The True, Historical Jesus
Bertrand Russell was a 20th-century British philosopher and logician who rejected the idea of absolute truth. In his famous 1927 essay “Why I Am Not a Christian,” Russell wrote, “Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him.”
It seems incredible that anyone would make such a statement because we know much about Jesus. Evidence for His existence is overwhelming; and it comes from a variety of sources, including Scripture, Christian and secular writings, and even some Jewish works.
One scriptural source is the Gospel of Luke. Not only was Luke a competent physician, but he was also a careful historian, as evidenced by the introduction to his treatise on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ:
Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed (Lk. 1:1–4).
Luke’s sources were firsthand witnesses. He composed a well-researched, accurate, and inspired history. In fact, the entire New Testament has been shown to be historically reliable.
Furthermore, many Christian creeds and confessions that date back to the first century also provide evidence for Jesus’ existence. Apologist Gary Habermas explained these aﬃrmations preserve some of the “earliest reports concerning Jesus from about 30–50 AD. Therefore, in a real sense, the creeds preserve pre-New Testament material, and are our earliest sources for the life of Jesus.”1
There is also secular evidence. The highly acclaimed Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (c. AD 55–120) alluded to Jesus’ death in his writings. In fact,
Many ancient secular writers mention Jesus and the movement He birthed. The fact that they are usually antagonistic to Christianity makes them especially good witnesses, since they have nothing to gain by admitting the historicity of the events surrounding a religious leader and His following, which they disdain.2
Even Jewish scholars attested to Jesus’ existence: “Similar to the secular references,” explained writer Josh McDowell, “the ones found in ancient Jewish sources are unfriendly toward Christianity’s founder, followers, and beliefs. For this reason their attestation to events surrounding Jesus’ life are valuable testimony to the historicity of these events.”3
The Babylonian Talmud refers to Jesus’ crucifixion: “On the eve of Passover, Yeshu was hanged” (Tractate Sanhedrin).
And in the writings of ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (c. AD 37–100) is the following paragraph:
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.4
The historical existence of Jesus Christ is completely verifiable. Also verifiable is His Jewish ancestry. Matthew’s Gospel stresses Jesus’ Jewish genealogy and His legal right to King David’s throne:
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ [Messiah].
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the [Jewish] people together, he inquired of them where the Christ [Messiah] was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel’” (Mt. 1:1, 16; 2:1–6; cf. Mic. 5:2).
Commentator Michael Vanlaningham said Matthew introduced his Gospel “by emphasizing the legal right of Jesus of Nazareth to be the king of the Jews and of the entire world. Matthew included Jesus’ genealogy to argue for the validity of His claim to David’s throne….In Christ’s humanity, He was legally a son of David and was a rightful heir to the Davidic throne.”5
Jesus was born of Jewish parentage, was circumcised, and grew up in a Jewish home in a Jewish village. He was raised in a Jewish community, experienced Jewish culture, and was brought up under Jewish law.
But there is a final piece of evidence that has convinced multitudes throughout the centuries of the existence of Jesus Christ: a transformed life. Many early Christians experienced such deep changes of heart through faith in Him that they willingly died, rather than recant.
“These early Christians,” McDowell wrote, “had nothing to gain and everything to lose….For this reason, their accounts are highly significant historical sources.”6
The first-century writings of the apostolic fathers tell of the death of Polycarp of Smyrna. Polycarp had been in hiding but was betrayed and brought into the arena to face the authorities. The presiding proconsul told him all he had to do to save his life was renounce Christ:
“Swear by the genius of Caesar, repent, say: ‘Away with the Atheists’”; but Polycarp, with a stern countenance looked on all the crowd of lawless heathen in the arena, and waving his hand at them, he groaned and looked up to heaven and said: “Away with the Atheists.” But when the Pro-Consul pressed him and said: “Take the oath and I let you go, revile Christ,” Polycarp said: “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”7
Before he was set on fire, Polycarp uttered a final prayer to God:
I also praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee through the everlasting and heavenly high Priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved Child, through whom be glory to Thee with him and the Holy Spirit, both now and for the ages that are to come, Amen.8
Unlike Polycarp, Bertrand Russell died an atheist. Christian writer Dan Delzell said of him,
He was terrified to place absolute trust in something because in his mind, it might eventually be proven false. That fear kept him bound in chains to his skepticism….He was the poster child for fear-based living. It consumed him. It enslaved him. And it motivated him to reject Christ.9
No one need be uncertain about Jesus. He most certainly lived, died, and rose again. And He most certainly will return.
- Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 127.
- Ibid., 120.
- Ibid., 123.
- Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 8.3.3
- Michael G. Vanlaningham, “Matthew,” The Moody Bible Commentary, ed. Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2014), 1,455.
- McDowell, 126.
- “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” from Apostolic Fathers, Kirsopp Lake, 1912 (Loeb Classic Library) <earlychristianwritings.com/text/martyrdompolycarp-lake.html>.
- Dan Delzell, “Bertrand Russell’s Greatest Paradox was His Faith,” christianpost.com, November 4, 2011 <tinyurl.com/BERT222>.