By Nick Brzozowski
One third of the world today claims to follow Jesus.
While you may argue that the influence of Christianity in the West has been slowing down, you cannot argue that Christianity has not had a monumental influence in the West throughout history.
On top of that, we have evidence that Christianity’s influence in the Global South is only accelerating.
Can you think of a movement that has affected more people than Christianity?
Now, have you ever stopped to think about how strange it is to think that this mega-movement was launched by one individual person? And not just any person, but a first century Jewish carpenter?! Theologians claim that this mountain of a movement was not caused by an emperor or a philosopher or anyone with great nobility or status. In fact, Jesus was a part of a community (the Jews) who were under captivity to Rome. Plus, he was homeless. He didn’t even have a front door, and yet, he changed the world!?
Have you ever asked any of these questions?
How do we even know that he was real?
How do we know that it wasn’t a society of people using his name as some sort of symbol?
Could the idea of Jesus be made up?
Is he simply a metaphor for the kind of person we should emulate?
Could people in power have made up the Jesus story to manipulate their contemporaries?
If you were to ask most Christians what evidence they have in a real, historic Jesus, what would they tell you? Would they just refer to the influence of Christianity, which could be explained a number of other ways? Would they claim full trust in the Bible, which was written by Jews/Christians (who would have been biased)?
As someone who has devoted my life to this Jewish carpenter turned rabbi, this is a question I want answered!
Luckily, John Dickerson, author of Jesus Skeptic, is here to help. As a former journalist, he knows the value of a primary source. And he has collected primary sources from first and second century historians, politicians and theologians.
In this post, I briefly describe who they where and how their writings are relevant. For more, go to Jesus Skeptic.
He didn’t even have a front door, and yet, he changed the world.
Here are nineteen reasons to believe in a real, historic Jesus.
#1. Epistle of Barnabas
In Matthew 5, Jesus claims to fulfill the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. In the Epistle of Barnabas, the author seeks to explain how Jesus does that. The author writes about Jesus’ humanity and divinity, his teachings and miracles, calls him the Son of God, and supports Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion.
#2. Clement of Rome
We have evidence that Clement knew Jesus’ 12 apostles and was discipled by Paul and Peter. As a devout Christian and bishop, he wrote about Jesus life and divinity.
A bishop in Antioch, Ignatius, wrote this in 107 AD, “Jesus Christ who was of the race of David, who was the Son of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and on earth and those under the earth; who moreover was truly raised from the dead, His Father having raised Him, who in the like fashion will so raise us also who believe in Him.”
#4. Apocryphon of John
Four manuscripts were found in the 1800s. It describes the apostle John and his relationship with Jesus, calling him the Father and the Son and a perfect human.
Since this famous Jewish historian lived in the time of Jesus, he may be the most important source outside of the New Testament for confirming that Jesus lived, died under Pilate, was James’ brother, and had followers after his death and resurrection.
#6 Lucian of Samosata
One of the first skeptics of Christianity, this influential writer in the second century believed that Christians were fooled into their devotion, believing that they were “immortal” and that they were all “brothers.” Although skeptic of the religion, he helps confirm Jesus’s existence, his teachings, his crucifixion and that his followers worshiped him.
#7. Justin Martyr
A philosopher turned Christian, he wrote defending Christianity. In 150 AD, he wrote “First Apology,” where he describes the virgin birth in Bethlehem, Jesus’ miracles, details about Jesus’ crucifixion, and affirmed his belief that Jesus was God. In 166 AD, he was killed for that belief.
#8. Pliny the Younger
Living from 61 - 113 AD, he was aware of early Christianity. As a governor, he didn’t really know what to do with the Christians. So, his writings, which describe Christian practice of meeting together early in the morning, singing hymns, and praying to Jesus, as if he were God, were written to Emperor Trajan, asking for advice. At the end of the day, Pliny wounded up killing a dozens of Christians!
We only have a little fragment of his original writings, which mention the persecution of Christians and Jesus’ miracles. More is known about Quadratus from the writings of a fourth century Church Father, Jerome.
#10. Mara Bar Serapion
A first century philosopher and non-Christian, Mara sympathized with Jesus, calling him the king of the Jews and claiming that the Jews were wrong for killing him.
As secretary to Emperor Hadrian, Suetonius wrote about the mischief of the first Christians, describing their expulsion from Rome and that Jesus was given the death penalty by Pilate.
#12 .Cornelius Tacitus
Roman Senator, Tacitus, detailed Christianity’s persecution under Nero, that he punished Christians for a fire that he started. He writes that Christians were “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.” He also affirms Jesus as the source of Christianity and his crucifixion under Pilate.
#13 Jewish Rabbinic Talmud
Completed in the second century, this work details thousands of teachings of rabbis, including Jesus. According to the Talmud, Jesus was “hanged” on Passover, was accused of practicing sorcery and “enticing Israel to apostasy.” It even names five of Jesus disciples.
Ancient historian, writing around 52 AD, Thallus describes Jesus’ death, as well as going into detail about the solar eclipse that happened concurrently (also found in Mark, Luke and Matthew’s accounts).
#15. The Gospel of Thomas
A second century work of 114 sayings of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas verifies teachings in three of the four gospels, as well as referring to Jesus as the Son of Man and as the Living One.
#16. Toledot Yeshu
A book spread throughout Europe in the Medieval period, it was intended to support Jewish resistance against Christianity. All the while, it confirms Jesus’ life, teachings, miracles and crucifixion.
#17. Emperor Trajan
Early second century emperor of Rome, Trajan thought it was best to convict and put Christians to death, but did not think they were so dangerous to hunt them down. He recognized their influence and their belief that Jesus was God.
#18. Treatise on the Resurrection
Written in the second century, this book describes the humanity, death and resurrection of Jesus. It argues that Jesus’ physical resurrection means that Christians can be resurrected themselves.
#19. The Gospel of Truth
Likely written in the second century, this book supports Jesus life in the flesh.
One more thing to note…
Just because many of these sources were from Christians, themselves, does not make their writings irrelevant to our question. Sometimes, we think that people with biases are unreliable. But, if we really believed this, then no one would be reliable, since we all have biases!
I actually see the fact that so many people who were close with Jesus believed he was God, is stronger evidence for his claims. His life and teachings made a joint case of his identity.
So, with that said, we can add the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, James and Jude to the list of 19 reasons to believe in a historic Jesus.
What do you think? Is there enough evidence for a historic Jesus? Do you have a different objection to Christianity?
As you take these steps, we'd love to help you on your journey. If you have questions or are looking to connect with a community of people in your faith, you are more than welcome to join one of our Anchor Groups here.