Evidence of Jesus written by historians from the past.
Is the ancient history of Jesus credible?
Can we trust the work of these ‘secular’ writers?
This is the second article in the subsection titled, “The human Jesus?” under the Menu Bar heading, “Deal with doubts”.
It examines what the old non-religious (secular) historians wrote about Jesus.
So, what does ancient recorded history have to say about Jesus? And is it credible … acceptable?
As such, I firstly discuss in this article how we assess the credibility of these writers. Secondly, I go on to offer historical accounts that have been accepted as credible by today’s experts. I am meaning ancient historical records, from credible sources, that have been accepted by both non-religious scholars and Christian scholars (qualified Christian experts).
2. WHAT DOES ‘CREDIBILTY’ ACTUALLY MEAN HERE?
Let’s look then at ‘credibility’ in reference to secular (non-religious) historical records. And I am referring to the ancient records that Christian scholars (today’s qualified Christian experts) do actually rely on to ‘support’ the likelihood of the Bible’s account of Jesus.
Now firstly, in the ideal world of ’21st century’ record keeping practises, what evidence would be expected to prove that certain human-related events had occurred in these times? That is, if Jesus had existed in modern times. Well, we would require a ‘first hand’ account of Jesus’ life written by a credible non Christian. This person would be an eye witness. And then we would also need to have other credible witnesses ‘backing up’ what had been recorded through ‘sworn’ statements. Any statements about events that were doumented (written about), but not personally witnessed, would be referenced to other credible and verifiable sources.
Did all of this occur to support existing historical documents that supposedly record the actual life and times of Jesus? No, of course not! And the reason is simple. Historians of that era JUST DID NOT operate like they do these days. However, many atheist writers who challenge Jesus’ historical existence begin their cases with such demands. You know, if that level of credibility was demanded in relation to ‘substantiating’ our general knowledge of ancient history, then a large amount of it would just ‘go down the gurgler’. No doubt about that!
3. CREDIBILITY OF HISTORIANS ASSESSED
Modern-day Christian scholars (and secular scholars for that matter), evaluating information on Jesus and Christianity from that era, do in fact use ‘internationally accepted’ methods. That is to validate these old documents as best as it can possibly be done. As examples, they assess:
- How many copies of these documents actually are now in existence;
- When were the copies in existence produced and when was the ‘original’ document written;
- How many copies are identical, or if not identical how serious are their differences.
Other factors can also be applied during analysis. For example, can the results of related archeology be used to verify statements made within documents.
What I am saying here is that Christian scholars do use the SAME credible ‘methods’ of assessing historical documents that all modern day secular scholars use. Their research must be as exacting as it possibly can be. If it is not, then they will eventually be challenged by their own ‘peers’; their fellow scholars.
But having said all that, because of past time, it is obvious that relying on ancient documents can never be a totally exact science! The fact is that original documents are often lost with that passing of time. Quite often, modern scholars/ historians need rely on documents written during later times that relay information that has been sourced from original documents that are now lost.
4. CREDIBLE RECORDS THAT ARE AVAILABLE
Firstly, I do agree with present day atheist writers, in that there are no non-Christian eye witness accounts of Jesus’ actual existence. I mean available from Jesus’ own time. But, as I have already said, this is a common result when researching ancient history.
4.1 Josephus’ ancient records
The first existing historic record, was written in the late first century AD (i.e. the same century during which Jesus lived). It came from the Jewish scholar and historian, Flavius Josephus. Now Josephus’ writing has received much more analysis than most other ancient historians. And this is clearly because of his comments about Jesus and Christianity. Mind you, it is accepted by all that he did occasionally exaggerate his information on secular (non-religious) history … that is when it ‘suited his agenda’. And that has certainly been taken into account, when studying his actual records of early Christianity’s history.
None-the-less there is a general thanks for the insight into ancient Roman and Jewish history that he did provide (not just Christian details). We have a much better knowledge of how the ancient Roman and Jewish nations ‘ticked along’ because of his writing.
Bear in mind too, as far as Jesus was concerned, Josephus would have had no hidden agendas, i.e. it is considered that he generally ‘said it as he saw it’ when discussing Jesus. Most modern scholars, whether Christian or secular, consider that the basis of Josephus’ writing was accessed by him at that time from reliable sources of information. I mean that he personally had access to.
4.2 ‘Accepted history’ within Josephus’ records
Josephus’ writing indicates that, as a minimum, Jesus ‘did’ exist. His writings include details of Jesus’ condemnation to death by the Roman governor of Israel, Pontius Pilate. And he included details of Jesus’ following crucifixion in his writing. Josephus also mentions in another statement that James, “the brother of the so-called Christ” had also been condemned to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Josephus also wrote of the life and execution of John the Baptist, although he did not connect him with Jesus in any way. All credible secular scholars, in modern times, accept these events as ‘history’, just as Christian scholars do.
Bear in mind though that Christian scholars, from the sixteenth century onwards, have suspected that a particular phrase was added to Josephus’ work a long time time after he wrote it. And it was done to exaggerate original details of Jesus during re-writes of his works. (Now, there were no photocopiers or scanners, let alone printing presses in those days. So old crumbling documents had to be copied by hand for future history.)
Modern day atheist writers rightly highlight the suspect nature of the wording that I am referring to here. BUT in truth they are just a little late with their findings. ‘Making a noise’ about statements that were already considered unacceptable by Christian experts (for centuries) doesn’t really help their case.
4.3 Other ancient records of Jesus available
The next valuable writing, making mention of Jesus, comes to us from the early second century. Cornelius Tacticus, a Roman historian, made mention of the founder of Christianity (i.e. Jesus Christ), his execution at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and of the Christian religion itself. Present day Christian scholars consider it probable that Tacticus also used earlier ‘official records’, that he located, as a basis for his writing.
Written works from others around that time, such as Pliny the Younger and Lucian of Samosata, also refer to the Christians and their religion. It is interesting that those early writings verify that Christians of the first century did actually worship Jesus. That is the practising Christians considered him to be divine (i.e. he had been God ‘in the flesh’). If you’d like to understand what the Bible stated about this, please read the article, “Jesus as God“.
If you like, go on to read the following article, “Christian records” to understand evidence of Jesus’ existence that can be found within the Bible.