The historical person of Jesus
Christianity, as we have noted, is centred on a man, Jesus Christ, who lived and died around 2,000 years ago. “Jesus” is a name more or less as we would use one today – though it specifically means “God saves”. But Christ is a title, signifying “Messiah” or “anointed one”. The concept is of a person anointed (with oil) for a special task, as was the custom for priests and especially kings. Before the time of Jesus there had been a long-established and growing expectation – present in many books of the Old Testament – that an anointed king was on the way to save the people of Israel once and for all. Jesus specifically identified Himself as that awaited king (Luke 4:21).
Judaism and Islam share the Christian belief in the historic person of Jesus and even many atheists accept that Jesus existed and was put to death on the cross (though other atheists seek to deny that any such person ever lived – divisions are not reserved for those who profess religious belief). In reality, there is plenty of historical evidence of the life of Jesus. In addition to the four gospels and to other parts of the New Testament, there are many other accounts of His life and death. There are also references in secular writings from those times, for example from a Roman historian (Tacitus) and a Roman Governor (Pliny the Younger). Tacitus shows how Nero blamed the early Christians for the fire that devastated much of Rome some 30 years after Jesus’ death (Tacitus, Annals 15.44):
“Nero fastened the guilt . . . on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of ... Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.”
Pliny the Younger, who died early in the second century, was a Roman governor in Asia Minor. He wrote to the emperor Trajan for advice on how to handle the many people who stood accused of being Christians, a crime for which the penalty was death. Pliny wished to ensure that he was dealing correctly with the issue because of the great numbers of Christians of both sexes and of every age and class. The following is a key extract (Pliny, Letters, vol. II, X: 96):
“They … used to meet on a certain fixed day before dawn, when they would sing a hymn in alternating verses to Christ, as if to a god; and they bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any evil actions, but instead to commit no fraud, theft or adultery, never to speak untruths, nor to deny a trust if called upon to deliver it up; after this they used to go their separate ways, and would then reassemble to take food – but food of an ordinary and innocent kind”.
This passage, written by a man who was seeking confirmation that he was right to execute the Christians, informs us that around the end of the first century A.D. there were large numbers of people who were meeting regularly and singing hymns to Christ “as if to a god”.