Regardless of whether you believe or not...

What is the non-Biblical evidence regarding his existence around the time he is commonly thought to have lived? That is, are there other historically accurate documents from the time period which corroborate the biblical story or falsify it?

Again, this question does not have anything to do with anyone's personal belief or disbelief, and certainly has nothing to do with divinity. It simply asks for a consideration of available evidence regarding the historical existence of a particular person by a particular name at particular place in time.

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    Please restrict the answers here to the claim that someone called Jesus lived at that time, and leave the question whether he was the son of God or other purely religious aspects out of it.
    – Mad Scientist
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 5:42
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    "As we shall see, most of this evidence isn’t even good evidence in the first place, and they are insufficient to justify the conclusion that the story of the resurrection of Jesus is true."This is a quote from your reference.I do not need to remind you that this question does not inquire about any resurrection.Your source then becomes indistiguishable from wikipedia: Check it out: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicity_of_Jesus with freethoughtkampala.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/… especially when they mention Tacitus. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 7:02
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    @Lagerbaer, @Monkey Tuesday: I had been taught that the genealogical discrepancies between the gospel accounts is because one writer chose to trace the lineage through Joseph and the other chose to trace the lineage through Mary. The two lineages converge somewhere between Mary/Joseph and David, so the early genealogy for both are the same.
    – oosterwal
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 12:38
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    The question is about identity, and if you don't ask, whether just a person of that name existed at that time in that region, you're asking whether there was a person which was born by a virgin, which permitted wonders, which went with his body to heaven. Or what else shall the identity of Jesus be? Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 16:33
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    @Andrew: I think it is reasonable to expect historical evidence for his his existence or non-existence. Take the case of Socrates. We don't know for certain that he existed. But robust accounts by Plato, Xenophon and their contemporaries would seem to make it probable that he did indeed exist. And this was ~400 years before Jesus was purported to have lived.
    – user2466
    Commented May 14, 2011 at 19:23

7 Answers 7

  1. With respect to written historical references to Christ, here are some examples:

The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus wrote in his Antiquities of the Jews, written around 93–94 AD:

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 amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those who loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to themn alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning hiim; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day" (Antiquities, XVIII, III)* (source)

Tacitus, a Roman historian mentions Jesus in a passage about Nero in his final work Annals written in 116 AD:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus [Christ], from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition [Christ's resurrection] thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, 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 (link)

Will Durant, a agnostic historian (from what I can find), wrote on historical content:

...the argument took the existence of Christ for granted. The denial of that existence seems never to have occurred even to the bitterest gentile or Jewish opponents of nascent Christianity

  1. A couple of examples of indirect evidence from historical writing:
  • comments in a letter by Roman Pliny the Younger written around 112 AD about the willingness of many Christians to be killed rather than change their beliefs; this would probably be difficult to produce on any scale for a fictional figure
  • various quotations of eyewitness accounts of Jesus in Bible sections writings; the tone, context and use of the quotations presume that Jesus existed
  1. Scientific evidences would be a little more difficult for any historical figure. For example using DNA or fingerprints to prove that someone existed in history is heading toward logically impossible. It seems you would need sample of biometric information from a person for comparison; but then you would, by definition, already know they existed.

Chapter 9 of Gary Habermas' book "The Historical Jesus" addresses this question extensively.

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    Since you referenced it - here's the Dead Sea Scrolls point (which I removed as out-of-scope) "The Dead Sea Scrolls include (but are not limited to) texts which are also in the Bible; they have been dated before the Jesus and contain detailed predictions that match important aspects of the life and death of Jesus; the Bible claims that these detailed predictions which can be shown to be before Jesus' time are part of its self-authentication" Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 7:25
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    I would put a historian from that era to the test of transmission (how did we get the text), internal consistency (does it fall apart under its own scrutiny) and external consistency (how does it compare to other sources of its time). I don't have the means to do that at an academic level, so I've read the work of others who have researched it with an eye to their approach, reasoning, perspective and with a preference for indications of a life of careful integrity. I also review my view against people I personally know who have done more homework and meet those same criteria. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 7:49
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    @BCooksey: Tacitus quote proves that Christians existed. And that they believed in Jesus. It's not an evidence that Jesus existed. The authenticity of Testimonium Flavianum is doubtful. The rest is mere speculations. You think people wouldn't die on account of fictional person, I believe they would and they did. Just because they believed Jesus was real it didn't make him real.
    – user288
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 8:26
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    @BCooksey No. This is the common story given in the gospel. Tacitus reciting this story is not evidence. Evidence for this judicial sentence would be the proper court documents. I don't know to what extent Romans kept those for non-Roman citizens, though.
    – Lagerbaer
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 21:35
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    -1: This is a very poor answer. The only actual sources are the Testimonium Flavianum, which was almost certainly a later Christian interpolation; and an equally uncritical quote from Tacitus, who was essentially relating the Christian version of things - I mean, it's like an Elvis fan telling a historian that Elvis was totally working at this one truck stop. The rest of it is just unsupported speculation and conjecture. There's a good case to be made here, you're just not making it.
    – Tacroy
    Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 22:36

The non-Christian historical references mentioned above are all significant. What we need to understand first, though, is that there is no contemporaneous or documentary evidence for the existence of most ancient figures. That's the nature of our historical sources for the ancient world. So if the question is "Do we have good historical evidence that Jesus existed, the kind of evidence that historians take as conclusive when they're doing ancient history" then the answer is a clear "yes."

