In the controversy surrounding the historical Jesus of Nazareth, Christian apologists often will claim that there is incontrovertible evidence that the Gospel Jesus existed.
Tacitus was born in 56 CE in Rome.
Pliny the Younger was born in 61 CE in Como.
Lucian of Samosa was born in 125 CE born in Syria.
Sextus Julius Africanus was born in 160 CE.
While these men each do make reference to a Christian Messiah, i.e. Christ, it is usually in the context of Christians who followed Christ. In his Annals, for example, Tacitus mentions the Christians were named after the Christus, whom they followed, and he goes on to inform that Pontius Pilate arrested and tried the Christus for inciting rebellion, and thus put an end to a terrible superstition which arose at that time. So once again, it is merely a report that Christians believed in a messiah called the Christ.
Although a strong source for what first century Christians believed, it is still not direct evidence for the historical Jesus. It’s also interesting to note that Tacitus was not at all convinced of the Christians claims and counts their beliefs as little more than superstition.So it seems all we really have are reports that there were such things as Christians who believe that there was a Christ, and that early Christians and Jews could be distinguished apart from one another. This is not at all a controversial claim.But it doesn’t act as supporting evidence for the existence of the historical Jesus any more than believers in Mithras act as a testament to the existence of Mithras. All it is evidence for is that such a *belief existed.
More importantly though, it doesn’t necessarily represent the same Yeshua as the Gospel messiah. Yeshua, after all, was a common first century name. The first century historian Josephus lists approximately twenty different men named Jesus, at least ten of whom lived in the same time as the famous Jesus [cf. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, p. 206 n. 6].Furthermore, it is no coincidence that both Yohanan b. Zakkai and Akiba each had exactly five students, the same number as listed in the Sanhedrin 43a verse. None of the (Balvi) desciples listed in verse 43a are recognizable as followers of the Gospel Jesus, per se. Except for possibly Mattai, which could be reference for Matthias, e.g. the Gospel Matthew. But seeing as Matthew was also a very common name, it doesn’t necessarily make it a reference for the Gospel Jesus. Also, the etymology of Mattia for the Gospel Matthew is problematic in the case of the Balvi Talmud. Reference to the Gospel of Matthew is actually recorded elsewhere in the Talmud, creating a distinction between the Matthias and Mattia spellings.For example, an anecdote regarding a legal suit which Rabban Gamaliel II was prosecuting before a Christian judge made an appeal to the Gospel and to the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:17 (here spelled Matthias), with one possible reading of the story indicating that it was Gamaliel making this reference. In this part the alternative spelling indicates that Mattia in the Sanhedrin 43a is not a reference to the Matthew of the gospels but to a different Matthew.As such, to claim Sanhedrin 43a is actually about the Gospel Jesus is speculative at best. But as evidence, it’s not admissible.
Two things to keep in mind:
1) Josephus was a Jewish historian writing in the first century (circa 37-70 C.E.), and so he would have never referred to an Ascetic Jewish Prophet who had died leaving prophecy unfulfilled as the Messiah, let alone a *divine prophet, and so he could not have referred to Jesus as the Christ. No orthodox Jew of antiquity believed Jesus was the chosen messiah, nor would any Jew have considered Christ to be divine—in any sense of the word—since the Jews continued to hold the covenant with Yahweh believing him to be the one true God. As such, Josephus would have most likely chosen his words more carefully, adding something like “supposed messiah,” just to make his point clear. But this is not what we find. As Christ’s divinity would have been seen as blasphemous to the first century Jew—but not to later Christians—it’s a strong bet that this Christos business is a later Christian theological consideration. Josephus’ utilization of the Greek “Christos” and not the Hebrew “messiah,” at the time of his writing, seems to be out of place, and thus a likely denotes a later addition.
But the biggest give away is the second fact:
2) The earliest Christian writers, such as Origen and Justin the Martyr, frequently quote Josephus but often quote from an earlier version which lacks any reference to Jesus being the Christ. And since their account of Josephus is from an earlier source than the one modern Christian apologists love to quote mine from, we can reasonably be sure that the later addition of Jesus being referred to as the Christ, at the very least, suggests a Christian forgery from no earlier than the third century.
This is not enough to establish the historical Jesus as extant.
Because, if it isn’t obvious, the consensus of Biblical historians is that Jesus existed! But let’s not be so hasty. As the NT historian and theologian Robert M. Price informed in an online discussion, “The relevant question is whether there is any basis for that consensus. I think not. It results from the inertia of tradition and the abhorrence of thinking outside the box of what “professionals know.”
On the other hand, I can’t make the assumption there wasn’t any historical Socrates either, but I’m comfortable admitting as much. Probably because my belief in Socrates existing or not existing has no baring on the status of my eternal soul or the condition I will endure in the afterlife, should these things exist.
But the real question is, do we have enough room to doubt the veracity of each belief independently? In other words, is belief in a historical Socrates more acceptable than belief in a historical Jesus? I would say so.
Like Price, I cannot say whether or not there was a historical Jesus for certain. I am inclined to think so, but while I can assume all I want, this is not the same as definitively answering an age old question of where does the Gospel Christ end and the historical Jesus begin? Or, for that matter, is there any relationship between the two? Perhaps, it is more like the relationship between Spartacus and his legend, in which we have multiple attestation of various confrontations and encounters of the great man, but none of them agreeing fully, but frequent enough to establish probable existence. But like Spartacus, the only thing we can claim for sure is that we don’t know very much about the actual man. We only have hearsay of his legend.
In fact, all we know about Jesus are stories which come to us second hand by later Christians. So we know that Christians believed that Jesus Christ was a special figure, but like Tacitus claimed, it may have merely been the popular superstition of the day. Apologists will invoke Tacitus, to support their belief in Jesus as probable, but they often ignore the implication of Tacitus’ view that he viewed the whole messiah business as nothing more than superstition. Why suppose otherwise?
Another similarity between Jesus and Spartacus is that both men were products of their day. They were each at the epicenter of cultural and world change. They both fulfilled the needs of those oppressed and who were in dire need of a savior. So they found a person who fulfilled their criteria. The oppressed slaves found a savior in Spartacus, and the oppressed Jews desperately in want of a messiah found the archetype present in Jesus Christ. But as historians, that is about all we can say.