Jesus, Historical Evidence
Two documents have been discovered proving that Jesus existed, per the Roman census described in Luke 2:1-7. The first document dates to 48 A.D., and shows that families were involved in the census. The second document, dating to 104 A.D., verifies that families living away from their provinces were required to return home for the census.
- See also Manuscript Evidence for the Bible
There are 127 papyri, 318 and 2882 Majuscule and Miniscule MSS, and 2436 Lectionary MSS that make up the at least 5,762 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament (current as of 2008). There are at least 24,000 manuscripts for the New Testament in all, including at least 8,000 in the Latin Vulgate and 1,000 in Syrian, Coptic, Armenian, Gothic, and Ethiopic, with 99.5% internal consistency. More manuscripts are being discovered and translated all the time.
The following is based heavily on the writings of Josh McDowell including 'Evidence That Demands A Verdict' (ch. 5) and 'More Than A Carpenter.'
The most famous Jewish historian of the time, Josephus (37-100 A.D.) became a Pharisee at age 19 and was a former commander of Galilee's Jewish military force opposing the Roman invasion, before defecting and becoming a Roman aide to Emperor Vespasian. Despite his prominence in the Roman Empire, his work was banned among Jews for centuries after his death due to his betrayal of his own country to the Romans. These references to Jesus are found without variation even in the oldest copies of Josephus' works.
|“||"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 among 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; as 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."
-Josephus, Antiquities xviii. 33.
"But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned."
-Josephus, Antiquities xx. 9:1.
Born in A.D. 52-54, Tacitus was a Roman historian who mentions Jesus in his annals.
|“||"But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for theri enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also."
-Tacitus, Annals XV. 44
Mara Bar-Serapion wrote to his son Serapion, probably around A.D. 73.
|“||"What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given."
A Roman historian under Hadrian born A.D. 120.
|“||"As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."
-Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25.4
A writer who mentioned Jesus in his writings in 52 A.D., however his writings are preserved only in the writings of Julius Africanus around 221 A.D.
|“||"Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun - unreasonably, as it seems to me (unreasonably, of course, because a solar eclipse could not take place at the time of the full moon, and it was at the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died)."
-Julius Africanus referencing Thallus
Plinius Secundus was Governor of Bythinia who tortured Christians to death, and wrote to Emperor Trajan about this.
|“||"They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up."
-Pliny the Younger, Epistles x.96.
Second century satirist.
|“||"...the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world... Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws."
-Lucian, The Passing Peregrinus
As with Thallus his writings (Chronicles) have been lost but a fragment are preserved in the writings of Julius Africanus around 221 A.D. Phlegon's writings are also mentioned by Origen in Contra Celsum.
|“||"...during the time of Tiberius Caesar, an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon."
-Phlegon, quoted by Julius Africanus
"And about this darkness... Phlegon recalls it in the Olympiads... Phlegon mentioned the eclipse which took place during the crucifixion of the Lord Christ, and no other, it is clear that he did not know from his sources about any eclipse in previous times... and this is shown by the historical account itself of Tiberius Caesar."
-Origen, Contra Celsum, Book 2, sections 14, 33, and 59
Jesus is mentioned repeatedly throughout the Jewish Talmuds. Josh McDowell in ch. 5 of 'Evidence That Demands a Verdict' identifies numerous places in the Talmuds that reference Jesus, albeit derogatorily as made by His enemies, the Pharisees. Noteworthy examples include:
- Babylonian Talmud (500-600 A.D.): "On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Anyone who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of Passover."
A jurist and theologian from Carthage who spoke in A.D. 197 on defense of Christianity before Africa's Roman authorities.
|“||"Tiberius accordingly, in those days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from the truth of Christ's divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favor of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Caesar held to his opinion, threatening wrath against all the accusers of the Christians."
-Tertullian, Apology, v.2.
Around A.D. 150 Justin Martyr in his Defence of Christianity to Emperor Antoninus Pius referred to Pontius Pilate's report.
|“||"They pierced my hands and my feet are a description of the nails that were fixed in His hands and His feet on the cross; and after He was crucified, those who crucified Him cast lots for His garments, and divided them among themselves; and that these things were so, you may learn from the 'Acts' which were recorded under Pontius Pilate... That He performed these miracles you may easily be satisfied from the 'Acts' of Pontius Pilate."
-Justin Martyr, Apology 1.48.
As pointed out by F.F. Bruce, historians regularly accept the validity of historical documents like Caesar's Gallic Wars and the History of Thucydides, even though the earliest manuscripts date centuries after the originals.
|“||"The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which noone dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians...
Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar's Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 BC) there are several extant MSS, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar's day. Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Livy (59 BC-AD 17) only thirty five survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books iii-vi, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. AD 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of has two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh. The extant MSS of his minor works (Dialogue dc Oratoribus, Agricola, Gcrmania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to c. AD 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-428 BC). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals... But how different is the situation of the New Testament in this respect! In addition to the two excellent MSS of the fourth century mentioned above, which are the earliest of some thousands known to us, considerable fragments remain of papyrus copies of books of the New Testament dated from 100 to 200 years earlier still. The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, the existence of which was made public in 1931, consist of portions of eleven papyrus codices, three of which contained most of the New Testament writings. One of these, containing the four Gospels with Acts, belongs to the first half of the third century; another, containing Paul's letters to churches and the Epistle to the Hebrews, was copied at the beginning of the third century; the third, containing Revelation, belongs to the second half of the same century."
Josh McDowell in Ch. 4 of 'More Than a Carpenter' has echoed Bruce's sentiments:
|“||"Aristotle wrote his poetics around 343 BC and yet earliest copy we have is dated AD 1100, nearly a 1,400-year gap, and only five MSS are in existence. Caesar composed his history of the Gallic Wars between 58 and 50 BC and its manuscript authority rests on nine or ten copies dating 1,000 years after his death. When it comes to the manuscript authority of the New Testament, the abundance of material is almost embarrassing in contrast. After the early papyri manuscript discoveries that bridged the gap between the times of Christ and the second century, an abundance of other MSS came to light. Over 20,000 copies of New Testament manuscripts are in existence today. The Iliad has 643 MSS and is second in manuscript authority after the New Testament."
-Josh McDowell, 'More Than a Carpenter'
Critics like Richard Dawkins argue for an absurd, unrealistic standard, that documents must be from the exact three-year time period during which Jesus' ministry occurred in order to be reputable, and that even a few decades of time lapse is too long for acceptance of documents about what happened.
|“||"How much of what we read in the Bible is true? How do we know anything in history really happened? How do we know Julius Caesar existed? Or William the Conqueror? No eye-witnesses survive, and even eye-witnesses can be surprisingly unreliable, as any police officer collecting statements will tell you. We know that Caesar and William existed, because archaeologists have found telltale relics and because there’s lots of confirmation from documents written when they were alive. But when the only evidence for an event or person wasn’t written down until decades or even centuries after the death of any witnesses, historians get suspicious."
-Richard Dawkins, September 2019
However, what documents were written while Caesar was alive, and how do we know they were written when Caesar was alive? As with Caesar's Gallic Wars, the earliest manuscripts date centuries, and often more than 1,000 years after they were allegedly written. If using the standard critics want to apply to the Bible, that the manuscripts should be assumed false unless written within a decade or two of the originals, such documents should obviously be considered false; but no historian would dream of applying such a standard since original documents for works in antiquity are virtually non-existent, all that exists are copies, manuscripts, of the originals. The evidence for the New Testament, tens of thousands of documents, hundreds of which date to within a few centuries of the originals, puts the manuscript evidence for any other ancient document to shame.
For example, Kenneth Humphreys lists several allegedly contemporaneous documents for the existence of Caesar in contrasting the evidence for Caesar with the evidence for Jesus, that he falsely claims were written during the time of Caesar, while using this hypocritical double standard. These include:
Sallust lived from 86-35 B.C., and his reference to Caesar is in Bellum Catalinae. However, the earliest preserved manuscripts date centuries after the originals. See for example this rare copy from 1440 A.D. Although it appears some manuscripts may exist as early as the 12th or 13th centuries A.D., that still leaves a gap of more than 1,000 years between the original documents. If judging contemporaneity by the same standard Humphreys and Dawkins want to apply to the Bible, the contemporaneity of Sallustus to Caesar should be considered highly suspect. By contrast, early church fathers referred to Jesus in documents dating less than 150 years after His death, e.g. the aforementioned Justin Martyr and Tacitus, but critics will not accept their testimony as evidence because they were Christian.
Cornelius Nepos lived from 100-24 B.C., and he refers to Caesar in 'Life of Atticus' (Gk. Epistulae ad Atticum). The earliest manuscript ever discovered for the letters was written in 1345 A.D. It has since been lost, but a copy of it was made in 1508 A.D. that scholars still retain.
|“||"In 1345 Petrarch discovered at Verona a manuscript containing the Epist. ad Att., ad Q. fr., and ad M. Brutum, and, although the original and Petrarch's copy are both lost, another copy, made for Coluccio Salutato, survived and is preserved in the Laurentian Library at Florence. The only other independent sources for the text of these letters are a few leaves at Würzburg and Munich, and a manuscript known to us only through the marginal readings in one of the early editions, that of Cratander, published in Basel in 1528."
