Evidence shows that Jesus lived. The question is, will you believe it?
At this point we’re not even addressing the question of whether Jesus was God in human form. There’s no point in doing so, if we don’t first show, through historical record, that Jesus did, in fact, live and have a ministry in and around Jerusalem before He was crucified.
Some critics say that Jesus was a fictional character, nothing more than a myth developed by zealots who wished to start a new religion. Dr. Robert Price, for example, an atheist and mythicist, appears to find it far easier to believe in aliens than he does Jesus.
Critics like Price view historical documents as having been clearly manipulated for one purpose: to gain the church legitimacy and authority over others. Historical writings, they say, can’t be trusted. Christianity, they assert, is nothing more than a knock-off religion that stole from other religions and mythical figures such as Hercules. Price goes so far as to equate Jesus to the fictional comic book character, Superman.
Argues Price: “Which is more likely: that a man walked on water, glowed like the sun and rose from the dead, or that someone has rewritten a bunch of well-known miracle stories?” Historian Bart Ehrman, who also rejects Jesus as God, still counters that Price and other scholars skeptical of Jesus the historical person are simply choosing to disregard clear evidence.
Both of these skeptics are entrenched in their position, though they do admit that their continued research continues to tweak their thinking. Phrases common with both of them — “It seems to me…” and “In my mind…” — stood out to me as, perhaps, the crux of the issue. Many people simply refuse to believe in Jesus because they can’t wrap their brain around a figure who can’t be proven, 100 percent, to be who He said He is. “I have’t met Jesus,” they say, “So I simply can’t know for sure that he lived, much less resurrected.”
But can we know? Is there enough evidence?
Trusting Quality Sources of Evidence
Can we trust the multitude of old writings that contain information about Jesus?
Definitely. It is critical, however, to evaluate the quality of any source that mentions Jesus; not every ancient mention of Jesus aids an investigation into whether He really lived.
The “lost gospels,” for example, offer a version of Jesus that totally differs from the four biblical Gospels, which is why they remain excluded from the Bible. Gnostic in nature, these 2nd or 3rd century texts suggest that Jesus came with a secret message of “inner knowing” for a select few. Wrong. Jesus’ message is open to everyone. Most scholars do not view these texts as credible sources on Jesus.
In contrast, leading New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham presents the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, pointing to the short distance between their writing and the people who would have seen Jesus in person:
“The Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount. Mark’s Gospel was written well within the lifetime of many of the eyewitnesses, while the other three canonical Gospels were written in the period when living eyewitnesses were becoming scarce, exactly at the point in time when their testimony would perish with them were it not put in writing.”
What about Christian sources such as Paul or the authors of the General Epistles (letters) included in the Bible? What about the writings of 1st- and 2nd-century Christian leaders such as Ignatius and Clement of Rome? Or must we exclude them because they are pro-Christ?
That’s akin to asking experts not to have an opinion on a topic they know well! Are the writings of highly esteemed Roman historians Tacitus and Josephus quality resources? What about facts discovered during archeological digs? Do they support the case for a historical Jesus?
Ehrman, who is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, routinely lectures on the validity of Jesus the historical figure. He has authored numerous books on the topic. Though he rejects the divinity of Christ, he is fully convinced that Jesus did live and was crucified. “Did Jesus exist is a historical detective story,” he says. “I invite you to look at the hard, cold facts and judge for yourself.”
Roman Historians Tacitus and Josephus
Flavius Josephus was a Jewish politician, soldier, and historian who lived around AD 37-100. He was born in Jerusalem shortly after Christ’s crucifixion. As his father, Matthias, was a highly respected priest, Josephus was born into a family that would have been acutely aware of the early Jesus followers, a movement that would have been viewed as a threat to Judaism. He may have even heard some of the apostles preach in prison.
Scholars view Josephus as the single most important Jewish historian of the ancient world. Among his works, Josephus penned Antiquities of the Jews, to explain the Jewish people and their beliefs to the Romans, in an effort to reduce anti-Jewish bigotry. Antiquities is important in our investigation of the historicity of Jesus.
In Antiquities 20.200, for example, Josephus writes about the death of James, at the instigation of the Jewish high priest Ananus. Josephus clearly labels James the brother of Jesus “who was called Christ.” By including these details, he offers us a clear, non-Christian attestation of the historicity of Jesus.
Cornelius Tacitus, another important Roman historian, lived approximately between AD 56 and 120. Modern historians view his Annals (which covers Roman emperors Augustus to Nero) to be the best source of information about this period in Roman history.
It is from Tacitus, for example, that we know that Nero blamed a devastating fire that happened in Rome in AD 64 on Christians. Wrote Tacitus: “Therefore, to squelch the rumor, Nero created scapegoats and subjected to the most refined tortures those whom the common people call ‘Christians,’ hated for their abominable crimes. Their name comes from Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate.”
