Do early sources report that Jesus existed?

“Yes, after all…
  • [AD 33] The 1 Corinthians 15 creedal formula

    A speech bubble with a clock inside and an arrow going around the clock counterclockwise.

    The 1 Cor 15 creedal formula is a pre-Pauline saying in circulation that Paul quotes and which speaks of an historical Jesus. (The creed dates to c. AD 30-35.)

    • 1 Cor 15:3-5 -- For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died… and that He was buried, and that He was raised... and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…
  • [AD 45] Paul's letters to churches at Corinth, Galatia, etc.

    Paul's letters report of a historical Jesus. (They also report a good deal of Jesus's biography).

    Some example reports, dating between AD 40-50, include...

    • 1 Corinthians 2:7-8 -- none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory;
    • 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 -- For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
    • 1 Corinthians 15 -- For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died… and that He was buried, and that He was raised… and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…
    • Galatians 4:4 -- But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law,
    • 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 -- For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets
    • 1 Timothy 6:13 -- Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate,
    • Hebrews 1:6 -- And when He again brings the firstborn [Jesus] into the world,
    • See also Romans 1, Romans 8, Galatians 1.
  • *[AD 55] Thallus's 3rd volume of his history book

    During his life (c. 160 – c. 240), Sextus Julius Africanus discusses Thallus's written explanation for the darkness which fell during Jesus's crucifixion (Mk 15:33 -- “…there was darkness over the whole land”).1

    • Thallus (in his History): [Unknown words which attempt to explain the darkness at Jesus's death as an eclipse] (cited by Julius Africanus: “On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness, and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.” [A History of the World 18:1]2, 3)
    1. For background:

      Robert Van Voorst: “Around 55 C.E, a historian named Thallos wrote in Greek a three-volume chronicle of the eastern Mediterranean area from the fall of Troy to about 50 C.E. Most of the book, like the vast majority of ancient literature, perished, but not before it was quoted by Sextus Julius Africanus (ca. 160-ca. 240), a Christian writer in his History of the World (ca. 220).” [Jesus Outside the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2000), 22.]

    2. Quoted by Georgius Syncellus, around AD 800.
    3. Here is the full passage:
      Julius Africanus: “On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Saviour falls on the day before the Passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let that opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth—manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending of rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. But it was a darkness induced by God, because the Lord happened then to suffer.”
  • [AD 70] The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke

    The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke report of a historical Jesus.

    For example,

    • Luke 1:1-4 -- Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. …[2:21-22] And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus,… And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem…
  • [AD 70] Acts of the Apostles

    The book of Acts of the Apostles reports of a historical Jesus.

    For example,

    • Acts 4:10 -- let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified,
  • [AD 80] The Gospel of John

    The Gospel of John reports that Jesus is a real historical figure.

    For example...

    • John 1:43-45 -- The next day He purposed to go into Galilee, and He found Philip. ...Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
  • *[AD 93] Josephus's ‘Jewish Antiquities’ 18

    Flavius Josephus (Jewish historian; A.D. 37-101) reports on Jesus as an historical figure here:

    • Josephus (in Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3 §63-64): “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.” [Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, vol. 9, trans. L. H. Feldman, Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press, 1969), 495.]

      IMPORTANT: Grayed out text is not considered part of Josephus's Antiquities, but instead a later addition by a Christian scribe.

    1. For other translations:
      • “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.” [trans. by Feldman (Brill Academic, 1999).]
    2. It is in all Greek manuscripts:
      • “This statement stands in all Greek manuscripts from the eleventh century onward and was known as early as the fourth century when Eusebius twice quoted it (Hist. Eccl. 1.11: Dem, Ev. 3.5, 124). Origen (c.185-c.254) knew of Josephus's allusions to John the Baptist and James but twice says Josephus did not believe Jesus to be the Christ (Comm. Mt. 10:17; Contra Cels. 1.47)” [_Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels_, eds. Green, McKnight, Marshall (IVP, 1992), 393.]
    3. See:
      Edwin Yamauchi: “Almost everyone agrees that a number of phrases in the passage are so patently Christian that a Jew like Josephus would not have penned them: 1) "If indeed one ought to call him a man" imples that Jesus was more than human. 2) "He was the Christ." Josephus elsewhere says very little about messianic expectations, because he wanted to downplay those beliefs. 3) "On the third day he appeared to them restored to life." This seems to be an unambiguous testimony to the resurrection of Christ.”
  • *[AD 93] Josephus's ‘Jewish Antiquities’ 20*

    Flavius Josephus (Jewish historian; A.D. 37-101) reports on Jesus as brother of the historical James here:

    • Josephus (in Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1): “convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned.” [Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, vol. 9, trans. L. H. Feldman, Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press, 1969), 495.]
    1. For some other translations:

      Josephus: “assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James,” [trans. by Whiston]

  • [AD 95] 1 Clement's letter

    Clement of Rome (c. 95 A.D. apostolic father) spoke of Jesus as an historical figure:

    • Clement of Rome: “Let us fear the Lord Jesus [Christ], whose blood was given for us.[1 Clement 21:6]
    • Clement of Rome: “For of Jacob are all the priests and levites who minister unto the altar of God; of him is the Lord Jesus as concerning the flesh; of him are kings and rulers and governors in the line of Judah; yea and the rest of his tribes are held in no small honor[1 Clement 32:2]
    • Clement of Rome: “…most of all remembering the words of the Lord Jesus which He spake, teaching forbearance and long-suffering[1 Clement 13:1][see also Ch. 42]
  • [AD 100] The Didache

    In c. AD 100,1 the Didache speaks of Jesus as an historic figure.

