Was Jesus a real person – is there historical proof outside the Bible that Jesus really existed?
Was Jesus a real person?
Yes, Jesus was real (albeit not very popular)
Although the New Testament Bible provides extensive documentation of Jesus’ life, the Bible is a theological literary work and could be seen by some as potentially biased. Even steadfast Christians may occasionally wonder, “Is there any other proof that Jesus truly existed?” In fact, almost all modern-day historians agree that Jesus existed historically citing proof from several supplementary ancient works that not only confirm the existence of Jesus, but prove that his ministry, including his many miracles that detractors attempted to explain away as “evil magic”, produced a significant impact on the people of the day.
Jesus’ popularity wanes
During Jesus’ day, the geographic area he lived in was controlled and occupied by two major groups – Jews and Romans. As evidenced by his crucifixion (which was also confirmed by outside historical sources), neither of these groups of people held Jesus in high esteem and historical sources tell us that leaders in the area put forth significant effort to suppress the spread of his popularity. As such, that Jesus was mentioned at all in Jewish and Roman historical works is surprising.
Feeble attempts to discount historical accounts of Jesus
Accounts written *after* the events took place
Still, religious detractors and non-believers occasionally attempt to discredit historical sources using arguments that are rarely taken seriously. The most common argument against historical references to Jesus contend that the accounts referencing Jesus were written *after* the events took place. To that we respond, “Really?”. This is the precisely what historical writing encompasses – documentation of events, using multiple sources, after the events have taken place. Rarely are historical accounts “flash news bulletins” written by eyewitnesses to the event. Regardless, early writings from the Gospel of Mark have been discovered and carbon dated to *before 90 AD”, only a few decades after Jesus’ death.
Inaccurate or embellished accounts of Jesus’ life
Another argument against the historicity of Jesus contends that the accounts are simply inaccurate or embellishments added later (by Christian scribes) to genuine historical references. This argument fails to take into account the proven, overall accuracy of the historical works. In other words, it’s illogical to propose that the historical writings were accurate in all instances *except* for their references to Jesus. As far as conspiratorial embellishments by Christian scribes, only one instance is seriously considered an embellishment (see Josephus below) and in that particular case, removing the supposed Christian supplementary additions still leaves an accurate, historical account of Jesus.
Minor (or partial) historical sources that mention Jesus
Naysayers arguments aside, there are many historical references to Jesus’ life. For instance, several minor historical sources mention Jesus in their works – often in an unflattering light.
Around 177 AD, Celsu, a Platonist philosopher, wrote that Jesus made exorbitant claims. Despite his criticism of Jesus and labelling him a “bastard”, Celsus unknowingly confirms biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, and miraculous powers (which Celsus claims were “magical” powers gleaned from the Egyptians).
“Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her own hands… Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain (magical) powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god.”
Pliny the Younger
Pliny the Younger, a Roman senator born just a few decades after Jesus death, wrote about early Christian worship of Christ and the morals that his followers promised to follow.
“They (the Christians) were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.”
Seutonius, a Roman writer, lawyer, and historian of the Imperial House, wrote a set of biographies of twelve successive Roman rulers. Many of Seutonius’ works have been lost to time while others partially survived. In one of these partially surviving works, Seutonius wrote of riots in 49 AD which were thought to be incited by “the instigator Chrestus”, believed to be a reference to Jesus. In his work titled Life of Claudius, he wrote:
“Because the Jews at Rome caused constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (Christ), he (Claudius) expelled them from the city (Rome).”
In Lives of the Caesars, he further confirmed Nero’s hatred for Christians.
“Nero inflicted punishment on the Christians, a sect given to a new and mischievous religious belief.”
Mara bar Serapion
Mara bar Serapion, a Syrian philosopher and prisoner of war held by the Romans, wrote to his son about a “wise Jewish king” which appears in all likelihood, to be a reference to Jesus. In his writing, penned around 70 AD, he compares the crucifixion of Jesus to the execution of other great philosophers.
“What benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as judgment for their crime. Or, the people of Samos for burning Pythagoras? In one moment their country was covered with sand. Or the Jews by murdering their wise king? After that their kingdom was abolished. God rightly avenged these men… The wise king… Lived on in the teachings he enacted.”
Several major historical works also mention Jesus in their writing.
Tacitus (Caius/Gaius (or Publius) Cornelius Tacitus) was a Roman senator and noted historian who lived from 55 AD to 118 AD. Tacitus hated Jesus and the Christian movement but by chance, mentioned Jesus in his work titled Annals (written shortly before his death). In his writing, Tacitus attempts to shift blame for a fire from Nero, who was accused of setting the blaze to clear area for a new building project, to the Christians. In his account, he confirms the attempted suppression of the “Chrestian” movement by Roman leaders.
“[N]either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts – those called “Chrestians” by the people.
The founder of this name, Christ [Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate… Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular.”
