First let’s talk about the absence of evidence:
There is no physical or archaeological evidence tied to Jesus, nor do we have any written evidence directly linked to him.
But strictly speaking, we have no archaeological evidence for any upper-class Jew from the 20s CE either. Nor do we have more written evidence for Pontius Pilate, who is a Roman aristocrat in charge of a major province; than we do for Jesus [We do have epigraphic evidence for Pontius, in the form of the Pilate Stone, an archaeological find that bears his name. However, there is no reason to expect any similar archaeological evidence for a figure like Jesus].
The oft quote maxim is “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. This needs to be tempered here, since one can easily adopt an immoderate position. What is reasonable is to expect there to be not only evidence consistent with the existence of Jesus, but the kind and amount of evidence that would be consistent with his existence. Demanding more evidence than there is likely to be is raising the historical standard for Jesus more than other historical situations, which means casting similar, if not more severe, doubts on other less well attested figures.
Next let us discuss references to Jesus in the documents:
Pliny the Younger, writing in 112 AD, letters 10.96-97, discusses the issue of Christians gathering together, illegally. He knows a few facts about early Christian practice, and so by the early second century we know that Christians exist and believe in a Christ figure. They offer some form of worship to him. The most famous of the two letters between Pliny and Trajan Suetonius,115 AD, in his Lives of the Caesars, discussing Claudius (41-54), mentions the deportations of Jews after riots “on the instigation of Chrestus”. There is a possibility that he means a Jew named Chrestus, a not uncommon name, but more likely this is a common misspelling for Christus. At best, Suetonius supports that Christians were living in Rome in the 50s AD. The reference is in Claudius 25, readable online here.
Tacitus, in his Annales (15.44) written in 115, covers history from 14-68AD. He treats the fire in Rome under Nero in 64CE, and discusses Nero’s blaming of the Christians. He mentions “The author of this name, Christ, was put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but even in the city”
So Tacitus claims that there were Christians in Rome in the 60s, that the sect originates in Judea, that they are named for a figure/founder ‘Christ’, and that Pontius Pilate executed him. There are claims by mythicists that this passage in Tacitus is an interpolation, but there is no evidence for this and almost no serious classicist supports it.
Tacitus’ information is clearly second-hand, and he is incorrect in that Pilate was prefect, not procurator. At the same time, in those circumstances prefect and procurator were virtually equivalent. Furthermore, it appears that by Tacitus’ time procurator would have been the correct term. The Tacitus passage can be read online here.
Josephus He’s a Jewish aristocrat and military leader. Lost in battle during the 66 uprising and ultimately surrendered to the Romans. He was later used as an interpreter during the siege of Jerusalem, then taken to Rome and where he became a writer of history.
He makes 2 references to Jesus. 1 in Antiquities book 20, referring to the death of James, the brother of Jesus (Antiquities 20.9.1). The other passage is known as the Testimonium Flavianum, in Antiquities 18.3.3. This passage refers to Jesus as a miracle worker, a leader of Jews and Greeks, the Messiah, condemned by Pilate to the Cross, apperaring alive on the third day, and his followers continue until the present.
The major problem with this passage is that Josephus is a Jew, and shows no evidence of being a Christian, and so this depiction is inconsistent with Jospehus. There are three possibilities – that the text is entirely made-up (the Mythicist position), that the text is entirely genuine (the hyper-conservative Christian position), that the text is original but altered (the position taken by most scholars). For my part, a less sensational version of the text with obviously Christian elements removed is more likely to be original.
We still need to treat these as historical documents; the bare fact of being documents produced by religious communities does not inherently make them more, or less, reliable.
So we have Mark, written around 70AD, then we have Matthew and Luke, based in large degree upon Mark, written probably in the 80-85 period. And yet Matthew and Luke share common material not found in Mark, which is typically referred to as Q (from quelle, German for ‘source’), besides material distinct to Matthew (M) and Luke (L), so you have in fact 4 likely documentary sources. Plus you have John written in the 80s or 90s AD, an independent source from the other canonical gospels.
So you have four canonical gospels drawn from ostensibly 5 source texts, all dated within 40-50 years of Jesus’ death. This is within living oral memory, and probably their composition represents the transition within early Christian communities from those who had eyewitness testimony to a third generation that was beginning to have no access to such testimony.
There are also non-canonical gospels written after John, some of which show independence from the canonical gospels. For example Thomas, dated to 110-120AD. Thomas is primarily a collection of sayings; it is not a narrative text. It exists in a Coptic text and appears to be associated with the development of 2nd century Gnosticism. You can read a translation here.
Similarly the fragmentary Gospel of Peter. There are two documents by this title, the extant one is not of much help in historical Jesus studies; it is usually dated to late 2nd century, which is too late to be of much usage. However, there is another “Gospel of Peter” which Origen refers to, existing only in two papyrus fragments (P.Oxy 4009 and 2949; both of these may not actually come from the supposed ‘Gospel’). This lost gospel would be earlier, and like the next text, possible attest to Jesus. Bart Ehrman also likes to highlight Papyrus Egerton 2 as a non-parallel independent account. The Egerton Papyrus is generally dated to ca. 200 (though Stanley Porter supports an earlier, ca.150 date). It contains four short fragments, one of which has no parallel in the canonical Gospels]
There are many other gospels but most are significantly later, and show development of miraculous and legendary accounts, often disconnected to the earlier documents.
So, on Ehrman’s count, you have 7 or 8 early independent accounts about Jesus of Nazareth.
Furthermore, while no doubt that there is oral tradition behind these texts, there are almost certainly written sources. For example the Q material in Matthew and Luke is frequently identical, enough that you would suspect it was a written document, not merely oral material. Matthew and Luke almost certainly used other documentary sources, whether one or several, we simply don’t know.
Then you should factor in how you account for other early Christian literature, including the other NT documents, and documents written shortly after, for example Papias, quoted later in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, claims to have directly inquired about the apostles’ teaching, and so is about a 3rd generation source. In regards to the other NT documents, most scholars date the earliest of Paul’s letters to the early 50s. So you must account for the origin of Christian communities through Asia Minor and Greece before the 50s.
What do you do with this data?
Make the more reasonable hypothesis. In this case, it would seem that a historical person, Jesus, was a cause of significant religious development in the 30s and 40s AD, that his followers began a new religious movement initially within Judaism, but soon spreading beyond, and that within a generation they chose to write documentary memorials of his life, teaching, death and purported resurrection.
So, to conclude, there is a considerable amount of documentary evidence to support the supposition that Jesus existed as a historical human being.
- Borg, Marcus, “Jesus A New Vision. Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship
- Ehrman, Bart “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth”
- Ehrman “The New Testament: A istorical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings”
- Crossan, John Dominic, “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Meditarranean Jewish Peasant”
- Fredriksen, Paula “From Jesus to Christ: The Origings of the New Testament Images of Jesus”
- Meier, John, “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus”
- Sanders, E.P, “The Historical Figure of Jesus”
- Thiessen & Merz “Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods”.
- Vermès, Géza, “Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospel”
- Marshall, I.H. “I believe in the Historical Jesus”
- Material given by anonymous source on Reddit