The article—The Historical Evidence of the Gospel Accounts of Jesus Christ—begins by stating what the Bible does and does not tell us about the life of Jesus Christ. History itself will always be an incomplete account of any period of time or that of any particular person, but that fact that the Bible, and in particular, the Gospel accounts have been found to be historically accurate and verifiable, meeting and exceeding all historical criteria for verification, is a miracle in itself and shows once again, that the Scripture was not written “by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21 ESV) According to Luke Johnson, a New Testament scholar at Emory University, “Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate and continued to have followers after his death.” Archaeologist William Dever concurs, “But of course the Bible is not, in the final analysis, about history at all. It’s about His Story. But there is history there as well.”
There are a number of archaeological finds that are mentioned in the article—I will list three:
1. In 1961 at Caesarea Maritima, an Italian expedition discovered a 2 foot by 3 foot stone with Pilate’s name on it, in the Roman theater. (Prior to 1961, some skeptics challenged whether Pontius Pilate ever existed, in spite of his being mentioned in the Book of Acts and 1 Timothy.)
2. In 1968, a man that was crucified c. mid-first century A.D. was discovered by Vassilois Tzaferis, in a suburb of Jerusalem called Giv’at ha-Mivtar—his findings concluded: “The feet were joined almost parallel, both transfixed by the same nail at the heels…the upper limbs were stretched out, each stabbed by a nail in the forearm.” (In spite of the NT stating that Christ was “nailed” to the cross (John 20:25, Acts 2:23, Col 2:14), many historians doubted the accuracy of these statements, opting for the ‘tied to the cross’ rather than the biblical account of the event.)
- Luke (2:1-3) identifies the following as an historical event occurring at the time of the birth of Jesus: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.” (NIV) The ESV translation states: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria,” which makes even clearer the fact that there was more than one registration. (Luke 2:1-2 ESV) Many skeptics have doubted the veracity of this statement, given that the only census known by a Quirinius until recently was one dated by Josephus as A.D. 6. (Jesus couldn’t have been born later than 4 B.C., because that was the year that Herod the Great died). Recently, Jerry Vardaman has discovered the name of Quirinius on a coin in micrographic letters, placing him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 B.C. until the death of Herod.” (McRay, p. 154) Further evidence indicates that it is very possible that a census could have been ongoing in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth – it was just a different census, and as Luke states, ‘was the first registration (census)…’ (and probably a different Quirinius) than mentioned by Josephus. Note also that Luke was aware of the later (6 A.D.) census, which he refers to in Acts 5:37 as “the” census, as opposed to “a” census in Luke 2:1-3).
Although there are many archeological proofs to the historicity of Jesus Christ, I will add just one more here which I see as being quite outstanding. Skeptics have often pointed out that no archaeological evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ has been discovered. (And they are correct, at least perhaps up until the present, which again, is further proof that with time and each new discovery, the case for the historicity and veracity of the Bible grows ever stronger.) However, empirically and logically speaking, is it reasonable to expect such artifacts or inscriptions? After all, the man Jesus was not a prominent governmental leader. He was essentially an itinerant preacher, with few possessions, and eventually suffered the death of a common criminal. Would the Romans have recorded His life or death with an inscription or statue? Certainly not. Actually, Jewish archaeological evidence of the entire period is rather sparse. There are the remains of large and extensive Roman cities, and adequate inscriptions of leaders, including Herod, Pilate and Festus. There are also influential Jews such as Caiaphas, but almost nothing can be found recording the lives of ordinary individuals.
