Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Did Jesus Really Live?

Early icon image of Jesus
It’s almost comical that people these days are still trying to “prove” Jesus lived some 2,000 years after he supposedly walked through ancient Jerusalem.  You’d figure that, by now, scholars would have come up with an answer.  Yet, on Facebook, a true believer posted four documentaries that supposedly prove that Jesus lived.

Four films were needed for that task?  Sounds like overkill.  After all, there’s not much to say.  Evidence of a real Jesus is hard to come by. 

The only writers who lived in Judea at the time Jesus must have lived never mention him.  In all of Philo of Alexandria’s voluminous writing, Jesus never makes an appearance, although the  famed Jewish-Egyptian philosopher  desperately sought evidence of God on Earth and created the concept of “logos” (the word) that John picked up for his Gospel.  More significantly, Philo died in the 40s and lived through all the years Jesus had to have been alive.

Josephus, the renowned Jewish historian of the first century, also did not mention Jesus, but did cite other would-be messiahs.  At least 16 earlier church fathers are known to have commented on Josephus without noting a strange paragraph in his text that begins “At about this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one might call him a man...” That's because the passage was added later.  If such a passage had existed in the original, they would not have complained, as they did, that Josephus overlooked Jesus.

A later Christian author, presumed to be church historian Bishop Eusebius, was so upset by Josephus’ omission that, in the fourth century, he forged a paragraph about Jesus and inserted it into the text.  He is thought to be the author because he's the first to mention it.  Unfortunately for him, earlier versions of Josephus’ works do not contain the fraudulent addition.

Some historians claim that Josephus knew more about Jesus and early Christianity, but didn’t want to offend the Romans.  Besides being an attempt to read Josephus’ mind, they ignore the uncomfortable fact that he wrote extensively about other would-be messiahs, lambasting their pretensions and accusing them of fostering unrest.

Artist's image of Paul
Paul, the first true missionary for the religion that grew up around Jesus, did include mentions of the historical Jesus in his epistles:  he was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) and was “descended from David, according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3).  He also tells us Jesus was Jewish, devoted his ministry to Jews and was crucified. He doesn't even indicate when Jesus lived or cite a single teaching.

Modern Christian apologists have claimed that Paul omitted the biographical details because he was writing to people who knew the life of Jesus and had no reason to elaborate.  That can’t be true.  Paul founded small colonies of believers around the Mediterranean – his epistles mostly are addressed to the different groups – and was forced to respond when other evangelists went to the same people with a different message.  The authentic history of Jesus would have been a very strong asset for him.  He simply didn’t include any.

In Paul's view, Jesus was a common man of little distinction until chosen by God on the cross as the messiah and messenger to mankind.  That, of course, is not the later dogma of Christianity, which believes in Jesus as God incarnate.

Other documents that mention Jesus are equally limited.  For example, one early document called the Didache began as a sectarian Jewish document, probably written around 70 C.E.   The original version contained moral teachings and predictions of the destruction of the current world order.   Later Christians revised it, adding a story of Jesus and rules of worship for early Christian communities. 

Still, the Didache makes no mention of a virgin birth or miracles.  Jesus is called the “son” of God in the Didache, but only in a figurative sense.  In Jewish thinking, everyone is a son of God anyway.  There’s no account of the crucifixion of Jesus, although the Didache does mention a cross in the sky as a sign of Jesus. The twelve apostles are referred to as representing the 12 tribes of Israel. 

Extant Roman histories provide even less information about a human Jesus.  Here are all the known comments about Jesus in Roman literature:

Cornelius Tacitus (55-120 A.D.):
“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 under 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 Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”

That would seem to be a big help, but for the date of the text.  Writing long after the death of Jesus, Tacitus could have gotten any information about Christians from members of the religion, rather than from actual historical document.  His phrasing, “suffered under,” which is inherently Christian, seems to indicate that.  Moreover, early Church fathers did not cite his comment nor does the reference to Christians show up in Tacitus' writing until a translation was issued hundreds of years later.

