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The Historical Jesus

February 25, 2013 — 1 Comment
The March-April edition of  Sorted Magazine is available in W.H. Smiths now

The March-April edition of Sorted Magazine is available in W.H. Smiths now

The great, British philosopher Bertrund Russell once said,

“Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him.”

Outside of the Bible – which incidentally is an incredibly reliable document – what kind of evidence is there that Jesus ever existed? Jesus Christ is arguably the most influential man in the whole of human history, indeed our entire calendar system pivots around his birth. Surely dear old Mr. Russell must be wrong? Surely there must be more evidence than the Bible for the life of Jesus?

Well, there is.

Non-Christian History

Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Roman-occupied Nazareth. The Roman Empire covered much of Europe, Northern Africa, and parts of the Middle East at the time. So what of the Roman historical record? Here’s Tacitus, one of the great Roman historians:

“Christus … suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”

This small excerpt is part of a longer piece on how the Romans treated the early Christian church. Tacitus, writing in the second half of the 1st Century, corroborates Biblical facts about Jesus and the beginnings of the early church.

A well-worn objection to the Bible, and the New Testament accounts of Jesus in particular, goes something like this: “The early Christians made up the stories about Jesus because they needed to spread their false message.” Well, Tacitus and the Romans certainly didn’t need to spread the message. Quite the opposite; the Romans wished that the Christians didn’t exist! Christians were viewed as a nuisance and as law-breakers for not worshipping the emperor. The last thing that the Romans would have wanted to do would be to lend credence to the Christian message. Tacitus’ record is simply an honest historical account of the facts.

Jewish History

Another group of people not exactly tickled by the arrival of Jesus were, surprisingly enough, the Jews. Many Jewish leaders, keen to keep the peace with Rome, saw Jesus as a threat to the status quo. So let’s see what the Jewish historical record says.

Here we have Josephus. Writing in the early 90s (first Century) this Jewish Historian says:

“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 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.”

Hmm. Jesus, Pilate … the historical record of Jesus does seem to be emerging clearly.

Christian History

We also have written records from early Christians. We have the Bishop of Rome, Clement, here writing to the church in Corinth:

“The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. So then Christ is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ.”

Or how about Ignatius? Just one of the many Christians murdered in Rome by the Romans. He wrote of the crucifixion, as did Justin Martyr. In fact, both of these men quote facts, places, and names – all things easily checked by their readers.  Additionally, both of these men were martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ.

It was the 16th Century French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, who said, “I believe those witnesses who get their throats cut.”

That’s the thing; these historical records were composed by people who didn’t have much to gain, but had plenty to lose. Reputation, peace, or even their lives were at stake.

So let’s return to Mr. Russell’s argument. It may be that one would not want Jesus to have existed for any number of reasons but the plain facts of the matter are that the historical record has overwhelming evidence for the remarkable life of Jesus Christ. As one New Testament scholar has put it, “The theory of Jesus’ non-existence is now effectively dead as a scholarly question.”

If Jesus didn’t exist then we can forget about Christianity. It would just be another myth and should be treated with as much respect as the hairy sky monster. But Jesus did exist and his very existence challenges us today. Will we ignore him, or will we brave further investigation of the man who changed human history more than anyone else in all time?

This article appeared in the March-April edition of Sorted Magazine.

Sorted Magazine
Sep/Oct 2012 edition of Sorted is on sale now in newsagents in the UK. Get your subscription online.

“Christianity? There are some good points to it, but I just can’t believe that one faith is superior to others. That view is intolerant.” You know the idea, it has been said in many ways. Christianity, it is understood, is basically unfair because it says that everyone else is wrong. Oh, the arrogance of this, the intolerance to other ideas and people!

In Britain today there are many people of different backgrounds, from all types of races and people groups. We can enjoy just about any food from around the world and explore just about any belief without ever leaving these fair shores. The world has come to this country and along with it has come a wonderful variety of customs, traditions, and of course, religions.

Unity in all of this diversity is greatly prized. Ideas which threaten the peace are pounced upon quickly. We can of course agree, discrimination against individuals can and should be fought against. We applaud the efforts of organisations such as FIFA to eradicate racism, a horrible and cruel practice. We celebrate equality for women in the work place as noble and worthy. But does it mean that we have to accept all religions as having equal weight? Is it discrimination to say that just one religion is correct?

Essentially this argument boils down to truth claims. When someone says that they don’t like Christianity because it is intolerant they are making a claim about truth. “I don’t like your exclusivity. I don’t like that you say that Jesus is the only way.” But as we examine those very statements being made we realise that the person making them is asserting an exclusive view too! The person who doesn’t like Christianity’s truth claims is in fact saying that their view of truth – that many viewpoints are equally valid – is the right way, the only way, to proceed. In fact, exclusivity is OK – it just must be this type of exclusivity. But hold on, within this belief this person must grant Christianity’s view too. It all starts to unravel somewhat.

The question in fact reveals that Christianity – or any religion – can’t be written off simply for making exclusive claims. All religions and ways of thinking hold some kind of exclusivity at some point. What we must do is investigate the claims that Christianity makes. Do they stack up? Does the evidence fit? Does Christianity make more sense of the world than other religions and belief systems? What we really need to do is investigate, as Alister McGrath says, what Christianity is all about. This is what we will begin to look at in future columns.

This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct edition of Sorted Magazine. Pick up your copy today at WH Smith or get your subscription today.

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World (Buy on Amazon – US|UK)