18th April 2011

The Historical Jesus

“…[Jesus] asked His disciples, saying, ‘Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?’…Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’”
Matthew 16:13, 16 (NKJV)

Did you know that our records for Alexander the Great, of which no doubt you heard much in history lessons, all come from one record written several hundred years after he died? Plutarch’s Alexander was written about ad 70, and yet we rate his record highly. No one ever questions whether Alexander lived, or doubt the particular events recorded. If you’ll pardon the expression, we take that history as ‘gospel truth’.

But when it comes to the life of Jesus, all sorts of questions are raised concerning whether he ever actually existed, whether he did any of the things recorded about him. And our records were written while many of his contemporaries were still living (Acts 26:26) and we have witness accounts in four different records—the Gospels.

But there are additional contemporary records. They’re not as good as the gospel records, but they do exist. Josephus in his “Antiquities of the Jews” records the following: “Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise 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. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first ceased not so to do; and the race of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct even now” (18.3.3). He writes of Jesus again, this time just a passing mention when talking of his half-brother, James—but it’s there (20.9.1).

Our next witness is Seutonius, an official historian who chronicled the lives of the Roman Emperors. He notes that Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome [in ad 49], on account of the riots in which they were constantly indulging, at the instigation of Chrestus.” (Life of Claudius, 25:4). Pliny the younger mentions Christ too (Letters 10.96-97).

Finally we have Cornelius Tacitus, who tells us, writing of the great fire which devastated Rome in ad 64, that the emperor Nero, in order to pass the suspicion of starting the fire from himself: “substituted as culprits, and treated with the most extreme punishments, some people, popularly known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was emperor by order of the procurator Pontius Pilate” (Annals 15:44).

Just five footnotes to the pages of history, but the records are there. It’s obvious that none of these men knew much about Jesus and, regrettably, that’s still true in contemporary society. But the four men who wrote the gospels knew him intimately. John tells us of him that they “have seen with our eyes…have looked upon…our hands have handled” (1 John 1:2). You can’t know someone better than that, and notice why he records this for us: “…we declare unto you, that you also may have [like] fellowship with us…” (verse 3). He wanted you to know Jesus just as well as him. So did Jesus exist? Oh yes, you may be sure that the records are too exact, too precise, too detailed to be a fictional account about someone who never existed.

Most merciful Father, thank you for your Son and all that his life means. We acknowledge that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God—You. We ask for those who don’t know that yet, but are seeking you, that you will answer their cry. And we pray to you on their behalf in that same Jesus’ name.

Study by John Stettaford 

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