The Existence of the Jesus of History (or) Why Historians Should Count

Posted: March 31, 2013 by pastorericrhann in Apologetics, Christian History
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So I watch a brief “blurb” of this documentary about Jesus – which is standard fare for this time of the year. Within thirty seconds the narrator “historian” says something in the vicinity of… Why is there not one reference to Jesus Christ in any place in all of Roman history?”

Statements like this amaze me. It reminds me of the title historian and professor Rodney Stark uses for his conclusion chapter in the book “Cities of God” – being “Why Historians Ought to Count” (Rodney Stark, Cities of God, Harper Collins, c.2006, p.209). Seriously? “Not one?” I consider an appropriate subtitle for this instance to be “Why Historians Ought to be Historians.”

For lack of time, and because this is the umpteenth time I’ve addressed this with inquirers (see here), I’m going to utilize some pasted notes from an excellent article on the DOXA Christian apologetics website (Note: I could personally do without the cheesy wall and wallet replica of Jesus, but I do find this article to be solid and well-researched, nonetheless):

In abbreviated form – here are a list of non-biblical sources – all of which I’ve personally read before – either directly, or indirectly:

Thallus (c. 50-75AD)
Phlegon (First century)
Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, c.93)
Tacitus (Annals, c.115-120)
Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars, c. 125)
Galen (various writings, c.150)
Celsus (True Discourse, c.170).
Mara Bar Serapion (pre-200?)
-Talmudic References( written after 300 CE, but some refs probably go back to eyewitnesses)
Lucian (Second century)
Numenius (Second cent.)
Galerius (Second Cent.)

At least one more many would add is from Pliny the Younger in a letter written about AD 111 to the emperor Trajan

I have asked them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution…the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this:they met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honour  of Christ as if to a god ” (from Pliny the Younger, Letters, 10.96; as referenced by Dr. Edwin Yamauchi from Jesus Under Fire, Wilkins/Moreland Gen eds; p. 217).

Yes, there will always be those who will challenge who these references are “really” talking about, hypothesizing about various contrived individuals who went by a similar title, functioned in similar ways, did similar things, and had a similar following (and with all these similarities, couldn’t possibly be referencing the person most assume – although virtually nobody prior to the 19th century assumed anything different)but the following is the DOXA site’s summary by Luke Timothy Johnson (New Testament scholar and historian of early Christianity who is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University). This is roughly the same consensus a myriad of others (including historian/professor Edwin Yamauchi from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio) and gives a brief, yet apt, description of the difference between science and historiography:

“… certain fundamental points when taken together with confirming lines of convergence from outside testimony and non-narrative New Testament evidence, can be regarded as historical with a high degree of probability. Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate, and continued to have followers after his death. These assertions are not mathematically or metaphysically certain, for certainty is not within the reach of history. But they enjoy a very high level of probability” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus, San Francisco: Harper, 1996, p.121)

DOXA also utilizes the following references from librarian and apologist J.P. Holding:

“Greco-Roman historian Michael Grant, who certainly has no theological axe to grind, indicates that there is more evidence for the existence of Jesus than there is for a large number of famous pagan personages – yet no one would dare to argue their non-existence. Meier notes that what we know about Alexander the Great could fit on only a few sheets of paper; yet no one doubts that Alexander existed. [Meier, John P.A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. New York: Doubleday, 1991, p. 23]. Charlesworth has written that “Jesus did exist; and we know more about him than about almost any Palestinian Jew before 70 C.E.” [Charlesworth, James H. – Jesus Within Judaism. New York: Doubleday, 1988., 168-9] The well-respected Jewish New Testament scholar, E.P. Sanders, echoes Grant,saying that “We know a lot about Jesus, vastly more than about John the Baptist, Theudas, Judas the Galilean, or any of the other figures whose names we have from approximately the same date and place.”[ Sanders, E.P. –The Historical Figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin Press, 1993., xiv.]
On the Crucifixion, Harvey writes: “It would be no exaggeration to say that this event is better attested, and supported by a more impressive array of evidence, than any other event of comparable importance of which we have knowledge from the ancient world.” [Harvey, A. E. Jesus and the Constraints of History. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982., 11] The main proponent of the view that Jesus never existed has been the German Professor G.A. Wells (NOT an NT scholar). Referring to Wells’ thesis, Dunn writes:
“The alternative thesis is that within thirty years there had evolved such a coherent and consistent complex of traditions about a non-existent figure such as we have in the sources of the Gospels is just too implausible. It involves too many complex and speculative hypotheses, in contrast to the much simpler explanation that there was a Jesus who said and did more or less what the first three Gospels attribute to him. The fact of Christianity’s beginnings and the character of its earliest tradition is such that we could only deny the existence of Jesus by hypothesizing the existence of some other figure who was a sufficient cause of Christianity’s beginnings – another figure who on careful reflection would probably come out very like Jesus!“[ Dunn, James G. D. The Evidence for Jesus. Louisville:Westminster, 1985., 29]