One difficulty with the way the question is posed here is that it rules out any evidence coming from Jesus' followers. But that's not good historical method. For a relatively obscure figure from a backwater Roman province, the only sources you will find for the first several decades will come from the figure's own circle of followers. What we find is that within two decades of his death we have first- and second-hand accounts of Jesus' life and references to Jesus as a real person. (Paul writes in the late 40s and through the 50s AD.)[1] It is important here that Paul and the other early Christians writing within living memory of Jesus don't treat his existence as a focus of argument or as something to prove. They display no defensiveness about it. Instead, it is just taken for granted both by Jesus' followers and by his detractors.[2] This early evidence, then, seems widespread geographically (Paul in the Eastern Mediterranean, Peter and James the Just in and around Jerusalem, John perhaps in the Ephesus area of Asia Minor)[3] and is uncontested by contemporaries. I find it particularly telling that Paul doesn't need to argue for Jesus' existence when he writes to the new Christian communities in Rome around AD 58. Paul clearly didn't found the community, has never been to Rome, and (based on how much of his teaching he has to defend in the letter) is regarded with some suspicion by Roman Christ-followers. Most scholars think that teaching about Jesus was brought independently to Rome by Jews returning from pilgrimages to Jerusalem or some similar informal route.[4] Even so, Paul can take for granted their agreement that Jesus existed and was crucified [5].

But we also need to look carefully at Tacitus and Josephus. Tacitus is writing in the second-century, true, but he is a meticulously careful historian. When he encounters dubious or unsubstantiated rumors, Tacitus is very clear with his readers that the evidence before him is suspect. So it is significant that Tacitus (less than a century after the events) does not signal any doubt. As for this passage being a Christian interpolation, there is no reason to say that except for prior doubts about Jesus. There is a danger here of "rigging the deck". If we dismiss evidence (without internal grounds) as fabricated, then what evidence could possibly be accepted? No, Tacitus is a very strong witness, even if he was writing two generations later.

The so-called "Testimonium Flavium" by Josephus, on the other hand, is certainly the victim of Christian editing (for the reasons discussed here in other answers). But the general consensus among historians is that there was an original, neutral reference to Jesus here in Josephus that has been expanded and made more pious by later Christian scribes. I'll leave aside the detailed arguments here about the "seams" in the passage itself.[6] More convincing to me is the fact that there are so few references to Jesus in early historians. If Christian scribes (who preserved all of these classical sources for us through late Antiquity and the early middle ages until they were "discovered" in Constantinople by Arab Muslims) did not make a habit of injecting references to Jesus everywhere, then we should be careful about assuming that this reference in Josephus is pure fabrication. What Christian scribes did do, though, is add to and elaborate on references to Jesus in "secular" sources to make them more pious. If that is what happened with Josephus, then we do have a non-Christian historian writing within living memory of the events about Jesus as a real figure.

(Despite the suggestion in one answer above, there is no evidence whatsoever that Josephus was an "Ebionite" Christian. The authority mentioned for this idea (Whiston) is a 19th century translator of Josephus who was making the assertion on the basis of the Testimonium Flavium, which he assumed was genuine in its present form.[9])

I am a biblical scholar and historian (PhD in Religious Studies from a secular public University in Canada, now tenured faculty at a Canadian Seminary). Every year I go to secular academic conferences to present and hear research papers from around the world. Arguments from consensus are dangerous, since the majority can easily be wrong. Still, it is significant that I have never met a colleague holding a faculty position in ancient history at a University who doubts Jesus' existence. This is certainly not because of public pressure (some of the same people are deeply iconoclastic) but because the evidence satisfies all the reasonable standards that we can expect for 90% of the ancient world. Anyone who spends her/his time working with ancient history comes to recognize quickly that the evidence for Jesus' existence is very good. Those who continue to question Jesus' existence are consistently people without academic training, whose work hasn't passed the peer review process that helps to maintain rigour. It tends to be journalists, documentary makers, amateurs writing a blog, or (at most) academics whose training is in an entirely different field (not in ancient history). My point is not that the historical academics couldn't (in theory) be wrong. It's that historians (even those much more skeptical than I) recognize that the existence of Jesus is as well attested as we can usually hope for in the ancient world. If we doubt Jesus' existence then certainly we must doubt, say, Pythagoras who left no writings and is only described by much later writers.[7] There is also much better historical evidence for Jesus than for Gautama the Buddha, who was not treated in "outsider" accounts for much longer than Jesus.[8]

The trick, of course, is the term "verifiable" in the question. If one is looking for the kind of evidence that gives us measurable experimental data in the physical sciences, then no we won't be satisfied with the evidence. But if that is our standard we lose most of the past. The first Skeptics (of the post-Plato Academy) understood that we live in a world where the best we can usually do is probability, but that this doesn't make evidence or the degree of probability insignificant. So maybe what we can say is that the probability of Jesus' existence is much, much higher than the probability that he did not.

