How Can We Know the Historical Jesus?

How Can We Know the Historical Jesus?[1]
Brian Watson
December 3, 2017

People believe many different things about Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God who became a man. (Jesus has always existed as God, and at one point in human history he added a second nature, of a human being, when he was miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin.) Muslims believe that Jesus was only a prophet and not the Son of God. Other people, like those drawn to New Age spirituality, believe that Jesus was a wise man or a spiritual teacher. Some have imagined that Jesus was a political revolutionary. And still others believe the whole story of Jesus is fictional, no more than a legend or myth. How can we know the truth about Jesus?

Examining History

The Christian claim about Jesus is that he was born in roughly 5 B.C. and that he died in either A.D. 30 or 33.[2] How can we know what happened two thousand years ago? To state an obvious truth, we don’t have audio or video recordings of what happened then, so we can’t hear or see what happened at that time. Obviously, we weren’t there.

In order to discover what happened the past, we have to operate like police detectives, examining the scene of a crime. Detectives look for evidence, which may include physical evidence and personal testimony.

Many historians turn to physical artifacts, ones that archaeologists discover. These can range from structures that have inscriptions (buildings, columns, etc.) to coins or any other objects that might give us information about the past. Often, these objects are rare. With Jesus, we wouldn’t expect to find much, if anything, along those lines. He was not a political ruler or a wealthy man.

More often, historians look for written testimony. That’s what we’ll have to look at to know the truth about Jesus. And we do have various writings that mention Jesus.

Before we look at those, keep some other truths in mind: Two thousand years ago, there was no printing press. Everything was handwritten, and writing materials were relatively expensive and scarce. Also, literacy rates were lower, so fewer people knew how to write (and read). Furthermore, most materials decay or can be destroyed. We can assume that many documents have been lost or destroyed, or have simply decayed. That explains why we have few historical documents about anyone who lived in the ancient world. For example, Tiberias, the emperor who reigned A.D. 14–37, was the most powerful man in his day and yet there are only four written sources about him from the first two hundred years after his death that exist today.[3] (Another thing to keep in mind: There was often a significant gap of time between historical events and written histories. Often, decades elapsed between an event and when that event was chronicled.) Fortunately, we have many documents that detail the life of Jesus.

Non-Christian Histories

Let’s first examine histories of Jesus that were written by non-Christians. I don’t think that these sources are more trustworthy than Christian sources. The only reason to think so is an anti-Christian bias. But I begin here because the non-biblical evidence for Jesus’ life is not well known.

One source is the Jewish historian Josephus (c. A.D. 37–c. 100), who lived in Palestine and was involved in the Jewish War against Rome, which began in 66. After he was captured by the Romans, he became a Roman citizen, and he began to write. Josephus mentions Jesus twice. One short reference to Jesus is in his Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jewish people. In describing the martyrdom of James, he states that this apostle was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”[4]4 The Christ is the Messiah, the long-awaited anointed Jewish King who would usher in a reign of peace and righteousness. Josephus didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but he observed that other people thought he was.

Josephus refers to Jesus elsewhere in the Jewish Antiquities (18.63–64). There is some evidence that Christians added words to this text to create a stronger witness to Jesus. Yet it’s likely that in the original quote, Josephus acknowledged that Jesus was known for his virtue, that he had followers, that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate, that his followers reported that he rose from the grave, and they did not abandon the way of Jesus.

Roman historians also wrote about Jesus. Suetonius (c. A.D. 70–c. 160) wrote a history of the lives of many of the Roman emperors, the Caesars. He wrote about how Emperor Claudius (reigned A.D. 41–54) expelled Jews from Rome in A.D. 49., an event also referenced in Acts 18:2. “He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.”[5] “Chrestus” is most likely a misspelling of “Christ.” It seems that Suetonius thought he was a person living in Rome and causing unrest. (Christians began preaching about Christ in Rome, and this caused controversy among some Jewish people who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah.) Suetonius also referred to Christians during the time of Emperor Nero (A.D. 54–68). He writes, “He [Nero] likewise inflicted punishments on the Christians, a sort of people who held a new and impious superstition.”[6]

Another Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56–117), also wrote of Christians and Christ. After a fire broke out in Rome in A.D. 64, people were looking for someone to blame, and even the emperor, Nero, came under suspicion. Tacitus reports that Nero blamed the fire on Christians:

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 Judæa, 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.[7]

Tacitus traces the origins of Christianity to “Christus,” a Latinized version of “Christ.” Notice that Christianity was “checked for the moment” after Jesus’ death, only to break out again. This detail harmonizes with what we know from the Bible. After Jesus’ death, the disciples were hiding. Even after his resurrection, the disciples did not do any public teaching. The disciples weren’t active until they received the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Within three decades, Christianity had spread to Rome.

