Are There Historical Clues To The Existence Of Jesus?

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There can be little doubt about the importance that Jesus of Nazareth has had in history. In fact, we could not understand the trajectory of the human being without knowing this historical figure, his teachings and the vicissitudes of his followers. Jesus constitutes, therefore, one of the keys to the future of humanity. However, the religious Jesus is one thing and the historical Jesus is quite another.

The first is well known from the Gospels and other religious sources. But what happens with the second? What sources do we have to support the theory that Jesus really existed and is not simply an invention of his followers to justify his doctrine?

In today’s article we delve into the thorny issue of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and analyze the possible historical clues we have. It is important to note that what follows should be read from an exclusively scientific perspective; It is not, therefore, a text linked to faith, but to history. Because history and faith are different and follow different paths, and only with this in mind can we debate whether, in fact, there are historical indications of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.

What historical evidence is there of the existence of Jesus?

We can start clearly and concisely: We only have three more or less contemporary sources for Jesus (in addition to the Gospels) that provide evidence of his existence: Flavius ​​Josephus, a 1st century Jewish historian, and Tacitus and Suetonius, two Roman sources. We can affirm that all three are reliable sources, since they are not Christian sources and, therefore, they would have no reason to distort history and adapt it as they please. But let’s take a closer look at what each of them says.

Flavius ​​Josephus (c. 37 – c. 100)

Born into a noble family in Jerusalem under the name Yosef ben Matityahu, Josephus is one of the non-Christian sources in which Jesus is mentioned. He is, furthermore, the first of all, since it is considered that his most important text where he talks about Jesus, known as Testimonium Flavianum, was written in the second half of the 1st century.

What does Josephus tell us? First, in his Jewish Antiquities, he lies to a certain James (James), brother of Jesus, whom he adds was called Christ. Then we find another passage in which it speaks of the execution of John the Baptist which, although it is not a direct reference to Jesus, is a non-Christian testimony of a passage from the New Testament. And finally, in the aforementioned Testimonium Flavianum, the scholar tells us that at that time “Jesus appeared, a wise man, if one can be called a man, who performed prodigious acts…”.

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Despite the apparent evidence of the Flavian claim, there are many historians who have studied the subject and who maintain that in Josephus’ work we can find later interpolations. Interpolations are fragments added to an original text, so some passages (such as, for example, the one that says “if he can be called a man”) could not be the fruit of the pen of Josephus, but of later Christians who , when copying the manuscript, added elements to ratify their faith. In any case, the reference to Jesus as a historical figure does seem to be authentic.

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Tacitus (c. 54- c. 120)

The mention that this non-Christian Roman historian makes of Jesus and his followers is found at the end of his famous work Annals, written at the beginning of the 2nd century AD, that is, almost a century after the death of our character. In this section, Tacitus talks about the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilate and the emergence in Rome of various groups of followers of the crucified man.

Specifically, the historian refers to the fire that the city suffered in 64 AD and the consequent action that Emperor Nero took against the Christians, whom he accused of being the authors of the crime. Leaving aside whether or not Nero burned Rome (historians have doubts about this), the truth is that, according to Tacitus, Christians were tortured and executed for it and for “their hatred against humanity.”

Suetonius (c. 70- c. 120)

Finally, we find the testimony of Suetonius, the last of the sources closest to the time of Jesus. The Roman historian (also, non-Christian) wrote Lives of the Twelve Caesars at the end of his life, that is, around the year 120 AD. This means that it is written almost a century after the death of the historical Jesus. .

In his Lives (and, specifically, in the episode where he refers to the emperor Claudius), Suetonius tells us about the turmoil in the Jewish communities of Rome, a fact that some historians link to the first Christian communities. We must not forget that, before Saint Paul, Christianity was a branch of Judaism, not open to Gentiles. On the other hand, in the passage dedicated to Nero, the historian also tells us about the “punishments” that the emperor inflicted on the Christians as a result of the famous fire.

Assessments of non-Christian sources

What do we extract from the above? To begin with, it is necessary to consider the temporal remoteness of the sources. Of the three, none of them is strictly contemporary with Jesus, from which it follows that they may be contaminated by later gossip and rumors. On the other hand, only Flavius ​​Josephus and Tacitus directly mention the existence of Jesus (in the case of Tacitus, it specifies that his death occurred during the time of Pontius Pilate), since the third source, that of Suetonius, only mentions the first Christian communities.

