Sunday, April 6, 2014

Did Jesus Exist?


           With Easter approaching, I wanted to revisit a topic that I continue to see resurfacing, mostly on Facebook and Internet message boards.  A popular modern theory is that, quite simply, Jesus never existed, and that there is little to no evidence outside of the Bible that points to a man named Jesus of Nazareth.  Is this claim actually true?
            First, let's look at the extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus.  The following documents testify to the existence of a man named Jesus of Nazareth (sometimes the Romans called him "Christus" or "Chrestus"), and all of them were written within 100 years of the time period he was said to have lived in (circa 6 BCE - 30 CE):
            Tacitus, a first century Roman historian (who lived circa 56-117 CE), mentioned  a man called "Christus" being executed during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (reigned 14-37 CE), and Emperor Nero's persecution of Christians in 64 CE: "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 Jud├Ža, 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. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired." [1]
            Suetonius, another first century Roman historian (who lived circa 69-122 CE), also mentioned Christians being punished by Emperor Nero [2].  He also mentioned a man named "Chrestus", in his account of the life of Emperor Claudius (reigned 41-54 CE): "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus,  he expelled them from Rome". [3]
            Josephus, a Jewish  historian (who lived circa 37-100 CE), mentioned Jesus, James and John the Baptist in Antiquities.  His main passage about Jesus has been disputed, due to doubt over whether or not some of the phrases in the passage were added at a later date.  The following is the paragraph, with what is commonly believed to be additions by a later Christian translator in brackets: “At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one ought to refer to him as a man]. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. [He was the Messiah-Christ.] 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. [For on the third day he appeared to them again alive, just as the divine prophets had spoken about these and countless other marvelous things about him.] And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.” [4]  Later, Josephus describes the death of Jesus' brother, James: “But this younger Ananus, who, as we told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent.  He assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus the so-called Messiah-Christ, whose name was James, and some others. When he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them over to be stoned.” [5]
            Pliny the Younger (who lived circa 61-112 CE), was a magistrate of Rome during the late first and early second century.  He wrote a series of letters to Emperor Trajan.  One of them concerned what should be done with the Christians he arrested: "They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery." [6] 
            Mara bar Serapion was an Assyrian Stoic philosopher, who wrote one letter to his son which has survived.  Most scholars date this letter to being composed shortly after 73 CE (Mara was taken captive circa 72 CE by the Romans).  He wrote the following passage in his letter: "What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defense? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates? Famine and plague came upon them as a punishment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the 'new law' he laid down." [7]  Some scholars see the reference to the "wise king" as an early non-Christian reference to Jesus.
            A common response when these extra-Biblical references are presented is as follows: "These documents were written between 40-90 years after the death of Jesus, so they can't be considered valid references".  Actually, the fact that anything was written about Jesus within a century of his death is unusual, considering that in the ancient world, biographies and histories were often not written about a person or event for at least a couple of centuries.  For example, Alexander the Great lived circa 356-323 BCE, but his earliest biography was not written until the first century BCE, leaving a gap of 300 years [8].  The biography and sayings of Buddha were not written until the first century CE, over 400 years after his death [9].  To have multiple sources mentioning the same relatively obscure person within the time frame of a century after his death was not common.
            In terms of the Biblical evidence for Jesus' existence, we have the four Gospels, written by eyewitnesses and their companions, which all tell the story of Jesus, his life and teachings, and his death and resurrection.  The letters of early church fathers (such as Papias, Polycarp and a document known as the Didache), written between 95-150 CE, quoted extensively from all four of the Gospels and said that they contained the words of Jesus.  We also have an early fragment of John's Gospel (known as Papyrus P52), dated roughly to the first half of the second century CE.  The four Gospels were in circulation and being quoted by 100 CE, which means that they were written within 70 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus (which occurred circa 30 CE).  In addition, we have the letters of Paul, Peter and James, who all were martyred prior to 67 CE.  All of these letters testified to the existence of Jesus and his death and resurrection, and all were written within 40 years of the events.
            In conclusion, the claim that Jesus never existed is not sound.  There are simply too many sources that were written within a century after his lifetime to attest to his existence. 

References
[1] Tacitus, Annals 15.44 (written circa 116 CE), translated by Church and Brodribb
[2] Suetonius, Life of Nero 16.2 (writen circa 121 CE)
[3] Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25.4 (written circa 121 CE)
[4] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.63-64 (written circa 93-94 CE)
[5] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.200 (written circa 93-94 CE)
[6] Pliny the Younger, Letters, 10.96 (written circa 111 CE)
[7] Mara ben Serapion, The Epistle
[8] "Diodorus Siculus", http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/Introduction*.html
[9] http://www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/SALANC.html