From time to time articles and books are written which report that Jesus, as described in the Gospels, never actually lived: that what we have in the Gospels is a collection of legends which may become the basis for faith but which have no real historic roots. Such studies usually make much of the fact that we have relatively few “unbiased” sources on which to draw for information on the life of Christ. They maintain that it is unfair to use the Gospels as sources for historical material because their authors, being Christians, would be biased and would not report historical events accurately.
However, these attempts to remove Jesus from the scene of history have been completely unsuccessful. “Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed, and most biblical scholars and classical historians see the theories of his non-existence as effectively refuted. In antiquity, the existence of Jesus was never denied by those who opposed Christianity.” In fact, historian “ Geoffrey Blainey notes that a few scholars have argued that Jesus did not exist, but writes that Jesus’ life was in fact “astonishingly documented” by the standards of the time—more so than any of his contemporaries – with numerous books, stories and memoirs written about him. The problem for the historian, wrote Blainey, is not therefore, determining whether Jesus actually existed, but rather in considering the “sheer multitude of detail and its inconsistencies and contradictions”. There is still scholarly work being done which is attempting to find a different Jesus (the historical Jesus) from the one the Gospels portray, but very few serious scholars question Jesus’ historical existence today. There are various reasons for this.
First of all, the Gospel accounts have proved to be much more durable when examined by scholars than was originally expected. The closer they are examined, the more they appear to be what they claim to be: either eyewitness accounts or, in Luke’s case, carefully investigated histories. Though there are still some historical problems which are not fully understood, the more data that comes to light, the more we are impressed by the veracity of these accounts. Thus the Gospels cannot be lightly disposed of, and hardly anyone does so nowadays.
The Gospels are not the only source of information about the life of Christ. Even earlier New Testament sources come from the pen of the apostle Paul. His own conversion is a testimony. It would be hard to believe that a man so anti-Christian to begin with would ever have become the follower of someone he did not believe existed in history. Whether Paul ever had known Jesus personally is not certain. What is certain is that he had first-hand contact with those who did (Gal. 1:18 – 19, I Cor. 15:5-7). He speaks several times of what was “delivered to him” (I Cor. 11:2, 23ff; I Cor.15:3ff; II Thes.2:15; 3:6) meaning that information was transmitted to him from eyewitnesses. The dates of these letters are also significant. Galatians may have been written in the mid-forties, perhaps only 15 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. The Thessalonian letters are likely in the early 50s and the Corinthian correspondence in the late 50’s. This is a great deal of early attestation—far too early for the development of myths, and even far too early for the facts that Paul asserts to be invented. There were too many living people who knew Jesus for Paul’s “facts” to have been invented. Paul takes the specific verbal teaching of Jesus very seriously, such as in I Cor.7:10, 12 where he distinguishes between what he claims to be repetition of the Lord’s specific command and what he, Paul received by revelation. He clearly believes in a historical resurrection of Jesus (I Cor. 15:13).
“Paul affirms the Davidic lineage of Jesus (Rom.1:3), his true humanity and life under the law (Gal.4:4), his connection with Abraham (Gal.3:16), his institution of the Lord’s Supper (I Cor.11:23-26), his death, burial, resurrection, (I Cor.15:3-8). There may also be an allusion to the Transfiguration (II Cor.3:18.)”
“The resemblance between Paul’s delineation and the portrait in the Gospels is too exact to be a matter of chance. Paul proclaimed a Christ who was without sin (II Cor. 5:21). He was especially fond of dwelling on the humility of the Savior (Phil. 2:1-8t; II Cor. 8:9; 10:1) and his selflessness (Rom. 15:3). Much should be made of the apostle’s assertion that he is one who imitates Christ and his ability to be a model for his own converts (I Cor. 4:6; 11:1).” Thus the biblical records are consistent and impressive.
Contemporary Secular Records
It is true that contemporary secular records are not abundant. But that should not in itself be too surprising because during Jesus’ own lifetime the secular historians would not have considered his life to be very significant. F.F. Bruce provides an anecdote which helps make the point.
“In the closing years of British rule in India some trouble was being caused in the Waziristan section of the Northwest frontier by a self-styled ’Champion of Islam’ named Haji Mirza Ali Khan, Fakir of Ipi. He figured from time to time in the British and Indian press when he was engaged in upsetting the pax Britannica in those parts. Then for years he faded into oblivion, until his death was briefly announced in April 1960. It is unlikely that he will play a prominent part in histories of the 20th century.