  • [1] This dating for Paul's writings is universally accepted among historians of the period and biblical scholars. See, e.g., Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), pp. 428-430.
  • [2] Of course, a neat reference is difficult when you're saying that something does not appear in a document. But take Paul's letter to the Corinthians as an example. He talks throughout about Jesus, and in 1 Corinthians 15:1ff. he offers argumentative evidence for his claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. But nowhere in the letter does he feel the need to argue in a similar way for Jesus' mere existence. His argumentative structure presumes that everyone in the audience takes it for granted. Similarly, in Matthew's Gospel we find that his resurrection narrative is geared to counter the claim that Jesus' disciples stole his body after the crucifixion (Matthew 28:11-15). The existence of Jesus, and his crucifixion by the Romans, is taken for granted. The same thing is evident in all of the NT books and the non-canonical Christian writings from the first to early-second centuries.
  • [3] Paul's geographic locations are evident from his authentic letters to churches that he founded: Galatians to various centres in Galatia (north-central Turkey), Philippians to Philippi (Macedonia), 1 Thessalonians to Thessalonica (Macedonia), Colossians to Colossae (Ionia in south-eastern Turkey--though some contest Pauline authorship of Colossians), 1 and 2 Corinthians to Corinth (at the top of the Peloponnesus of southern Greece). James is located in Jerusalem by first-hand accounts in Paul (Galatians 1) and possibly first-hand accounts in Acts (Acts 15 etc.). The Ephesian location for the disciple John is trickier and depends on second-century tradition. See the sections on each of these letters in Raymond Brown's introduction referenced above (Galatians, pp. 474-477; Philippians, pp. 483-485; 1 Thess, pp. 456-459; Colossians, pp. 599-601; Corinthian letters, pp. 511-515, 541-544; James, pp. 741-743; John in Ephesus, pp. 368-369).
  • [4] See Dunn, James D. G. Romans 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary 38A (Dallas: Word, 1988), pp. xlvi-xlvii.
  • [5] See, e.g., Romans 1:1-5; 3:25; and the allusions to crucifixion as the mode of Jesus' death in Romans 6.
  • [6] See the good treatment in volume 1 of Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991), pp. 56-69.
  • [7] See Riedweg, Christoph. "Pythagoras." Pages 276-281 in Brill's New Pauly: Encyclopedia of the Ancient World (Antiquity v. 12; Leiden: Brill, 2008).
  • [8] See the section on 'The Historical Buddha' in Reynolds, Frank E. and Charles Hallisey. "Buddha" in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. (v. 2; Detroit: Thomson Gale), pp.1061-1062.
  • [9] On Josephus' clear and obvious Jewishness, with no Christian inclinations, see e.g. Altshuler, David. "Josephus Flavius" in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. (v. 7; Detroit: Thomson Gale), pp. 4957-4958. Tessa Rajak, a major authority on Josephus, says that "Josephus was always a Jew, and, throughout his writing life, was preoccupied with Judaism..." and by "Judaism" here she does not mean Jewish Christ-believers (Rajak, Tessa. Josephus: The Historian and His Society, 2nd ed. [London: Duckworth, 2002], p. 11).
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    I should add that on several points here I'm speaking from my personal acquaintance with the primary sources. Given my academic credentials (which I don't want to wave too much) I think I'm in a position to speak about, e.g., the fact that we don't usually find Christian interpolations about Jesus in ancient historians. I've read the sources and this is my field. But I'm more than happy to provide some other sources where specifics would be helpful. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 18:17
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    "One difficulty with the way the question is posed here is that it rules out any evidence coming from Jesus' followers. But that's not good historical method". I am asking specifically if the claims of those followers can be verified. They cannot, by definition, validate themselves. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 20:54
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    I was hesitant to accept this opinion, but the existence of the Hebrew gospels convinces me that Paul's religion had a Palestine parallel. Further, the quotes from the gospels which survive suggest that Jesus was a person saying things to other people, and this suggests a record of a teaching, not a vague spiritual narrative of a mystical Gnostic figure. It would be nice to have more evidence about the size and composition of the Jerusalem church, together with some evidence of the belief system.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 6:03
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    I've just updated my answer here with the references to secondary literature I had promised. Only a year late! Sorry about that, but I hope they're useful. Commented Mar 28, 2012 at 14:47
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    Responding to @Monkey Tuesday's response about historical witnesses: It's not the case (in standard historical method) that evidence from a figure's followers need outside confirmation. It depends on what kind of claims you're talking about. Where they have a polemical agenda, those claims need to be weighed. But where they are not polemical (i.e., what they take for granted in debates with outsiders) and they are in a position to have reliable information there's no reason to demand secondary corroboration. Commented Mar 28, 2012 at 14:52

The infidels.org website has an article titled, "Historicity Of Jesus FAQ", which I believe is an even-handed treatment of the question.

In that article, Scott Oser uses some of the same sources that BCooksey used in an excellent response on this page. Oser provides some additional information regarding the authenticity of those sources.

Flavius Josephus:

  1. The early Christian writer Origen claims that Josephus did NOT recognize Jesus as the Messiah, in direct contradiction to the above passage, where Josephus says, "He was the Messiah." Thus, we may conclude that this particular phrase at least was a later insertion. (The version given above was, however, known to Jerome and in the time of Eusebius. Jerome's Latin version, however, renders "He was the Messiah" by "He was believed to be the Christ.") Furthermore, other early Christian writers fail to cite this passage, even though it would have suited their purposes to do so. There is thus firm evidence that this passage was tampered with at some point, even if parts of it do date back to Josephus.
  2. The passage is highly pro-Christian. It is hard to imagine that Josephus, a Pharisaic Jew, would write such a laudatory passage about a man supposedly killed for blasphemy. Indeed, the passage seems to make Josephus himself out to be a Christian, which was certainly not the case.

In objection #2, Oser claims that Josephus was a Pharisaic Jew; at least one other source, William Whiston, proposes that Josephus may have been an Ebionite Christian. Oser provides additional evidence for the theory that the references to 'Jesus' and 'The Christ' were later reconstructionist alterations by pro-Christian copyists. (Follow previous link to infidels.org to see those arguments.)

