3 pieces of historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ

Was Jesus a real historical figure? Here's what we know.

Holy Fire ceremony at Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem​. Photo: Getty Images.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo: Getty Images.
  • Jesus's historical existence is generally accepted among scholars.
  • The evidence for the reality of Jesus Christ includes writings by historians, artifacts and eyewitness accounts.
  • The spiritual and miraculous nature of Jesus is a different story.

Can we prove that Jesus Christ actually walked the Earth about 2,000 years ago? Without getting into the spiritual, science should be able to provide such an answer for a phenomenon that currently has about 2.2 billion adherents around the world, shouldn't it? Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is not that simple.

Here are 3 kinds of evidence we have for the existence of Jesus Christ as at the very least a real person (putting aside metaphysical considerations for now):

1. THE WRITINGS

The supposed time frame of Jesus's life, starting at year zero, was not a period big on communication. Without the ability to print books, not to mention having no phones or the Internet, it took a while for information to be dispersed. Despite limitations, a few decades following Jesus's supposed lifetime, mentions of him started to crop up in the writings of Jewish and Roman historians, as well as in dozens of texts by Christians, writes Dr. Simon Gathercole, a New Testament scholar from the University of Cambridge, in the Guardian.

The letters of the apostle Paul from about AD 50-60 are the earliest texts mentioning Jesus and the doctrines of Christianity. They also contained practical instructions for the growing number of Christians on how to live according to their faith.

The first non-Christian writer to talk about Jesus was the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (born Yosef ben Matityahu),who lived around AD 47-100. He referred to Christ in his history of Judaism "Jewish Antiquities" from AD 93. In the book, Jesus comes up twice – once in a curious passage about Jesus's supposed brother James and in another paragraph that has since been questioned in its authenticity. Historians think it has been altered by Christians several centuries later who wanted to portray Jesus in a better light. Here is that passage coming from Antiquities 18:3:3:

"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 receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."

Roman historians Pliny and Tacitus also wrote about Jesus Christ about 20 years after Josephus's book. The "Annals" by Tacitus from AD 115 mentioned the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate executing Jesus, alluding to crucifixion, and placed that event within the timeframe that agrees with Christian gospels. As you can also see in this excerpt, Tacitus was not a big fan of the Christians:

"Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called "Chrestians" by the populace," wrote Tacitus." 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 Pilate, 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 center 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."

Pliny the Younger, who was also governor in Asia Minor, wrote letters to Emperor Trajan around AD 112 describing Christians worshipping Jesus as a God:

"They (Christians) were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food, but of an ordinary and innocent kind ," wrote Pliny in Epistles 10.96.

The oldest known manuscript fragment of the New Testament, containing a portion of the Gospel of John. 2nd century AD.

2. THE EYEWITNESSES

According to Dr. Gathercole, the earliest Christian writings on Jesus come from the epistles of Paul. The first of these date to no later than within 25 years of Jesus's death (AD 50-60). On the other hand, biographical accounts of Jesus in the New Testament date from around 40 years after Jesus's death. Still, these time spans mean that accounts of Jesus's life were written down by people who would have been alive to know him or the people who knew him personally.

The accounts of the witnesses also correspond quite well to what other sources of information tell us about the life in the Palestine of the first century. For example, having large crowds coming to a healer like Jesus is confirmed through archaeology, which tells us that residents of the area had to contend with diseases like leprosy and tuberculosis. A study of burials in Roman Palestine by archaeologist Byron McCane revealed that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the graves they looked at had remains of children and adolescents. McCane underscored the prevalence of childhood mortality at the time, explaining that "during Jesus' time, getting past 15 was apparently the trick."

Of course, just having the details of the environment right doesn't prove that Jesus Christ existed. Dr. Gathercole, thinks it just wouldn't make sense for the writers of the time to create such an elaborate character, stating: "It is also difficult to imagine why Christian writers would invent such a thoroughly Jewish saviour figure in a time and place – under the aegis of the Roman empire – where there was strong suspicion of Judaism."

This sentiment is supported by Byron McCane, an archaeologist and history professor at Florida Atlantic University who said in an interview with National Geographic that he "can think of no other example who fits into their time and place so well but people say doesn't exist." In other words, it would be rather unprecedented for such a person to be made up.

An actor portraying Jesus is crucified as residents of Hiendelaencia dressed in period clothing perform during the reenactment of Christ's suffering on March 25, 2016 in Hiendelaencina, Spain.

Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images.

3. THE ARTIFACTS

There have been a number of relics associated with Jesus, but none have been proven to be undoubtedly authentic. These include the infamous Shroud of Turin, supposedly the negative image of a man who was allegedly Jesus Christ. Some claim it to be Jesus's shroud after the crucifixion. The science on the dating and origins the Shroud is very much being debated and doesn't generally support the claims.

Another famous relic of dubious authenticity is The True Cross. There are hundreds of fragments of wood claimed by various people throughout history as being from the cross used in the Crucifixion of Jesus. Many of these fragments are dispersed in various European Churches despite little confirmation they are real.

Shroud of Turin. Modern photo of the face, positive left, digitally processed image on the right.

Wikimedia.

Other Crucifixion-related purported relics include the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus, the nails used in the cross, or the Veil of Veronica - supposedly used to wipe the sweat from Jesus's brow when he was carrying the cross.

Based on the evidence we have, can anyone with certainly say Jesus really existed about 2,000 years ago? While incontrovertible proof may be impossible to come by, those who study the period believe there was someone named Jesus Christ living in the area and time period that we generally agree on, said archaeologist Eric Meyers, emeritus professor in Judaic studies at Duke University.

"I don't know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus," said Meyers."The details have been debated for centuries, but no one who is serious doubts that he's a historical figure."

Whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God who could perform miracles is certainly a matter of much different discussion.

Israeli archaeologist Yardenna Alexandre inspects Roman 1st century AD pottery found in an excavation which reveals for the first time a Jesus-era house from the Jewish village of Nazareth on December 21, 2009 in this biblical city in northern Israel.

Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images.

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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