“The Fakir of Ipi was a holy man, and his devotees no doubt thought him a very important person indeed. If they had begun to propagate a cult in which he played a central part; if their mission had proved unexpectedly successful; if it had led to riots in Harachi and Delhi; if it had been carried to London and begun to cause trouble in the Indian and Pakistani communities of Britain– then the name of the Fakir of Ipi would have come familiar and ultimately found its way into historical writings. But such a process would require a little time.
“Similarly in A. D. 30 the name and activity of Jesus of Nazareth would have meant no more to people living at the heart of the Roman world than the Fakir of Ipi meant to the people of England.”
However, this does not mean that there is not some contemporary testimony. One would not expect too much Jewish testimony because Jesus was seen as an opponent of the Jews who would have preferred to talk as little as possible about him. But a small fragment survives in the Jewish Talmud. This is an enormous collection of Jewish teaching, running a full 6500 pages. It consists of two parts, the Mishnah, which consists of the oral Torah, or teachings, and the Gemara, which is an elaboration of this, Parts of the Talmud were written at different times in Jewish history. The Babylonian Talmud consists of documents compiled over 3rd to 5th centuries in the most important Jewish centers in what is now Iraq. There is no history there of any kind, But we have the following fragment.
“On the eve of the Passover, Jesus of Nazareth was hung. During 40 days a herald went before him crying aloud: ’He ought to be stoned because he practices magic, has led Israel astray and caused them to rise in rebellion. Let him who has something to say in his defense come forward and declare it. ’ But no one came forward, and he was hung on the eve of the Passover.”
Though there are distortions in the record, certain important features shine through. First of all, though Jewish law would have had Jesus stoned, we are told that he was hung. The record of his crucifixion was too well known to have been set aside completely. The attempt is made to have his trial set in a better light than the Gospel records do. A forty day period is described in contrast to the Gospels account of a deliberately rushed set of proceedings. Third, the fact that he “practiced magic” is mentioned, which is veiled admission that he performed miraculous works. His death, around the time of the Passover is specifically mentioned.
Another Talmudic reference speaks of Jesus as Ben -Pandira (son of Pandira) or Ben- Panthera. The Greek word for virgin is parthenos and it has been suggested that this name goes back to the ancient Jewish slander, of which several references are found in that period. The Jews circulated the story that Jesus was an illegitimate child of Mary by a Roman soldier. However, even that slander is some testimony for it makes the tradition of a virgin birth quite early. It was suggested that Ben-Panthera is a corruption of the word for virgin.
But the most extensive reference to Christ is from the writings of Josephus, a Jewish contemporary historian. The passage as we have it today is:
“And there arose about this time Jesus, a wise man, if indeed we should call him a man. For he was a doer of marvelous deeds (miracles), a teacher of men who receive the truth with pleasure. He led away many Jews, and also many of the Greeks. This man was the Christ. And when Pilate had condemned him to the cross on his impeachment by the chief men among us, those who had loved him at first did not cease; for he appeared to them on the third day alive again, the divine prophets having spoken these and thousands of other wonderful things about him: and even now the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not yet died out.”
This is testimony coming from a non-Christian contemporary. This is an amazing testimony to Jesus, so much so that it is debated whether or not someone like Josephus could have penned it. Since there is no evidence for alteration there are scholars who defend it. However, even many conservative Christian scholars think that Josephus’ original account has been altered by later Christian copyists so that what we have may be a corrupted version. It is hard to believe that someone in Josephus’s position could have made such a laudatory statement without himself becoming a Christian, which he never did. F. F. Bruce has suggested that the original version of this passage may have read something like this:
“About this time there arose a source of further troubles in one Jesus, a wise man and a wonder-worker, a teacher of those who gladly welcome strange things. He led away many Jews, and also many of the Gentiles. This man was the so-called Christ. When Pilate, acting on information supplied by the chief men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had attached themselves to him at the first did not abandon their allegiance, and the tribe of Christians, which has taken this name from him, is not extinct today.”
Even in these words this passage is quite a powerful testimony. Later in his works, in an uncontested passage, Josephus refers to the trial of James, one of Jesus’ brothers and one of the leaders in the early church. He tells us that Annas hastily assembled the Sanhedrin and brought James, “brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” before it along with certain others. They were accused of being lawbreakers and delivered to be stoned.” This passage probably implies that the previous one at least existed—though perhaps in different form that we have it today—because the reference to Jesus is completely unadorned and unexplained and we would have to assume that it referred to his former reference. Also, his description of him as the “so-called Christ” at least indicates that there were contemporaries who regarded Jesus as the promised Messiah.
