You may think that this is a silly question, but I have to ask: Was Jesus of Nazareth a real person or is He a product of our religious imaginations?

I am not a student of Bertrand Russell; I’ve never directly read anything that he wrote. But he is quoted, quoted, and quoted as one of the leading agnostic philosophers of the last century. He died in 1970 at the age of 98. My dictionary says that he was a: “British philosopher, mathematician, social critic, and writer who had profound influence on the development of symbolic logic, logical positivism, and the set theory of mathematics.” Can anyone explain to me “symbolic logic, logical positivism or the set theory of mathematics”? I have no idea those things are, but I do know that Bertrand Russell displayed unbelievable foolishness when he wrote in his book “Why I am Not a Christian:” “Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him.” The fact that Jesus of Nazareth was an historical person, cannot be doubted, and yet that still doesn’t keep otherwise sane people from denying Him. In fact, it seems to me that some people are so deathly afraid that what we preach about Christ might be true, that they defy logic and go so far as to say that He is a complete figment of our imaginations.

Sometimes I feel silly teaching or preaching on some subjects, because they are so elementary. I would like to believe that everyone of us know these things and are confirmed in these things. But that would be to stick my head in the sand. The only way that people will learn some things is to be taught those things. And this means sometimes going back to the very beginning, if not even before the beginning.

Since there are a few people who read Bertrand Russell and people of his ilk, sometimes you and I will have to prove the historicity of Jesus.

How do we do that?

If you were invited to the home of Mr. Russell and he asked to prove the existence of Christ, what would he think if you opened your Bible to Matthew or to the Book of Galatians? For you and me that should be all the evidence that we need; the inspired Word of God. But the unbeliever is not going to be convinced by anything that you bring out of the Bible, because if he thinks that Christ is a myth, he’s going to think that the Bible is the myth-maker. In order to prove Christ, we’re going to have to be able to turn to secular writers. What do I mean by secular? (Pagan, non-Christian, anti-Christian writers.)

Is there any secular proof of the historicity of Christ Jesus?
Cornelius Tacitus. Tacitus was a Roman historian who lived through the reigns of about a half dozen emperors. He was born about 55 AD and lived to about 120 (AD – not years of age.) He has been called the greatest historian of ancient Rome and acknowledged for his integrity. His two best known books are his “Annals” covering Rome from the death of Augustus to the death of Nero. His next book “Histories” chronicle Rome from after Nero to about the year 100. If you’ll remember, Nero was an insane man who wanted to make Rome into a monument to himself. But the city itself stood in the way of that, so he chose to burn Rome to the ground.

In his “Annals” Tacitus made this comment (please listen carefully): “But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, andd punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also.”

What did Tacitus mean when he referred to “the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time”? It is believed by a lot of scholars that he was talking about the resurrection of Christ. Something else that is very interesting is that Pilate is mentioned. I am told that this is the only place in ancient history books where Pilate’s name is given. And the pagan historian Tacitus unmistakably agrees with the Biblical record.

Then there is the statement of Lucian of Samosata. This man was not an historian but an entertainer, and it was because he wrote popular material that some of it has remained around until today. This fella was a Greek who lived in the latter half of the 2nd century.

In one of his plays he had said: “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account…. You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.”

Suetonius was another Roman historian; a court official under Hadrian. In his Life of Claudius he wrote, “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [another spelling of Christus], he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” This took place in 49 AD and we find Luke referring to it in Acts 18:2. In another work Suetonius wrote about Nero,s fire that swept through Rome in A.D. 64. He said that “punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” Assuming Jesus was crucified in the early thirties, Suetonius, who was no friend of Christianity, places Christians in Rome less than twenty years later, and he reports that they were suffering and dying for their conviction that Jesus Christ had really lived, died, and risen from the dead.

