Did Jesus actually exist in history? Was there a real person named Jesus who may have done all of the things attributed to him in the Bible and lived in the Holy Land around 2000 years ago?
This time of year, thoughts turn, however briefly, to the person whose birthday is being celebrated on December 25. They may not all be religious or devotional in nature, with much activity focused on its commercial aspects, but many have wondered if a real person named Jesus actually existed?
Many things have been debated about Jesus over the last two millennium. Some are as mundane as what year was really the year of Jesus’ birth, which ranges five to 10 years on either side of year one. Others debate the actual month of the birth of Jesus with the usual explanation that December was selected for a significant religious event because there was already a pagan celebration of the winter solstice that could make newly converted Christians more comfortable with their new religion.
Unfortunately, some debates over the last 2000 years have led to intense and prolonged violence in which differences in the meaning and interpretation of Jesus’ teachings have been the justification for countless wars, murders and misery far from the intent of the teachings of Jesus.
All of this debate, though, is meaningless without some indication as to whether the man was real and actually existed.
Most religious scholars point first and foremost to the Bible as the primary proof that Jesus was real and once lived in Judea around the time of the rule of Herod Antipas. The four primary gospels are reasonably close in their recounting of the events of Jesus’ life in that they all tell of his teachings under the assumption that Jesus was an actual, living man. Other books of the gospel also recount events based on the assumption that Jesus existed. There are many other gnostic gospels that were not included in the official Bible that detail events in Jesus’ life, as well as many letters written by Paul and other contemporaries.
This might be what devotees would be expected to say, and to them, this is sufficient. However, there is historical evidence outside of Christian sources that indicates that Jesus existed and was a real person in the writings of at least two historians of the time.
There are two mentions of Jesus by a well known historian named Josephus who, in around 94 A.D., made references to Jesus in his Antiquities of the Jews. In the first, he says, “And there arose about this time Jesus, a wise man, if indeed we should call him a man; for he was a doer of marvelous deeds, a teacher of men who 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 the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.”
The other reference by Josephus was a mention of “a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others.” Thus, it appears that Josephus had knowledge of the historical, living Jesus.
The other writer who mentions Jesus was Tacitus, A Roman historian who wrote of the “notoriously depraved Christians” and “their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus.” Tacitus apparently thought little of Christians, and so, was not writing to support the idea that Jesus existed.
Finally, it is interesting to note that the existence of Jesus and whether he was real was not denied by critics in antiquity. It has only been in relatively recent times that the actual existence of Jesus has been questioned. Considering this and the references to a historical Jesus by non-Christian writers, there would seem to be evidence that could support an argument that Jesus Christ was a real person who actually existed.