Cornelius Tacitus (55-120 CE):

Two questions arise concerning this passage [Annals 15.44 (see answer by BCooksey)]:

  1. Did Tacitus really write this, or is this a later Christian interpolation?
  2. Is this really an independent confirmation of Jesus's story, or is Tacitus just repeating what some Christians told him?

Some scholars believe the passage may be a Christian interpolation into the text. However, this is not at all certain, and unlike Josephus's Testimonium Flavianum, no clear evidence of textual tampering exists.

The second objection is much more serious. Conceivably, Tacitus may just be repeating what he was told by Christians about Jesus. If so, then this passage merely confirms that there were Christians in Tacitus' time, and that they believed that Pilate killed Jesus during the reign of Tiberius. This would not be independent confirmation of Jesus's existence. If, on the other hand, Tacitus found this information in Roman imperial records (to which he had access) then that could constitute independent confirmation. There are good reasons to doubt that Tacitus is working from Roman records here, however. For one, he refers to Pilate by the wrong title (Pilate was a prefect, not a procurator). Secondly, he refers to Jesus by the religious title "Christos". Roman records would not have referred to Jesus by a Christian title, but presumably by his given name. Thus, there is excellent reason to suppose that Tacitus is merely repeating what Christians said about Jesus, and so can tell us nothing new about Jesus's historicity.

There seems to be little or no argument that Tacitus was the original author of the passage and that it survives with no evidence of tampering. As Oser point out in his rebuttal to the second argument, we have no way of knowing how Tacitus got the information he wrote. It was obviously not first hand; Tacitus was born in 55 CE, and Jesus is believed to have left this earth around 27 CE, almost 30 years before Tacitus was born. It is believed that The Annals were written about year 117 CE, roughly 90 year after the death of Jesus, so it is highly doubtful that Tacitus would even have had access to anyone with first-hand knowledge of Jesus. For the sake of this argument, it is important to note that Tacitus does not name 'Jesus' as 'The Christ', and almost equally important, Tacitus does not mention Paul, Peter, or any other Christian leaders who would have been influential figures to Christians in Rome.

Suetonius, Thallus, and Pliny the Younger:

Oser also provides arguments against the references to 'Jesus' or 'Christians' in the writings of Suetonius, Thallus, and Pliny the Younger. For sake of brevity they are not included here; you can follow the link to the infidels.org page to see those arguments.

Just to add additional muck to this already muddy problem...

In personal discussions about the historicity of Jesus with other amateur scholars the theory has been posited that, like so many other hero myths, the figure we know as Jesus is based on deeds of more than one person and embellished to add greater credence to the claims made by proponents. This bit of trivia adds nothing to support or oppose the historicity of Jesus, it is, as I mentioned, only provided to obfuscate an already highly-debated subject. You can read part of a conversation between a believer and a skeptic, at www.christiananswers.net in an articled titled "Was Jesus Christ only a legend?", that implies that some skeptics subscribe to the hero-myth theory about the historicity of Jesus.

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    "The early Christian writer Origen claims that Josephus did NOT recognize Jesus as the Messiah, in direct contradiction to the above passage, where Josephus says, "He was the Messiah." Careful with quotes like this. I understand what you are saying, but we are specifically not evaluating any messianic claims here. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 17:32
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    On the Tacitus evidence, we do know the kinds of sources that historians generally used. Yes, Tacitus had likely spoken to Christians, but he also had access to imperial records and to other earlier historians' accounts. He would also not have simply swallowed whatever story was fed him. So at the very least Tacitus shows us that a critical historian at the time thought Jesus' existence was credible. He saw no reason to question it. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 20:04
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    As I note in my answer, William Whiston is entirely unreliable as an authority on Josephus. He was a 19th century translator of Josephus who didn't question anything critically about the historian's account. No-one in 20th century Josephus scholarship has bought the idea that he was a Christian because (aside from this one passage) there is no hint of Christian belief in his writings. So Josephus certainly does "count" as outside evidence. The question is whether his mention of Jesus has just been "improved" by Christians or whether it was entirely fabricated. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 20:07
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    Composite, legendary "hero" figures (like king Arthur or Achilles) never emerge within two decades of the underlying individuals' deaths. There's too much living memory of the different individuals floating around. Since Paul's letters (in the late-40s and 50s AD) already treat Jesus as an historical figure who was crucified, the real miracle would be how the legend-forming process had happened so fast. (Jesus' birth, based on all the early Christian accounts, would have been around 6BC and his death in either 30 or 33 AD. Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 20:11
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    Yes, but the question was about Jesus' existence. L Ron Hubbard shows that you can create a legendary VERSION of the life of an existing person during or shortly after their death. It doesn't show that you can create a legend BASED ON AN IMAGINARY PERSON. Commented May 3, 2011 at 17:41

Here is an interview (LANG=DE) with the German Theologian Hermann Detering, who wrote the book „Falsche Zeugen. Außerchristliche Jesuszeugnisse auf dem Prüfstand“ (False witnesses, exochristian Jesus witnesses on trial).

My abstract:

You can't take the bible for granted, because it isn't a historic book, but a statement of faith. It's hard to tell, when it was written and by whom. Most author names, mentioned, are wrong. Some parts of it are first mentioned in the beginning of the 2nd century, but from witnesses, who are themselves faked.

There are 6 main witnesses outside of Christianity:

  • the Jewish historian Josephus
  • the Roman historian an authors
    • Tacitus
    • Plinius
    • Sueton
  • a purported mail from a father to his son
  • another document from 3rd hand

The central statements of these witnesses about Jesus would fit on a postcard. These witnesses have been massively overestimated in the past. They where treated as if they were independent source. However, in reality, they where redacted by Christians, which is of little surprise, since copying at that time took place by handwriting.

