The Historical Jesus

By  David Capes, Ph.D.

What do historical documents other than the Bible tell us about Jesus?

The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down. –A. Whitney Brown

Most of what we know about Jesus comes from Christian writings. This should be no surprise, since it was Christians who were most interested in telling his story and preserving his memory. But how do these Christian writings compare with what other historians were saying about Jesus at the time?

Scholars have been engaged in what’s been called the “quest for the historical Jesus” since the late 1700s. Yet many of us still want to know if there is credible historical evidence that corroborates what the Bible says about Jesus.

So how does the Christ of the Christian faith square with the Jesus of history?

Roman and Jewish Accounts

Roman classical writings contain several references to Christ and the movement he started.

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Around 112 CE, Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan, detailing how he was conducting the trials of those accused of being Christians.1 True believers, he had come to understand, could not be forced to revile Christ and worship the Roman gods. They met on a fixed day before dawn and sang hymns to Christ as if to a God.

A few years later, another historian, Suetonius, wrote that Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome because of disturbances instigated by Chrestus.2 Most historians think that “Chrestus” is a misspelling of “Christus” (the Latin word for “Christ”). Most also agree that Suetonius is referring to clashes within the Jewish community caused when Jewish Christians were preaching the Christian faith in Rome.

Suetonius’s account indicates that by Claudius’s reign (41–54 CE), less than two decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, there were enough Christians in Rome to cause disturbances serious enough to warrant the expulsion of all Jews from Rome.

One of the most important historical references to Jesus’ crucifixion comes from Tacitus. In Annals 15.44, the historian recounts how Nero blamed the hated “Chrestians” (again, a misspelling of Christians) for the fire that devastated Rome in 64 CE. The group, he said, was founded by one called “Christ” who had been executed during the reign of Tiberius by the procurator (governor) Pontius Pilate. He described them as a suppressed group and their faith as a deadly superstition that originated in Judea and spread to Rome.

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