© L.D. Underwood 2011
The Historical Existence of Jesus
The Prologue of John’s gospel deals with the relation of the word (Logos) with relation to the OT economy. John writes, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” We gave the word incarnation to that event. The act by which God takes upon himself a human nature, a total human nature apart from sin. So we have the mystery of divine condescension. Here is an eternal creator who becomes the creature; the eternal sustainer—that is this whole universe depends upon Him, nothing exists or consists without Him. Yet the sustainer becomes the dependent one where He says I can do of myself nothing. The revealer of all things, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, now becomes the learner, the one who increases in wisdom and stature and who learns obedience by the things he suffered. The infinite one becomes finite, the invisible one becomes visible, the transcendent one becomes imminent; he who was afar off draws near.
And not only this divine condescension in terms of who he was in his being, but what he came to do in his becoming. When God became man, he didn’t cease being God. Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt and then ceased to be Lot’s wife. But Lot, in becoming the father of Moab and Ammon still became Lot. Perhaps in the ultimate sense of the word, only God can truly humble himself. We’re already so low, there is no place to go. But when he became flesh, he assumed our humanity. That is why we refer to his birth as an advent. Not a beginning, but and advent, a coming, and arrival, becoming the second man, becoming the last Adam, where he identifies with our humanity. Not only that, but he identifies and assumes our adversity. He dwelt among us. And that is a very interesting word because literally it means he tabernacled, he pitched his fleshly tent in our midst. It is the notion of Emanuel, God with Us. He being rich, became poor, that we being poor might become rich. Not only did he assume humanity, and assume our adversity, but he also assumed man’s delinquency. He became, not the sharer, but the bearer of our sins. That he who knew no sin became sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
No wonder that Paul writes in one of his epistles, “Great is the mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh” (1 Ti 3:16). We said that not only in the mystery of divine condescension, but the majesty of divine operation. In his sinless birth, begotten of the Holy Spirit. In his supernatural birth, in the whole marvel of his divine revelation where John writes, “We beheld his glory.” John, remember, was with Peter and James on the mount of transfiguration. They were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
There were two things that distinguished and differentiated the God of Israel from the surrounding heathen gods. One was the fact that he was alive in contrast to dead idols; but the other thing was that He alone possessed glory. The word was God, he had the same glory. That term ‘glory’ from the Greek Δόξαν (δόξα) means moral excellence, and character, and he was “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). There are two qualities of beauty that are mentioned, grace and truth. When anyone is working in art, beauty is expressed through curved lines and straight lines, the curved lines speak of feminine beauty which might be characterized by grace and the straight lines are more masculine in the sense of truth. We have both grace and truth found in Jesus.
John the Baptist was full of truth, but not very gracious. The woman caught in the act of adultery, he restored her, demonstrating grace. But he also revealed to her, her true situation and told her to go and not sin again—that was truth. So, here is the beauty of divine expression where we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten son from the Father, full of grace and truth. And he goes on to say that from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. That is, we are complete in him. There is no grace, there is no kernel of truth outside of Jesus Christ. The fullness of God was embodied that it might be imparted. The indwelling of Christ is only possible through the incarnation where Jesus once again lives in us. So, we have grace upon grace. Grace in exchange for grace, where God just heaps favor after favor upon us and new grace supplies that are efficient to meet every kind of need. That is why we say the ‘how’ of the incarnation is inscrutable. The ‘why’ of the incarnation is incomprehensible. The fact however, of that incarnation is undeniable.
Verse John 1:15 is the first of three references by John the Baptist, to the fact that Jesus Christ was preferred before him. If in the verse “This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me” (KJV) he was speaking here simply of Christ’s human life, that would not have been true because Jesus was six months younger than John. So, he is obviously pointing back to his preexistence once again.
