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(Published in The Greek Australian VEMA, February 2005)


An Historical Investigation

Introductory Remarks
At the heart of the good news of the New Testament is the person of Jesus Christ.
This means that fundamentally the Christian faith is neither a philosophical system,
nor a set of doctrines or a conglomeration of rules, rituals and customs but is a way
of life centred on the person of Jesus Christ. Essentially the first confession of faith
made by the early Christians was that Jesus1, which literally means Saviour was the
Christ. For this reason we say that the message of the New Testament is effectively
Christocentric (centred on Christ). It is imperative therefore for every person who
claims to be a Christian to become familiar with Jesus' identity and work by asking
who this historical Jesus was. According to the Synoptic gospels, it was precisely this
same question that was posed to his disciples on their way to Caesarea Philippi:
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea
Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people
say that I am? (Mk 8:27)
The numerous answers given to this question in Biblical literature and all subsequent
theological writings throughout the ages suggest that this Christological question was
not always unanimously proclaimed. Already in the New Testament the disciples point
to the wide span of opinion:
And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and
still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you
say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah [Christos]
(Mk 8:28-29).
Indeed from the first days of the Christian community there have been many answers
given to this question - a clear reflection of the difficulty of encapsulating the mystery
of the person of Jesus. The various titles used by the early Christians to express their
faith included: prophet, teacher, shepherd, Messiah, Son of David, Son of Man, Son
of God, Lord, second Adam, bridegroom, light of the World, the Alpha and the
Omega, the High Priest, the Suffering Servant, Saviour, Logos. Therefore already
from the Biblical texts one can detect a rich variety of titles indicating the profound
depth of the question at hand. Indeed an entire discipline within theology is committed
to the systematic study of the person and work of Jesus Christ and is known as

1 Regarding the name of Jesus, both the gospels of Matthew and Luke record that an angel of the Lord
appeared to Joseph and said to him: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,
for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and are to name him Jesus, for
he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:20-21). Compare also Lk 1:31.


The Meaning of the name 'Christ'

The English word 'Christ' which translates the Greek word 'Christos' and the Hebrew
term, 'Messiah' means the 'anointed One' of God. The answer given by Peter in the
synoptic gospels and by Martha in the Johannine gospel, that Jesus is the 'Christ' has
formed the foundational confession of faith concerning Jesus. The term 'Christ' is
significant as it already underscores the intimate relationship (or communion)
between Jesus and God, His Father and the Holy Spirit. The fact that Christ is the
'anointed One' implies first and foremost that Jesus cannot be thought of apart from
His Father and the Holy Spirit since it is God the Father who wills that Jesus be
anointed by the Holy Spirit who thereby anoints Christ making Him be what He is.
Secondly as a corollary to the first point, being the 'anointed One' of God indicates
that the Father and the Holy Spirit actively participate in the ministry of Christ.
Therefore any individualistic understanding of Christ is incompatible with the person
and work of Jesus. Christ is a relational being drawing His identity from His relation
with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This minor yet important point highlights that
Jesus bestowed upon all human persons and the world at large this gift of divine
communion enjoyed by Him by virtue of becoming human Himself. In other words
Christ's abiding presence in the Church today, as proclaimed and testified by the
book of Acts for example, ensures that the entire cosmos is also incorporated into the
filial relationship between Christ and His Father. Therefore all human persons who
are in Christ acquire their particular personhood in the same communal relationship
inherent in the life of the Trinity.

Aspects of Jesus' Historical Life

Historically what is certain about the person of Jesus is that He appeared on earth in
conjunction with John the Baptist2, gathered disciples around Himself forming a
symbolic group, 'the Twelve' and began his brief preaching ministry proclaiming the
coming of the kingdom of God, for which He was executed. Very little is known about
the life of Jesus prior to His baptism by John the Baptism. Born shortly before the
death of King Herod the Great (4BC)3 in Bethlehem, He was known as a Galilean
from Nazareth. For this reason the every day language of Jesus would have been
2 John the Baptist was clearly a historical figure whose life is mentioned by the Jewish historian,
Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities (ca 93-93AD). The two main themes in John's message is one of
profound repentance (those whom he baptised 'with water' (Mt 3:11) were the one's whose repentance
led them to be converted). His second theme pointed to "one mightier than I" (Mk 1:7) who would come
after him baptising "with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Mt 3:11) and who John would not even be worthy to
loosen the strap of his sandal.
3 The reason that modern scholarship has posited such a date for the birth of Jesus is that we know that

Jesus was born sometime during the reign of Augustus Caesur who was Emperor between 27-4BC,
during the first reign of Quirinius as Governor over Syria and during the latter years of Herod I's reign
over Palestine.

