Jesus. Is he history?

The truth about Jesus by Rev. Paul Barnett

[The empty tomb]

Some people think the Christian story is like a fairy-tale, and Jesus a mythical figure who never really existed. But the weight of evidence is against them: There is more evidence to support the historical reality of Jesus than any other figure in that period of history:

Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, described Jesus and his followers in his Antiquities. Calling him a "wise man" and a "teacher", he briefly outlines the story of Jesus in a way that accords directly with the gospels in the Bible. If a Jewish historian had made something like this up, he would have been laughed out of town.

Tacitus, a first century Roman historian and governor of the province of Asia, mentions "Christus" who was crucified during the reign of Tiberius Caesar at the hands of Pontius Pilatus, and whose followers were still causing trouble for the Roman government.

Pliny, Suetonius and Rabbi Eliezer. Other important sources are historians who lived soon after the events recorded in the gospels.

Archeology. An abundance of other sources agree with the New Testament on public figures, historical events, dates and place names. These confirm that the Bible is anchored firmly in history.

New Testament. The main piece of evidence is, of course, the Bible itself, especially the gospels. Most of it was written while contemporaries of Jesus were still alive, giving the writers little licence for flights of fancy. The stories about Jesus appear to be solid historical documents when checked against each other and writings and artifacts of the period.

So whatever else people say about Jesus, they can't write him off as fantasy.


What about Jesus' death and resurrection? How do we know Jesus died and rose again?

One minute the disciples were scattered and grief-stricken: the next, they were joyful and energised. One minute the church didn't exist: the next it was speaking the good news about Jesus to the world. What caused this change? From all accounts, Christian and non-Christian, the redirection was remarkable. Christians claim it was the resurrection of Jesus, but it might help to look at the plausibility of the alternatives.

A hoax. Even the best hoaxes usually come undone, but the resurrection has stood up to 2000 years of intense scrutiny. The resurrection of Jesus wouldn't have occurred to a Jew, even as a joke: they were expecting the resurrection of all people at the end of time, not one person on an ordinary day. Nor could it have been an urban myth: the specifics of it were too exact and easy to check out. Paul the apostle writes that more than 500 people saw Jesus on one occasion, most of whom would still have been alive to refute such a claim if it wasn't true.

Swoon theory. Some have argued that Jesus didn't actually die on the cross, but only became unconscious and revived in the cool tomb. The Roman guards of the time, who were experienced executioners, would beg to differ. One even thrust a spear into Jesus' side to check, and "blood and water" flowed out. Shortly after death, blood separates into a red and clear liquid. From its mention in the Bible, this fact makes it clear Jesus was indeed dead.

Stolen body. It was suggested at the time that Jesus' followers stole his body. Apart from the difficulties of getting past the Roman guards, these were men and women who later died for their faith. Who would die for what they knew to be untrue? And neither the Roman nor the Jewish authorities were likely candidates as body-snatchers: as soon as claims of resurrection were made, it would have been in their interest to produce the body.

So we know Jesus was in fact dead and hundreds of people claimed to have seen him afterwards. Resurrection looks like a very plausible, although amazing option.


If the Bible record about Jesus is accurate, what do we make of him?

The Jewish authorities wanted Jesus crucified because he said he was God. When Jesus was being questioned prior to his crucifixion, the High Priest asked him: "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus replied that he was, adding that he would return to judge the world.

Jesus claimed he was God. That only leaves us with a number of options:

He is a liar. Even opponents of Christianity accept that Jesus was a good man. A closer look at Jesus' life shows that from his birth to death he was utterly pure and loving and full of God's truth. It would seem strange, then, that Jesus would lie about the most central aspect of his identity.

He is a lunatic. The teachings of Jesus show no sign of madness. His moral teaching is brilliantly thought out, practical and grounded in the reality of normal human life. His language is simple and clear. When answering his critics he displays the most exceptionally rational wit. Indeed when the Jewish authorities asked him who he was, he didn't grandstand his greatness like someone who is mad. The humbleness of his life is in total contrast to a megalomaniac who believes he is God, unless of course he is God!

He is Lord. The witness of Jesus' disciples is the most compelling evidence that Jesus wasn't lying nor mad. Their testimony that he rose again should prove he is Lord and God. The only question that remains is whether we want him to be our Lord and God.