Christ the word, set forth as the fullness of that which the law was only a foreshadowing. Grace was manifested in the Old Testament, but now we have in the Old Testament simply an incomplete fulfillment. It is interesting that even the expressions used here where it says the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came, notice they weren’t “given”—they came through Jesus Christ. What does he mean by that contrast? It’s a very important one. The law was given through Moses, it was “given”, in other words—that is to say, Moses himself was not really essential to that law at all. God decided to choose Moses—He could as easily have chosen somebody else. There was nothing unique about Moses himself, he was simply a channel; he was simply a vehicle a or a transmitter of the law which God gave to him. The law was not Moses’ idea. It was not something that he excogitated out of his own mind. It was a result of his own rumination on life and its problems, he simply went up to that mountain, God gave him the law, and the law was given and Moses carried it down and passed it on to the people. He was merely a channel. But notice the difference, “Grace and truth came.” That is something that we must never lose sight of— that Christianity is essentially the person of Jesus Christ Himself. This is not just a teaching that has been given. It’s teaching, but its more than that. We can say he came, and therefore, the person is not irrelevant or unimportant, its exactly the opposite. The person here is everything. For the grace and the truth that we have is something that has come in the person of Jesus Christ, and that makes it supremely unique and important.
Notice verse 18 which tells us that the Word is the final revelation of the Father. Now when John makes the final statement that no man has ever seen God, everyone in the ancient world would have fully agreed. Where man has always been fascinated and frustrated by what he regards by the infinite distance, the utter unknowability of God. Plato for example said, “Never man and God can meet.” Celsus laughs at the way Christians call god “Father” because God is way beyond everything. At best men can only catch a glimpse of God as a lightening flash that lights up the dark night. Only one split second of illumination and then its dark again. No man in the OT saw God’s face or saw his essence. Even the various theophonies, the appearances of God in human form, were at best only the back-parts of God. Yet John is bold to proclaim here that Jesus Christ reveals God. Moses couldn’t see God and live. Elijah only heard that still small voice in the cleft of the Rock, and yet John is proclaiming that we have the privilege of seeing God because Christ has declared him to us. Literally the word is he has exegeted him, he has expounded him to us. In fact, he is referred to as, no one has ever seen God the only Son, the only begotten son, or the best supported text—the only begotten God. In other words, he is in a class by himself, he who is in the bosom of the Father—that is a Hebrew idiom for saying that he enjoys the deepest intimacy possible. Therefore, God can never again become a stranger to us—because of Jesus Christ.
We see a number of important themes in this prologue. We see that the whole created order owes it origin and meaning to God’s decision. That is good news which invites each of us to invite all that is within the created order as having meaning not just dependent upon chance or randomness, but because of the will of the one who is the creator by whom all has been created and now exists. We also see the reality of evil, darkness, and it is confronted by the light or revelation. The authority of darkness is real is not ultimate it has never been able to distinguish the light. Therefore, the decision of God by which he makes himself known in light and life is greater than the powers of darkness. Jesus Christ is the eternal speech of God. He can be known as truth and his life can be expressed within our lives. John said a great deal in these opening 18 verses. They really epitomize all that is going to follow within this gospel account.
First of all, with regard to the importance of this topic, there are some religions in the world, both in ancient times as well as in our own day, which require no historical basis. That is, they depend on ideas rather than upon events. That is not true in Christianity. Christianity is firmly yoked to history. It is a historical faith, not just a collection of religious ideas. The question has been raised in recent decades, was Jesus a man, or was he simply a myth. The legend that Jesus never existed is a comparatively late legend as far as its origins is concerned. First advanced in the late eighteenth century (that is in the 1700’s) when the spirit of inquiry began to question all traditions. We have already seen in our discussion of the synoptic problem that there are some critics who argue that Jesus was the consequence of Christianity, rather than its cause—that somehow he was created by the church, as an imaginary figment, and that he never really lived on this spinning globe. It’s interesting to look at some of the forms of skepticism that have developed, for example we have the Christ myth theory, where the claim is made that the story of Jesus is only a piece of unreal mythology; it possesses no real historical accuracy any more than those old Greek stories or those old Norse stories, of God’s and heroes are true. For example, we can take the account of Christ’s birth, and skeptics say we can find parallels in the traditions attached to Buddha, and Krishna, and Mithras and other ancient faiths. That his miracles are set in comparison with those of some of the Greek divine men. That his death and resurrection have parallels in these other mystery cults. There’s a French scholar who says Jesus was an extraordinary reincarnation of the teacher of righteousness, who is mentioned quite frequently in the Dead Sea Scrolls. He feels perhaps that the monastery where these Qumran Monks stayed where these Essenes were perhaps might be better than Bethlehem or better than Nazareth as the cradle of Christianity—that they themselves produced an image which they call Jesus.
