Over decades of broadcasting I have been asked thousands of questions on the 2GB Openline about the faith. Yet every now and again you get a caller who thinks they have an original question, never asked before, and it has the potential to ending Christianity as the world's major religion. Recently, I had such a caller. This man was intense and very argumentative. My caller on 2GB made his question quite clear. "Is there any evidence that Jesus ever lived?" I replied that there was evidence that Jesus lived, that every Christian knew the certainty that Jesus was born, taught, healed people, told some of the most amazing stories the world has ever seen, taught us a new way of living and behaving that has altered the course of history, and that His death and resurrection was thoroughly attested. My caller then persisted: "Yes, but what evidence have you that Jesus ever lived?"
1. EVIDENCE OF PEOPLE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.
I replied to this man: "The New Testament is one of the most historically attested documents of all time. Hundreds of thousands of scholars have examined every word. Archaeologists have found contemporary evidence of their lives - of Herod, during whose reign Jesus was born and lived, whose summer palaces at Herodium and Masada have been excavated; of Pilate, the Roman Governor, who condemned Jesus to death and whose name as been found on a marble plaque at the theatre in Caesarea; of John the Baptist, who baptised Jesus in the Jordan whose name is in contemporary history and whose colleagues lived like him at Qumran. These are key people in the Jesus story and we have concrete evidence that they lived.
Then there is the fact of the changed lives of the disciples. Those men who followed Jesus found their lives radically changed. They were fishermen, a tax-collector, a public servant and so on, ordinary men who had never been more than a hundred miles from the place of their birth. When Jesus was crucified eleven of them ran off terrified and hid fearful the Jews would do the same to them. One, Judas, suicided.
Then on the following Sunday morning while they were still hiding behind locked doors the Risen Lord came and appeared before them. From then their lives were radically changed. They ran into the streets and told everyone they met that Jesus was alive. They preached in the synagogues daily. They were arrested as trouble-makers, flogged and thrown in prison, and when brought before the magistrates, they laughed and proclaimed Jesus was alive! They refused to be silent.
After preaching and baptising thousands of new believers, they set about taking this message to every part of the known world. At great risk to their personal lives, they travelled into foreign countries and proclaimed Jesus was alive and Lord of all. None of them had been a hundred miles from home, and now all eleven of them were preaching in foreign countries! Death no longer mattered. Peter went to Italy where he was crucified upside down. Andrew died nailed to a cross in the shape of an X. Matthew was beheaded by a sword. John was boiled in hot oil, then dragged out to suffer from burns all over his body. James was crucified. Philip and Simon were crucified. Thaddaeus was killed by arrows before a firing squad.
James, the brother of Jesus was stoned to death, with blocks of stone being pounded upon him. Bartholomew was crucified and James, John's brother was beheaded with a sword. Tell me: would men die for a lie? They were proud of the fact that they were eyewitnesses to the great event in history: 2 Peter 1:16 "We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty."
Their enemies flogged them, jailed them, and killed them, but they could not stop them telling people that Jesus was raised from the dead. Probably the most detailed change of life was the famous conversion of one man who opposed the Christian faith, but who met Jesus personally on the Damascus Road. His life changed so much that he became the greatest preacher in the Church. Paul became the great apostle of Jesus even though he had been a persecutor of the faith. The evidence of changed lives is there. Even the enemies of Jesus, who had nailed Him to the cross could not explain it in any other way. Jesus who died had been raised from the death by the power of God. Doesn't that convince you?"
My caller was rather dogmatic. "It might convince some, but that is all in your New Testament. Have you got any evidence that Jesus ever lived outside of the evidence found in your Bible?"
2. EVIDENCE OF THE CHURCH.
I was happy to oblige him. "Of course there is a great deal of evidence outside the New Testament. But do not lightly dismiss the Bible.
The New Testament is primary, historical written records by eyewitnesses. No other event in human history with such a long record of influencing the world has such an abundance of primary historical records." But my caller was not to be put off. "Have you got any evidence that Jesus ever lived outside of the evidence found in your Bible?"
"There is the evidence of the existence of the church itself. Something happened in a Jewish community under the dominance of a Roman Government and an enforced civic religion, with a world-wide Greek culture, that started a new group of people called the Church that shattered the Jewish, Roman and Greek world. That something was seemingly powerless, without any government support and community strength, and yet within three hundred years was the dominant cultural and religious force in the entire known world. It all centres in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Nothing could bring the church into being other than a powerful personality which was Jesus.
Furthermore, so powerful was the impact of the resurrection, that the custom observed for one and a half thousand years of worshipping God on a Saturday was defied. Against all odds, the Jewish custom of Sabbath observance was shattered by the desire of Christians to worship on Sunday, because that was the day of His resurrection. Sunday worship would never have occurred without the resurrection of Jesus." But my caller was persistent. "You are not answering me. I will believe if you can prove to me that Jesus actually lived. Have you got any evidence that Jesus ever lived outside of the evidence found in your Bible?"
