus was a real person even when we don't use the Bible as proof.
    So, what happens when we turn to biblical and christian sources? Well eyewitness testimony that is documented closely following the incident at hand is usually accepted as very good grounds for historical proof. For example most scholars date First Thessalonians to about 50 AD. The evidence seems to suggest that right after Jesus died (About 33 AD) and resurrected Christianity started blossoming. Wait a second.. did I just say resurrected? Can a human really come back to life about three days after dying? Well, no.. unless that person is God. Does any other hypothesis explain how Christianity spread so quickly in an empire that should have destroyed it before it had a chance? 
    The apostles of Jesus clearly demonstrate that Jesus had a physical bodily resurrection. Jesus even said "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have." and soon after he even ate food to prove it to them further that he is indeed not a spirit, but a real physical person. In spite of this, atheist have tried to come up with alternative explanations because the evidence seems to suggest the apostles were not lying about what they believed and saw. These alternatives include:
    Hallucination
    While this may sound funny, some actually believe everyone who saw Jesus after he resurrected were just mass hallucinating the same thing at the same time.. multiple times.. for days. The problem? Not even his apostles believed he was alive again at first, hence why he had to eat and let someone stick his finger inside his wounds. No matter how unbelievable it may sound, atheist would rather believe that than a miracle.. although one could argue mass hallucination is a miracle on its own. Then, this hallucination made them devote their lives to Jesus. This view or hypothesis is not realistic according to the accounts of the bible.
    A Motive
    Some say they had some type of motive to spread the lie of christianity. They did not have a motive, no money can be rewarded from spreading a religion that was deemed illegal by the Roman empire. In fact, the only worldly motive they could have really had was death. This view or hypothesis is not realistic according to the accounts of the bible or logical experience. Paul, formerly "Saul" used to kill christians before converting into a christian. Did he really have a motive? He knew more than anyone about the consequences.
    Jesus Did Not Die
    Another "theory" is that Jesus did not actually die, and survived somehow to be able to get up with healed wounds three days later. Well, a publication in the American Medical Journal disproved that:
    "Thus, it remains unsettled whether Jesus died of cardiac rupture or of cardiorespiratory failure. However, the important feature may be not how he died but rather whether he died. Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death (Fig 7). Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge" - M.D. William D. Edwards On The Physical Death of Jesus
    A Stolen Body
    Some have suggested that his followers stole his body after death, ignoring that in the Bible that's what the Roman authorities suggested as well. They clearly admit the tomb is empty, and that is huge. The problem consists, there would be no motive to steal the body. Just trying to would most likely get them killed by the authorities as there were guards according to the Bible:

    "Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first." - Matthew 27:63-64

    There is no other good explanation to explain what the apostles clearly witnessed, as well as the crowd of 500. There is evidence to support that the resurrection account in the bible is a historical fact

    As we discussed earlier, an event seen as embarrassing is usually considered a fact as the author could have came up with details that would make his story appear more solid.
    Women & The Tomb
     In Greek-Roman culture women were not deemed as reliable. For example, a woman’s testimony was not valid in court. In Jewish circles, it took the testimony of two women to equal that of a single man. In Matthew we learn that women are the ones who discovered the tomb empty. Why would the author make up such an embarrassing (at the time) description for the most important event in Christianity? This single historical fact shows interpolation would have made no sense as it would hinder the validity of the account rather than help it. Furthermore, the disciples were fearful and wrote about it. Why would being scared for your life be a great way to convince others to convert if it wasn't true?
     Documented Eyewitness Testimony of the Resurrection of Jesus
    Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18)
    The women at the tomb with Mary (Matthew 28:1-10)
    Roman guards (Matthew 28:4)
    The Eleven disciples (John 21)
    Two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)
    An indeterminate number of disciples (Matthew 28:16-20)
    Over five-hundred disciples (1 Corinthians 15:6)
    James (1 Corinthians 15:7)
    Paul (1 Corinthians 15:8-9)
    The historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection is amazing. People like to discredit the new testament but the fact is that the people who wrote the bible are first-hand eyewitnesses that should be given their respect. These people were not crazy or drug addicts as they even questioned and required evidence like we do today. In fact, most scholars today agree that Jesus was a real historical person. That does not mean they believe him to be God as most that deny this fact are atheist. Our mission is to prove God's existence so we encourage you to dive into our other articles.
    Bonus Evidence:
    What if we told you there is most likely an actual "photo" of Jesus that some say is the result of his miraculous resurrection? Well, we have an article on that and you can click HERE to read more.
    Conclusion:
    The only reasonable explanation is that Jesus Christ truly resurrected from the dead. This one fact would be the only motivation for the apostles to want to change and give their lives for the mission of God, and would also explain the rapid growth in an empire that viewed it as a threat. Only something that people honestly believe to be true would enable them to want to take up their cross with no benefit to their flesh.
    We hope you enjoyed our 4th edition in our Evidence For God blog series! Make sure to check back next week for a new topic!

    1 comment

    Eleni Sidiropoulou

    A truly great article with a huge amount of valid sources which remain objective. Jesus did exsist, was resurrected and there IS evidence which proves these facts I stated. Glad to see how much points you had placed in one article. Great work!

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