Did Jesus live?
December 21, 2003 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Is there any historical evidence of the existence of Jesus?
I ask this because I don't think there is, but would be interested to find out if there was. Please, no religious flame-wars; I'm not asking about whether he was the son of God, just whether he existed.
posted by jpburns to Religion & Philosophy (44 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
uh the bible?
posted by carfilhiot at 8:05 AM on December 21, 2003


My copy of Tacitus' 'The Annals of Imperial Rome' includes this quote from a passage on the burning of Rome during Nero's reign, which supports the existence of the historical Jesus :-

'But neither human resources, nor imperial munificence, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated sinister suspicions that the fire had been instigated. To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats - and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originated, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius' reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback, the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.'

However, there is some debate over this - see this link which discusses whether Tacitus depended on (allegedly biased) Christian rather than Roman accounts for the existence of Christ.

Another Roman historian, Suetonius, may also mention Jesus in this passage :-

'As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [ Claudius ] expelled them from Rome.'

(And then there are the accounts in the New Testament, of course).

My position would be that evidence for the historical Jesus is not absolutely conclusive, but this could be said about many figures from the ancient world (e.g. the evidence for the existence of Homer - whether he was one person or more than one - is probably shakier). It's more likely that he existed than not, and it's an explanation which seems to fit the facts better than any others.
posted by plep at 8:10 AM on December 21, 2003


Other people know this stuff WAY better than I do. I'm interested, but I haven't made an extensive study of it. That said: Not Really.

As carfilhiot mentions above, the bible seems to be the only primary source (if documents that were written 60+ years after the fact could be considered primary).

For some reason, I had it in my head that there was census data that supported a historical jesus, but searching didn't seem to turn it up. Others may have better luck. You might be interested in this Historical Jesus FAQ
posted by willnot at 8:12 AM on December 21, 2003


This page of historical Jesus theories from earlychristianwritings.com is good, if you have time to plough through it.
posted by plep at 8:20 AM on December 21, 2003


Jpburns: this is a great opportunity to start enjoying the work of Geza Vermes. He's a rigorous historian with the advantage of knowing the Jewish and Christian traditions and orthodoxies. And he's uncompromisingly honest. The Historical Jesus and Jesus The Jew will answer any questions and, thanks to the research and bibliography, put you on the right track, should you wish to learn more.

There was a rather muddled but, after decoding, very intelligent review of his latest book (which I haven't read) in last week's Spectator, written by the (Anglican) A.N.Wilson.

If I had to answer your question in one sentence: Yes, Jesus of Gallilee existed. He was a very clever, very pious provincial Jew with very good ideas of his own. A mentsch. A naturally rebellious but God-fearing rabbi, if you will.

You'll have guessed I'm Jewish - but don't let that put you off, hear? :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:22 AM on December 21, 2003


There are a few other not-very-contemporary references to Him as well, the most famous being Jewish historian Josephus' Testimonium Flavianum. And there's Tertullian as well, writing in about 200CE.

It also strikes me that if he didn't exist, the whole Christianity thing probably wouldn't have been such a big hit - even though there were contemporary Jewish sects (like the Essense, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls) with teachings that are pretty similar to early Christianity, you kind of need someone to be the Messiah for the whole thing to kick off. It would be pretty odd to set up a religion so hugely focused on a single person by retrospectively inventing him. Even if he was just some guy used by others to further the aims of their variant of Judaeism, I reckon it's likely that there was some guy, rather than one being made up on the spot.

The problem is that, when he was alive, Jesus wasn't a big deal - swift as the uptake of Christianity was, it didn't really make a mark until years after the Crucifixion (eg. the conversion of Constantine wasn't until 340CE) so there was no reason for anyone but his followers to record what he was up to. It's easy to think, given His impact, that there should be more evidence of His existance, but he barely troubled the Romans, and the Jewish authorities were probably up to their ears in wannabe Messiahs with various followings - just as there's been no shortage of folk since Jesus claiming to be the Second Coming.
posted by jack_mo at 8:46 AM on December 21, 2003


This previous discussion will also give you lots of reading material.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 9:02 AM on December 21, 2003


For some reason, I had it in my head that there was census data that supported a historical jesus, but searching didn't seem to turn it up.

