Do you believe Jesus is a true person (as a historical person)?
The historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth is both long-established and widespread. Within a few decades of his supposed lifetime, he is mentioned by Jewish and Roman historians, as well as by dozens of Christian writings. Compare that with, for example, King Arthur, who supposedly lived around AD500. The major historical source for events of that time does not even mention Arthur, and he is first referred to 300 or 400 years after he is supposed to have lived. The evidence for Jesus is not limited to later folklore, as are accounts of Arthur.
Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, written around 93–94 AD, includes two references to the biblical Jesus Christ in Books 18 and 20. The general scholarly view is that while the longer passage, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, is most likely not authentic in its entirety, it is broadly agreed upon that it originally consisted of an authentic nucleus, which was then subject to Christian interpolation. Of the other mention in Josephus, Josephus scholar Louis H. Feldman has stated that “few have doubted the genuineness” of Josephus’ reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20, 9, 1 and it is only disputed by a small number of scholars.
Roman historian Tacitus referred to Christus and his execution by Pontius Pilate in his Annals (written c. AD 116), book 15, chapter 44. Robert E. Van Voorst states that the very negative tone of Tacitus’ comments on Christians make the passage extremely unlikely to have been forged by a Christian scribe and Boyd and Eddy state that the Tacitus reference is now widely accepted as an independent confirmation of Christ’s crucifixion, although some scholars question the historical value of the passage on various grounds.
In a documentary called “The Nails of the Cross,” set to air April 20 on the History Channel, filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici tells the story of two nails allegedly discovered in a 2,000-year-old tomb in Jerusalem. He presents circumstantial evidence that seems to suggest the rusty relics once nailed Jesus to the cross.
The tomb in which the nails were found is believed by some to be that of the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, who presides over the trial of Jesus in the New Testament.
“If you look at the whole story — historical, textual, archaeological — they all seem to point at these two nails being involved in a crucifixion,” Jacobovici says in the film. “And since Caiaphas is only associated with Jesus’ crucifixion, you put two and two together and they seem to imply that these are the nails.”
In their coverage of the new film, Reuters reported that most experts and scholars they contacted dismissed the filmmaker’s case as far-fetched and called it a publicity stunt.
It turns out publicity stunts abound when it comes to holy hardware. In 1911, English liturgical scholar Herbert Thurston counted all the nails that were at that time believed to have been used to crucify Jesus. Though only three or four nails (the exact number is up for debate) were supposed to have pinned Christ to the cross circa A.D. 30, in 1911, 30 holy nails were being venerated in treasuries across Europe.
In an entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Thurston, a Jesuit himself, offered this explanation for the surplus in hardware: “Probably the majority began by professing to be facsimiles which had touched or contained filings from some other nail whose claim was more ancient. Without conscious fraud on the part of anyone, it is very easy for imitations in this way to come in a very brief space of time to be reputed originals.”
Along similar lines, enough wood chips from the “True Cross” – the cross on which Jesus was crucified – are scattered across Europe to fill a ship, according to this famous remark by the sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin: “There is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen. In some places, there are large fragments, as at the Holy Chapel in Paris, at Poitiers, and at Rome, where a good-sized crucifix is said to have been made of it. In brief, if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big shipload. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.”
One of the most important archaeological finds that actually dates to the time of Jesus may or may not provide evidence of his existence, depending on who you ask. The Dead Sea Scrolls, a vast trove of parchment and papyrus documents found in a cave in Israel in the 1940s, were written sometime between 150 B.C. and A.D. 70. In one place, the scrolls refer to a “teacher of righteousness.” Some say that teacher is Jesus. Others argue that he could be anyone.
It’s relatively simple to make the case for the historicity of Jesus. Firstly, it’s what the vast majority of scholars of the ancient world believe (i.e. the ones who actually research these things, rather than the opinion of an Oxford biologist). We not only have the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, but his death by crucifixion is one of the most widely attested events in the ancient world, written about by contemporary historians such as Josephus and Tacitus.
The apostle Paul himself is one of our earliest historical sources. His account of Jesus, passed on to him by eyewitness disciples, were the first to be written down. Our earliest copies of those documents are more plentiful and closer to the time of Jesus than the histories of many major figures of the ancient world (whom the general public seem to have no problem believing in).