As I’m sure all readers of this blog know, we Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah/Savior who fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about the promised Savior who would come to redeem mankind from its sins. Throughout the New Testament, many passages cite specific Old Testament Messianic prophecies which were fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ. These fulfillments validate that Jesus Christ was who he said he was; the Son of God who came to be the prophesied Savior of the world. As I’m sure readers also realize, the Gospel accounts of these fulfillments were written by Jesus’ followers who claimed to be eyewitnesses of these fulfillments.
However, there have periodically been skeptics and deniers who claim that Jesus Christ didn’t even live at all. They claim that his entire existence was a myth. Those who claim that he didn’t live at all have a very shallow depth of scholarship or simply aren’t paying attention to available historical accounts. The January-February, 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review contains an article that addresses this very topic in an in-depth manner. It is entitled, “Did Jesus Exist,” and it is authored by Lawrence Mykytiuk (see link below).
Mr. Mykytiuk makes several very important points in documenting the fact that it can be proven via secular sources that Jesus Christ really lived. Indeed, he cites at least three ancient secular sources that I also quoted in my books, The “Lost” Ten Tribes of Israel…Found! and Parthia–the Forgotten Ancient Superpower, to document hat Jesus Christ really lived. However, Mr. Mykytiuk’s article goes into greater depth in his examination of the writings of Tacitus, the Roman historian who authored The Annals of Imperial Rome, and of Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century AD who authored the Antiquities of the Jews. I recommend all those interested in this subject to read the article.
The article documents, quite correctly in my view, that the mentions of Jesus Christ’s life and the events of his ministry in Tacitus’ writings are especially powerful because the Romans were his enemies. Tacitus, whom the article notes “despised” Christians, nevertheless acknowledges as accurate several main points that the scriptures assert: (A) that Jesus was called Christus, (B) that he originated the Christian movement, (C) that he was executed by the Roman Governor, and (D) that it was Pontius Pilate who executed him during the reigns of the Roman officials recorded in the Bible. That Rome’s official Annals recorded these events powerfully confirms they really occurred. Pagan Rome had no interest in validating Christianity; they simply recorded events from Jesus’ life in their perspective.
The article devotes considerable discussion to the two accounts of Josephus that validate many vital aspects of Jesus’ life. It correctly points out that Josephus was seen as a “despicable traitor” by most Jews, and that Josephus, who had important Roman patrons to please, “felt free to write historical views for Roman consumption that were strongly at variance with rabbinic views.” One of Josephus’ two mentions about Jesus was that he was called the Messiah and had a brother named James. This validates New Testament teachings. The article finds this mention of Jesus to be highly credible proof of his life being real. However, the longer and better-known reference to Jesus in Josephus’ writings is given critical scrutiny in the article. Josephus’ second account of Jesus life is so close to New Testament teachings about Jesus that it almost sounds like Josephus was confessing a kind of faith that Jesus was the actual Messiah. Josephus’ writing is cited in the article, but it places in italics those portions of Josephus’ writings that appear to almost be Christian confessions because they are so in tune with New Testament teachings about Jesus. The author argues that parts of Josephus’ writings must have been altered in later centuries by Christians for them to be so in harmony with the New Testament accounts; however, his assertion to that effect is weakened by his own admission that there is a lack of any ancient records of Josephus’ writings that do not include the “Christian” sounding portions. Indeed, the article states that “All surviving manuscripts of the Testimonium Flavianum that are in Greek, like the original, contain the same [Christian-sounding] version of this passage, with no significant differences.”