Aramaic, which had long been the preferred popular language after the Babylonian
exile. Yet that he could argue with the Pharisees on issues of biblical interpretation
points to the fact that Jesus would have had a knowledge of Hebrew as well. Some
scholars have even argued that Jesus could have had some knowledge of Greek
since it was the language of the Gentiles with whom he also interacted. Therefore we
would claim that Jesus was literate, spoke Aramaic and was familiar with Hebrew and
Koine Greek, the Greek language of the time.

Furthermore, the Scriptures claim that he was from the lineage of David (cf Rom 1:3)4,
Israel's greatest king and the prototype of the royal Messiah.5 The virginal birth of
Jesus is affirmed only by the gospel according Matthew:
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When
his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived
together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her
husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose
her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just
when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to
him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to
take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the
Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for
he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil
what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the
virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him
Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke
from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he
took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she
had borne a son; and he named him Jesus (Mt 1:18-25).
In regards to the virginity of the mother of Jesus, the Orthodox Christian tradition
claims that she was a virgin before, during and after the birth of her son and for this
reason is called 'ever-virgin' (aeiparthenos).6 Many argue that this could not be the
case as the New Testament affirms that Jesus had other brothers (cf Mt 13:55). In
answer to this apparent difficulty, the Patristic tradition has offered two different
answers: firstly some Fathers of the Church rightly stressed that in the Scriptures the

4 Jesus' Davidic lineage is affirmed also in the Synoptics, Acts 2:25-31, Rev 3:7; 5:5 and 22:16.
5 Even though Jesus was born in time from a mother yet without a father, the Scriptures name Joseph
as the immediate predecessor of Jesus. According to Jewish tradition marriage laws Joseph could act
as Jesus' father even though he was not His begetter. This therefore granted legal paternity to Joseph
which meant that all hereditary rights were conferred on to Jesus even though He was not Joseph's
biological son.
6 The virginal conception of Jesus fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 where we are told in the Septuagint

that a virgin will bear a son and name him Emmanuel which means that God is with us.

words 'brothers' and 'sisters' could refer to the wider family, namely cousins. It is true
that to this day Middle-Eastern cultures refer to their extended family as 'brothers'.
The second view is that the brothers of Jesus referred to in the gospels could be
stepbrothers of Jesus from a possible prior marriage of Joseph. Yet what is certain is
that there is no evidence from the New Testament suggesting that Mary had other
children besides Jesus. Besides, the fact that from the cross, Jesus committed his
mother to the care of John is a strong indication not only that Joseph was deceased
by the time of Jesus' crucifixion but that Jesus was Mary's only child.

The Historicity of Jesus

Before we begin to reflect upon the person and work of Jesus as a whole, we will
investigate the historicity of the person of Jesus since many people today have raised
serious doubts not only about the Christian message in general but on the fact that
Jesus actually existed. Since the entire Christian faith is based on the person of
Jesus it is fundamental to understand that Christianity is based on a historical reality
and not a fictitious myth. In seeking to verify the historicity of Jesus, we will not begin
with the New Testament testimony since many critical scholars have rejected the
historical value concerning the person of Jesus. For this reason we will examine the
non-Christian sources, both pagan and Jewish which refer to the Jesus and His

Even though it is true that the evidence for Jesus overwhelmingly comes from the
Biblical literature yet there is still some scattered information from other sources which
either directly or indirectly refer specifically to Jesus or to the expanding Church he
left behind after His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Therefore the
methodology employed for determining the historicity of the life of Jesus in this case
will be an approach called "evidential intersection" or "internal/external coincidence" 7.
This implies that a careful study of the non-Christian literary sources will be
undertaken to see to what extent they coincide with the New Testament. Then those
New Testament stories which do in fact correspond to the extra-Biblical data will be
taken to be trustworthy. In this way we shall begin to form an historically trustworthy
image of Jesus Christ and it is to this investigation that we now turn.

Explicit Non-Christian references to Jesus

A Jewish historian named Josephus who was born in 37AD and raised in Jerusalem
has made one of the most explicit references to Jesus. Historians believe that

7These terms were employed by (Monk) Dr Themi Adamopoulo in a series of lectures given on the New
Testament at St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College.

