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The Historical and Literary Evidence of Jesus

The Historical and Literary Evidence of Jesus


A person of Jesus Christ remains mysterious although there are hundreds of thousands of works written about him. It is very difficult to find another person who could have drawn such massive attention for centuries. Millions of people on different continents have worshipped him as God for more than two thousand years. In turn, disputes between historians, philosophers, and theologians about him as a historical figure have been simmering for the same amount of time. These disputes have significantly expanded the view of researchers on the personality of the Christianity founder and forced them to perceive Jesus in line with the development of religious thought and in the context of the era. As for today, the historicity of Jesus’ existence is supported and simultaneously questioned by many historical documents. The image of Jesus Christ has absorbed much of ancient mythology, but, most likely, he existed as a real historical figure.

The Gospel

The Gospel stories have a certain real basis, which, however, has been gradually mythologized over time. The Gospel cannot be considered as a conclusive evidence of the Jesus Christ’s existence since it contains a number of historical inaccuracies. No other Gospel text has caused as much controversy as the message of Luke about the Caesar Augustus census in the reign of Quirinius, the king of Syria, in the time of the Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:1-3). According to the basic source for the history of the Jews of that period, namely writings of Flavius Josephus, the census was carried out in Judea in 6 AD after its inclusion into the Roman Empire. The governorship of Quirinius in Syria dates back to 6 – 12 AD (Burkett 216). This data is not consistent with the indication of the evangelists that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1; Luke 1:5) who reigned in 37 – 4 BC (Burkett 217).

Another message of Luke that came into conflict with extra-biblical sources concerns Lysanias the Tetrarch who is mentioned along with other rulers as a contemporary of Jesus Christ (Luke 3:1). Josephus says that Lysanias, the son of Ptolemy, was the ruler of the Syrian Halkida in 40 – 36 BC long before the birth of Jesus (Burkett 218). However, Lysanias was executed on the orders of Mark Antony, but his area had long been referred by his name. This fact could be misinterpreted by Luke as if Lysanias ruled over that region in the 1st century AD as well. Since Luke was an Asia Minor Greek and the second generation Christian, he used already existing narratives in his work (Luke 2:1), compiling and coordinating them with each other so that he did not clearly realize the political situation in Palestine.

The Gospel contains the story of how King Herod ordered to kill all babies in Bethlehem, seeking to destroy newborn Jesus (Matthew 2:1-18). Critical researchers believe that this is the Christian legend that has arisen outside of Palestine. Probably, its core is rumors about the brutal repression that befell on Judea in the last years of the reign of Herod when even the king’s sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, were put to death (Burkett 220).

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Testimonium Flavianum

The name of Jesus appears twice in the Flavius Josephus’ Judean Antiquities. At first, it appears in the 18th book in the short story, which is later recognized in historiography as Testimonium Flavianum (meaning the testimony of Flavius Josephus) (Whealey 14). Later, Christ is briefly mentioned in connection with the execution of Jacob the Righteous in the 20th book (Whealey 15). For centuries, Testimonium Flavianum was repeatedly cited and retold until the middle of the last century when critical researchers expressed serious doubts about its authenticity and credibility. It is unbelievable that such a faithful Jew as Josephus could call Jesus the Messiah (Christ), accept his miracles, resurrection of the dead, and see him as the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy.

There was an opinion that the story of Jesus was written by Christians for the apologetic purposes and inserted into the text of Josephus. This opinion got so entrenched that the next edition of Judean Antiquities parenthesized the entire passage with mentions of Jesus’ name. It should be noted that The Testimony of Josephus was precisely cited in the Eusebius’ Church History written in 330 AD (Whealey 33). However, earlier Christian writer Origen (185 – 254 AD) did not mention in his writings such an important for the Christology story as Testimonium Flavianum, but he repeatedly cited other Josephus’ writings (Whealey 35). Moreover, Origen noted that Joseph did not accept Jesus as the Christ, i.e. the Messiah. It was therefore concluded that Testimonium Flavianum did not exist in the times of Origen. It appeared in the interval between 254 and 330 AD and later became known to Eusebius of Caesarea (Whealey 41).

