Evidence of the Messiah
“There was written, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (John 19:19 ASV)
by Ray Charlton
Undeniably, Christianity has existed since the first century. Jesus’ teachings have been preserved in the New Testament and read, and followed, by hundreds of millions. In spite of this, there are those who question his existence and others who have doubts about the veracity of his teachings. These cite a lack of early historical sources as the main reason for apprehension. Beyond this, agnostics are skeptical of the New Testament text itself as a reliable narrative of history.
With these challenges in view, we ask the fundamental question: Upon what basis do we believe in Jesus? Faith is based on a reasoned consideration of the evidence.
Secular Evidence for the Existence of Jesus
First Century References
The earliest mention of Jesus outside the New Testament is in the writings of the historian, Thallos, around 55 AD. Unfortunately, his original writings are lost, but later historians quote them.1 Thallos seems to refer to the darkness at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. However, the certitude of these references is diminished, as the original writings are lost to history.2
A much more definitive account comes from a Roman senator and historian by the name of Tacitus3 (56-120 AD). He confirms the existence of Jesus and corroborates some historical details of Jesus’ death. “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”4 (Italics added)
In this single historical quote, we have secular certitude of Jesus’ existence, and that Jesus did indeed die at the hands of Pontius Pilate, as the gospels describe.
Josephus (37 AD to 100 AD), a well-known Jewish historian, referred to Jesus twice in his book, The Antiquities of the Jews. “Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [High priest Ananus] assembled the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned:”5 (Italics added)
The second is the Testimonium Flavianum (Antiquities 18.3.3), which appears largely genuine. Here is the text, as constructed by Edwin Yamauchi. “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man (if indeed one ought to call him a man.) For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as ac cept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. (He was the Christ.) When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. (On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.) And the tribe of the Christians, so-called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”6
(1) Notably Sextus Julius Africanus (circa 160-240 AD) and Georgius Syncellus (circa 800 AD)
(2) Wikipedia, “Historical Jesus,” and “Thallus (historian).”
(3) Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus, 56-120 AD, considered to be one of the greatest Roman historians (Wikipedia, Tacitus).
(4) Tacitus, Annals, Book XV AD 62-65
(5) Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20:9:1.
(6) An excellent review of the Testimonium Flavianum (Antiquities 18:3.3) and its implications, as well as the sources, may be found in carm.org/regardingquotes-historian-josephus-about-jesus. See also josephus.org/question.htm for the rationale that this paragraph is mostly, though not totally, genuine.
The Arabic version of Agapius omits “He was the Christ [Messiah]” and “if indeed one ought to call him a man;” so we should consider those statements unconfirmed. Agapius similarly omits the word “truth.” Agapius says, “They reported,” at the beginning of “on the third day he appeared … marvelous things about him.” So we may accept that Josephus reported it, and not that he necessarily believed it.
Whether Josephus copied from an account derived from the Emmaus account (Luke 24:13-27) remains to be seen.
In summary, What can we conclude from these two secular ancient historians? We can be confident that:
(1) Jesus was definitely a man who existed in the first century.
(2) He had a brother named James
(3) He was called Christos in the Greek.
(4) He was executed during Pontius Pilate’s governorship in the reign of Tiberius Caesar
(5) He was crucified, the standard Roman method of execution
(6) He developed a large following of Jews and Gentiles, so much so that by the reign of Nero they were the scape-goats for a burning Rome in 64 AD.
Another early reference to Jesus is found in a letter from Mar Bar-Serapion, a stoic philosopher from the Roman province of Syria. Most scholars date it to shortly after 73 AD. It was written to his son while he was a prisoner. Here is a portion of a key passage:
“What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defense? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates? Famine and plague came upon them as a punishment 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, and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the “new law” he laid down.”7 (Italics added)
Mar Bar-Serapion was not a Christian. But he was familiar with the history in the region. The “wise king” here is Jesus. He links the execution of Jesus with the punishment of the Jews by the Romans in 70-73 AD. Also interesting is the reference to a “new law.” Though he was not knowledgeable of the teachings of Jesus, he identified the different behavior of Christians in that ancient world and attributed it to the “new law” teaching of the wise king Jesus.
As a first-century reference, it strongly reinforces the evidence for Jesus’ existence.
Second Century References
Pliny the Younger was governor of Pontus/ Bithynia from 111-113 AD. He wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan, reigning from 98-117 AD:
“I have never participated in trials of Christians. I, therefore, do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
“Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed.”8
(7) Wikipedia, Mara_bar_Serapion_on_Jesus
He goes on to describe much more about how Christians worshipped and behaved. Historians even have a response to his letter from Emperor Trajan approving his treatment of Christians. This letter demonstrates that the disciples of Jesus were active and public in their worship early in the second century. This would hardly be expected from a non-existent figure in history.
Biblical Evidence of Jesus as Messiah
Within the Bible itself, there are numerous prophecies and types that depict the ministry of Jesus. Prophecy demonstrates something that cannot be explained in secular, rational terms. Namely, that the future is predicted within the text of the Bible.
The Passover Lamb
Most people are familiar with the Passover historical tradition, as it has been made into several movies and videos that have had wide exposure.9 When we evaluate several of the important details of this narrative, we are awed at the parallel with the experience of Jesus’ death. Here are just a few prophecies which were singularly fulfilled in Jesus:
(1) The Passover Lamb was killed on the 14th of Nisan. So was Jesus (Leviticus 23:5).
(2) The Passover Lamb was killed at 3 pm. Jesus died at 3 pm (Exodus 12:6).10
(3) No bones of the Passover Lamb were broken. None of Jesus’ bones were broken (Exodus 12:46).
(4) Abraham’s interrupted sacrifice of Isaac was on Mount Moriah. Jesus’ crucifixion was either on Mount Moriah or very near.
(5) Moses lifted up the copper serpent on a cross. Jesus was lifted up on a cross (Numbers 21:9, John 3:14).11 (6) Jesus’ garments would be taken from him by lot (Psalm 22:18, Matthew 27:35).
These prophetic pictures and many, many others were in the Hebrew scriptures centuries before Jesus’ birth. We see no natural explanation for knowing the future. This is the domain of God. He provides it for the faithful so that they may know with certitude that Jesus Christ is indeed the promised seed of Abraham that will bless all the families of the earth.
The conclusion of this superficial survey of evidence of Jesus’ existence, and evidence from the Bible that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament demonstrates that our faith is based on sound reasons and is not without foundation. We can, therefore, accept Jesus as our Lord and Master and follow him with confidence. The reward is the peace of mind today, and afterward, the opportunity to bless mankind forever.
(9) Notably the 1958 movie The Ten Commandments, which repeatedly exposed a full generation to the details of this Jewish tradition.
(10) See also R2953, “Between Evenings, A Jewish View.”
(11) The Hebrew Scriptures report the copper serpent was placed on a “pole” (viz. ASV). As such, there must be a cross-member to lay the copper serpent on and maintain it at, the top of the pole. Therefore, it had to be some kind of cross.