A recent incredible discovery may put to rest the criticism of the skeptics of the historicity of Jesus’ life.The Roman historian Josephus mentioned Christ several times while relating noteworthy civic events, including the execution of one named “James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ/Messiah” referring evidently to Jesus’ brother James, leader of the early church and author of the New Testament book bearing his name. The new artifact is an ossuary, a medium-sized box in which human bones were placed for permanent burial after the flesh had all decayed away. This practice was employed for only a brief period of time from about B.C. 20 to A.D. 70. The box is made of a soft, chalky, limestone, common to the area. The contents have long since vanished. Most remarkably, an inscription has been etched into the side which reads, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” in the Aramaic script of the time. Careful studies, including scrutiny under a scanning electron microscope show the inscription to be genuine. The patina, or oxidized surface equally covers both box and the interior of the etched letters. The recognized expert on such matters, Dr. Andre Lemaire, concludes: “I am pleased to report that in my judgment it is genuinely ancient and not a fake.”
All three names used were common in that era, but seldom was the deceased’s brother mentioned, unless that brother was noteworthy. To have all three listed, in correct Biblical relationship certainly supports the possibility of this being the ossuary of the Biblical James.
With or without the ossuary or other archeological evidence, we can still be confident that the events are true. The Christian faith is a reasonable faith, well grounded in the facts of history, and the Bible is an entirely accurate document. On its teachings we can base our lives and eternal destiny.
In regards to the historical evidence, this article has presented a well-rounded and concise accounting of the evidence that more than makes the case for the historical Jesus. In adding to the evidence/resource material presented in this article, I will draw on the work of both Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig, with supplementary material from other sources.
One of the emphasis’ of Habermas’ work is that of enemy/skeptic attestation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the subsequent conversions of two people who were witnesses to the risen Jesus—these two people being Paul, the avowed enemy of the followers of Christ, and James the skeptic, the brother of Jesus. I find these particular examples to be quite compelling and difficult for the opponent to refute as it moves outside of the testimony of Jesus’ disciples and/or His ‘apologists’ if you will, and places the burden of proof on the opponent to explain how a skeptic and an avowed enemy could experience such a change in views unless it was through an evidential experience.
Certainly a fable or nice story would not have convinced Paul that Jesus had risen from the dead. Indeed, in light of his hostile attitude and actions toward Christians, as well as his own Jewish studies, he most likely would have perceived the gospel to be a poor Christian attempt to imitate Jewish fables that later came to be known as Midrash. As an educated man, Paul would most assuredly been familiar with non-historical genre. It would not have lured him to follow the man he considered to be a false messiah who was cursed by God. He would have feared such apostasy from true faith, for it would jeopardize his soul.
It is important to note that Paul came to Christ through an experience in which he thought [and believed] he encountered the risen Jesus, an account that dates very early. We need reasons for his conversion from unbelief, since his conversion was based on a personal appearance of Jesus and counts very heavily against embellishment…the same applies to James. All things considered, an empty tomb by itself would not have convinced Paul or the skeptic James, both of whom appear to have been convinced by an appearance of the risen Jesus to them…it was the appearances that led to the disciples’ belief that Jesus had risen from the dead, not that of the empty tomb, with the exception of John. (John
Another criticism offered by skeptics is that all we have are the testimonies of Christians, who most likely transferred their personal biases and traditions into their writings. Therefore, these writings must be considered biased. Thus, we must suspect that they do not accurately report what really occurred. This objection is plagued with several difficulties.
First, Paul’s testimony is stronger than that of a neutral witness of the risen Jesus, since his bias ran in the opposite direction. He was certainly not sympathetic to the Christian cause. Rather he viewed Jesus as a false Christ and severely persecuted his followers. The skeptic may reply, “Yes, but after he became a Christian, he lost his standing as an unbiased source.”
Granted, that Paul lost his status as a hostile source after he became a Christian. However, he maintained hostility toward Christianity right up to the time he believed. So we still have an appearance of the risen Jesus as the reason for the belief of a hostile source. With one who persists in asserting that Christians still lack the testimony of someone who saw Jesus risen and did not convert, we might ask, “If someone actually witnessed the risen Jesus and was not changed by the experience, wouldn’t this indicate that the person was too biased against Jesus to act on the facts? Biases go both ways.” We would question the testimony of a person who really saw the raised Jesus and still rejected him.
