Was Jesus of Nazareth a real person or just a myth? Most experts agree that Jesus existed as a real person.[i] However, despite the overwhelming evidence supporting a historical Jesus, the Jesus Myth theory—which claims Jesus never existed, or if he did, he didn’t have anything to do with Christianity[ii]—has a growing number of followers due to widespread advancement of these ideas through the Internet.[iii] I first encountered the Jesus Myth theory as a university student in 1984 in a history of Western Civilization textbook; it shook my faith and caused me to walk away from the church for a number of years. We shouldn’t necessarily believe everything we read, but instead should test dubious notions like this one.
To test the notion that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t a real person, one can examine a wealth of ancient, non-Christian documents regarding Jesus and Christianity. Historian Gary Habermas investigated seventeen such sources regarding the Jesus of history.[iv] Although some evidence is more reliable than others, “this early evidence is still very impressive. Few ancient historical figures can boast the same amount of material.”[v] In order to prepare young Christians to respond to the Jesus Myth arguments, this paper will present convincing evidence that Jesus was a real person, using two reliable ancient non-Christian sources: Tacitus and Josephus.
Tacitus – Greatest Ancient Roman Historian
Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (ca. AD 55-120) is heralded as “the greatest historian” of ancient Rome.[vi] In his well-known historical work, The Annals, he references Christ in the following passage:
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 Judaea, 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.[vii]
Here, an esteemed Roman historian, writing less than one hundred years after Jesus died, references Christus as a real person. Although Tacitus does not mention the name Jesus in this passage, many skeptics like Bart Ehrman agree, “it is obvious in this instance that he [Jesus of Nazareth] is the one being referred to and that Tacitus knows some very basic information about him.”[viii]
Mythicists insist that Tacitus probably did not write this passage about Jesus, but that it was later added by Christians (“interpolation”).[ix] For example, atheist historian Richard Carrier argues that the passage is “probably an interpolation,”[x] and “we cannot verify that the information in Tacitus comes from any source independent of the Gospels.”[xi] In response, Ehrman states, “I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think this [that Tacitus did not write this passage], and it seems highly unlikely.”[xii] Therefore, Carrier’s theory should be dismissed as a fringe, albeit growing, viewpoint.
Even though some skeptics agree Tacitus wrote this passage, they doubt some of the information in it is reliable because of alleged mistakes made in this quote.[xiii] For example, Ehrman points out that Tacitus refers to Pilate as a “procurator” instead of a “prefect,” as evidence that Tacitus did not research information he received before he recorded it.[xiv] Ehrman maintains, “Pilate had the title and rank, not of procurator (one who dealt principally with revenue collection), but of prefect (one who also had military forces at his command).”[xv] However, former atheist James D. Agresti retorts that historical research reveals that Pilate could have been both a procurator and a prefect.[xvi]
Classical historian Michael Grant also doubts Tacitus’ reliability as a historian, claiming he was theatrical as a poet and a playwright,[xvii] and “…told some remarkable and not entirely truthful stories himself, notably, in the Annals [sic]…”[xviii] He goes further, declaring Tacitus’ “…psychology fell into rhetorical stereotypes; they made him an enforced, perhaps involuntary, liar.”[xix] In response, Agresti examined several scholarly works on Tacitus’ record for reliability. While he concurs that there are a small number of minor mistakes in Tacitus’ writing,[xx] he ultimately concludes most expert scholars on the subject “articulated exceptionally high opinions of Tacitus’ factual accuracy.”[xxi] Therefore, a small number of minor mistakes do nothing to destroy Tacitus’ impeccable reputation as an accurate historian.
Another reason skeptics have difficulty accepting some information in the Tacitus passage is because they claim it contains hearsay, perhaps from Christians.[xxii] Ehrman claims, “It should be clear in any event that Tacitus is basing his comment about Jesus on hearsay rather than, say, detailed historical research”[xxiii]—“Whether he heard it from Christians or someone else is anyone’s guess.”[xxiv] If this was true, we have to ask why Tacitus would trust Christians enough to repeat their unverified claims. Tacitus was far from cozy with Christians. He refers to them and Christianity as “a class hated for their abominations,” a “most mischievous superstition,” and even “evil.”[xxv] It strains credulity to believe Tacitus would repeat false reports from a group of people he describes with such contempt. However, instead of leaving us guessing, Tacitus actually identifies some of his sources, and Agresti assures us that it turns out they are very reliable.[xxvi]
As a final point, it is specious to suggest, as Ehrman does, that Tacitus repeated hearsay from “someone else” about Jesus,[xxvii] because Tacitus specifically warned people not to accept hearsay. He wrote, “My object in mentioning and refuting this story is, by a conspicuous example, to put down hearsay, and to request all into whose hands my work shall come, not to catch eagerly at wild and improbable rumors in preference to genuine history which has not been perverted into romance.”[xxviii] Moreover, when Tacitus wasn’t absolutely certain of something, he let his readers know with the use of qualifiers, e.g. “some thought,” “the common account is,” “according to some,” and “it was said.”[xxix] But, Tacitus did not use qualifiers when he explained the roots of Christianity.[xxx] Therefore, we can conclude he wasn’t repeating mere rumors in this passage.
