How do we know that Jesus actually existed?
In the four Gospels we have about 300 individual and unique literary units all generated by this figure: Jesus Christ. There’s no doubt that the early church thought he existed. Their lives were radically changed because of who he was, what he did, and the things said. But how do we know that our gospels aren’t simply Christian delusion, or the result of an ancient conspiracy that went just a little better than planned? Are the Gospels the only place that we hear about Jesus?
The answer is a firm “no.” We have several written documents besides the Gospels that mention Jesus. While it’s true that the Gospels are the main place we hear about Jesus, it’s not true that they’re the only place. Other ancient witnesses testify to the existence of Jesus. And even though that doesn’t settle the question, “was he who he said he was?” it does answer the question, “did he exist to say these things?” And that’s what I want to focus on in these posts. What evidence, outside the four Gospels, do we have for Jesus’ existence?
Tacitus (AD 56-117) was a Roman historian who described the persecution that Christians faced during Nero’s reign. Tacitus refers to Jesus through his latin name, “Christus.” Speaking of the Christians, he says
“They got their name from Christus who was sentenced to death during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.”
Tactitus goes on to describe the way that the Christian movement was “checked,” or stopped, because of the crucifixion of Jesus. Unfortunately for the Romans, the movement “broke out” once again both in Judea and in Rome.
… a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome
Annals, 15.44. It’s clear that Tacitus thought of Christians as a nuisance. His words mock Christianity, “mischievous superstition,” “evil.” Tactitus’ historiographical skill and anti-Christian bent leads many scholars to believe that Annals 15.44 is the most important and trustworthy reference to Christians and Christ we have outside the Gospels themselves. There is no way that a Christian would refer to their own movement in this way.
In the early second century (100’s), another Roman historian, Suetonius, wrote,
Because the Jews at Rom caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from the city
Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars, §25. There’s a lot of debate about this section in Suetonius’ history. One of the main issues is whether Suetonius is actually referring to the Christ, Jesus. The “misspelling,” is at the root of the confusion. Is “Chrestus” a reference to Christ? Or is this another figure in Rome?
I’m inclined to say that Suetonius is referring to Christ for two main reasons:
- The Jews and Christians in Rome (and everywhere) did not get along. The book of Acts testifies to this. 1st century Jews and Jewish Christians had numerous irreconcilable religious differences that would have (and did) lead to many disputes and conflict. This would’ve happened in Rome only if there were someone for them to fight with: those instigated by Christ, the Christians.
- The majority (though not all) of writing I’ve read on this quote seems to evaluate it this way: “a garbled reference to Christ.” Once you’ve considered Tactitus’ reference to Christ and Pliny’s reference to the problems Christians are making him face, that seems to be a fair evaluation. Christians probably did exist to create these issues for government.
3. Pliny the Younger
Around the same time, in the early second century, a governor of Bithynia (in Asia) named Pliny the Younger wrote to the emperor Trajan wanting to know how to deal with Christians who wouldn’t worship Trajan. Pliny mentions “that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn to Christ as to a god.” Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, pg 5-7, cited Four Gospels, One Jesus, pg 39 by Mark Strauss.
Darrel Bock, in his class on the “Life of Christ,” says that the evidence of opponents can sometimes be worth more than we first think. It’s especially true in this case. In Pliny the Younger, we have an enemy of Christianity with something very important to say: the Christian trouble-makers worshiped Christ as though he were a God.
A Pending Conclusion
“In summary, Greco Roman writers of the late first and early second centuries are aware that Jesus was a Judean who was crucifed by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, and that his followers now venerated him as a god.”
There are certain questions that historical research can (usually) answer: Did a person exist? What did they say? How were they received? These are all legitimate questions that can be addressed by going to the sources. It does seem Jesus existed. We do have a record of what he said. And we know exactly how he was received: at once with enthusiasm, and finally with blows. But there are questions that historical inquiry cannot answer: Is it true? Of how much value was this person? Were they justified in doing what they did? Once these kinds of questions are run through a text, they us up off the ground and into the air of evaluation and judgement.
But because of these 3 Greco Roman sources we have this firm ground beneath our feet: A Judean man. Governed by Pontius Pilate. Crucified. Worshiped.  That’s what the Greek and Roman sources tell us.
1. Four Gospels, One Jesus, pg 39 by Mark Strauss.