Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) | Streaming Licensing # 20105663Questions or comments? Email us here!
Did Jesus actually exist?
March 9, 2022
Jesus of Nazareth remains one of the most recognizable and influential figures in the history of the world. Countless millions down through the centuries attest to the ways in which Jesus has changed their lives. No other person has generated so much reflection or discourse or inspired so much artistic expression or social activity. Yet there are many who continue to doubt that Jesus ever existed. Or they claim that if he did exist, the real Jesus will remain forever hidden from us because no historical figure is more deeply mired in legend than Jesus of Nazareth. So did Jesus actually exist?
Let’s start at the beginning. It is fair to say that Jesus of Nazareth remains one of the most recognizable and influential figures in the history of the world. Countless millions down through the centuries attest to the ways in which Jesus has changed their lives. No other person has generated so much reflection or discourse or inspired so much artistic expression or social activity. There is almost no aspect of human life where you will not find the mark of his fingerprints.
Yet there are many who continue to doubt that Jesus ever existed. Or if he did, the real Jesus will remain forever hidden from us because they claim no historical figure is more deeply mired in legend than Jesus of Nazareth. So did Jesus actually exist? Is it possible to separate the man from the myth?
What can we really know about Jesus? Some claim there is no trace of Jesus outside the Bible, and they dismiss the New Testament as merely propaganda. The gospels, they say, are embellished stories that were invented by early members of the Christian movement in order to secure their hold on power. Yet, while some continue to doubt that Jesus ever existed, the evidence outside the Bible for Jesus is actually quite good. Let me give you two examples.
The Roman historian Suetonius definitely refers to Christians and very likely to Jesus in his work, Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Suetonius reports the expulsion of Jews that took place under Emperor Claudius who reigned from 41 to 54 AD. He writes,
“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” Suetonius mentions a man referred to as “Chrestus” which many scholars consider a likely reference to Jesus given that Romans viewed the early Christians as a sect of Judaism. Later in his biography of Nero, Suetonius recounts that Christians suffered persecution under Nero and he subsequently reveals the rather low view Romans had of the early Christian movement. He writes, “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”
Here’s one more example. In his final work Annals, the distinguished Roman historian Tacitus records the great fire that ravaged Rome for six days in 64 AD. The passage is one of the earliest references to the origins of Christianity and the execution of Jesus on a Roman cross. Tacitus writes: “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 Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.”
Tacitus certainly was no friend of Christianity. Like Suetonius, he refers to Christianity as “a mischievous superstition.” But he nevertheless establishes a number of important facts.
Number one, Tacitus refers to Christus, the Latin word for Christ, and he explains that the early Christians were given their name by the general public. In other words, this was not a name the followers of Christ chose for themselves, but rather a derogatory term applied to them by others.
Number two, Tacitus reveals that the early Christians suffered persecution for their faith. Yet despite the opposition they encountered, the movement spread far and wide in a relatively short period of time.
Number three, Tacitus confirms that Jesus “suffered the extreme penalty” when Tiberius was emperor and while Pontius Pilate was in charge of Judea, which fixes the date of the crucifixion to between 26 and 36 AD.
Remarkably, everything Tacitus tells us about early Christianity matches up with what we read in the New Testament. All of this suggests – at a minimum – that we cannot merely dismiss the gospels as myths. Jesus most certainly existed.
So here’s my encouragement to you. Given his outsized influence on the world, it might be worth reconsidering Jesus. Rather than dismissing him from the outset as nothing more than a myth, I would encourage you to take a closer look and follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Written by Jason Harris
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
Filmed and edited by Andrew Walker