In younger times, there were 3 new texts discovered:

  • the Judasgospel
  • the post 1945 discovered handwritings in
    • Qumran and
    • Nag Hammadi

They didn't help much in the finding, whether Jesus was a historic person. In the Qumran text, he doesn't take place at all, and in the gnostic literature of Nag Hammadi, he is mostly a mythologic figure.

The whole question of historic Jesus isn't new, and was debated before WWII in Germany, but abandoned afterwards. But today, there are new methods to analyse scriptures. With modern databases, it is possible to find favourite words for different authors. So were words and phrases found in texts, which weren't used in the time, the document supposedly origins. This shows, that the texts were redacted.

An example is the „Testimonium Flavianum“ from Josephus. He mentions Jesus as a wise man. But early, Christian literature from that time doesn't mention that witness, as one would expect. The christian historian Eusebius is the first to mention the witness of Josephus. Unfortunately, his wording and phrases are very similar to the wording and phrases of Josesphus.

The roman historian Sueton mentions a man called 'Chrestos', who shall, under imperator Claudius (reg.: 41-54) , agitated the Jews of Rome to furor. Then Claudius displaced the Jews from Rome. But Jesus is said to died under imperator Tiberius (reg.: 14-37), and Christus is not Chrestos, which was a common name for slaves in Rome.

Then there is the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about the burning of Rome under Nero, as filmed in Hollywood. Isn't this a witness of early prosecution of Christs? Well - early Christian scriptures don't talk about this important event. Only later writings from about 300-400 BC talk about it, and again, the words and phrases of the reporting Tacitus, and his 'source', Sulpicius Severus are very similar.

Today, historians doubt, that Nero burned Rome.

So the conclusion is not only, that the existence of Jesus is questionable, but the existence of an early Christianity in the first century too. First witnesses are from the mid of the second century, namely imperator Marc Aurel.

More to be read:

Hermann Detering: Falsche Zeugen. Außerchristliche Jesuszeugnisse auf dem Prüfstand. Aschaffenburg: Alibri 2011. 243 Seiten, kartoniert, Euro 19.-, ISBN 978-3-86569-070-8

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    One should mention the interesting philosophical parallels between gnosticism and Plato. It seems that Hellenized Jews created a hybrid Platonic-Jewish faith that could have transmuted into Christianity in the 1st century without any direct input from Palestine, except for John the Baptist and James the Just. It is strange to me that the Gnostics were considered Christian in earliest times.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 5:01
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    @fredsbend: No. Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 11:33
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    @fredsbend: I now linked to wikipedia because of the burning of Rome Commented Oct 31, 2013 at 0:48
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    You take the gnostic gospel as canon but ignore the three century earlier eyewitness testimony? Does not seem like good history to me.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 13:45
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    @NeilMeyer: The gnostic gospel is of the same era as the other gospels, none is eyewitness. Paul is the closest thing to an eyewitness.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 13:16

Almost all reputable historians believe that Jesus did exist. Why they believe this I will explain below.

To be absolutely clear, when we say Jesus did live, we are not saying that everything or even most of the things said about him in the Bible is true. Even ignoring the supernatural elements, the gospels contain internal contradictions, so we are absolutely sure they are not 100% reliable.

What we say is that the myth of Jesus originated from real historical person. Kind of like the myth of Santa Claus originated with a real person, the bishop Nicolaus of Smyrna which was later sactified as Sct. Nicolaus. Compare this this to say Jupiter which we consider a purely mythological figure.

The outlandish claims regarding Jesus (walked on water, resurrected the dead etc.) cannot be taken as evidence that he is fictional. If we take Alexander the Great, multiple legends grew up around him - he was the son of Zeus, his sister was a mermaid etc. This just shows that when a figure becomes revered, legends will form. No historians in their right mind would deny that Alexander was historical. Stripping away all the legends around Alexander there is still a historical core which is more likely to be true than to be made up. I'm going to explain why historians consider the same to be the case for Jesus.

So what evidence is there for Jesus as a historical person?

We have no first-hand or contemporary sources to the life of Jesus and we have no archaeological remains to prove his existence. And this is not surprising - this is the case for the vast majority of pre-modern historical figures, including people who was much more famous in their own time than Jesus. Take someone Alexander the Great again, one of the most important figures in History. We have no first-hand sources and no remains. The best sources we have are written hundreds of years after his death. Even then, given the available historical evidence we assume Alexander existed, since a lot history is impossible to explain otherwise (and his invention would have required a vast conspiracy among historians in antiquity).

There are a few references to Jesus by historians independent of the Bible, but they are not first-hand accounts, and basically just states what the Christians of the time believed. The most important is the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus which have two passages mentioning Jesus, although one of them is generally agreed to be a fabrication inserted by later Christian scribes. The other passage (which is generally assumed to be authentic) states:

[...] so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned [...]

So the only mention of Jesus is really talking about his brother. And it doesn't give us any information about Jesus, except that somebody thought he was the Christ (ie. the promised Messiah), which we already knew.

Nonetheless, given this paucity of non-biblical sources, almost every reputable historian believe the Jesus did live. Why? Because of the evidence in the Gospels.