There is even a book that came out about a number of years ago by a John M. Allegro, called, “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross.” Allegro tried to show on grounds of philology and comparative religion that Jesus never existed; that the cult which took his name was a specimen of a general pattern of near eastern religions which simply venerated the sacred mushroom. That is to say, the key to explaining the belief in practice was a combination of drugs and sex, making open propaganda impossible. So, the sect simply resorted to an inventive dramatization in story form, and Jesus and his followers are simply symbolical names for this cultic, cryptic fertility religion. Now there is not much credence given to this highly imaginative work which borders on the pornographic. But here we have these varieties that appeal to those who imagine somehow that the origins of Christianity are wrapped in obscurity, that we can’t know how it all began. And they overlook the fact that in Paul in Acts 26:26 makes the statement that, “none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner”—that is to say, done out in the open. Peter reiterates declaring, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16, KJV).
Some will say well this issue as to whether Christ is a man or a myth is ridiculous, of course we know he was a man. Why are we even questioning this basic assumption? The reason we should address it is because many in our day are taken up with such a question, and it is up to us to at least have the respect of such individuals in mind, when we don’t dismiss it and say it’s ridiculous, but in honesty and integrity, seek to prove the existence of Jesus. That may not be to convince them to become Christians, but at least it will show that there are answers to explain a question if it is sincerely being asked. So, what is the proof of the existence of Jesus? There are essentially three categories of proof for the historical existence of Jesus. First of all, there is personal experience. How do I know he lives? He lives within my heart. Now that is meaningful to believers individually, but it is a very subjective argument.
Even though we treasure that intimate fellowship that we have in our hearts with the Lord, it’s not the best source for factual information. So, if we don’t have personal experience, we move on to the institutional proof. Namely the church, which is a monument to Jesus Christ. But someone says, that’s not very conclusive evidence either. So, our best source of documentation, is the documentary evidence. What do we have in written form? There are two kinds of sources for Christian documentation: first of all Christian sources, because certainly the Old Testament anticipated Christ; certainly the Gospel Narrative are written, two of them by eye-witnesses; two of them by early disciples. We have the book of Acts; we have the epistles of Paul and others. These are the earliest documents and the witness to Christ. But someone comes along and says they are all biased in favor of Jesus. We can’t believe that, we can’t take the witness of Scripture, we don’t accept the Bible as being inspired. Therefore, it seems the only level of proof left is non-Christian testimony. What is the verdict of history outside Christian literature? Do we have any independent testimony uninfluenced by Christians on which a historian can draw with certitude? The answer is yes, there are some available evidence. It’s not large in quantity; it’s not a voluminous mass of data, but it is trustworthy and illuminating in terms of the quality which it has. Let’s look at some of these non-Christian sources which are available to us today to see what we can find out about Jesus of Nazareth.
We’ll look first at the Roman writers. All of whom are lacking in love for Christianity. These Roman writers yield some very valuable information. The first one of whom is a man called Pliny the Younger. Pliny was the governor of Bithynia—that is part of North central Turkey today, what was known then as Asia Minor. He was Governor of Bithynia in the years 111 or 112. He corresponded with the emperor at that time was Trajan. And he asked advice regarding the methods employed at the trials of Christians. What should they do, how should they handle Christians when they were being brought to trial? In one remaining piece of his letter-writing correspondence, he relates some information about church practices of worship. He refers to Christ, and gives a very remarkable picture of the followers of Jesus. A portion of the letter that deals with these reads:
“They met on stated day before it was dawn. And addressed a form of prayer, singing alternate verses to Christ, as to a god. Binding themselves to a solemn oath, not to the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery. Never to falsify their word, or deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. After which, it was their custom to separate and then reassemble to eat in common a harmless meal.”
Notice very simply the plain allusion to this cultic adoration of Christ, this worship of Christ. It may be that Pliny believed Christ to be different from the other Gods worshiped by other people, because unlike other deities, they had lived upon the earth. So, they addressed a form of prayer to Christ as if to a god. Implying that he had lived upon the earth as a man.
Or take Publius Cornelius Tacitus—a historian who was very aristocratic from the upper crust of society and a contemporary about the same time as Pliny the Younger. He describes the awful fire that engulfed the city of Rome in the year AD 64 during the reign of Nero. We have all heard about how Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Writing about the year 116, he points to the possible origin of that fire in the book known as the Annals. Here is what he says concerning that fire: “Consequently, to get rid of the report (the report that accused Nero of having set fire to Rome), Nero fastened the guilt, and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations called Christians by the populace.” Then he adds this note: “Christus, from whom they took their name, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate. And a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world, find their center and become popular.”
