No serious scholar has ever ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus, and with good reason. History proves without a doubt that Jesus is indeed a historical figure. We will examine the extra-biblical (outside of the Bible) sources momentarily. However, the question that we need to be asking is, Who was Jesus?
Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). After Jesus spoke these words, what reaction do we see? “The Jews again took up stones that they might stone Him. Jesus answered them, I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these works are you stoning Me? The Jews answered Him, We are not stoning You for a good work, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a man, are making Yourself God” (vv. 31-33). The Jews understood very well that Jesus’ words meant that He claimed to be God. After hearing these words they wanted to stone Him to death.
Many people today, including those within Islam, claim they "respect" Jesus as a great moral teacher. However, there is a problem with this. You cannot respect Jesus. Jesus said He was God. Anyone who claims to be God—and there have been hundreds throughout history—is either a madman, a liar, or who he claims to be. There are only three options to choose from. A madman—a lunatic—does not deserve your respect; he deserves your pity. The same goes for a liar. You can either revere Him as God or reject Him as a fraud, but you do not have the option to just "respect" Him.
In his famous book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis makes this statement:
"A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us."
Either Jesus was a madman, a liar, or He was Who He said He was. If he were a madman, how did He engage in intelligent debates with His opponents or handle the stress of His betrayal and crucifixion while continuing to show a deep love for His antagonists? If Jesus were a liar, why would He die for His claim when He could easily have avoided such a cruel death with a few choice words?
Apart from the historicity of Jesus, the other thing we must consider is His death, burial, and resurrection. Non-believers will attempt to ridicule and deny this by any means possible. However, many of the historical records that prove the historicity of Jesus also contain testimonies of His crucifixion. In other words, Jesus really was put to death. Let us look at the records that prove Jesus' existence and His crucifixion:
- Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 55-120), Roman historian: Most acclaimed works are the Annals and the Histories. The Annals cover the period from Augustus Caesar's death in A.D. 14 to the death of Emperor Nero in A.D. 68, while the Histories begin after Nero's death and proceed to the reign of Domitian in A.D. 96. In the Annals (XV,44), Tacitus alludes to the death of Christ and to the existence of Christians at Rome:
"But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also."Christus is the Latin rendering of the Greek Christos. It is interesting that Pilate is not mentioned in any other pagan document which has survived. It is an irony of history that the only surviving reference to him in a pagan document mentions him because of the sentence of death he passed on Jesus the Messiah.
- Suetonius: Roman historian and court official during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. Suetonius wrote in his Life of Claudius (25.4):
"As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."Chrestus is a misspelling of Christus. Claudius' expulsion of the Christians from Rome is mentioned in Acts 18:2. This event took place in A.D. 49. In his work Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius also wrote:
"Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition."Assuming Jesus was crucified in the early thirties, Suetonius places Christians in the Roman capital less than 20 years later and he reports that they were suffering for their faith and dying for their conviction that Jesus had really lived, died and that He had risen from the dead!
- Pliny the Younger: Roman governor in Bithynia, A.D. 112, wrote to Emperor Trajan to seek advice as to how to treat the Christians. He recounts that he had been killing Christian men, women, and children. He is concerned that so many have chosen death over simply bowing down to a statue of the emperor or being made to "curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do" (Epistles X, 96).
- Tallus: Tallus was a secular historian who (circa A.D. 52) wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean from the Trojan War to his own time. The document no longer exists but it was quoted by other writers like the Christian, Julius Africanus, who wrote around A.D. 221. He quotes Tallus' comments about the darkness that enveloped the land during the late afternoon hours when Jesus died on the cross. Julius wrote:
"Tallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably, as it seems to me (unreasonably of course, because a solar eclipse could not take place at the time of the full moon, and it was at the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died." (Chronography, 18.1)The importance of Tallus' comments is that the reference shows that the Gospel account of the darkness that fell across the earth during Christ's crucifixion was well known and required a naturalistic explanation from non-Christians.