It might seem bizarre that the gospels can be taken by historians as evidence for anything, since they are clearly religious and not historical writing. But this is actually the case for almost every source we have from antiquity. You explicitly ask for non-christian sources. I'll asume you do this based on the assumptions that the Christian sources (i.e. the Gospels) are inherently more unreliable than other sources. Sure, the Bible is biased and makes outrageous claims about the miracles and divinity of Jesus - but be aware that all ancient sources are unashamedly biased and filled with with outrageous claims by modern standards.

Take Josephus. He is considered a serious historian, but starts out his history book with:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. But when the earth did not come into sight, but was covered with thick darkness, and a wind moved upon its surface, God commanded that there should be light: and when that was made, he considered the whole mass, and separated the light and the darkness; (Chapter 1)

...he goes on to describe Adam and Eve, the ark of Noah and so on. Even then Josephus is considered one of the most important and reliable historical sources. We just have to read it all with a critical mind.

Or take Tacitus, considered "the pinnacle of Roman historical writing". He writes about Christianity:

"Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and 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 centre and become popular"

Clearly he is at least as biased as the Christians, just with the opposite bent!

He treats Saturn, Jupiter and Isis as real in his Histories, and about Vespasians siege of Jerusalem he writes:

Prodigies had occurred, which this nation, prone to superstition, but hating all religious rites, did not deem it lawful to expiate by offering and sacrifice. There had been seen hosts joining battle in the skies, the fiery gleam of arms, the temple illuminated by a sudden radiance from the clouds. The doors of the inner shrine were suddenly thrown open, and a voice of more than mortal tone was heard to cry that the Gods were departing. At the same instant there was a mighty stir as of departure. Some few put a fearful meaning on these events, but in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire. These mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth. (Histories 18)

Here Tacitus mentions a number of supernatural occurrences just as amazing as what is described in the gospels AND basically claims that Vespasian (the roman emperor) is really the messiah, and anybody who cannot see this is an idiot! And despite passages like this he is still considered one of the most reliable ancient historians...

Bottom line: Any ancient text should be read with a heavy dose of source-criticism. The gospels are actually relatively strong sources because we have four semi-independent account. The inconsistencies between the gospels have been a source of embarrassment for the church, but for the historian they are a godsend: They allow us to through textual analysis determine the age of various parts of the narrative and then estimate how it developed over time. The gospels taken together are actually pretty good source material compared to what we have about most other pre-modern figures, including kings and emperors, believe it or not.

Now if we take the gospels and strip away anything slightly supernatural, we are left with a pretty plausible narrative. A Jewish guy walks around in Galilee and Judea and talks in parables and preaches about the coming Kingdom of God. He gains a bunch of followers (a cult would we probably say today) and is rumored to be the long awaited Messiah. The Romans consider this cult a threat, and execute the leader. Not only is this pretty plausible, it actually happened more or less like this several times. The historian Josephus describes several such "mad prophets" and even a similar episode where a guy claiming to be the messiah gets a bunch of followers, leads them into the desert where he claims to want to part the Jordan river (like Moses parted the Red Sea) ... but before he gets that far is slaughtered by Roman soldiers along with his followers.

Whats more, the Romans actually acted rationally (if cynically) by killing anybody claiming to be the messiah before the cult became to strong, For example the bloody Bar Kokbha revolt was instigated by a rebel-leader claiming to be the Messiah. (Though reading the gospels critically it is not totally clear if Jesus considered himself the Messiah, but what is clear is that some of his followers did, which was enough that the Romans considered him dangerous.)

The only really unique thing about Jesus compared to these other prophets and cult-leaders, is that his cult survived his death and turned into a major religion in the Roman Empire. But this seems to be more due to Paul, which transformed an obscure Jewish sect into a religion acceptable to non-Jews and started missioning among the polytheists in the Roman empire, at at time that were ripe for Monotheism.

Now lets examine the alternative hypothesis, that Jesus is a purely fictional or mythological figure. Even if that is the case, someone wrote (or composed, since it was initially an oral tradition) the sermon on the mount, the parables and so on, and created the narrative of his ministry, followers, crucifixion etc. This theory is really hard to believe, since the story about Jesus simply do not make sense as constructed fiction.

There are some urban legends circulating in dark corners of the internet about parallels between Jesus and the Horus myth or the Bacchus myth or some other myths which is supposed to the be "true origin" of the Jesus myth. Forget about this. Sure, there a few parallels across religion (ie. resurrection is a recurring theme, miracles surrounding the birth of demigods etc), but the vast majority or the religious content of the gospels are very specific Jewish culture. There are numerous references to mosaic law and the OT prophets, discussions about interpretations of the laws and tradition, references to temple cult, references to groups like Pharisees and Sadukees and references to the roman occupation. If Jesus is fictional, the author was without a doubt a first century Jew.

However if we look at it as a work of fiction it has some strange strange choices. If the purpose of the narrative is to show that Jesus was the Messiah / the Son of God, then why invent the story that he was crucified? Why don't say that he killed a thousand Romans with a flaming sword and then was lifted into the heavens by the hand of God or something like that?

This is the criterion of embarrassment. It states that if some account in the gospels is embarrassing to the Christians, they probably didn't make it up themselves! The crucifixion is the clearest example of this principle because this was absolutely not supposed to happen, and it did in no way help the Christians convince others that Jesus was the Messiah. (Note that the Messiah at this time was supposed to literally be a triumphant king beating the enemies and restoring the kingdom to its former glory. It was only after Christianity re-interpreted the prophecies we got the idea of the "spiritual messiah".)

If we examine the gospels chronologically we have in the oldest version, Mark:

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. Mark 21

This is extremely embarrassing. In the last moment he looses faith, thinks God has abandoned him, and dies with a whimper. Even Jim Jones or David Koresh did not lose faith like this! And people around him does not understand what he is saying and are making fun of him.