Pliny the Younger
Roman references to Jesus are scanty because they regarded Christianity as a sect of Judaism. But in the first quarter of the second century, at least three references have survived. Pliny the Younger (61 – c. 113 AD), when governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, wrote to Emperor Trajan seeking guidance in the matter of dealing with Christians. This letter is reproduced here:
PLINY TO TRAJAN
My Lord: it is my custom to refer to you everything that I am in doubt about; for who is better able either to correct my hesitation or instruct my ignorance?
I have never taken part in trials (cognitions) of Christians; consequently I do not know the precedents regarding the question of punishment or the nature of the inquisition. I have been in no little doubt whether some discrimination is made with regard to age, or whether the young are treated no differently than the older; whether renunciation went to indulgence, or it is of no avail to have abandoned Christianity if one has once been a Christian; whether the profession of the name is to be punished in itself, even if unaccompanied by disgraceful practices, or only the disgraceful practices commonly associated with the name.
So far this has been my procedure when people were charged before me with being Christians. I have asked the accused themselves if they were Christians; if they said ’Yes’, I asked them a second and a third time, warning them of the penalty; if they persisted I ordered them to be led off to execution. For I had no doubt that, whatever kind of thing it was that they pleaded guilty to, their stubbornness and unyielding obstinacy at any rate deserve to be punished. There were others afflicted with the like madness whom I marked it down to be referred to Rome, because they were Roman citizens.
Later, as usually happens, the troubles spread by the very treatment of it, and further varieties came to my notice. An anonymous document was laid before me containing many people’s names. Some of these denied that they were Christians or had ever been so; at my distinction they invoke the gods and did reverence with incense and wine to your image, which I ordered to be brought for this purpose along with the statues of the gods; they also cursed Christ; and as I am informed that people who are really Christians cannot possibly be made to do any of those things, I considered that the people who did them should be discharged. Others against whom I received information said they were Christians and then denied it; they meant (they said) that they had once been Christians but had given it up: some three years previously, some a longer time, one or two as many as twenty years before. All these likewise both did reverence to your image and the statues of the gods and cursed Christ. But they maintained that their faults or error amounted to nothing more than this: they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before sunrise and reciting an antiphonal hymn to Christ as God, and binding themselves with an oath—not to commit any crime, but to abstain from all acts of theft, robbery and adultery, from breaches of faith, from denying a trust when called upon to honor it. After this, they went on, it was their custom to separate, and then meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. And even this, they said, they had given up doing since the publication of the edict in which, according to your instructions, I had placed a ban on private associations. So I thought it more necessary to inquire into the real truth of the matter by subjecting to torture two female slaves, who were called ‘deaconesses’; but I found nothing more than a perverse superstition which went beyond all bounds.
Therefore I deferred further inquiry in order to apply to you for ruling. The case seemed to me to be a proper one for consultation, particularly because of the number of those who were accused. For many of every age, every class, and of both sexes are being accused and will continue to be accused. Nor has this contagious superstition spread through the cities only, but also through the villages and countryside. But I think it can be checked and put right. At any rate the temples, which had been well-nigh abandoned, are beginning to be frequented again; and the customary services, which had been neglected for a long time, are beginning to be resumed; fodder for the sacrificial animals, too, is beginning to find a sale again, for hitherto it was difficult to find anyone to buy it. From all this it is easy to judge what a multitude of people can be reclaimed, if the opportunity is granted them to renounce Christianity.
The Imperial rescript was brief and to the point.
TRAJAN TO PLINY
My dear Secundus: you have followed the correct procedure in investigating the cases of those who have been charged before you with being Christians. Indeed, no general decision can be made by which a set form of dealing with them could be established. They must not be ferreted out; if they are charged and convicted, they must be punished, provided that anyone who denies that he is a Christian and gives practical proof of that by invoking our gods is to be discharged on the strength of this repudiation, no matter what grounds for suspicion may have existed against him in the past anonymous documents which are laid before you should receive no attention in any case; they are a very bad precedent and quite unworthy of the age in which we live.
The special reference to “Christ as to a God” seems to imply that Christ had lived on earth. The whole passage certainly gives indication that Christianity was widespread early in the second century.
A second source from the same period is from Tacitus ( c. AD 56 – after 117), the Roman historian. He recounts the reign of Nero and the reports that he was the one who investigated the fire of Rome and then blamed Christians for it. His record continues:
“Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”
This is particularly significant testimony because its allusions point to non-Christian and non-Jewish sources for the information and thus present solid historical evidence for the existence of Jesus.
