Is There Any Actual Proof Jesus Existed?

Throughout history humans have many stories discussing various supposed humans and other beings that we dismiss as legend as a matter of course. Perhaps no source of such legendary figures is more robust than figures related to various religions, with basically no one today, for example, thinking that Hercules ever actually existed, despite the countless and sometimes rather detailed tales of his various adventures passed down through history. But while few, if anyone today, still worships the gods and demi-gods of Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, there are still many centuries old religions that have survived today who have figures that, at least those who follow the religions, take for granted really did exist. This brings us to the subject of today- did the founder of one of the most significant religions in human history, Jesus of Nazareth, actually exist? And, if so, what do we definitively know about what he did or said?

As to the first question, yes, unequivocally, as Jesus was an incredibly popular name in the region around the time Jesus was said to have walked the Earth, Jesus of Nazareth definitely existed… That’s like saying did “John” from New York exist? Yes. New York John exists… Nice guy. Makes great pizza.

But that’s not very interesting. So what about THE Jesus of Nazareth?

Well, while it might come as something of a surprise to some, for reasons we will get into momentarily, historians, from atheist to agnostic to Jewish to Christian, pretty much all universally agree that the Jesus described in the New Testament, did, in fact, exist, and even that it’s extremely likely that at minimum a couple key significant elements of his life as described in the New Testament also very likely did happen, which we’ll get into in the tail end of this video.

As archaeologist and historian Dr. Byron McCane of the Atlantic University of Florida states, “I do not know, nor have I heard of, any trained historian or archaeologist who has doubts about his existence.”

That said, that’s not to say there aren’t many people out there who don’t agree. For example, a 2015 pole in Britain surveying around 4000 people found that a whopping 40% of them did not believe Jesus ever existed. But going back to historians, Professor emeritus of Jewish studies and Archeology at Duke University, Dr. Eric Meyers, concurs with Dr. McCane, chiming in, “I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus. The details have been debated for centuries, but no one who is serious doubts that he’s a historical figure…. Those who deny the existence of Jesus are like the deniers of climate change.”

Holdouts to the idea that Jesus existed like to point out, however, that we don’t have any hard archaeological evidence or writings from Jesus himself, or even surviving contemporary writings from when he supposedly lived corroborating his existence. This is correct. However, if that’s the rubric being used to tell if some historic figure actually existed or not, we’d pretty much have to assert that almost nobody in history ever existed, including some extremely prominent figures absolutely no one, including many of these holdouts, questions lived. As atheist New Testament scholar Dr. Bart Erhman notes, “The reality is that we don’t have archaeological records for virtually anyone who lived in Jesus’s time and place.”

Pertinent to the topic at hand, up until extremely recently in history, there was not much of any contemporary evidence whatsoever that Pontius Pilate existed- the Roman governor of Judaea most remembered today for having Jesus crucified. That all changed in 1961 when a quite literal hard piece of evidence was found. At the site of Caesarea Maritima archeologists discovered a stone totally and in all ways coincidentally called the “Pilate Stone”, dating back to the time Pilate and Jesus were doing their respective dances. (For reference, Pilate was the prefect of Judea from 26-36 AD. And may or may not have been a great dancer.)

While it’s a damaged block without the complete text surviving on it, it definitely mentions Pilate being the prefect of Judea, with it generally thought, filling in the missing parts, it states, “To the Divine Augusti Tiberieum… Pontius Pilate… prefect of Judea…has dedicated [this]… … …Also I’m a kickass dancer.” As to what that’s referencing, it would appear he took dance classes as a kid as a part of his formal education… Or whatever… On the rest, the stone was dedicating some sort of temple or other significant building.

But before this and some surviving coins, the evidence of Pilate Pilating was arguably less than the evidence for Jesus Jesusing. And important to again explicitly point out here, Pilate was quite literally one of the most important people in all of Jerusalem at the time, and an extremely prominent Roman figure while Jesus, some random peasant Jew, was doing his thing.

Going back to Dr. Bart Erhman, he sums up, “With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.”

