The Historicity of Jesus Christ
A review of the evidence for and against the life of Jesus of Nazareth as a real living man.
Today we're going to take the weightiest question in all of human history — upon which wars have been fought and countless lives sacrificed, national borders drawn and obliterated, great cities and nations destroyed, others created and history made — and distill it into a few minutes of podcast chatter. This question can be none other than whether Jesus of Nazareth who died on the cross was a real living person who walked the Earth, two thousand years ago.
The first point to make — something you'll discover early on when researching this question — is that virtually all the articles written on this come to a pretty firm conclusion, one way or the other. They typically end with something like "this leaves little room for doubt" followed by their conclusion that Jesus almost certainly did live and die as a man, or that he almost certainly did not live and die as a man. These are both fringe perspectives. That's not to say that one or the other is right or wrong; rather that neither firm conclusion represents a majority consensus of academia. This should come as no great surprise; most who choose to write about this topic have an ax to grind. They are typically firebrand Christians or firebrand atheists. Both are problematic starting points from which to do objective research.
We have to define exactly what question we're really trying to answer here, because there are a number of possibilities. One possibility is whether Jesus was the son of a divine God, and we're not doing that today, as it's not a science question. Another possibility is whether there was a guy named Jesus who was worshiped as a messiah in the Holy Land at that time in history. This isn't the right question to ask either; as more than one scholar has noted, Monty Python's Life of Brian was actually quite historically accurate in that it pointed out there was a messiah on every street corner. That would be a search for a Jesus too dilute to represent the Jesus Christ we think of today. Better questions to ask would be whether the crucifixion and resurrection took place, of the man called Jesus of Nazareth who was followed by the apostles of the canonical gospels. That's the guy we're thinking of. The resurrection is a claim of a specific supernatural event evidenced only by stories of an empty tomb — anecdotes claiming a lack of evidence — and so we're not going to set our bar quite so high as to demand proof of that. Our specific question today is whether a Jesus of Nazareth was executed by Pontius Pilate, in or about the year 30 CE. That's the best question to ask for both sides of the debate, because it's an official documentable government action which should satisfy the skeptics, and it would confirm the single most important act in Christianity which should satisfy the Christians.
So we can start with Pilate himself. He was the fifth prefect of Judaea, serving from 26 to 36 CE. He was appointed to this role by the emperor Tiberius, replacing Valerius Gratus; and was succeeded by Marcellus. Pilate's existence is in no meaningful doubt; he issued coins which survive today. In 1961 a stone was discovered in the structure supporting some stairs behind a 4th-century theater. The stone had been reused from a previous building, and had been inscribed with the name of Pontius Pilate, identifying him as prefect. Pilate was also mentioned in ancient historical texts, including by his contemporary Greek philosopher Philo, and then after his death by the Judaean scholar Josephus and the Roman senator Tacitus. I mention these because they're the ones whose reliability is generally acknowledged academically. Pilate's life is also supported by many other references of descending reliability which don't meet as high a standard of evidence.
But that's the end of the reliable trail. No such thing survives as any official records of the doings of the Judaean provincial government. In fact, historians agree that the Romans were unlikely to have even made records of executions of non-citizens — though it's possible someone of Jesus of Nazareth's claimed significance could have warranted an exception. So to find records of what Pilate did while in office, we have to limit ourselves strictly to the four canonical gospels of the New Testament (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) which don't pass any academic sniff test for historical reliability, plus a few traditional stories which are even worse, plus three more interesting non-canonical documents that are noteworthy. These are the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Pilate, and the Acts of Peter and Paul.
The Gospel of Peter was rejected by various church councils from inclusion in the Bible because they considered it heretical. One of these heresies is that it does not lay the blame for Christ's execution upon Pilate himself, but upon Herod and other Jews. The Gospel of Peter's authorship is unknown. It is agreed to be pseudepigraphic, meaning it was not written by Peter as it says. It was probably written after the canonical gospels, and is considered to be even less reliable historically, in part due to the differences in its account.
The Acts of Pilate, later known as the Gospels of Nicodemus, purports to be exactly what we're looking for: an account based on the official records stored by the Romans in Jerusalem. It covers the period of time from the trial of Jesus through the resurrection. However, it is a little too convenient that this all-too-perfect document just happens to exist when no similar ones do. Scholars are almost unanimous that the Acts of Pilate was forged in the 4th century as falsified evidence attempting to prove the historicity of the crucifixion, in the face of rising pagan texts that denied it. Part of the evidence supporting this dating is that church historian Eusebius of Caesaria did not include the Acts of Pilate in his comprehensive lists of extant texts as of approximately 325 CE, and his entire job in life was to be familiar with all the existing gospels.
