Proving the historic Jesus

By Harry V. Martin

Copyright FreeAmerica and Harry V. Martin, 1995

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article does not debate the divinity nor the spiritual aspects of Christianity, but only the historical evidence that Jesus Christ did, in fact, exist. The recent finding of the burial cave of Caiaphas, the high priest, adds even more evidence to the general historical truth of the New Testament.

Most Biblical scholars, historians, archeologist and even the clergy are knowledgeable about one fact of Christianity that the Christian worshipper is not, there is limited historical facts to establish finite historical evidence that Jesus Christ existed. The vast majority of what Christians believe today is based purely on the New Testament , a collection of writings and testimony of those who knew Jesus and from those who never saw him. The origin of the New Testament was not the "bible" of the Christians until after 150 A.D. The actual "bible" of the early Christians was the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament. For more than a century after the death of Christ, the early Christians relied on the Old Testament.

The writings in the New Testament were mostly from men of little literary learning, they were from long-time memories, and some were from hearsay. Biblical scholars have often pointed to glaring errors in the New Testament, conflicts in the testimonies between those who knew Jesus. Many "books" or testimonies were omitted from the New Testament. The writers of these Testaments were less concerned with the historical accuracies of their words and more concerned with the spiritual meanings of Christ's teachings.

The most fascinating time in Christianity began after the death of Christ through to the conclusion of Emperor Constantine's Christian conclave, the true shaping of Christianity as we know it today, this epic period merged the diverse views of the Apologists to the Gnostics. Jesus Christ and his Disciples were not part of the long series of debates that established Christian dogma. The Early Christian Fathers, published by The Westminster Press, states, "The most striking facts about early Christian literature are its rich variety and its almost exclusively Gentile authorship. Outside the New Testament writings, little belongs to the first century, the only considerable document being Clement's Letter to the Church of Corinth." No Jewish Christian literature appears to have survived the ages. Few Jewish Christians from the Palestinian Church survived after the fifth century, though their teachings and work can be found in the religion of Islam. The Gentiles, and not the Jewish Christians who lived and worshipped in the land of Jesus, dominated the Christian religion, and changed much of its original concepts.


The main battlelines in the second century focused around the "Orthodox" Christians and the Gnostics. After Constintine's conclave, the Gnostics vanished into history, some of their work survived and was unearthed in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. The discovered writings are known as the Nag Hammadi library, the Gnostic manuscripts virtually begin where the Dead Sea Scrolls end. These writings provide insights into early Judaism and the roots of Christianity. The Gnostics challenged the New Testament and rejected the Old Testament. They viewed the Jewish and Christian revelations as antithetical, noting the contrast of the good God revealed by Jesus Christ with the Old Testament God of retaliation and vengeance. The Gnostics, in essence, were responsible for doing away with the Old Testament as the sacred book of Christians, and in its place supplied a cannon called The Gospel and the Apostile. There was no unity in determining which books should be contained in the New Testament until the fourth century.

The Early Christian Fathers states, that Christian doctrine was established to embrace the Gentile concepts. "To interpret it to the Gentile mind, its affinities were the best in pagan religious thought were utilized. To maintain it against persecution, the martyr was willing to suffer. Finally, to ensure the perpetuity of the faith, the Church built up a close knit organization that was as uncompromising toward heresy and schism as it was toward the demands of the State." In The Verdict of History by Gary R. Habermas, this concept is carried further. "The charge is often made that Jesus' message was actually quite different from the one which Christians have traditionally taught concerning him. This sometimes is said to be the case, for instance, because the Gospels represent the teachings of the early church and not those of Jesus himself." Hugh Schonfield, a noted religious scholar, explains why the changes may have taken place. He states that Jesus was a teacher who was true to Judaism and who had no desire to start any new religion. "That is why, for instance, he never proclaimed his own deity," Schonfield wrote. Schonfield even challenges the early Church by claiming they may have written some of the New Testament books and influenced others to rewrite the story of Jesus. "The result is that Christian theology as it is taught today is not the teachings of Jesus and the apostles."

Paul's writings reveal little of the historical Jesus. A few historians have stated that Paul knew little of Jesus' historical life, the time of his birth, or death, for instance. G.A. Wells indicates that Paul may have conceived of Jesus as a supernatural being who led a very obscure life that was ended by crucifixion, perhaps even centuries before Paul's own time. But Paul was not interested in historical details, nor were the other writers of the New Testament, spiritual considerations dominated their thoughts. Habermas states that the "Gospels do not purport to record actual historical events, but that they simply report the faith of early Christians. We know much less about the historical Jesus than the Gospels actually recorded, for these writers were just not too concerned with history."


Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus recorded information pertaining to Jesus, thus removing the only supporting source for His existence as being in the New Testament. In 115 A.D., Tactius wrote about the great fire in Rome, "Consequently, to get rid of the report, 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 Tiberious at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths, Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed."

It is believed by some scholars that Tactius gained his information about Christ from official records, perhaps actual reports written by Pilate. Tactius also wrote about the burning of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. The Christians are mentioned as a group that were connected with these events. "All we can gather from this reference is that Tactius was also aware of the existence of Christians other than in the context of their presence in Rome," states Habermas. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillas, chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian, wrote, "Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the City." Chrestus is a variant spelling of Christ. Suetonius refers to a wave of riots that broke out in a large Jewish community in Rome during the year 49 A.D. As a result, the Jews were banished from the city.

Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, a member of a priestly family and who became a Pharisee at the age of 19, became the court historian for Emperor Vespasian. In the Antiquities, he wrote about many persons and events of first century Palestine. He makes two references to Jesus. The first reference is believed associated with the Apostle James. "...he brother of Jesus, who was called Christ." He also wrote, "At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive, accordingly, he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders." These historical writings predated the Old Testament. Josephus died in 97 A.D.

Before Tacitus, Suetonius or Josephus, Thallus wrote about the crucifixion of Jesus. His writing date to circa 52 A.D. and the passage on Jesus was contained in Thallus' work on the Eastern Mediterranean world from the Trojan War to 52 A.D. Thallus noted that darkness fell on the land at the time of the crucifixion. He wrote that such a phenomenon was caused by an eclipse. Though Christ was not proclaimed a deity until the fourth century, Pliny the Younger, a Roman author and administrator who served as the governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, wrote in 112 A.D., two hundred years before the "deity" proclamation, that Christians in Bithynia worshipped Christ.

Two references have been made to a report by Pontius Pilate. The references include Justin Martyr (150 A..D.) and Tetullian (200 A.D.). Both references correspond with the fact that there was an official document in Rome from Pilate. The Pilate report detailed the crucifixion but also reported acts of miracles. Emperor Tiberius acted on Pilate's report, according to Tertullian, to the Roman Senate. "Tiberius accordingly, in whose days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from Palestine of events which had clearly shown 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 accusers of the Christians."


The Talmud, which consists of Jewish traditions handed down orally from generation to generation, was organized by Rabbi Akiba before his death in 135 A.D. The writings in the Talmud embrace the legal, ritual and exegetical commentaries that have developed right down to contemporary times. In Sanhedrin 43a, reference to Jesus is found. "On the eve of the 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 practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. But since nothing was brought forward in his favor, he was hanged on the eve of the Passover."If Jesus had been stoned, his death would have been at the hands of the Jews. The fact he was crucified shows that the Romans intervened. The Talmud also speaks of five of Jesus' disciples and recounts their standing before judges who made individual decisions about each one, deciding that they should be executed. No deaths are recorded.

Other Talmud references to Jesus indicated that Jesus was "treated differently from others who led the people astray, for he was connected with royalty." These Talmud accounts were written long before the New Testament was assembled. They provide clear evidence that Jesus did live. The Talmud does not embrace Christ as a deity and would have no reason to sanction his existence. The Talmud also states that Jesus was 33 or 34 years old when he died. The risen Christ is the foundation of Christianity. But Christ would have to have lived and died before His resurrection could become an historical factor.

Toledoth Jesu is also part of Jewish writing, as well. The disputed text states that the disciples of Jesus had planned to steal the fallen body of Christ. However, a gardener named Juda discovered their plans and dug a new grave in his garden. Then he removed Jesus' body from Joseph's tomb and placed it in his own newly dug grave. The disciples came to the original tomb, found Jesus' body gone and proclaimed him risen. The Jewish leaders also proceeded to Joseph's tomb and found it empty. Juda then took them to his grave and dug up the body of Jesus. The Jewish leaders were greatly relieved and wanted to take the body. Juda replied that he would sell them the body of Jesus and did so for thirty pieces of silver. The Jewish priests then dragged Jesus' body through the streets of Jerusalem. Strangely enough, Juda and Judas are similar, in the Talmud Juda receives thirty pieces of silver and in the New Testament Judas receives thirty pieces of silver. Shortly after this time, the Emperor decreed that grave robbing in Palestine would be a capital offense.

