Was There a Historical Jesus? Investigating One of History’s Greatest MysteriesWas There a Historical Jesus? Investigating One of History’s Greatest Mysteries

Was There a Historical Jesus? Investigating One of History’s Greatest Mysteries

Was there a real Jesus of Nazareth, and was he the Son of God? Examine the clues to the historical Jesus, physical objects called relics, and ancient texts that may reveal who Jesus actually was.



Saul of Tarsus set out one morning from his quarters in Jerusalem, where he was stationed as a representative of the Roman authority, to hunt and capture Jews. Saul was a Jew himself, and hunting Jews who had been exposed to Hellenistic thought was a just enterprise for him. These “Hellenistic” Jews were a threat to order in this Rome-controlled outpost at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Especially threatening were those who professed to follow the Christ, a Jew known as Jesus who some were calling Messiah.


On the road to Damascus, Saul had what one might call an encounter. Out of the blue, a blindingly bright light caused him to fall off his horse, and a figure who identified himself as Jesus Christ appeared, in spectral form, to scold him for his persecution of Jewish minorities. Soon, Saul recanted, and he moved on in his life a changed man, a newborn adherent of the word of Christ.


How do we know all this? He told us; he wrote it down. As a new believer, now renamed Paul, he assumed the mantle of an apostle, writing many letters, or epistles, to other “Hellenistic” followers of Jesus. Thirteen of his epistles, from Romans to Philemon, ended up in the New Testament of the Christian faith.


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Faith. Faith in his vision of Jesus is what inspired Paul to become, in essence, Christianity’s biggest “influencer,” spreading the word far and wide and doing much to ease the way for the mainstreaming of Jesus’s faithful.


Seeking the Real Jesus in History

Today, that number of Christians has reached upwards of 2.3 billion; these people believe in the dual nature – fully God and fully man – of Jesus. Add in the approximately 1.7 billion Muslims whose teachings honor Christ as a prophet (though not divine), and that’s a lot of people who take Jesus’s life and works on faith.


But is faith enough for those who seek more? Paul never met Jesus, except in his spiritual form. He was no more connected with the earthly Jesus of Nazareth than were the authors of the gospels that precede the epistles in the New Testament. Once we accept that none of the authors of this testament met the physical Jesus, we need to start looking outside the Bible for validation that he really existed.


Caravaggio Conversion of Paul

Saul of Tarsus was blinded on his way to Damascus. (Image: Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul, c. 1600–1, The Odescalchi Balbi Collection of Rome)



Beyond this faith-based source, where do we look? Scholars are divided. Academics like Bart Ehrman, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who professes to be a nonbeliever, holds that Paul settled the issue millennia ago. Speaking on NPR, he said: “Paul knew Jesus’s brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did. If Jesus didn't exist, you would think his brother would know about it, so I think Paul is probably pretty good evidence that Jesus at least existed.”


Not everyone, least of all other academics, find this reasoning persuasive. Raphael Lataster, a lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Sydney, has published extensively on the lack of historical evidence for Jesus. In the Washington Post, he wrote, “There are no existing eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus. All we have are later descriptions of Jesus’s life events by non-eyewitnesses, most of whom are obviously biased.”


Investigating Physical Evidence of a Real Jesus

And so the search for remnants of the historical Jesus continues. Many researchers and archaeologists have approached this question over the years, dating back to the third or fourth century CE, when the quest for relics started to become big business. Nails were collected that purported to be those that held Jesus in place on the crucifix. According to Christian tradition, the crucifix, the cross on which Jesus was hung, was “discovered” by the mother of the emperor Constantine, another influential convert who helped spread Christianity in its early era.


