Was Jesus of Nazareth a real person? Did He really exist? Are the stories written about Him in the Bible true? These are important questions, and it’s crucial that you know the answers!
Some argue that Jesus couldn’t have existed because there are no first-century historical records that mention Him. Of course, there are contemporary biographies written about Him—four of them in fact, by different authors. They’re called the Gospels, and they’re found in the Bible.
But that’s not good enough for those determined not to believe in Jesus Christ. They insist on more. They demand written records from contemporary first-century historians who were not followers of Jesus.
Historians are well aware of a few surviving non-Christian Roman works from early in the second century that mention Jesus Christ and Christianity.
But in so doing they’re requiring a standard few historical figures from the ancient world could possibly meet. After all, very few surviving histories survive from the first century, and basically the only sizeable and largely complete Roman written works from this time are a manual on agriculture, a comedy from a friend of one of the emperors and a few other miscellaneous works—none of which we would expect to include any mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ.
Roman histories that mention Jesus and Christianity
However, historians are well aware of a few surviving non-Christian Roman works from early in the second century that do mention Jesus Christ and Christianity. These include:
• Lives of the First Twelve Caesars, by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, a Roman court official and chief secretary to Emperor Hadrian, who wrote around A.D. 120.
• Letters ofPliny the Younger, a Roman governing official in north-central Turkey, who wrote about A.D. 120.
• Annals, by the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about A.D. 115.
In addition to these, the famous first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote about Jesus and a number of other figures mentioned in the Gospels. We’ll discuss him a little later.
Followers of “Chrestus” banished from Rome
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (commonly known as Suetonius), writing around 120 A.D., records that the emperor Claudius “banished the Jews from Rome, who were continually making disturbances, Chrestus [Christ] being their leader” (Lives of the First Twelve Caesars: Life of Claudius).
Claudius reigned from A.D. 41 to 54. At this point in history the Romans didn’t see any difference between Jews and Christians, since they largely believed and practiced the same things, so Claudius apparently expelled them all.
What’s significant in Suetonius’ brief statement, mentioned in passing, is that a number of the Jews in Rome had become followers of “Chrestus,” which seems to be a misspelling of “Christus,” the Latinized form of “Christ.” So we see that by approximately the year 50 there already were significant numbers of Christians in Rome, and this was leading to conflict with the Roman authorities—exactly why, we’re not told.
This expulsion of the Jews from Rome is mentioned in the Bible, in Acts 18:2: “And he [Paul] found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them.”
What is especially interesting is how closely this brief mention correlates with what we read in the book of Acts. At the Feast of Pentecost when the Church was founded as recorded in Acts 2, ca. A.D. 31, we read that “visitors from Rome” were among those who witnessed the miraculous events of Acts 2:6-12. At that time people speaking multiple languages and dialects from more than a dozen different parts of the Roman Empire heard the apostles “speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”
We’re not explicitly told when the first Christian believers appeared in Rome, but it’s not a stretch to assume that some of those in Jerusalem for that Pentecost took their astounding report back with them to Rome, where it spread among the Jews and Jewish proselytes there—leading about two decades later to the expulsion of Jews and Christians from Rome.
How to deal with Christians who wouldn’t worship the emperor as divine?
Around A.D. 120, Pliny the Younger, a Roman governing official in what is today north-central Turkey, wrote to the emperor Trajan requesting advice on how to deal with Christians who refused to reverence the Roman emperor’s image. Pliny noted that these Christians met regularly and sang hymns “to Christ as if to a god” (Letters 10:96:7).
Two facts are immediately notable about this brief mention of Christians and Christianity. The first is that there were a considerable number of followers of Jesus Christ in northern Asia Minor less than a hundred years after His death. A second notable fact is that these people met together and sang hymns to Christ “as if to a god.”
The first fact is notable because this is exactly the pattern we see time and time again in the book of Acts: Early Christian teachers like Paul, Barnabas and Apollos went from city to city in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Greece, proclaiming the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that salvation was available only through Him. Sometimes they met great hostility; at other times they met a receptive audience, and Christianity began to slowly and steadily spread—often in spite of persecution.
The second fact here is notable because Pliny’s inquiry to the emperor shows that the Christians he encountered considered Jesus Christ to be divine. And his correspondence shows that they were so firm in this belief that some refused to renounce that belief even under penalty of torture and death!
