Q&A: Historical Evidence for Jesus

Q: What historical evidence exists which would legitimate or validate the story of Jesus in the Gospels?

A: Textual and archaeological evidence conclusively demonstrate that the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament fits reasonably within the time and context.

Flavius Josephus spends much time in his Antiquities of the Jews speaking about Herod the Great, the Roman governors, including Pilate, and the environment of Second Temple Judaism.

Josephus speaks of John the Baptist in Antiquities 18.5.2:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man… Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion… Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.

Without a doubt Josephus testifies to the death of Jesus’ brother James in Antiquities 20.9.1:

And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.

Some doubt the legitimacy of the “Testimonium Flavianum” of Antiquities 18.3.3, but it has ancient evidence supporting it:

prophetAbout this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

Thus, Flavius Josephus speaks of John, Jesus, and early Jewish Christians.

In Caesarea a stone was discovered speaking of Pontius Pilate. Likewise, an ossuary, a bone box, a custom of Jewish burial during the first century, was found speaking of Caiaphas. And then there is the James ossuary, which is controversial, but may be legitimate; if so, it would be the first object discovered which can most likely be traced to Jesus’ family.

Other evidence comes from Pliny the Younger (ca. 117), writing to the Emperor Trajan about Christian practices and what should be done about the Christians. In his Annals Tacitus writes about what happened to the Christians in the days of Nero.

There is therefore much evidence about the spread of early Christianity and Christian belief about Jesus.

Since Judea was not considered a highly important or civilized part of the Roman Empire, and Christianity originally spread primarily at the margins and was seen as an outgrowth of Judaism in its earliest stages, it should not surprise us that we do not have a lot of primary sources from the middle of the first century talking about Christianity. Late first century sources discussing Judaism in the first century mention it (Josephus); early second century sources writing first century Roman history mention it (Tacitus), and early second century leaders are beginning to grapple with it (Pliny the Younger).

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