Cornelius Tacitus

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (approx. 58 – 117 AD) was the greatest Roman historian. As a curator of the royal library, Tacitus used numerous primary sources, including records of the Senate (Piso and Gallus 74). This circumstance gives his works an exceptional importance. In the Annals, Tacitus wrote about the Christians in relation to the tremendous fire of Rome in 64 AD. In this work, he mentioned Christ as the founder of a religious community and the fact that he was executed under Pontius Pilate. Many researchers rejected this passage as inauthentic (Piso and Gallus 75). The relevant part of the Annals has reached the present days as a single list of the 11th century, emerging from the abbey of Montecassino. Therefore, there is an opinion that the passage is a Christian interpolation or a garbled text of monks-copyists (Piso and Gallus 77).

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The Talmud

The Talmud is a central text of Rabbinic Judaism represented as a diverse set of historical information and stories. The Talmud was compiled in the anti-Christian Jewish milieu, which is why it is safe to assume that virtually all anonymous and mentioned therein authors treated Christ and Christianity with hostility. Many of the authors of the teachings and stories of the Talmud lived in the 1st century and, therefore, they were contemporaries of Christ and his closest disciples.

The concealment of Jesus’ existence could have been a method of struggle with Christianity. However, the Talmud confirms it, entering into a polemic against Christianity and its founder. It is believed that Jesus appears in the Talmud under different names such as Yeshua, ben Stada, and Balaam. Talmudic messages about Jesus should be divided into older stories of the Tanna rabbis (approximately 40 – 220 AD) and later stories of the Amoraic rabbis (Dalman 43). The widest spread of Christianity in the 2nd – 4th centuries and its victory in the Roman Empire had the great influence on the development of rabbinical tradition (Dalman 44). Since then, reports of Yeshua, ben Stada, and Balaam were burdened by considerable controversy with a new religion, which came out from the depths of Judaism. If early layers of the Talmud apparently tell about different persons, the subsequent Talmud writing is characterized with attempts to bring together Yeshua with Balaam, as well as identify him with ben Stada, the heretic. The rabbis’ motivation is quite understandable. It seemed to them that they could better protect themselves from the growing influence of Christianity if they could associate as many negative points with Yeshua as possible.

Therefore, it is clear that the parts of the Talmud, which are deprived of the later stratification, represent a historical value. This applies primarily to Tanna mentions of Yeshua contained in the Tosefta and the Jerusalem Talmud and their parallels in the Babylonian Talmud. Actually, there are no stories about Yeshua himself; he is only mentioned as the head of a certain heretical doctrine that arose in Palestine. However, these Talmud parts contain his nickname ben Pandera. They also contain comments that his followers treated diseases with his name. Thus, ben Pandera’s followers represented him as a divine person. It is probable that the rabbis, by reporting on Yeshua and his successors, used data received from the Judeo-Christians such as Jacob of Kefar Sikhnaya who communicated with rabbis Eleazar ben Dama and Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (Dalman 56). These Palestinian followers of Jesus made up the original Christian community and, of course, had their own legends, many of which presumably were not included in the Gospel and remained unknown. In this case, early mentions of Jesus in the Talmud are a kind of original reports processed by the rabbis, and, in a certain way, can serve as the evidence of the Jesus’ historicity.

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The image of Jesus Christ has absorbed much of ancient mythology, but, most likely, he existed as a real historical figure. The sources of objective evidence supporting this fact are extremely limited and not free of criticism. Some of the sources are probably true, but they give too little information to talk about the complete failure of opponents of Jesus’ existence. As for today, the prevailing view is that there was a great Christian prophet Jesus and the subsequent development of Christianity has led to his glorification.