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Historicity of Jesus








When we begin to examine the gospels and the letters of the New Testament, we find that Jesus appears as the central figure in them. The four gospels tell us about His life here on earth while the epistles describe the meaning of His death and resurrection according to Christian belief. We can actually say, that if He hadn’t lived on earth, none of these would have been written.

   As we examine the historicity of Jesus, we can find proof of His life on earth. This proof has been preserved by His successors, such as the early church fathers, and also His opponents. Both sources refer to various parts of His life.

   Next we will take a look at some sources which refer to Him being a historical person. They clearly show that Jesus really lived on this earth:


The notes of Josephus. Firstly, the Jewish historian Josephus has mentioned Jesus. In his notes there appear several people from the Bible - John the Baptist, Herod, Pilate, Cyrenius, Archelaus and the clergy of Jerusalem. He also tells us in some passages how the Sanhedrin was called together with the task of condemning “Jacob, the brother of Jesus, whom they call Christ ". He is thus referring to Jesus’ brother Jacob, the child of Mary and Joseph who was one of "the pillars" of the congregation of Jerusalem. This man had been condemned by the Sanhedrin because he had followed Jesus Christ.

   Josephus has preserved another longer statement about Jesus. In this he mentions that Pilate sentenced Jesus, and he also speaks of His crucifixion and resurrection. He also mentions in an earlier passage how Jesus taught and made miracles. He also had followers:


"In those days there lived a man called Jesus, a man filled with wisdom, if He can be called man. He did some quite unbelievable things and was the teacher of all of them who gladly heard the truth. Many Jews and Greeks followed Him. He was the Christ. Provoked by our influential men Pilate condemned Him to death on the cross. However, they who had loved him remained faithful to him. He actually appeared to them alive on the third day such as the prophets sent by God have prophesied about Him in thousands of marvelous prophecies. There is still a sect, whose members call themselves after him: Christians.”


A Roman historian called Cornelius Tacitus is one of the people who have mentioned the death of Jesus and also the fire of Rome in 64. He mentions in his writings that Jesus died on the cross - just as is described in the gospels – during the reign of Caesar Tiberius (14-37 A.D.) when Pontius Pilate (26-36 A.D.) was a judge. He also points out that the Christian faith had spread to Rome from Judea – where it had started:


"A popular belief is that Caesar Nero was the one who started the fire. To silence the rumor, he accused a sect called the Christians of this crime. They were commonly shunned because of their customs and services. The name had been given to them because of a certain Christ, whom the procurator Pontius Pilate condemned and nailed on the cross during the reign of Tiberius. This dangerous sect, whom I have described earlier, has not only rooted in Judea from where it has come from, but also in Rome, where all frightening and shameful things gather and find their home.”


Thallus, a Samaritan by birth, has also mentioned Jesus. He says in his history book written about 52 A.D., that the darkness that fell at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus would have resulted from an eclipse of the sun.


From the Talmud we can find several passages which are consistent with the gospels. There we are told how Jesus was known by the name of Jesus the Nazarene; he said that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it; he mocked the teachers who interpreted the law like the Pharisees; his miracles were explained to be sorcery (this can also be found in the gospels, when the Pharisees accused Jesus) and it was also said that Jesus misled people; he was crucified on Easter eve as an instigator of people; he had five disciples; the disciples preached the teachings of Jesus to others; his disciples healed the sick in his name, but one couldn't believe in them even when faced with death.


The Roman Suetonius, who was a contemporary of the historian Tacitus, also refers to Jesus. In his book "The life of Caesar" he talks about Caesar Claudius (as Caesar during the years 41-54) and Jesus. He, as does Tacitus, says how the Christian faith had already reached Rome by then, but that Claudius had banished the Jews because so many of them believed in Christ (compare Acts 18:2 There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them):


"Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because they had become a permanent source of disorder because of Christ."


Elsewhere in his book Suetonius talks about the persecution of the Christians by Caesar Nero (as Caesar during the years 54-68). He tells how in the 50’s and 60’s the message of Jesus was still quite new:


"During his (Nero) reign many malpractices were punished severely and were banned, and as many new laws were regulated... The objects of the punishment were Christians, people who belonged to the new and wicked cult.”


Plinius Secundus, who is generally known as Plinius the younger, a contemporary of Tacitus and Suetonius (61- 120 A.D.), has also mentioned Jesus. In a letter to Caesar Trajanus he speaks about the Christians and their services:


"They had a custom to assemble on a specific day before daybreak to sing a praise song to Christ quite like to the king and they swore that they wouldn’t join any criminal activities, steal, rob or commit adultery, neither would they betray anyone’s confidence or refuse to give the money back to those who had entrusted it to their care. When they had done this they broke up and later assembled again for a common meal, but the food was quite ordinary and harmless.”


