If Jesus really were a non-existent figure of history it would be expected that some anti-Christian group would have made this known at some point. In fact the most hostile group towards Jesus and early Christianity were the Jews, yet they affirmed Jesus’ existence by trying to accuse the disciples of stealing Jesus’ body from the tomb (Matthew 28:13, Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, 108; Tertullian’s On Spectacles, 30)). We also find anti-Jesus material in the much later Jewish Talmud accusing him of treachery and leading Israel astray. Those that hated Christianity the most just had to discover that Jesus was a figment of the early Christians imagination and expose it, and that would be the end of Christianity, however, not once does this ever happen.
Take, for example, the polemic against the empty tomb. Paul Maier in his work ‘In the Fullness of Time’ tells us that: “Jewish polemic shared with Christians the conviction that the sepulcher was empty, but gave natural explanations for it. And such positive evidence within a hostile source is the strongest kind off evidence.”
We should ask ourselves, why did the Jews try to explain away Jesus’ tomb if there was no Jesus in the first place? It’s almost certainly because Jesus existed. To continue with Paul Maier: “Now you can argue about whether he was the Son of God or not, you can argue about the supernatural aspects of his life, but in terms of the historical character there is absolutely no evidence to the contrary and all the evidence is in the favor.”
2. Scholars Think the Evidence is Persuasive.
The most credible New Testament, Biblical, historical, and early Christianity scholars today, from all backgrounds of belief, agree wholeheartedly that Jesus once existed. Of course the debate arises in what we can know about Jesus but that is beyond our purposes here. As Professor Bultmann, Professor of New Testament studies, once remarked:
“Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community.”
Paul Maier, former Professor of Ancient History, pens that: “The total evidence is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence.”
Also, Craig Evans who is widely known for his writings on the subject of the historical Jesus says that: “No serious historian of any religious or nonreligious stripe doubts that Jesus of Nazareth really lived in the first century and was executed under the authority of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea and Samaria.”
Skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (who is certainly no friend of Christianity) states that: “These views are so extreme (that Jesus did not exist) and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.”
Scholar Michael Grant says: “To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars.”
In truth, the claim that Jesus never existed as a historical person is not on the table of historical scholarship, in the words of Richard Burridge: “I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that (that Jesus did not exist) anymore.”
3. Jesus Crucifixion is Historically Certain.
There are many independent sources that attest to Jesus’ crucifixion. So many in fact that it is beyond doubt that Jesus really died on a cross. We find that all four canonical gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) attesting to this fact.
We also find Serapion, in his letter, refers to the crucifixion of the “wise king”. Josephus Flavius, writing within the 1st century, refers to Jesus’ crucifixion very vividly, “And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross.” Cornelius Tacitus, writing in the early 2nd century, in his work Annals also refers to Jesus’ crucifixion. Eddy and Boyd state that it is now “firmly established” that Tacitus provides a non-Christian confirmation of the crucifixion of Jesus. The much later Jewish Talmud states that “On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (Jesus) was hanged.” The early Church fathers unanimously believed that Jesus was crucified on a cross, for instance Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp.
No credible historian rejects that Jesus was crucified. Scholar John Crossan, of the radical Jesus Seminar, writes: “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”
According to atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann: “Jesus’ death as a result of crucifixion is indisputable.”
4. The Gospels Sources.
This should actually count for four reasons to accept Jesus’ existence as each gospel houses, to a greater or lesser degree, independent traditions from Jesus’ life. There is some consultation of sources between the gospels.
The gospels are our most reliable historical information on Jesus’ three year ministry. They are generally classified as Greco-Roman biography, as Graham Stanton of Cambridge University has noted: “I do not think it is now possible to deny that the Gospels are a sub-set of the broad ancient literary genre of ‘lives,’ that is, biographies.”