I knew I had no alternative. I would have to give him a history lesson even though few are converted by history. I said to him: "Would you believe in Jesus if I could prove to you from records outside the New Testament that Jesus actually lived?" He said, "Well, I am not promising, but who knows?"
3. SOURCES OUTSIDE THE BIBLE.
I told him an Australian historian Dr Paul Barnett, Bishop of North Sydney, had published a number of scholarly books on Roman, Greek and Hebrew scholars and historians who refer to Jesus and who lived just after the time of Jesus. The first nonChristian writer is Suetonius a historian who worked in Rome's achieves and published a number of books on Roman literature, Rhetoric, the lives of Greek and Roman poets, and "The Lives of the Caesars". This work includes the life of Julius Caesar and eleven Emperors from Augustus to Domitian which covers the era of Jesus. He includes the lives of Nero and Claudius which covers the earliest growth of Christians in Rome. When writing about Claudius's expulsion of Jews from Rome in AD 49, he says they were expelled at the instigation of "Chrestus" meaning Jews who believed in Christ.
This reference probably refers to the Christian Jews arguing with other Jews about Jesus as Christ. This disturbance was so great that the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. Among them were Priscilla and Aquilla who went to Corinth in Greece where Paul stayed with them. Suetonius mentions the punishment of Christians during the time of Nero for the fire of Rome. "Punishment was also inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and wicked superstition."
The second is the Roman historian, Tacitus who remembered Nero's wrath upon Christians as scapegoats. He was a military governor who wrote a history of the German tribes, and a five volume history of the Emperors of his own lifetime. A later sixteen volume history has marked him as one of the greatest historians of all time. As a consul of Rome, Tacitus was well placed to know the official account of the fire of Nero and of the onslaught against what he called "this superstition", a phrase used of a sect with fanatical beliefs contrary to the Roman state. Tacitus describes the Christians as possessing a "hatred of the human race" meaning his pagan Roman society. He states that Christians take their name from a certain "Christ", who had been executed in Judea by the governor Pontius Pilate during Tiberius' reign. Temporarily checked, Christianity immediately "broke out afresh", and spread even to Rome, where by the time of the great fire it had become multitudinous and a matter of government concern. Here is an official historic statement concerning Jesus of Nazareth and the followers of Jesus Christ.
The third Roman historian to mention Jesus is Pliny, governor of the province of Bithynia, AD 120. Pliny wrote ten volumes of letters mainly to his friend Tacitus, who was governor of Asia. Pliny also published the replies. Both men despised the Christians. Pliny was a timid governor and asked Tacitus advice on how deal with the Christians. He also wrote about the Christians to the emperor Trajan. He emphasised the Christians' loyalty to Christ greater than to the emperor. Pliny says the Christians will die rather than curse Christ and in their gatherings they sing hymns to Christ as God.
There is also the great Jewish historian, Josephus, writing in AD 95. He writes of the crucifixion of Jesus and says the "tribe of Christians has still not disappeared". Josephus says Jesus was a rabbi and a miracleworker, who was claimed "the Christ". He was executed by Pilate upon information from the Jewish leaders but appeared to them again on the third day and his followers are growing in number. Each of these great ancient authors refer to Jesus and his followers as "Christians" who had this profound commitment to Jesus as King above Caesar. This is first hand, primary evidence from the decades immediately after the life of Jesus, in the work of distinguished historians who were personally opposed to Christianity and who wrote outside the New Testament. Now are you satisfied that Jesus actually lived?"
My radio was caller was silent for a while. His attack on the future of Christianity had crumpled. There was strong evidence from outside the New Testament that Jesus had actually existed. I persisted. "Why not try the ultimate test of discovering the living Christ for yourself? There is no greater evidence than personal experience. For Heb 13:8 "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." The passing years make no difference to the reality of Christ. The fact that obscure men were changed from uneducated villagers into world travellers, timid men into martyrs, and persecutors into proclaimers can only be explained by a real man who was raised by God's power to life again and who meets with us today. Ask any Christian who has been born again and they will reply: "You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!" Just believe and you will know!
REFERENCES USED IN THIS SERMON:
I BELIEVE IN THE HISTORICAL JESUS I H Marshall Hodder 1977
THE SEARCH FOR THE REAL JESUS D Winter Hodder 1982
THE TRUTH ABOUT JESUS P Barnett Aquilla 1994
IS THE NEW TESTAMENT HISTORY? P Barnett 1986
JESUS - AN HISTORICAL REVIEW OF THE GOSPELS M Grant 1995
JESUS AND THE LOGIC OF HISTORY P Barnett Apollos 1997
THE REAL JESUS T.L.Johnson Harper 1996
THE OXFORD COMPANION TO CLASSICAL LITERATURE Ed Sir P Harvey Oxford 1955
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