    • Didache 9:2 -- “We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of your son David, which you have made known to us through your son Jesus; to you be the glory forever.” [From Gerd Theissen, Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide Trans by Bowden, (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996, 1998)]
    1. Traditionally dated to the early second century (e.g. 110). [Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford, 1997), 49-50], but the new emerging consensus is c. 100 AD [see Jonathan Draper (Professor at KwaZulu-Natal [specialist on Didache studies]) Gospel Perspectives, 284.]
  • *[AD 100] Mara-Bar Sarapion letter to his son

    In c. AD 73 [maybe],1 a pagan stoic philosopher named Mara-Bar-Sarapion spoke of Jesus as an historical figure in the following letter to his son.

    • Mara Bar-Sarapion: What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samon gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given. [British Museum Syriac ms Additional 14,658]2
    1. There is some dispute over dating: ―Around AD 73 [See C.A. Evans, in Green & McKnight Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, (IVP Academic, 1992) 332.] ―Soon after AD 73 [Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus (Fortress Press, 1998) 78.] 77.) ―Any time after AD 73 [F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (IVP Academic, 1974), 30.]
    2. Robert Van Voorst: “The sole manuscript which has survived, now in the Brish Museum, is dated to the seventh century. We know nothing else about Mara or Serapion apart from this letter. ... That he was not Christian is suggested by his failure to mention explicitly the name of Jesus or Christ, and by his statement that Jesus lives on in his new laws rather than by his resurrection.” [Jesus Outside the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2000), 53.]
  • [AD 105] Papias's report

    Writing around AD 101-110, Papias (Bishop of Hierapolis) reports of Jesus's existence.

    • Papias “…if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders - that is, what according to the elders Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying.”[trans. by Richard Bauckham in his _Jesus and the Eyewitnesses_ (Eerdmans, 2006), 15-16.]
  • [AD 107] Ignatius's ‘Epistle to the Smyrnæans’

    Around AD 107-110, Ignatius of Antioch speaks of Jesus as an historic figure, like here:

    • Ignatius (in his Epistle to the Smyrnæans, Ch. 1): “…being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh.”

    See also: ―Letter to the Trallians ch. 9 ―Letter to the Smyrnaeans ch. 3

  • [AD 110] Polycarp's letter to the Philippians

    Writing around AD AD 110 to 140, Polycarp (Bishop of Smyrna) testifies of Jesus's existence in his letter to the Philippians

    • Polycarp (Letter to the Philippians 7:1-3): “For every one who shall not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is antichrist: and whosoever shall not confess the testimony of the Cross, is of the devil; and whosoever shall pervert the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts and say that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, that man is the firstborn of Satan. … according as the Lord said, The Spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak. …Jesus Christ who took up our sins in His own body upon the tree, who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth, but for our sakes He endured all things, that we might live in Him.” [Trans. by J. B. Lightfoot]
    1. Polycarp is thought to have written several letters to the Philippians, but only this one remains. It was written in Greek (for which we have some manuscripts); most of the document comes from a Latin translation and some Syriac quotations. It is interesting to note that Polycarp's letters to the Philippians is also testified to by Irenaeus:

      Irenaeus (Disciple of Polycarp): “There is also a forceful epistle written by Polycarp to the Philippians, from which those who wish to do so, and are anxious about their salvation, can learn the character of his faith, and the preaching of the truth.”[James Stevenson, A new Eusebius (SPCK, 1965), 120.]

  • *[AD 111] Pliny the Younger's letter to Trajan

    Writing around A.D. 111-113,1 Pliny the Younger (Roman governor) speaks of Jesus as an historic figure in his letter to the Emperor Trajan:

    • Pliny the Younger (Letters 10.96-97): “Those who denied that they were or had been Christians… and moreover cursed Christ… they were accustomed to … sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god.”

    [Note: Pliny does not say “as if he existed,” but says “as to a god” sarcastically, because he does not think Jesus was a god. He knows Jesus only as a man.]

    1. Pliny was made governer of Pontus and Bithyna in AD 111, and died in AD 113.
  • *[AD 115] Tacitus's ‘Annals’

    Writing around AD 115,1 Cornelius Tacitus (Senator & Roman Historian, concerning events in 54-68 ad) speaks of Jesus as an historical figure.