- Phlegon: Julius Africanus also quoted another secular scholar whose works are now lost. Phlegon wrote a history called Chronicles. Phlegon also comments on the darkness at the time of Christ's crucifixion:
"During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon." (Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18.1)The 3rd century Christian apologist Origen also references Phlegon's record of this event in his work (Celsum, 2.14, 33, 59), as does the 6th century writer Philopon (De.opif.mund. II, 21).
- Mara Bar-Serapion: Syrian stoic philosopher who wrote a letter from prison to his son circa A.D. 70. He compares Jesus to the philosophers Socrates and Pythagoras.
- Josephus ben Mattathias (also known as Flavius Josephus): 37-100AD, Jewish priest, general and historian. He wrote two great works of Jewish history: The Jewish War, written in the early 70's and Jewish Antiquities, which was finished about A.D. 94. In his work, Jewish Antiquities, there is a passage that has created heated debate among scholars for many decades (XVIII, 33):
"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as 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 when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day."
- Lucian of Samosate: Greek satirist later half of 2nd century spoke scornfully of Christ and the Christians but never argued that Jesus never existed (The Death of Peregrine, 11-13):
"The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account..."He even said:
"(Christ was) the man who was crucified in Palestine"
- The Babylonian Talmud: References to the history of Jesus in the Talmud do not question that Jesus Christ existed.
"It has been taught: On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu. And an announcer went out, in front of him, for 40 days (saying): 'He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and plead in his behalf.' But, not having found anything in his favor, they hanged him on the eve of Passover." (Sanhedrin 43a; df.t.Sanh. 10:11; y. Sanh. 7:12; Tg. Esther 7:9)Another version of this text reads: "Yeshu the Nazarene." Yeshu (or Yehoshua) is Hebrew (or Aramaic) for Jesus—in English this name is also translated "Joshua." The Old Testament hero bore the same name as Jesus the Messiah. "Hanged" is another way of referring to a crucifixion; see Luke 23:39 and Galatians 3:13.
The issue the Talmud quarrels with is not with whether or not Jesus existed, but with the Christian belief in Jesus' virgin birth. It records (not surprisingly) that He was born under shameful circumstances:
"R. Shimeon ben Azzai said [concerning Jesus]: 'I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress'" (b.Yebamoth 49a; m Yebam. 4:13)In another passage we are told that Mary, "who was the descendant of princes and governors, played the harlot with carpenters" (b. Sanh. 106a). In another passage we find:
"His mother was Miriam, a women's hairdresser. As they say, ...'this one strayed from her husband'" (b. Sabb. 104b).
- The Amoa "Ulla": Ulla was a disciple of Youchanan and lived in Palestine
at the end of the third century. He wrote:
"And do you suppose that for (Yeshu of Nazareth—Jesus) there was any right of appeal? He was a beguiler, and the Merciful One hath said: 'Thou shalt not spare neither shalt thou conceal him.' It is otherwise with Yeshu, for He was near to the civil authority."
*Note: The writers of the Talmud took their job seriously. These men were Jews who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They were not Christians, but they documented Christ's crucifixion. Flavius Josephus was a professional historian who took his job seriously as well. He researched his work before publishing it. These Roman men were professional historians. They also researched their work before publishing it. They also documented Christ's crucifixion.
Apart from all these extra-biblical sources, we know that Jesus' resurrection is a historical fact because He was seen by over 500 eye-witnesses. If none of this were true in the least, nobody—and I do mean nobody—would stake their lives on it and go to their grave asserting that it was true. They would have to be mentally insane to do such. The excuse of "mass hysteria" fails drastically in the face of reality. If people know something to be a complete and utter lie, they will not put their lives on the line and endure unspeakable persecutions just to insist that it is true. Furthermore, if it was nothing but a farce, a scam, a lie, why—after these people were persecuted and put to death—did more people convert and follow it? This is the historical testimony of the church; where the church is persecuted, it sees great growth. Why? If you witnessed your friends, family, co-workers, and other people you do not know being persecuted and put to death for holding a particular belief that you do not hold to, logically and with great common sense, are you seriously going to start believing what they believed? Highly unlikely!
All of this just brings us back to the original inquiry: Who was Jesus? Either He was a madman, a liar, or He was Who He said He was. If He was Who He said He was, then we are faced with a great dilemma and ought to respond accordingly.