To summarize, Tacitus was objective, accurate, and reliable in writing this passage about Jesus. Despite Ehrman’s concerns about hearsay and accuracy, he proclaims, “Tacitus is most useful of all [historians in the first 100 years after Jesus’ death], for his reference shows that high-ranking Roman officials of the early second century knew that Jesus had lived and had been executed by the governor of Judea.”[xxxi] Therefore, Tacitus is convincing evidence that Jesus existed.
Josephus—Greatest Ancient Jewish Historian
Another eminent non-Christian historian is Flavius Josephus. Scholars describe Josephus (born AD 37) as “the greatest Jewish historian of antiquity.”[xxxii] Skeptic James D. Tabor raves about Josephus, calling him, “…unquestionably our most valuable historical source for students of ancient Judaism and emerging Christianity for the period,”[xxxiii] and enthusiastically encourages students interested in Christian origins to “first and foremost—read Josephus!”[xxxiv]
Why is Josephus readily accepted by skeptics? In addition to being highly regarded as a top notch Jewish historian, he is considered to be utterly Jewish and never a follower of Jesus.[xxxv] Due to his stellar reputation as a non-Christian historian, we will examine two passages where Josephus mentions Jesus in his writings.
In one short passage, Josephus writes about Jesus and his brother James in Josephus’ famous work, Antiquities of the Jews (written about AD 93).[xxxvi] Josephus lived in Jerusalem and was about 25 years old when James was executed—he even knew the people who executed him.[xxxvii] Josephus had this to say about Jesus and James: “…so he assembled the sanhedrim [sic] of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned…”[xxxviii] Here, Josephus calls Jesus by name, instead of just by the title of Christus as Tacitus did. And he identifies Jesus as the brother of James. Since he knew the people who killed Jesus’ brother, this passage is compelling evidence that Josephus wrote about Jesus as a historical person.
Despite this persuasive evidence, some skeptics still reject it, arguing the passage was not written by Josephus, but was later added by Christian scribes.[xxxix] Ehrman reports that mythicists conclude that since another Jesus passage in Antiquities was likely interpolated, this passage must have been invented “to reinforce the point of the earlier insertion.”[xl] This argument is an attempt to use a variation of the legal maxim falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (false in one, false in everything),[xli] i.e. if one passage was interpolated, making it unreliable, the other passage must have been interpolated, too, thus making it also unreliable. Using the legal maxim here is a presumptive fallacy so this argument must fail.
The other longer Jesus passage from Antiquities referenced above is commonly known as Testimonium Flavianum, which means “the testimony given by Flavius Josephus to the life of Jesus.”[xlii] It is a more controversial passage, which states:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.[xliii]
What makes this passage so controversial is that some of the words do appear to have been interpolated by Christians.[xliv] Ehrman reports that skeptic Earl Doherty contends that Josephus didn’t write any of this passage and that it was entirely interpolated.[xlv] But most scholars, and even skeptics like Ehrman, believe Josephus did write some of the text and did write about Jesus.[xlvi] Ehrman acknowledges, “a good deal of the passage does indeed read like it was written by Josephus. It is far more likely that the core of the passage actually does go back to Josephus himself.”[xlvii]
So the questions are: What are the original words of Josephus? And what did he say about Jesus? Tabor decrees that after removing all the alleged Christian interpolations, we are left with this “bare and minimal account” by Josephus:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonders. He drew many after him. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day (Antiquities 18:63-64).[xlviii]
In support of Tabor’s minimal account version, he compares an Arabic version of the Testimoniun Flavianum from the 10th century, which has similar words.[xlix] Tabor argues, “It has obviously not been interpolated in the same way as the Christian version circulating in the West and it reads remarkably close to our ‘non-interpolated’ version above.”[l] The Arabic version uncovered these words:
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders.[li]
Habermas agrees that there are “good reasons why the Arabic version may indeed be the original words of Josephus before any Christian interpolations.”[lii] He cites two scholars at the Hebrew University, Schlomo Pines and David Flusser as his source when he states, “It is quite plausible that none of the arguments against Josephus writing the original words even applies to the Arabic text, especially since the latter would have had less chance of being censored by the church.”[liii] In spite of not knowing the exact original words, we can be reasonably sure that Josephus did write some of this passage, and definitely wrote about Jesus.
Therefore, regardless of interpolations, we conclude that Josephus did write about Jesus in the James passage and in the Testimonium Flavianum passage.[liv] Josephus is one of the most reliable ancient historians who wrote about Jesus, providing excellent proof that Jesus was a real person.