    • Cornelius Tacitus (in his Annals, 15:44): “Consequently, to get rid of the report, 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. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” [Annals, 116.]
  • *[AD 120] Seutonius's ‘Life of Emperor Claudius’

    Writing around AD 117-138,1 Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (ca. 69/75 - ~140, prominent Roman historian)

    • Suetontius (Life of Claudius 25.4): “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [i.e. Christus/Christ], he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”
    [Compare: Acts 18:2 -- _And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome_ [AD 49]]
    1. On the expulsion:

      N.T. Wright: “[b]orn around 69 and wrote in the time of Hadrian (117-38). Racy and unreliable though he often is, the following extracts are normally regarded as referring to actual events. […] it has often been pointed out that the difference in pronunciation between Chrestus and Christus would be minimal in this period, 48 and there is no good reason to doubt that what we have here is a garbled report of disturbances within the large Jewish community in Rome, brought about by the presence within that community of some who claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. This expulsion from Rome is also mentioned in the New Testament, in Acts 18.2 (It is quite possibly alluded to, or at least presupposed, in Rome. As well: see several articles in Donfried 1991 [1977], and Wright 1992a) The reference in Acts suggests (though this is controversial) that the episode took place in about 49 AD, since some of those expelled found their way to Corinth in time to meet Paul when he arrived there around that time (see above).” [New Testament and the People of God, 354.]
      Andreas Köstenberger, Leonard Kellum, Charles Quarles: “Another Roman historian who referred to Jesus was Suetonius (c. 120), who reported that "Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome who, instigated by Chrestus, never ceased to cause unrest." (Seutonius, Life of Empreror Claudius, 25.4) This expulsion is probably the expulsion of the year 49 mentioned in Acts 18:2. Seutonius seems to have confused the name “Chrestus” (a name common among Roman slaves) with “Christus,” a messianic title with which he was unfamiliar. Suetonius also assumed that Jesus was alive and in Rome at the time of the expulsion. He probably made this assumption because it was unusual for people to have the kind of devotion for a dead or distant figure that Christians in mid-first-century Rome expressed to Christ. The unrest to which Suetonius referred was likely tension between Jews and Jewish Christians over the claims of the Christian Gospel.” [The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 110.])

  • [AD 150] Justin Martyr's ‘Dialogue with Trypho’

    Writing around AD 150, the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr speaks of Jesus as an historic figure in his letter to the Emperor Trajan (Letters 10.96-97).

    • Justin Martyr: “Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judæa, in the times of Tiberius Cæsar; and that we reasonably worship Him“” [ch. 13, see also 30, 32, 34-35, 47-48, 50; Dialogue with Trypho 12, 77, 97, 107-108]
  • *[AD 165] Lucian's book, ‘The Death of Peregrinus’

    Writing around AD 165-175, Lucian of Samosata testifies to Jesus as an historical figure.

    • Lucian of Samosata (in “The Death of Peregrinus”): The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day-the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was cruci­fied on that account. . .. You see, these mis­guided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. [The Death of Peregrinus, 11-13]
    1. Something to consider about Lucian's approach to history:

      Lucian of Samosata (in his book: "The Way to Write History"): History …abhors the intrusion of any least scruple of falsehood; it is like the windpipe, which the doctors tell us will not tolerate a morsel of stray food… The historian's one task is to tell the thing as it happened... [The historian] must sacrifice to no God but Truth; he must neglect all else; his sole rule and unerring guide is this - to think not of those who are listening to him now, but of the yet unborn who shall seek his converse. [H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler (trans.) The Works of Lucian of Samosata Sect. 39; vol. 2, 128-129.]

  • [AD 175] Irenaeus's book, ‘Against Heresies’

    Writing around AD 175-185, Irenaeus of Lyons testifies of Jesus being an actual historical figure.

    • Irenaeus (in his Against Heresies Book II, 22:6): “and He whom they beheld was not a mere phantasm, but an actual being of flesh and blood. He did not then want much of being fifty years old; and, in accordance with that fact, they said to Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?” He did not therefore preach only for one year,”
    1. The Anchor Bible Dictionary: “Irenaeus' major extant writing is the Adversus Haereses (the full title of which is the Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge falsely so-called). Its composition is dated ca. 180 from the succession lists in which the author names Eleutherus (ca. 174 - ca. 189) as current bishop of Rome (Haer. 3.3.3), although it seems from remarks Irenaeus makes in the prefaces to Haer. 3 and 4 that he followed the practice of sending on the separate books of the work as they were completed. The other complete extant work is the Demonstration [or Proof] of the Apostolic Preaching. It was written after at least the earlier books of Adversus Haereses, to which reference is made in chap. 99. An Armenian version of this long-lost work was discovered in 1904, and Smith (1952: 4-11) discusses its textual history. Eusebius (ca. 263-ca. 339) is the principal source for our knowledge of the lost works of Irenaeus. These include at least the treatises "On the Ogdoad" and "Concerning Knowledge" and letters "On Schism" and "On the Monarchy [of God]" (Eus. Hist. Eccl. 5.20.1), as well as the full text of the letter to Victor already mentioned [c. 188 to c. 198].” [Mary Ann Donovan, vol. 3 (Yale University Press, 1992), 457.]