While billions of people believe Jesus of Nazareth was one of the most important figures in world history, many others reject the idea that he even existed at all. A 2015 survey conducted by the Church of England, for instance, found that 22 percent of adults in England did not believe Jesus was a real person.
Among scholars of the New Testament of the Christian Bible, though, there is little disagreement that he actually lived. Lawrence Mykytiuk, an associate professor of library science at Purdue University and author of a 2015 Biblical Archaeology Review article on the extra-biblical evidence of Jesus, notes that there was no debate about the issue in ancient times either. “Jewish rabbis who did not like Jesus or his followers accused him of being a magician and leading people astray,” he says, “but they never said he didn’t exist.”
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Archaeological evidence of Jesus does not exist.
There is no definitive physical or archaeological evidence of the existence of Jesus. “There’s nothing conclusive, nor would I expect there to be,” Mykytiuk says. “Peasants don’t normally leave an archaeological trail.”
“The reality is that we don’t have archaeological records for virtually anyone who lived in Jesus’s time and place,” says University of North Carolina religious studies professor Bart D. Ehrman, author of Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. “The lack of evidence does not mean a person at the time didn’t exist. It means that she or he, like 99.99% of the rest of the world at the time, made no impact on the archaeological record.”
Questions of authenticity continue to surround direct relics associated with Jesus, such as the crown of thorns he reputedly wore during his crucifixion (one possible example is housed inside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris), and the Shroud of Turin, a linen burial cloth purportedly emblazoned with the image of his face.
Archaeologists, though, have been able to corroborate elements of the New Testament story of Jesus. While some disputed the existence of ancient Nazareth, his biblical childhood home town, archaeologists have unearthed a rock-hewn courtyard house along with tombs and a cistern. They have also found physical evidence of Roman crucifixions such as that of Jesus described in the New Testament.
Documentary evidence outside of the New Testament is limited.
The most detailed record of the life and death of Jesus comes from the four Gospels and other New Testament writings. “These are all Christian and are obviously and understandably biased in what they report, and have to be evaluated very critically indeed to establish any historically reliable information,” Ehrman says. “But their central claims about Jesus as a historical figure—a Jew, with followers, executed on orders of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius—are borne out by later sources with a completely different set of biases.”
Within a few decades of his lifetime, Jesus was mentioned by Jewish and Roman historians in passages that corroborate portions of the New Testament that describe the life and death of Jesus.
Historian Flavius Josephus wrote one of the earliest non-biblical accounts of Jesus.
The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who according to Ehrman “is far and away our best source of information about first-century Palestine,” twice mentions Jesus in Jewish Antiquities, his massive 20-volume history of the Jewish people that was written around 93 A.D.
Thought to have been born a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus around 37 A.D., Josephus was a well-connected aristocrat and military leader in Palestine who served as a commander in Galilee during the first Jewish Revolt against Rome between 66 and 70 A.D. Although Josephus was not a follower of Jesus, “he was around when the early church was getting started, so he knew people who had seen and heard Jesus,” Mykytiuk says.
In one passage of Jewish Antiquities that recounts an unlawful execution, Josephus identifies the victim, James, as the “brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah.” While few scholars doubt the short account’s authenticity, says Mykytiuk, more debate surrounds Josephus’s lengthier passage about Jesus, known as the “Testimonium Flavianum,” which describes a man “who did surprising deeds” and was condemned to be crucified by Pilate. Mykytiuk agrees with most scholars that Christian scribes modified portions of the passage but did not insert it wholesale into the text.
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Tacitus connects Jesus to his execution by Pontius Pilate.
Another account of Jesus appears in Annals of Imperial Rome, a first-century history of the Roman Empire written around 116 A.D. by the Roman senator and historian Tacitus. In chronicling the burning of Rome in 64 A.D., Tacitus mentions that Emperor Nero falsely blamed “the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.”
As a Roman historian, Tacitus did not have any Christian biases in his discussion of the persecution of Christians by Nero, says Ehrman. “Just about everything he says coincides—from a completely different point of view, by a Roman author disdainful of Christians and their superstition—with what the New Testament itself says: Jesus was executed by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, for crimes against the state, and a religious movement of his followers sprang up in his wake.”
“When Tacitus wrote history, if he considered the information not entirely reliable, he normally wrote some indication of that for his readers,” Mykytiuk says in vouching for the historical value of the passage. “There is no such indication of potential error in the passage that mentions Christus.”
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Additional Roman texts reference Jesus.
Shortly before Tacitus penned his account of Jesus, Roman governor Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan that early Christians would “sing hymns to Christ as to a god.” Some scholars also believe Roman historian Suetonius references Jesus in noting that Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome who “were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”
Ehrman says this collection of snippets from non-Christian sources may not impart much information about the life of Jesus, “but it is useful for realizing that Jesus was known by historians who had reason to look into the matter. No one thought he was made up.”
Watch a preview of the four-week special event Jesus: His Life, premiering Monday, March 25 at 8/7c.