The gospels are undeniably based on a historical figure, and that would, obviously, be Jesus. There are likewise (as I will mention more about below) sources behind the gospels. For instance, Mark is the earliest source, and Luke and Matthew come after Mark. Luke and Matthew do use Mark as a source material for much of their content, yet at the same time seem to also consult another unknown lost source – which is called hypothetical Q (thought to contain sayings of Jesus), there is also another special material that scholars suggest that Matthew’s author consulted called M. The same applies to Luke’s gospel, as it is believed that he also had access to special material called L. Lastly, John comes in at the latest (around 90 – 95 AD), and is entirely unique in its recordings of sayings/events etc. of Jesus. This leads Bart Ehrman to claim that:
“With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life… Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.”
5. The Willingness to Suffer & Die for Jesus.
Jim Wallace, a homicide detective, analyses these very aspects of the disciples lives, thus explaining that: “My case work as a homicide detective taught me something important: there are only three motives behind any murder (or any crime, or sin, for that matter). All crimes are motivated by financial greed, sexual lust (relational desire) or the pursuit of power.” So, if this is correct then we should apply it as a criterion to the disciples.
We can immediately disqualify the motivation from sexual lust (if anything Jesus is alleged to have taught strongly against lust, Matthew 5:28), and we can immediately disqualify financial greed as the disciples traveled poverty stricken with Jesus both before and after he died, and happily did so until their deaths. Jesus is also alleged to have taught that finances, if misused and worshiped, would end up getting someone rejected from inheriting eternal life in Heaven if not avoided (Matthew 19:24). Having negated that, then what about power? Were the disciples after that?
Almost certainly not. Firstly, the apostles were heavily despised by their Jewish culture as a consequence of their leadership within the early Christian community. If they were lying about their testimony to gain the respect and admiration of the culture they were trying to convert, they were taking the wrong approach. Secondly, many of the disciples (Paul included), and early Christians, only succeeded in gaining the infamy that constantly put them at risk, and eventually, for some of them that we can tell, eventually cost them their lives. This was obvious to them from the beginning; they knew their testimony would leave them powerless to stop their own brutal martyrdom.
Lastly, the Apostles were clearly pursued and mistreated, and the New Testament narratives and letters describe their efforts to avoid capture. The Apostles continually evaded capture in an effort to continue their personal ministries as eyewitnesses. The New Testament accounts describe men who were bold enough to maintain their ministry, but clever enough to avoid apprehension for as long as possible
In concluding this question, certainly not. The disciples had nothing to gain power wise from their efforts. So in essence, they went to their deaths believing their message, and this message they received from a resurrected Jesus. This would hardly be the case if Jesus never existed. Jim Wallace concludes: “As I examine the motives and consequences related to the testimony of the Apostles, I still find their martyrdom to be one of the most powerful evidences related to the veracity of their testimony.”
6. The Minimal Facts Approach.
New Testament scholar Gary Habermas is chiefly responsible for this effort having, from the mid-20th century up until today, sifted through some 3400 articles written by scholars in the fields of New Testament studies and history, he writes: “My bibliography is presently at about 3400 sources and counting, published originally in French, German, or English. Initially I read and catalogued the majority of these publications, charting the representative authors, positions, topics, and so on, concentrating on both well-known and obscure writers alike, across the entire skeptical to liberal to conservative spectrum.”
What is so remarkable about this effort is that he can present four basic facts about Jesus that all (by all that would be 99.9%) of the scholars in these relevant fields agree upon, they are namely:
- That Jesus was crucified.
- That he was buried in a tomb.
- That three days later the tomb was found empty.
- That the disciples, skeptics Paul and James had encountered the risen Jesus.
All four of these facts are accepted by the majority of historians in the field; the only exception is that point 3, the empty tomb, is accepted by roughly 75% (or two-thirds) of scholars in the field, which is still the vast majority. This would suggest the historical evidence for Jesus is quite compelling.
Creeds are important for historians as they usually date much earlier than the actual texts from which we learn about them, and, with this in mind, we find out that the New Testament has its fair share of them.
