Did Jesus Exist?
“Did Jesus Exist?” is an incredibly common question on the internet. As one site puts it, “We simply do not have a shred of evidence to determine the historicity of a Jesus ‘the Christ.’ We only have evidence for the belief of Jesus.”
This is generally known as the “Christ myth” theory: there is obviously belief in Jesus (this is just a widespread myth), but there was no actual Jesus. Robert Price and Richard Carrier are two of the most well-known advocates of this discredited theory.
Even Richard Dawkins, in his best-selling book The God Delusion, gave this idea serious consideration:
But there is no more and no less reason to believe the four canonical gospels. All have the status of legends, as factually dubious as the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
Most of what the four canonical gospels share is derived from a common source, either Mark’s gospel or a lost work of which Mark is the earliest extant descendant. Nobody knows who the four evangelists were, but they almost certainly never met Jesus personally. Much of what they wrote was in no sense an honest attempt at history but was simply rehashed from the Old Testament, because the gospel-makers were devoutly convinced that the life of Jesus must fulfil Old Testament prophecies. It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all, as has been done by, among others, Professor G. A. Wells of the University of London in a number of books, including Did Jesus Exist?.
Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history, and I shall not consider the Bible further as evidence for any kind of deity. In the farsighted words of Thomas Jefferson, writing to his predecessor, John Adams, ‘The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.’
Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, and the film made from it, are arousing huge controversy in church circles. Christians are encouraged to boycott the film and picket cinemas that show it. It is indeed fabricated from start to finish: invented, made-up fiction. In that respect, it is exactly like the gospels. The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction (The God Delusion, pp. 122-123, emphasis added)
This viewpoint is in stark contrast to the consensus of modern scholarship. Bart Ehrman, an agnostic scholar, summarizes the scholarship on the subject: “He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees” (Forged: writing in the name of God, p. 285).
But an appeal to authority is hardly convincing. If nearly everyone agrees that Jesus existed, there must be considerable evidence, right? So what is the evidence for the existence of Jesus? What are Richard Carrier and Richard Dawkins missing?
There are three main viewpoints represented in ancient literature about Jesus:
- Roman writings
- Jewish writings, and
- Christian writings.
In what follows, there is no assumption that the Bible is “Scripture” or “The Holy Word of God”; we are just looking at all of the ancient manuscripts we have available to us, as part of an open-minded historical investigation.
Overall, when you consider the basic storyline of Jesus: uneducated, poor, homeless, traveling man, known for his teachings and healings, but then crucified for social disturbances, and then considered to be divine, it is remarkable how many ancient sources speak of his existence.
Roman Writings on Jesus:
Tacitus, in his book Annals, written in 116 A.D., refers to the existence of Jesus in passing, as he discusses Nero’s response to the “Great Fire” in Rome in 64A.D:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures 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 one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
This is evidence from an important, nonChristian, historical work essential to our understanding of ancient Rome: “The Annals provides a key source for modern understanding of the history of the Roman Empire during the first century. The Annals is Tacitus’ final work, and modern historians generally consider it his greatest writing.”
Mara Bar-Serapion, a Stoic philosopher in Syria, wrote a letter that is best dated to the first century. In it, he said:
What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defense? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates? Famine and plague came upon them as a punishment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the “new law” he laid down
This is suggestive evidence that Mara Bar-Serapion knew of both Jesus’ existence and his distinctive teaching.
Jewish Writings on Jesus:
The primary source about Jesus in ancient Jewish sources is Flavius Josephus. He was born in Jerusalem “to a father of priestly descent and a mother who claimed royal ancestry,” but later “fully defected to the Roman side and was granted Roman citizenship.” He is known for his writings of Jewish history. In his work The Antiquities of the Jews, he wrote:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned…
This is very interesting from a historical standpoint: a Jewish-Roman historian is writing about the persecution of James, a law-breaker who is to be stoned to death. In doing so, he says that James was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”
A more disputed passage referring to Jesus is found in the same work, in Book 18, chapter 3. “The general scholarly view is that while the Testimonium Flavianum is most likely not authentic in its entirety, it is broadly agreed upon that it originally consisted of an authentic nucleus with a reference to the execution of Jesus by Pilate which was then subject to Christian interpolation.”
There is also possible evidence of the existence of Jesus in the Talmud, a written work of Rabbinic reflection.
Christian Writings on Jesus:
Obviously the existence of Jesus is mentioned in Christian writings.
Now, it is just intellectually lazy to say, “Oh, those were biased, we can’t trust them at all.” In my experience, this is projection, taking one’s own biases against Christianity and projecting them onto ancient documents that someone knows very little about. In order to sustain this objection, a detailed historical argument needs to be given for why the bias of early Christians was so comprehensive and truth-distorting that nothing of historical value remains from these documents. In other words, this broad historical assertion requires evidential support.
There is a wide variety of Christian documents that testify to the existence of Jesus: the four gospels, the letters of Paul, the other New Testament epistles, the writings of the church fathers, and the creeds, sermons, and other sayings that are preserved for us within these documents.
For the sake of brevity, given the abundance of manuscript evidence from Christian writers for the existence of Jesus, we can look just at the undisputed letters of Paul:
The 7 undisputed letters (and their approximate dates) are: 1 Thessalonians (c. 51 AD), Philippians (c. 52-54 AD), Philemon (c. 52-54 AD), 1 Corinthians (c. 53-54 AD), Galatians (c. 55 AD), 2 Corinthians (c. 55-56 AD) and Romans (c. 55-58 AD). The authenticity of these letters is accepted by almost all scholars, and they have been referenced and interpreted by early authors such as Origen and Eusebius.
These letters speak of the existence of Jesus, his disciples and brothers, and that the end of his life involved betrayal, crucifixion, and burial.
One more point: The Crucifixion
A challenging point for advocates of the “Christ myth” theory is the wholesale invention of the crucifixion of Jesus. Remember what crucifixion entails: the agonizing torture, the public shaming, the social rejection. If Jesus never existed and the entire story is made-up, why did people decide that it would be best to have Jesus shamed and killed in the most horrible way imaginable? For instance, the famous Roman orator Cicero called crucifixion, “a most cruel and disgusting punishment” and that, “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.”
More Free Resources on the Existence of Jesus:
- A thorough, well organized overview: Did He Really Exist? at The Divine Evidence
- The irreligious assault on the historicity of Jesus by John Dickson
- Resources on The Existence of Jesus at Tektonics.org
- Gary Habermas Responds to G.A. Wells at BeThinking.org
- Archaeological Evidence for Jesus by Craig Evans
- Resources for Study on “Jesus Never Existed” at Apologetics315
- Did Jesus Exist? at Bible.org
- Did Jesus Die on A Cross? by Michael Licona
- How Did December 25 Become Christmas? by Andrew McGowan
Finally, here’s the audio of an interesting interview of Bart Ehrman on the subject:
We offer other great resources on the best reasons for the existence of God:
- Can We Know Truth? Is There Truth?
- Moral Relativism: Is There Right? What Is Right?
- The Argument From Reason
- The Bible: Is It True? Historical? Reasonable?
- The Cosmological Argument
- The Moral Argument
- The Problem of Evil
- The Resurrection
- The Teleological Argument
- The Unique Life and Teachings of Jesus
- Why Apologetics?