-Frank Frost Abbott, Tufts University
Gaius Valerius Catullus lived from 84-54 A.D., during which he composed several poems. Julius Caesar is mentioned in Carmina. However, the earliest manuscripts date to 1375 A.D. Humphreys is claiming contemporary evidence for Julius Caesar living in the 1st century B.C. using documents dating from the Middle Ages, over 1,000 years later, but is questioning evidence for Jesus that is only a century later! It makes no sense for critics like Dawkins and Humphreys to insinuate that the Biblical records could be corrupted like a game of telephone over just a few decades, but claim that evidence for Caesar could survive undisturbed for well over 1,000 years!
Gaius Asinius Pollio lived from 75 B.C. to 4 A.D. His original works have been lost, but are mentioned in the 2nd century A.D. works of Plutarch. (46-120 A.D.) The oldest-preserved Plutarch manuscript is the Codex Sangermanensis (Sg9) which dates to the tenth century A.D. With over a 1,000-year gap between Caesar's lifetime and the manuscript source, to claim contemporary evidence for Caesar while excluding far stronger evidence for Jesus' existence is highly dishonest by Humphreys.
|“||"The increased interest in Plutarch in the ninth century had also led to the assembly of two corpora of the Lives in two and three volumes respectively, the so-called editio bipartita and tripartita. The editio bipartita has survived in an eleventh- to twelfth-century manuscript in Seittenstetten, a fourteenth-century manuscript in Madrid, and in numerous copies of those. Our earliest manuscripts of the editio tripartita date from the tenth century."
Virgil's Latin poem, the Aeneid, was allegedly composed around 29-19 B.C. Unlike other documents referenced by Humphreys, this one has at least some relatively ancient manuscripts dating to around 400 A.D., over 400 years after the original documents. By contrast, there is less than a 200-year gap between many passages of the New Testament and their preserved manuscripts; see Manuscript Evidence for the Bible.
Ovid (43 B.C.-17/18 A.D.) in Metamorphoses references Caesar. The earliest fragments of Metamorphoses are from the 9th and 10th centuries A.D., and the earliest complete copies are from the 11th century A.D. So a document copy made over 900 years after Julius Caesar lived is the basis for Humphreys claiming that there is contemporary evidence for Caesar's existence and not Jesus'.
Marcus Velleius Paterculus lived from 19 B.C. to 31 A.D. and authored Historiae Romanae (History of Rome) about 30 A.D. The only surviving manuscript preserving its text has long since been lost, so there is not even documentary evidence for Caesar at all from Paterculus.
|“||"The text of Velleius depends upon a single manuscript found by Beatus Rhenanus in the Benedictine monastery of Murbach, in Alsace, in the year 1515. This manuscript has long since disappeared."
-Frederick W. Shipley, The Roman History
The earliest manuscript of Lucan's Pharsalia dates to the 12th century A.D. Some 15th century manuscripts exist as well.
|“||"The Rubenstein Library’s Latin Manuscript 118 is a 12th century Italian manuscript of the Pharsalia. Acquired from Sotheby’s in 1969, the manuscript was written on parchment in a late Carolingian hand in brown ink, and was bound in the 15th century in goat skin over wood. In 86 parchment folios, the manuscript sits oblong in the hand, measuring 210 x 103 mm."
-David Pavelich, Duke University
Appian lived from 95-165 A.D., so he was not even a contemporary of Caesar's. The earliest manuscript for his Historia Romana (Civil Wars) dates to the 12th century A.D., a gap of more than 1,200 years between the life of Caesar and preserved manuscripts.
So according to Humphrey's thinking, Suetonius is too late a source to qualify as evidence for Jesus, but it's okay to use Suetonius' reference to Caesar as evidence for Caesar's existence? Even though there is more of a time gap between Suetonius and Caesar than between Suetonius and Jesus?
One would expect plentiful evidence for Julius Caesar, one of the Roman Empire's most prominent rulers, yet in spite of that, there is better evidence for Jesus' existence than Caesar's. One must remember that Israel at the time of the Roman Empire was just one small occupied colony held by the Roman Empire among its vast global holdings. Jesus did not become notable even in Israel until 33 A.D. Christianity itself did not become truly notable in the Roman Empire until Nero had Jerusalem destroyed in 70 A.D.
Furthermore, it took time for lengthy historical treatises to be produced. Such massive historical volumes were not produced instantaneously, they often took a decade or more for historians to meticulously write out by hand on parchments long before the existence of paper and the printing press. In spite of that, Jesus is mentioned by some of the most prominent historians of both the Roman Empire and Israel in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. as previously mentioned, including Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius; not to mention the Talmuds. Early church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian likewise refer to Jesus within a century of His life; not to mention the Gospels themselves, fragments of which are preserved within a century of the original documents (e.g. the Bodmer Papyri and John Rylands ms).