Again, this is the pattern we see time and again in the book of Acts—people who were so firmly convinced that Jesus Christ was a real person who had lived, died and been raised to life again that they were willing to die rather than renounce that belief.
“Christus . . . suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilate”
The most complete information we have from a Roman writer from this period comes from Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, who was born around A.D. 56 and wrote his works early in the second century. Being a historian, he discussed the devastating fire of Rome in A.D. 64 during the reign of Emperor Nero. Notice what he adds in a side discussion about Nero blaming Christians for the fire:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report [that Nero himself had started the fire to expand his own properties], 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 . . .”
So what do we learn from this account from the historian Tacitus about conditions in Rome in 64 A.D.? Keep in mind that Tacitus was no friend of Christians. He considered them deplorable.
• There was a group in Rome at that time—barely three decades after Jesus’ crucifixion—known as “Christians.”
• They were called “Christians” after someone called “Christus” (the Latin form of “Christ”).
• Their leader “Christus” was executed during the governance of the procurator Pontius Pilate (A.D. 26-36) and the reign of the emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37).
• The Romans thought the Christians believed in “a most mischievous superstition.”
• The Christians were “hated for their abominations.”
• Their movement originated in Judea (the Holy Land) and from there spread to Rome.
• By 64, there was a “vast multitude” of Christians in Rome.
Again, this is astonishing because it verifies exactly what we read in the Gospels and the book of Acts (including the timing of Christ’s crucifixion during the rule of Tiberius and Pontius Pilate, Luke 3:1-2).
What was this “most mischievous superstition” the Christians believed? Tacitus does not say. Could it have been that a man was executed by crucifixion and rose from the dead? Or that the Christians themselves believed they also would rise from the dead? Or that their leader “Christus” would come again as King of a Kingdom that would replace Rome and rule the world?
We don’t know, but Tacitus’ wording about this movement being rooted in “a most mischievous superstition” is quite striking—especially since the Romans, with their great variety of pagan religious beliefs, accepted almost anything except the resurrection of the dead!
Josephus’ mention of John the Baptist
Let’s look at another non-Christian writer, and that is the famous Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. He wrote The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews late in the first century. In his Antiquities, Josephus refers to many people named in the New Testament, including Jesus, John the Baptist and James the half-brother of Jesus.
Born into a priestly family in A.D. 37, Josephus was well educated and, as a military commander, led a Jewish detachment in Galilee during the Jewish revolt of 66-70 until his capture by the Romans.
The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus refers to many people named in the New Testament, including Jesus, John the Baptist and James, the half-brother of Jesus.
At the end of the war he went to Rome with the Roman general Titus, where he lived and wrote until his death around A.D. 100.
Here is what Josephus writes about John the Baptist and his executioner, Herod Antipas:
“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism . . .
“Now when many others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.
“Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, chap. 5, sec. 2).
Again, this corresponds very closely with what we read about John in the Gospels. Matthew 3:1-10, Mark 1:1-6 and Luke 3:1-14 all mention John’s popularity and message of repentance as recorded decades later by Josephus. And Matthew 14:3-12 describes the scene in Herod’s palace when John was executed on Herod’s orders.
Josephus and James, “brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”
In addition to various rulers and members of the high priest’s family mentioned in the Gospels (and confirmed through archaeological discoveries), Josephus also mentions James, half-brother of Jesus Christ:
“[The Roman governor] Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananias, the high priest] assembled the sanhedrin of the 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 . . .” (Antiquities, 20:9:1).
This same James is the author of the book of the Bible that bears his name. Although a half-brother of Jesus, he wasn’t initially a believer in His messiahship (John 7:5), but after Jesus’ death and resurrection he was among those gathered in Jerusalem at the Feast of Pentecost when the Church was founded ca. A.D. 31 (Acts 1:14).
So here we have three major figures of the New Testament—John the Baptizer, the apostle James and his half-brother Jesus, who was called Christ or Messiah—mentioned by a Jewish historian later that same century. Does Josephus say anything else about Jesus?
Josephus’ account of Jesus Christ
Note this (with bold portions for discussion following):
“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 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” (Antiquities 18:3:3).
While many scholars dispute parts or all of the passage, it is quoted as above by the historian Eusebius in Greek as early as A.D. 315 and appears this way in all the earliest surviving copies of Josephus’ works.