Secondly, the biases of James the brother of Jesus also ran contrary to Christianity. The Gospels report that he was an unbeliever during the life of Jesus. Later we find reports of the risen Jesus appearing to James (1 Cor. 15:7a) and of his death for his belief that Jesus was the risen Messiah. So with testimonies in our hands from the disciples Paul and James, we have examples of friends and foes who believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them.
Third, recognizing the bias of an author does not automatically merit the conclusion that he or she has distorted the facts.
Fourth, if we reject the testimony of all interested parties, we will have to reject most of our standard historical sources. The authors of such works often would not be writing unless they had a personal interest. It is the role of the historian to comb through the literature and attempt to see pas the writer’s persona biases to ascertain what really happened.
Fifth, the skeptic must be careful not to commit the genetic fallacy. We must recognize the difference between understanding why something is true versus understanding why something is believed or how one came to believe that it is true.
N. T. Wright comments, “”It must be asserted most strongly that to discover that a particular writer has a ‘bias’ tells us nothing whatever about the value of the information he or she presents. It merely bids us be aware of the bias (and of our own, for that matter), and to assess the material according to as many sources as we can.”
This logical reasoning applies to the resurrection of Jesus. X is the proposition that the disciples of Jesus sincerely believed that he rose from the dead and appeared to them. Let’s say that there are only fine initially plausible explanations that account for these claims on the part of the disciples:
Explanation 1: Jesus rose from the dead.
Explanation 2: Fraud was involved on the part of the disciples.
Explanation 3: The disciples sincerely believe they saw the risen Jesus, but were hallucinating or delusional.
Explanation 4: Jesus never really died, so when he appeared to his disciples they thought he had risen from the dead, when he had really only revived from a coma.
Explanation 5: The entire story was a legend that developed over time.
Now consider the additional factors of the empty tomb and the conversions of the church persecutor Paul and the skeptic James because they both believed that the raised Jesus had appeared to them. These provide evidence that explanation 1 is true. One might speculate that explanation 2 (that the disciples stole the body and were lying about the appearances) may also account for the empty tomb. But it does not adequately account for the disciple’ transformed lives and willingness to die, nor does it adequately explain the appearances of the risen Jesus to the skeptics Paul and James.
In regards to enemy attestation—even though such attestation may be considered ‘indirect’—the empty tomb is attested not only by Christian sources, but admitted too by Jesus’ enemies as well. This is not an argument from silence, but rather than point to an occupied tomb, early critics accused Jesus’ disciples of stealing the body. (Matt. 28:12-13; Justin Martyr, Trypho 108; Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30). The earliest Jewish claim reported regarding Jesus’ resurrection was to accuse the disciples of stealing the body, and indirect admission that the body was unavailable for public display. This is the only early opposing theory we know of that was offered by Jesus’ enemies.
