Historical Jesus outside the Bible – History of Christianity

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Wall painting illustrating an episode from the life of Jesus: showing a man standing, a man in bed, and a man carrying a bed on his back. - historical Jesus

Historical Jesus: One of the earliest drawings of Jesus – here he is healing a man who was paralyzed. Now he gets up and carries his own bed. (Dura Europos, Syria, ca. 232 AD)

Historical sources

Nobody knows whether anybody wrote anything about Jesus during his lifetime. If they did, we don’t have it anymore. That doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t really exist. He probably did. But everything we know about him had to pass through several people before it reached us. It’s hearsay, not eyewitness accounts.

Josephus’s History of the Jews

This is the earliest known image of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus, from the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, in the 200s AD - Life of Jesus

Historical Jesus: This is the earliest known image of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus, from the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, in the 200s AD

Jesus probably was crucified about 30 AD. Josephus’ History of the Jews is the oldest piece of writing that isn’t the Bible and mentions Jesus. Josephus was born about 38 AD. So that’s probably after the Crucifixion. He published his History in 93 AD. By that time everybody who could have personally known Jesus was dead. (It’s also not clear whether he really wrote the bits about Jesus. Other people may have stuck some or all of those sentences into Josephus hundreds of years later.)

Pliny the Younger and Tacitus on Christians

Pliny the Younger definitely wrote about Christians. He mentions Jesus in a letter to the emperor Trajan written about 112 AD. But that’s also after the death of anyone who could have personally known Jesus.

An early crucifixion: Jesus is on the cross, but Judas has hanged himself in shame. About 420 AD (The Maskell Ivories, British Museum)

Historical Jesus: An early crucifixion: Jesus is on the cross, but Judas has hanged himself in shame. About 420 AD (The Maskell Ivories, British Museum)

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote about Jesus in his Annals, about 116 AD. Tacitus mentions that the Emperor Nero persecuted Christians in Rome in 64 AD. But that’s not the same as a source about Jesus himself, and it’s a reference to something that happened a generation after the Crucifixion.

Suetonius mentions “Chrestus”

Another Roman historian, Suetonius, writing about 120 AD, mentions Jews who followed “Chrestus” in Rome about 50 AD, but again the events are twenty years after the Crucifixion, and Suetonius is writing almost a hundred years after the Crucifixion. The earliest pictures of Jesus that we still have today are even later, from the early 200s AD.

Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas

We do have independent knowledge of some other people mentioned in the Bible. We know from inscriptions and gravestones that Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas were real people, and there are written sources that tell us about King Herod.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the historical Jesus? Let us know in the comments!

Bibliography and further reading about the historical Jesus:

  

The Apostles and Saint Paul
More about Christianity
Quatr.us home

By |2018-01-16T08:30:49+00:00August 22nd, 2017|Religion, Romans|2 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Historical Jesus outside the Bible – History of Christianity. Quatr.us Study Guides, August 22, 2017. Web. December 16, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

2 Comments

  1. Gerald George January 15, 2018 at 10:54 am - Reply

    If John was a teenager as is widely believed, when Jesus was still alive, and if he lived 90 years, as is also widely held, he could have been alive in the late 90’s.

    • Karen Carr January 15, 2018 at 11:10 am

      The idea that John lived to be 90 may be “widely held” but there is no evidence to support it at all, or even (outside the Bible) to support the existence of John as a real person. And even if he did exist and lived that long, there’s no evidence that Josephus ever spoke to him, or anyone he knew. And even that is assuming that the parts of Josephus which refer to Jesus were actually written by Josephus and not stuck in later by Christian copyists, which is really more likely.

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