Until the last two hundred years, the existence of Jesus of Nazareth has been accepted without question. More recently, some have begun to challenge this consensus, postulating that he may be a myth fabricated by the early church. While this theory is often dismissed, it is not without merit and warrants examination. These thinkers allege that the stories about Jesus share many similarities with other ancient near eastern myths, that the disciples updated these stories to amass followers and power, and that there are no trustworthy sources to authenticate the existence of Jesus. They elaborate that the sources we do possess are either written by those who were incredibly biased because they stood to gain from their dissemination, or otherwise tampered with by Christian scribes. However, the Jesus-myth theory is untenable when the evidence for Jesus’ existence is critically examined. Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person and his existence can be substantiated by unbiased secular sources.

Josephus’ Testimonium

Flavius Josephus was a Jewish military commander in the war against Rome and lived from 37-100 CE.[1] After surrendering to the Romans in the spring of 67 CE, he was captured and taken to Rome where he remained for the rest of his life. In Rome, he recorded the histories of the Jewish people spanning from creation to the present. The Testimonium Flavianum is a passage from The Antiquities of the Jews, which was written in 94 CE. It has garnered credibility because of its early date, the author’s proximity to Jerusalem, and his nationality. For these reasons, it provides important evidence for the existence of the historical Jesus.

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.[2]

This passage was written within the lifetime of Jesus’ contemporaries. These witnesses could have corroborated or denied Josephus’ account of Jesus’ life and death in Judea. Because there are no early sources contradicting Josephus’ account that Jesus was a historical figure, the Testimonium provides strong evidence that Jesus existed.

However, the Testimonium is not inscrutable. As it was copied through the centuries, Christian scribes likely thought the Jewish author was irreverent of Christ and amended Josephus’ works.[3] Skeptics are quick to point out these later additions by a different author, which are called interpolations. Frank Zindler, a professor and proponent of the Christ-myth theory, explains the difficulties in this passage:

<p”>Now no loyal Pharisee would say Jesus had been the Messiah. That Josephus could report that Jesus had been restored to life “on the third day” and not be convinced by this astonishing bit of information is beyond belief. Worse yet is the fact that the story of Jesus is intrusive in Josephus’ narrative and can be seen to be an interpolation even in an English translation of the Greek text.[4]

Zindler is correct that some of these phrases do not fit in this passage and are not original. Even those who claim that Josephus refers to the historical Jesus agree that interpolations exist in the text. Fortunately, the Christian scribes were heavy-handed when amending the original text, making their additions quite apparent. It is easy to distinguish the stark contrast between the reverent tone of the interpolations from the factual neutrality that Josephus typically writes with. Notice the content of the Testimonium without the interpolations:

<p”>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 wonders, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew many after him both of the Jews and the Gentiles. He was the Christ. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal 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 the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things about him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.[5]

When these interpolations are removed from the text, Josephus’ reference to Jesus as a historical figure still remains intact.

Other skeptics take this farther and insist that the entire passage is an interpolation. Some proponents of the Jesus-myth theory insist that because some of the passage has been tampered with, none of it can be trusted. Murdock states:

<p”>Despite the best wishes of sincere believers and the erroneous claims of truculent apologists, the Testimonium Flavianum has been demonstrated continually over the centuries to be a forgery… So thorough and universal has been this debunking that very few scholars of repute continued to cite the passage after the turn of the 19th century.[6]

One of the main reasons offered for this position is that “…the disputed passage was never cited by early Christian apologists such as Clement of Alexandria (ca.150-ca. 215 CE), who certainly would have made use of such ammunition had he had it!”[7] The reasoning used to disqualify the Testimonium is unconvincing for two reasons. First, it is merely conjecture. Arguing that one of the church fathers must have had access to Josephus’ work because it was already in existence is unreasonable. It is impossible to conclude that Clement would have “certainly” used the Testimonium from the available evidence. Zindler makes this assertion based on a strong inference, but there is no evidence to indicate that Clement did not employ the Testimonium because it was not yet in existence. Second, Zindler’s conclusion is a non sequitur. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario that illustrates the fallacy. Imagine a student who is tasked with writing a report on Shakespeare, she is to provide a brief survey of his works in this essay. For whatever reason, she chooses not to mention A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Certainly, we would be amiss in concluding that Shakespeare did not actually pen A Midsummer Night’s Dream based on this report. It does not follow the that the Testimonium did not exist because it was not cited by early apologists.

