by Mark Slaughter
Some years ago, a team and I were doing evangelistic outreach at a state university in the Midwestern United States, praying for God to lead us to spiritually open students interested in discussing their spiritual experiences and beliefs. On this sunny, warm day, we struck up a conversation with a guy who was sitting outside and trying to study. After 10 minutes of asking and listening, we asked him who he thought Jesus Christ was. He startled us with his reply, “I didn’t know a literal Jesus Christ actually existed until I learned that last semester in my western civilization class.” (We were shocked that the class had taught Jesus’ historical existence!)
He had assumed Jesus was simply a myth, but not an actual historic person… and he grew up around a lot of churches in the Midwest! How would you have responded if someone like him had asked you, “How do you know that Jesus was a real historical person? And besides the Bible, is there any other evidence that He existed?”
The Christian faith is not simply based upon the teachings of Jesus, but rather upon the actual fact that God revealed Himself to humanity through the historic events of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. If He didn’t exist, then the Christian faith is false (1 Cor. 15:14).
So what evidence exists outside of the Bible for Jesus’ existence? Let’s focus on the WHO, the WHAT, and the WHO ELSE … with a sample question you could ask your friend on each section.
WHO – “Are you aware that opponents of Christianity actually affirm Jesus’ existence?”
Two of the best sources are…
- Cornelius Tacitus (Roman Historian, wrote A.D. 112): widely viewed as one of the most accurate historians of the ancient world
- Flavius Josephus (Jewish Historian, born A.D. 37): the most well-known Jewish historian of that time
Additional sources include:
- Suetonius (A.D. 69-140): a Roman historian for the Emperor Hadrian
- Pliny the Younger (A.D. 112): Governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor who wrote to the emperor Trajan seeking legal advice in dealing with Christians
- Thallus (A.D. 52): quoted by Julius Africanus (A.D. 221) and one of the earliest Gentile writers mentioning Christ
- Mara Bar-Serapion (after A.D. 73): a Syrian philosopher who wrote his son, comparing Jesus’ life with philosophers persecuted for their ideas
- Lucian of Samosata (A.D. 115-200): a second-century satirist who in speaking with disdain about Jesus and Christians, affirmed they were real people
- Phlegon (A.D. 80-140; quoted by Julius Africanus and Origen): Mentioned the darkness surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion
These outside writers are not followers of Jesus, yet they confirm that He did live, and collaborate with the New Testament—27 ancient documents written by many eyewitnesses who were persecuted and/or martyred.
WHAT – “Did you realize that early non-Christian sources confirm Jesus existed and confirm many facts about His life?”
Josephus described James as “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” (Antiquities XX 9:1), as Galatians 1:19 states. Scholars widely affirm the genuineness of this passage.
Tacitus, explaining how Nero blamed Christians for the great fire in Rome in A.D. 64, describes how they got their name from “Christ”, who had “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of … Pontius Pilatus.” He thus confirms Christians got their name from a real person named Christ who was crucified (“extreme penalty” of Rome) during Tiberius’ reign as decided by Pontius Pilate.
Pliny the Younger tells how early Christians met regularly on a certain day for worship of Christ, singing songs to Christ “as to a god.” In contrast to Greek and Roman gods, they were worshipping a real person.
Taken together, Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and others substantiate that Jesus was:
- called Christ
- worked special wonders
- was hanged on a cross in Judea during Tiberius’ reign
- sentenced by Pontius Pilate
- claimed to be God
- worshipped by His followers as God
Amazingly, these extra-biblical sources reconstruct much of the gospel of Jesus Christ!
WHO ELSE – “Who else from the ancient world has this much evidence for their existence?”
None of these sources give even a hint that Jesus was not a real person. Jesus is likely the most attested person of the ancient world. More details are given about His birth, life, and death than most ancient people whom we do not question at all their historical existence.
If we don’t believe that Jesus existed historically, then to be fair we should also deny that Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and others also existed! If Jesus wasn’t a religious figure, almost certainly there would be no question of his existence.
Finally, I’d ask one more question: “Since the evidence is so compelling that Jesus existed, wouldn’t you want to explore what was so unique about Him and who He claimed to be?”
That is what we asked the student on that Midwestern campus, and you can ask your friends that question too! They are genuinely drawn to Jesus, and simply want a safe friend to help them discover the real Jesus Christ who actually lived… and lives today.
Mark Slaughter (@MarkASlaughter) is an InterVarsity evangelist and national facilitator of Emerging Generations for the Mission America Coalition. He is a former pastor who is passionate about empowering the next generation of evangelism leaders and raising the evangelism temperature. Learn more: markslaughter.org.