Occasionally I bump into people who doubt that Yeshua (Jesus) ever existed, deeming him to be a fictional character like Hercules, Loch Ness Monster or Santa Claus. I am not surprised that people have trouble recognizing what Yeshua did, who he showed himself to by his actions. I am not surprised that people fail to recognize the significance of the Messiah but to doubt his very existence shows complete ignorance of ancient historical witnesses.
Yes, today the historians possess numerous historical mentions of Jesus from three different categories of witnesses: Christian, Jewish, and Roman. Early Christ-followers are easy to dismiss and skeptics would always say, “Of course people who believe in Jesus, would say he is real! But what if they made it all up?” Never mind, let’s leave these aside for a moment. I will give examples of two ancient witnesses who are not Christians, in fact from people who did not like followers of Messiah from Galilee very much at the time this was written. And these are not the only ones… But if their words indeed confirm what followers of Messiah said about their teacher, then we have to take Christian sources into account as well and cannot dismiss them as fictional, irrelevant or biased anymore.
Let’s begin with Jewish sources. The earliest Jewish sources we have post-Yeshua are ancient rabbis. Though dating them is hard (late second-early third century CE), surprisingly, they never deny Jesus and say that he was not real, that he never lived. There is no lack of disagreement with “minim” (heretics) in rabbinic texts, with those who would claim Yeshua as Messiah, but there is never a denial that Yeshua actually lived. Wouldn’t it be effective to say he is not real and he never died in Judea when it was governed by Pontius Pilate? The ancient rabbis do not make this argument, they disagree in other ways.
But there is a much earlier Jewish source – Titus Flavius Josephus. He is known by his Roman name that he took on in honor of his benefactors, but his birth name is Yoseph ben Mattitayhu. Born into an aristocratic priestly family in Judea, Josephus received a good traditional Jewish education. Though he opposed war with Rome, he was appointed to be a military commander in the first Jewish War against Rome (66-73 CE). Eventually, he was captured and drafted by the Romans to be a liaison with the Jewish fighters. Why Josephus is more reliable than the rabbis? To historians, he is a witness of the first-century events.
So what does Josephus say about Jesus? There are two passages in his writings. One is called Testimonium Flavianum – it explicitly mentions Jesus and gives biographical details of his life. The scholars doubt the complete authenticity of this passage because it sounds as if was written by someone who actually believed in Yeshua, when we know for certain that Josephus did not.
“Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeedone ought to call him a man.21 For he was one who did surprising deeds, and ateacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews andmany of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accusedby men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified,those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affectionfor him, for on the third day, he appeared to them restored to life. Theprophets of God had prophesied this and countless other marvelous things abouthim. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this daynot died out.”(Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1)
Did some Christian scribes who copied Josephus’s manuscripts edit his original mention of Jesus? That is possible. Did they insert some of their own ideas? Possible. No one knows for sure, but it seems odd that Josephus sounds so creedal, considering he was not a believer. So let’s set this passage aside. There is another passage in Josephus’ works that most scholars deem authentic. It mentions Yeshua only in passing and does not actually say that he is Messiah, but that he is “called Messiah” (by the people).
“Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartlessSadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festushad died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally,“sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother ofJesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made theaccusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to bestoned.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 22.9.1)
So here it is a first-century mention of Yeshua and his brother by a Jew who actually lived in the same era. He was not a Christ-follower. Whatever one may think about Josephus, he is the earliest and the closest source outside of the New Testament on Jesus. And nothing he says actually clashes with what early Christ-followers said about their Messiah. This source is hard to dismiss.
What about the other category of witnesses? We have a Roman writer – Gaius Cornelius Tacitus who also lived in the first century. In his major work, called Annals, he mentions a “Christus” who was executed by Pontius Pilate and from whom the Christians derived their name. Tacitus’s brief reference corroborates historical details of Jesus’ death outlined in the gospels.
“Neither human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor theplacating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had beenordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted asculprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shamefulacts … whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ[Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by theprocurator Pontius Pilate … Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstitionerupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city[Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come togetherand become popular”. (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44)
Tacitus was not a Christ-follower either. He did not even understand Jewish ideas or internal squabbles about Messiah and what that might have meant. He mentions Chresus (Christ) as if it was a personal name, not even realizing that it is a title that it means “the anointed one”. An easy mistake to make.
These are two historical first-century records about Yeshua and his followers. These sources are non-biased and cannot be implicated as apart of the conspiracy to make Jesus real. They are non-involved. They have nothing to gain. If we consider what they say… they both get the name right, they both mention the right dates and people involved in these events. They mention the animosity of some Jewish leaders who are in the midst of this controversy. They mention the crucifixion (unique death), the presumption of Messianic title. They even get Yeshua’s brother’s name right.
So here is the bottom line… Modern historians do not doubt the existence of Jesus. If these documents are not convincing the others I can site will not do the job either. They will say very similar things, only they will not be from the first century. They will be further removed and I wanted to mention these because they are the closest to Jesus via the timeline. But most non-Christian ancient sources will affirm essentially what the New Testament says, perhaps short of affirming Yeshua’s spiritual claims as New Testament and Christian sources do.
So Jesus is not like Santa Claus or Loch Ness monster. He really lived and he really died. Whether people chose to believe in his resurrection is a separate matter, but to deny the exitance of Jesus is to deny the clear and unbiased historical evidence that points to it.