Actually, no reference to Jesus by a non-Christian author is mentioned by Church fathers until the 4th century.

Lucian, a second-century Greek satirist:
The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. … You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.  All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.”

The late date suggests Lucian got his information from a Christian and not from an historical source.

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillas, chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian. 
There are two references, appearing in his books from 117-138 A.D.  In his account of Emperor Claudius’ reign, Suetonius wrote, “Claudius banished from Rome all Jews who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestos.”  Then, on the reign of Nero: “Nero likewise inflicted punishment on the Christians, a sect of men who held a new and maleficent superstition.” 

Again, the information is scant.  Is Chrestos a misunderstanding for Christ or another person altogether?  After all, Chrestos was a term often applied to pagan gods.  Besides, “Jews” actually may be “god-fearers,” people who mixed Jewish beliefs with pagan beliefs and who were not typically of Jewish descent.

Suetonius, a prominent historian in his day, is actually referring to a time period close to when the false messiah Theudas was crucified.  The passage may be a nod to Theudas' followers in Rome, who did riot in protest to his death at Roman hands.

The text also seems to imply that Chrestus was in Rome, spearheading the uprising.  Christians claim that the passage refers to Jesus, and unrest began after Paul brought news of him to Rome and that Suetonius was only mistaken about Jesus himself being in Rome.  Regardless, the information is too limited and too removed from Jesus’ time to be of any historical help.

There are simply no other works to turn to outside the New Testament that deal with Jesus. As you can see, few of the comments actually contain even a shard of information about the historical Jesus.  They simply verify that Christian belief existed by the time of the writing.

Even the Gospels aren’t much help determining if Jesus ever lived. “Although (the New Testament accounts are the chief records, they are neither clear nor complete,” noted the Dartmouth Bible (pg 844).

Artist's concept of Ebionites
Nevertheless, there are some inferences that can be made that support the existence of an historical Jesus.  In the first place, Paul only met Jesus in a reverie outside Damascus.  He would have been far better off insisting that his otherworldly meeting with Jesus was far more valid than anyone else’s experience with the living person, but he didn’t.  Instead, Paul accepted that the people he called “the pillars of the church” had known the real person.

Then, too, there really was a group of believers in Jerusalem.  They called themselves Nazarenes, but are better known historically as Ebionites, which means “poor ones." They were given that insulting nickname because of their impoverished condition.  The Nazarenes, who are also labeled Jewish-Christians by modern historians, viewed themselves as a reform movement within Judaism. 

They organized a synagogue, and, like all Jews, worshiped and brought animals for ritual sacrifice at the Temple.  They observed the Jewish holy days, circumcised their male children, followed Kosher dietary laws, and practiced the teachings of Jesus as they interpreted them to be. They saw Jesus as a prophet and sage, but not as a deity.  The Ebionites also disliked Paul and insisted he was not Jewish.  In their extant writing, they claim the apostle distorted their beliefs.

Caught between Judaism and Christianity, they soon faded away.  However, they did exist and were not likely to venerate an imaginary person.

Finally,  the Talmud, the Jewish collection of laws, rabbinical discussion and stories, mentions Jesus.  The sages of that day did not cite imaginary people.

On that basis, there’s no hesitancy on the part of most historians to agree that Jesus lived.  Four documentaries won’t enhance that.  However, historians divide quickly over the question if Jesus is God.   That’s belief, requiring no historical foundation, which is fortunate since none exists. 

The reality is that we know next to nothing about the true life of a man who may have been the most influential human who has lived in the last 2,000 years.

As Charles Guignebert, Sorbonne professor of Christianity, wrote 80 years ago in his epic book Jesus:  “Jesus was born, he lived, he was crucified and he died.  Everything else is pure conjecture.”

Note:  Much of this blog is drawn from the book, The Gospel Truth, available on Amazon, Twitter and other sites.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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