Jesus Christ: Myth or Genuine History?

By Wayne Jackson

A critic of the Bible has written the following in an attempt to cast a reflection upon the historicity of the Gospel records regarding Jesus:

Rome was one of the most bureaucratic civilizations in history. The Romans kept records about every detail of life—births, marriages, adoptions, taxes, olive production, and legal documents. Along with the Roman legions, the official government records were a means to control the lands and peoples they conquered. So why is there a total absence of official Roman records concerning Jesus? At the very least, should not there be a record of the trial and the crucifixion? All the historical references to Jesus are all many decades later.

The foregoing is a prime example of how skeptics speak “off the top of their heads,” with no earthly idea as to the actual facts. The implication is that sufficient data relating to Christ are unavailable.

Before we examine the record, we might whimsically respond with an ad hominem point. Could this critic supply, from the Roman records “about every detail of life,” information concerning “olive production” in Palestine for the year 4 B.C.?

Extant Historical Records

The late Dr. E.M. Blaiklock, a New Zealand scholar, taught Latin, Greek, and the ancient classics for more than forty years. He was recognized internationally for his scholarship. In a brilliant essay titled, “Surviving Literature from the First Century,” Professor Blaiklock has demonstrated that there are almost no primary documents that survey the period that embraces the life of Christ.

For instance, “parts of one unimportant historical work” have survived from the era that parallels the Lord’s earthly life. Velleius Paterculus (ca. 19 B.C.A.D. 30), a retired army officer and “amateur historian,” produced a “badly written history of Rome” covering that age from the end of the Trojan War to the death of Livia (A.D. 29).

From the forties A.D., through the sixties, very little survives. Blaiklock described the dearth of material in this fashion:

Bookends set a foot apart on this desk where I write would enclose the works from those significant years. Curiously, much of it comes from Spanish emigrants in Rome (1974, 12-13).

It was during this time frame that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke—together with much of the balance of the New Testament—were being produced. These works provide far more information about the condition of Palestine in the first century than anything that issued from Rome. And there is a way to illustrate this in a most dramatic fashion.

Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate was the ruler of Judea from A.D. 26-36. His technical title was “prefect,” a term used with precision by the Gospel writers. Pilate is mentioned in the New Testament by name about twenty times. Aside from these references, there is very little historical information about the man.

Two Jewish writers—Philo (ca. 20 B.C.A.D. 50) and Josephus (ca. A.D. 37-95)—mention him briefly, and describe the ineptness of his administration. Philo depicts the ruler as “inflexible and relentlessly severe,” noting that he dedicated shields with the emperor’s name in Herod’s temple (The Mission to Gaius 38).

Josephus records that Pilate marched Roman troops, with their pagan standards, into Jerusalem, and that he financed a water supply out of the temple treasury (Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.1-2). He further notes that the Roman governor attacked a group of Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim, killing and capturing a host of them. For this outburst he was called to Rome and relieved of his position (The Wars of the Jews 18.4.1-2). The manner of his death is not known for certain, though Eusebius, a fourth-century historian, asserted that he committed suicide (Ecclesiastical History 2.7).

Tacitus (ca. A.D. 60-120), a Roman historian, mentions Pilate only one time, and that incidentally. He contended that the “Christians” derived their name from “Christus,” who “was executed at the hands of Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius” (The Annals xv.44).

In 1961, a team of archaeologists from Milan, Italy were excavating at Caesarea, just north of modern Tel Aviv. They had been focused upon the huge amphitheater that initially was built by Herod the Great (ca. 73 – 4 B.C.). Among these ruins, archaeologists discovered a limestone slab. It was thirty-two inches high, twenty-seven inches wide, and eight inches thick. A partial inscription was clearly visible. It was not difficult to decipher the complete message. A free translation reads:

The Tiberieum [a temple dedicated to Tiberias] of the Caesareans Pontius Pilate Praefect of Judea has given.

Alan Millard, Professor of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages at the University of Liverpool, has observed that this represents “the only known inscription from his lifetime naming Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus” (1997, 327) (emphasis added).

Let the significance of this sink in—in light of the criticism mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Here was a man who served the Roman government for ten years in one of the political hotspots of the empire. He himself was embroiled repeatedly in controversy. And yet, there is not a solitary Roman archival document that so much as mentions his name!

How, then, could anyone possibly cast a shadow of suspicion upon the Gospel records, due to the fact that there is scant Roman testimony regarding a Galilean religious teacher who lived more than 1,500 hundred miles to the east?

The Gospel Narratives

Why is it that liberal scholars are anxious to bend over backwards in granting credibility to numerous events of ancient history (many of which are undergirded by the scantest of evidence) yet they obstinately resist granting virtually any audience to the New Testament writings? There can be but one answer: they are militantly biased against the biblical records, hence, reject their veracity—no matter how compelling the evidence!

A.N. Sherwin-White was one of Oxford’s premier historians on Roman culture. In his valuable work, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (1978, 186), the professor demonstrated that the Gospels and Acts are much more historically credible than the common works of the Roman world. For example, the New Testament narratives were written by men who were contemporary with the events they recorded. On the other hand, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Romans stands two centuries from the actual events, and Livy’s History of Rome is 500 years this side of its theme. Yet no one doubts the value of these works.

It is readily apparent that the New Testament is not given anything remotely resembling a fair, literary treatment; nevertheless, it passes the credibility test brilliantly.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Blaiklock, E.M. 1974. Jesus Christ: Man or Myth? Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
  • Millard, Alan. 1997. Wonders and Discoveries of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
  • Ramsay, William. 1979. The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Rawlinson, George. 1877. The Historical Evidences of the Truth of the Scripture Records. New York, NY: Sheldon & Co.
  • Sherwin-White, A.N. 1978. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.