Jesus and textual evidence

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Jesus features prominently in the New Testament and the New Testament apocrypha (works which some early Christians, notably in the Council of Laodicea, chose not to include). Although critical historians and Bible scholars consider these texts biased, and reject their supernatural and miraculous claims because they don't believe in any supernatural events, many believe that they are based on historical events. Those arguing against Jesus' historicity consider that since these are works written for religious reasons, they cannot be considered as valid evidence. Some of the scholars - mythological school - believe that there was never a historical figure of Jesus.

Various other texts provide alleged textual evidence of Jesus. Sometimes the Gnostic texts, which are amongst those not included by the Council of Laodicea, are presented as evidence, since they come from a group whom modern (and early) Christians did not consider to be amongst them. However, opponents of Jesus' historicity say that the Gnostics did not treat Jesus as a real figure, but as allegory, and that the descriptions given in Gnostic works do not match those in more Biblical texts. For this reason, the search for textual evidence predominantly centres around secular and Jewish writings (which are considered to be either disinterested, or biased against the case of historicity, so any evidence for historicity in these texts is considered more reliable).


Religious sources

Biblical sources

Christian fundamentalists believe in Biblical inerrancy, particularly in the Gospels. Some respected scholars, which are not necessary fundamentalists, tend not to see contradictions in the text, but simply "different ways" of describing the same event.

However, subjecting the Bible to the same level of source criticism as secular texts raises questions of historiography. The Gospels Mark, Matthew, and Luke do not claim to be written by first-hand witnesses (though a tradition disputed by most scholars has Matthew written by an apostle), and are thus subject to the issue of Chinese whispers. The Gospel of John is seen by some as being written by an apostle, however, many others dispute the authorship for a series of reasons.

Till the first third of the 3rd century, in all the Church the agreement was reached as to the main content of the Biblical canon. The canon consists from the officially recognized books, separated from the range of other texts (the rejected books are now called the New Testament apocrypha), based on its interpretation of the text's status with regard to being inspired by God. Although the Fathers of the Church literally created canon, they recognized only the books that confirmed their own Church authority. For a book to be accepted, there were different rules that were sometimes quite complicated. The most important factor was that it had to be written by an apostle or at least he should vouch for it. The apparent forgeries were rejected (for example Works of Paul). Its content had to be orthodox and it had to be in use in one of more important Churches or in the majority of them. Texts which were heretical in the view of the Council were rejected on the grounds that God would not inspire a falsehood. There were also troubles: some of the composers of the canon were perplexed because of the differences between Gospels of different authors, their many versions and a significant overlap between synoptic gospels. However, it should be noted that although the discrepancies between Gospels were noted by the Church already before this time, the decision was made to accept them. The final version of the New Testament shows that the early church wanted to follow the teachings of the apostles as much as possible. Anyway, the selection is subject to bias.

Later church figures followed the same principle - for example, Martin Luther tried to have the Epistle of James discounted as canon because he believed it explicitly condemned the principle of salvation by faith alone (which he considered a true principle).

Athanasius of Alexandria was the first person to identify the same 27 books of the New Testament that are in use today, in his Easter letter from Alexandria written in 367, at first only for the Eastern Church. Up until then, various similar lists were in use. The Bishop of Rome endorsed this same list in 382, followed by two synods in the 390's. The first was held in Hippone (393) and the second at Carthage (397). Later both, the Western and the Eastern church, included gradually yet the Epistle to the Hebrews. Since that time they have been universally recognized as the New Testament canon. The Syriac Church used the Diatessaron - which was one of the harmonisations to remove discrepancies in the Gospels - for centuries, but later adopted the gospels together with its discrepancies.

There are discrepancies between the earliest known manuscripts, some in particularly important places, such as Mark 16. This raises uncertainty about which manuscript is the most accurate or most reflects the original texts. Furthermore, some of the texts seem to have been edited or censored. For example, part of Mark 10:46 reads "And they came to Jericho: and as he went out of Jericho", which suggests to some that there is missing text explaining what happened between getting to and leaving Jericho. This raises the issue of whether there was deliberate distortion of the text. However, one of the more ancient texts of that passage, the Codex Vaticanus, lacks the phrase "and they came to Jericho".

