Jesus of Nazareth: Fact or Fiction
Good News Magazine
November 1976
Volume: Vol XXV, No. 11
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Jesus of Nazareth: Fact or Fiction
Scott G Rockhold  

   In times past and present some atheists and agnostics have gone as far as to claim that no real evidence exists outside the New Testament to prove that Jesus of Nazareth actually lived and died, and the New Testament is, of course, dismissed as a pious fraud.
   It is true that no record of the crucifixion of Jesus has come down to us from Pilate himself. But other records have been preserved which mention Jesus of Nazareth. These records are non-Christian in origin and, hence, can be regarded as neutral, disinterested, historical evidence of Jesus' life and crucifixion by the Romans.
   Writing around the end of the first century A.D., the Roman historian Suetonius tells us that in A.D. 49 the Emperor Claudius banished all Jews from the city of Rome (an incident also mentioned in Acts 18:2): "He expelled the Jews from Rome, on account of the riots in which they were constantly indulging, at the instigation of Chrestus" (Claudius, 25, 4).
   "Chrestus" was a common misspelling of the name of Christ. These riots were probably a result of the recent arrival in Rome of Christianity, which would have caused considerable dissention in the Jewish community there, as it did elsewhere (see, for example, Acts 21:31). Writing many years later, Suetonius doubtless misunderstood the police records of the rioting and took the name of "Chrestus" to refer to some individual of that name.
   A more detailed account of Christ comes from the Roman historian Tacitus. Writing between A.D. 115 and 117, Tacitus tells us that in A.D. 64 the emperor Nero tried to blame the disastrous fire in Rome on the Christians. Tacitus then goes on to describe these Christians: "They got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition for a short time, but it broke out afresh - not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all the horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home" (Annals, XV, 44).
   From Tacitus' comments it is clear he had no sympathy for Christianity. Yet for him there was no question that its founder actually lived and was executed by Pontius Pilate while he was procurator over Judea several decades earlier. Tacitus was an official Roman historian; he had access to official court records, diplomatic correspondence and Roman archives. Aside from his pagan, anti-Christian bias, his account is considered a reliable confirmation of the New Testament story of Christ's death and its aftermath.
   Roman historians are not the only ones who tell us of Jesus of Nazareth. Ancient Jewish traditions preserved in the Talmud also apparently mention Him. Jewish scholars agree that traditions of Jesus' death by crucifixion were maintained among the Jews for several centuries after the event and were finally put in written form in the Talmud about A.D. 500. The details in one account of Jesus' death are garbled - the passage comes from a rabbinical debate on criminal procedures (Sanhedrin 43A).
   Another account of Jesus is found in the writings of the famous Jewish historian Flavius Josephus of the first century A.D. However, historians feel that the passage was later altered by a Christian scribe to make Josephus say that Jesus was possibly the Messiah - something Josephus, a pious Jew, would never have admitted.
   However, one Jewish scholar has reconstructed the passage as follows: "Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise 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. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first ceased not so to do; and the race of Christians, so named from him are not extinct even now" (Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 55-56).
   Josephus al so mentions Jesus briefly in another passage which scholars feel is quite genuine: "He [Annas] convened a judicial session of the Sanhedrin and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ - James by name - and some others, whom he charged with breaking the law and handed over to be stoned to death" (Antiquities, xx, 200).
   Many other accounts, mostly fragmentary, have come down to us besides the ones that are quoted here. These documents so corroborate the New Testament record that Professor Klausner stated: "If we possessed them alone, we should know nothing except that in Judaea there had existed a Jew named Jesus who was called the Christ, the 'Anointed'; that he performed miracles and taught the people; that he was killed by Pontius Pilate at the instigation of the Jews; that he had a brother named James, who was put to death by the High Priest Annas, the son of Annas; that owing to Jesus there arose a special sect known as Christians; that a community belonging to this sect existed in Rome fifty years after the birth of Jesus, and that because of this community the Jews were expelled from Rome; and, finally, that from the time of Nero, the sect greatly increased, regarded Jesus as virtually divine, and underwent severe persecution" (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 62).
   The importance of Jesus Christ's life and death is recorded in the New Testament. Yet for those who do not accept the New Testament as accurate history, other records have been preserved which clearly show that the human life of Jesus Christ was fact - not fiction.

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Good News MagazineNovember 1976Vol XXV, No. 11