Though scholars do not know where Tacitus obtained the information he used in Annals, they know he had access to the Acta Senatus, the Roman Senate’s archives of its activities. Those Roman records could have contained reports of Jesus’ crucifixion, and he could have retrieved the details from there. Or he could have learned the facts while he was proconsul in Asia.
Tacitus’ writing confirm the New Testament accounts that Tiberius and Pilate were in power when Jesus was crucified. Tacitus also points to the continued growth of Christianity in the years shortly after Jesus died, as reported in the New Testament book of Acts. His report clearly demonstrates the remarkable resolve of Jesus’ earliest followers, and the growth of the movement Jesus founded. It is because Tacitus is held in such high esteem by modern historians that his Annals carry such weight.
“The testimonies of ancient historians offer strong evidence against a purely mythical reading of Jesus. In contrast to those who have denied the historical evidence of Jesus altogether, judging him merely to have been a mythological construct of early Christian thought, the testimonies of the ancient historians reveal how even those outside the early church regarded Jesus to have been a historical person. It remains difficult, therefore, if not impossible, to deny the historical existence of Jesus when the earliest Christians, Jewish and pagan evidence mention him.”
Paul’s writings are important because they are the earliest Christian documents and the earliest writings we have concerning Jesus as a historical person.
Within two years of Jesus’ death, Paul was actively hunting down His followers. But Paul did a complete about-face: from passionate persecutor of the early church to radical apostle for Jesus. So convinced was he of Jesus as Christ, that he helped to spread the Good News far and wide.
Did Paul meet Jesus personally? Historians suggest no. Did Paul personally know anyone who personally knew Jesus? Historians say yes. Three years after his “blinded by the light” conversion, Paul spent time with the disciple Peter, as well as James, the brother of Jesus, both of whom would eventually die for their faith.
Paul is often faulted by skeptics for not laying out the history of Jesus’ life in the 13 letters (Pauline Epistles) that bear his name (scholars believe he wrote perhaps half of them). Yet to expect Paul to do so is ridiculous; his letters primarily focus on calling out specific concerns happening at specific churches.
Yet Paul clearly based many of his arguments on the assumption that Jesus did exist as a real person. We know that Paul saw Jesus as a Palestine Jew, a teacher/preacher, the son of a woman, and brother to siblings — and both fully human and divine. Paul was fully convinced that Jesus was the crucified messiah (a Hebrew word that translates to “anointed one”).
Jews, we must remember, were looking for their long-expected “messiah” to be a high and mighty figure, someone who would overthrow the enemy and set up God’s kingdom on earth. To invent such a demeaning death would have done Paul no favors in his attempt to grow a community of Christ-followers. Says Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:22-23: “Jews demanded signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
As Ehrman says so matter-of-factly, “You can’t explain the crucified messiah as something that was made up. If it is hard to imagine Jews inventing the idea of a crucified messiah, where did the idea come from? It came from historical realities. There really was a man Jesus …. no Jew would have invented him.”
N.T. Wright, a leading English New Testament scholar, elaborates on the challenge for Gentiles to see Jesus as divine:
It flew in the face of all Hellenistic wisdom: part of the point of crucifixion was that it completely degraded the sufferer. It denied him any chance of a noble death, a considerable preoccupation among pagans. It also, in the normal run of things, denied him a proper burial as well, since the body would have been eaten by birds, rats, or other carrion and any final remains dumped in a common pit. The complete helplessness of crucifixion stood in sharp contrast to the Stoic, and indeed Socratic, ideal of the person who, perhaps through committing suicide, remained in control of their own fate.
Critics often use this argument to show just how “preposterous” it is to believe that God would come to earth and die. Logically, we humans can’t wrap our heads around it. I’ve been a Christian a long time and I still struggle with understanding why God would use this format to express His great love for us. But to imagine that my puny brain is capable of understanding God’s choices is what’s really preposterous. How, in any way, can I equate myself to the supernatural being who created DNA, much less sweet puppy kisses?
The Epistles found in our modern Bible were letters written to early churches and believers. It remains a mystery as to who authored some of them. But most scholars agree that the Epistles with known authors were written by an apostle or family member (James, Jude) of Jesus. That makes these letters very important for our study of the historicity of Jesus.
James makes no explicit reference to the person of the historical Jesus. But his references to “the wisdom …. from above” and “the righteous man” make it clear that he knew Jesus to be both human and God. Peter writes as one who had first-hand physical knowledge of Christ. Peter, you will remember, was a witness to the sufferings of Jesus, whom he wrote “suffered in the flesh.” Among New Testament writings, the letter to the Hebrews perhaps most clearly proclaims the gospel with the reality of Jesus as a historical figure. The book’s unknown author (perhaps Barnabas or Paul) writes repeatedly of Jesus’ obedience to God, including his painful, sacrificial death.
Per biblical scholars Richard Burridge and Graham Gould:
“Clearly, the debate here was not about what it means to call Jesus God, or Lord, or Christ, since that is taken for granted. Instead in these letters the question was the extent to which Jesus was human. …. It was the recognition that Jesus came ‘as a human among us’ which is crucial.”
