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The mystery of Christian origins

By Paul Barnett - posted Tuesday, 16 November 2004

I was not raised a Christian. At the time of my conversion to Christianity, many years ago, I had one nagging question: was it all historically true? Over time I have discovered there are several reasons to support the argument that it is.

First, Jesus was a genuine figure of history. The main evidence is the New Testament itself, but there is a scatter of evidence from other sources.

Tacitus, our major source for the Roman world in the century of Jesus, describes the fire that destroyed most of Rome in AD 64. Many blamed the fire on Nero who, in turn, “scapegoated” a new sect, the visible and hated Christiani.


In Annals xv.44 Tacitus explains where these “Christians” came from. The “founder of the name Christian” was “Christ”. This “Christ” had been executed 30 years earlier in Judaea, in the time of Tiberius, by Pilate, the governor of the province. But the sect did not die with its founder as most movements did. It sprang up again in Judaea and spread to Rome where it had become - as Tacitus called it - an “immense multitude”.

Tacitus had been a member of the Roman Senate and governor of a major province. He had access to imperial records and pinpoints Christ’s execution in relation to time - AD 30; place - Judaea; and circumstance - treason. He also explains how these “Christians” came to be in Rome in the year AD 64. No serious scholar known to me doubts Tacitus’ account.

Here I make an observation that is important to me: world history, independent of Christian sources, has noted Christian origins. The narrative of Luke and Acts (which is one book in two volumes) tells the same story as Tacitus when reduced to its broad outline: Christ was executed in Judaea in the time of Tiberius by Pontius Pilate, the governor, and the Christian movement sprang up again after this and spread beyond Judaea, including to Rome.

One further comment about Tacitus: Tacitus is a hostile witness. He hates Jews and he hates Christians and consequently his corroboration of the outlines of Christian history is all the more valuable.

A second reason to support the historical truth of Christ’s story is that the New Testament talks about Jesus and the early Christians in the same way it mentions famous people and events, including Herod king of the Jews, Herod Tetrarch of Galilee, Pilate, Sergius Paulus, Felix, Festus, Roman Governors, Caiaphas High Priest in Jerusalem, Aretas King of the Arabians, Emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Claudius, and a great famine in the time of Claudius. These are all real people and events known from world history and archaeology who also appear in the New Testament in the same way Jesus, Peter, John, Luke, Mark and Paul do.

It’s worth remembering that the Graeco-Roman world was a golden age in terms of education and literature. We know far more about the time of Jesus in the Graeco-Roman world than we do about Europe during the thousand years from the Fall of Rome until the Renaissance for they were indeed “dark ages” compared to the brilliance of the age of Rome and the Caesars.


A few weeks ago I revisited Ephesus, the great city in which Christianity was established by Paul. Aqueducts brought water 40 kilometres to this city of 250,000 people. Running water served the homes, there was reticulated sewerage, elegant villas, frescoes, statues and fountains, a theatre, a library. There were ingenious surgical instruments used by doctors. Civic life was more coherent and focused there than in our sprawling cities of today. And yet cities like Ephesus were found every few kilometres. Magnesia, Priene, Miletus, Aphrodisias, Didyma, Halicarnassus … This world in which Christ was born and his Gospel was preached was not “stone age” or “primitive”.

A third reason is that the texts of the New Testament were written close to Jesus’ time in history, unlike those written about Alexander, Augustus and Nero, which were often written many years after their time.

The Gospel of Mark was written within 40 years of Jesus’ death. The Letters of Paul were written within 30 years, the earliest within 20.This struck me like a thunderbolt: Mark was as close to Jesus in years as I am to the day I was married, the birth of my youngest child, or to the time, 40 years ago, when I was instructed by my Seminary teachers.

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Article edited by Libby O'Loghlin.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited version of the text first published on CASE in October 2004. CASE is the Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education, an activity of New College at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. 

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About the Author

Bishop Paul Barnett's twin interests are Christian ministry (clergy and lay) and the "world" of the era of the New Testament. He was the Anglican Bishop of North Sydney from 1990 until 2001.

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