Within the New Testament there are creeds, hymns, and formulations that date to the earliest church (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Philippians 2:5-11, Romans 10:9, etc.). But the most important one that is discussed is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
In it Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to his chief disciple Peter, then to the inner circle of disciples known as the Twelve; then he appeared to a group of 500 disciples at once, then to his younger brother James, who up to that time was apparently not a believer, then to all the apostles. Finally, Paul adds, “he appeared also to me,” at the time when Paul was still a persecutor of the early Jesus movement (I Corinthians 15.5-8). Given the early date of Paul’s information as well as his personal acquaintance with the people involved, these appearances cannot be dismissed as mere legends based on a non-existent character of history.
But what is so important about this creed is that Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-5 is quoting an ancient Christian tradition which he himself received and which goes back to within five years after the crucifixion. In fact, the prominent New Testament scholar James Dunn dates it back to within 18 months of Jesus’ death.
So, in essence, creeds provide a strong basis for Jesus’ historicity as they are early sources that predating the gospels as well as any of the Pauline and other New Testament literature. Some, in the case of 1 Corinthians 15, even date to from within five years of Jesus’ life.
8. The Negligible Time Gap.
The four gospels, in hindsight of contemporary consensus, were written between 35 (Mark) and 60 (John) years after Jesus’ life. This by historical standards is early, as prominent New Testament scholar Mike Licona writes: “…a gap of sixty to seventy years between the writing and the events they purport to describe is quite early compared to what historians work with when it comes to other ancient biographies.”
Interestingly enough, the bulk of our information on Alexander the Great comes from the prominent ancient historian Plutarch. Thus, the earliest source for Alexander used by modern historians is more than 260 years after his death and the most reliable source is more than 370 years removed. When we compare our earliest gospel (Mark) to such a time-scale, it is highly appreciated by historians.
Furthermore, this short time period would allow for the impact events of Jesus ministry (miracles, exorcisms, prophecies, death, resurrection etc.) to be fresh in the minds of the eyewitnesses the gospel authors consulted. For many today the 9/11 bombings is a tragic event. It is likewise an impact event, and as a result we will likely be able to recall certain details (did it happen at night or day? Was it a rainy day or a sunny day? Did the rubble and smoke from the buildings cause X or Y to happen? What were some reactions of onlookers near to the event like? etc.). It is likely that we are able to remember these details and the same would apply to the disciples as they knew of the extraordinary things Jesus said and did, and hence they would be able to remember important details because they saw it first hand.
9. The Rise of Early Christianity.
If Jesus did not exist then we wouldn’t have Christianity in the first place. In fact, one may argue that if Jesus did not rise from the grave the disciples and Paul & James would not have led changed lives (from their preceding Jewish norms), had a willingness to suffer, or end up martyred (in the case of a few of them) for their faith in Jesus. If Jesus did not exist, or even appear to Paul, we would not have his conversion despite him having persecuted the early Church. The gospels tell us that Jesus’ family thought he was mad (Mark 3:21), and that not even his brothers believed in him (John 7:5). However, when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his brother James, James then ends up leading the Church and is killed for this (Antiquities 20 v. 9). Could a non-existent Jesus account for such a radical transformation for all of these men?
Furthermore, it is because Jesus appeared to the 500 others, as Paul mentioned (1 Corinthians 15), that the Church rapidly grew, and that he gospel so quickly spread. According to a leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright: “That is why, as a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.”
10. The Apostle Paul’s Epistles.
We know of several documents that Paul wrote himself, some of which predate the gospels by 20 or so years (that’s if we agree the earliest Gospel, Mark, was authored at 70 AD the latest). Paul places Jesus in a historical context, for example in 1 Corinthians 15:4 we read about Jesus “that he was buried and was raised”. Paul is placing Jesus in a tomb (buried), and that later the tomb was empty (as corroborated by the gospels). Jesus’ existence, crucifixion and resurrection is affirmed throughout all Paul’s genuine, undisputed epistles.
11. Paul Met Jesus’ Brother James, and Jesus’ Disciple Peter.
Paul writes: “After three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18-20)
Paul states that he met Jesus’ brother James, as well as Jesus’ disciple Peter. Paul doesn’t tell us much of what they spoke about, but as sure as anything they relayed the events of Jesus’ ministry and supernatural appearances to them after his crucifixion. If anyone were to know of Jesus’ existence it would be Peter and James, the very closest people to him. Evidently none of them left their meeting doubting Jesus’ Earthly existence.
