Jesus Christ—Historical Figure or Fairy-Tale Character?
Most children and adults easily recognize the name Jesus Christ. Many even can tell the story of His life. However, those same people also recognize the names Peter Pan, Snow White, and Cinderella. And they can relate the “facts” of these fairy tales as well. Is Jesus of Nazareth a fictional character that deserves to be included in a list of mystifying magicians, daring dragon slayers, and flying boy heroes? Or should His name take its well-deserved position in the halls of factual history?
Some people say that He is a myth, a legend that never walked the Earth. After all, it is true that we do not have one single book or letter written my Jesus Himself. And, of course, no one has produced any physical evidence (such as His body) to verify His existence. What evidence is available to prove that Jesus actually walked on this Earth?
Interestingly, the first type of records comes from what are known commonly as “hostile” sources. Hostile sources were written by people who disliked Jesus and His followers. Such men certainly did not want to further the cause of Christ or add credibility to His existence. In fact, they rejected His teachings and often reviled Jesus and His followers. Therefore, when these sources speak about Jesus, no one can accuse them of shading the facts in Jesus’ favor.
A man named Tacitus will be the first hostile witness called to the stand. He was born about A.D. 56 and died about A.D. 117. He was an upper-class Roman with a good education who held high governmental positions under several Roman emperors. He is most famous for writing Annals—a history of Rome written around the year A.D. 115. In the Annals he told of the Great Fire of Rome, which occurred in A.D. 64. Nero, the Roman Emperor, was suspected by many of having ordered the city set on fire. Tacitus wrote:
Nero fabricated scapegoats, and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome.
Tacitus hated both Christians and their namesake, Christ. He therefore had nothing positive to say about what he referred to as a “deadly superstition.” He did, however, have something to say about it. His testimony establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that the Christian religion was historically relevant and that its originator was a verifiable historical figure so famous that He even attracted the attention of the Roman Emperor himself!
Additional hostile testimony comes from Suetonius, who wrote around the year A.D. 120. The writings of Suetonius are reliable piece of historical evidence. Twice in his history book, Suetonius specifically mentioned Christ or His followers. He wrote, for example: “Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbance at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from the city” (note that in Acts 18:2 Luke mentioned this expulsion by Claudius). Chrestus is probably a misspelling of Christos, the Greek word for Messiah. Suetonius further commented: “Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.” Again, it is clear that Suetonius and the Roman government had feelings of hatred toward Christ and His so-called “mischievous” band of rebels. It is equally clear that Suetonius (and, in fact, most of Rome) recognized that Christ was the noteworthy Founder of a historical religion.
Another Roman by the name of Pliny the Younger also provided hostile testimony to the life of Jesus. In a letter he wrote around the year A.D. 110, he used the terms “Christian” or “Christians” seven times, and wrote the name “Christ” three times. It is undeniably the case that Christians, with Christ as their Founder, had multiplied in such a way as to draw the attention of the Emperor and his officials by the time of Pliny. After examining this kind of evidence, it is impossible to deny the fact that Jesus Christ was recognized as an actual, historical person.
Even a casual reader who glances over the testimony of the hostile Roman witnesses will be struck by the fact that these men did not portray Christ as the Son of God or the Savior of the world. They verbally stripped Him of His Sonship, denied His glory, and belittled His magnificence. They described Him to their contemporaries, and for posterity, as a mere man. Yet even though they were greatly mistaken about Who He was, they nevertheless documented that He was. And for that we are indebted to them.