MadSci Network: Science History

Re: What scientific evidence is there to support that Jesus exsisted?

Date: Mon Feb 22 14:16:39 1999
Posted By: Dan Berger, Faculty Chemistry/Science, Bluffton College
Area of science: Science History
ID: 918858282.Sh

What scientific evidence is there to support that Jesus existed?

Did he really exist? Did he really walk on water?

There is plenty of historical evidence, from a variety of sources, that Jesus existed. No one who takes the trouble to familiarize herself with the evidence can doubt it. The "Enlightenment" position that there was no such person as Jesus of Nazareth, itinerant Jewish preacher, is quite dead.

The word "independent" is placed in scare quotes below because the meaning of "independent" is controversial, when it is applied to writings from the same cultural milieu.
There are references to Jesus, widely regarded as authentic though edited by a later Christian copyist, in Flavius Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (18.3.3).
There is an Armenian version of Josephus which has not been tampered with as much as the extant Greek version.
There's a passage in Tacitus (Annal s, 15.44.2-8) that, while it is decidedly unsympathetic to Christianity, provides "independent" confirmation of Jesus' execution by a Roman governor. There is a similar but much shorter reference by the Roman historian Suetonius, a contemporary of Tacitus. The descriptions of locales in the Gospel accounts have been more-or-less confirmed by archeology, and we have archeological evidence that Pontius Pilate was, in fact, the governor of Judea at the time that Jesus was executed. The existence of Christians, who insisted on referring their religion to an historical personage, very soon after the time in which Jesus is supposed to have lived, is further evidence.

How much you want to make of this is up to you. There is no "independent" evidence of Jesus walking on water; and it is well known that miracle stories are prone to rise around religious leaders of all stripes. But (I will reveal my prejudices: I am a Christian), you should consider the defensible conclusions of New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. He writes that, aside from the Gospel accounts, we can know the following information about Jesus by investigation of roughly contemporaneous writings, including but not limited to non-Gospel New Testament documents:

  1. Jesus was a human person.
  2. Jesus was a Jew.
  3. Jesus was a teacher.
  4. Jesus was a wonder-worker.
  5. Jesus' mission was to the Jews.
  6. Jesus underwent a trial.
  7. Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate.
  8. Jesus' end involved some Jews.
  9. Jesus was crucified.
The list comes from Chapter 5 ("What's Historical About Jesus?") of Johnson's book The Real Jesus and has been edited to remove items attested only by New Testament sources. I will also point out that item 4 ("wonder-worker") is NOT found in non-Gospel New Testament sources, but only in Josephus and the Talmud. There were a number of reputed wonder-workers at that time, so it wasn't anything special.

I have a paradox for you. Most people who are convinced of the truth of the historical events associated with the beginning of Christianity are Christians (though not all: I have heard of one Jewish scholar who believes that God raised Jesus from the dead). They are therefore not usually considered impartial witnesses. But which came first: the conclusion or the faith? And if one comes to the conclusion, isn't it intellectually honest to come to the faith?

Many thanks to my colleague Loren Johns, a biblical scholar, who checked my answer for errors.
Dan Berger
  Bluffton College

Current Queue | Current Queue for Science History | Science History archives

Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Science History.

MadSci Home | Information | Search | Random Knowledge Generator | MadSci Archives | Mad Library | MAD Labs | MAD FAQs | Ask a ? | Join Us! | Help Support MadSci

MadSci Network,
© 1995-1999. All rights reserved.