We do not have any other non-Christian testimony of the existence of Jesus that was written at such an early date, so, for many historians, the three sources mentioned are not enough to scientifically corroborate the existence of the character. First, because they are excessively later; second, because, especially in the case of Flavius ​​Josephus, they may have been contaminated with interpolations.

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And what about the Gospels?

There are other sources contemporary to the writings cited: the four canonical Gospels which, due to their religious nature, are not strictly counted as scientific sources. Let’s stop for a moment on them.

The canonical Gospels

To begin with, why do we call them canonical? Because The four gospels that we know and are found in the New Testament (that is, the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) are the only ones that the Church officially accepted among the many gospels that were written. The rest of the writings, which include the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene or the Gospel of Judas, are called apocryphal gospels, the vast majority of which were created many centuries after the death of Jesus.

The canonical gospels, in addition to being the only ones accepted as “official” by the Church, were also the first to be written, although they are not strictly contemporaries of Jesus. The Gospel of Mark was the first to be written; Experts point to the year 60 AD as an approximate date, that is, about thirty years after the death of Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew was written between the year 70 and 110 AD, most likely around the year 90. As for Luke, it is later than these two previous ones. The last Gospel would be that of John, written at the beginning of the second century AD.

Therefore, we have that the “official” gospels were written many years after the death of Jesus, based on a Christian oral tradition, more or less at the same time that Flavius ​​Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius were writing their testimonies. So let’s ask ourselves a question. What historical reliability can texts that record events that occurred more than half a century earlier have?

On the other hand, it is more than likely that the evangelical texts were composed by several people, and that the attribution to the different apostles is simply a way of legitimizing their message. This is clear from the various analyzes that have been carried out on their composition, which conclude that they were written by different hands. On the other hand, if we considered that the authors were, in fact, the apostles of Jesus, we would have that John would have written his gospel and his Apocalypse when he was over a hundred years old, which is not very likely.

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Historical facts of the gospels

Thus, we can conclude that in the Scriptures there are elements introduced a posteriori, the result of an oral tradition and the desire to legitimize the message of Christ. Take for example the birth of Jesus, which occurred, according to the Bible, in Bethlehem. It is historically incongruous for a character born in Bethlehem to be known as “Jesus of Nazareth” and not “Jesus of Bethlehem,” so historians deduce that his birthplace was, in fact, Nazareth.

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The inclusion of the passage that tells us how Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to register in the Roman census would, once again, be a form of legitimation, since we remember that, in the Old Testament, it is said that the Messiah would be of the king’s lineage. David. And the monarch’s lineage was, indeed, from Bethlehem.

However, other events recorded in the Gospels do seem to be historical. The direct mention of Pontius Pilate and the detailed description of Roman Judea in the 1st century are proof that, indeed, the character they describe existed and moved through a very specific context. Likewise, crucifixion was in effect the punishment reserved for criminals and seditionists, so we must think that, if Jesus was condemned to die by this method, it is because his attitude or his message conflicted directly with Roman law.

Many historians have believed they see in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth one of the many Jewish prophets who, at that time, rebelled against the Roman Empire. In this sense, and following this theory, the authentic Jesus would not be an apostle of peace, but rather a rebellious anti-Roman rabbi.

Conclusions

That Jesus of Nazareth existed, few historians doubt. Despite the few sources we have, it seems quite unlikely that a character who caused so much commotion was, in fact, the result of the invention of his followers. On the other hand, and as stated by the historian who specializes in Rome Néstor F. Marqués, the contradictions and gaps in the gospels are, precisely, evidence that they speak of a real person, since, if invented, the story would have perfectly woven state, without cracks.

The only non-Christian (almost) contemporary testimonies of Jesus are, as we have already mentioned, the Jewish historian Flavius ​​Josephus and the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius. Of them, only two mention the existence of Jesus (the third speaks only of his followers), and, although it is very possible that some of the notes were added a posteriori, it is clear that all of them recognize the character as real.

Finally, the so-called canonical gospels are compilations of oral traditions collected by various authors, so the message could have been contaminated, as indeed it seems to happen with some passages. Despite this, the context in which the Jesus of the gospels moves is too real and concrete to constitute an invented character.

In summary; Today, virtually no historian doubts the existence of the historical Jesus. It seems that the character really lived in 1st century Judea and that he died on the cross, accused of rebellion against Rome. These are the facts; From here, the rest concerns faith.

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