The Historical Jesus

Skeptics of the Christian theology typically point to the lack of evidence about his physical presence, noting the available historical record of others who lived in the time of Jesus. Yet, according to University of North Carolina religious studies professor Bart D. Ehrman, a noted skeptic of his Divinity, “The reality is that we don’t have archaeological records for virtually anyone who lived in Jesus’s time and place. The lack of evidence does not mean a person at the time didn’t exist. It means that she or he, like 99.99% of the rest of the world at the time, made no impact on the archaeological record.”

Contrary to many skeptics, there is ample evidence in the historical record to prove Jesus in human form did live and was crucified under the orders of Roman Prelate Pontinus Pilate. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus twice mentions Jesus in Jewish Antiquities, his massive 20-volume history of the Jewish people that was written around 93 A.D. Another account of Jesus appears in Annals of Imperial Rome, a first-century history of the Roman Empire written around 116 A.D. by the Roman senator and historian Tacitus. Roman governor Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan that early Christians would “sing hymns to Christ as to a god.” Roman historian Suetonius references Jesus in noting that Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome who “were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”

Historian Graham Stanton writes in his The Gospels and Jesus:Today nearly all historians, whether Christians or not, accept that Jesus existed.” According to Dr. Simon Gathercode, Lecturer in New Testament Studies at Fitzwilliam College at Cambridge University. ““These abundant historical references leave us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. The more interesting question—which goes beyond history and objective fact—is whether Jesus died and lived.”

Lawrence Mykytiuk, an associate professor of library science at Purdue University and author of a 2015 Biblical Archaeology Review article on the extra-biblical evidence of Jesus, notes that there was no debate about the issue in ancient times either. “Jewish rabbis who did not like Jesus or his followers accused him of being a magician and leading people astray, but they never said he didn’t exist.” Even so, controversies such as his virgin birth in Bethlehem or Mary’s perpetual virginity remain.

Historical Agreement About Jesus

Without regard to His Divinity, historians generally agree that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish preacher, well-versed in Jewish scriptures and traditions. His teachings often referenced and reinterpreted concepts from the Hebrew Bible. He attracted followers with his parables and wisdom-filled sermons, emphasizing a coming Kingdom of God and a renewed relationship with the divine (John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus).  His teachings challenged aspects of the prevailing religious and social order with interpretations of the law that emphasized compassion and care for the marginalized (E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism).

While the validity of His miracles and healings are debated, some historical accounts reference Jesus’ reputation as a healer and miracle worker (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18).

There is also general agreement that His message and actions brought Jesus into conflict with both Jewish religious leaders and Roman authorities, ultimately leading to his execution (Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World). It is also widely accepted that Jesus was crucified by the Romans, a common method of execution at the time. This event is documented in both Christian and non-Christian sources (Tacitus, Annals, Book 15).

The historical and biblical Jesus can be seen as offering different but important viewpoints. History seeks to understand Jesus in his context; the biblical accounts focus on his spiritual significance and impact on faith. History can’t fully address matters of faith. It may not verify the divinity of Jesus or the resurrection but can illuminate the social and religious world that shaped Jesus’ message. For some Christians, a deeper understanding of the historical Jesus does not diminish their faith but enriches it, providing context and complexity to the biblical narrative.