Christians throughout the world mark today as Tuesday of Holy Week. It is a more-or-less real time observance of the activities of Jesus of Nazareth during the final week before his tomb was found empty on a Sunday morning.
Even our secular culture observes this time in a variety of ways. Grocery stores are stocked with Peeps, chocolate bunnies and candy eggs. Wall Street will shut down trading on Good Friday. Media outlets from Time magazine to the History Channel will be running various Jesus features.
In the past decade or two, Easter has been a favorite time for pop media to run sensational stories questioning the historical roots of Christianity. A decade ago, it was the Da Vinci Code. Three years ago, “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” These get played up for as long as chocolate bunnies are in the stores, but forgotten soon after. That’s too bad.
When the wild claims of these stories are later debunked, the debunking is never covered as fully as the sensational story was. As a result, many are left with an enduring impression that the history of Jesus is shrouded in myth.
I have met people who doubted whether Jesus ever really existed! Recently, a professor from Rollins College in Florida denied that Jesus was, in fact, crucified. When a student challenged this assertion, it was the student who was suspended. While the suspension was lifted a week later, the professor has not been corrected.
No serious historian would ever entertain such doubts. But if you have never seen the historical documents, you could easily get that impression from our popular culture. So let’s spend a few minutes reviewing the history.
For starters, you should know that there are numerous ancient Christians whose writings are not included in the Bible. Beginning within a few decades of the crucifixion, people like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr and the author of the Didache spoke in great detail about Jesus of Nazareth. They all tell the same story about Jesus that the Bible does.
These authors, taken collectively, demonstrate two things: First, that the basic teachings of the Bible did not evolve over time but were already widely taught before the close of the first century; and second, that the evidence of Jesus’ claims was strong enough to persuade many serious-minded thinkers. They were even willing to die rather than deny them.
Since these authors are Christian, some automatically dismiss them as biased. That’s wrong-headed. After all, we don’t dismiss a scientist as biased about some truth just because he has been convinced of it by the evidence. Rather than belaboring the point, though, let’s just give a brief catalog of what non-Christian authors have to say about Jesus.
The most famous of these is a man named Josephus. Born a Jew, around 37 AD, he later became aligned with the Romans and was a well-respected historian. In a book that he published in Rome about 93 AD he wrote,
“Now there was about this time 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 as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; 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” (“Jewish Antiquities,” 18.3.3).
The details given by this secular historian are so close to Christian claims that scholars over the past couple of centuries have been looking for ways to prove that it is not authentic. But recent computer analysis is overturning those theories and tending to reaffirm its authenticity.
Be that as it may, this same Josephus later tells us that Jesus’ had a brother named James who was stoned to death in Jerusalem. “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” (“Jewish Antiquities,” 20.9.1).
Josephus wrote all of this information about Jesus as an objective recorder of history while most of the eyewitnesses were still alive. Not only objective historians spoke of Jesus but also people who were passionate opponents of Christianity. Celsus, a Greek philosopher, wrote,
“Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god” (Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.28).
While clearly intended as an attack on Jesus, still Celsus confirms two of the Bible’s claims. First, that Jesus was known to do miracles. Second, that Jesus spent time in Egypt.
Other Roman historians also reported many of the same details surrounding Jesus’ death that Josephus had. One of the most celebrated historians of the ancient world was Tacitus. Born in 56 AD, he was a respected senator and proconsul. In his history of the Roman Empire, he wrote,
“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” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44).
Thallus, a Samaritan historian who was alive at the same time Jesus was (5-60 AD), also wrote about Jesus’s crucifixion. Although we no longer have the entire work, this portion was copied by Julius Africanus into his history which has survived. This account of what happened during Jesus’s crucifixion is nearly identical to what the Bible records:
“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, 9.188).
Africanus also cites another historian who was a contemporary of Jesus, saying much the same: “Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth” (Ibid.).
Pliny the Younger, who was born less than 30 years after the crucifixion, was a proconsul from a powerful family in Rome. In a letter addressed to the Roman emperor, he gives important details of Christian worship and morals in the first century.
“They [Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up” (Pliny the Younger, Book 10, Letter 96).
There are plenty of other references to the historical Jesus from non-biblical sources. I have limited this listing to those found in the first century. All of them attest to the basic history that will be read in churches around the world this week.
The historical existence of Jesus, His crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate, reports of a resurrection on the third day, and even the belief that He is God, are all recorded in the annals of ancient Roman history. Jesus is, most definitely, a historical person who made remarkable claims.
Whatever else you may say about Jesus, one thing cannot be said. It cannot be said that He is a myth. The only option left is to look into the empty tomb and make up your own mind about what these wide-spread reports mean for you.
Jonathan Lange has a heart for our state and community. Locally, he has raised his family and served as pastor Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Evanston and St. Paul’s in Kemmerer for two decades. Statewide, he leads the Wyoming Pastors Network in advocating for the traditional church in the public square.