Sunday, July 15, 2012

Jesus of Nazareth: Did He Exist?

As incredible as it may seem, there are still people today who believe that Jesus of Nazareth, as he is depicted in the New Testament, never really existed. They are impressed with arguments by certain atheistic philosophers that Jesus, if he existed at all, was merely a traveling Jewish rabbi who taught some rather remarkable ideas about the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of men. But he never actually claimed to be the Messiah of OT prophecy, nor said or did half of the words and deeds attributed to him in the New Testament. Rather it was his disciples, as first century Jews disenchanted with life in Roman dominatated Judea and needing something to give their existence significance and purpose, creatively remade him into a legendary religious figure or mythical hero. It was they who claimed he said and did those "extraordinary things" that proved he was the Messiah, the Son of God, prophesied of in the Old Testament. "But Jesus, if he did exist, as an orthodox rabbi and practicing Jew of that time," so they would argue, "could never have said and done half of what the NT attributes to him."

Response Of NT Scholars and Historians To Above Arguments

However, a good number of modern biblical scholars and historians of antiquity, who are by no means religious fundamentalists, would judge these arguments as being fallacious, not only because they rest on ill-founded assumptions about God and the created universe, but also because they ignore the weight of the historical evidence. Using long-established criteria of historical investigation and verification (cf. Craig Blomberg in The Historical Reliability of the Gospels), they would argue from various early Jewish and Greco-Roman sources (written by several authors hostile to Christianity), that not only did Jesus of Nazareth, a traveling Jewish rabbi and prophet exist, but also that: 1) That he had been regarded and condemned by the official Judaism of his day as a Messianic pretender and sorcerer; 2) that under Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judea, he had been condemned and crucified as a rebel and criminal; 3) that his followers, known as "Nazarenes" and "Christians," confessed and proclaimed him as their Lord and God; and 4) that by 100 A.D., they had spread their religion throughout the Roman Empire, gaining large numbers of converts among both Jews and Gentiles.

Examination and Evaluation of Three Witnesses

In this article, we are focusing on non-Christian testimonies regarding Jesus and the earliest Christians. Though we could have consulted several ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman accounts, here we have three ancient writers who give us the fullest account of Jesus of Nazareth and his earliest followers. What we learn from them is very interesting. Our first witness is Rabbi Eliezer (c. 50-100 A.D.), a Pharisaic scribe and teacher. He wrote a commentary on Numbers 23:19, which has been preserved in the Palestinian Mishnah and Talmud. Most scholars agree that his commentary is critique of Jesus and his followers; this is what he wrote:

Balaam looked forth and saw that there was a man, born of a woman, who would rise up and seek to make himself God, and cause the whole world to go astray. Therefore, God gave power to the voice of Balaam that all the peoples of the world might hear, and thus he spoke, "Give heed that ye go not astray after that man: for it is written, 'God is not man that he should lie.' And if this man says he is God, he is a liar, and he will deceive and say that he departeth and cometh again at the end. He saith and he shall not perform" (As quoted from Paul Barnett's Is The New Testament History?, p.26). Though the rabbi doesn't mention Jesus by name, he certainly had Jesus and his followers in mind. For he would have known that the phrase, "a man, born of woman," was a designation given to Jesus by Jewish Christians that pointed to his virgin conception as the fulfilment of Messianic prophecy (Cf. Isa. 7:14 with Matt. 1:18-25 and Gal. 4:4-5).

Furthermore, when he denies that this "man" will fail to depart and return at the end as he promised--i.e., "he will deceive and saith he departeth and cometh again at the end. He saith and he shall not perform"--Rabbi Eliezer is clearly repudiating the teaching of Jesus and his followers that Jesus himself, as the risen and exalted Messianic Son of Man, would return at the end of the age to judge both the living and the dead (cf. Matt. 24:26-31; 26:62-64; Acts 3:11-24; Rom. 2:12-15; 2 Thess. 1:6-10). He clearly not only regards Jesus as a false prophet and Messianic pretender, but his followers as a heretical Jewish sect that has become a religious movement spreading throughout the Roman Empire, leading astray both Jews and Gentiles. This testimony not only confirms that Jesus of Nazareth existed and founded a religious movement bearing his name, but that this movement was also spreading the message that he was the Messianic Son of Man, a message and movement he firmly opposed.  And this testimony confirms the general NT picture paints of Pharisaic Judaism coming to regard Jesus of Nazareth as a false prophet and Messianic pretender, and firmly resisting and even persecuitng his followers--a picture also confirmed by Justin Martyr's Against Trypho and the Jews, as well as by The Martrydom of Polycarp, both of which were written in the second century.

