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Vol.  10  No. 5 May 2008  Page 14
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Was Jesus a Real, Historical Character?

By Jerry Bates

Jerry Bates    There have always been critics to the story of Jesus, but it seems that recently critics have increased in number. Most critics simply deny certain aspects about the life of Jesus and His claims. However, a sizable group of critics simply proclaim that the man called Jesus never existed at all. In January of 2006, an atheist sued a Catholic priest in Italy for misleading the public because he presented Jesus as a historical character. Some recent movies also present the idea that Jesus did not exist. In other words, we are being told that every thing that we think we know about Jesus is false. Supposedly, the story of Jesus is simply a fable. Some recent movies attempt to propagate the same idea. One such movie is entitled “The Beast.” The website for the movie makes this claim, “The authors of the Gospels writing 40 to 90 years after the supposed life of Christ, never intended for their works to be read as biographies. There are no credible non-Christian references to Christ during the period in which he is said to have lived.” The conclusion is that since some claim that we have few if any references to Jesus, then He must not have existed. Is this claim true?

    We might want to first point out that we should not expect Jesus to be mentioned much in the history books of His era, because He was not perceived by the world to be an important person during His lifetime. He lived in a small, relatively obscure part of the world. His followers were small in number and historically insignificant until many years after His death. Furthermore, very little historical data of any kind from the time of Christ have survived to this day. Consider, for example, the case of Pontius Pilate, a man mentioned by name about 20 times in the New Testament. Two Jewish writers, Philo and Josephus, mention him only briefly. Tacitus, a Roman historian, mentioned Pilate once and then only incidentally in connection with Christus who “was executed at the hands of Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.” We have only one inscription naming Pilate. Phil Sanders summarized this information in this way, “Here was a man who served the Roman government for ten years in one of the political hotspots of the empire. He himself was embroiled repeatedly in controversy. And yet, there is not a solitary Roman archival document that so much as mentions his name.” Yet, no one that I know of disputes the existence of Pilate.

   If an important character like Pilate is barely mentioned, we should not be surprised that there is little mention of a man named Jesus. We do have the testimony of many early preachers whose writings testify about Jesus. Of course, many would discount those writings as unreliable since they were followers of Jesus. However, the same historical writers that mention Pilate also mention Jesus, but are also considered unreliable in the case of Jesus. The non-Christian historian, Josephus, mentions Jesus as a real character. Tacitus mentions how Nero used Christians as scapegoats for the burning of Rome, and how their name originated from Christus. Another Roman historian, Seutonius mentions the existence of Christians.  Justin Martyr, writing in approximately A.D. 150 writes concerning Christ, “That He performed these miracles you may easily satisfy yourself from the ‘Acts of Pontius Pilate.’” That is a very bold statement to make if in fact no record existed.

    If Jesus never existed, there is no explanation for any of these references, as few as they are. It should not surprise us that we have no inscriptions that mention Jesus. Only important figures are mentioned in inscriptions. From the standpoint of history, Jesus was an unimportant nobody during his lifetime. R.R. France put it this way, “From the point of view of Roman history of the first century, Jesus was a nobody. A man of no social standing… could hardly be expected to achieve mention in the Roman headlines.” Several other independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the enemies of Christianity never doubted that Jesus had existed. One may not believe Jesus was divine, but we must at least admit that He existed.

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