Notice, Christ, from whom they took their name, suffered penalty during the reign of Tiberius, at the hands of one of our Procurators Pontius Pilate. Now it is very obvious as a historian that he did not secure his information about Jesus death from a Christian source. Because if he had, he would not have treated this nationalistic outbreak in Judea and the simultaneous arson activities of Christians in Rome as part and parcel of the same movement. Certainly this information didn’t come from Jewish sources, because they certainly wouldn’t have called Jesus, ‘Christos’ or ‘Christ’, or ‘messiah’. So, this comes from solid pagan origin of evidence. By adding the names, Tiberius, and Pontius Pilate as Luke himself does in the third chapter of Luke’s gospel, this witness firmly anchors Christianity in the historical stream.
Or take Suetonius— another historian who wrote a book called The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, a book that is still available in print today, written around AD 121. In a single sentence he reports that Claudius the emperor banished from Rome, all the Jews who were continually making disturbances or quarreling at the instigation of the one who was called Christos. Apparently this was second-hand information that Suetonius gathered because he made the mistake of supposing Jesus to be in Rome. Apparently, he had the report of a friend who visited one of these underground Church meetings. He heard the scripture read that where two or three are gathered together, Christ is in the midst. Therefore, the report came back to him that Christ was present, but he wasn’t pointed out by anybody since they were trying to keep him undercover. Lucian of Samosata who was a lecturer, an author, a master of wit and biting sarcasm, sort of the Mark Twain of his day. He said that the founder of the Christian religion was a man who had been fixed to a stake in Palestine, and was still being worshipped because he established a new code of morals.
In addition to these four substantial Roman writers, we have also some secondary witnesses, not too terribly important for our purposes but for example there was a person who wrote a history and called a certain darkness an eclipse of the sun and allusion that was made apparently to the crucifixion of Christ. And there are other writers here who make reference to Phlegon of Tralles who was a freedman of the emperor Hadrian. In one of his works, Phlegon made a prediction that had come to pass. But these are rather secondary and not very substantial. The question might be raised, why are these pagan references by Roman writers so meager? Why don’t we have actual additional references? Why don’t we have further descriptions of his life? Well its very true—the Roman references are not very considerable, but neither are they negligible. In fact, the church historian, Harnack, once said that it could all be written down on a single piece of paper. Why? Well for one thing, there was comparatively little literature of any kind dating from the first century after Christ that is available today. If we look at general historical events, we will find that there are fragmentary witnesses to the events of that time. So, it is not surprising that we wouldn’t have just an abundance of material because many things from that period of time has been lost in one way or another.
Not only that, but we have to keep in mind the significance of the life and death of Jesus, was not apparent to most people. Don’t forget that Christianity, in those early days, was viewed by the Romans as a contemptible Eastern superstition and therefore Christianity was pretty much ignored by most people, except when it provided occasion for political unrest or social ferment of some type or other, and therefore there were very rare occasions for secular writers to even mention Jesus or the Christian faith. The execution of a carpenter from Nazareth was an insignificant event in a small despised segment of the empire. So, we wouldn’t expect there to be a great deal of literature available about that. Then some people have suggested that from the time of emperor Constantine, that is roughly AD 312 or thereabouts, the church came to possess state authority, and began to suppress all anti-Christian literature. That is, the church getting into a place of power within the empire Constantine supposedly becoming a Christian, and getting up the next day and saying, “Now everyone will become a Christian, because I have become one.” Since the church began to gain some leverage now, rather than being despised and persecuted, they began to censor and destroy pagan books and Jewish books, wholesale, because they regarded those as being blasphemous. So, it may be that some of the literature has been lost because of that action by the church in that fourth century.
Not only do we have Roman sources of information, but also Jewish literature. One of the most important would be by the writings of the eminent Jewish historian, Josephus. Regarded by most historians today as one of the eight or ten great historians of the ancient world. He is the author of a number of books for example, the Antiquity of the Jews, and also the Jewish wars and several other large volumes. But there are two brief quotations in the antiquity of the Jews which are worth notice on this topic. First of all Josephus’ writing says, “Now there was about this time, the time of Pilate’s governorship, 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 have received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him many of the Jews and many of the gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate at the suggestion of the principle men amongst us had condemned him to the cross, those who loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again on 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” (Whiston 590).