So putting aside holding the question of Jesus’ existence to a higher standard than anyone else in history, what about when we apply the standards historians do generally ascribe to? What’s the actual evidence there?

While there is other more secular evidence we’ll get to in a bit, so stay tuned as there are some relative smoking guns here, the most obvious answer is, of course, the writings in the New Testament itself.

Now, on the surface you may discount this, as using the Bible to prove the Bible seems rather absurd. So why do most historians, including those of the secular variety, not take this view in this case?

For starters, the sheer weight of archeological evidence that backs up a number of things discussed in these works during these periods the works are discussing. This, at least, demonstrates that they weren’t just conjured up completely by significantly later authors.
Beyond this, some have also suggested such suppositions as the “criterion of embarrassment”, positing that a group would not completely make up a story that would embarrass themselves.

Thus, as historian Will Durant notes,

“Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed—the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity, his early uncertainty as to his mission, his confessions of ignorance as to the future, his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross.” And of course his death on the cross itself as a common criminal, something that was a bit of a major scandal for early disciples after the fact.

Going back to Dr. Ehrman, he states of this, “The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies – and so if you’re going to make up a messiah, you’d make up a powerful messiah. You wouldn’t make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and then killed by the enemies.”

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright also chimes in, “It flew in the face of all Hellenistic wisdom: part of the point of crucifixion was that it completely degraded the sufferer. It denied him any chance of a noble death, a considerable preoccupation among pagans. It also, in the normal run of things, denied him a proper burial as well, since the body would have been eaten by birds, rats, or other carrion and any final remains dumped in a common pit.”

Moving swiftly on from such speculative hypotheses, of which there are many leveled against the New Testament works to try to ascertain veracity of elements in them, Paul the Apostle’s surviving works, considered to have been written around 50-60 AD, only about 20 or 30 years after Jesus’ accepted death, mention meeting various people who knew Jesus personally, including a brother of Jesus’, named James, as well as a couple of Jesus’ apostles, including Peter, who Paul was a guest of for a couple weeks in Jerusalem not long after Paul’s conversion.

Further, given these were written not long after Jesus’ death and were accepted, it’s apparent for this and many other reasons that nobody at the time questioned whether Jesus had existed, many of whom would have been alive when the alleged events occurred, with some of these events quite noteworthy in terms of stirring up trouble amongst Jewish and Roman higher ups.

On top of this, other evidence strongly suggests Christianity had already exploded in Judea and parts of the Roman Empire at this point Paul was writing. This is important because it would have taken some time for this relatively large spreading to occur- further significantly dwindling the couple decades between when Jesus is referenced to have existed and when we know for sure a rather large group of people from the region believed he did.

On this note, also important in all of this is nobody among the non-Christian Jews or Romans seems to have questioned Jesus existed either, even at this very early point when many alive should have been able to know definitively either way. And certainly given all the trouble the Christians were causing the Jews and Romans at the time, the higher ups here would have had quite the incentive to put forth any evidence that Jesus had not existed to shut up the Christians had he not.

But that still all has some level of speculation tied to it, or is from a Christian source. So what about some sources that are, shall we say, slightly more independent? Do any such relatively contemporary sources exist?

Well, if you’ve been following along so far and otherwise don’t think historians are idiots, it turns out, yes- two of which are generally considered quite definitive, at least with regard to the question of whether Jesus existed.

For starters, enter an individual generally considered the greatest of all Roman historians, Senator Publius Cornelius Tacitus, who was born a couple decades after Jesus’s death. Tacitus not only gives a direct reference to the particular Jesus in question, but, interestingly, he also states that Jesus was crucified by Pilate.

In his Annals (115 AD) in chapter 44 of book 15, he discusses Christians being targeted as a scapegoat by Nero. Stating,

“…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 Tiberius 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 Judæa, 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 a 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.”