But the boldfaced portions are very odd for a Jewish writer who wasn’t apparently a Christian. Most scholars agree that the underlined portions were added sometime in the second or third century by a scribe copying this work, which would mean these underlined parts aren’t the actual words of Josephus. Supporting this view is an Arabic-language version of this portion of Josephus’ writings that was apparently preserved in its more original form. It reads this way:
“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.”
This leaves out the parts apparently added later about Jesus working miracles, that he was the Messiah foretold by the prophets rather than others believing Him so, and that He was raised from the dead rather than this having been reported. It would appear that this Arabic-language manuscript was copied from what Josephus originally wrote before a scribe added his own thoughts to the text. Most scholars who have looked into this agree that Josephus originally wrote about Jesus, but a later scribe elaborated on Josephus’ account, inserting his Christian beliefs.
Regardless, here, in the most extensive preserved history of Judea from the first century, we have confirmation of the existence of Jesus, as well as John the Baptist and James, the half-brother of Jesus!
We also have confirmation of the key points of the Gospels and book of Acts—that Jesus was a wise and virtuous man whom both Jews and gentiles chose to follow as the Messiah, that He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and that He was reported to have been resurrected to life and appeared to His followers three days after His death.
Those who would deny the existence of Jesus Christ have to explain away not only a number of specific references to Him, but also historic references to His half-brother James and John the Baptist, plus historians’ statements confirming the key themes and facts of the Gospels and the book of Acts!
Yes, Jesus lived—but what of His claims?
The Bible, which declares itself the inspired Word of God, says Jesus lived, died and was resurrected to life again and that He was the divine Son of God and God in the flesh. The Bible can be demonstrated to be a true and accurate history, attesting to the lives of people who really lived and walked with God and to events that occurred in the time and manner stated (see our free study guide Is the Bible True?).
As we have seen from the remaining works of the earliest historians who wrote about that period, they testify that Jesus was real and was indeed a historic figure living in the first century. Both history and the weight of tradition affirm this truth.
The next obvious question is, Was He who He said He was? That is, was Jesus God? Was He God in the flesh?
As noted theologian C.S. Lewis wrote: “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Mere Christianity, 1996, p. 56).
The first-century witnesses of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection say He was God. Either He was or He wasn’t. (Be sure to read “Who Was Jesus?”.)
Why did Jesus have to exist as a man?
And this leads us to a critically important question: Why did Jesus have to live as a man? Why did the One identified in Scripture as the Word, who was God and was with God (John 1:1), have to become the flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth?
The answer to this question is little understood, but opens up to another dimension of understanding the essential nature of God and His purpose for creating human life here on earth.
Let’s begin with what we know about the Word. The starting point is in the writings of the apostle John. John 1:1 says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:1-4, emphasis added throughout).
This passage tells us that before Jesus came in the flesh He was with God from the beginning and was God. Called here “the Word,” the Being who became Jesus Christ was of the very essence of God, which means He was divine spirit. He was eternal and co-existed as God in eternity.
We might think of “eternity” as a different dimension of existence apart from the material, time- and space-bound world we inhabit. God dwells in the spirit dimension of eternity: “For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place . . .’” (Isaiah 57:15). Eternity is challenging for our mortal minds to comprehend, yet it is where God exists.
God reveals Himself as without beginning or end. He is spirit. He exists beyond the cosmos He created. God’s essence is spirit—holy spirit, which is eternal.
John reveals that the Being called “the Word” created this world. Paul confirms this when he writes: “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16). The One who became Jesus of Nazareth is revealed to be the One through whom God created the universe. This fundamental understanding helps us understand the enormity of the decision He made to come in the flesh and live among men.
What else do we need to understand about Jesus having come in the flesh?
From position of God to position of a servant
God’s love for His creation did not stop at setting in motion the sun, moon, stars and planets in their elegant cosmic ballet. He was never to be an absentee Creator.
The plan from before the foundation of the world was that a sacrifice would be necessary. It would first be a sacrifice of position—from existing on the same level with God to coming to earth in the likeness of the human creation as a man. It is difficult if not impossible to begin to understand the love of this self-sacrificing decision.
The Word emptied Himself of His divine might and glory, retaining the identity of God, but coming as a servant to perform a deed essential for human salvation.