I recall my West. Civ. teacher stating there is no primary documents about jesus and only one secondary, a census you mentioned or it was a dispatch with census info, I too have tried to find it but alas. I believe it was in greek and written about 20 years after his death.
posted by clavdivs at 10:02 AM on December 21, 2003


The problem is that, when he was alive, Jesus wasn't a big deal - swift as the uptake of Christianity was, it didn't really make a mark until years after the Crucifixion (eg. the conversion of Constantine wasn't until 340CE) so there was no reason for anyone but his followers to record what he was up to.

Considering how many of the important jebus-involved events recounted in the bible take place in the last few months of his life (and the three days right after), how surprising is this?
posted by billsaysthis at 11:47 AM on December 21, 2003


i have nothing to offer as to whether jesus really existed or not, but i've always thought that he did in a socrates kind of way.

(eg. the conversion of Constantine wasn't until 340CE)

i thought the date was 313?
posted by poopy at 12:48 PM on December 21, 2003


The Bible's strength as historical evidence is shaky at best, but consider that Jesus is all over the Koran as well. His significance is different, but Muslims still consider him a prophet. When two groups who disagree about so much finally do agree, you've gotta wonder whether there's something to it. In this case, they seem to agree that yes, Jesus existed.
posted by scarabic at 12:53 PM on December 21, 2003


Just realized that many of the links on that page are designed to convert Muslims to Christianity. Poor choice of URL, sorry. Check out this book and some of the related ones.
posted by scarabic at 12:57 PM on December 21, 2003


Josh McDowell wrote a book entitled Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Altho the book actually covers Christianity and the Bible as a whole, one chapter does address the historical evidence for Jesus, with not a few nonbiblical sources.

While we are discussing this, would someone please tell me why some of you call him Jebus? The only thing I can think of is it's simply expressing disrespect, but I don't really see a real reason for that either.
posted by konolia at 12:59 PM on December 21, 2003


scarabic - Islam, Christianity and Judaism are all flowers from the same root. They don't disagree with each other in all that much. I wouldn't be too surprised just as I wouldn't be too surprised if Rhoda, the show, mentioned a character from the Mary Tylor Moore Show.

Konolia - I think it's a reference to The Simpsons, and as you postulate is probably most often intended to mock those that believe (or at least those that aggressively testify and witness).
posted by willnot at 1:06 PM on December 21, 2003


all flowers from the same root

Yes, and that root is Abraham, more or less the last figure whose significance is the same in all 3 traditions. But Jesus followed quite some time after that. My point is you have to suspect anything Christians offer as evidence for his existence, since Jesus is pretty much their whole show.

But if you're looking for basic evidence that the person existed at all, I somehow find Muslims noting him as a minor prophet to be less suspicious. They have less invested in Jesus. Perhaps all it does it deepen the questioner's mystery though.
posted by scarabic at 1:15 PM on December 21, 2003


It is from the Simpsons, but whenever I've said it, I never meant it out of disrespect.
posted by drezdn at 1:18 PM on December 21, 2003


Konolia - I would take the bait, but thankfully the questioner cautioned against it. Don't start this here.
posted by scarabic at 1:19 PM on December 21, 2003


scarabic: If I recall correctly, Muhammed started doing his thing around 600CE, so references to Jesus in the Quran aren't terribly trustworthy from a historical standpoint.
posted by cmonkey at 1:32 PM on December 21, 2003


cmonkey - I think that's on the mark. Not that I would treat any scripture as historically reliable. Interesting to see what you can triangulate by putting all of them together, though.
posted by scarabic at 1:46 PM on December 21, 2003


Konolia - I think it's a reference to The Simpsons, and as you postulate is probably most often intended to mock those that believe (or at least those that aggressively testify and witness).

