Is There Evidence Outside of the Bible that Jesus was a Real Person?

Rebecca McLaughlin | 28 Oct 2021

The following is an extract from Is Christmas Unbelievable? By Rebecca McLaughlin, a new evangelistic book which examines the evidence for the Bible's account of Jesus' birth. It’s short and cheap, perfect for giving away to unbelieving friends and family during outreach events or in personal evangelism. 

“I told all my friends that Santa isn’t real, but Jesus is!”

When my five-year-old came home with this news, her teacher had already told me (with concern) that she’d been directing other kids to act out the Christmas story. “You’re Mary. You’re Joseph. You’re the angel.” I was torn between admiring her gumption and dreading awkward conversations with other parents!

For many kids, Santa is the real star of Christmas. It’s mostly the presents. But it’s also that sense of magic— the idea that someone with supernatural powers might just be listening to them. 

Is Believing in Jesus Just Naïve?

Plenty of people would answer, Yes! In fact, one survey in 2015 found that 40% of adults in the UK didn’t think that Jesus was even a real person, or weren’t sure. 22% thought he was “a mythical or fictional character.” So, before we look at the specifics of Jesus’ birth, we need to ask if he was born at all.

"40% of adults in the UK didn’t think that Jesus was even a real person, or weren’t sure."

Did Jesus Even Exist?

In 2012, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman wrote a book on this question: Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Ehrman doesn’t believe in God. In fact, he’s made a fortune writing books that question the historic Christian faith. But as Ehrman explains, “The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist.” Ehrman says this view “is held by virtually every expert on the planet.” Rather than it being naïve to believe that Jesus walked the earth 2,000 years ago, it’s actually naïve not to.

So, what evidence leads all these experts to conclude that Jesus did exist? The richest sources we have for Jesus’ life are the four biographies that we find in the New Testament part of the Bible: the so-called “Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Ehrman calls these Gospels “the oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus,” and says this is “the view of all serious historians of antiquity of every kind, from committed evangelical Christians to hardcore atheists.”

We’ll look at the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth in a bit. But even if we lay the Gospels aside entirely, multiple ancient documents by non-Christian authors also contain references to Jesus Christ. These snatches of information are often given in passing in pieces of writing mostly concerned with other things. Nonetheless, from these non-biblical sources we can still piece together the basics of Jesus’ life and death.

"Rather than it being naïve to believe that Jesus walked the earth 2,000 years ago, it’s actually naïve not to."

Non-Christian References to Jesus

One such reference to Jesus is in a text written by the Jewish historian Josephus in around AD 93. Josephus reports that in AD 62 (about three decades after Jesus’ death) the Jewish high priest “had a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others” stoned (i.e. executed). This fits with what the Bible says. At this point in history, God’s people (the Jews) were living under oppressive Roman rule. But God had promised to send a special King—the “Christ”—to rescue them. In the Gospels, Jesus claimed to be that Christ. The New Testament also identifies James as Jesus’ brother and as a leader in the early church. The Christians were seen as heretics by the Jewish authorities, so James getting executed by stoning makes sense.

We find another reference to Jesus Christ in an early 2nd-century document by the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus. Tacitus reports how the Emperor Nero blamed the Great Fire of Rome of AD 64 on “a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd called Chrestians” (another spelling of Christians). Tacitus goes on to explain who these Christians were:

“Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in [Rome] itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and become fashionable.”

Tacitus was no fan of the Christians! But his account confirms what the Gospels claim: that Jesus who was called Christ was executed during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius and under the authority of Pontius Pilate, who was governor of Judea from AD 26 to 36.

Not Just Another God

By the early 2nd century, Christianity had become a real Roman headache. Pliny the Younger (a Roman governor in Turkey from around 109-111) wrote a letter to the emperor, asking for advice on persecuting Christians. Pliny required those suspected of being Christians to worship Roman gods, offer adoration to a statue of the emperor, and curse Christ. He knew real Christians wouldn’t do these things. Some who confessed to having previously been Christians said they had been in the habit of meeting early in the morning on a certain day of the week and singing “a hymn to Christ as to a god.” Unlike most of their religious contemporaries, Christians saw Jesus not just as one god to be worshiped among many, but rather as the one true God. Worshiping Jesus meant not worshiping anyone else.

To find out more about Christianity, Pliny tortured “two female slaves, who were called deaconesses.” His picks were representative of the type of people who made up the early church; Christianity seems to have been particularly popular among women and slaves. In fact, the 2nd-century Greek philosopher Celsus quipped that Christians “want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, only slaves, women, and little children.” Pliny, however, is clear that the “contagious superstition” of Christianity had spread to people “of all ages and ranks and of both sexes.”

These three early texts give us evidence from outside the Bible that Jesus was a Jewish leader in the early 1st century, that he claimed to be the Christ, that he was executed by the Romans between AD 26 and 36, and that he was subsequently worshiped by his followers as God.

Rebecca McLaughlin

Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD in renaissance literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. She is former vice president of content at the Veritas Forum, where she spent almost a decade working with Christian academics at leading secular universities. She's the author of several books including Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion, and Is Christmas Unbelievable?

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