This enemy ‘attestation’ to the empty tomb, among other historical aspects of Jesus’ life, is also found in later medieval Jewish writings. One example is that of the Toledot Yeshu (1000AD), a medieval Jewish retelling of the life of Jesus. The following is a portion of the text which is extremely anti-Christian. There are many versions of these ‘retellings’, and as part of the transmitted oral and written tradition of the Jews, we can presume their original place in antiquity, dating back to the time of Jesus’ first appearance as an influential leader who was drawing Jews away from their faith in the Law. The Toledot Yeshu contains a determined effort to explain away the miracles of Jesus, and to deny the virgin birth, Jesus’ resurrection, etc. In some places, the text is quite vicious, but it does confirm many elements of the New Testament writings. Let’s take a look at a portion of the text (Jesus is refered to as ‘Yehoshua’):
“In the year 3671 (in Jewish reckonging, it being ca 90 B.C.) in the days of King Jannaeus, a great misfortune befell Israel, when there arose a certain disreputable man of the tribe of Judah, whose name was Joseph Pandera. He lived at Bethlehem, in Judah. Near his house dwelt a widow and her lovely and chaste daughter named Miriam. Miriam was betrothed to Yohanan, of the royal house of David, a man learned in the Torah and God-fearing. At the close of a certain Sabbath, Joseph Pandera, attractive and like a warrior in appearance, having gazed lustfully upon Miriam, knocked upon the door of her room and betrayed her by pretending that he was her betrothed husband, Yohanan. Even so, she was amazed at this improper conduct and submitted only against her will. Thereafter, when Yohanan came to her, Miriam expressed astonishment at behavior so foreign to his character. It was thus that they both came to know the crime of Joseph Pandera and the terrible mistake on the part of Miriam… Miriam gave birth to a son and named him Yehoshua, after her brother. This name later deteriorated to Yeshu (“Yeshu” is the Jewish “name” for Jesus. It means “May His Name Be Blotted Out”). On the eighth day he was circumcised. When he was old enough the lad was taken by Miriam to the house of study to be instructed in the Jewish tradition. One day Yeshu walked in front of the Sages with his head uncovered, showing shameful disrespect. At this, the discussion arose as to whether this behavior did not truly indicate that Yeshu was an illegitimate child and the son of a niddah. Moreover, the story tells that while the rabbis were discussing the Tractate Nezikin, he gave his own impudent interpretation of the law and in an ensuing debate he held that Moses could not be the greatest of the prophets if he had to receive counsel from Jethro. This led to further inquiry as to the antecedents of Yeshu, and it was discovered through Rabban Shimeon ben Shetah that he was the illegitimate son of Joseph Pandera. Miriam admitted it. After this became known, it was necessary for Yeshu to flee to Upper Galilee. After King Jannaeus, his wife Helene ruled over all Israel…He gathered about himself three hundred and ten young men of Israel and accused those who spoke ill of his birth of being people who desired greatness and power for themselves. Yeshu proclaimed, “I am the Messiah; and concerning me Isaiah prophesied and said, ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.'” He quoted other messianic texts, insisting, “David my ancestor prophesied concerning me: ‘The Lord said to me, thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee.'” The insurgents with him replied that if Yeshu was the Messiah he should give them a convincing sign. They therefore, brought to him a lame man, who had never walked. Yeshu spoke over the man the letters of the Ineffable Name, and the leper was healed. Thereupon, they worshipped him as the Messiah, Son of the Highest. When word of these happenings came to Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin decided to bring about the capture of Yeshu…They replied: “It is in our Torah, but it is not applicable to him, for it is in Scripture: ‘And that prophet which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.’ He has not fulfilled the signs and conditions of the Messiah.” Yeshu spoke up: “Madam, I am the Messiah and I revive the dead.” A dead body was brought in; he pronounced the letters of the Ineffable Name and the corpse came to life. The Queen was greatly moved and said: “This is a true sign.” She reprimanded the Sages and sent them humiliated from her presence. Yeshu’s dissident followers increased and there was controversy in Israel. Yeshu went to Upper Galilee. the Sages came before the Queen, complaining that Yeshu practiced sorcery and was leading everyone astray. Therefore she sent Annanui and Ahaziah to fetch him. The found him in Upper Galilee, proclaiming himself the Son of God. When they tried to take him there was a struggle, but Yeshu said to the men of Upper Galilee: “Wage no battle.” He would prove himself by the power which came to him from