Jesus and Some Other Guys
What would you do if someone told you a story and you weren’t so sure if it was true? If one of my kids tells me that they vacuumed the laundry room, I would generally take them at their word and not need to check their work. If they came home from school and told me they made some cars levitate in the parking lot, I would be a bit more skeptical. I would need to see some evidence or at least verify with people that were there. If the story was verified, then I would tell them to use their levitation gifts more productively and clean the rest of the house.
What do we make of some of these remarkable claims made by the Gospels in the New Testament? In my previous articles, we have looked at what the earliest letters from the church said about Jesus the Christ. The letters of Paul, for example, were written shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection and give us great insights into what His original followers believed about Him. This is important because many scholars have attempted to reconstruct who Jesus is through later sources rather than utilizing the earliest ones. In doing so, they promote a Jesus who is not the Messiah, not Savior, and not God. But if we were to honestly assess the data about Jesus, it would be wise to start with the writings of the men who knew him best. But how do we know if these writings are reliable? Well, we may do well to see if what they say about Jesus’ historical context lines up with what sources outside the Bible say. In other words, do other writers agree with them?
If we turn to the book of Luke—which was written within 30 years of Jesus’ death—we see some markers that inform us of the context into which Jesus was born. For example, in Luke 3:1-2 we see several markers to give us some historical perspective. This passage sets the stage for Jesus’ ministry and gives us the name of several men who were alive at the same time. I’d like to focus on a few of them: Pontius Pilate, Herod of Galilee, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas, and John the Baptist. Who were these guys and what do we know about them?
Pontius Pilate, the obscure governor of a minor province of Judea, is well-attested outside of Scripture. There have been inscriptions bearing his name uncovered in excavation of that area. He is also written about in the writings of Josephus, Tacitus, and Philo. These were men who wrote history about the 1st Century. Pilate is the one who is described in the Gospels as the one who ultimately gives the order for Jesus to be crucified. His relationship with both Rome and the Jews was complex and layered, but he undeniably lived and ruled during the time Jesus was killed.
Herod the tetrarch of Galilee—also known as Herod Antipas—he became the tetrarch (ruler) over the Galilee region from approximately 4 B.C. until 39 A.D. This period and location bracket the life of Jesus well. Herod shows up at various points throughout the Gospel writings and the book of Acts. He is seen at odds with the ministry of Jesus and is portrayed as jealous of Jesus’ popularity and insecure about his own leadership position. This all lines up well with what we see from outside sources like Josephus and Philo. A comparison of outside writings with the New Testament writings confirm the historical context of Galilee at that point in time which Jesus lived.
Lysanias, the tetrarch of Abilene, was doubted by scholars for years because he was actually the ruler of a different region half a century earlier. However, an inscription was later discovered from the time of Tiberius, which names Lysanias, indeed, as the tetrarch of Abilene. There appears to have been two different rulers with that name.
Annas and Caiaphas are both mentioned as high priests of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. Annas being the high priest until his death in 14 A.D. and then his son-in-law, Caiaphas, taking over soon thereafter. Both men appear in the pages of Josephus as well as in the New Testament. Before Jesus’ dramatic final entry into Jerusalem, these high priests—and their governing body, the Sanhedrin—began plotting on how to arrest and kill Him. They viewed Him as a potential threat and were intimidated by Him.
John the Baptist is spoken of outside the Gospels, most notably in the writings of the historian, Josephus. He is said to have ministered around the same time as Jesus. John called people to repent of their sins, be baptized, and live righteously in accordance with their faith.
What does all of this is mean? These men give us a reasonably complete picture of the context into which Jesus lived most of His life. In other words, Jesus is a believable historical figure within the setting these men provide. The Gospels do not focus on these men, but rather mention them in passing, enhancing their historicity. While the existence of these men doesn’t prove the Gospels to be true, they do provide us with exactly what we would expect from documents trying to accurately write down what happened.
Next time, we will look at Jesus most closely as He is portrayed in these very Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In the meantime, maybe you want to give one of them a read yourself. Do you know the real Jesus?