“A third Roman writer [and historian], Suetonius (c. 69 – after 122 AD), has a probable allusion to Christ. He states that the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because of their tumults at the investigation of Chrestus. This may be capable of identification with Christus. What favors it is the consideration that both the Greek and Latin words for Christian, analogues in form, are sometimes found spelled with an ‘e’ rather than an ‘I’.”  Thus, what could have happened is that when the message of the gospel came to Rome it caused great division and even rioting in the Jewish community which caused Claudius to drive the whole community from the city. This also may be taken as evidence that before the end of the first century the witness to Christ had taken firm root in Rome.
“According to the Christian father Origen, Celsus was a 2nd-century Greek philosopher and opponent of Early Christianity. He is known for his literary work, The True Word , which survives exclusively in Origen’s quotations from it in Against Celsus. This work, c. 177 is the earliest known comprehensive attack on Christianity…. Origen’s refutation of The True Word contained its text, interwoven with Origen’s replies. Origen’s work has survived and thereby preserved Celsus’ work with it… Since accuracy was essential to his refutation of The True Word, most scholars agree that Origen is a reliable source for what Celsus said.”
Concerning Jesus’ miracles, Celsus says, “Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain [magical] powers… He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god… It was by means of sorcery that He was able to accomplish the wonders which He performed… Let us believe that these cures, or the resurrection, or the feeding of a multitude with a few loaves… These are nothing more than the tricks of jugglers… It is by the names of certain demons, and by the use of incantations, that the Christians appear to be possessed of [miraculous] power…”
In his effort to criticize Jesus, Celsus acknowledges that Jesus performed what appeared to be miracles and claimed to be “a god.” Later he clarifies this into claiming that they were actually not miracles but something like magic tricks. Nevertheless, in this criticism he is at least verifying that Jesus reputedly performed miracles. This was not something added to a myth about Jesus much later. Many critics of Christianity maintain that Jesus’ divine claims were something added to his story much later by the Church. He even acknowledges that there was a purported resurrection, although he claimed it took place by trickery. Again, this is an admission that this was not a myth added much later to the Christian story.
Here is another comment on Jesus’ miracles.
“O light and truth! He distinctly declares, with his own voice, as ye yourselves have recorded, that there will come to you even others, employing miracles of a similar kind, who are wicked men, and sorcerers; and Satan. So that Jesus himself does not deny that these works at least are not at all divine, but are the acts of wicked men; and being compelled by the force of truth, he at the same time not only laid open the doings of others, but convicted himself of the same acts. Is it not, then, a miserable inference, to conclude from the same works that the one is God and the other sorcerers? Why ought the others, because of these acts, to be accounted wicked rather than this man, seeing they have him as their witness against himself? For he has himself acknowledged that these are not the works of a divine nature, but the inventions of certain deceivers, and of thoroughly wicked men.”
Here again he calls them “sorcery.” He even refers to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7) where Jesus warns against true sorcerers who use their powers to lead people astray even while trying to use these statements by Jesus against him.
Concerning Jesus’ virgin birth Celsus seems to draw on the same slander in the Jewish Talmud. He says, “Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her hands. His mother had been turned out by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery [with a Roman soldier named Panthera]. Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard.” Even in this criticism it is acknowledged that the virgin birth was acknowledged early in the history of the Church. It is also interesting that a number of modern critics have seized on these references from very hostile and therefore not neutral sources as the explanation for that claim although there are no neutral sources confirming them.
Concerning Jesus’ disciples he says “Jesus gathered around him ten or eleven persons of notorious character… tax-collectors, sailors, and fishermen… [He was] deserted and delivered up by those who had been his associates, who had him for their teacher, and who believed he was the savior and son of the greatest God… Those who were his associates while alive, who listened to his voice, and enjoyed his instructions as their teacher, on seeing him subjected to punishment and death, neither died with nor for him… but denied that they were even his disciples, lest they die along with Him.”
Here Celsus admits that Jesus had a group of disciples but, like the Bible says, they deserted him at his time of death. He says that they were not willing to die with him at his crucifixion, which is true, but it is also true that eventually all but one died a martyr’s death for their faith.
Concerning Jesus’ divinity, he says “One who was a God could neither flee nor be led away a prisoner… What great deeds did Jesus perform as God? Did he put his enemies to shame or bring to an end what was designed against him? No calamity happened even to him who condemned him… Why does he not give some manifestation of his divinity, and free himself from this reproach, and take vengeance upon those who insult both him and his Father?” 