Notice what Paul reveals in Philippians 2:6-8: “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God [in terms of sharing divine nature] as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (New Living Translation).
This helps us understand why, during His last night with His disciples before His death, He prayed, “And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (John 17:5).
Supreme sacrifice for us
The next part of His sacrifice was “as of a lamb . . . foreordained before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:19-20).
The human race was set on a path away from God with the decision by the first human beings, Adam and Eve, to sin in partaking of the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, rejecting access to the knowledge and understanding God offered through the tree of life (see Genesis 2:9). That brought about the need for a sacrifice to redeem mankind from sin. The plan called for the shedding of blood of the one and only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of sin, which is ultimately death.
God’s Word has a great deal to say about Christ’s death and shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sin to redeem mankind. It is a critical and essential part of God’s purpose. He intends to “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and in earth—in Him” (Ephesians 1:10).
Christ’s death by the shedding of His blood provides the one sacrifice for sin for all time: “So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come . . . With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins.
“That is why he is the one who mediates a new covenant between God and people, so that all who are called can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them. For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins they had committed under that first covenant” (Hebrews 9:11-15, NLT).
Jesus Christ, “after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God . . . For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:12-14). His sacrifice, His blood, is the means for mankind to be reconciled to God in an eternal covenant that offers and guarantees salvation, eternal life and the sharing of the divine existence in eternity.
A God of love
God’s essential character is love (1 John 4:8; 1 John 4:16). Of all the apostles Christ trained, it was John who seemed to detect this critical detail of the One he forsook all to follow. In the well-known passage of John 3:16 he wrote, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
God’s Word has a great deal to say about Christ’s death and shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sin to redeem mankind. It is a critical and essential part of God’s purpose.
John would also quote Jesus in another far-reaching discourse saying: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63, New Revised Standard Version). The life we anticipate is the eternal spirit life from God, who is Spirit (John 4:24).
It is this great love, told throughout Scripture, that led God the Father and the Word who would become Jesus to determine They would share who and what They were with other created beings beyond the angelic realm—human beings. Created in God’s image and endowed with a mind and nature to which God could confer His Spirit, these would have the potential to inherit eternal spirit life.
(It should be noted that spirit life does not mean existence as formless energy, as some might imagine. Those in the spirit realm will have form and substance as spiritual bodies.)
Human beings are created in the image of God but do not, as first formed, possess the same spiritual essence. Man is physical, created from the elements of the earth (though with a human spirit for intellect, emotion and personality as part of his makeup). Having free will, we can and do sin, but as we have seen, God has provided a means for reconciling human beings to Himself through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Before the foundation of this world the Word and the One who would become the Father conceived the plan of redemption for mankind. A verse quoted in part earlier states: “You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you” (1 Peter 1:18-20).
The plan would call for the Word to become flesh, thereby showing that the eternal spirit could be joined to a human being. The Word, the eternally existing spirit Being who was God along with the Father, was sent to become Jesus of Nazareth—God in the flesh. He became flesh and then through His resurrection returned to spirit so that human beings created in the image of God would have the path opened to becoming spirit beings in the Kingdom of God.
That is why it is so critically important to know that Jesus really existed and why He came. Jesus Christ’s actual historical existence here on earth in the first century is central to that crucial facet of God’s plan being able to take place.
Without Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection we have no hope of eternal life with God. The Bible reveals to us not only that there is a God, but also what His purpose for creating human life is all about. The great meaning of life is that human beings created in the image of God can become glorified divine spirit members of the immortal family and Kingdom of God.
What are you to do?
Jesus Christ’s resurrection back to spirit existence makes Him the first of God’s plan for human salvation (see Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Corinthians 15:23; Colossians 1:18). Christ’s followers who have died and those still alive at His coming will be changed from mortal to immortality in a glorious moment (1 Corinthians 15:50-54). Transformed to share spirit existence with Christ and the Father, they will then inherit the Kingdom of God.
This hope of eternal life is revealed in Scripture.
Jesus Christ existed in the flesh as the Son of God. He exists today as your High Priest and soon-coming King. He lives, and He is the means for reconciliation and salvation.
Coming to know this true and compelling picture of Jesus Christ is vital to receiving eternal life in the Kingdom of God. The words of the apostle Peter in Acts 2:38 ring clear today: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”!