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Skeptics vs. Historians

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All throughout history, skeptics used to claim that Jesus never rose from the dead, that his disciples stole his body from the tomb, and that his miracles were only parlor tricks. But they never claimed that he didn’t exist. However, claiming that he never existed only became possible recently due to the long period of time that has passed since the first century. In actuality, there is much more evidence for Jesus’ existence than there is for almost any important or any famous person of that time. This part of the blog comes from nonbiblical sources, or nonbiblical evidence. On every account we will stop at each claim to address the typical skeptic questions about each claim. After reading this blog, you will no longer be able to claim that there is no evidence for Jesus’ existence, and on top of that, you will be questioning the integrity of the research of those who told you that there isn’t.


Cornelius Tacitus, who lived from AD 55 to AD 150, was a first- and second-century Roman historian who lived through the reigns of over a half dozen of Roman emperors. He was considered one of the greatest historians of Rome.


Tacitus verified the historical account of Jesus’ execution at the hands of governor Pontius Pilate, who governed Judea from AD 26 to 36, during the reign of Tiberius.  


Tacitus writes the following: Christos, the founder of the Christian name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, pro-creator of Judea and the reign of Tiberius.


It would confirm the following:


  • Jesus did exist.
  • Jesus was the founder of Christianity.
  • Jesus was put to death by Pilate.
  • Christians originated in Judea, with Jesus, and that Christianity later spread to Rome.


Skeptic interjection one: Tacitus could have taken his information from Christian sources.
Answer: Because of his position as a professional historian and not as a commentator, it is more likely that Tacitus referenced government records over Christian testimony. It is also possible that Tacitus received some of his information from his friend Infello, secular historian, Pliny The Younger. Yet, even if Tacitus referenced some of Pliny’s sources, it would be out of his character to have done so without critical investigation.


An example of Tacitus criticizing testimony given to him from his dear friend Pliny is found in Annals Fifty-Five: C. Plinii Secundi, Naturalis Histori /E.


Tacitus distinguishes between confirmed and hearsay, accounts almost seventy times in his history. If he felt this account of Jesus was only rumor or folklore, he would have issued his usual disclaimer that this account was unverified, but he did not.


Skeptic interjection two: Could this passage have been in Christian interpellation or forgery?
Answer: Judging by the critical undertones of this passage, it is highly unlikely. Tacitus refers to Christianity as a superstition and an insuppressible mischief. Furthermore, there is not a surviving copy of Tacitus’ annals that does not contain this passage. There is no verifiable evidence of tampering of any kind in this passage.


Skeptic interjection three: Why is this passage not quoted by the early church fathers?
Answer: Due to the condescending nature of Tacitus’ testimony, early Christians worshipped the crucified sage, and authors most likely would not have quoted such a source. Assuming Tacitus’ writings were even available to them. However, our actual answer comes from the context of the passage itself. Nothing in Tacitus’ statement mentions anything that was not already common knowledge among Christians. It simply provides evidence of Jesus’ existence, which is a topic not debated at this point in history.


Sources:
C.Plinii Secundi, Naturalis Histori /E
Lucian, Selected Dialogues
Suetontus, The Twelve Caesars
Flavius Josephus (AD 37-AD 100)


Lucian of Samosata: Lucian was a second-century Greek Satirist, who scornfully describes his views of early Christianity. Though he ridicules the Christians and their Christ, his writings confirmed that Jesus was executed, via crucifixion, and that he was the founder of Christianity. “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account … It was impressed on them by their original lawgiver … that they are all brothers from the moment they are converted and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws …” What this passage reveals, and how it confirms the biblical account, according to the Lucian, Selected Dialogues, are the following:


  • That Jesus did exist.
  • Jesus was the founder of Christianity.
  • Jesus was worshiped by his followers.
  • Jesus suffered death by crucifixion.


Skeptic interjection one: Can we consider Lucian’s testimony reliable, due to the source being a literary work?
Answer: Lucian’s comments revolved around historical events. In Lucian’s work, the way to write history, he openly criticizes his contemporaries, who distort history to flatter their masters, or those who fill in historical gaps with their personal conjecture. He writes, “The historian’s first task is to tell the thing as it happened, he may nurse some private dislikes, but he will attach more importance to the public good, and will set the truth high above his hate. For history, I say again, has this and only this for its own, if a man will start upon it, he must sacrifice to no god but truth. He must neglect all else.”


Skeptic interjection two: Is it possible that Lucian received his knowledge from Christian sources, or if this passage is an interpellation or forgery?

Answer: Seeing how adamant Lucian was in regards to historical accuracy and critical investigation, the answer is an emphatic no. As to the passage being a Christian forgery, chances are that the reference to Jesus would be far more favorable if this were so. Lucian refers to Jesus only as a man, a law-giver, and a sag—human, not divine descriptions. He never once referred to Jesus as a god. Furthermore, there isn’t anything in the above statement that reveals what wasn’t already known. It merely asserts that Jesus lived, preached, and died. Remember that during this time, Christians were trying to prove Jesus’s divinity, and not his existence.


In Flavius Josephus (AD 37- 100) Joseph wrote a passage that describes Jesus’ existence, his crucifixion by Pontius Pilate, and that he had followers—both Jews and gentiles—and the many wonderful works that Jesus performed. Perhaps, the only reason that this particular passage written by Josephus has been singled out for accusations and misinformation, is that it’s a very good account from a very prominent historian who lived at that time, and would have probably interviewed the apostles themselves:


“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 received 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 principle men among us had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him, at first, did not forsake him. For he appeared to them, alive again at their day. As the divine prophets have foretold these and 10,000 other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribes of Christians so-named for him are not extinct at this day.”


Concerning this passage, there were writings by skeptics that suggested that Joseph’s claim that Jesus had Jewish followers contain statements that Jews would not make, such as Jesus being the Christ. The rebuttal to that is, in other translations, particularly in both Greek and Arabic, the suspicious statements contain disclaimers such as Jesus who was “believed to be the Christ, and it was reported.” This presents the theory that Josephus was recording the beliefs regarding Jesus, and not necessarily his personal opinion—as a responsible historian should do.


If anything, it could lead to the speculation that Christian authors did not add to the text, but rather edited it by deleting the disclaimers. You should also realize that the earliest versions of antiquities contain this passage as it is presented in the first case. The objection, however, is that the earliest copy is not until the tenth century, but in fact, there are several citations of Josephus’ passage that were recorded by other authors prior to the tenth century. Despite all of the above, the true burden of proof revolves around Christ’s divinity. 

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