By Jay Jamison
I think it’s safe to say that even nonbelievers would find it hard to dispute that something significant happened in an eastern province of the Roman Empire around the Jewish holiday of Passover a little over two thousand years ago. One day a young man entered the city of Jerusalem to the cheers of the inhabitants, and a little over a week later he suffered public humiliation and execution. Archeologists have uncovered over the years evidence supporting the claims that these events happened. A problem that has nagged those who have an interest in this story is the fact that Jesus left no written account of the events. Like Socrates three centuries before Jesus, the story of the main character in the narrative has come to us through the writings of others, some claiming firsthand knowledge of the events. Later writings from those who never knew the young man personally, have also added to the narrative. I have read tracts by twentieth century writers claiming that the story of Jesus is a fiction dreamed up to support a religion, rather than the other way around (i.e., that Jesus existed, and a religion grew up around his name). Paul Maier, emeritus professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University argues that virtually all the evidence, both Christian and Jewish sources, along with secular Roman documents, points to a real person we now call Jesus (see “Did Jesus Really Exist?” at namb.net). Maier cites a passage found in the “Annals,” of the Roman historian Tacitus, about the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilate. I happen to have a copy of Tacitus’ “Annals,” from my father’s library, and opened it to the passage cited by Maier, only to discover the whole book is a text in the original Latin. Dad knew Latin, I don’t. So, I’ll have to rely on contemporary historians like Maier. The question remains: Why would a Roman historian, who incidentally hated Christians, reference in a matter of fact way, the execution of Jesus, if the whole tale of his existence was considered a myth? Maier writes, “Tacitus, it should be emphasized, was not some Christian historian who was trying to prove that Jesus Christ really lived, but a pagan who despised Christians as a ‘disease,’” a term he uses later in the passage. Had Jesus never even existed, he would have been the first to expose that pathetic phantom on whom such cultists placed their trust.” The first century AD was a tough time to be a believer in a religion a Roman historian refers to as a disease, a cult. The publication date of this column in The Source is known as Maundy Thursday among Christians, and the next day is Good Friday. An execution occurred on what many now know as Good Friday, according to the Roman documents. To the Roman authorities of the time, Jesus was a troublemaker, a criminal; and to make it plain, he was executed along with two other criminals, thieves. I often wonder if we would even know about Pontius Pilate, or some of the other characters from those times, had it not been for Jesus. Possibly for the authorities, it was just another day of executions outside the city at Golgotha, in a time when executions were not infrequent. Except, as well all know now, it wasn’t just another execution. Happy Easter.