Morton Smith, a hardened skeptic of Orthodox Christianity and an Emeritus Professor of History, wrote of Wells’ work:”I don’t think the arguments in (Wells’) book deserve detailed refutation.”
“…he argues mainly from silence.”
“…many (of his arguments) are incorrect, far too many to discuss in this space.”
“(Wells) presents us with a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond anything in the Gospels.”[Hoffmann, R. J. and Larue, Gerald, eds. Jesus in History and Myth. Buffalo: Prometheus, 1986, 47-48.]
Encyclopedia. Britannica says, in its discussion of the multiple extra-biblical witnesses (Tacitus, Josephus, the Talmud, etc.):”These independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus, which was disputed for the first time and on inadequate grounds by several authors at the end of the 18th, during the 19th, and at the beginning of the 20th centuries.“(Article on “Jesus”, 1990)

To his credit, G.A. Wells has now abandoned the Christ-Myth hypothesis…[See G.A. Wells, The Jesus Myth (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1999).]


Interestingly, even the prominent antagonist to orthodox Christianity John Dominic Crossan (who not long ago debated against Christian Oxford Scholar N.T. Wright at one of my alma maters – New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) is quoted on DOXA as conceding that the Jesus never existed argument is bogus. Crossan even goes so far as to compare this sort of thinking with that of the Americans never really landing on the moon:


If I understand what Earl Doherty is arguing, Neil, it is that Jesus of Nazareth never existed as an historical person, or, at least that historians, like myself, presume that he did and act on that fatally flawed presumption. I am not sure, as I said earlier, that one can persuade people that Jesus did exist as long as they are ready to explain the entire phenomenon of historical Jesus and earliest Christianity either as an evil trick or a holy parable. I had a friend in Ireland who did not believe that Americans had landed on the moon but that they had created the entire thing to bolster their cold-war image against the communists. I got nowhere with him. So I am not at all certain that I can prove that the historical Jesus existed against such an hypothesis and probably, to be honest, I am not even interested in trying.

It was, however, that hypothesis taken not as a settled conclusion, but as a simple question that was behind the first pages of BofC when I mentioned Josephus and Tacitus. I do not think that either of them checked out Jewish or Roman archival
materials about Jesus. I think they were expressing the general public knowledge that “everyone” had about this weird group called Christians and their weird founder called Christ. The existence, not just of Christian materials, but of those other non-Christian sources, is enough to convince me that we are dealing with an historical individual. Furthermore, in all the many ways that opponents criticized earliest Christianity, nobody ever suggested that it was all made up. That in general, is quite enough for me.


Using Holding’s references, it’s even pointed out that the likes of highly liberal and skeptical authors Bultmann, Russell, and Voltaire refused to posit this along with their rebuttals against Christianity:


The arch liberal Rudolf Bultmann, who doubted the authenticity of much of the Gospel traditions, concluded: “Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the Palestinian community.”[Jesus and the Word (2nd ed.; New York: Scribners, 1958).p.13]

“The non-historicity thesis has always been controversial, and it has consistently failed to convince scholars of many disciplines and religious creeds. Moreover, it has also consistently failed to convince many who for reasons of religious skepticism might have been expected to entertain it, from Voltaire to Bertrand Russell. Biblical scholars and classical historians now regard it as effectively refuted.” [Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, (Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), p. 16.]


In conclusion, historians should count – and historians should really make a concerted effort to be… historians.



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