Did Jesus really exist, do we have any actual evidence?

220px-Papyrus_27A rather common claim often presented is that there is solid historical independently verifiable evidence that Jesus really existed, hence all the claims are true. To even make that last leap of logic is highly questionable, but let’s put that aside and ask ourselves this – outside of the bible, what references do we have?

But first, we should remember that the bible itself is not a contemporary account at all, and was not written by eye witnesses –

  • Mark – written in roughly 65 AD is the story of a misunderstood messiah
  • Matthew and Luke – were both written about 10-15 years later are respectively the story of the coming of the Jewish messiah (Matthew), and the emergence of yet another prophet (Luke). They copied most of Mark’s text and then altered bits to spin it for their specific variations.
  • John – written in 90-110 AD is the first and only gospel to claim the Jesus is god and so is a distinctly different story again.

There is much that could be written about all of that, but for the moment I’m putting it aside and asking myself about any other references. There are a couple that are often quoted, so lets take a quick look.

We have basically two independent references, Josephus and Tacitus, and so if you ever attend an Alpha course then these will often be quoted as “evidence”.


There was a well-known 1st century Romano-Jewish historian called Flavius Josephus who wrote a history book called  Antiquities of the Jews, and that includes two references to Jesus in Books 18 and 20.

The first in Book 18 Chapter 3v3 …

Now 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. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

This is challenged by most and is generally accepted to be fraudulent for a couple of reasons

  • The literary style of the greek in this reference is at odds with the normal writing style of Josephus, for example it uses the Greek term poietes to mean “doer” (as part of the phrase “doer of wonderful works”) but elsewhere in his works, Josephus only uses the term poietes to mean “poet,”.
  • The passage is also noticeably shorter and more cursory than such notices generally used by Josephus in the Antiquities, and if it was authentic, it would have included more details and a longer introduction.
  • It breaks the normal flow of that work and appears to be out of the context of everything either side that Josephus is writing about.
  • Numerous Christian authors wrote about Josephus prior to Eusebius in 324 AD, but they make no reference to this passage, it’s first reference is by Eusebius, oh and as a further pointer to Eusebius being the forger here, the use of the greek word “poietes”, while inconsistent with the Greek writing style of Josephus, is wholly consistent with the Greek of Eusebius – his fingerprints are all over this.
  • What is also rather odd is that Josephus writes about Pontius Pilate within his earlier work, the Jewish War, but makes no reference to Jesus at all there.

The second in Book 20 Chapter 9v1 …

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.

Here we have a reference to the stoning of James the Brother of Jesus, and this specify passage is not what you think it is at all

  • The name Jesus, was a common name and not one that was unique to a specific individual, Josephus wrote about many distinctly different individuals who went by the name  Jesus, Yeshua or Joshua
  • The use of the word Christos is highly unusual for Josephus and is a Christian term, hence this suggests it was a later insertion by a Christian. Josephus himself was not a Christian and so he would have rejected the idea that Jesus was the Messiah (the Christos)
  • The passage has a negative tone regarding the High Priest Ananus, presenting him as impulsive while in the Jewish Wars Josephus presents a positive view of Ananus and portrays him as prudent
  • Richard Carrier argues that the words “the one called Christ” likely resulted from the accidental insertion of a marginal note added by some unknown reader. He proposes that the original text referred to a brother James of the high priest Jesus ben Damneus mentioned in the same narrative, given the straight forward nature of the text without that insertion. James (the brother of Jesus) is executed by Ananus. The Jews get angry at this. Complaints and demands are made. The King removes Ananus from being High Priest. Jesus, the son of Damneus, is made high priest

There is also one other very important point here that is very often forgotten. Josephus himself was born in AD 37, and did not write the Antiquities of the Jews until AD 93 or 94 … about 30 years after the gospel of Mark, and 15 years after Luke and Matthew. He was not a contemporary eyewitness. Given the supposed impact and importance of the events described within the gospels, it is rather interesting to note that Josephus discarded it all … and there is no mention of anything at all by him except for these two dubious and highly questionable references, which when examined do not withstand critical scrutiny as either credible, reliable or authentic.


The other oft quoted historical reference comes from the Roman historian and senator Tacitus. Within his final work, Annals book 15, chapter 44 we find a passage that reads:

“… called Christians by the populace. 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 himself was not by any measure a Christian and also the passage in question itself has a very negative tone, hence it is felt by many to be a reliable confirmation that there was indeed a real individual who was crucified by Pontius Pilatus.

The objection raised is that once again we find that Tacitus was not a contemporary witness, he was born in AD 56, and did not write this reference until AD 116, which is almost 100 years after the supposed event, and so was in all probability simply writing what was believed.

If indeed the writings of Tacitus are deemed to be credible, accurate and wholly trustworthy, then perhaps those that cite this passage might like to consider that he used the term “a most mischievous superstition … evil … hideous and shameful” to describe the belief …

Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. 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, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.

So there is a distinct bit of cherry picking going on here, some bits are deemed wholly reliable, factual and accurate, but the references above are simply dismissed as wrong. Well which is it, is he or is he not reliable and accurate? You can’t choose and pick, it is either one or the other.

So is this an actual historical reference, or is it in fact Tacitus simply repeating the claims of the Christians themselves. Given that is was written long after the actual events, almost one century, I’m inclined to lean towards the latter. What would be interesting to know is what his source for this is, but we simply do not know.

Any other sources?

In a word no … not one. And given that the above two are not only highly questionable and not reliable, but also not contemporary accounts at all, and so that leaves us with the rather startling observation that that there are exactly zero independent contemporary accounts that confirm the Christian claims.

So did he really exist?

I speculate that buried under all the religious myths resides a real human who made claims that then went viral and an extensive mythology evolved.

The fact that the root of it all might have been a real human does not validate any of the claims. For example Joseph Smith really existed, and yet he is also recent enough for us to be able to verify that the Mormon claims regarding him are complete bullshit and that he was a well-known con man and also a convicted fraudster who managed to successfully befuddle and fool rather a lot of people. In a similar manner L Ron Hubard was also a rogue and yet those within the belief system he initiated would not see him that way at all.

So why does any of this matter?

It matters because rather a lot of people are essentially embracing myths as facts, (and for the record also dismissing facts as myths), and by doing so are buying into bad ideas that inspire and motivate bad behaviour … homophobia, misogyney, intolerance, etc… if we want a better world, is it not better to question such things?

Tacitus got it right, it is indeed “a most mischievous superstition”.

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