These questions look at the historical evidence for the existence and life of Jesus Christ.
Yes. There will always be a market for shock-horror paperbacks that claim that Jesus was a Martian cyborg, or a time-travelling insurance salesperson, or that he never even existed.
But the one fact about Jesus that no serious historians have any question about is that he was crucified around AD30. And if he died, it’s a pretty safe bet that he lived.
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Opinions on this vary between those who accept every word of the Gospel stories as… well, gospel, and those who say they are so full of fantasy and propaganda it’s impossible to know what really happened.
The vast majority would agree on the basics though:
Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who was crucified around AD30, after maybe three years as a travelling preacher and healer. He was particularly known for telling parables, and he declared the coming of the kingdom of God. He was disliked by the religious establishment and executed by the Roman occupying forces.
Did he heal the blind and perform catering miracles? Did he rise from the dead? Was he born to a virgin? These are questions you have to answer for yourself. It’s worth thinking about this, though: if we strip away from the story everything that sounds improbable, are we left with anything that begins to explain the phenomenal impact Jesus had on his contemporaries?
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The earliest surviving non-Christian writing to mention Jesus is a vast history of the Jewish people by Josephus, a Jewish writer in the court of the Roman Emperor. He was born in Jerusalem around the time Jesus was killed, and published his great work in AD93.
Annoyingly, an over-zealous Christian seem to have tampered with the text, but here is the famous passage:
“Now, around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man – if it is lawful to call him a man. He did amazing works and was a teacher of those people that receive the truth gladly. He won over many, both Jews and Gentiles. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that had loved him did not abandon him. He appeared to them alive again the third day, for the prophets of God had foretold these and a thousand other incredible things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
Elsewhere in his book, Josephus refers to the stoning of the apostle James, “the brother of Jesus who was called the Messiah”.
Another early reference to Jesus comes from the great Roman historian, Tacitus. Writing around the year 110, he recalled the events following the Fire of Rome in 64: “To stop the rumour, [that he had started the fire himself] Nero falsely accused and executed with the most exquisite punishments the people called Christians, who were notorious for their abominations. Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.”
Probably the earliest known reference to Jesus is in a cryptic passage written by Mara bar Serapion in AD73. He wrote: “For what advantage did the Jews gain by the death of their wise king?”
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Your first stop has got to be one of the Gospels. Mark is probably the earliest, and certainly the shortest. We suggest the Good News version – a good and readable translation – or the Contemporary English Version, which is available on this site – click here. And even if you’re a seasoned Bible reader, it’s good just to read through a whole Gospel as a story.
As for books about Jesus, an Amazon search for “Jesus” currently comes up with 3,975 titles. More than enough, probably, but where do you start? Here are some suggestions:
Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright – Tom Wright writes books as quickly as most of us read them and is incapable of being dull (a rare quality among theologians and Christian writers). He has a broadly traditional Christian view of Jesus, but his expertise on Jesus’ world often makes him interpret his message in surprising new ways. “Jesus and the Victory of God” is his magnum opus, and not for the faint-hearted. You may find it better to start with one of the following two books by him…
The Meaning of Jesus by N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg – A debate between Tom Wright (see above) and the liberal Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg. Click the link to order.
Mark for Everyone by N.T. Wright – Tom Wight’s own translation, with passage-by-passage commentary. Guaranteed to make long-term Bible readers see Mark in a fresh new light, as well as help new readers make sense of the story. Click the link to order.
The Shadow of the Galilean by Gerd Theissen – An excellent novel. It tells the story of Jesus through the eyes of a spy employed by Pilate to report on him, but keeps turning up just after Jesus has moved on. Click the link to order.
Son of God by Angela Tilby – A tie-in with the 2001 BBC TV series, and a good book in its own right. It reconstructs the life of Jesus expertly in popular style, with a balanced weighing of the evidence. Click the link to order.
The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, edited by Markus Bockmuehl – An academic tome, in two halves, one digging up the historical Jesus, the other looking at him as a central figure in 2,000 years of religion, art and culture. Click the link to order.
Excavating Jesus by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed – A liberal Bible scholar and an archaeologist dig for “the real Jesus” behind the Gospel stories. Interesting idea, so-so book. Click the link to order.
That is the traditional claim made about it. It is a cloth that somehow has the imprint of a bearded man on it and was venerated in the Middle Ages as the shroud of Christ. The imprint of the image is said to have been made by the scorching light of his resurrection.
Some people still believe this, though the Roman Catholic Church is not dogmatic about it. The current custodian of the shroud, Cardinal Saldarini, says, “It is not Christ, but a sign pointing to him.”
The earliest written evidence of its existence is from the 14th century (when, as it happens, there was a boom market in fake relics). In 1988, the cloth was carbon-dated to around 1260.
So the answer has to be: unlikely.
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Is there reliable evidence that Jesus ever lived? Was he a great religious teacher… or an alien? Read our Jesus FAQs pages here. If you have a question about the life or teaching of Jesus, check here first to see what’s been posted about it.
Written by Steve Tomkins
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