A second witness to Jesus and his earliest followers was the Roman historian and politician, Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55-120 A.D.), a contemporary and friend of Pliny the Younger.  Tacitus began his political career as a Roman senator during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (69-79 A.D.); entered the consulship under Emperor Nerva in 97 A.D.; and served as the Procounsul of Asia under Emperor Trajan from 112-113 A.D.  He was a very capable orator and writer, having the reputation of being a careful and reliable historian of the Empire.  However, Tacitus was very critical of certain earlier emperors and their policies which, in his opinion, had undermined the moral and social-well being of the Roman people.  And he also emphasized the noble contributions and achievements of the Roman aristocrasy, whom he regarded as the true basis of Rome's greatness.

Tacitus wrote five historical works: Dialogue on Oratory, which discusses the decline of Roman oratory after Cicero; The Origins of the German Tribes, recognized as the major source about the German tribes before the barbarian invasions of Rome; The Life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a historical biography of a Roman senator and general who was instrumental in the conquest of Britain; The Annals of Imperial Rome, a history of Julio-Claudian Rome from 14-68 A.D.; and The Histories of Imperial Rome, a history of Flavian Rome from 69-96 A.D.  And it is in his Annuals and Histories that Tacitus makes passing, but very illuminating comments on Jesus of Nazareth and his followers.  His best known comment, found in The Annals of Imperial, is as follows:

 But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and all the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration [of Rome] was the result of an [imperial] order.  Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class of people hated for their abonimations, called Christians by the populace.  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 Pilate, and a deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out in Judea, the first source of evil, but also in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.  Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who confessed; then, upon information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of arson, as of hatred of the human race (ANNALs, 15:44, 2-5).

Since Tacitus was a Roman aristrocat, as well as a historian and politician, his dislike of anything that appeared as a threat to the stability of Roman society and culture comes through very clearly in the passage above.  Yet his having been a Proconsul of Asia Minor, where Christianity thrived despite persecution, convinced him that this new religious movement could not simply be ignored; it had to be properly recognized and dealt with.  Nevetheless, not only does he confirm Rabbi Eliezer's testimony that Jesus had been a Jewish rabbi and founder of a religious movement that was rapidly spreading throughout the Roman Empire, but also that under Pontus Pilate he had been judged and condemned as a rebel and criminal, during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, but that his followers proclaimed Jesus as their Messiah and Lord, and that it was their refusal to acknowledge Caesar as Lord, an act of treason which he refers to as "hatred of the human race," that the Christians had been and continued to be murdered in the Roman arena.  Thus, however grudginly given, Tacitus' testimony demonstrates the historicity of the "Jesus tradition" forming the core of Apostolic proclamation, both oral and written, as being unquestionable and trustworthy.

Our third and final witness is Flavius Josephus (c. 37-100 A.D.).  He was born in Jerusalem as member of a priestly clan, and was educated and trained in the legal tradition of the Pharisees.  His career as a politician and governor of Galilee began during the reign of Emperor Nero.  During the early stages of the Jewish-Roman War (66-73 A.D.), Josephus was a resistance leader and fought agains the Roman army.  When he and his troops were defeated by the Roman forces at Jotapata in 67 A.D., Josephus recognized the futility of the Jewish rebellion, and joined the Roman forces as an interpreter and mediator so as to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.  However, most of his fellow Jews regarded him as a traitor, and so Josephus' attempts at mediating a peace settlement failed.  Consequently, the Jewish rebellion was crushed in 70 A.D., resulting it the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and with the death or deportation of large numbers of Jews.  Though one contingent of the Jewish rebels was able to escape to the fortress of Masada, and fight on for a time, their fight came to an abrupt end in 73 A.D.  The Jewish-Roman War was finally at an end.

