the historical jesus

Time and time again, my conversations with atheist friends and acquaintances regarding God, faith, and Christianity have come down to one question: who is Jesus? Immediately my mind floods with vivid images and stories of the incarnate God, Biblical stories that have shaped my view of Jesus. But even I know that to use Biblical material in dialogue with an atheist friend would require another discussion entirely. While the New Testament books are arguably the best-attested historical documents we possess, for the sake of a non-Christian discussion I have researched the pagan and Jewish historical references to Jesus of Nazareth. In this essay, I aim to demonstrate that first and second century non-Christian sources illuminate a historical Jesus who was a miracle worker and teacher, was crucified, and made significant claims regarding his identity.

            Non-Christian or even anti-Christian sources leave essentially no dispute over the historicity of the person of Jesus. One of the earliest sources was written around A.D. 120 by the Roman historian Suetonius documenting events from the reign of Emperor Claudius. He wrote of the emperor’s actions in A.D. 49[1]: “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus[2], he expelled them from Rome.”[3] Even such a small sentence has profound implications as a foundation for Jesus as a historical figure. First, Suetonius affirms that the character of Christ was considered a factual person. His account also establishes that Jesus was not just an average Jew; somehow he was influential enough to instigate a large movement. The use of the name “Christ,” which is a messianic title[4], suggests that Jesus was known as a religious leader less than two decades after his death, even two thousand miles from Jerusalem. Having laid the basis that Jesus existed as some kind of religious figure, more sources will give us further insight into his defining characteristics.

            The documentation of Jewish writings from between 70 and 200 A.D.[5] give credence to the claims that Jesus was a miracle worker of some kind, mostly by attributing him with magic or some other unusual power.  The Babylonian Talmud recorded that:

On Passover Eve they hanged Jesus of Nazareth. And the herald went out before him for forty days: ‘Jesus of Nazareth is going out to be stoned because he practiced sorcery, incited to idol worship, and led Israel astray. Whoever knows an argument in his favor should come and argue on his behalf.’ But they did not find an argument in his favor, and they hanged him on Passover Eve. [6]

Another book in the Talmud similarly states that Jesus “practiced magic and led Israel astray.”[7] These references are significant in that they accuse Jesus of some form of supernatural or magical activity. Jewish, anti-Christian authors wrote the Talmud, and thus it is noteworthy that their claim was not against Jesus’ existence or demonstration of power, but was rather an accusation that his power came from evil sources. Jesus’ actions were also attested by Josephus, a Jewish historian writing for the Roman emperor around the end of the first century. A near-original[8] interpretation of Josephus’ text reads:   

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first ceased not so to do; and the race of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct even now. [9]

From Josephus’ description of Jesus as a “doer of wonderful works,”[10] along with the Talmud’s references, we conclude that the ancient world considered Jesus to have possessed and used some form of power, whether divine or demonic. Otto Betz writes, “It is certain that Jesus performed miracles, healing all kinds of sickness; that fact can be deduced even from the Jewish polemic which called him a sorcerer.”[11]

            Three authors within just a century of Christ’s existence give evidence that Jesus was known as a good teacher. First, Josephus’ previously quoted account records Jesus as “a wise man” and “a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.”[12] The Sanhedrin text from the Talmud briefly states, “Jesus of Nazareth had five disciples,”[13] which affirms that Jesus was a teacher. The Roman governor Pliny the Younger made valuable references to early Christians in his letters to Emperor Trajan seeking advice on how to handle this new religion. Pliny writes:

[The Christians] also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it.[14]

While Pliny’s letter makes no direct reference to Jesus of Nazareth as a teacher, the implication is that the Christians are obeying the instruction or practice of their religious figurehead. The practices themselves, as Pliny points out, are good and noble: honesty, fidelity, and faithfulness. Pliny’s writings, as well as Josephus and the Talmud, combine to begin painting a picture of Jesus as a wise, honorable teacher.

            In addition to developing Jesus’ character as a teacher and some kind of miracle worker, many sources serve to confirm the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. The Roman historian Tacitus offers us one of the earliest and most detailed historical references to Jesus in his documentation of the fire in Rome:

Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crown styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.[15]

From the tone of Tacitus’ writing, his report[16] was clearly not favorable toward Christianity. However, he enables us to establish that Jesus was (1) a religious figure, (2) from Judaea, (3) lived during the reign of Tiberius and specifically Pontius Pilate, and (4) was executed. Josephus’ account specifies that Pilate “condemned him to the cross,”[17] and the Sanhedrin recounts that Jesus was hung[18] on Passover Eve.[19] These sources determine that Jesus was historically known to have been executed, leaving only the question of what prompted his execution. The reason for Jesus’ condemnation is the final and arguably most significant aspect of his historicity.