Moreover, Josephus’ Testimonium has been preserved in an Arabic transmission recovered by Shlomo Pines. This version reads:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders.[8]

Certainly, this Arabic transmission of the Testimonium also includes interpolations added by later scribes. However, the interpolations in this version differ substantially from those in the Latin version. If the Testimonium was not actually written by Josephus, it would seem more probable that it would have been omitted in one version or the other. Moreover, both transmissions preserve the same historical core of information about Jesus as a historical figure. Because of this secondary witness, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the Testimonium has a strong historical core that authenticates the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.


Josephus’ Reference to James

In a less controversial passage than the Testimonium, Josephus also refers to Jesus in the twentieth book of The Antiquities of the Jews. Josephus reports:

<p”>Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.[9]

Here, Josephus makes another reference to Jesus as a historical figure, reporting that Jesus had a brother named James. Unless Josephus speaks of Jesus earlier in his writing, this passage is out of place and warrants a longer explanation of who this alleged Messiah is.[10] This reference to James provides not only important verification of the existence of Jesus, but it also authenticates Josephus as the author of the original version of the Testimonium.  Like the Josephus passage discussed earlier, Josephus’ reference to James is also disputed.

Skeptics object to the use of this Josephus passage as support for the historicity of Jesus by, again, claiming it has been interpolated. Richard Carrier is a scholar who promotes the Jesus-myth theory, he contends that the phrase “the one called the Christ” is not original. He argues that we cannot really know who Josephus is referring to; this could be any Jesus. On Carrier’s view, this passage provides, at best, inconclusive evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Carrier gives five reasons for his position:

First, “the one called Christ” is exactly the kind of thing a scholar or scribe would add as an interlinear note to remind himself and future readers that—so the scribe believed—the Jesus here mentioned is Jesus Christ, as we would do today with an informative footnote or marginal note… Second, the words and structure chosen here are indeed the ones that would commonly be used in an interlinear note … Third, the completed phrase is (apart from a necessary change of case) identical to Matt 1.16… Fourth, the execution of Christians makes little sense in the context of the story… Fifth, apart from the execution by stoning (the most common form of execution employed by Jews, and therefore not at all peculiar to or indicative of Christian victims), this story does not agree with any other account of the death of James the brother of Christ. [11]

The reasons Carrier cites for dismissing this passage are unconvincing because his reasoning is fallacious. The first three reasons Carrier gives claim that there are parallels between Josephus’ reference to James and other documents. While similarities exist between these, without a causal connection between the phrase in Josephus and his claims, all Carrier provides is conjecture. This alleged link is in reality only ad hoc possibility. Without evidence of a causal connection, we lack reason to agree with his conclusion. Carrier’s fourth reason is subjective and seems to be based off the a priori assumption that the passage is interpolated. He gives no reason to support his assessment; another reader may simply render a different assessment. This by no means indicates interpolation. His fifth reason is the most substantial but has no bearing on whether the text was altered. Carrier argues that because stoning was the most common form of execution by the Jews, that it would be the most logical execution for a Christian to expect. However, the reasoning and conclusions reached by Carrier are disputed by others, like John Meier, who see Josephus’ report that James was executed by stoning as evidence against interpolation:

Josephus’ account of James’ martyrdom differs in time and manner from that of Hegesippus. Josephus has James stoned to death by order of the high priest Ananus around A.D. 62, a good while before the Jewish War actually breaks out. According to Hegesippus, the scribes and Pharisees cast James down from the battlement of the Jerusalem temple. They begin to stone him but are constrained by a priest: finally a laundryman clubs James to death (Ecclesiastical   History (2.23.12-18). James’ martyrdom, says Hegesippus, was followed immediately by Vespasian’s siege of Jerusalem (A.D.  70).  Eusebius stresses that Hegesippus’ account agrees basically with that of the Church Father Clement of Alexandria (2.23.3,19); hence it was apparently the standard Christian story. Once again, it is highly unlikely that Josephus’ version is the result of Christian editing of The Jewish Antiquities.[12]

While the differences in the accounts of James’ death reflect the individual authors’ historical accuracy, they fail to indicate that Josephus did not originally identify Jesus as the one called Christ. This leaves the historical reference to Jesus of Nazareth intact.

