The Historical Jesus
What do historical documents other than the Bible tell us about Jesus?
The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down.A. Whitney Brown
Most of what we know about Jesus comes from Christian writings. This should be no surprise, since it was Christians who were most interested in telling his story and preserving his memory. But how do these Christian writings compare with what other historians were saying about Jesus at the time?
Scholars have been engaged in what’s been called the “quest for the historical Jesus” since the late 1700s. Yet many of us still want to know if there is credible historical evidence that corroborates what the Bible says about Jesus.
So how does the Christ of the Christian faith square with the Jesus of history?
Roman and Jewish Accounts
Roman classical writings contain several references to Christ and the movement he started.
Around 112 CE, Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan, detailing how he was conducting the trials of those accused of being Christians.1 True believers, he had come to understand, could not be forced to revile Christ and worship the Roman gods. They met on a fixed day before dawn and sang hymns to Christ as if to a God.
A few years later, another historian, Suetonius, wrote that Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome because of disturbances instigated by Chrestus.2 Most historians think that “Chrestus” is a misspelling of “Christus” (the Latin word for “Christ”). Most also agree that Suetonius is referring to clashes within the Jewish community caused when Jewish Christians were preaching the Christian faith in Rome.
Suetonius’s account indicates that by Claudius’s reign (41–54 CE), less than two decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, there were enough Christians in Rome to cause disturbances serious enough to warrant the expulsion of all Jews from Rome.
One of the most important historical references to Jesus’ crucifixion comes from Tacitus. In Annals 15.44, the historian recounts how Nero blamed the hated “Chrestians” (again, a misspelling of Christians) for the fire that devastated Rome in 64 CE. The group, he said, was founded by one called “Christ” who had been executed during the reign of Tiberius by the procurator (governor) Pontius Pilate. He described them as a suppressed group and their faith as a deadly superstition that originated in Judea and spread to Rome.
Around 175 CE, Celsus wrote a sustained attack on Christians and their founder in True Teaching. Though his original text no longer exists, much of what he wrote is contained in Origen’s response, Against Celsus (c. 250 CE). Celsus mocked the Christian belief in the virgin birth and charged that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a poor Jewish woman named Mary. Mary, he claimed, was divorced by her husband and convicted of adultery after having sex with a soldier named Panthera.3
The same charge is echoed in later Jewish sources and may contain a typical kind of rabbinic pun on the Greek word for “virgin.”4 That is, Jesus was not born of a virgin (Greek: parthenos); he was instead the illegitimate son resulting from Mary’s adultery with Panthera. Another charge leveled by Celsus and reflected in later Jewish writings is that Jesus learned the magical arts, performed powerful acts, and gave himself the title “God.”5
One of the most important extra-biblical witnesses to the Jesus of history comes from Josephus, a Jewish historian. It must be noted that the specific text in which the historian discusses Jesus is considered suspect; Josephus’s writings were preserved by Christians who may have Christianized his testimony slightly.6
But even after extracting the downright Christian elements, Josephus still has a good deal to say about Jesus. He situated Jesus in the correct time period and depicted him as a wise man, a teacher, and a worker of miracles. He indicated that:
- Jesus made converts of Jews and Greeks,
- Pilate condemned Jesus to the cross in consultation with leading Jewish authorities,
- his disciples had remained faithful to him after his death, and
- the people known as Christians had taken their name from him.7
All Together Now
When taken together, these extra-biblical witnesses tell us a few important things about the historical Jesus. This information matches what the New Testament says:
- Jesus founded a movement among Jews in Judea.
- Mary was his mother.
- He performed powerful deeds.
- He was a wise man and a recognized teacher.
- He made converts of both Jews and Gentiles.
- He was crucified on a Roman cross by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius after accusations were made against him by Jewish religious leaders.
- He instilled confidence and trust among his followers, who remained faithful to him even beyond his death.
Moreover, what these accounts say about Jesus cannot be isolated from what they say about the movement he started:
- True Christians were identified by their religious practice; they would not revile Christ or worship other gods.
- They met on a fixed day and sang hymns to Christ as if he were a God.
- They were part of a movement named for Christ that spread quickly from Judea to Rome, and there were clashes with Jews when his followers proclaimed their Christian faith.
- They believed Jesus was born of a virgin.
- They were suppressed and persecuted, but they remained faithful.
Taken together, these witnesses corroborate some of what the New Testament says about Jesus and the Christian movement—though the New Testament outlines more of what Jesus said and did.
Unity Despite Bias
Still, let’s consider these Roman and Jewish sources. They are not objective, unbiased accounts of Jesus and the movement he founded. They were written by opponents and critics of Christianity.
With the exception of Josephus—who appears to maintain a more open attitude—the Jewish sources regard Jesus as a false messiah and Christianity as a heresy that must be squelched. The Roman historians consider Christ to be the founder of a dangerous superstition and a terrible evil that has infiltrated society.
Yet remarkably, these biased sources against Christianity often square with what the biased sources for Christianity have to say regarding some of the crucial details of Jesus’ life and death.
If we are honest, we must recognize that objectivity is a myth;8 all sources are biased.9 No one writes or speaks about history from no perspective whatsoever. However, just because a source is biased one way or another does not mean that its testimony cannot be trusted.
Indeed, as evidence is sifted and sorted, more and more people recognize that early Christian texts—written from an unapologetically Christian perspective—are valuable sources for reconstructing the history of Jesus. To identify the historical Jesus, one must be willing to examine the evidence from each side in a rational, coherent way, no matter the source.
- Pliny the Younger, Letters, 10.96.
- Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, 25.4.
- Origen, Against Celsus, 1.28–32. See Robert E. Van Voorst, “Sources, Extra-New Testamental,” 602–605, in The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus, ed. Craig A. Evans (London: Routledge, 2008).
- b. Sabb 104b.
- b. Sanh 43a. The Talmud indicates that Yeshu (Jesus) was hanged on the eve of Passover and charged with practicing magic and trying to turn the people of Israel away from the one true God. These are Jewish charges for which stoning, not hanging, would have been the traditionally correct punishment.
- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.3.
- For a helpful survey of other evidence, see Robert van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000).
- See Richard F. Taflinger, “The Myth of Objectivity in Journalism: A Commentary,” May 29, 1996, accessed January 25, 2013, public.wsu.edu/~taflinge/mythobj.html.
- Until computers can be programmed to sort through the facts and write a detached, unprejudiced history, human beings—with all their questions, assumptions, limitations, and “issues”—will continue to struggle with the past and tell its story from their own subjective perspectives. This, of course, will never be realized because human beings would be writing the code and inputting the data. As long as human beings are involved in the process in any way, true objectivity will never be realized.
- Photo Credit: Shelly Perry / Stocksy.com.