The historical Jesus: Beginning the Search

The expression, “They pierced my hands and my feet,” was used in reference to the nails of the cross which were fixed in His hands and feet. And after He was crucified they cast lots upon His vesture, and they that crucified Him parted it among them. And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.1

We don’t possess the Acts of Pontius Pilate, but evidently Justin Martyr knew of this document, in which, he claimed, Jesus is mentioned. He was confident that the emperor could consult this writing to verify the facts about Jesus’ trial and execution.

As noted in my previous post, the popular atheism of our day is extremely militant. This atheism attacks Christianity on every front. One of the most important assertions made by atheism is that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. If he did not, then Christianity collapses.

As also noted previously, however, “those who make such an accusation are certainly not historians, but are surprisingly ignorant of the facts.”2 Those who claim that there is no historical evidence that Jesus ever existed have evidently never bothered to consider the historical evidence.

Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate was one of the most significant players in the life of Jesus according to the Gospel accounts. He granted authority to have Jesus crucified. Since there is no doubt that Pontius Pilate was a historical figure, ought we not to expect some record to have been made by Pilate of the person of Jesus? Would he not have filed some sort of report to Rome naming Jesus as a victim of a state-sanctioned execution?

The assumption itself is perhaps questionable. The Wikipedia entry on the Acts of Pilate (more about this below) states that “there is no historical basis that Roman governors wrote reports about non-citizens who were put to death.”3

But let us, for the sake of argument, grant the assumption that such records were routinely written. There exists no such record concerning the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth. Why is this—assuming that such records were routinely produced? F. F. Bruce answers that no official record of any report made by Pilate—or any other Judean governor—remains today. If these records were routinely sent, we have no record of them today.4 It’s not as if there is a pile of official records sent by Pilate to Rome in which the name of Jesus is conspicuous by its absence.

Interestingly, Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist who lived in the second century, wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius,

Extant first-century documents

Dr. E. M. Blaiklock was a Kiwi scholar who taught Latin, Greek and the ancient classics for more than forty years. He was internationally recognised for his scholarship. Blaiklock set about to catalogue all the first-century documents that we have available to us today.5

Blaiklock found that nothing has survived from the decade of the thirties. An amateurish history of Rome was published by Velleius Paterculus, a retired army officer, of which only a part has survived. Jesus was only beginning his ministry when this was published. Given the segregation between Jewish and Roman towns in Galilee at the time, it is unlikely that Paterculus ever heard of Jesus.

The only other document that survives from that decade is a Caesarean inscription, which bears two-thirds of Pilate’s name.

The forties have left us with only the fables of Phaedrus, a Macedonian freedman.

Of the fifties and sixties, Blaiklock writes, “Bookends set a foot apart on this desk where I write would enclose the works from those significant years.”6 He further notes that none of the works contained between those bookends would have any good reason to mention Jesus of Nazareth in their accounts.

The seventies and eighties have left behind a minor work by Tacitus on oratory, which likewise would have no need to mention Jesus; several hundred poems by Martial, which do not mention Christians; and the writings of Josephus, who certainly did mention Jesus.

From the nineties, we have works by the poet Statius, books on oratory by Quintilian, and two small works by Tacitus, none of whom had any reason to mention Jesus. Juvenal began his writings just before the turn of the century, but given that Christianity was at the time outlawed in Rome, he did not even mention Jesus or Christians.

In addition to these works, we do have some writings from Qumran in the first century. We should not be surprised that these do not mention Jesus, for Jesus ministered where people worked and lived, while the Qumran community withdrew as far as possible from public life and lived in its wilderness retreat.7

McDowell and Wilson conclude, “So one reason it is surprising that we have any non-Christian references to Jesus in the first century at all is that not much about anything of that day has survived to the present time. What did survive indicates the writers would not have known about or been interested in the person of Jesus.”8

Who cared, anyway?

When it comes to first-century writings, we would perhaps do well to ask, how much of a stir did Jesus make? He is certainly a significant figure in our day, but was the same true in the time in which he ministered? R. T. France doesn’t think so,9 and he is probably correct.

Jesus was hardly major international news in first century Rome. He was well-known in the immediate vicinity in which he ministered, but he quickly became an obscure figure the further away one moved. Even In fact, when Paul was awaiting trial and Festus spoke to Agrippa and Bernice about his case, the Roman official showed the little importance he attached to Jesus. Eve Festus, in the book of Acts, spoke of Jesus as only “a certain Jesus” (Acts 25:18–19), apparently attaching little significance to him.

Likewise, writers in the first century Roman Empire were far more concerned with political and military news than they were with religious squabbles on the eastern border of the Empire.10

Jesus’ greatest opponents in the Gospels were the Pharisees, but to an outsider he appeared to be something of a Pharisee himself. With the Pharisees, he affirmed the authority of the Old Testament, the existence of angels, and the reality of the resurrection. To an outsider, the disagreements between Jesus and the Pharisees probably seemed to be an intramural squabble, hardly worthy of headline news.

What does it all mean?

France writes, “Those who suspect the historicity of the Jesus of the Gospels on the grounds that there are so few early non-Christian references to Him, must surely, by the same argument, be even more sceptical as to whether the Christian church existed in the first century. But not even George Wells wishes to deny this! As has so often been noted, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”11

But while Jesus did not make the headlines during his own life and ministry, there are plenty of secondhand ancient sources that do mention him. We’ll consider some of those next time.

  1. Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin, chapter 35, http://goo.gl/hgyvk, retrieved 13 September 2012.
  2. Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask about the Christian Faith (San Bernardino: Here’s Life Publishers, 1980), 42.
  3. “Acts of Pilate,” http://goo.gl/fZrBW, retrieved 13 September 2012.
  4. F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 17.
  5. Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, He Walked Among Us: Evidence for the Historical Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 25-26.
  6. E. M. Blaiklock, Jesus Christ: Man or Myth? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984.), 13.
  7. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, 66-67.
  8. McDowell and Wilson, He Walked Among Us, 27-28.
  9. R. T. France, “The Gospels as Historical Sources for Jesus, the Founder of Christianity,” Truth Journal, 1:82.
  10. R. T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986), 20.
  11. France, The Evidence for Jesus, 44.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve : *
27 ⁄ 1 =