Another contention with this passage is the use of the word “brother.” Mythicists claim that Josephus meant brother in the sense of a spiritual fraternity, not a male sibling. Drews articulates this argument,

But the other passage, too (xx. 9, 1), which states that James was executed under the authority of the priest Ananos (A.D. 62), and refers to him as “the Brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ,” in the opinion of eminent theologians such as Credner, Schürer, & c., must be regarded as a forgery; but even if its authenticity were established it would still probe nothing in favour of the historical Jesus. For, first, it leaves it undecided whether a bodily relationship is indicated by the word “Brother,” or whether as is much more likely, the reference is merely to a religious brotherhood.[13]

While creative, the redefinition of “brother” is problematic. Students of translation must learn that definition is dictated by usage. Context matters, and a definition cannot be applied by fiat.[14] Definition must be derived from the text itself. Josephus’ reference to James as the brother of Jesus gives no reason to expect a fraternal understanding of brother. When used in a spiritual sense by Christians, adelphos, the Greek word for brother, is often used corporately or without being attached to a concrete person (e.g., Acts 1:15, Matt. 18:15). Josephus’ text is absent such detail. Moreover, Josephus writes as a historian, not as a spiritualist. The stronger conclusion is that Josephus used adelphos by its standard definition: a male sibling.

These objections testify to the weight Josephus carries in making a case for a historical Jesus. Even when the objections are carefully examined, these passages in Josephus maintain veracity. Josephus’ reference to James provides a reliable first century reference to a historical Jesus. While Josephus gives strong evidence for the historical Jesus, he is not the only early author that does so.



Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and Roman historian born in 55 CE. His greatest work, The Annals, was published in 120 CE. In his magnum opus, he recounts the reigns of several Roman Emperors, and notably mentions Nero’s persecution of early Christians. This is where his famous reference to Jesus is found. He records:

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 its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[15]

Tacitus undoubtedly disliked Christianity, yet he mentions Jesus by his title placing him squarely within history. Tacitus is not writing recording myth, he is writing a history of Rome. As such, he reports that Jesus was sentenced to death under Pontius Pilate, an event which served to greatly influence the Roman empire in Tacitus’ day. Because of the strong evidence Tacitus provides, his passage concerning Christ has been scrutinized, and some have concluded this passage to be unreliable.

Arguments disputing Tacitus’ reliability are similar to those concerning Josephus. Skeptics argue that no author except Tacitus speaks of the Neronian persecution and think it suspect that early apologists do not quote him:

Tacitus himself never again alludes to the Neronian persecution of Christians in any of his voluminous writings, and no other Pagan authors know anything of the outrage either. Most significant, however, is that ancient Christian apologists made no use of the story in their propaganda – an unthinkable omission by motivated partisans who were well-read in the works of Tacitus.[16]

On the Jesus-myth view, at least portions of this passage appear to be anomalies. This passage is the only historical reference to the Neronian persecution, which may be a Christian invention. Drews submits, “…the ‘first persecution of the Christians,’ …is nothing but the product of a Christian’s imagination in the fifth century.”[17] Skeptics thus conclude that the passage has been altered and cannot be trusted.

While doubt may seem warranted on this argument, it provides little more than an argument from silence. The failure of other authors to mention an event does not invalidate the historicity of that event. Zindler’s claim that no other pagan author knew about the Neronian persecution is an unknowable premise that does not lead to his conclusion. The only way we could know this to be true is if all of Tacitus’ contemporary authors recorded all of the history that they knew, and it was all preserved for us. If no other author mentioned the Neronian persecution, then we would be justified in concluding with Zindler that none of these knew of the persecution. As we do not have access to the minds of these contemporary authors, surmising that they knew nothing of the persecution is unwarranted. It is a non-sequitur to conclude that they knew nothing of it because they wrote nothing of it. This argument buckles because of its fallacious construction.