These commentaries have been discredited by Jewish and Christian scholars. The anti-Christian commentary was created in the fifth century. The importance of this passage, historically correct or not, is to place Jesus in the tomb of Joseph after crucifixion and to record the consternation of the Jewish Priests. This places historic significance on the fact that Jesus did live and die in history. He was not a myth.

The New Testament speaks of a census at the time of Christ's birth. Historical records indicate that a census was ordered in Syria and Judea between 6 and 5 B.C. and 5 and 6 A.D. Returning to a person's home city was definitely the practice of the time. Luke refers to Quirinius being governor of Syria during the time of the census, again historically correct.

The second century Greek satirist Lucian, though speaking derisively of Jesus and the early Christians, does establish the worship of Christ within the first century of his death. "The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day, the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account...You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods, alike, regarding them merely as common property."


The New Testament refers to the High Priest Caiaphas. Records of the Temple of Jerusalem where destroyed and history has not been able to verify that Caiaphas, like Christ, existed. If no evidence existed of Caiaphas when the New Testament was embraced by the Christians of the second century, then it would have been a fact lost to history. But now, 1,950 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, a public works project building a water park in November 1990 accidentally uncovered an ancient burial cave. The inscription in the burial chamber was that of the Caiaphas family. The Caiaphas name had only been mentioned in the New Testament and by Flavius Josephus, no Jewish records have been found with Caiaphas' name linked to being the high priest. The remains of a 60-year-old man were found in the burial cave that may have been the High Priest Caiaphas. The inscription on his craved ossuary, fit for a high priest, was the name Yehosef bar Qafa (Joseph, son of Caiaphas). Coins found in the cave were bronze minted in 42/43 (C.E.) during the reign of Herod Agrippa I. These are similar to images of coins found on the Shroud of Turin believed by many scientists to be the burial shroud of Christ.

According to Ronny Reich in an article in Biblical Archaeology Review, "Very few of the hundreds of people who walk through the pages of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament have been attested in archeological finds. Now, to that small list, we may add, in all probability, the high priest who presided at Jesus' trial, or at least a member of his family." It adds, "From the period between the second century B.C.E. and the second century C.E., there are only six such names, and perhaps you will exclude one or two of these because they are names of rulers or former rulers. Three of these names, however, are especially pertinent here because they, like Caiaphas, come from priestly families."

The New Testament only refers to the High Priest as Caiaphas, but Josephus refers to him as Joseph, who was called Caiaphas of the high priesthood. Joseph or Caiaphas was the high priest in Jerusalem between 18 and 36 C.E.

The debate over the divinity of Christ may never end, but historical evidence has become more supportive of the fact that Jesus can be proved historically to have lived, to have been a dominant figure during his lifetime and of a major concern to the establishment of the Temple and of Rome. What his exact words were, may have been lost in history. Robin Lane Fox writes in The Unauthorized Version, Truth and Fiction in the Bible, "Recognition does not require historical truth...In the Bible we recognize a human awareness in what scores of anonymous authors have written. This level of recognition is not at all the same as reverence for the Bible as a handbook for life, a role for which its detail is not well suited. The Gospels are not often specific on detailed points of conduct, and as a handbook they would be very patchy indeed. Those who want such details have to look back to the Hebrew books of law...As for the four Gospels, the idea that they usually give us Jesus' exact words in their exact context is a popular mirage; there are too many disagreements.' She adds, "In the Bible, therefore, we recognize human truth even when the stories themselves are untrue."


Though the New Testament has many historical errors, the fact is that many of its points have been proven historically correct. Roman historians, Jewish historians, the finding of the Gnostic materials at Nag Hammadi and now the finding of Caiaphas' burial cave, establishes an historic fact that Jesus lived and died in a time and a place described in the New Testament. Some of the evidence supporting these writings surfaced nearly 2000 years later, adding a strong rule of evidence toward their historic accuracy. Many books were omitted from the compilation of the New Testament, the writings of John and of Mary, for instance, were never included in the scriptures. But the same is true with the Old Testament. It was the early church father, in the case of the New Testament, that made the decisions on the composition of the New Testament.

The exact words of Jesus may not be contained in the New Testament, but the essence of his teachings appeared to be confirmed from sources outside the New Testament.