            The writings we have examined all make the important implication that Jesus made controversial or unusual claims regarding his own identity. Josephus’ reference explains that Jesus had devoted followers while he was alive. Pliny writes that his followers worshipped him as a god. Multiple Jewish writings state that Jesus led Israel astray and call him an “inciter.”[20] The accusation of sorcery would be sufficient to receive condemnation from the Jewish religious authorities, but blasphemy was an act far more likely to be punished by death. Furthermore, an official Roman execution would require a more substantial and potentially political claim than simply magic. The consistent use of the name “Christ”[21] in both pagan writings demonstrates that very early in the rise of Christianity, Jesus’ followers considered him an anointed, messianic figure. The disciples of this executed teacher started a movement that was affecting Rome within a few decades; if Jesus had never claimed to be more than a rabbi, there would be little reason for these disciples to start their own religion. While these sources and arguments do not prove that Jesus claimed to be the Christ, they do illuminate a large number of factors where the easiest explanation for Jesus’ execution stems from some kind of Messianic claim.

            Suetonius, Pliny, Tacitus, Josephus, and various books of the Talmud have provided a brief and initial summary regarding the historical, first and second century, non-Christian perspective of Jesus. From these sources, we can conclude that Jesus was a factual person, a respected teacher, perceived as employing some kind of magical or supernatural power, and likely made a type of messianic or blasphemous claim that led to his historical execution. Though seemingly a minimal amount of information regarding such an influential man in the story of the world, these few conclusions take us back to the original, vital question: who is Jesus? How can one explain a Jewish teacher with unusual powers whose followers claimed his divinity even after his execution? How did this man from Judaea become the epicenter of human history? These ancient histories may not compel my atheist friends to believe in Christ as I do. But at the very least, there is no question that Jesus of Nazareth is a human being and historical figure that cannot be ignored.

[1] Bock, Darrell L. Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002. Print.
[2] Historians consider “Chrestus” to be a common misspelling of the name of Christ (Bruce, pg. 21)

[3] Tranquillus, Gaius Suetonius. Suetonius. Vol. 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U, 1997. Print.
[4] Bock. 2002.

[5] Bruce, pg. 55
[6] David, Strauss, Rabbi, trans. The Talmud. Vol. 17. New York: Random House, 1998. Print. Page 158.
[7] Epstein, Isidore. The Babylonian Talmud. Vol. 3. London: Soncino, 1936. Print. Page 248.

[8] Modern historical critics conclude that Josephus’ text was altered by Christians in favor of a Christian view of Jesus Christ. The altered text we possess today reads: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.” (Josephus, Flavius. The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian and Celebrated Warrior. Trans. William Whiston. Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1936. Print.) The near-original used in this essay was suggested by Joseph Klauser of the Hebrew University of Jersualem. Many potential versions of Josephus’ Jesus reference have been written; the elements used in this essay are common to each interpretation.
[9] Bruce, pg. 38-39.
[10] In other renditions, “doer of wonderful works” is interpreted, “one who wrought surprising feats” (Bond, pg. 40), “who performed surprising works” (Bruce, pg. 39), or “performer of astonishing deed” (France, pg. 28).
[11] Betz, Otto. What Do We Know About Jesus? London: SCM, 1968. Print. Page 58.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Strauss, Rabbi, David, trans. The Talmud. Vol. 17. New York: Random House, 1998. Print. Page 159.
[14] Pliny. Pliny: Letters and Panegyricus. Ed. G. P. Goold. Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1969. Print. Page 290-291.

[15] Tacitus, Cornelius. Tacitus, in Five Volumes. Vol. 5. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1970. Print. Page 284.
[16] Some argue that Tacticus wrote only the majority opinion of the day, not historical information. Darrel L. Bock writes, “It appears to have come from archival reports or some later Roman sources. The perspective is clearly not Christian.” (Bock, pg. 50)
[17] Josephus, Flavius. The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian and Celebrated Warrior. Trans. William Whiston. Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1936. Print. Page 535.

[18] “Hung” is often an ancient reference to crucifixion, such as in Acts 5:30: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” (ESV)
[19] Strauss. Page 158.
[20] Strauss. Page 159.
[21] “Christ” is the English translation of Christos, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for “Messiah,” meaning “anointed one.”

Written for my Introduction to New Testament class at Trinity Western University. 


  1. Just as an FYI: here is a quick reference list of "Two Centuries Worth of Citations" to the historical Jesus:


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