Pliny the Younger was the Roman Governor of Bithynia on the Black Sea in 112 AD. In a letter written to Emperor Trajan, he asked for counsel on what to do about the Christian problem. He explained that he had been killing both men and women, boys and girls. There were so many being put to death that he wondered if he should continue killing anyone who was discovered to be a Christian, or if he should kill only certain ones. He explained that he had made the Christians bow down to the statues of Trajan and “made them curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do.” In the same letter he said that the people being tried “affirmed that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certia fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deed, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up.”

Thallus. One of the first secular writers who mentions Christ was Thallus. Dated perhaps around A.D. 52, Thallus wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean world from the Trojan War to his own time. Unfortunately, his writing now exists only in fragments that have been cited by other writers. Julius Africanus, referred to Thallus’ third book of histories, in which he explained away the darkness that took place at Jesus’ death as an eclipse of the sun. Julius pointed out that an eclipse was impossible because the Passover always takes place during the full moon. This reference shows that the Gospel account of the darkness that fell upon the land during Christ’s crucifixion was well known and required a naturalistic explanation from non-Christians. Thallus did not doubt that Jesus had been crucified and that an unusual event had occurred in nature that required an explanation. The basic facts were not called into question.

Plegon wrote a history called “Chronicles.” Again, while this work has been lost, Julius Africanus preserved a small fragment of it in his writings. Like Thallus, Phlegon confirms that darkness came upon the earth at Jesus’ crucifixion, and he, too, explains it as the result of a solar eclipse: “During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon.”

Mara Bar-Serapion. Some time after A.D. 70, Mara Bar-Serapion, a Syrian Stoic philosopher, wrote a letter from prison to his son, encouraging him to pursue wisdom. In his letter he compares Jesus to the philosophers Socrates and Pythagoras. He writes: “What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given.” This man was certainly not a Christian, since he puts Jesus on equal footing with Socrates and Pythagoras; He has Jesus living on in His teaching rather than in His resurrection. And yet, his references to Christ indicate that he did not question whether Jesus really lived.

In addition to the pagan references to Jesus, there are the Jewish references
And of course, while they are not favorable to Christ, they do prove Jesus’ existence.

There is a statement in the Babylonian Talmud, which although it contains a lot of error, shows us things: “It has been taught: On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu. And an announcer went out, in front of him, for forty days (saying): `He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and plead in his behalf.’ But, not having found anything in his favor, they hanged him on the eve of Passover”

The word “hanged” is another way of referring to crucifixion. This text clearly affirms the historicity of Jesus and His death. It also affirms that the Jewish authorities were involved in the sentencing, but it tries to justify their actions. In a backhanded way it even attests to Jesus’ miracles, but it attempts to explain them away as the work of a sorcerer or magician just as we see in the scriptures.

In that Talmud, the title “Ben Pandera” is used of Jesus. Many scholars say pandera is a play on words, a travesty on the Greek word for virgin “parthenos,” which the Christians used in regard to the birth of Christ. In another passage, we are told that Mary, “who was the descendant of princes and governors, played the harlot with carpenters.” The idea wa: If Joseph was not Jesus’ father, then Mary was pregnant by another man; therefore she is an adulteress and Jesus was an illegitimate son. And of course the scribes and Pharisees indirectly leveled this charge at Jesus in John 8:41. These accusations confirm that the Christian account of Jesus’ miraculous birth was an early claim of the churches which required a response. The response didn’t deny Jesus’ existence – just the way in which He was conceived.

Josephus. Josephus ben Mattathias was born in 37 A.D. and died after 100 A.D. He was a Jewish aristocrat, a priestly politician, and a soldier during the first Jewish War. But he was also very smart and became a Jewish historian in the pay of the Roman Emperor, Captured by Vespasian in 67, he served the Romans as mediator and interpreter during the rest of revolt. Brought to Rome, he composed there two great works: “The Jewish War,” written in the early 70s, and “The Jewish Antiquities,” finished about 93 or 94.

In his “Jewish Antiquities,” one passage reads: “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 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 concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.”

A few pages later Josephus went on: “But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.”

So Josephus, writing just a little more than half a century after Jesus’ life and crucifixion, attests to the truth that Jesus was not a figment of the church’s imagination but a real historical figure.