Children love fairytales and myths. So when we grow up, how can we know Jesus was a real person and not just a myth? Naive college students may believe misinformation they read in a textbook—Jesus is merely a myth based on ancient pagan religions. However, young Christians can rely on two of the world’s greatest ancient historians, Tacitus and Josephus, to provide credible historical evidence for the truth about Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth was a real person—the Jesus Myth theory fails.
[i] Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), 4, Kindle.
[ii] “Christ Myth Theory,” OMICS International, accessed October, 3, 2015, http://research.omicsgroup.org/index.php/Christ_myth_theory. “The Christ myth theory (also known as the Jesus myth theory, Jesus mythicism or simply mythicism)…” Those who hold to the Jesus myth theory are often referred to as “mythicists.”
[iv] Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (1996; repr., Joplin, MO: College Press, 2011), 219. His seventeen sources are: Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Thallus, Pliny the Younger, Emperor Trajan, Emperor Hadrian, The Talmud, Toledoth Jesu, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, The Gospel of Truth, The Apocryphon of John, The Gospel of Thomas, The Treatise On Resurrection, Acts of Pontius Pilate, and Phlegon. Ibid., 187-218.
[vi] Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 187.
[viii] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 55.
[ix] Richard Carrier, “Ehrman on Historicity Recap,” Freethought Blogs, accessed October 3, 2015, http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/1794.
[x] Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), Kindle Locations 17465-17466, Kindle.
[xi] Ibid., 17491-17492.
[xii] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 55.
[xiii] Ibid., 56.
[xvi] James D. Agresti, Rational Conclusions (Documentary Press, 2009), 6; emphasis added.
[xvii] Michael Grant, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation (1995; Taylor and Francis, 2005), Kindle Locations 517-521, Kindle.
[xviii] Ibid., 1077-1078.
[xix] Ibid., 564-565.
[xx] Agresti, Rational Conclusions, 11—“What I found was a small number of mistakes along the lines of claiming that the earth is flat and stating that a particular woman was the wife of the emperor Nero’s grandfather when in fact it actually was the woman’s older sister,” and some of the alleged errors “are clearly unwarranted.”
[xxi] Ibid., 10.
[xxii] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 56.
[xxv] Tacitus, The Annals, Book 15.
[xxvi] Agresti, Rational Conclusions, 8, n. 59—i.e. Caius Plinius; Tiberius; writers and senators of the period; Greek historians; memoirs of the younger Agrippina, mother of the emperor Nero; historians of the time; and notes of proceedings given to the Senate.
[xxvii] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 56.
[xxviii] Tacitus, The Annals, 4.11, quoted in Agresti, Rational Conclusions, 9.
[xxix] Agresti, Rational Conclusions, 9.
[xxxi] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 56; emphasis added.
[xxxii] Raphael Patai, The Jewish Mind (1977; repr., Wayne State University Press, 1996), 85, quoted in Agresti, Rational Conclusions, 12—“The works of Josephus as historical sources are invaluable. But beyond their purely documentary value, they are great historiography, written with a dramatic force, an artist's eye for detail, an unsparing precision, and a consistency of organization which equal the best of Greek historical writing.”
[xxxiii] James D. Tabor, “Josephus on John the Baptizer, Jesus, and James;” emphasis original, TaborBlog, posted August 12, 2012, accessed September 13, 2015, http://jamestabor.com/2012/08/12/josephus-on-john-the-baptizer-jesus-and-james/.
[xxxv] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 60.
[xxxvii] Flavius Josephus, Life of Flavius Josephus, trans. by H. St. J. Thackeray, Loeb Classical Library, Josephus, Volume 1 (AD 100 repr., Heinemann, 1926), quoted in Agresti, Rational Conclusions, 13.
[xxxviii] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:9:1.
[xxxix] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 59.
[xl] Ibid., 61.
[xli] U.S. Legal Definitions, s.v. “falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus law & legal,” accessed September 19, 2015, http://definitions.uslegal.com/f/falsus-in-uno-falsus-in-omnibus.
[xlii] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Reconsidering the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 59– 69, quoted in Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 59, n. 14.
[xliii] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:3:3.
[xliv] Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 192.
[xlv] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 61—“One of the fullest arguments for this position is offered by Earl Doherty, both in his original work, The Jesus Puzzle, and in an amplified form in his more recent Jesus: Neither God nor Man.”
[xlvi] Ibid., 65.
[xlvii] Ibid., 64.
[xlviii] Tabor, “Josephus on John the Baptizer, Jesus, and James.”
[lii] Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 194.
[liii] David Flusser, “New Evidence on Jesus’ Life Reported,” The New York Times, February 12, 1972, 1, 24, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 194.
[liv] Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 195.