M.M. Margarian goes farther, suggesting that the entire passage is a forgery. He states:

But, to begin with, this passage has the appearance, at least, of being penned by a Christian…The abuse of Christians in the same passage may have been introduced purposely to cover up the identity of the writer. The terrible outrages against the Christians mentioned in the text from Tacitus are supposed to have taken place in the year 64 A.D. According to the New Testament, Paul was in Rome from the year 63 to the year 65… The last verse in the book of Acts reads: ‘And he (Paul) abode two whole years… preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, none forbidding him… Moreover, it is generally known that the Romans were indifferent to religious propaganda, and never persecuted any sect or party in the name of religion.[18]

Not only is the Neronian persecution suspect on his view, but the entire passage is viewed as an interpolation. If Tacitus did not actually write of Jesus, then Christian apologists lose a valuable piece of secular evidence for his life.

The claim that the Neronian passage is an interpolation lacks credible evidence; rather, skeptics presuppose their conclusion without sufficient justification. Mangasarian cites three reasons that he holds this position: the appearance of Christian origin, the dating of biblical events, and Roman indifference to religion. In regard to the appearance of Christian origin, like Carrier, Mangasarian lacks evidence of any causal connection. His supposition that the persecution was written into the text to hide the interpolator’s identity is ad hoc and unevidenced. Next, he turns to biblical dating and establishes exact dates for the end of Acts as well as Paul’s house arrest in Rome. It should be noted that this is unconvincing because the exact dates of most events in the New Testament are unknowable as there is not sufficient record to establish an exhaustive chronology. These afore mentioned events are no exception; scholars vary significantly in the dates of these events. Mangasarian must defend his dating to produce a compelling argument. Finally, as far as contemporaries were concerned, the Romans were surprisingly tolerant of other religions. However, Christianity was not just another benign entity in the amalgam of religious thought in the Roman Empire. Christians went from city to city claiming Jesus is Lord. To a westerner, this sounds like tired religious jargon, but to a Roman citizen, this was the way a herald would have announced a new Emperor assuming the throne. Moreover, these Christians refused to bow to Caesar as lord because they believed Jesus occupied that position. This new Jewish sect was posing a threat to national security, which could not be tolerated. In light of further evidence, it is not surprising that the Roman Empire would want to eliminate a security threat. It is not at all unbelievable that they would not extend similar tolerance to Christians. Skeptics like Mangasarian must provide evidence that is not conjectural and displays clear causal connection to refute the Neronian passage by claim of interpolation. Based on available evidence, Tacitus’ report reliably testifies to the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.



Based on the critical examination of these two secular historians, the stronger conclusion is that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed a historical person. In an attempt to invalidate these secular historians, skeptics employ the same strategies: point out details that do not fit, allege forgery, and point out contemporary silence. These strategies ultimately fail to demonstrate the veracity of the Jesus myth. In some cases, as with the Testimonium, there are genuine interpolations, but this is not standard. While the reasons for thinking that the other two passages have been altered have been examined, they have both been found to be lacking causal connection. Finally, the fact that these passages are not quoted by contemporary authors in no way affects their credulity, all that follows is that they were not quoted. Consequently, these sources stand as secular reports of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.

If Jesus was a historical person, then his life is warrants closer examination. The vast majority of the world looks to him as one of the greatest moral teachers to ever live, and he is a prominent figure in many religious traditions. Certainly, there have been very few men who have created such a large and lasting following, especially in light of the purported miraculous events surrounding his life and death. These details about his life, amongst many others, make him a fascinating historical figure, who appears to be utterly unique from anyone else in history. It is truly worth the time to study and find out who Jesus was, who he thought he was, and what his message for us entails.




Carrier, Richard. “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20, no. 4 (December 14, 2012): 489–514.

Drews, Arthur. The Christ Myth. Litres, 2018.

Jones, Clay. “Jesus Wasn’t a Real Person? That’s Dumb!” Blog. Clay Jones, August 24, 2010. Accessed September 7, 2018.

———. Prepared Defense: Christian Apologetics Software. Austin, TX: WORDsearch, 2005             (v.2, 2013)

Josephus, Flavius. Flavius Josephus: Life of Josephus. Translated by Steve Mason. Boston: Brill Academic, 2003.

