EASTER POST: The Historical Jesus

I am going to begin this blog post by saying that I am not a religious, or indeed spiritual, person. I do not believe in a deity of any description, in a soul, in spirits, in an afterlife, in miracles, in magic, in the paranormal or the supernatural of any stripe. I do not oppose the right of others to believe these things as much or as little as they wish, but do not myself subscribe to any such worldview. However, I was brought up in the Christian faith, and am quite familiar with the teachings of the Church and the events of Jesus’s life as related by the Bible.

That having been said, I will now make the case for the historical existence of Jesus.

jesus icon.jpg
The oldest known icon of Khristos Pantokrator in Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt, founded in 565


Much has been made of the historical evidence for and against the reality of a man in mid first century Judaea named Jesus who had a profound effect on the area and, in the centuries after his death, the world at large. Clearly, something occurred in that time and place. It is beyond any question whatsoever, after all, that currently just under one-third of the entire human population on Earth – some two billion people – identify themselves as a member of one denomination of Christianity or another. It is a religion that has, unlike any other, dominated and shaped human history. It has been spread worldwide, without a single continent left untouched (yes, even Antarctica – the continent is the location of eight churches), has influenced the decisions of kings and emperors, of prime ministers and presidents, and been the cause of millions upon millions of deaths in wars waged both against non-believers and against Christians of other denominations.

None of this could have occurred without a trigger, so what was that trigger? Was it, as devout Christians working from literal interpretations of the Bible will (often vehemently) argue, that a deity manifested in the form of a child birthed by a virgin mother who grew up to restore sight to the blind, walk on water, turn water into fine wine and raise the dead?

I would argue not. I would argue that the miracles attributed to Jesus, and to his followers, are myths in the same vein as any from the Greek, Norse or Egyptian traditions. If one can have a scientifically impossible virgin birth, then why not also a birth from the father’s head, as Athena was believed by Hellenists to have been born from Zeus? If sight can be restored to the blind by a god, then why can a god not pluck out one of his own eyes in exchange for infinite wisdom and the gift of poetry, as Odin does in Norse mythology? If a dead girl can be brought back to life, then why not a dismembered king, as cultists of Osiris believed? What, in short, makes the deeds of Jesus any more likely than the deeds of any other god from any belief system?

Birth of Athena
Depiction of the birth of Athena from Zeus’s head, c. 550 BCE

I put forward an alternative view; that in what was then the Roman Imperial province of Judaea, in around 30 CE, a rabbi possessed of great charisma, political appeal, and a radical new interpretation of Jewish religious teaching became a popular focal point for common misgivings regarding both the nature of the Jewish priesthood as it was then and the rule of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Tiberius. This rabbi, named in all likelihood Yeshuah (the Hebrew name that has been morphed into the English “Joshua” as well as “Jesus”), probably believed in faith healing and may have even believed that he himself was the prophesied Messiah, a divinely-ordained leader of the Jewish people who would lead the reunification of the Twelve Tribes of Jacob into the ancient Kingdom of Israel, as it had been during the days of David. He may even have been of David’s bloodline, which strengthened his Messianic claim.

All of this is simple conjecture, however. The difficulty in establishing the reality of Jesus is that there is a startling lack of hard evidence. The Bible does count as evidence, despite what some more rabidly secular historians might say, but I do not believe that it is a divine text and it should not, therefore, be taken any more seriously as a source than any other. Within its pages are extensive records of Jesus, but they are written from a decidedly biased viewpoint. The early disciples of the historical Jesus, whoever he was, had a vested interest in making their prophet into as impressive and awesome a man as possible, and so it is likely that accounts of his deeds were exaggerated somewhat in the years and decades immediately following his death. These then became enshrined as doctrine and Church teachings, which have been reluctant to budge one inch over the centuries on almost every matter.

That being said, there are two points that almost every single scholar, religious or not, accepts as fact about the life of Jesus. The first is that he was baptised by a man named John. The existence of John the Baptist, too, has been questioned, but I believe that he also was a historical figure. The evidence for this comes from the writings of Titus Flavius Josephus, a Jew who held full Roman citizenship and an esteemed place in the courts of the emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. Josephus’s mention of the Baptist comes in the context of a military defeat suffered by Herod Antipas, the puppet king of Judaea installed by the Romans. I have highlighted the mentions of John the Baptist.

“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’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… Herod, who feared lest the great influence JOHN had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion… 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.”

-Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.5.2

Clearly, then, the mentions of John in the Bible are not the creation of a fictional character. Josephus, a non-Christian source, has no reason in his works to needlessly concur with the Christians’ version of events, and would not have also accepted their creation of John if he was a figment of a Christian imagination. While the argument could be made that Josephus himself was working on a Christian source, one must remember that Josephus lived and wrote only decades after the events described in the Gospels, and was concurrent with those described in later books of the New Testament. Born in 37 CE (a mere four years after the traditional date of the crucifixion) and dying in around 100, Josephus is the closest non-Christian source in existence to describe Jesus, John the Baptist and other people and events detailed in the Gospels.

Marble bust widely believed to be of Josephus, c. 80 CE

However, it is also widely accepted by historians that not all of Josephus’s writings on the subject are genuinely the work of his hand, and that they are forgeries and editions made by Christian hands soon after Josephus’s death. The most notorious of these is the Testament of Flavius, a passage from the Antiquities, in which Josephus supposedly discusses the miracles, trial and crucifixion of Jesus by Pontius Pilate (himself an undisputably real figure whose existence is confirmed by an inscription mentioning tribute from him to the Emperor Tiberius) and his resurrection. As before, I have highlighted the mentions of Jesus.

