I began this article with the question: Did Jesus exist? In accordance with the definition of historicity which deals with the issue of analyzing historical record to determine whether Jesus, as a person, existed, we looked at a number of historical records, but apart from the Gospels and other writings of the New Testament. The question of whether Jesus existed is crucial to the foundation of Christianity. If Jesus did not exist, then what of Christianity?
The survey which I have provided, first examined Josephus, a Jewish General who fought against the Romans, and who after his capture was befriended by Titus. His testimony, in Chapter 3, Book XVIII of his Antiquities of the Jews, is especially weighty in my mind, because as a Jew of this era, he is antagonist to Christianity and as a Roman he is antagonist to Christianity. There is no reason for him to invent his testimony, and a great many reasons for him to not have recorded his testimony. For example, as a Flavian family member, his testimony is not particularly flattering to the Roman Empire or to the Roman Emperor.
Next, we reviewed the writings of Tacitus. In his Annals, Tacitus writes of the great six-day fire that consumed a large portion of Rome and squarely puts the blame upon Nero for using the Christians as a scape-goat. His report of Christianity is clearly hostile; he views Christianity as being a great evil, a dangerous cult: “…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.” For Tacitus to speak of the crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate is clearly at odds with his view of Christianity. Why would he do this, if it were not true?
The next Roman historian was Suetonius. Again, his testimony must be given great weight. As the Imperial Librarian and Archivist, and personal secretary to the Emperor, all of which we know from an inscription on a stone discovered in 1952, he was certainly one person who would be in a position to know and to have a duty to record the true facts.
Pliny the Younger’s testimony is actually different from the others: his is correspondence with the Emperor asking for guidance upon the subject of dealing with the Christians: how to try them for crimes. This is an “official document”. It must be given great weight. But having said that, this document does not mention the personage of Jesus, and thus, while extremely important in its documentation of the practices of the early Christians, it has only tangential weight in proving the historicity of Jesus. Although while would there be early Christians with a well-defined moral code and a faith in a man-God, if he did not exist? This question is though more speculative than dispositive.
There are other sources which were not reviewed in any depth in this article. The Jewish Babylonian Talmud, for example, which was written in the first century, mentions Jesus, but does so in a highly hostile manner. For example, it refers to his miracles as being “magic” and records that he claimed to be God. But it further mentions his execution on the eve of the Passover, all of which supports the historical existence of Jesus. Also, Justin Martyr, who was a philosopher who later converted to Christianity, wrote around 130 AD, when there was wide-spread opposition to Christianity and the threat of martyrdom was great:
“There is a village in Judea, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, where Jesus Christ was born, as you can see from the tax registers under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judea…” First Apology 34
This reference to official Roman records, which apparently he reviewed and which he invites others to review, are exactly the type of record one would expect to find, but only if Jesus was a person who existed and was listed in census-type rolls for the purpose of taxation.
Throughout, I have avoided the use of the Gospels and other writings in the New Testament to prove the historicity of Jesus, because presumably these sources would have a vested interest in taking the position that Jesus existed. I have focused on other records, some of which are “official Romans records”, as well as writing of Jews and Romans, because these are presumably free of this tainted of bias. It is because of these sources, some of which are very hostile to Jesus and Christianity, that I conclude that Jesus did exist as a person. But the fact that Jesus existed as a person does not in any way then prove that he was God. Nonetheless, if he was not remarkable, then why did so many sources write of him, his crucifixion, and of his followers? I leave this to the reader to ponder.