Now consider the later account in Luke:

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. Luke 20

Now the story is less embarrassing. No crying or loosing faith. Instead Jesus bravely accepts his fate.

Now see the latest version in John:

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19

Now, not only does Jesus bravely accept his fate, it actually turns out it was part of the big plan all along! And the sponge-guy is not taunting Jesus anymore, but rather offering the sponge as an act of grace. The whole scene is just so much more dignified and meaningful.

It is quite easy to see how the narrative could have developed like this. First the crucifixion and the pitiful death of Jesus is an embarrassing fact. But over the following decades (it is assumed to be about 40 years between Mark and John) it is re-interpreted (or spun as we would say today) to actually becoming a meaningful event which shows the greatness of Jesus, and was planned all along.

Now consider if it was a fictional account. it makes no sense to make up such an embarrassing end for Jesus (which the Christians later had to spin heavily), if the point of the story was to convince people that this guy was God! The case for the purely fictional Jesus simply does not make sense.

Tl;dr: Jesus most likely were a real person.

Sources: Bart D. Ehrman; Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth is one book which draws the same conclusion (but in more detail), but what I'm stating is not controversial. The Historicity of Jesus page states:

There is "near universal consensus" among scholars that Jesus existed historically

And provides numerous references. The "Jesus was a myth"-theory is basically a fringe theory at this point.

What is still controversial is exactly how much of the gospels actually happened and how much is later legends. This is an ongoing discussion, and a far more complex question.

  • 1
    This is interesting, and you provide references, but your conclusion seems to be yours - this is original research. Can you quote expert historian(s) who draw the same conclusion as you?
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 4:24
  • 1
    @Oddthinking: Nothing I write is original, but I see how it could come off that way. I've added a book reference which draw the same conclusion in more detail.
    – JacquesB
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 8:44
  • 6
    The criterion of embarassment is flawed, because some embarrassment comes from reconciling history and myth, and some from reconciling different sources of myth. Jesus' death cry is quoting the same Psalm which prophetically describes his crucifiction, "pierced my hand and feet", and "they cast lot for my clothes", all of which are used by Mark to make the narrative. Abraham and Sarah being half-siblings is embarassing. It is impossible to distinguish between embarassment introduced through myth-conflict with embarrassment introduced via historical memory, see Carrier's "Proving History".
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 19:42
  • I think you should drop the whole "embarrassment" section. As Ron Maimon said, Mark's crucifixion story is clearly based on Psalm 22. Either the historical crucifixion went down roughly as prophesied or else Mark's version of it is fiction. Either way, Mark might have seen fit to include it to show prophecy being fulfilled. Either way, later writers might have edited it out of embarrassment.
    – benrg
    Commented Nov 6, 2019 at 17:15

According to Mt 2,1 and Lk 1,5 (KJV): Mt 2,1

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

Lk 1,5

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.

... the birth of Jesus happened during the kingdom of Herodes.

And according to Lk 2,2, Cyrenius was governor of Syria at that time:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.

According to our today knowledge, the census in Syria took place at 6 or 7 AD. From the writings of Flavius Josephus, a second census seems impossible, since the census was unknown to the Jews. More: Their province didn't belong to Syria before 6 or 7 AD.

But Herodes died 4 BCE so there is a 10 to 11 year gap between both possibilities. Some authors have speculated, that Luke might have confused Herod the Great with another Herod, Herod Antipas, but the gospel of Mathew clearly speaks about Herod the Great.

So the story of the birth is inconsistent with other historically more reliable material.

Some Original sources:

  • Emil Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, 5 vols. New York, Scribner’s, 1896.
  • Gerd Theißen, Annette Merz, Der historische Jesus: ein Lehrbuch, (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001), 149-50.
  • Flavius Josephus Ant. XVI 5,3 und Bell. Jud. I,21,12
  • 1
    See the Hermeneutics.SE thread on this specific confusion: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/4808/241
    – Daniel
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 2:31
  • 6
    This doesn't really address the question which is specifically asking about evidence for Jesus' existence, not for the reliability of the Bible in general. Commented May 15, 2015 at 8:54
  • @curiousdannii: Well, there is the bible with contradicting claims about Jesus and there are at maximum 5 other, ancient romanic texts (Flavious Josephus etc.) which a) only consist of one sentence about that or a Jesus or a Christus/Christos/Krestos, written hundrets of years after the fact (if a fact at all was there), and even these microscopic evidences have turned out as fake or misreading/misinterpretation. Commented May 15, 2015 at 15:02

There is actually quite a few references to Jesus in books from antiquity. The second chart also puts the New Testament in comparison to other ancient works.

enter image description here

SOURCE: The Verdict of History, Gary Habermas

Are there any extra-biblical validations of his existence around the time he is commonly thought to have lived?

The following book chapter (online) from this author details the non-Christian writers referenced in Chart #1 above: Chapter IX Ancient Non-Christian Sources

Is there any accepted archeological evidence to support claims in favor of his living at this time?

The author claims this is historical (documentary) evidence at least of Jesus being crucified.

Using only the information gleaned from these ancient extra biblical sources, what can we conclude concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus? Can these events be historically established on these sources alone? Of the seventeen documents examined in this chapter, eleven different works speak of the death of Jesus in varying amounts of detail, with five of these specifying crucifixion as the mode. When these sources are examined by normal historical procedures used with other ancient documents, the result is conclusive.(91) It is this author’s view that the death of Jesus by crucifixion can be asserted as a historical fact from this data. This conclusion is strengthened by the variety of details which are related by good sources. As mentioned often, a few of the documents may be contested, but the entire bulk of evidence points quite probably to the historicity of Jesus’ death due to the rigors of crucifixion.

