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RE:QUEST

A space for resources to help RE teachers and their students explore the Christian faith

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Jesus: Evidence for His Existence

Evidence from History: Contemporary Roman Writers

 

Amongst the most important evidence for the existence of Jesus is the historical evidence: in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. People today may say that Jesus was just a mythical figure, or that we do not really know anything about Him. So it is important that we understand how reliable the historical evidence is.

Clearly, something unusual happened in western Asia about two thousand years ago. How else are we to account for the origin and growth of Christianity, a movement that, in less than four centuries had grown from its obscure origins to become the official religion of the Roman empire?

How else are we to account for the origins of the documents that today we call the New Testament?

Evidence Outside the New Testament

The impression is sometimes given that the only evidence we have for the origins of Christianity comes from the New Testament itself, and secondary Christian sources (and, by implication, this evidence is not to be trusted because it is biased in favour of the Christian message).

It is true that there aren't many references to Christian origins outside of the New Testament and the Church. This should not surprise us - the documents available to us today must only be a tiny fraction of all those written at the time and a fairly random selection at that. R. T. France cites the case of Tacitus, the Roman historian, for which we only have two manuscripts, covering only half of what he is believed to have written. Not only that, but the earliest stages of the Christian movement were obscure and 'low profile'.

They took place in an unimportant province on the Eastern edge of the Roman Empire. However, there are at least half a dozen non-Christian (i.e. Roman or Jewish) sources that refer to Christian origins. These are sufficient to provide some confirmation of the historical picture that is painted by the New Testament.

Tacitus was a Roman historian. His 'Annals', written soon after 115 AD, mention the emperor Nero's persecution of the Christians in Rome in AD 64. This was the year of the great fire that damaged Rome. There were suspicions that the emperor himself had started the fire. This is what Tacitus says (Annals 15:44):

'To dispel the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits and treated with the most extreme punishments, some people, popularly known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was emperor, by order of the procurator Pontius Pilatus. But the deadly cult, though checked for a time, was now breaking out again not only in Judea, the birthplace of this evil but even throughout Rome, where all the nasty and disgusting ideas from all over the world pour in and find a ready following.'

Notice the following points from Tacitus:

  • Christ was executed while Tiberius was emperor (14-37 AD)
  • He was executed by order of Pontius Pilate (procurator from 26-36 AD)
  • His movement had its origins in Judea
  • There were Christian believers in Rome by AD 64 - enough to be a scapegoat for the emperor Nero.

This comes from an unsympathetic pagan writer.

Pliny was the governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, in present-day Turkey. In about 112 AD, he wrote (in Epistles X.96) to the emperor Trajan, asking for advice on how to deal with the Christians in his province, because he was executing so many of them. Pliny wrote:

'They were in the habit of meeting before dawn on a fixed day. They would recite in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and would bind themselves by a solemn oath, not to do any criminal act, but rather that they would not commit any fraud, theft or adultery, nor betray any trust nor refuse to restore a deposit on demand. This done, they would disperse, and then they would meet again later to eat together (but the food was quite ordinary and harmless.)

Notice that Pliny says:

  • By the beginning of the second century, there was a Christian community in Bithynia large enough to come to the attention of the Roman governor.
  • They worshipped Christ as a God

Suetonius was a Roman historian and an official under the emperor Hadrian. In his 'Life of Claudius', he says:

'As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [= Christ?], he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.' This expulsion took place in AD 49, and is identified with the event described by Luke in Acts 18:2 In his 'Lives of the Caesars.' (25:4)

Suetonius also writes about the fire of Rome in AD 64:

'Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.' (26:2)

Although Suetonius does not provide direct historical evidence for Christ, he does provide evidence for the existence of a significant Christian community in the capital of the empire by the 60's AD, the period just after the end of the book of Acts.

These pages have been produced by David Couchman MA (Cantab), MSc. The material is taken from the Facing the Challenge course and is used with permission.