Summary: Four non-Christian historical witnesses to the existence of Jesus.
Every child grows up believing in imaginary characters. Whether it’s a character associated with a holiday or cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, childhood is filled with imaginary people. We can see it in how many kids think superheroes like Superman are real. We can see it in how many kids have imaginary friends. When children believe in imaginary characters, we don’t get too worried because we know that developing the imagination is an important part of childhood.
But when we reach adulthood, we outgrow belief in imaginary friends and make believe characters. We view adults whose lives still revolve around make believe characters as odd. We all know that grown ups don’t believe in pretend or make believe people.
Some have suggested that Jesus of Nazareth is such a make believe person. A few years ago when LIFE magazine did a cover story on the identity of Jesus, they asked several people who they thought Jesus was. Jon Murray, the founder of American Atheists is quoted as saying,"There was no such person in the history of the world as Jesus Christ. There was no historical, living, breathing…human being by that name. Ever. [The Bible] is a fictional, nonhistorical narrative. The myth is good for business" (LIFE December, 1994, p. 68).
In the 19th century a German historian named Bruno Bauer claimed that Jesus never existed. Although Bauer’s arguments didn’t gain wide appeal, one of Bauer’s students was persuaded. That student was Karl Marx, who went on to become the founder of communism. Ever since then, denial of Jesus’ existence has been a common belief among Marxists (Van Voorst 8-9).
In our own lifetime, a professor of German at the University of London named George Wells has claimed that Jesus never existed (Van Voorst 13). Wells has written a number of books arguing that claim, including his 1982 book The Historical Evidence for Jesus and his 1996 book The Jesus Legend. A lot of atheist writers and atheist web sites on the internet cite George Wells as having proved that Jesus never really existed.
Now before we dive in to look at the evidence about this ourselves, you need to know that the vast majority of New Testament scholars in the world believe Jesus existed. N.T. Wright, who is widely regarded as the leading Jesus historian in all of England, says, "It would be easier, frankly, to believe that Tiberius Caesar, Jesus’ contemporary, was a figment of the imagination than to believe that there was never such a person as Jesus" (Wright 1996 xvi). Robert Van Voorst, who’s written a recent book on the evidence for Jesus outside of the New Testament says, "Contemporary New Testament scholars have typically viewed their arguments [against the existence of Jesus] as so weak or bizarre that they relegate them to footnotes, or often ignore them completely" (Van Voorst 6). But you and I both know that the majority is often wrong, so today we’re going to look at the evidence for ourselves.
Today we start a new series called Common Questions About Jesus. In this series we’re going to try to honestly face some of the most basic questions people have about Jesus. It makes sense to begin this series by facing the question of whether Jesus ever existed. Obviously I believe Jesus did exist or I wouldn’t be here. We as a church believe Jesus not only existed but that he’s also alive today, as you’ve heard us sing our praises to him and about him in our worship. But let’s not be afraid to face this question honestly and openly, asking exactly just what evidence there is for his existence.
Today we’re going to hear four historical non-Christian testimonies about Jesus. These are not the only sources we could look at, but I think they are four of the strongest. Now if you brought a Bible with you today, go ahead and set it aside because we’re not going to look at anything in the Bible today. I never thought I’d say that in a sermon, and I can just hear the phone ringing off the hook this next week! But today I want to investigate what we can learn about Jesus outside of the Bible.
Before we meet these four guys and hear their testimony, let me mention something about ancient history. Studying ancient history is a very challenging task because the vast majority of writings from the ancient world have been destroyed by time. When I took a class in New Testament background back in graduate school I learned that the texts that historians currently possess from the ancient world represents only about 5% of the writings that were written. That means about 95% of the historical writings from the ancient world have been destroyed.
Now let’s meet our four non-Christian sources about Jesus. First we’ll meet Suetonius. Suetonius was born about forty years after Jesus’ death, and he was a Roman lawyer who served as a secretary to the Roman Emperor Hadrian. His primary work is a multivolume history called Lives of the Caesars. Next we’ll meet Pliny the Younger. Pliny the Younger was the nephew of Pliny the Elder, who was a famous Roman scientist. Pliny the Younger was born about 30 years after the death of Jesus, and he was a Roman senator who served as a governor in Asia Minor, which is in modern day Turkey. Third we’ll be meeting Tacitus. Tacitus was born about 25 years after the death of Jesus, and his unifinished Annals of the Roman Empire are our most detailed source of Roman history for this time period. Finally, we’ll be meeting a Jewish historian named Flavius Josephus. Josephus was born just a few years after the death of Jesus. Josephus was the Roman government’s resident Jewish historian. Josephus is the only non-Roman author among the four we’ll be looking at.