This was a criticism thrown at Jesus even as he was dying. But the Gospels clear up this point by explaining that Jesus’ death was voluntary and intended to pay for all the sins of humanity. Also, the idea that there was no judgment against his enemies is also not true although it did not take place immediately. There were at least three holocausts that took place, the first resulting in the sack of Jerusalem (city destroyed, 1 million killed, 97,000 taken captive), then Masada (1000 Jews died after a three-year defense), then a final holocaust in 132 AD where virtually every living Jew was permanently enslaved and Jerusalem was turned into a pagan city.
Concerning John the Baptist he said, “If any one predicted to us that the Son of God was to visit mankind, he was one of our prophets, and the prophet of our God? John, who baptized Jesus, was a Jew.” Celsus thus confirms Jesus’ baptism by John and admits that John thought of him as the Son of God.
Concerning Jesus’ crucifixion, “Jesus accordingly exhibited after His death only the appearance of wounds received on the cross, and was not in reality so wounded as He is described to have been.”
Here Celsus confirms the crucifixion and that Jesus showed his wounds—as the Bible says, to his disciples—although he claims that Jesus was not actually wounded that severely, even though it was common in Jesus’ day first to scourge crucifixion victims and the Gospels say this indeed happened to Jesus. Later Celsus contradicts himself when he states that Jesus was probably never even crucified but instead had an impostor die in his place.
Lucian of Samosata
Lucian (c. AD 125 – after AD 180) was a rhetorician and satirist who wrote in the Greek language… Lucian also wrote a satire called The Passing of Peregrinus, in which the lead character, Peregrinus Proteus, takes advantage of the generosity of Christians. This is one of the earliest surviving pagan perceptions of Christianity.”
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account… It was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers from the moment they are converted and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws…”
What this brief passage confirms is that Jesus did exist, he was the founder of Christianity, he was worshipped by his followers, and suffered death by crucifixion.
“Mara bar Serapion was an Assyrian Stoic philosopher in the Roman province of Syria. He is only known from a letter he wrote in Syriac to his son, who was also named Serapion, which allegedly refers to Jesus Christ. The letter indicates that Mara’s homeland was Samosata, i.e. modern-day Samsat, Turkey (on the west bank of the Euphrates).” Because he refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, he must have written this letter after 70 AD when this occurred.
“What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: The Athenians died of hunger. The Samians were overwhelmed by the sea. The Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good. He lived on in the teachings of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good. He lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good. He lived on in the teaching which He had given.”
Although Jesus isn’t mentioned by name it is hard to imagine who else he could have been talking about. There is no other Jewish king or person who claimed to be king who was executed—implying some kind of trial and death sentence–by his people during this time. Furthermore, it was clearly seen as a miscarriage of justice for which the whole nation paid. Furthermore, the king mentioned had a lasting legacy in his teaching which no other Jewish king of that day did.
This literary evidence is corroborated by the evidence of the existence of the Church. It quickly became distinct from Judaism and rapidly spread to all corners of the Roman Empire. It gave obvious homage to Jesus Christ as a historical figure. It would be hard to imagine that this could all have been based on a myth, particularly since the early followers of Jesus were contemporaries and there were people alive during the first century who had claimed to have seen and lived with Jesus. So the Jesus of history is quite secure. Exactly what he was like may be debated. How accurately the Gospels reflect real-life incidents maybe debated (with the trend today being to take them quite seriously). But that Jesus lived, was crucified, and worshipped is remarkably well established. Whether or not he rose from the dead is not as clear from these records. I have discussed that separately in Did Jesus Actually Rise from the Dead? But whatever we believe about the events and details of his life, because of him the world has never been the same.
 Everett F. Harrison, “A Short Life of Christ” (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1968), p.21
 Ibid. p.22
 F.F Bruce, “New Testament History” (Doubleday & Co. quote Garden City,N.Y.,1971) p.163
 Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews”XVIII.3.3
 F. F. Bruce, op.cit. p.166
 The ‘twenty years before’ would bring us back to Domitian’s reign; but this provides at best the slenderest of evidence in support of their tradition stigmatizing him as one of the persecuting emperors.
 Latin: ministrae
 E. F. Harrison, op.cit. p. 19
 Ernest Cushing Richardson, Bernhard Pick (1905). The Ante-Nicene fathers: translations of the writings of the fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume 4 and Origen, Origen Against Celsus, Volume 2.Kessinger Publishing quoted in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celsus last viewed 5/24/14