Josephus would have heard about Jesus as a boy but that he did not record this
information until the nineties whilst in Rome. Being Jewish he had nothing to gain by
referring to Jesus and yet he did. Aware of the 'Nazarene sect' as he called it, he
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call
him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a
teacher of such people who accept the truth gladly. He won over many
Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate,
upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us,
had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place
come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day
he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had
prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And
the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not
From the above quote we learn several facts about Jesus which are also affirmed in
the New Testament. In recording that Nicodemus, an eminent Jew of the period
addressed Jesus as teacher, the Gospels substantiate what is recorded by Josephus.
The Gospel according to St John writes:
He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that
you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these
signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (Jn 3:2).
That Josephus claims that Jesus gained great popularity is well attested in the
Scriptures. The book of Acts records the growing number of Jews and Greeks (that is
Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews) from within Israel who had been won over by
Jesus.9 Josephus also refers to the Roman trial of Jesus by Pontius Pilate in precisely
the same way that the New Testament gospels convey it. Lastly Josephus' mention of
the resurrection of Jesus in writing that 'he appeared to them' is in line with the
Gospel accounts. Josephus' understanding of the convictions of Christians towards
Jesus is, on general terms, therefore the same as that of the New Testament writers.

Whilst Josephus was not hostile in his description of the identity and work of Jesus,
the same cannot be said of the writings of Tacitus, another explicit non-Christian
source regarding Jesus. He was considered one of the greatest historians of the
period. At the time of writing his Annals of Imperial Rome in which is described the
great fire of Rome in 64AD, Tacitus was the governor of the province of Asia. In his

8 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.63.

9 cf Acts 6:1-9.

history, Tacitus argued that the people of the time believed that Emperor Nero himself
was to blame for the fire. Yet, Tacitus continued that in trying to divert the blame from
himself, Nero gave the strong impression that "the notoriously depraved Christians,
as they are popularly called" were responsible for the terrible fire. Tacitus continues to
describe the originator of the Christians in the following way:
Christus, from whom the name [Christians] had its origins, suffered the
extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our
procurators, Pontius Pilate, [in] Judaea.10
The gospels' record of the accusation against Jesus which led to his crucifixion,
namely that he was the Christ, the king of the Jews, is consistent with Tacitus'
account. Tacitus also precisely details that Jesus was tried at the hands of Pontius
Pilate, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Mention is also made to the rapid
spread of the movement to Rome:
… the deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, broke afresh in
Judaea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City [Rome], where all
things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and
become popular.11
Even though Tacitus' negativity towards Christianity is apparent when he calls it a
"deadly superstition", an "evil", and "hideous and shameful" yet he was historically
precise in his references that Jesus was executed in Judaea under the governorship
of Pontius Pilate and that his movement had reached Rome. Whilst Tacitus omits to
explain why Christianity after the death of Jesus 'broke afresh' since all movements
usually died with the death of their leader, the Gospels would explain this
phenomenon in terms of God raising Christ from the dead.

Pliny was a friend of Tacitus and governor of Bithynia an adjoining province where
Tacitus was also governor at the same time. Writing about contemporary events,
Pliny described the followers of Jesus in the following way:
[Christians] met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses
alternatively among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god.12
This important detail sheds light on the way the early Christians came together to
worship Jesus as the Son of God. Furthermore, in his dislike towards the Christians,
Pliny had ordered that they renounce their follower publicly. Upon arresting them he
demanded that they "revile publicly the name of Christ" which he soon came to see
that they would rather die than to obey such an order.

10 Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome 15.44.

11 Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome 15.44.
12 Epistles 10.96

Suetonius was a historian who recorded events also described by Tacitus but did so
much earlier than Tacitus. In his history, he records a serious event of 49AD in which
the Emperor Claudius forced the Jewish community residing in Rome out of Italy. In a
similar way, Suetonius lays blame on the followers of 'Chrestus' whom he believed to
be "a class of men given to a new and wicked superstition"13 Suetonius believed that
'Chrestus' and his followers were dangerous to the peace and harmony of Roman
society. Even though the description is negative, as one would expect since
Christianity was known as a an 'illicit religion' until Emperor Constantine officially
recognized it in the forth century, the fact is that the historical existence of Jesus is
not denied.

