Finding the Historical Jesus

Christians make extraordinary claims about the inspiration of Scripture and the resurrection of the dead. Most people reject these claims outright in favor of naturalism, the status quo of the last few decades. However the Bible’s claims about the work of the Holy Spirit and life after death are tied to historical events. Therefore people should examine the history surrounding these claims before rejecting them outright.

The Bible presents theology and history in an indivisible harmony. If the history is true, then the doctrine must be true. In order to deny Jesus as the Son of God you must reconcile a significant amount of historical data that is tied to his story.

This presents a greater challenge than most people are willing to acknowledge.

Let’s take a look at the historical record.

Rabbis and scribes have taken incredible measures for thousands of years to accurately preserve the biblical text. What we have today is easily the most validated document from antiquity with thousands of ancient manuscripts, many of which are very early. (The most recent discovery of Mark predates A.D. 90 and may be as early as A.D. 50)

Based on all accepted scientific measurables, the original words of the authors have been preserved in Scripture more accurately than any other ancient piece of literature.

Now the question should be, “Why should we consider these extraordinary ancient stories to be true?”

The first compelling answer is the martyrdom of the followers of Jesus. History shows that many of the New Testament authors and early disciples held to the reliability of the events recorded in Scripture even to the point of death.


I. James

Josephus was a secular Jewish historian who worked for the Romans. He was a contemporary of the Apostles and lived from AD 37-AD 100. He records the stoning of James, Jesus’ brother, at the hands the High Priest Ananus ben Ananus:

“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”  – Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews” Book 20, Chapter 9

II. Peter

Clement sent a letter to the Corinthian Church around A.D. 90 which documents Peter’s martyrdom in Rome:

“Let us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most just pillars of the Church were persecuted, and came even unto death. … Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labours, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him.” – Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians”

III. Paul

Eusebius records Paul’s death by beheading in Rome during the reign of Nero:

But with all these things this particular in the catalogue of his crimes was still wanting, that he was the first of the emperors who showed himself an enemy of the divine religion. The Roman Tertullian is likewise a witness of this. He writes as follows: “Examine your records. There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine, particularly then when after subduing all the east, he exercised his cruelty against all at Rome. We glory in having such a man the leader in our punishment. For whoever knows him can understand that nothing was condemned by Nero unless it was something of great excellence.”

Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, he was led on to the slaughter of the apostles.

It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day. -Eusebius, “Church History,” Book II, Chapter 25

IV. The Emperor Trajan and Pliny, the Governor of Pontus, exchanged letters discussing the execution of early Christians for refusing to abandon their confession:

“I have taken this course about those who have been brought before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians or not? If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again, and a third time, intermixing threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confession, I ordered them to be executed; for I did not doubt but, let their confession be of any sort whatsoever, this positiveness and inflexible obstinacy deserved to be punished.” – Pliny, “letter to Trajan” ca. 112 A.D.

V. Polycarp was a disciple of John and was later burned at the stake for refusing to deny his faith. – “Martyrdom of Polycarp” (author unknown)

These accounts do not prove the Bible. People sacrifice their lives for lies all the time. However martyrdom provides great evidence for sincere belief. We know the New Testament authors and many early disciples believed their version of the history of Jesus was true.

If men who knew Jesus were willing to go to their death to defend their version of history, then modern scholarship should demand significant historical testimony to contradict their stories.

However, contemporary secular historians only seem to confirm the Apostles’ version of events.

I. Josephus, mentioned before, records the death of Jesus’ brother. His testimony reveals that Jesus was well known and called the Christ. – Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews” Book 20, Chapter 9

II. Tacitus, a Roman Senator and historian, writes of Jesus’ death at the hands of Pontus Pilate in his Annals of History. Tacitus hated Christians, but his testimony only reinforces the story of the Gospels:

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 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 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. – Tacitus, “The Annals” Book 15

III. Seutonius records the expulsion of Jewish Christians from Rome by the emperor Claudius. He notes the “disturbances” they were causing to the Roman’s pagan way of life as the gospel spread.

“Since the Jews were constantly causing disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” – Seutonius, “Claudius 25:4” Chrestus was a common spelling for the term Christ, meaning Messiah.

While the secular contemporary records are not extensive, there is no reason they should be. Christianity only began to spread with the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Until then, Jesus was a relatively obscure Jewish teacher who was rejected by his own people. As Isaiah says, “he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:2-3) The secular record starts to grow as the gospel spreads out from Jerusalem.

The records that do exist all refer to the life and death of Jesus Christ.

Based on the historical data, the man Christ Jesus must be either a liar, lunatic, or LORD. Only one label seems to account for the birth of an obscure Jewish rabbi that reset the calendar and changed the complexion of every civilization on earth.

Bradley Mooney is the recruiting coordinator at the Kanakuk Institute and graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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