Did Jesus really exist?

· author: Thomas · reading time: ca. 8 min.

Extra-biblical sources prove that Jesus of Nazareth actually lived. Roman and Greek records have parallels to the Bible. The first Christians were so sure that Jesus’ lived that they stood by their faith despite persecution.

As things stand today, historical research is by and large in agreement that Jesus of Nazareth actually lived as a historical person. There exist some extra-biblical sources which are less known than the Bible itself, but which confirm that Jesus was not simply a Christian “invention”.

In addition to the sources I present in this article, there are others that are considered more or less reliable in today’s historical research. Some are considered forgeries. Therefore, I will limit myself here to three sources that are currently assumed to be relatively genuine.

These sources are written from an outside perspective and do not prove that Jesus is also God. But they point out that the statements of the Bible cannot be meant purely metaphorically, but that the events around Jesus and the first Christians have actually taken place in our real world.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus

Tacitus was a politician and historian in the Roman Empire. He writes the following about Jesus and the first Christians in connection with the Great Fire of Rome that happened in 64 AD:

This name [Christiani] comes from Christ, who had been executed under Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate. This pernicious superstition had been suppressed for the moment, but later reappeared and spread not only in Judea, where it had arisen, but also in Rome, where all the abominations and atrocities of the whole world converge and are practiced.

(quoted from: Gerd Theißen and Annette Merz: Der historische Jesus. Ein Lehrbuch, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1996, p. 89; translated from German into English).

When the Roman emperor of the time, Nero, is confronted with accusations of having set the fire in Rome himself, he instead wants to place the blame on the Christians in order to divert attention from himself.

Although Tacitus does not consider the Christians of the time to be arsonists, he adopts the common prejudices of the time, according to which Christianity was considered superstition. Despite his dismissive attitude, Tacitus does not question any essential facts.

His account shows the following parallels to the biblical record:

Key statements Bible passages
Jesus, known as “Christ”, actually existed and was executed. Matthew 27:35 · Mark 15:25 · Luke 23:33 · John 19:18 · Acts 2:36
The order for execution came from Pontius Pilate, who worked under Emperor Tiberius. Matthew 27:2 · Mark 15:1 · Luke 23:1 · John 18:29 and Luke 3:1
The Christian faith began in Judea. Matthew 2:1 · Acts 1:8
The first Christians were oppressed by persecution. Matthew 10:18 · Acts 22:4 · 2 Timothy 3:12
The Christian faith spread throughout the ancient world to Rome. Acts 28:16 · Romans 1:7 · 2 Timothy 1:17

Tacitus thus confirms the crucifixion of Jesus as a historical fact, places it in a temporal and geographical context, and establishes the connection between Jesus and the faith of the first, now so-called “Christians”.

Pliny the Younger

Pliny was a Roman politician as well, but also a lawyer. In his function around 111 AD he had to deal with an increasing number of charges against Christians. In a letter he therefore asks the emperor Trajan for advice and describes his procedure with the accused:

I asked them if they were Christians. If they confessed, I asked them a second and third time under threat of the death penalty. If they persisted, I had them led away (to death). […]

To those who denied being or having been Christians, I recited the formula and made them invoke the gods and pray to your statue, which I sent for this purpose together with images of gods, with offerings of incense and wine, and also blaspheme Christ. Thereupon, in my opinion, they could be set free. For true Christians cannot be forced to do any of these things.

(quoted from: Hans Conzelmann: Geschichte des Urchristentums, 2nd edition, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1971, p. 151; translated from German into English).

He describes his impression of Christians who claim to have turned away from their faith like this:

They asserted that their whole guilt or error consisted in the fact that they regularly assembled on a certain day before daybreak. They sang a song to Christ as (their) God and committed themselves by oath, not to commit a crime, but to refrain from theft, robbery, adultery, disloyalty, embezzlement of entrusted property. Thereupon they parted regularly; they came together again to have a meal, but an ordinary and innocent one.

Hans Conzelmann remarks that at that time the Christians were accused of cannibalism and incest, among other things, which is why the common meal is described here as “ordinary and innocent”.

But since Pliny wants to be quite sure, he tortures two women in order to thereby learn the truth about their faith, and comes to the conclusion afterwards:

I found nothing but cranky, immoderate superstition.

Pliny finally justifies the fact that he specially addresses the emperor in the matter with the large number of defendants:

It seemed to me that an inquiry was appropriate, especially because of the large number of defendants. For many of every age, of every rank, even of both sexes, come and will come before the court. For not only over the cities, but also over the villages and the flat countryside the plague of this superstition has spread.