12. Paul was Familiar with Jesus’ Sayings.
On three occasions in Paul’s letters he shows that he is familiar with the sayings of Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:10; 9:14; 11:1, 2, 20-25). Paul also indicates that he knew that the historical Jesus was meek and gentle (2 Corinthians 10:1) and that either he came from a poor family or lived a poor life, or both (2 Corinthians 8:9). As Australian New Testament scholar Paul Barnett states: “There can be no doubt that, both before he was a disciple but also afterwards, Paul knew a lot about the historical Jesus.”
Again, this lends credence to the proposition that Jesus existed, at least according Paul. If Jesus never existed then one would need to explain how Paul knew these (and some 27 facts) traditions about Jesus’ life. Further, one would need to argue that Paul was duped into believing that all this originated from a historical person, Jesus.
13. Paul Knew of the Tradition of Jesus.
In 1 Corinthians 11:24, Paul writes on Jesus, “when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Here Paul is obviously aware of the Jesus tradition recorded in our gospels (Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19).
After all, tradition doesn’t just pop into existence but is based on historical truth. That historical truth is that Jesus really said and did what Paul had said he did – this tradition is also attested in the gospel accounts which only further confirms their historical value and veracity.
14. Luke Mentioning Other Accounts.
When Luke began to write his gospel account he reported that others had previously compiled accounts of the things Jesus had done. Luke was writing to a man named Theophilus, someone he was trying to impress as seen in the Greek vernacular he was writing to him in (Luke 1). Clearly Luke is trying to impress this man. Thus, if that is true the Luke almost certainly wouldn’t make his core reason for writing based on a fictional and imaginary character of history. Such an act would surely have been be uncovered and Luke would be shamed & discredited as a source of information.
Secondly, it is also unlikely that Luke would lie about other people having written on Jesus, though what happened to these other writings we do not know. This man named Theophilus would have possibly had access to these other accounts that were being written on Jesus, or he would likely know of others that had written these accounts. Either way it stretches credulity to argue that Luke was lying. It’s been argued that Luke may have referred to other accounts such as hypothetical Q, which could have been multiple oral/written sources, however this remains conjecture.
15. Historical ripple.
With a figure like Jesus allegedly performing such miracles, and leaving a name for himself, we would expect the historical record to leave something for us. According to Jim Wallace, we find this in the:
- Infancy Gospels – The Gospels leave out much of Jesus’ life as a young boy with the exception of when he was learning in a temple at age 12 (Luke 2:41-52). The Gospels only pick up at the beginning of his ministry at age 30. In other words, the Gospels are silent regarding his life from 12 to 30, and this is often referred to as Jesus’ lost years. As a result of this we find forgeries trying to add events to Jesus’ lost years, such forgeries that appear in the historical record much after the traditional Gospels would include the ‘Infancy Gospel of James’ and the ‘Infancy Gospel of Thomas’.
- Jewish Gospels – There were many groups of Jewish converts in early Christianity who retained their strong Jewish identity. As a result, these groups typically upheld and maintained the Mosaic Law, and their gospels reflected this. The “Gospel of the Ebionites”, the “Gospel of the Hebrews” and the “Gospel of the Nazoreans” are the three texts representing this group. None of these texts have survived, but we do see references to them in letters written by Early Church Fathers who were critical of their theology and their representation of the life of Jesus.
- Sayings Gospels – Such an example would include the non-canonical ‘Gospel of Thomas’, which is a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus.
- Passion Gospels – We find some ancient writings that are specifically focused on the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The “Gospel of Bartholomew” is one such example.
- Gnostic writings – These Gospels often appear early in history because these groups were already in existence and well developed even before Jesus was born. As a result, many Gnostic groups simply co-opted the narrative of Jesus for their own purposes. Many of these Gnostic documents portray Jesus in a series of dialogues, providing hidden knowledge intended for those few believers who were part of the sect.