And then there’s the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth that is said to carry an image of Jesus’s face and body. Despite heroic defenses of the Shroud’s authenticity by Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, carbon dating has placed the creation of the Shroud to a period hundreds of years after Jesus is said to have lived.


positive and negative Shroud of Turin (detail)

Positive and negative images of the face section of the Shroud of Turin. (Image Credit: Public Domain, via Dianelos Georgoudis, Wikipedia)


So, beyond questionable physical objects to prove that Jesus existed, what else do we have? Are there other sources, outside the religious texts of the Bible, that can point us to a once living, breathing Jesus? Moreover, do any of these sources refer to his divinity?


Did Roman Historian Josephus Prove the Existence of Jesus?

History, or the writing of history, was a fairly new addition to literature at the time of Jesus. Only a few hundred years prior, Herodotus wrote the first work of history, in Greek, for the edification of Greece’s elite. Many historians soon followed Herodotus’s lead, and by the time of the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, there were numerous writers depicting the acts of men in peace and war for educated readers.


Among these writers was Josephus. Born a Jew in Jerusalem in the early decades of the Christian era, he had notoriously switched sides and became a protected member of the Roman court of the emperor Flavius. He then embarked on the writing of two texts intended, as far as we can tell, to explain the history of the Jews, in Greek, for a primarily Roman audience.


First, he wrote The Jewish Wars, encompassing much of the story of the resistance of the Jews to Roman oppression in the first century CE. He then wrote Jewish Antiquities, relating the story of the Jews from antiquity to the current day. In Antiquities, the person of Jesus is mentioned, almost in passing, in reference to other subjects.


First, in a discussion of the death of James, who was an apostle of Jesus (if not more), Josephus referenced James, saying, “These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, that is called the Christ. For the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man.” In another passage, Josephus goes further, claiming, “… 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.”


Martyrdom of James the Just

Martyrdom of James the Just in Menologion of Basil II, a manuscript dating from late tenth or early eleventh century. (Image Credit: Public Domain, The Vatican Library)


Now, what are we to make of this? Not all scholars are convinced that the passages, and, in particular, the second, were original to Josephus’s manuscript. Of the two, the first reference is more widely accepted as authentic, though some academics believe both passages were added to the book, possibly around the third century CE.


Tacitus Reports An Account of Jesus and Pontius Pilate

Another writer of approximately the same era, Tacitus, produced a history written in Latin, titled Annals, that mentions the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate. Tacitus reported, “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.”


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 —Tacitus, Annals, 15.44, dated to c. 100 CE


There is little doubt among historians that Tacitus’s is a reliable account, one gathered from his sources in the decades following the period in which Jesus is said to have lived. While not an eyewitness report, it is close enough in time to the actual event that Tacitus may have collected the information from contemporaries of Jesus.


If, indeed, Tacitus’s sources lived during the lifetime of Jesus, then this is persuasive – and to many seekers validating – evidence that Jesus was a notable resident of the Holy Land, that he was known as Christ, and that he was killed by the order of Pontius Pilate. But, despite this tantalizing evidence, we cannot reach a conclusion regarding New Testament accounts of an afterlife or a divine ministry for this man of Nazareth.


Have We Reached a Conclusion?

To skeptics, no first-person account equates to no proof. But present-day historians who specialize in the era, while cognizant of this gap in the timeline, are not necessarily skeptical of these non-Biblical accounts of the historical Jesus. 


If authentic, the depictions of Jesus by ancient historians portray a public figure who did good works and was well respected. For a more definitive confirmation that Jesus was a real person in history, or for proof of his divinity, you might find the evidence lacking. True certainty may well require a leap of faith.


Intrigued by the search for the Jesus of history? In “Who Was Jesus?,” an episode from The Bible: A History 4K, Irish political activist Gerry Adams is onsite in the Holy Land on a journey of faith beyond religious texts. Click a block below to continue your search now. 



Kevin Martin is Senior Writer for MagellanTV. He writes on a wide variety of topics, including outer space, the fine arts, and history. He has had a long career as a journalist and communications specialist with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. He resides in Glendale, California.


Title Image: The Ascension (detail) by Pietro Perugino, 1510, Cathedral of Sansepolcro, Tuscany


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