Some atheists say: “Jesus never lived!” Others think he was an historical figure. Have you ever proved whether the Christ of the Bible really lived; if he performed those astonishing miracles of raising men from the dead, healing the blind and lame, and walking on water?
Did Jesus Christ really walk the dusty roads of Palestine during the time of the Roman occupation more than 1,900 years ago?
The New Testament, of course, bears record of a man named Jesus Christ. But is there evidence outside the Bible that he really lived; that he performed miracles; that he was condemned to death by the Roman governor Pilate as recorded in the New Testament?
The fact that Jesus did live and was crucified is described in detail within the pages of the Bible itself. But can it be proven from the words of Roman historians and others who wrote about him?
The Biblical Evidence
This brief study presents only a fragment of the evidence from both secular and biblical sources. But before examining the secular historical evidence, let’s first notice some of the details the Bible itself has to offer. So before we go any further, be sure you get your Bible. Read the verses that answer the questions asked in this revealing study.
Does the Bible record Christ’s existence as a human being during the early days of the Roman Empire? Notice Matthew 1:16 “And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” (v. 18) “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.” You can also read Matthew verse 21, also 2:1-6, Luke 20:20-25; John 11:47-48.
The New Testament is a record of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the Church he founded. The written accounts or gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (Christ’s disciples and apostles) clearly show that Christ was born during the closing days of the reign of Herod, king of Judea, and that he lived during the time of the earlier Roman Caesars and the Roman occupation of Palestine.
Was the birth of Jesus Christ in the town of Bethlehem of Judea predicted hundreds of years earlier? Micah 5:2 “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”
Now notice Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” You can read Matthew 1:22-23; 2:4-6 where this prophecy came true. But Micah and Isaiah are merely two of the dozens of prophecies and references to a Messiah in the Hebrew Bible that are mentioned in the New Testament as having been fulfilled by Jesus Christ. These Hebrew prophecies, as historians and linguists admit, were all written hundreds of years before Jesus was born!
Did Jesus Christ point out that the Scriptures of his day (now called the Old Testament by Christians) spoke about him? John 5:39 “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life; and they are they which testify of me.” Also read Luke 24:25-27, 44; Matthew 26:55-56 and Luke 4:17-21
Let’s notice several more Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah and see how Jesus Christ fulfilled them. Was the Messiah or the Christ to be betrayed by a friend for 30 pieces of silver? Ps. 41:9 “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.” Now notice was Zechariah 11:12-13 “And it was broken in that day: and so the poor of the flock that waited upon me knew that it was the word of the Lord. And I said unto them, if ye think good, give me my price; and if not, forbear. So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver.” Now, in the New Testament we read of this prophecy being fulfilled. Matthew 26:14-16 “Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests. And said unto them, what will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver. And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him.”
In the Old Testament, it tells us that the Messiah (Jesus Christ) would suffer a painful and agonizing death, with his hands and feet pierced? Read Isaiah 53:7-9, Ps. 22:14-17; Zech. 12:10 and compare these verses with Matthew 27:31; John 19:1, 34 and 20: 24-29.
And, yet, would the bones in his body not be broken? Ps. 34:20 “He keepeth all his bones; not one of them is broken.” Now compare this verse with John 19:33, 36 “But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs. (v. 36) “For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, a bone of him shall not be broken.”
Now another thing that was prophesied to happen is written Ps. 22:18 “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.” Now notice Matthew 27:35 “And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet. They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots.”
Jewish Historical Evidence
While on earth, Jesus preformed great miracles such as “the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” Matt. 11:4-5. You can also read of these miracles in Matt.15:30-31; 14:25-27 and Luke 17:12-16; John 11:11-14, 38-44. But did the religious leaders in Judea, who were envious of Jesus’ miracles and fame, claim that his power was from a source other than God? Matt. 12:24 “But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, this fellow doth not cast out devils by Beelzebub the prince of the devils.”
Although religious leaders were jealous of Jesus and cast doubts as to whether he was the prophesied Messiah, they were forced by the very fact of his miracles and influence among the people to give recognition to him in their records.
Jesus is referred to in the Talmud. The Talmud is a Jewish record of debates, doctrines, stories and traditions covering a period from before the birth of Jesus to the centuries immediately following. In the Talmud Jesus is referred to as “that man,” “dead dog,” “the hanged one” and “the sorcerer.” (The Jewish Encyclopedia lists the places where Jesus is referred to in the Talmud.)
The Talmud records Jesus’ healing of the blind, the lame and the leprous. It also mentions his walking on the sea! But the Talmud also speaks of Jesus as having learned sorcery in Egypt (recall Matt. 12:24), in an attempt to discredit his miracles and his claim to being the very Son of God. The Talmud also records a list of references to Jesus’ mother Mary, but in a noncomplimentary way.
Non-Christian Historical Evidence
The envious religious leaders finally succeeded in having Jesus Christ arrested by the Roman authorities under charges of treason and other false accusations.
When Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, did he find Jesus guilty or not guilty of the charges after examining him? Read the account in Luke23:13-23 for the answer. Pilate found “no fault in this man,” (v. 14). Nevertheless, Pilate gave in to those who demanded his death (vs. 24-25). The death of Jesus Christ was recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote less than 100 years after Jesus Christ. Writing about the Roman Emperors from Nero to Trajan, Tacitus mentions the Great Fire of Rome in 64 A.D. and Nero’s attempt to place the blame for it on the Christians.
Tacitus then wrote that “Christus (the Latin spelling of Christ), for whom the name (Christians) had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty (crucifixion) during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition (referring to Christianity), thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.” (Annals, XV, 44).
Here is historical evidence Jesus lived! This was not a Christian writing, but a Roman historian who abhorred Christianity! Tacitus had access to the government records. He had the proof Jesus was crucified!
Suetonius, another Roman historian and a contemporary of Tacitus, tells us that about 49 A.D. the Emperor Claudius banished all Jews from the city of Rome (an incident also mentioned in Acts 18:2): “He expelled the Jews from Rome, on account of the riots in which they were constantly indulging, at the instigation of Chrestus (generally understood as a misspelling of the name Christ)” (The Lives of the Caesars, Bk. V, 25).
Reference to Jesus is also made by the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, who was born about 37 A.D. Writing about the death, in Jerusalem, of James, Josephus casually speaks of him “as the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”(Antiquities of the Jews, XX; 9, 1).
The Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, as well as the Jewish historian Josephus, were not Christians. Therefore their writings can be considered neutral historical evidence of Jesus’ life and of his death by the Romans.
Before his death, Jesus Christ predicted that his followers would suffer severe persecution and martyrdom for their belief in him. (Matt. 5:11-12: 24:9).
During the later first century and in the second century A.D., persecution of the Christians was common in the Roman Empire. An early reference to Christ was made by Pliny the Younger, who was governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. He wrote letters to Emperor Trajan inquiring about how Christians should be dealt with. One such letter, written about 111-113 A.D., shows both Caesar and governor accepted that Jesus Christ lived and that his followers, when publicly accused, were to be put to death if they did not renounce their belief in Christ and curse him.
In this letter, Pliny describes Christians as coming together at fixed seasons and singing a hymn to “Christ, as to a god.” This phrase clearly indicates that Pliny, in writing to Caesar, considered Christ to have been a historical figure. Both leaders knew that Jesus was a real person who lived and taught in the Roman Empire less than a hundred years earlier! Yes, Jesus lived then and He is still alive today. If he weren’t we would be without a Savior.