his Father in heaven. He spoke the Ineffable Name over the birds of clay and they flew into the air. He spoke the same letters over a millstone that had been placed upon the waters. He sat in it and it floated like a boat. When they saw this the people marveled. At the behest of Yeshu, the emissaries departed and reported these wonders to the Queen…Yeshu was seized. His head was covered with a garment and he was smitten with pomegranate staves; but he could do nothing, for he no longer had the Ineffable Name. Yeshu was taken prisoner to the synagogue of Tiberias, and they bound him to a pillar. To allay his thirst they gave him vinegar to drink. On his head they set a crown of thorns. There was strife and wrangling between the elders and the unrestrained followers of Yeshu, as a result of which the followers escaped with Yeshu to the region of Antioch; there Yeshu remained until the eve of the Passover. Yeshu then resolved to go the Temple to acquire again the secret of the Name. That year the Passover came on a Sabbath day. On the eve of the Passover, Yeshu, accompanied by his disciples, came to Jerusalem riding upon an ass. Many bowed down before him. He entered the Temple with his three hundred and ten followers. One of them, Judah Iskarioto apprised the Sages that Yeshu was to be found in the Temple, that the disciples had taken a vow by the Ten Commandments not to reveal his identity but that he would point him out by bowing to him. So it was done and Yeshu was seized. Asked his name, he replied to the question by several times giving the names Mattai, Nakki, Buni, Netzer, each time with a verse quoted by him and a counter-verse by the Sages. Yeshu was put to death on the sixth hour on the eve of the Passover and of the Sabbath. When they tried to hang him on a tree it broke, for when he had possessed the power he had pronounced by the Ineffable Name that no tree should hold him. He had failed to pronounce the prohibition over the carob-stalk, for it was a plant more than a tree, and on it he was hanged until the hour for afternoon prayer, for it is written in Scripture, “His body shall not remain all night upon the tree.” They buried him outside the city. On the first day of the week his bold followers came to Queen Helene with the report that he who was slain was truly the Messiah and that he was not in his grave; he had ascended to heaven as he prophesied. Diligent search was made and he was not found in the grave where he had been buried. A gardener had taken him from the grave and had brought him into his garden and buried him in the sand over which the waters flowed into the garden. Queen Helene demanded, on threat of a severe penalty, that the body of Yeshu be shown to her within a period of three days. There was a great distress. When the keeper of the garden saw Rabbi Tanhuma walking in the field and lamenting over the ultimatum of the Queen, the gardener related what he had done, in order that Yeshu’s followers should not steal the body and then claim that he had ascended into heaven. The Sages removed the body, tied it to the tail of a horse and transported it to the Queen, with the words, “This is Yeshu who is said to have ascended to heaven.” Realizing that Yeshu was a false prophet who enticed the people and led them astray, she mocked the followers but praised the Sages.
In spite of the fact that the ancient Jews who wrote this did their best to argue for another interpretation of the Life of Jesus, they did make several claims here about Jesus. This passage, along with several others from the Toledot tradition, confirms that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, healed the lame, said that Isaiah foretold of his life, was worshipped as God, arrested by the Jews, beaten with rods, given vinegar to drink, wore a crown of thorns, rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, was betrayed by a man named Judah Iskarioto, and had followers who claimed he was resurrected and ascended, leaving an empty tomb. If Jesus’ enemies attested to the same events of that of the Gospel, even though via that of attempted refutation, the case is made as to the events that took place in the life of the historical Jesus—the Christ which is found and attested too in the canonical Gospels.
 Robert Jones, The Historical Evidence of the Gospel Account of Jesus Christ, http://www.sundayschoolcourses.com/histjesu/histjesu.pdf
 Johnson, Luke T., The Real Jesus, p. 123, Harper San Francisco, 1996
 Dever, William, Is the Bible Right After All?, pg 31
 Morris, John D., Has Archaeological Evidence for Jesus Been Discovered?, Institute for Creation Research, http://www.icr.org/article/has-archaeological-evidence-for-jesus-been-discove/
 Wright, N. T., The New Testament and the People of God, pg 89, Fortress, 1992
 Habermas, Gary, Licona, Michael R., The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pgs 86-87, 97, 124, 208-209, Kregel Publication, 2004
 Is There Any Evidence for Jesus Outside the Bible?, http://www.pleaseconvinceme.com/index/Is_There_Evidence_for_Jesus_Outside_the_Bible