I actually thought of it as something of an unusual nod of kindness. Most of the time, the writers of the Simpson's aren't shy about mocking something directly and by name. In this case, it seemed to me they changed the name so as to be an obvious reference but not quite so directly profane.
posted by weston at 1:49 PM on December 21, 2003


The bible is "historical evidence" for the existence of Jesus in the same way thet the Iliad is historical evidence for the existence of Zeus.
posted by signal at 1:52 PM on December 21, 2003


I would counter that a reference to Jesus in the Koran is pretty significant support that Jesus did exist, although as I write that I need to counter it with this thought: perhaps he is mentioned solely to establish him as nothing more than a real person, as his existence as the "Son of God" is an affront, in the extreme, to Islam (and Judaism for that matter).

(There's been a Frontline program lately about the historical Jesus, has their not?)
posted by Dick Paris at 1:56 PM on December 21, 2003


In regards to the census, I thought that Jesus left for Egypt during the census. God came to Joseph telling him to leave for Egypt during the census because the king at the time was doing it in attempt to capture Jesus before he could start his ministry. Also, I could be wrong about this, but it was my understanding that Jesus is not his actual Hebrew name (ie, translation), so searching for that actual name might not yield any results.

Dick Paris: Not sure if it was Frontline, but there was something on one of those latenight programs a while back. All I remember is it was totally slanted against the existance of Jesus at all.
posted by jmd82 at 2:30 PM on December 21, 2003


Try Yeshua, if you think that makes a diff.
posted by konolia at 2:32 PM on December 21, 2003


Try Yeshua, if you think that makes a diff.
posted by konolia at 2:32 PM on December 21, 2003


scarabic, I'm not trying to start anything. I was just honestly curious, and this seems to be as good a place as any to ask.

Could someone tell me which episode? I watch sporadically so I probably haven't seen it yet. I assume it has something to do with Ned Flanders? Email might be best as I don't want to derail this thread.
posted by konolia at 2:37 PM on December 21, 2003


Try the Biblical Archaeology Society.
posted by Vidiot at 2:49 PM on December 21, 2003


Could someone tell me which episode?
BABF11 - Missionary: Impossible
posted by milov at 3:13 PM on December 21, 2003


Konolia, it's the episode where Homer makes a fake pledge to PBS and then hides from their collection squad (led by a pissed-off Betty White) by becoming a missionary. Here.

As far as its use, Homer's praying to "Save me, Jebus!" I guess there's a decent chance it's mocking evangelicals, but it seems pretty gentle.

("Jebus" also appeared in a Family Guy episode. Not sure which came first but I know most people attribute the line to the Simpsons.)

My favorite Homer and religion joke is still "I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there, save me, Superman!"
posted by nath at 3:16 PM on December 21, 2003


Damn it. On preview no one had posted the answer. On post milov beat me to it. Save me, Superman!

(p.s. I have no knowledge that would aid in answering the original question posited.)
posted by nath at 3:17 PM on December 21, 2003


Thanks!
posted by konolia at 3:27 PM on December 21, 2003


wikipedia jebus entry
posted by t r a c y at 3:48 PM on December 21, 2003


At this point in the discussion, the answer to jpburns's question, "Is there any historical evidence of the existence of Jesus?", is:

No, we have no historical (iow, solid and conclusive) evidence that the man existed.
posted by mischief at 5:02 PM on December 21, 2003


It wouldn't surprise me if the Simpsons writers use "Jebus" to mock Homer, not Christ, ie. he's so dumb, he doesn't even know he's saying the word incorrectly. 'cause on the whole, the Simpsons doesn't make fun of religion: it makes fun of stereotypes.

I think the best argument that Christ existed is Occam's Razor.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:01 PM on December 21, 2003


Actually, fff, Christ would be one of the needlessly multiplied entities.
Unless you're using pop-occams-razor, i.e.: "the simplest explanation is true", in which case the true answer to any question is "because".
posted by signal at 6:52 PM on December 21, 2003


If I recall correctly, Muhammed started doing his thing around 600CE, so references to Jesus in the Quran aren't terribly trustworthy from a historical standpoint.

For "not terribly trustworthy" read "completely worthless" -- if we're arguing about the validity of statements made a century or so later by people who knew people who knew him (assuming, of course, he existed, which we will never be able to settle), what possible validity could statements made many centuries later have? You might as well say the references to Jesus in MetaFilter prove he existed.