The critic's standard that documents from the exact decade Jesus lived should be produced is laughable from a historian's perspective, even the most prominent figures in ancient history such as Julius Caesar are not held to such an exacting standard. The manuscript evidence referenced by these same critics contains far longer time period gaps than that for Jesus and the New Testament. Critics will use any dishonest standard to write off the overwhelming evidence for Jesus being who the Bible says He was.
- Hoare, C. (2019, March 2). "Bible Proof: How New Testament 'Was Confirmed' After Discovery of Document From 48 AD." Express Newspapers.
- Wallace, Daniel B. (2012, February 10). "Earliest Manuscript of the New Testament Discovered?." The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.
- Welte, Michael (2008). "Kurzgefasste Liste der Griechischen Handschriften des NT." Quoted by Wieland Willker in "Update-list of Greek NT Uncials."
- Wallace, Daniel B. (2007). "Greek New Testament Manuscripts Discovered in Albania." Bible.org.
- Williams, Jimmy (1995). "Are the Biblical Documents Reliable?" Probe Ministries.
- Slick, Matt. "Manuscript Evidence for Superior New Testament Readability." Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.
- Boa, Kenneth. "How Accurate is the Bible?" Bible.org.
- Metzger, B. & Ehrman, B. (2005). "The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration." p. 50. Oxford University Press.
- Balint, Benjamin (2013, January 18). When History Is Written by the Loser. The Wall Street Journal.
- McDowell, Josh (1989, February). Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Here's Life Publishers, Inc.
- Moylan, William J. (2013). The King of Terror. p. 45. Xlibris Corporation. ISBN: 978-1-4797-9703-5.
Thrope, Samuel (2013, March 5). Doing Justice to Josephus, Ancient Jewish Archetype. Haaretz Daily Newspaper Ltd.
- Holding, J.P. Josephus' Testimony on Jesus. Tekton Apologetics.
- Josephus, Flavius,& Whiston, William (1835). The Works of Flavius Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Book xviii, ch. 3. p. 364. Harvard Divinity School.
- Brown, R.E. (2009, February 5). "The Babylonian Talmud on the Execution of Jesus." Cambridge University Press.
- Bruce, F. F. (1954). "The New Testament Documents Are They Reliable?" Ch. 2, p. 16. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- McDowell, J. (1977). "More Than a Carpenter." ch. 4. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
- Hoare, C. (2019, September 25). "Jesus Christ Proof: Richard Dawkins in Shock ‘Archaeological Evidence’ Claim Over Messiah." Express Newspapers.
- Humphreys, K. (2011, November 21). "Did Julius Caesar Exist?" Jesus Never Existed.
- "Gaius Sallustus Crispus, De coniuratione Catilinae, Bellum Iugurthinum." TextManuscripts Les Elumineres.
- Osmand, P.J. (2000, Summer). "Catiline in Fiesole and Florence: The After-Life of a Roman Conspirator." International Journal of the Classical Tradition 7(1): 3-38. Springer.
- Abbott, F.F. (n.d.) "Commentary on Selected Letters of Cicero: Cicero's Correspondence and its First Publication." Tufts University.
- Kiss, D. (n.d.). "Manuscripts." Catullus Online.
- Perrin, B. (1914). "The Parallel Lives by Plutarch, Vol. 1." Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library. Online at the University of Chicago.
"PLUTARCH, Pompei viri illustris vita (Life of Pompey), Latin translation by Antonius Tudertinus Pacinus (or Jacopo Angeli da Scarperia)." TextManuscripts Les Enlumineres.
- Pade, M. (2014). "The Reception of Plutarch from Antiquity to the Italian Renaissance." p. 536. Wiley-Blackwell.
- Garceau, B. (2017, October 16). "Is the Aeneid We Are Reading the Same One That Virgil Wrote?" UC Irvine.
- Bruère, R.T. (1939). "The Manuscript Tradition of Ovid's Metamorphoses." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 50:95-122. Harvard University.
- Shipley, F.W. (1924). "Velleius Paterculus, Roman History - Introduction." Loeb Classical Library. Online at the University of Chicago.
- Pavelich, D. (2012, March 21). "Another Civil War: Lucan’s Pharsalia." Duke University Libraries.
Lucan (1430). "Guide to Lucan, Pharsalia. Manuscript, circa 1430." University of Chicago Library.
- Dilts, M.R. (1971). "The Manuscripts of Appian's Historia Romana." Revue d'Histoire des Textes Vol. 1, p. 4, footnote 2. Persée.
White, H. (1899). "The Foreign Wars." New York: MacMillan Company.
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