From Pliny’s letter we see that at that time there definitely existed a Christian community and its followers testified to their faith despite the immediate persecution, which could even lead to the death penalty.

Pliny’s letter shows the following parallels to the biblical record:

Key statements Bible passages
True Christians remain faithful to Jesus even in persecution. Matthew 10:22 · Acts 7:59 · 2 Corinthians 12:10 · 1 Peter 4:16
The Christian faith excludes the belief in other gods. Exodus 20:3 · Deuteronomy 5:7 · John 14:6 · Acts 4:12
Christians gather regularly on a specific day of the week. Acts 2:42 · Hebrews 10:25 and Acts 20:7 · 1 Corinthians 16:2
They worship Jesus with songs. Ephesians 5:19 · Colossians 3:16
The Christian faith implies a certain ethical-moral standard. 1 Corinthians 5:11 · 1 Timothy 1:9-10
There is a meal at the meetings. Acts 2:42 · Acts 2:46 · 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Christians exist in all age groups. 1 Corinthians 7:8 · Colossians 3:20 · 1 Timothy 5:1-2
Among the Christians are men and women. Luke 8:1-3 · Acts 12:12 · Acts 21:9 · 2 Timothy 4:19 · Philemon 1:1-2

Pliny’s descriptions thus reveal further details about how the first Christians practiced their faith. These coincide in essential points with the reports and exhortations of the first Christians in the Bible.

Lucian of Samosata

Not only Roman sources wrote about Jesus, but also, for example, Lucian, a satirist from Syria. He mentions the Christians in connection with Peregrinus, a Greek philosopher. Peregrinus staged his own death by self-immolation – probably out of a craving for prestige – at the Olympic Games in 165 AD.

Lucian wrote about Peregrinus:

Peregrinus had been worshipped by the Christians ’like a god’, he was regarded by them as a ’lawgiver’ and ’leader’, after that other one whom they still worship, the man who was executed in Palestine because he had introduced this new cult’ (The Passing of Peregrinus, 11).

(quoted from: Jens Schröter: Jesus: Leben und Wirkung, Beck, München 2020, p. 28; translated from German into English).

Lucian here obviously makes fun of the fact that the Christians had so naively fallen for Peregrinus and saw in him a great leader, when he – before his staged death – had apparently been a temporary member of a Christian community in Palestine.

Lucian then refers to the actual God of the Christians, Jesus, only pejoratively as the ‘crucified sophist’ – by which he means that Jesus was only something of a ‘good orator’:

Shortly thereafter, Lucian speaks of the Christians’ ‘first lawgiver’ who had taught them ’that they are all brothers … if they deny the Greek gods and worship that crucified sophist and live by his laws’ (13). The Christians would despise all worldly possessions and have everything in common, therefore they would be easily deceived if one wanted to enrich himself with them.

In Lucian’s work “The Passing of Peregrinus”, despite the satirical portrayal, the following parallels to the biblical record can be seen:

Key statements Bible passages
Christians worship Jesus crucified in Palestine. Matthew 21:1 · Mark 11:1 · Luke 19:28 · John 12:12
Jesus is the founder of Christianity. Acts 26:22-23 · Romans 8:29 · 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 · Colossians 1:18
Jesus brought the new “law”. 1 Corinthians 9:21
Christians are like brothers and sisters to one another. Matthew 23:8 · Ephesians 6:23 · Revelation 1:9
There is a clearly defined conversion to Christianity. John 3:3 · 2 Corinthians 5:17 · Ephesians 4:20-24 · Colossians 3:9-10
Faith in Jesus requires renouncing other gods. Acts14:15 · 1 Corinthians 8:4 · 1 Thessalonians 1:9
Christians worship Jesus and live by His laws. Galatians 1:3-5 and Matthew 7:23 · Ephesians 2:10 · James 2:26
Christians managed their property together. Acts 2:44-45 · Acts 4:32-35

The text of Lucian shows the events once again in the overall context: He picks up words of Jesus from his time here on earth (“you are all brothers”), mentions his crucifixion and then describes the habits of the Christians after the resurrection of Jesus.

Lucian also shows that the Christian movement is enduring – about a century after Tacitus, he wrote that Christians “still worship Jesus”, although by now some had fallen victim to Pliny’s death penalty.

Concluding remarks

Also, for example, the four Gospels in the Bible itself were written down by different authors, and yet they complement each other to form what I consider to be a coherent overall picture.

The fact that there are also extra-biblical historical sources, which show clear parallels to the New Testament texts of the Bible, justifies for me very well to accept the biblical events as historical.

If the resurrection of Jesus had really only been staged, would the first Christians then still have worshipped him at the time of Peregrinus, although they were already persecuted some decades before under threat of the death penalty?