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Jesus: The Historical Evidence Pt.1 Chronicling the Best and Earliest Sources

"...we have a letter from someone writing in the first century, shortly after Jesus’ death, who personally knew Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and Jesus’ brother James."

There is no scholar of the ancient world (believer or non-believer) teaching at any university in the West who denies Jesus existed. For some strange reason, the view that Jesus never existed, known as the “Mythicist” view, has been spreading on the internet recently. Let me speak forcefully but candidly about this: Jesus definitely existed and he is one of the best-attested figures from the ancient world. We have Roman, Jewish, and Christian sources who all attest to the historical Jesus, and there should be no doubt about this. Starting with this blog, I want to chronicle the evidence clearly and concisely.

Flavius Josephus (37 – c. 100 CE), a Jewish historian from the first century, is the earliest non-biblical reference we have to Jesus. Although he makes two references to Jesus, one is contested as a later Christian interpolation or embellishment. However, the other reference is accepted as authentic. The accepted reference to Jesus (and his brother James) is found in his work Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1. The text reads:

“. . . [S]o he (Albinus) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned . . .“

It is important to point out that the fact that Jesus had a brother named James is corroborated and multiply attested in two of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 13:55 Mark 6:3), and Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. Early Church tradition (Hegesippus, c. 170 CE) also maintains that James the Just was stoned by the religious authorities in Jerusalem, which makes Josephus’s account more credible. Furthermore, Josephus was a contemporary of James and lived through the time of James’s alleged martyrdom (c. 62 CE), so he could have very well received his information from an eyewitness source or been an eyewitness himself. It would be unthinkable for James to be stoned for the cause of his brother Jesus, who was believed to be the messiah, if he never existed. Or for a movement to begin in Jerusalem, based on the public crucifixion and empty tomb of a man who never existed. To read the account of James’s martyrdom by Hegesippus click here.

The best and earliest evidence we have for the existence of Jesus, which should put all the conspiracy theories to rest, is Saul of Tarsus (known to most as the Apostle Paul) and his epistle to the Galatians, written circa 50 CE just two decades after the death of Jesus. Out of the thirteen letters written in Paul’s name, seven are accepted by virtually all scholars as definitely belonging to Paul. Galatians is one of these seven. In Galatians 1:18-19, Paul talks about the time he went to Jerusalem, where he met with Cephas (Peter) and “James the Lord’s brother.” This is important for historians because Paul is making an off the cuff comment about “James the Lord’s brother.” He knows that his audience is well aware of who James is–Jesus’ brother who was head of the Church in Jerusalem (see Acts 15). Moreover, Paul is contrasting James with Peter. He is saying that he met with Peter (an apostle) and with James the Lord’s brother. So here we have a letter from someone writing in the first century, shortly after Jesus’ death, who personally knew Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and Jesus’ brother James.

The evidence goes on and on and we will continue in the next few blogs…