Now, it should be noted here that some question if perhaps Tacitus was simply repeating something the Christians themselves were saying, with no backing source elsewise. After all, it had been at this point many decades since Jesus was apparently executed. However, this notion is generally dismissed given Tacitus’ preeminence as a historian and track record of having evidence to back what he said so definitively in his works, even if in many cases such evidence is lost to us today.

It’s also noted that Tacitus’ position as a senator gave him access to many official records. And perhaps most significant of all, he was part of the Quindecimviri sacris faciundis, which, among other things, oversaw various foreign religious cults at the time in Rome. This would suggest that Tacitus would likely have been extremely familiar with and had access to any records of Christianity that existed at that point. Thus, while the skepticism here isn’t necessarily completely unwarranted, in combination with Tacitus’ reputation and the other evidence at hand and how it all correlates, most historians accept this as a valid early independent source of Jesus’ existence.

Speaking of other evidence to add to the pile, we have a rather more ironclad reference in the writings of another of the most famous historians of the period, Flavius Josephus- a man born in Jerusalem almost to the year when Jesus is thought to have been crucified.

For those who haven’t watched our video on the quite literal deadliest fart in history that resulted in the deaths of 10,000 people that Josephus documents thoroughly, a brief background is in order, as it’s important as to why Josephus’ taking for granted that Jesus existed is thought so significant. As Dr. Robert Van Voorst notes, “If any Jewish writer were ever in a position to know about the non-existence of Jesus, it would have been Josephus. His implicit affirmation of the existence of Jesus has been, and still is, the most significant obstacle for those who argue that the extra-Biblical evidence is not probative on this point.”

Born in 37 AD to an extremely prominent and wealthy family in Jerusalem, Josephus’ mother was a descendant of the Hasmonean dynasty (former rulers of the region), and his father was a Jewish priest. Josephus spent his formative years on the Jewish side of the Jewish/Roman conflict, ultimately the head of the Jewish forces in Galilee. However, in 67 AD after a six week siege of Yodfat, Josephus’ siding with the Jews came to an abrupt end. While exactly what happened is up for debate given Josephus’ own account is primarily what we have to work with, on the 47th day the Romans took the town, and Josephus himself and a few dozen others took refuge in some caves. Rather than be captured, they decided it was better to die, but owing to suicide being a sin, they drew lots to see who should kill who and commensed with this mutual slaughter. In the end, the final survivors came down to Josephus and one other man, who decided rather than kill one another, perhaps it would be better to surrender after all… Party foul…
Upon doing so, Josephus ingratiated himself upon the head of the Roman forces, Vespasian, by prophesying that Vespasian would become emperor of Rome. And so it was that rather than kill Josephus, Vespasian decided to take him as slave. Two years later, Josephus was freed when Vespasian became Emperor and was granted Roman citizenship and more or less completely cast his lot on the Roman side of things, including serving as advisor and translator to Vespasian’s son Titus during the 70 AD siege of Jerusalem.
Of course, Josephus isn’t really remembered today for any of these exploits, but rather for such things as his highly influential work The Jewish War, which, among other things is considered one of the best sources for information about this pivotal period of Jewish history that ultimately saw their temple destroyed and their people displaced and lands confiscated for Roman use. It, and his other notable work Antiquities of the Jews, also functioned as significant works in the early days of Christianity, given its description of events surrounding the era that comprised the life of Jesus of Nazareth, including accounts of prominent Biblical figures such as Herod the Great, John the Baptist, and Pontius Pilate.
Noteworthy in his efforts in all of this was to give an account that was impartial, unlike so many others of the era. As Josephus noted of those covering the same events, “they have a mind to demonstrate the greatness of the Romans, while they still diminish and lessen the actions of the Jews.” While given his Jewish heritage you might think he’d be inclined to color things more in their favor instead, Josephus himself noted his goal was to be impartial and that he would “not go to the other extreme … [and] will prosecute the actions of both parties with accuracy.” Something for the most part historians generally agree he ultimately did.
In any event, Josephus mentions Jesus, not just once, but twice in Antiquities, written about a half century after Jesus was executed. That said, the first mention, in Book 18, is generally thought to have been altered at some point in history in its details. However, most historians accept that the reference to Jesus here is still valid. Just that extra details were added by some Christian scribe later and just universally copied from there. In this one it states (and we’ll put here in brackets the parts that many assume were later added)