Some might might think that is a marvelous statement—the thing is that there are disputed sections to it. There are some people who regard those rather unique statements that, if it be lawful to call him a man, or he was the Christ, or he appeared to them alive on the third day—these may have been Christian interpolations. They may have been forgeries that were added to the statement of Josephus and if that is true, they would have very little propaganda value. It is difficult to imagine what sort of Christian would have thought it worth his while to interject this rather cool objective patronizing paragraph into the text of the writings of Josephus. Probably Josephus is not himself giving a full confession of the messiahship of Jesus. It would be like a modern writer for example mentioning Mahatma Gandhi—acknowledging that Mahatma means a holy person—without suggesting that he himself was following that idea.
In any event, here is a witness to the fact the Jesus existed, that he was a wonderful worker who gathered followers, and he paid the price for those novelties in terms of his death on a cross. At least that much is certainly looked upon as being genuine. But a second passage in Josephus is undisputed by anybody, where he writes “He,” referring to Annas the Jewish high Priest, “He assembled the Sanhedrin of Judges and brought them the brother of Jesus who was called ‘Christ.’” That brother being James, and some others. And when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. Notice James, the brother of Jesus, who was called ‘Christ.’
So, we have one passage that is disputed, and one that is undisputed. Or we could turn to the Talmud, which we saw before to be the Jewish encyclopedia of religion, which refers to Jesus in some twelve different passages. Now most of those statements are in a polemical vein, that is in a warlike vein against Jesus as a hated enemy. For example, one passage in the Talmud charges that Jesus was born of an adulteress who had come into union with a man named, Pantera, one who was a Roman soldier. That statement is a transparent effort to disprove the Christian claims of a virgin conception, or that Jesus was in the Davidic descent of the Old Testament. So not everything was said in a positive vein in the Talmud. But to sort of summarize these twelve statements, we could say that the Jews were writing there that Jesus practiced sorcery, by which they mean he performed miracles; that he lead Israel astray; that he mocked at the words of the wise; that he expounded scripture like a Pharisee; that he had five disciples—well he did, he had more than that. That he taught that he had not come to take away from the law, nor to add to it; that he was hanged, or crucified as a false teacher on the eve of the Passover, and that his disciples healed the sick in his name. Those are the kinds of things which are mentioned in the Talmud concerning Jesus. Some of them false, some of them partially true, some of them actually quite true.
So, we have Josephus and we have the Talmud. We say, why was Jewish literature so scanty. Well remember the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, left little evidence of Jewish writings before that time. And after AD 70 with all of the bitterness between the church and the synagogue, the revived Judaism was quite hostile to Christianity. They had refused him as messiah, they preferred to think about him as little as possible, and so they couldn’t absolutely disregard him, or dismiss him entirely, but they simply treated him in this rather cavalier way. Remember Christians were regarded as apostates. And not only that, Jewish written records became intense only after that destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the breakup of corporate national life, so that by the time the Talmud was written, Jewish Traditions concerning Jesus would tend to be rather vague and uncertain. There are other evidences we could talk about—we could talk about uncanonical sayings, that is certain statements that are attributed to Christ but they are not mentioned in the books we have in our Bible, we could look at some of the early church writers, we could look at archeological evidences, we could even examine the twenty passages in Islam’s Koran, that make mention of our Lord. But how do we evaluate what we have been looking at concerning the historical Jesus? First of all, that there has been no new or accurate information, that we can gleam from these extra-biblical sources, sources outside the Bible. We haven’t gained anything new, that is also accurate. But they certainly do confirm the very simple fact that Jesus of Nazareth was an historical figure. Even some of the absurdities in the later Talmudic literature, assume that he was a flesh and blood antagonist. We have Joseph Klausner, a very distinguished Jewish rabbi and scholar, who writes, “It is unreasonable to question the existence of Jesus.”
In summary, we can say that we have evidence both from Roman and from Jewish sources as well as outside of those sources in secondary ways, a lot of evidence concerning the fact that Jesus was a historical figure in time and space. We believe him to be much more than that, but certainly no less than that and there is that kind of ample evidence that can be used in proof of that very simple declaration.
William Whiston (Translator), The Works of Josephus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1999).