Yet another Roman wrote about Jesus. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61–c.112) was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98–117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. He says that the prayed to Jesus “as to a divinity.”[8]

Christian Histories

Not surprisingly, there are more Christian documents that mention Jesus, and these documents are far more detailed. The New Testament of the Bible consists of twenty-seven documents written by eight or nine authors. (We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews.) Four of these documents are Gospels, theological biographies of Jesus. (“Gospel” means “good news.”) One of those documents is a history of the early church (the book of Acts), which includes more information about Jesus. Twenty-one of those documents are letters that provide theological commentary on Jesus’ identity and works. Though they are not stricly histories, they include historical information.

The Gospel writers clearly saw themselves as writing history. Luke is the best example. He begins his Gospel by acknowledging that other accounts of Jesus existed. He decided to write “an orderly account” based on the testimony of “eyewitness and servants of the word” (Luke 1:1–4). In his Gospel and in its sequel, the book of Acts, Luke is careful to provide a historical context for his writing. He begins by recounting events that occurred in “the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5). Jesus was born during the time when Caesar Augustus required citizens to be registered, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1–2). Jesus began his public ministry in “the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. Many more historical details are provided in the book of Acts.

The historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet. He couldn’t have invented the historical details he includes in his writings. New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13–28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[9]

Much more can be said about the historical reliability of the New Testament, though space allows me only to provide three reasons why we should trust the historicity of the New Testament.[10]

One other reason to trust the New Testament is that its writing is not like myths. The Gospels read like other ancient histories or biographies. They are more restrained than later documents that were not based on eyewitness testimony and that are rather fanciful. (Compare this to fanciful events in The Gospel of Peter, which comes from the second century and is not written by Peter. The Gospel of Peter features a resurrected Jesus whose head extends to heaven, not to mention a talking cross!)

Another reason to trust the New Testament is that the documents were written within a lifetime of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some think these documents were written later, perhaps in the early second century, but those arguments are based on speculation and they lack supporting evidence. Take the example of Luke as an example: He claims to have used eyewitness reports. This means he must have written his Gospel within a few decades of Jesus, while those eyewitnesses were still alive. It’s unlikely that he wrote after the 60s because he doesn’t write about significant events that took place after the year 62, such as Peter’s and Paul’s deaths as martyrs in the mid-60s or the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Luke and Acts couldn’t have been written as late as the end of the first century because passages from both books are alluded to in 1 Clement and 2 Clement, non-biblical Christian documents that were written at the end of the first century.[11] There is no good reason to assume that any of the New Testament documents were written after the first century.

A third reason to trust the New Testament is that we have more and earlier manuscripts of the New Testament than other ancient literature. For example, Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 B.C., and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates around nine hundred years later.[12] Yet, when it comes to the New Testament, we have a wealth of manuscripts. Here’s a general rule regarding ancient documents: The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, in part or in whole. We have more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.

The point is that, based on what we know, the New Testament are historical documents that reflect what truly happened about two thousand years ago. They testify that Jesus is the God-man, the eternal Son of God and Jesus of Nazareth, who performed miracles, taught with unmatched authority, lived a sinless life, died an atoning death for the sins of his people, and rose from the grave. The question is, will we trust the message about Jesus and put our faith in him?

Notes

  1. For more details, see https://wbcommunity.org/how-can-we-know-jesus.
  2. Some people imagine that Jesus was born in the year 0. There is no year 0. The year after 1 B.C. is A.D. 1. For details, see https://wbcommunity.org/when-was-jesus-born. It might seem strange that we don’t know the exact dates of his birth or death. However, this is not strange when compared to other figures in ancient history. The modern calendar didn’t exist at that time, so events were often dated with respect to other events. Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. and we know that Jesus was born prior to his death. We also know that Jesus died at that time of the Passover sometime during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberias and when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. That could be A.D. 30 or 33.
  3. Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 215.
  4. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 20.200, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987).
  5. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Claudius 25, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, ed. Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889).
  6. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Nero 16, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
  7. Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals 15.44, edited by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44
  8. Pliny the Younger, Letter 97: To the Emperor Trajan, http://www.bartleby.com/9/4/2097.html.
  9. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990).
  10. For more on the reliability of the New Testament, see https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament.
  11. 1 Clem. 2.1; 5.6–7; 13.2; 48.4; 2 Clem. 13.4.
  12. Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.

 

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