Was Jesus real? Was he a person who lived or a fictional character around whom a religion was formed? It appears as though many atheists and skeptics of all kinds like to argue that Jesus was not real and did not exist. This presumption is generally made because the Bible conveys supernatural events, and therefore, those who hold that supernatural events cannot occur see it fitting to deny the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.
However, as professor of biblical criticism and exegesis F. F. Bruce states,
“Some writers may toy with the fancy of ‘Christ-myth,’ but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ-myth’ theories.”1
In fact, even liberal non-Christian historians across the board, agree that Jesus was a historical person. So what makes historians so confident? Almost the entirety of the NT writings either make literal references to Jesus within a context of a historical narrative, include words spoken by Jesus himself, assume the Judeo-Christian theological separation brought about by Jesus or make Jesus the precursor and the very reason for their attestations. In other words, if Jesus never existed it would be foolish for the NT writers to write about a fictional person whom they were so convinced was God in human flesh that they routinely withstood persecution for their persistence of those beliefs. It is absurd to assume these writers to have created a fictional person for whom they were willing to die.
In addition to the biblical record, there are also many extra-biblical historians who wrote about Jesus and the movement He started. Was Jesus real? One very important thing to keep in mind as we look at some of these is that the Jewish and secular writers were usually antagonistic to Christianity, so their accounts carry quite a bit of weight since they had nothing to gain by admitting or, better yet, implicitly verifying the historicity of Jesus and His followers. There are many historical references to Jesus of Nazareth by historians and writers, including Trajan, Macrobius, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Juvenal, Seneca and Hierocles. We could cite all these other references as well, but for the sake of brevity let’s look at just some of the more significant ones.
Roman historian (c. AD 55-120)
“But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, avail to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punishment with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also.”2
Greek satirist (first half of the 2nd century AD)
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account . . . You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.”3
Roman historian and court official (under Hadrian)
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [variation of Christus, Christ], he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”4
In the biblical narrative, Luke refers to this event, which took place in AD 49, “There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them . . .” (Acts 18:2). This corroborative evidence places Christians in Rome less than 20 years after Christ’s crucifixion.
Governor of Bythinia in Asia Minor (under emperor Trajan)
“They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt or their error was that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up.”5
Romanized Jewish historian (c. AD 37–100)
Though some part of the writings are considered to have been later alterations by early Christians (and thus excluded here), the portions that are not debated give us good insight, corroborating other historical sources,
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct to this day.”6
Now, was Jesus real? It certainly seems like it. The important thing to consider is that we have overwhelming evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, and although biblical writings are themselves historic, we have not looked at any of them here to establish that Jesus was real.
1 Bruce, Frederick Fyvie, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1960) 123.
2 Tacitus, Cornelius, Annals, XV, 44.
3 Lucian of Samosata, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13.
4 Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 25.4.
5 Pliny the Younger, Epistles, X.96.
6 Josephus, Flavius, Antiquities, XVIII, 33.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.