Since there is no evidence extant in ancient manuscripts that Josephus did not write the accounts attributed to him in modern translations of his writings, we must consider the possibility that Josephus really did write what is attributed to him. Consider the case for this assertion, which is not included in the article. The author notes that Josephus was regarded as a “despicable traitor” by his fellow Jews and that Josephus was writing for a Roman audience of readers. He was not writing to please the Jews nor were they his primary intended audience of readers. John 21:25 adds that Jesus did so many more things than were written in the Gospel accounts that John states that “…if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” What we have in the Gospel accounts about Jesus’ life is far less than a “Cliff Notes” version of all the works he did during his life. Indeed, as I note in my aforementioned books, the Gospels say almost nothing at all about Jesus’ life between ages 12-30. Although it does record the very close relationship between Jesus and the Parthian ruling classes (the “Wise Men” and “Magi” of Matthew 2 being Parthian senators who selected Parthian Emperors), the Bible also mentions nothing about a correspondence between Jesus and a Parthian regional king in Mesopotamia named Abgar. The Church historian, Eusebius, writes about this correspondence and claims to have seen it with his own eyes. The details about and contents of this letter exchange between Jesus and a Parthian king are contained in my books. Parthia’s nobility and ruling class did not seek interactions with a person who did not exist. There was doubtless much written about Jesus in Parthia’s annals as well, but they have not survived anywhere to our knowledge.
Consider a comparison between communications today and in the ancient world. Today, the Internet offers instant, real-time global communications. In the ancient times in which Jesus lived, the reports of public officials and the accounts carried throughout the world on the caravan and maritime trading routes of the ancient world were the “Internet” of Jesus’ time. Performing miracles as he did, Jesus’ deeds would have been carried far and wide along trade routes and in Roman official dispatches and reports to Rome. Knowing that all these reports had been spread throughout the Roman world, Josephus could hardly not confess that they had occurred. He would have had no credibility with his Roman readers if he had not confessed Jesus’ marvelous deeds as being real. The article also very briefly cites the Roman writer, Celsus (who was anti-Christian) who referred to Jesus as a “magician” to explain away his miracles. I also discuss Celsus in my books, but I think his labeling Jesus as a “magician” bears further comment. Notice that Celsus did not deny outright that Jesus had done deeds which could be called “magic.” I think this tells us that Celsus knew that he could not deny the miraculous deeds of Jesus because it was so well known that he had done them that he had to resort to calling them “magic” to somehow discredit Christianity. After all, a Roman centurion’s family bore witness to Jesus’ healing power (Matthew 8:5-13), Pilate tried several stratagems to save Jesus from being executed (these are too numerous to cite here but are examined in my books), Pontius Pilate and King Herod had an exchange about Jesus in their respective jurisdictions (Luke 23:7-15), and the Roman soldiers in Judea who experienced the supernatural darkness at the time of the crucifixion (Mark 15:33-39) would have told about those events wherever they were stationed in Rome’s service for the rest of their lives. The miraculous deeds and events surrounding Jesus’ life were so well known in the Roman world to which Josephus wrote that he could hardly deny what the Romans already knew to be true.
There is one more aspect of Josephus’ seeming-acknowledgement of Jesus as “the Messiah” that should be at least considered. There is no evidence that Josephus was ever a Christian, so why did he write Jesus was “the Messiah?” There is one possible explanation. The Old Testament/Tanakh contains a body of prophecies regarding the “suffering Messiah” and another body of Messianic prophecies about the “Conquering Messiah.” Josephus may have parenthetically acknowledged in his writings that Jesus fulfilled the “Suffering Messiah” prophecies without any intention to confess that Jesus fulfilled any “Conquering Messiah” prophecies. Indeed, no one would have made such a confession because Jesus clearly did not fulfill the “Conquering Messiah” prophecies. Even the Christians came to realize that Jesus would only fulfill those prophecies at his Second Coming at the end of our age. Alas, Josephus is not here to clarify what he meant, so modern writers will continue to guess and speculate about what he had in mind in his writings about Jesus or what exactly he penned in his original writings.
The article also includes a list of the combined biblical assertions about Jesus’ life that are affirmed in the joint writings of Tacitus, Josephus and other Roman historians. The list is pretty impressive, and should increase the faith of Christians. I urge you to read the article.