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one ought to call him a man.] For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. [He was the Christ.] When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. [On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.] And the tribe of the Christians, so-called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”

We should probably also mention that there also exists a 10th century Arabic version of the first passage apparently copied from some original that maintains even the seemingly modified parts, but worded in such a way that perhaps may have been closer to what the Jewish Josephus actually 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 the 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 after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”

Whatever the case on either of these, as to why elements of this are almost universally questioned here, as alluded to, Josephus was a devout advocate of Judaism. Thus, Josephus referring to Jesus as the Christ would seem to indicate he was himself a convert and had, like many other Jews, accepted Jesus as the Messiah. The problem is that this doesn’t really jive with other things Joesphus wrote at all or things known about him.

While you might also wonder then if perhaps this whole passage is a forgery, almost no historian takes that end of the extreme either, for a variety of reasons from writing style and specific vocabulary in a large part of it, to also that the second reference we’ll get to in a bit seems to imply that Josephus had mentioned Jesus before in a more expansive way so that the reader should already know who he was talking about. Had the more expansive text not existed originally at all, the second reference would have required more context. Further, the second reference appears to have no such modification and simply uses Jesus as a reference to clarify who someone else was.

Naturally because of the apparent modification of some sort, this first reference can’t be taken at face value on the details. However, when discussing it as an early reference that Jesus did, in fact, exist at least, most historians accept that much about it.

As to the second reference, the context of this one in Book 20 is rather long and an aside too far if fully quoted, but the important part is embedded in an account of an event in which a new high priest decided to take advantage of the fact that the Roman procurator, Albinus, was out of town and have executed some individuals he didn’t like, “…so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others…” Unfortunately for the high priest, Albinus got word of this abuse of power and subsequently stripped the position of high priest away and instead gave the high priesthood to, funny enough, a guy named Jesus… But a different Jesus, son of Damneus. On this one, Josephus actually mentions 12 total men named Jesus. Again, it was a common name in the region.

As an interesting little brief aside, as alluded to, Josephus also is one of the early independent sources for the existence of John the Baptist, noting,

“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man… Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion… Accordingly, he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.”

Moving on from Josephus and Tacitus, there are several other allusions to Jesus independent of the writings included in the New Testament from around this same time period, though these are not, in general, given quite as much credence as these two historians’ works for various reasons.

For example, we have such text as a letter from a stoic philosopher from Syria, Mara. Writing the letter from prison after his city was captured by the Romans, Mara states, “What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defense? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates? Famine and plague came upon them as a punishment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the “new law” he laid down.”

However, it’s not clear when exactly this letter was written, possibly as early as 73 AD, and that is the general consensus, but also possibly as much as a couple hundred years after this. If the former, which, again, is the general consensus, it would be among the earliest references to Jesus. If in the ballpark of the latter, it’s of little value here, especially considering Jesus isn’t technically named, though seems very much to be who is being referred to.

Potentially a lot more significant is Roman historian Suetonius’ account, which is very similar to the aforementioned Tacitus reference. In his Lives of the Twelve Caesars (121 AD), he also mentions Nero abusing the Christians. But more pertinently, in the Life of Claudius, he states, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”

This is thought to be referencing an event that occurred around 50 AD, and seems to also be what Acts 18:2 in the New Testament is referring to, where it states, “After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome.”

While many think the “Chrestus” here is referring to Jesus, the specific spelling and wording leaves some ambiguity given it *seems* as if “Chrestus” was still alive, instigating these disturbances.

Noteworthy on this one, however, is that it is entirely possible Suetonius just thought “Chrestus” was still alive. Another alternative is Suetonius was just meaning it was the teachings of “Chrestus” that were causing the issues. Or perhaps he was talking about someone else completely. As you can imagine, the slight ambiguity in wording sees this one largely dismissed as definitive of anything.

