For most of the world, Jesus is just another guy. Perhaps a wise guy. Perhaps a charismatic, gifted, insightful guy. But the world, at best, places Jesus alongside all the other wise guys and gals of history.
In a recent conversation, a friend of mine was surprised to discover I believe in a historical Jesus; I believe He was a flesh-and-blood man who actually accomplished all the things we read about in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
A number of reasons lead me to this conclusion. One is historical. Even if you discount the biblical accounts as non-historical, extra-biblical references to Christ and the early Christians certainly exist.
Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian born just a few years after Jesus’ death, wrote copiously of his people’s history in two major volumes: The Antiquities of the Jews and The Wars of the Jews. (See his works online or pick up a copy. It’s good stuff!) He lived to see his precious Jerusalem fall by Titus’ hand in A.D. 70. Included in his history are a few references to Christ (he was not a Christian), John the Baptist, and James (brother of Jesus and elder in Jerusalem).
The most explicit reference is this:
(63) Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; (64) and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Antiquities 18.3.3–which means book 18, chapter 3, paragraph 3–emphasis mine, NW)
This reference to James also mentions Jesus:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he 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; (Antiquities 20.9.1–emphasis mine, NW)
For a reference to John the Baptist, see Antiquities 18.5.2
Born in the first century (in the early 50s), Tacitus became a well-respected early-second-century historian, writing his Annals around A.D. 110. Emperor Nero had, in A.D. 64, burned Rome to the ground, but then had attempted to pin the atrocity on Christians, using them as scapegoats of a sort. Tacitus records the deeds Nero did to Christians at the time:
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 centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. (Annals Book XV–emphasis mine, NW)
Tomorrow I hope to offer two more ancient sources–Lucian of Samosata and Pliny the Younger–as additional witnesses to the historical Jesus, but for now ponder these ancient words from men who were certainly not Christians; more often they were anti-Christian. There seems to have been no doubt in their minds that such a man as Jesus actually did live and that he had been killed by crucifixion. Naturally they did not believe He rose from the dead. But who could believe such an outrageous thing?
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE,
AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.”
Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1.18-25)