“About this time there lived JESUS, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call HIM a man. For HE was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. HE won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. HE was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us [the Jewish authorities in Judaea], Pilate had condemned HIM to a cross, those who had first come to love HIM did not cease. HE appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about HIM. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after HIM, has still to this day not disappeared.”

-Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.3.

This would seem to be conclusive proof, then, to support not only the existence of Jesus, but also his supernatural nature. Here is a non-Christian source with no prior preconception of Jesus writing about him not only as a man, but explicitly as something more. This would appear to indicate that not only did such a man live and breathe, but he did perform the wonders that he is credited with in the Bible.

There, is however, one great problem with the Testament of Flavius; it is almost wholly disingenuous. Only the mention of Pilate crucifying Jesus can be said beyond doubt to have been authored by Josephus himself, with the rest coming about much later, as Christians forged and edited the work to better reflect their beliefs. And if this is true of the Testament, then might it not also be true of other areas of Josephus’s works in which he mentions Jesus and other figures that feature prominently in the Gospels? Clearly, Josephus alone is insufficient to provide hard, reliable evidence for the historicity of Jesus, or of a Jesus-like figure.

We can find this, however, in the work of another Roman, Publius Cornelius Tacitus. Tacitus occupied a position high in the strata of Roman society. A Senator, born into a rich and influential family and married into another one, he spent a time as consul of Rome alongside the Emperor Nerva – akin to spending a year as Vice-President of the United States. Later in his career he was made governor of the province of Asia, and if later stories are to be believed a descendant of his was briefly emperor in the 270s. Coming as he did from a time period in which Christianity was hated and reviled by the Roman establishment, Tacitus’s writings on Christians and their religion are inevitably tinged with distaste. This does, however, mean that he is extremely unlikely to repeat a version of events made up by Church leaders in order to promote their religion, and indeed it may be his disdain for Christians that makes him the most reliable source available when studying Jesus from a purely historical viewpoint, untinged by theology.

Modern statue depicting Tacitus, Vienna, Austria

Tacitus’s largest and best work is the Annals, a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of the Emperor Tiberius to that of Nero, a period spanning the years 14 to 68 CE. This time period covers perfectly the lifetime of Jesus and the timeline of the Gospels, and while Tacitus spends almost the entirety of the Annals focused elsewhere, he does offer us our first undisputable, honest and clear mention of Jesus from a purely historical source. Speaking in the context of Nero’s persecution of Christians following the Great Fire of Rome in 64, Tacitus makes a passing mention of Jesus and of his crucifixion.

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt 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.”

-Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.

The fact that Tacitus mentions this at all is indication enough that Jesus was real, and that he was a reasonably well-known figure (at least among educated Romans) even decades after his death. Christianity had by then spread to Rome and to other parts of the empire, and the religion was clearly known about even if it was abhorred. The reason for this abhorrence may be due to a Roman misunderstanding of the Christian communion rituals; it is easy to imagine pagan Romans repeating stories to each other of Christians eating flesh and drinking blood and shuddering in revulsion.

Jesus’s crucifixion is the second event of his life of which historians are almost certain. This stems from a theory known as the “criterion of embarrassment” – essentially, the theory holds that early Christians would not have imagined such a terrible death as crucifixion for their prophet if it had not happened, therefore it must be real. The same theory can also be applied to the Baptism. Since baptism is used to wash away sin, why would a supposedly sinless individual require baptism? This is not a story that the early Church leaders would have necessarily wanted to be looked into too much by sceptics or, worse, enemies of the new religion, and there would have been no gain for them in inventing such a contradiction about their prophet.

bloch crucifixion
Depiction of Jesus’s crucifixion based on the Biblical account by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1870

A question that has always puzzled me is why Jesus was crucified. This is the second event of his life that almost all historians agree is true, and yet there is nothing to suggest why it happened. Under Roman law, crucifixion was reserved for only the very worst criminals as it was considered to be the very worst way for a person to die. Crucifixion is a very long, painful and humiliating process, and the Romans did not employ it lightly. Jesus would have had to have committed a serious crime against the Roman state to be given this terrible death, but what is not clear. The only source we have available for the reasons for Jesus’s crucifixion is the Bible, which treats the event as pre-destined, a fulfilment of divine will, a sacrifice on behalf of mankind. I, however, am interested only in why a Roman governor like Pilate would hand down such a sentence, especially since the Bible seems to make clear that Jesus was a willing collaborator with the Romans. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” are hardly the words of a revolutionary determined to see the restoration of Judaean independence and the forceful expulsion of the legions. It also seems unlikely that a figure whose message appears to have been one of peace and tolerance would have turned rebel and begun an armed insurrection.

Unfortunately, the why about Jesus’s execution will never be known. The Roman records on the subject, if there were ever any to begin with, have not survived the ages. Clearly, however, Jesus did or said something that gave the Imperial authorities cause to sentence him to the most horrific death that they could imagine. Both Josephus and Tacitus agree with the Bible on this point, when neither of them has any reason to if what is reported is not true. This concurrence among three sources, two of them non-Christian, about the reality of Jesus is, I think, conclusive proof that he existed. Whether he performed all of the deeds ascribed to him, whether he was truly divine or just charismatic, whether he deserves the venerated place he holds both in history and in the hearts and minds of billions, is another matter entirely.

Featured image: 12th century mosaic depiction of Jesus, Cefalú Cathedral, Italy

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