Moving on from there, Pliny the Younger, in a letter to Emperor Trajan in 112 AD discussing the cult of Christianity states, “They (Christians) were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food, but of an ordinary and innocent kind.”

Unfortunately for this one, baby Pliny doesn’t seem to have any real source for the reference to Christ here other than the Christians themselves. Which, at least does say at this point they believed Jesus had existed and they were worshiping him. But that doesn’t really add anything to the most likely much more well researched sources in Tacitus and Josephus.

We could go on and on and on on various references like this that historians for one reason or another debate the value of in terms of answering the questions of whether Jesus existed or not, along with things he may or may not have done.

In the end, in modern times we’re used to having video, picture, or significant documented evidence various people exist today. Like, we’re pretty confident none of you out there thinks Simon Whistler doesn’t exist. This is despite the fact that you’ve likely never met me, never seen my ID to tell if that’s my real name, and even don’t really know if I am, in fact, a product of clever AI video generation, which would go a long way towards explaining how I appear on so many channels with new ones popping up all the time.

Unfortunately for historians they, on the whole, don’t have the luxury of such robust datasets, and must look at a preponderance of often rather scant evidence, and then apply the standard criteria of historical investigation to determine the likelihood of a person existing, or some event having happened or not.

When doing all of that in the case of Jesus of the Christian faith, on the whole, the vast majority of historians the world over of all backgrounds are of the opinion that at the least we can all agree that Jesus of Nazareth did, in fact, exist.

As for anything beyond that, most historians also go further in relatively comfortably saying Jesus was probably baptized by John the Baptist. That he definitely gathered disciples to spread his particular message, which was very similar to John the Baptist’s. Although as one Biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan, states, “John had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise.” Thus, John the Baptist’s ministry didn’t really last much past his death, though a handful of holdouts among his disciples did persist through the 2nd century AD. (And noteworthy today, there is a group called the Mandaeans who still consider him one of the greatest, and last, prophets of their religion). Going back to Jesus, it’s further generally accepted that in the process of his ministry, at some point he upset some prominent Jewish and Roman leaders. As a result of this, he was ultimately crucified at the order of Pontius Pilate. And, finally, after he died, at least some of his disciples were undeterred and continued to spread his teachings anyway, despite that most of them, in turn, were also killed for it.

Outside of this, who knows? Some put forth we can’t really say he said or did anything reported in the works compiled into the New Testament. While others give a little more credence to these works in terms of what he supposedly said and did, noting things like that nobody really argues that Socrates didn’t say at least in general some of what his students later said he said. Despite that the similarities here are pretty spot on, with the only documentation of anything he said written down long after he was gone. We just take the word of Plato, etc. that what they wrote he said is in the ballpark of accurate. And, in fact on this one, it’s known quite definitively Plato, for example, used Socrates as a bit of a character at times to insert his own ideas. That’s not to mention the rather contradictory accounts of some of the things Socrates supposedly said, and even that his very personality varied from different sources who knew the very real man Socrates.

Going back to Jesus, the things Jesus supposedly said were written down in the ballpark of a few decades after his death, very clearly at least in part using other records that no longer exist, including of the oral variety, as their basis. Thus, while there may have been some modification in between, similar to Socrates, it seems reasonable enough to assume at least the broad elements of Jesus’ teachings are in there, even if it’s possible others inserted their own ideas or twists. And, of course, similar to Socrates, exactly what he said verbatim is unknowable to anyone but Dr. Emmett Brown.

Whatever your opinion on any of that, to sum up, while there certainly are many holdouts the worldover on the matter of Jesus’ existence, professional historians of all backgrounds are as confident he existed as pretty much anyone we know of in history. Again as Dr. Eric Meyers, so frankly states, given the preponderance of evidence here, “Those who deny the existence of Jesus are like the deniers of climate change.”

Expand for References,_King_of_the_Jews

Regarding the quotes from the historian Josephus about Jesus

Did Jesus Exist?

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible


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