The third interesting document, the Acts of Peter and Paul, was written some 500 years after the crucifixion is said to have taken place, and is of unknown authorship. Consequently it bears very little academic credibility. It has Peter and Paul as brothers, and tells the story of a journey they make. The part that's of interest to us is a single paragraph quoting a letter written by Pontius Pilate to Claudius, advising him of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. In a single paragraph, the account covers the prophesy of the son of God; the virgin birth; Jesus' travels through the holy land healing lepers, walking on water, and performing all manner of other miracles; his betrayal to the Romans; his torture, crucifixion, and entombment; his resurrection on the third day; even a payoff to the Roman sentinels to pretend they saw nothing.
Peter reads Pilate's letter to Nero, addressing Nero as emperor; and so we know this account would have had to have happened sometime after the year 54, fifteen years after Pilate's suicide commanded by the emperor Caligula. The unlikely timeline aside, the Acts of Peter and Paul is, like the Acts of Pilate, nearly universally considered to be more falsified evidence for the crucifixion created by a church apologist. In fact, though it was written more than a century later, it is generally found appended to the Acts of Pilate as a supplement.
All of this leaves the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth virtually unevidenced, supported only by works such as the canonical gospels, the same sources that bring us turning water into wine, feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, the miraculous restoration of sight to the blind, and other things that we can rest assured did not happen literally as written. But of course, this absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence. There are, however, some other points that may.
We've mentioned a few early authors, but there were of course scores of others. During the first century, there were many great historians creating the bulk of what we know about the holy land of those days. These include Seneca, Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, Petronius, Florus Lucius, Plutarch, Apollonius, Ptolemy, Appion of Alexandria, and dozens more. John Remsburg was a passionate atheist author in the late 19th and early 20th century; someone who clearly had an agenda, and so whose research I might not normally include. But he did make one point I was going to make myself, and he brought a wealth of research supporting it. Remsburg listed 42 prominent authors from that time and place who collectively documented every significant event from that century that's known. In Remsburg's words:
Arguably, a case can be made that this could be seen as evidence of absence. However a counterargument can also be made that Judaea was not exactly the center of the ancient world. And as has been noted, there was a messiah on every street corner, often making treasonous incitements to resistance against the occupying Romans. It's not at all impossible that another daily crucifixion could have happened in Judaea without raising the alert in Rome and Athens and Alexandria and the other great cities where many of these intellectual luminaries studied and wrote. That a Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified by Pilate could have escaped mention in the global headlines says nothing about whether a Jesus of Nazareth, among many unexceptional messiahs, had a place in the line of crucifixions that may have happened under the authority of Pilate.
It goes without saying that many Christian apologists consider the canonical gospels to be absolutely historically accurate, and claim scholarly support for this. If we can mention Remsburg, we should give a nod to that equally agenda-driven perspective as well. Regardless, everyone agrees that the anecdotal evidence for Jesus of Nazareth being a real living person is quite voluminous; and considering the undoubted impact he has had on the course of human events for two thousand years, I land on Jesus having been an actual person as the null hypothesis — but I've no complaint against the opposite perspective. However, this null hypothesis should be tempered with two facts: First, if he lived, he was not very noteworthy in his day; as we can deduce from the lack of contemporary documentation. Second, applying the lessons learned from a decade at Skeptoid of studying the growth and development of urban legends and other beliefs, it's a virtual certainty that whatever the original seed of truth may have been, today's legend of Jesus is as imaginative authors have magnified it and magnified it and magnified it countless times over the centuries.
Consider the example of Nostradamus, who was a writer of cookbooks and unknown during his lifetime, until 19th-century writers of pulp fiction created the legend and all the imaginative nonsense that surrounds this now celebrated character. But he was a real person.
So we'll bring this story to an end with the most honest of all answers: We don't know. Proof either way is wanting. We don't know now, and each passing century brings diminishing chances that we'll ever know. With apologies to those on both sides of the fence, I was unable to find sufficient justification to declare your perspective to be that supported by incontrovertible historical evidence. So once again, go with that most undervalued of honest answers: we don't know.
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