Many insertions into the text have been identified and accepted as forgery, the best known of these being that within 1 John 5:7-8, known as the comma Johanneum. This text, which supports the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly, appears to have arisen in the Western Church (it is almost unknown in Greek texts), and most probably in Spain. The earliest witness to the text appears to date from the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. A few scholars, notably W. Thiele claim an earlier origin, even as early as the second century, though they are distinctly in the minority. The text was included in the King James Version of the Bible in English, but more modern translations usually choose to cut the fraudulent text, in order to retain as much accuracy as possible. Though many forgeries are already identified, there remains the issue of how many forgeries remain.

Various other alleged inconsistencies in the Bible can be listed, calling various details of the accounts into question. These are especially prominent in the accounts of the alleged Resurrection of Jesus.

Despite the various flaws in the Biblical text, a majority of academics conclude that the person Jesus existed, though a majority of those studying the issue are themselves Christians. Little agreement has been achieved beyond this point, however.

Jewish Records

There are very few historical documents from the late Second Temple era. Aside from works by Josephus, the oldest text from that period, the Mishnah, is a law code and not a record of legal proceedings, nor a general history. The largest surviving work of Jewish literature is the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, and various Midrash, which contain stories and accounts of legal debates from the third through the fifth centuries. Some texts refer to a Yeshu; scholars are divided over whether these stories refer to Jesus. Even those scholars who believe these stories refer to Jesus do not consider them historically accurate records. See Yeshu and mentions of people called Jesus.

Some scholars think that Yeshu is an acronym for yemach shemo vezichro ("erased be his name and memory"), a reference to those trying to entice people away from Judaism. Some further argue that these people were early Christians; others consider it a more generic category.

The accounts of Yeshu are ambiguous. They reveal that rabbis listened to Christian preachers, sought help from Christian healers, and considered Yeshu to have been a disciple of an important sage. On the other hand, they consider Yeshu to have been a heretic, and generally mock and disparage Christians.

The references to Yeshu occur predominantly in the Babylonian version of the Talmud, and do not occur in the Jerusalem version. Many scholars assume that it is unlikely that the Babylonian Talmud would refer to Jesus as it was compiled in an area outside of Christian influence. On the other hand, the break between Christianity and Judaism was of significance to all Jews.

The Talmud is a compilation of legal debates and stories, and never functioned as a historical reccord. Passages that the Papacy considered heretical became part of the Index of Forbidden Books, and thus evidence of Jesus may have been censored. The Talmud is no longer censored, although many editions are based on the censored text.

Secular Sources

Pliny the Younger

Pliny the Younger, as Governor of Bithynia, writing to the emperor in about 112 or 113 for advice on how to handle Christians who refused to be involved with the worship of the emperor, said that Christians worshipped "Christus" as a god. In a later writing, he said that he had discovered Christianity was a foolish superstition.


See also: Suetonius on Jesus

Suetonius gave a single statement: "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome." The name Chrestus may be a misspelled reference to Christ, though the word as spelled here was also a Greek adjective meaning "good" or "useful", often given as a name to slaves, and indeed there was a slave revolt. The term Chrestus also appears in some later texts applied to Jesus, indicating that such a spelling error is not unthinkable, however the character Suetonius is referring was actually in Rome in the year 53, so it is most unlikely that it actually refers to Jesus.


Philo does not mention Christianity or Jesus explicitly; however, his philosophy and doctrine showed several similarities to that of the early Christians, even though they were based on readings of the Hebrew Bible only. Nevertheless, many early Christians considered Philo to be one of their number, despite the fact that many religions in the area at the time had similarities.


Lucian of Samothrace, amongst other works, wrote The Passing of Peregrinus, a satire on Christians and their gullibility. In it he says Christians worship a man who was crucified for his "novel rites". His conclusion is that the Christians are easily misled fools.


See also: Tacitus on Jesus

Tacitus wrote two paragraphs on the subject of Jesus and Christianity. The first states that Christians existed in Rome in Nero's time. The second states that Christianity arose in Rome and Judea and that Jesus was sent to death by Pontius Pilate. Tacitus's description of Christianity is decidedly negative, as he calls it a "dangerous superstition" and "something raw and shameful", which makes it relatively improbable that the text was interpolated by later Christians. Some scholars suggest that the second paragraph is merely describing Christian beliefs that were uncontroversial (i.e. that a cult leader was put to death), so had no reason not to be assumed as fact. Others, including Karl Adam, claim that, as an enemy of the Christians, and a historian, Tacitus would have checked the claim about Jesus before writing it.