Plinius has described the spread of the gospel in his long letter. He also mentions the previously mentioned (compare the notes of Tacitus and Suetonius regarding the same issue) fact of how the gospel had spread to the kingdom of Rome:


"... That faith that spreads like an epidemic has spread to the towns and small villages, emptying the temples of idols."


One possible reference to Jesus is a letter written by Syrian Mara Bar-Sarapio. It has been estimated that it was written a few years after the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.). In the beginning of this letter he speaks of the murders of Socrates and Pythagoras, and after those about the king of the Jews and his death. The identity of this wise king is not mentioned, but Jesus could fit the description:


"How did it benefit the Athenians to kill Socrates, especially as it was later revenged by famine and an epidemic? What good did it do the residents of Samos to burn Pythagoras at the stake, as it resulted in all of their country being covered in a moment by sand? Or the Jews to kill their wise king since after that they have been without a kingdom? God justly revenged the death of these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger, the people of Samos didn't get help when the sea covered them, and the Jews were killed and driven away from their kingdom living scattered around the world..

   Socrates is not dead, thanks to Plato, Pythagoras is not dead, thanks to the statue of Hera, and neither the wise king, thanks to the new laws he gave.” (16)


The fragment of Kvadratus: As we continue to examine the writings on Jesus' life on earth, we can find one writing in the fragment of Kvadratus. He was an influential person in the beginning of the second century and prepared an apology for the Caesar writing about Christianity. He told him about Jesus who had healed and raised people from the dead, some of whom were still alive:


"The acts of our Savior were always there to be seen because they were real. They were people who were healed and people who had been risen from the dead. We not only saw how they were healed or raised from the dead, but they were always present when the Savior lived here on earth, and also after He left. They lived on earth for a long time and a few of them are still alive these days.”


The apostolic fathers, who influenced during the years 80 - 180 A.D., have also mentioned Jesus. A letter from Clemens, the bishop of Rome, has been found.  It was addressed to the Corinthians and dates to the year 96 A.D.

   In the letter, he refers to the resurrection of Jesus and says that it is something other people will also experience. He also talks about how Christ sent His apostles and how they preached the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. Finally he refers to the most important thing: Jesus dying for us:


"Let us notice, dearest brothers, how the Ruler continually shows us, that the resurrection is part of our future. The first fruit of this resurrection is that He has raised the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.” (24:1)


"God so sent Christ and Christ sent the apostles; the both have taken place in good order by the will of God. 3. When the apostles received their task, when they discovered the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and became stronger in faith in the word of God, they started out filled with the Holy Spirit and preached the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand. 4. From country to country and from town to town they preached their message...” (42:2-4)


"In love the Ruler has taken charge of us. Jesus Christ, our Lord was filled with love towards us, and for this reason He shed His blood for us by the will of God and gave His body for the sake of our bodies and in the same way He gave His soul for the sake of our souls.” (49:6)


Ignatius, who was the bishop of Antioch and suffered martyrdom in the year 110 or just before that, has spoken about the life of Jesus in his many letters. In his letter to the Ephesians he wrote how Jesus had been born of Mary, had suffered, had been crucified and was raised from the dead. These are all things which also the gospels connect to the life of Jesus:


"There is One who is Doctor, physical and spiritual, who had been born and unborn, God in  flesh, real life that came to die, born both of Mary and of God, first under suffering, then outside of it, Jesus Christ, our Lord.” (7:2)


"If now they who did this received physical death, how much more he, who by a bad doctrine spoils the faith in God, the faith, on whose behalf Jesus Christ has been crucified. This kind of person has become unclean and he will have to go to the inextinguishable fire and also he who hears him." (16:2)


"If Jesus Christ due to your prayers regards me as worthy and if it is the will of God, I will explain to you more accurately that, which I have begun, the dispensation of God, which is all about a new creation, Jesus Christ, faith in him and love for him, his suffering and resurrection.” (20:1)


In his letter to Magnesias, Ignatius wrote more about how God had revealed Himself through Jesus, how Jesus pleased the one who sent Him, how He suffered and rose from the dead during the governorship of Pontius Pilate. Reference to Pontius Pilate and his governorship appears several times in Ignatius’ letters:


"Also the prophets who were men of God, have lived according to Christ Jesus. For this reason they were persecuted. In them was the spirit of His grace, so that they would completely convince the disobedient that there is only one God, He who has revealed himself through his son Jesus Christ, who is His word, which has come from silence and has in all pleased the One who sent Him.” (8:2)


"... Instead, I wish that you could be completely sure of the birth and suffering and resurrection, which has taken place during the governorship of Pontius Pilate. This was all put into effect in real life and by Jesus Christ, our hope; if only none of you would turn away from him.” (11:1)