Josephus, who was born just four years after the crucifixion, was a Jewish priest who lived in Rome and under the protection of the Flavians, was allowed to compose his eyewitness accounts of the events of the first century AD. At the time, the Romans were enemies of the Jewish people and thus, many Jews despised Josephus as a traitor. His unpopular stance and isolated location provided Josephus the opportunity to ignore Jewish popular opinion and thus, pen unbiased accounts of Jewish history.
In Book 20 of Jewish Antiquities, Josephus describes the killing of Jesus’ brother as part of a lengthy tome explaining how Ananus lost his position as high priest as a result of the unpopular execution of James the Just. Since James (Jacob), Jesus, and Joseph were such common names, Josephus could not accurately identify James as “James, son of Joseph” or simply “James, brother of Jesus” and instead, chose to uniquely identify James as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Messiah”. Note that Josephus, a steadfast Jew, did not claim that Jesus was the Messiah but merely that he was the “so-called Messiah”.
“Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, "sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus, who was called Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.”
Given Josephus’ phrasing and distinct style of writing, his reference to Jesus as the Messiah (with little or no explanation) implies that Jesus was mentioned earlier in his writings, likely in a longer discourse. As expected, in the earlier Book 18 of the Jewish Antiquities, there is this controversial section describing Jesus and his life.
“Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him, for on the third day, he appeared to them restored to life. The prophets of God had prophesied this and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out.”
Some analysts propose that parts of this discourse were added later by Christian scribes. Regardless, if we strip out the parts that some scholars attribute to later Christian additions, we are still left with this excellent historical confirmation of Jesus and the crucifixion.
“Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out.”
Lucian of Samosata
Lucian of Samosata (115-200 CE) was a Greek satirist known to have despised Christians and especially “the man who was crucified” (i.e. Jesus). One of his works, The Passing of Peregrinus, told the tale of a former Christian who renounced his faith and became a revolutionary. Although blatantly derogatory towards Jesus and his followers, his description appears to have been gleaned from non-biblical sources and thus, provides further historical confirmation of Jesus’ life.
“It was then that he learned the marvelous wisdom of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And— what else?—in short order he made them look like children, for he was a prophet, cult leader, head of the congregation and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books, and wrote many himself. They revered him as a god, used him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector—to be sure, after that other whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.
For having convinced themselves that they are going to be immortal and live forever, the poor wretches despise death and most even willingly give themselves up. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living according to his laws.”
More potential historians document Jesus
No known writings of Thallus, an ancient historian, exist today but in 221 AD, Julius Africanus quoted part of Thallus’ work from his “third book of History”. In this writing, Thallus appears to be attempting to explain away an odd “darkness” that spread over the world during the crucifixion of Jesus.
“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.”
Phlegon was a Greek writer who produced a chronicle of history around 140 AD. Although many of his writings are lost, he is quoted in other historical works. Julius Africanus references Phlegon’s account of a “darkness” (that occurred during the crucifixion of Jesus).
“Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth to the ninth hour.”
And Origen Adamantius, an early church theologian from Alexandria, also mentions Phlegon’s accounts of Jesus’ life several times in Book 2 of his Origen Against Celsus discourse.
“Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events… but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions.”
“And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place.”
“Jesus, while alive, was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death, and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails.”
The Jewish Talmud (or Jerusalem Talmud) was an early central text of Rabbinic Judaism. It contains early teachings, opinions, and historical accounts from thousands of rabbis on a variety of subjects. The writings in the Talmud were faithfully transcribed from works created during the early Tannaitic period (around 100 BC to 100 AD). Although scholars believe Jesus was likely mentioned many times in the Talmud discourses using “code words” such as Balaam, Ben Stada, or “a certain one”, a few works mention Jesus specifically by name. Below are examples of early Talmud references to Jesus. As would be expected, they are derogatory comments by nature.
“Jesus practiced magic and led Israel astray.”
“Rabbi Hisda (d. 309) said that Rabbi Jeremiah bar Abba said, ‘What is that which is written, ‘No evil will befall you, nor shall any plague come near your house’? (Psalm 91:10)… ‘No evil will befall you’ (means) that evil dreams and evil thoughts will not tempt you; ‘nor shall any plague come near your house’ (means) that you will not have a son or a disciple who burns his food like Jesus of Nazareth.”
“It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. A herald went before him for forty days (proclaiming), “He will be stoned, because he practiced magic and enticed Israel to go astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favor come forward and plead for him.” But nothing was found in his favor, and they hanged him on the day before the Passover.”
An abundance of proof that Jesus existed historically
Given the abundance of non-biblical historical accounts of Jesus and the Christianity movement in rare ancient literature (many of which have been nearly entirely lost to time), it should leave readers no doubt that Jesus was a real man and that the events described in the New Testament are not allegories, allusions, or fiction. They were real events that proved powerful enough to re-shape religion throughout the world.