See also: Josephus on Jesus

Josephus, as a historian, recorded detail of the many people claiming to be Messiahs that had existed in Roman Palestine; however, on Jesus, Josephus appears to have written only one passage, quoted by Eusebius as part of a larger text (the only source for this, and many other texts written by Josephus), as well as a shorter passage stating that Jesus was thought to be the brother of James the Just and was referred to as the "Christ". The longer passage declares that Jesus was a wise man (or more than a man) who converted many Jews and non-Jews and was the Christ. The second passage goes on to say that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate at the instigation of the Jewish authorities and rose from the dead on the third day.

While the passage is often cited as proof of Jesus' existence, most critical scholars hold that it is a forgery or has at least been heavily edited by a later hand. Several reasons are given for this. First, the text contains several hapax legomena, which is often evidence of a different author. Second, the text as it stands could only have been written by a Christian, not a Jew like Josephus. Third, the logical flow between two paragraphs is interrupted by the "Jesus passage", though it must be admitted that Josephus' logical flow is not always exemplary in the rest of his writings.

The passage is first mentioned by Eusebius of Caesarea in the context of a debate, where this provides the necessary piece of evidence. Origen, who discussed the shorter reference, made no reference to that text, saying that the one reference was all that existed. This has led to the conclusion by many critics that some Christian, possibly Eusebius himself, falsified the text. All surviving copies of the Jewish Antiquities contain this text, so it is impossible to determine if Josephus had written a less-flattering text about Jesus that was later edited, or if that text is entirely an insertion.

Scholars who feel that the passage is a result of partial rather than complete forgery, including Karl Adam, suggest that the declaration that Jesus was Messiah and the phrase "he was a teacher of men who accepted the truth with joy" are the only major interpolations in the text. The discovery of a 10th century manuscript which seems thus slightly more neutral, written more from the point of view of a commentator lacks the flaw of Josephus' Jewishness seeming to conflict with his writing the passage. No explanation has been provided about how this text came to be and why it differs from the other texts. Some scholars consider this text to also be a forgery or to be in error, since the author, Agapius of Hierapolis seems to be quoting from memory.

Herod and Pilate

The only known text which claims to be a form of official governmental record and which also mentions Jesus is the collection known as the Letters of Herod and Pilate. They are found in some 6th century manuscript copies of the work of Justus of Tiberius (who was of the same time as Josephus).

The letter titled as "from Herod" describes Herod's apparent anxiety at having just mocked Jesus, since, according to the letter, Jesus is part God. It also goes on to describe the apparent divine retribution acted on him and his family, causing their death. The response from Pilate describes Pilate's apparent remorse, and his belief in the resurrection, and that Jesus went down to the dead, in addition it contains claims of quotes from three other writers supporting the version of the nativity in Luke, and mentions an Angel smiting Herod.

In addition, there are three dispatches claiming to be from Pilate to the Emperor. In these, the author (supposedly Pilate) proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, performed many miracles, that Jesus rose from the dead (literally: the earth opening a chasm, and the dead rising from it, including Abraham, Noah, and Isaac), that the Jews were struck dead by divine retribution (falling into the chasm), performed exorcisms, etc.

There are also accounts of the trial and death of Pilate, in which, amongst other miraculous events, the emperor says Christ and all the statues of other Gods crumble into dust.

Virtually all scholars dispute the attribution of the texts to Herod or Pilate, and consider them pure (and obvious) propaganda. Early commentators stated that Justus had no mention of Jesus. Both pagan leaders are depicted as fervent Christians in contrast with the picture given by history; furthermore, the details of the deaths in Herod's family or the crumbling of statues of the emperors do not conform with historical reality. Even stylistically, Pilate would have been unlikely to refer to "Justinus, one of the writers that were in the days of Augustus and Tiberius and Gaius", when he himself was from that time. The additional sources seem to be completely out of place, and even suggest doctrines that were far from widespread in the early Church. Finally, Pilate's character as it appears in the letter shows no relation to the image that history paints of him.

Palatine graffito

Missing image
This graffito drawn by a Roman soldier on a wall near the Palatine hill in the second century may show Jesus with the head of a donkey, or may show Dionysus.