In his letter to the believers of Trallis, Ignatius again referred to how Jesus was the son of David, born of Mary, lived during the times of Pontius Pilate, and was raised from the dead. The Bible also speaks of this and the other examples mentioned above:


"Be like deaf when someone speaks to you and doesn’t know anything about Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, born of Mary, who really lived, ate and drank, really met persecution during the time of Pontius Pilate, was really crucified and died in front of those who are in heaven, on earth and under the earth, 2. From him, who also really was raised from the dead, when his Father raised him; in the same way the Father in Christ Jesus will also raise us who believe in him, and without him we have no real life.” (9:1, 2)


In his letter to the believers in Smyrna, Ignatius has referred to many of the things in Jesus' life. He mentions how Jesus was born of the family of David and of a virgin, was baptized by John, suffered during the time of Pontius Pilate and Herod, was crucified and rose from the dead:


"... Yet you are completely convinced that He was born of the family of David, the Son of God from the will and power of God, born of a virgin, baptized by John so that He would fulfill all righteousness. 2. He really suffered during the time of Pontius Pilate and tetrarch Herod, nailed on the tree for us. His suffering before God by which we are born was so that He, through His resurrection, would raise His saints and believers, whether Jew or Gentile, to be the one and only body of His church.” (1:1, 2)


"It is thus right to keep away from such ignorant people and not to talk about them privately or publicly, but instead hold onto the prophets and especially to the gospel, in which the sufferings and resurrection of Jesus have clearly been presented to us..." (7:2)


In his letter to Polykarpos Ignatius has mentioned, among other things, how Jesus suffered for us and how He before that became visible by taking the form of a man:


"... Wait for him, who is above time, timeless, invisible. He who for us has become visible, who cannot be touched, who is above suffering but has submitted to suffering for our sake and who has endured everything possible for our sake.” (3:2)


Polykarpos, bishop of Smyrna. To continue our study on the apostolic fathers’ writings on Jesus, Polykarpos bishop of Smyrna is another one of them who has written a lot. This bishop was a person who, in his youth, was a student of the apostle John and also received a letter from the previously mentioned Ignatius. Polykarpos himself wrote in his letter to the Philippians of how Jesus died for our sins, how He was raised from the dead, how we are saved through grace, how the gospel was given through the apostles and how Jesus carried our sins so that we would have life in Him. It is typical for him to use verses from the New Testament as parts of his letter:


"... In our Lord Jesus Christ, in him, who showed perseverance and went to death for the sake of our sins. Him God raised and freed him from the pains of Hades. 3. In him you believe, even though you have not seen him, with an inexpressible and glorious joy, which many would like to have; you know, it is by grace you have been saved, not by your works, but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.” (1:2, 3)


"... We live before the eyes of the Lord and God, and we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and each of us will give an account of himself to God. 3. Let us serve Him with fear and timidity such as He himself has commanded, in the same way also the apostles, from whom we have received the gospel, and the prophets, who have preached the coming of our Lord..." (6:2, 3)


"Let us hold constantly and firmly to our hope and our seal of righteousness, who is Christ Jesus, He who carried our sins in His own body on the tree, He who committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth. He endured all for us, so that we would have life in Him.” (8:1)


The letter of Barnabas, which dates to the beginning of the second century, also talks about Jesus. The letter mentions how the Lord submitted to suffer for us, even though He is the Lord and creator of the universe. This letter refers to what the prophets had prophesied about Jesus, how He became a man, but destroyed death by His resurrection and how He did great wonders and miraculous signs and showed His special love for Israel:


"There is also the next point, my brothers. If the Lord has submitted to suffer for us, even though he is the Lord of the whole universe, and to whom God said in the foundation of the world: Let us make man in our image and likeness; how could He submit to suffer in the hands of people? Learn this. 6. The prophets received their gift from Him and they prophesied about Him. And when He had to appear in flesh to destroy death and give an example of the resurrection of the dead, he agreed to that. 7. He did it to fulfill the promise made to the fathers, but also to prepare people for himself and to indicate while he was still on earth, that  after His resurrection He would exercise judgment Himself. 8. He also preached through teaching Israel and making wonders and miracles and showed a special love for Israel.” (5:5-8)


The letter to Diognetos, whose writer is not known, refers to Jesus and the apostles. It mentions the phrase "Word", which also appears in the gospel of John. It also refers to how the apostles preached Him and also the pagans believed in Him:


"Can anyone, who has received the right kind of teaching and loves the word, do anything else than try to learn what has been revealed to the disciples in the word? After appearing, the word revealed itself to them by teaching them publicly. The unbelievers did not understand Him, but to His disciples He explained everything. He found them reliable and revealed the secrets of His Father to them. 3. For this reason the Father sent His Word to appear to the world. His people however did not receive Him. But the apostles preached Him and the pagans believed in Him.” (11:2, 3)







Jari Iivanainen



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