———. “The Works of Flavius Josephus.” Translated by William Whiston, n.d. Accessed September 11, 2018.

Köstenberger, Andreas, Benjamin Merkle, and Robert Plummer. Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016.

Lendering, Jona. “Tacitus.” Livius. Last modified August 19, 2015. Accessed September 26, 2018.

Mangasarian, Mangasar Mugurditch. The Truth about Jesus: Is He a Myth? Independent Religious Society, 1909.

McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Evidence I & II Fully Updated in One Volume To Answer The Questions Challenging Christians in the 21st Century. Thomas Nelson, 1999.

Meier, John P. “Jesus in Josephus: A Modest Proposal.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52, no. 1 (1990): 76–103.

Murdock, D.M. Suns of God. Adventures Unlimited Press, 2004.

———. “The Jesus Forgery: Josephus Untangled.” In Suns of God, 445. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2004. Accessed September 19, 2018.

Mykytiuk, Lawrence. “Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible.” Biblical Archaeology Society, September 5, 2017. Accessed September 9, 2018.

Pines, Shlomo. An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications. The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971.

Snow, Paul. “Josephus and Jesus IV: How Origen Gave James a New Brother.” The Uncertaintist, May 16, 2016. Accessed September 24, 2018.

Tabor, James. “The Ancient Jewish Historian Josephus on John the Baptizer, Jesus, and James.” Blog. TaborBlog, February 21, 2017. Accessed September 9, 2018.

Tacitus, Cornelius. “The Internet Classics Archive | The Annals by Tacitus.” Accessed September 26, 2018.

Wallace, J. Warner. “Is There Any Evidence for Jesus Outside the Bible?” Cold Case Christianity, October 30, 2017. Accessed September 11, 2018.

———. What Every Christian Needs to Know About Conspiracy Theories (Cold-Case Christianity Broadcast #29), n.d. Accessed September 8, 2018.

Wells, George Albert. The Jesus Legend. Open Court Publishing, 1996.

Zindler, Frank. “Did Jesus Exist?” American Atheists, 1998. Accessed September 9, 2018.

Bart Ehrman & Robert Price Debate – Did Jesus Exist. Milwaukee, WI: Mythicist Milwaukee, 2017. Accessed September 9, 2018.


[1] Flavius Josephus, Flavius Josephus: Life of Josephus, trans. Steve Mason (Boston: Brill Academic, 2003), X.

[2] Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3.

[3] Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Evidence I & II Fully Updated in One Volume To Answer The Questions Challenging Christians in the 21st Century (Thomas Nelson, 1999), 126.

[4] Frank Zindler, “Did Jesus Exist?,” American Atheists, 1998, accessed September 9, 2018,

[5] James Tabor, “The Ancient Jewish Historian Josephus on John the Baptizer, Jesus, and James,” Blog, TaborBlog, February 21, 2017, accessed September 9, 2018,

[6] D.M. Murdock, “The Jesus Forgery: Josephus Untangled,” in Suns of God (Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2004), 445, accessed September 19, 2018,

[7] Zindler, “Did Jesus Exist?”

[8]Shlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications (The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971).

[9] Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1.

[10] McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Evidence I & II Fully Updated in One Volume To Answer The Questions Challenging Christians in the 21st Century, 126.

[11] Richard Carrier, “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20, no. 4 (December 14, 2012), 489–514.

[12] John P Meier, “Jesus in Josephus: A Modest Proposal,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52, no. 1 (1990): 80.

[13] Arthur Drews, The Christ Myth (Litres, 2018), 231.

[14] Andreas Köstenberger, Benjamin Merkle, and Robert Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016). 478.

[15] Drews, The Christ Myth.

[16] Zindler, “Did Jesus Exist?”

[17] Drews, The Christ Myth, 232.

[18] Mangasar Mugurditch Mangasarian, The Truth about Jesus: Is He a Myth? (Independent Religious Society, 1909). p.89-90.

Ian Hunter

Ian is a husband, pastor, student, and follower of Jesus. He enjoys a good book with a cup of black coffee, and spending time with family and friends.

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