For that matter, references to Muhammad in the Quran aren't terribly trustworthy from a historical standpoint; the first written quote from the Quran (in the Dome of the Rock) dates from 60 years after his death, and the biographies are much later. It's been argued that virtually everything we think we know about his life is wrong or unprovable (and contemporary evidence is almost as scarce as for Jesus).
posted by languagehat at 8:07 PM on December 21, 2003


At this point in the discussion, the answer to jpburns's question, "Is there any historical evidence of the existence of Jesus?", is:

No, we have no historical (iow, solid and conclusive) evidence that the man existed.


I don't know what qualifies as "solid and conclusive". Trying to prove the existence of a first century Jewish rabbi would seem to require a certain type of evidence. The testimony of contemporary writers would seem the best we can do --

Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny, Lucian, Galen, and Josephus. There's also the Gospel writers -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- as well as Paul, unless you don't those accounts reliable.
posted by marcusb at 8:56 PM on December 21, 2003


I guess I have the answer, which seems to be, generally, no.

I'm a stickler for hard evidence; something written down during Jesus' lifetime, some surviving artifact, not things written about him by committees (Matthew, Mark, et al.) or by latecomers (Paul, particularly... as well as Mohammed, and the like...). I asked for hard evidence, and while I still have to plow through lots of links provided by folks here, I haven't seen a smoking gun, yet.

This question has nothing to do with faith, which by its very definition requires no hard evidence.
posted by jpburns at 4:45 AM on December 22, 2003


I think that the New Testament itself is overwhelming evidence for the mere existence of a person named Jesus of Nazareth. To make the argument that it's the same as the Iliad's proving the existence of Zeus doesn't track. What would have motivated the Gospel writers, Paul, and the other authors of early Christian writings to espouse so passionate a belief in a person who never existed? It's much more likely that such a person did exist, otherwise, why all the bother? There was no shortage of 1st c. Messianic figures; why invent someone when there were copious real people to follow? Who he was and what he was up to can be debated, but to make the case that he never existed in the first place would seem to contradict quite a number of documents that attest to things he said and did (the New Testament contains the canonical writings, but there are others).

The lack of historical data surrounding the person of Jesus is fitting: he was a complete nobody, the son of a poor manual laborer from a nothing town in Galilee. The census mentioned in Luke as the macguffin to get Joseph and Mary to Bethleham seems never to have taken place; it's a plot piece. It's helpful when reading the Gospels to think of them not as histories, but as 1st century biopics--they are theological tributes to their author's understandings of the central themes of Christianity; they aren't intended to be read as mere histories.
posted by vraxoin at 7:38 AM on December 22, 2003


The Jesus Mysteries:
'In the course of our examination we have found that most sceptics accept that there is the clear possibility that an itinerant preacher with the common name, Yeshua, may have existed, but that eponymous person shared few of the many and varied characteristics and acts which were later accumulated into the gospels. Rather than simply assert or deny whether the word 'Historical' applies using a variety of possible definitions which suit various proponents' stances, our endeavours are therefore centred on the sources which made up the Gospel Jesus and how they were accreted into that complex combination of several characters represented in the canonical gospels under the name: Jesus.'

It is my understanding that the 'story' of Jesus is an amalgam of many pre-Christian legends.
posted by asok at 8:02 AM on December 22, 2003


Link:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/JesusMysteries/
posted by asok at 8:04 AM on December 22, 2003


(There's been a Frontline program lately about the historical Jesus, has their not?)

From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians -- website includes articles on "what we can really know" and "the historian's task".
posted by Dean King at 8:16 AM on December 22, 2003


he was a complete nobody, the son of a poor manual laborer from a nothing town in Galilee.

Er, no. If Christ existed as described in the Bible, he was from a very wealthy family.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:01 PM on December 22, 2003


Er, no. If Christ existed as described in the Bible, he was from a very wealthy family.
What chapter: verse says this?
posted by thomcatspike at 7:09 AM on December 24, 2003


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