A piece of wall graffiti found on the Palatine hill and dating from the second century depicts a man worshipping a crucified man with a donkey's head. The Greek caption reads, "Alexamenos worships God". It is presumed that this image makes fun of a convert to Christianity within the ranks of the soldiers, and would indicate that at least this soldier understood Jesus to have been really crucified. The donkey's head is thought to be mocking Judaism, as the belief that Jews worshipped a donkey's head was common throughout the ancient world (see history of anti-Semitism), while the crucified form suggests Jesus. That some Romans also believed that Christians worshipped a donkey's head we know from Tertullian's fiery rebuttal of the claim in his Apologeticum (which incorrectly blames Tacitus for making up the story):

For, like some others, you are under the delusion that our god is an ass's head. Cornelius Tacitus first put this notion into people's minds. In the fifth book of his histories, beginning the (narrative of the) Jewish war with an account of the origin of the nation; and theorizing at his pleasure about the origin, as well as the name and the religion of the Jews, he states that having been delivered, or rather, in his opinion, expelled from Egypt, in crossing the vast plains of Arabia, where water is so scanty, they were in extremity from thirst; but taking the guidance of the wild asses, which it was thought might be seeking water after feeding, they discovered a fountain, and thereupon in their gratitude they consecrated a head of this species of animal. And as Christianity is nearly allied to Judaism, from this, I suppose, it was taken for granted that we too are devoted to the worship of the same image. But the said Cornelius Tacitus (the very opposite of tacit in telling lies) informs us in the work already mentioned, that when Cneius Pompeius captured Jerusalem, he entered the temple to see the arcana of the Jewish religion, but found no image there. [1] (

There is not enough context available in the graffiti to certainly verify any of these assumptions, or even the identification as Jesus, however, as Dionysus, who was also considered to have been crucified, and had a more longstanding legend, was associated with the donkey.


A large number of commentators and writers lived in the Jewish and Roman world in the first and second centuries. Most of the writings of the ones from the first century have been lost; however, their surviving works would collectively fill hundreds of volumes of text. The earliest large body of evidence comes from Tacitus. Of these writers only six are claimed to have written anything at all about Jesus—Pliny the Younger, Josephus, Suetonius, Philo, Lucian, and Tacitus. Supporters of Jesus' historicity claim that most of the writers showed no interest in events in the Middle East in general, and Palestine in particular, so that it is unsurprising that little is written about a local religious leader. However, those who oppose this claim argue that many of the commentators commented on other Middle Eastern events, and many, especially the geographers, travelled to the region and that reports of miracles might have been expected to arouse more interest.

Certain supposedly lesser figures are mentioned more in surviving texts than Jesus. For example, Josephus frequently mentions John the Baptist, but mentions Jesus only twice, once only by name and the second in a passage whose authenticity is disputed. Jewish records make occasional mention of a person or persons called Yeshu but this figure is placed at different times and has a very different character to Jesus. The name Yeshu (which came to us through the Greek as Jesus, and more directly as Joshua) was a fairly common name in first century Jewish territories. Roman records, and those of Josephus, refer to a series of troublemakers, including many who claimed to be Messiah. However, Jesus is not mentioned explicitly amongst them, although others such as Simon bar Kokhba, Theudas, Menahem ben Judah, and an Egyptian who had a large following of 30,000, are mentioned.

Many scholars consider it odd that a man of such significance as Jesus should be missing from historic texts and records, since lesser figures are not, unless, that is, Jesus didn't exist, or was insignificant. If Jesus had been resurrected, and ascended into heaven, they consider that someone amongst the commentators and record keepers would have thought it worthy of writing down. Christians proclaim that this evidence is precisely what became the New Testament, whereas others dispute this, stating that one would expect at least a handful of non-Christian witnesses.

See also


  • Jesus Christus by Karl Adam, Augsburg: Haas, 1933
    • English edition: The Son of God, London: Sheed and Ward, 1934
  • The Jesus Puzzle. Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? : Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus by Earl Doherty, 1999, ISBN 0968601405
  • The Christ Myth (Westminster College-Oxford Classics in the Study of Religion) by Arthur Drews, C. Deslisle Burns, 1998, ISBN 1573921904
  • Introducción Crítica al Nuevo Testamento, edited by Augustin George and Pierre Grelot, 1992, Herder, ISBN 8425412773
  • The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ by Gary R. Habermas, 1996, ISBN 0899007325
  • The Fabrication of the Christ Myth by Harold Leidner, 2000, ISBN 0967790107
  • Ancient Israel's Faith and History: An Introduction to the Bible in Context by George E. Mendenhall, 2001 ISBN 0-66422313-3
  • Deconstructing Jesus by Robert M. Price, 2000, ISBN 1573927589
  • The Jesus Myth by G. A. Wells, 1998, ISBN 0812693922
  • The Historical Evidence for Jesus by G.A. Wells, 1988, ISBN 087975429X
  • Can We Trust the New Testament?: Thoughts on the Reliability of Early Christian Testimony by G.A. Wells, 2004 ISBN 0812695674

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