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Jesus of Nazareth: Fact or Fiction?

Are the events in the New Testament really true? Did the people it mentions actually exist?

Skeptics and atheists are attacking the Bible at every opportunity. They often say that the books of the New Testament were forged. They say we can’t prove that Jesus even existed, much less that He was the Son of God.

The Jewish historian Josephus lived from 37-100 A.D. He was a Jewish soldier who was captured by the Romans and became a personal associate of the emperor Vespasian. His main writings are The Antiquities of the Jews and The Wars of the Jews. These books coincide with many of the people, places, and events mentioned in the New Testament. There is no evidence that he ever became a Christian, so he didn’t write to convince people to believe in Jesus. This makes his testimony all the more compelling. For example, the New Testament mentions emperors such as Augustus (Luke 2:1), Tiberius (Luke 3:1), and Claudius (Acts 11:28; Acts 18:2); Josephus discusses these rulers in great detail in his books. Would anyone who is skeptical toward the Bible deny or even question that these Caesars actually existed? He also mentions other rulers in the New Testament: the Herods, Pilate, Agrippa, Felix, Festus, Philip the tetrarch of Trachonitis mentioned in Luke 3:1 and several others. Does anyone think all these names were just made up? Josephus also talks about the origin and beliefs of the two most prominent schools of Judaism in New Testament times: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

Josephus records the death of John the Baptist. He says that Herod killed “John, that was called the Baptist” (Antiquities,18.5.2). What makes this reference even more interesting is that John the Baptist is entirely incidental in the context of this section of the Antiquities. But, without mentioning John, Josephus later relates the background of his execution. He wrote, “Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorce herself from her husband, while he was alive, and was married to Herod (Antipas) her husband’s brother” (Antiquities,18.5.4). The Bible gives this as the reason for John the Baptist’s death in Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:14-29, and Luke 9:9. This reference to Herodias is situated in Josephus’ long list of Roman rulers and their family relations. How could Josephus corroborate what the New Testament writers said if there was no John the Baptist and the events recorded about him in the New Testament never happened?

Then there are passages in Josephus about Jesus. The most well known one is this: “Now 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 [the] 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.” (Antiquities, 18.3.3). Do skeptics think Josephus made up these details? Do they believe he just guessed about all this?

This is not the only time Josephus mentioned Jesus. He talked about the death of “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned” (Antiquities, 20.9.1). Here again we see remarkable agreement between Joseph and the New Testament. The Bible says, “When Jesus came to His own country, the Jews said, ‘Is this not the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas?’” (Matt. 13:55). The death of James, the brother of Jesus, is not recorded in the New Testament, but Josephus was right again in saying Jesus had a brother named James.

Josephus only briefly alludes to Jesus. He didn’t write a treatise about Jesus of Nazareth or even a chapter on Him. These two references to Jesus are incidental to the purpose of his book. The life and death of Jesus are interwoven with Jewish and Roman history. There is no honest way to admit that Pilate and Herod lived and deny that Jesus existed. There is no consistent way to accept what Josephus said about Jesus’ cousin John and his brother James and claim that this same Jesus never existed.

Kerry

West End church of Christ bulletin article for September 10, 2023

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