Implicit Non-Christian references to Jesus

A second century Greek, Phlegon was a historian whose writings have survived
through references made by others to him. For example, Origen, one of the greatest
fathers of the Church who lived in the third century referred to the writings of Phlegon
on several occasions. Origen mentions Phlegon as indicating that Jesus had in fact
prophesied about the destruction of Temple which took place in 70AD.14 Elsewhere
Origen directly cites from Phlegon that Jesus,
While alive was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after
death, and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his
hands had been pierced by nails.15
From this implicit data Origen clearly shows that Phlegon was aware of the life and
work of Jesus.

Rabbi Eliezer
A Jewish teacher by the name of Eliezer16 who lived between 70-200AD referred to
Jesus though he did not specifically mention Him by name in writing about the Old
Testament prophet, Balaam. In interpreting an ancient oracle of Balaam, Eliezer
believed that Balaam's prophetic words were meant against Jesus:
Balaam looked forth and saw that there was a man born of a woman
who should rise up and seek to make himself God, and cause the whole
world to go astray. Therefore God gave power to the voice of Balaam

13 Life of Nero, 16.2.

14 Origen, Against Celsus, 2.14.
15 Origen, Against Celsus, 2.59.
16Literally this name means "God is help". This was a common Old Testament name including the
second son of Moses and a prophet who foresaw the shipwreck of Jehoshaphat's fleet (cf 2 Ch 20:25ff).

that all the peoples of the world might hear, and thus he spoke: "Give
heed that you go not astray after that man; for it is written, God is not a
man that he should lie. And if he says he is God he is a liar, and he will
deceive and say that he departs and comes again at the end. He says
and he shall not perform.17
It is obvious that the man Eliezer is referring to in his own interpretation of Balaam's
ancient oracle is Jesus whose followers were rapidly growing. This again highlights
the fact that Jesus' historical existence could not be doubted even by those who were
against Him.

Furthermore, a post 70AD Jewish tradition recorded in the Talmud records the fate of
Jesus in the following way:
Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve. Forty days previously the herald
had cried, "He is being led out for stoning, because he pas practiced
sorcery and led Israel and enticed them to apostasy. Whosoever has
anything to say in his defence let him come forward and declare it". As
nothing was brought forward to his defence, he was hanged on
Passover Eve.18
Although the interpretation of Jesus is quite contrary to the testimony of the New
Testament, the historicity of the existence of such a person is never questioned.

Concluding Remarks
This brief investigation of the extra-Biblical sources examined above has brought to
light that Jesus was a genuine figure of history. The major difference between
Christians and others regarding the historical person and mission of Jesus is in the
area of interpretation. It will be the Gospels who will attribute deity to Jesus. However
for such perspectives on the identity and ministry of Jesus Christianity is entirely
dependent on the New Testament. Yet the following conclusion can be drawn for
a. Jesus was a Jew born sometime between 10-4BC during the reign of
Augustus Caesar and during the governorship of Herod I over Palestine
b. He was a religious leader and founder of a non-Jewish 'sect' as the Roman
historians of the time called it.
c. He was a wise teacher who spoke with great authority
d. He came before John the Baptist.
e. He was executed during the governorship of Pontius Pilate during the reign of
the emperor Tiberius.

17 Cited in J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1929), 34.

18 Sanhedrin 43a.

f. He left behind Him followers who rapidly spread his teaching throughout the
Roman Empire.
g. His early followers worshipped Him as God and sang hymns upon gathering
on a fixed day (Sunday).
On the other hand, it would be apostles of Jesus, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit,
would came to recognize Jesus as the Christ (the anointed One of God) and come to
identify Him with the God (Yawheh) of the Old Testament. For this reason the Gospel
of St John would record Jesus' words that "I and the Father are one" (Jn 14:28).
Moreover, it would be the early Christian community who would come to refer to
Jesus as Lord, a title used proper to God alone since, as Son of God, they came to
see that the man Jesus was also God with exactly the same divinity as His Father.

Therefore to really know Jesus Christ is to receive Him as He appears in the

Church's canonical New Testament writings. Ultimately, as to the exact historical
events one cannot be entirely sure. Yet what is all important is the claim made by the
Eastern Orthodox tradition that the real Jesus is the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, the
book of Acts, the writings of Paul and John, Peter, James and Jude. Therefore to
'know' Christ requires a thorough and critical study of the Scriptures which means
becoming disciples of Jesus. And it is this belief in 'the one Lord Jesus Christ' as this
proclamation is described in the Scriptures which continues to form the fundamental
confession of faith for Christianity. A reflection of the New Testament titles to Jesus
will concern us in the next issue of Vema.

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary
Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College