The ancient references to the resurrection are fewer and somewhat more questionable. Of the seventeen sources, seven either imply or report this occurrence, with four of these works being questioned in our study. Before answering the issue concerning Jesus’ resurrection, we will initially address the cognate point of whether the empty tomb can be established as historical by this extra biblical evidence alone. There are some strong considerations in its favor.

Here is a very interesting quote by an often quoted skeptic New Testament scholar on the issue of mythicism.

In a society in which people still claim the Holocaust did not happen, and in which there are resounding claims that the American president is, in fact, a Muslim born on foreign soil, is it any surprise to learn that the greatest figure in the history of Western civilization, the man on whom the most powerful and influential social, political, economic, cultural and religious institution in the world -- the Christian church -- was built, the man worshipped, literally, by billions of people today -- is it any surprise to hear that Jesus never even existed?

That is the claim made by a small but growing cadre of (published ) writers, bloggers and Internet junkies who call themselves mythicists. This unusually vociferous group of nay-sayers maintains that Jesus is a myth invented for nefarious (or altruistic) purposes by the early Christians who modeled their savior along the lines of pagan divine men who, it is alleged, were also born of a virgin on Dec. 25, who also did miracles, who also died as an atonement for sin and were then raised from the dead.

Few of these mythicists are actually scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field, let alone in the ancient languages generally thought to matter for those who want to say something with any degree of authority about a Jewish teacher who (allegedly) lived in first-century Palestine. There are a couple of exceptions: of the hundreds -- thousands? -- of mythicists, two (to my knowledge) actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study. But even taking these into account, there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.

Why then is the mythicist movement growing, with advocates so confident of their views and vocal -- even articulate -- in their denunciation of the radical idea that Jesus actually existed? It is, in no small part, because these deniers of Jesus are at the same time denouncers of religion -- a breed of human now very much in vogue. And what better way to malign the religious views of the vast majority of religious persons in the western world, which remains, despite everything, overwhelmingly Christian, than to claim that the historical founder of their religion was in fact the figment of his followers' imagination?

The view, however, founders on its own premises. The reality -- sad or salutary -- is that Jesus was real. And that is the subject of my new book, "Did Jesus Exist?"

It is true that Jesus is not mentioned in any Roman sources of his day. That should hardly count against his existence, however, since these same sources mention scarcely anyone from his time and place. Not even the famous Jewish historian, Josephus, or even more notably, the most powerful and important figure of his day, Pontius Pilate.

It is also true that our best sources about Jesus, the early Gospels, are riddled with problems. These were written decades after Jesus' life by biased authors who are at odds with one another on details up and down the line. But historians can never dismiss sources simply because they are biased. You may not trust Rush Limbaugh's views of Sandra Fluke, but he certainly provides evidence that she exists.

The question is not whether sources are biased but whether biased sources can be used to yield historically reliable information, once their biased chaff is separated from the historical kernel. And historians have devised ways of doing just that.

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) -- sources that originated in Jesus' native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind. Moreover, we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus' life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus' closest disciple Peter and his own brother James. If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it.

Moreover, the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. The alleged parallels between Jesus and the "pagan" savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination: We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum[sic] in their propagandized versions).

Moreover, aspects of the Jesus story simply would not have been invented by anyone wanting to make up a new Savior. The earliest followers of Jesus declared that he was a crucified messiah. But prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah. The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy. Anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that. Why did the Christians not do so? Because they believed specifically that Jesus was the Messiah. And they knew full well that he was crucified. The Christians did not invent Jesus. They invented the idea that the messiah had to be crucified.

One may well choose to resonate with the concerns of our modern and post-modern cultural despisers of established religion (or not). But surely the best way to promote any such agenda is not to deny what virtually every sane historian on the planet -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, agnostic, atheist, what have you -- has come to conclude based on a range of compelling historical evidence.

Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.


I have now quotes to highly regarded New Testament scholars both Christian and Atheist who both claim that Jesus most certainly did exist. So if this is not enough to put this issue to bed then I fear nothing will.

  • 2
    @EbenezerSklivvze Chart #2 is saying for example that we agree that we have copies of Caesar's writings, even though we only have 10 copies of it, of which the earliest was copied in AD 900.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 11:20
  • 2
    "Are there any extra-biblical validations of his existence around the time he is commonly thought to have lived?" You have something from Thallus in 52AD. The next closest is in 93AD. I would think that only 52AD has a chance of being "around the time" of someone believed to have live from 6 to 2 BC to 30 or 36AD. And Thallus makes no mention of Jesus. Only mentioning a solar eclipse.
    – Scooter
    Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 9:34
  • 4
    If you read my post from Oct. 14 '11, you would find that most of your authors are already debunked. Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 1:35
  • 2
    Scooter for a ancient historical figure to have accounts written about him within a century of his death is unique to Jesus. Not warranting skepticism I would think.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 16:33
  • 8
    That table is bunk. For example is states about Thallus "Solar eclipse at the crucifiction". But Thallus does not say anything about Jesus or the crucifixion, he just mentions a solar eclipse. Some have then suggested that that the darkness described in Matthew might be a solar eclipse, but to spin a description of a solar eclipse as a description of Jesus is absurd.
    – JacquesB
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 7:38

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