After the War, Josephus went to Rome where, for the services he had rendered, he was made a Roman citizen and a courtier of the Emperor Vespasian.  During his years in Rome, Josephus wrote two of his best known historical works:  History of the Jewish War, which even now is highly valued as a trustworthy account of this tragic conflict, and The Antiquities of the Jews, a history of the Jewish people from the creation of the world to Jewish-Roman War itself.  Now, as would be expected for someone in his situation, Josephus casts the character and achievements of his own people in the best light possible without unduly offending his Roman benefactors--while at the same those whom he considers enemies of either himself or of the Imperial Court he deals with in a harsh and pejorative manner.  "But when all this has been admitted the fact remains that while, as all scholars agree, we must use the greatest caution in accepting at its face value any statement Josephus makes about himself or his personal enemies, when he has no axe to grind and is not engaging in patent exaggeration, he is an informative and reliable historian" (G. A. Williamson, "Introduction," The Jewish War: An English Translation, Penguin Classics, p. 15).

Now that we know something about Josephus as person and as a historian, both as to his strengths and weaknesses, we can better evaluate his comments on Jesus and his early followers.  For in his Antiquities of Jews, he gives one of the fullest and most illuminating testimonies about Jesus of Nazareth and the early Christians.  However, it has also long been known that though he knew of the rise and spread of Christianity, Josephus himself did not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah of Israel.  So taking this fact into account, here is his testimony:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man.  For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.  He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks.  He was the [so-called] Messiah.  When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him.  On the third day, [so they claimed,] he appeared to them restored to life.  And the tribe of Christians  [so called after him], to this day has still not disappeared (Antiquities, 18:63, 64).

Not only does Josephus confirm the testimony of the previous witnesses that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was Jewish rabbi who founded a Jewish sect that became an Empire-wide religious movement, but also that he had been "a wise man...and...teacher" with an extensive ministry throughout Judea, involving not only teaching but the performance of "surprising feats" or miracles.  He also confirms that it was allegations made by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, along with personal reasons of his own, that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor had condemned and crucified Jesus as a revolutionary and criminal.  But his disciples, convinced he had been raised from the dead, began proclaiming that the Risen Jesus was the Messiah and Lord of all, resulting in many converts among Jews and Greeks who heard and accepted their message.  And according to Josephus, at the time of his writing, the Christian movement was very much alive and thriving.

Conclusions To Be Drawn

Now if Jesus of Nazareth had never existed, nor had said or done anything that would have led his disciples to believe he was both Messiah and Son of God, then the New Testament would never have been written.  Nor would these ancient Jewish and Roman writers have found it necessary to discuss and debunk Christianity.  Summing up the confirmative value of these ancient witnesses to the NT's portrayal of Jesus and his followers, W. D. Davies has written:

The passages referred to above, both Jewish and Gentile, sufficiently attest the historicity of Jesus.  That Jesus was a crucified teacher who caused embarrassment to Judaism and to Rome is clear.  For our present purposes this evidence is adequate; it does pin down the existence of Jesus of Nazareth beyond doubt.  And it is easy to understand why Jewish and Gentile sources do not reveal more.  Today, Christianity is a worldwide religion, and Jesus has become the object of reverence for millions.  In the first century, the Christian movement and its Lord were insignificant and, for Roman writers especially, objects of suspicion and contempt.  The silence of non-Christian sources, except for the details given above, is understandable.  Beyond the bare fact that Jesus was a crucified teacher, it is from the the specifically Christian sources that knowledge about him and his church must be learned.  This is another way of claiming what was asserted at the end of our last chapter, that Jesus, as a figure of history, gains significance only through those who responded to him ("The Historicity of Jesus," Invitation to the New Testament: A Guide to the Main Witnesses, p. 71.).

Therefore, those who talk as if Jesus of Nazareth never existed betray their ignorance of the historical, non-Christian evidence.  Even so, if we want to know the full story of Jesus and the religious community he founded, then we must turn to the New Testament writings themselves.  For the NT writers state that though they have not recorded everything Jesus was known to have said and done, yet they recorded all that was necessary for us to that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that all who trust in him are given eternal life:  "Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30-31, NIV 2011).  

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