Lecture 2: Did Jesus Live?
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As amazing as it sounds, some people question whether Jesus actually lived, often claiming that there is only one non-biblical reference to him. That simply is not true; there are many more. But it makes sense that he is not referenced a lot since biographies were written about the rich and powerful.
2. Two clearest statements
a. Josephus (Antiquities 18.3.3 [63-64])
b. Josephus on James (Antiquities 20.9.1 [20.200])
3. Other sources
a. Jewish — Talmud
e. Lucian of Samosata
f. Pliny the Younger
h. Mara ben Serapion,
4. Summary of what we read about Jesus
a. Jesus lived
c. Lived in first third of first century
d. Born out of wedlock
e. Ministry intersected with John, who baptized people for repentance of sins
f. Brother James was martyred in 62 A.D. by the high priest Albinus.
g. Worked “wondrous feats” (Josephus)
h. Gathered disciples (5 mentioned by name)
i. Conflict with the Jewish authorities
j. Crucified under Pontius Pilate (26 – 36 A.D.)
k. One Talmudic tradition says he was “hung,” but some early Christian writings use “hung” for suspension on a pole.
l. Sorcerer who led Israel astray
m. Believed to be the Messiah by some
n. Believed to have been seen raised from the dead by his followers who now worship him as a god
5. Why not more references?
Course: Why I Trust My Bible
Lecture 2: Did Jesus Live?
This is the 2nd lecture in the online series of lectures on Why I Trust My Bible by Dr Bill Mounce. Bill was a preaching pastor at a church in Spokane, WA, and prior to that a professor of New Testament and director of the Greek Program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He also taught at Azusa Pacific University and is the author of the bestselling Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek.
The first topic we will consider is whether Jesus lived or not. If Jesus never lived then obviously the Bible is not trustworthy. You may be saying, ‘who would question that?’ Actually there are people saying that Jesus is a totally mythical character and he never actually lived. Everything that we read in the Bible is made up by the church. So sometimes you hear how can you believe that Jesus is a real historical character when there is only one reference to him outside of the Bible and outside of Christian literature? This is how it is often stated and they are referring to a statement by Josephus. We actually have about twelve references of Jesus from outside the Bible. This gives us a good attestation and some basic awareness of who Jesus was.
2. Two Clear statements
The first reference comes from Josephus, a Jewish historian of the 1st century. This is from Josephus (Antiquities 18.3.3[63-64): Now, there was about at 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 received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to himself both many of the Jews and many of the gentiles. He was the Christ. When Pilate at the suggestion of the principle men amongst us had condemned him to the Cross; those who loved him at the first did not forsake him for he appeared to them alive again on the third day as a divine providence told of these things and ten thousands other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians as so named from him is not extinct at this day. The reason why some of the phrases are in italics, it can be argued as those phrases were added later by people in the church. In other words Josephus never wrote them. And the problem is, if you look just at the italics, you say it obvious that we can’t trust this. Some people want to throw all of it out. Even if you just remove the words Josephus didn’t write, you have a very clear attestation by someone who was no friend of the Christians. He was a Jew who tells us some information about Jesus. In fact on the website there is a link to a discussion with a classical scholar as to the value of Josephus’ witness to Jesus.
b. Josephus on James
But Josephus has another comment about Jesus, specifically about Jesus’ brother, James. Josephus writes, ‘Festus was now dead and Albinus, a high priest, was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James and some others. And when he had formed an accusation against him as breakers of the law, he, meaning Albinus, delivered them to be stoned. So there you have references to Jesus by way of James. So that is two fairly strong attestations that there was a historical person named Jesus.
3. Other Sources
When you turn to other kinds of literature, specifically the Jewish literature, you will find that there are indeed references to Jesus in the Talmud which is a bit surprising because you would think that the Jewish writings would just want to ignore Jesus, because of the conflict between Jews and Christians. I also want to look at some Greek and Roman writers as well. For example, Tacitus was the most reliable Roman historian who wrote in the early 2nd century. He was the person who said that Nero blamed the fire in Rome on the Christians. Tacitus writes that Christians have their name from Christ who had been executed by sentence of the procurator, Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. So Tacitus, a very well respected historian gives us that reference.
Suetonius: Suetonius is another Roman historian of the early 2nd century. He is the one to mention the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in the time of Claudius in AD 41-54. This was important in terms of dating the Book of Acts also. Suetonius said that this expulsion was due to the rioting, ‘at the instigation of Chrestus, probably a variation of misspelling of the Roman spelling of the Latin of Christus. This is obviously referring to Jesus. So you have Suetonius making a reference to him. Thallus was the 1st century Greek historian and we get to his writing through a 3rd century author. He mentioned the darkness that occurred at Jesus’ death. Lucian of Samosata was a writer of satires and he was no friend of Christians. He made fun of Christians for worshipping a man as if he was God and he goes on to say that Jesus, ‘was a distinguished person who instituted their novel rights and was therefore crucified. And then later on he calls Jesus a sage. Just one more reference: Pliny the Younger was a 2nd century Roman Politician who wrote to the Emperor Trajan on how to deal with Christians who didn’t revere Caesar’s image. He wasn’t sure what to do with these folks. It is interesting that Pliny didn’t get his information by hearsay. He actually got his information from apostate Christians, a very direct connection with Christianity. Pliny said that Christians met together regularly and sang hymns to Christ as if to a God.
So, these are some fairly secure and trustworthy historical references showing that there was a historical person named Jesus within the same time frame that we believe that Jesus lived from the Bible. Now, if you take all those references and put them in a list, this is what we know historically about Jesus:
• We know that he lived.
• We know that he was Jewish.
• He lived in the first third of the first century.
• He was born of the virgin birth.
• His ministry intersected with that of John the Baptist.
• He had a brother named James who was martyred in 62 AD by the High Priest Albinus.
• Josephus said that Jesus worked wondrous feats. This is what we know to be miracles.
• Secular sources said that Jesus gathered disciples of which five are named.
• Jesus was in conflict with Jewish authorities.
• He was crucified under Pontius Pilate which puts Jesus’ death between the years 26 – 36 AD.
• There is on Talmudic tradition from the Talmud that said that Jesus was hung but we know from some other Christian writings they would use the verb hung to be suspended on a pole as with a Cross.
• He was believed to be the Messiah by some and believed to have been raised from the dead by his followers who now worshiped him as God
5. Why Aren’t There More References
So these come from reliable non-Christian sources and this is what we are told about Jesus; and this is actually quite a lot of information. You may be questioning as to why aren’t there more references historically. You must realize that no one in the ancient world wrote biographies about common people. Jesus would have been viewed historically as a common person. They wrote a rich people and influential people and warriors and soldiers and politicians. This is what they wrote biographies about. In today’s face book world, some people seem to have this fetus that they want to know every little thing about everybody. This is just a modern oddity. That is not the way biographies were originally done. No, they were written about the rich and famous and power people and Jesus was historically none of that. So it is not a surprise that we don’t have more secular references to him.
In conclusion, let me say that it would be really odd if this single most significant and most influential person in the history of the world wasn’t real. That would just be odd. For those who question that Jesus even lived, obviously have particular reasons for doing so but is certainly not due to lack of evidence, especially in light of the historical proof we have of Jesus. Given the normal standards we use for determining the authenticity of historical people and writings, there are plenty of historical references of Jesus, not just one; that he actually did exist. So to conclude: Jesus did exist and he was a real person.