Did Jesus Christ, Joshua Ben Mirriam, Joshua son of Mary, actually exist?
It might sound like a silly question, but it's one worth considering. Had he not existed, one might argue, how could Christianity ever have come to the prominance that it has? On the other hand, there is a terrible scarcity of historical evidence that places him in history and religions such as Hinduism do not appear to require that Vishnu or Shiva were historical.
There is, for example, no surviving record of Jesus' trial and execution, and the Romans were merticulous documenters. On the other hand, relatively few Roman documents survive from the Jerusalem of the period. There are some proximate historical references to Jesus and to Christians in general, but no non-biblical eye-witness accounts of his life, ministry and death. The Gospels themselves are thought to have been written more than a generation after the events they purport to describe. Dates for the four gospels are as follows:
One of the earliest and most celebrated non-biblical references to Jesus is found in the works of Flavius Josephus. We'll look at that in a moment, but first I want to briefly consider if someone can become after death something they never were in life. This point is examined in more detail with reference to the Marquis de Sade, elsewhere.
Cornelius Tacitus (c55- c117 CE, Annals XV.44)
[speaking of the great fire of Rome]
Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle and fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor [Nero], and the propriations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had it origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most michevious superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all thing hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and became popular. Accordingly an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not as it seemed for the public good, but to glut one man s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
It should be noted that while the above quotation indicates that there were Christians in Rome at the time of the great fire, this of itself in no way establishes the historicy of Jesus, rather in the way that the existence of Isis worshipers does not establish the existence of Isis.
Flavius Josephus (37/8-c100 CE, Antiquities xviii.33, written c93)
The history that mentions Jesus is the subject of much debate. Many academics believe that the manuscript was altered or, ah, improved by a Christian copyist. There are many reasons for this which will be briefly dealt with following the quotation:
"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was the 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 principle men among 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 [on] 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".
Josephus, a Jew and Pharisee was a traitor who married into the Roman imperial family following a change of heart brought on by the defeat of the Jewish forces by the Romans in 67 CE, changing his name from Joseph Ben Matthias to Josephus Flavius. Following the Jewish rebellion of 66CE the Romans under the command of the future emperor Vespasian, arrived in Galilee in the spring of 67 and quickly broke the Jewish resistance in the north. Josephus managed to hold the fortress of Jotapata for 47 days, but after the fall of the city he took refuge with 40 die-hards in a nearby cave. There, to Josephus consternation the beleaguered party voted to perish rather than surrender. Josephus argued the immorality of suicide and proposed that each man should dispatch his neighbour, the order determined by casting lots. Josephus contrived to draw the last lot, and as one of the two surviving men in the cave, he prevailed upon his intended victim to surrender to the Romans.
Led in chains before Vespasian, Josephus assumed the role of prophet and foretold that Vespasian would soon be emperor - a prediction that gained credibility after the death of Nero in 68. This action saved his life and for the next two years he remained a prisoner of the Romans. Late in 69 Vespasian was proclaimed emperor by his troops: Josephus prophecy had come true, and the agreeable Jewish prisoner was given his freedom. From that time on he attached himself to the Roman cause, ending up in Rome married to an aristocratic heiress from Crete (he divorced his third wife), Roman citizenship, a pension, and a tax free income from his estate in Judea.
The text quoted above strongly indicates that Josephus subscribed to the Christian belief system. This flatly contradicts his attempt in Antiquities to present Judaic religion in a favourable light (which he achieved by virtually ignoring the Prophets, embellishing Biblical narratives, and by stressing the rationality of Judaic laws and institutions) and as compatible with the Roman state. This is intrinsically likely as finding a monograph on the virtues of capitalism in the works of Joseph Stalin, or a few paragraphs on the virtues of political dissent in a work by Henrich Himmler.
Suetonius (120 CE)
"As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome." Life of Claudius 25.4.
"Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition." Lives of the Caesars 26.2