Is there historical evidence for Jesus?
At a recent youth event, historian John Dickson said the answer is a big YES.
“Is there proof that Jesus really lived?”
Have you been asked this question? Chances are if you have, like many of us, your reply was “Ummm …?” Recently I went to KYCK (a Christian youth convention in Sydney, Australia) on behalf of Fervr and sat in on John Dickson’s seminar titled Why can we trust the history of Jesus?. John gave us a “proof pack” that you can carry around with you and “unpack” for your curious friends when needed.
Proof 1: Jesus’ life is a historical study
“Most people have no idea how big a discipline this is”, John said while showing a photo of himself in Macquarie University’s library standing in front of a large section of books near the entrance door. John, who has a PhD in history from Macquarie University says all these books are, “about religion, origins of Christianity, historical Jesus, commentaries. God’s messing with everyone’s heads because it’s the first thing in the library you come to.” He continued, “I don’t think I would be exaggerating to say: there are more books in our library on the historical Jesus than on the figures of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar combined”.
Proof 2: Sceptics are the minority of historical scholars
John explained the three types of historical scholars. Apologetic scholars use their skills to prove Jesus and only account for about 10% of scholars. Sceptical scholars use their skills to disprove Jesus and also only account for about 10% of scholars. “The vast majority of scholars is in the middle. They’re not trying to disprove Jesus, they’re not trying to prove everything about Jesus. They are studying Jesus the way we study Julius Caesar … varied and in a measured way. And they are the vast majority, I’d say over 80% of the literally thousands of scholars dedicated to the historical Jesus.”
The media picks and chooses which historical evidence they highlight, usually ‘news headline’ ideas like Jesus was married to Mary Magdeline. “When people come up with some crazy idea, it’s worth just pausing and wondering, “What part of scholarship does it come from?”. Probably the tiny, sceptical wing of scholars.”
Proof 3: Jesus is mentioned in non-Christian historical sources
Our two top sources are:
Tacitus – our best source for Roman antiquity. In 60 AD, Tacitus recorded that a major fire broke out in Rome. Christians were blamed for starting the fire (even though no one believed the Christians actually did it) so he tells his readers where Christians come from. “Christians derived their name from a man called Christ, who, during the reign of Emperor Tiberius had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate. The deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, broke out afresh not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City of Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.” (Annals 15.44).
Josephus – A highly educated Roman aristocrat, general and priest. He references Jesus twice in his manuscript which is now titled Jewish Antiquities (90AD).
The first reference has been accused of having biased lines inserted into it by Christians. John provided the following paragraph – minus the Christian “edits”– which most secular scholars agree wasn't in Josephus’ original manuscript:
“At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so.” (18.63-64)
The second reference:
“And so Ananus the High Priest convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others, and delivered them up to be stoned” (20.200)
So what’s the advantage of knowing these sources? John says, “The broad narrative of Jesus as a teacher, a healer, who had disciples and a brother, who was executed, and his disciples continued to revere him after the execution – we can know all of that even if we didn’t have a Bible.”
Proof 4: The New Testament was written soon after Jesus’ death
As a comparison, here are some historical figures and the earliest writings about them:
- Muhammad (AD 570-632) – first written biography 125 years after death.
- Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) (448-368 BC) – first records 350 years after death.
- Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) – first remaining records 120 years after (but best records 400 years after).
- Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37) – first written about 77 years after death.
“All New Testament documents were written within 65 years of Jesus and some within 20 [years]. Now, I don’t know if that sounds impressive to you but for historians this is marvellous,” John said. “The last New Testament text a lot of secular scholars say is the Gospel of John. They reckon it was written in the 90s AD, about 65 years after Jesus – that’s the latest, the biggest time gap in the New Testament. But that biggest time gap in the New Testament is still closer in time than our very best source for the emperor of the time – are you holding that in mind? It’s 77 years to the emperor at the time of Jesus before we’ve got our best account of [the emperor’s] life. It’s only 65 years before we have the very last New Testament reference to Jesus.”
Proof 5: The New Testament is a collection of individual sources
Look at your Bible. The 66 books inside are contained in one convenient book. However, when they were written, most of their authors didn’t know about the other books. “When Mark wrote his Gospel, he did not know what was in the letters of Paul. And when Paul wrote his letters, he certainly didn’t know what was in the Gospel of Mark because the Gospel of Mark hadn’t been written yet. So what does that mean? It means they wrote two independent sources. The Gospel of John looks like it was written without knowledge of the other three Gospels and so forth.”
This fulfils the important historical test called the Criterion of Multiple Attestation. This says “when independent sources say roughly the same thing about a person or an event, the reliability of that person or event is amped up if the sources are independent of each other”.
Therefore, Tacitus + Josephus + the Gospels + Pauls letters + other New Testament sources = higher reliability for the history of Jesus.
Proof 6: Archaeology backs up the Gospels
Some archaeological evidence for the Gospels:
- Limestone bowls, ritual baths, tomb burial techniques and the lack of pig bones in the rubbish dumps proved that Galilee was inhabited by Jews.
- A synagogue was found at Magdala, Galilee (dated first century) – “Magdala” as in Mary “Magdalene” means that this was the synagogue that Mary Magdalene attended.
- A pool that has the remains of five colonnades by the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem was uncovered that matches the description of the pool of Bethesda mentioned in John 5.
- Steps and beautiful stones that belonged to a pool that matches the description of the pool of Siloam mentioned in John 9.
- Mosaic inscription stating “God Jesus Christ” at Megiddo, Israel.
So pull out this proof pack when you need to and in the right circumstances. It’s good to remember John’s words at the beginning of his talk, “History doesn’t help you be a Christian … It’ll help you answer questions of those who doubt the whole Jesus thing”.
John will be speaking at the last KYCK weekend. Register your youth group here: http://www.kyck.kcc.org.au
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