The New Testament books would make no sense if they were written about a figure who did not historically exist. The Bible writers clearly and firmly believed that Jesus lived, died, and resurrected.
Early Church Writings
The collection of writings from 1st- and 2nd-century Christian leaders, known collectively as the Apostolic Fathers, also prove helpful for our study. Let’s look briefly at two of these early leaders: Clement of Rome and Ignatius.
It is widely believed by historians that Clement personally knew the apostles, including Peter and Paul. After they were martyred, Clement became a leader of the church in Rome. Not much detail is known about Clement, but some of his writings provide valuable insight into the early church. His letter to the church at Corinth, for example, may be the earliest document we have outside of the New Testament.
Clement is best known for the letter ascribed to him, written to the church in Corinth, known as 1 Clement. The letter stresses the importance of the Corinth church to humbly interact with each other, in order to remain unified. To give power to his letter, Clement reminded his readers of his direct connection to Christ’s disciples. His teachings could be trusted, he was saying, because he personally learned from the disciples the teachings that Christ had personally given them. The Corinthians obviously agreed: Clement’s letter was read in the Corinthian church as part of the liturgy for many years.
Ignatius, a bishop of Antioch, was condemned to death in Rome in the early 2nd century. In several of his letters, he references the historical Jesus. In one letter to the church in Tralles, he writes:
Jesus Christ who was of the race of David, who was the Son of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and on earth and those under the earth; who moreover was truly raised from the dead, His Father having raised Him, who in the like fashion will so raise us also who believe in Him.
Ignatius was clearly attempting to place the events of Jesus in the realm of history, in part because of the growing threat of Gnosticism, which I mentioned earlier. Gnostics refused to believe that Jesus was human, as they viewed physical matter as evil. They deemed the idea of God becoming human to be outrageous. This is one reason the writers of the New Testament so often described Jesus as “manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit.” They stress that He was buried, then “came in the flesh” to the disciples, that they might exam his physical wounds — which Scripture says they did.
The cross is critical to Christian belief. Not because Jesus hung there, but because He overcame death. If we downplay the severity of the torture Jesus endured on our behalf, or even suggest that Jesus didn’t really suffer, we cheapen His selfless act. God’s gift was costly. But because of it, we can know how far He is willing to go to reconcile us to Him. To be honest, I rejected this gift for many years because I hated the thought of Jesus humiliated and suffering in agony for me. But if we refuse to accept the cross, we will never fully love Jesus back with our whole heart.
Contemplating his own death, Ignatius rightly believed that if Christ had died only in appearance, his own willingness to sacrifice his life for Christ would have no meaning. It would be wasted effort. The early church grew because of this shared commitment to willingly follow in the footsteps of Christ. They were sold out for Jesus. Are we sold out, too?
So here’s the thing about archeology: it continues to validate Scripture! Every major city listed in the Gospels and Acts, for example, has been located and excavated! Scholars have recovered a number of amazing inscriptions, including one that mentions Pilate, the Roman governor who condemned Jesus to the cross. Think about how important that is!
Archaeological support of the Bible can’t be ignored. While no archeological evidence clearly points us to proof that Jesus existed — scholars have yet to discover any “Jesus slept here!” signs, for example — significant evidence does support cities and people described in the Bible. Therefore, we should give weight to the Bible’s claim that Jesus did exist.
It is exciting that each new discovery helps us to more clearly see the early church and how Jesus changed the lives of those who heard and accepted His message of grace and forgiveness.
Decide for Yourself if Jesus Lived
The bottom line: both Christian and secular scholars from a large cross-section of theological schools have concluded that we can have confidence that Jesus really lived — just as the Bible tells us.
Ehrman is just one scholar that asserts that too much evidence exists for anyone to say Jesus wasn’t born and crucified:
“The reality is that every single author who mentions Jesus — pagan, Christian, or Jewish — was fully convinced that He at least lived. Even the enemies of the Jesus movement thought so; among their many slurs against the religion, His nonexistence is never one of them…. Jesus certainty existed.“
Ehrman gets sufficient push-back from modern skeptics on the validity of this “certainty,” but his point is well taken: Those who were closest to Jesus the man tell us that He did exist. If we choose to think them wrong, that’s on us.
Adds religious scholar and writer Reza Aslan, “The great Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann liked to say that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest. Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves — their own reflection — in the image of Jesus they have constructed.”
If that’s the case, who do YOU say Jesus is? Myth? Man? Teacher? Savior? What makes you think so?
I invite you to join us in our next post in this series as we begin to examine Jesus in greater detail. He made some lofty claims during His time on earth. Did He live up to them? Is it possible that He really is who He says He is?
p.s. Thanks for joining us for this weekly year-long blog series. Our goal is to strengthen your faith in the TRUTH of Jesus. Fortunately, we have plenty of FACTUAL EVIDENCE to do just that! As we get closer to our Easter celebration, be thinking about how you might share the GOOD NEWS with others!
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.