Did Jesus Really Exist?
Even with the vast majority of professional scholarship affirming the existence of the historical Jesus because of the overwhelming evidence, you may still encounter the random article on Google, or the cheap “documentary” on Netflix or YouTube denying Jesus’ existence — along with denying that man ever landed on the moon, denying the Holocaust ever happened and other conspiracy theories. You may even be a Christian and have been one for quite some time but still not know for sure he existed and wouldn’t be able to defend against opposition without saying “the Bible says so.” So whether you are the skeptic never seeing any reason to believe that Jesus ever existed, I hope you come to the realization that there are many objective proofs affirming his existence. And whether you are the Christian who’s never heard any proof outside of the Biblical text, I hope this bolsters your faith even more and gives you firm assurance and a defense for your doubts and/or for an antagonist’s question.
So did Jesus really exist? Short answer, yes; without a doubt. There is actually no debate about this issue in reputable scholarship, even among secular scholars who may be atheist or agnostic. Let’s see what the infamous professor at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Bart Ehrman (who is an agnostic and rejects Christianity) says in regards to Jesus’ existence. He says this in an interview with The Infidel Guy (who is atheist):
“I don’t think there’s any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus …. We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.”
Historians have concluded this as fact because of the historical evidence: Both Christian and secular sources verify that a Jesus of Nazareth lived in Galilee 2,000 years ago and was executed by Roman authorities by crucifixion in the first century. So if the events recorded in the New Testament documents actually happened in first century Palestine, then we should expect for there to be other sources that record the same events right? And this is what we find, but to a degree. I say to a degree because some historians would not really care to write about some obscure religious leader. Even today there is a man named Vissarion who claims to be Jesus Christ and he has over 5,000 followers who live in remote forests in Siberia, Russia with him and worship and pray to him. In our technology filled world with easy access to the internet and any kind of media, this is not a well known story. Let me give another example. If one were to pick up any United States history textbook in the nation, you could expect to find a brief biography of every U.S. president. What you will not find is a biography of Marshall Applewhite, Wayne Bent, or Alan John Miller — people who all claimed to be God. However, it would not be surprising to find a mention of Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez who, claiming to be Jesus, shot at the White House in 2011 attempting to assassinate Barack Obama. He did this because He deemed Obama as the Anti-Christ. His notoriety did not come from his claims of divinity, but from his interactions with the U.S. government. And we will see that this is what happened with one Roman historian:
Tacitus: Tacitus was a Roman historian and senator writing in, well, Rome in the first and second century. This quotation comes from his work, “Annals,” which records the history of Rome and the Roman emperors Tiberius and Nero. He mentions Christ and Christians because he is recording a rumor that Nero started the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD and blamed the Christians for it. He writes:
[N]either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts … whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ [Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate … Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular.
This excerpt not only affirms Jesus’ existence, it contains crucial details regarding early Christianity — confirming the historicity of the New Testament documents. First, he writes that there was a crowd called Christians. Luke records in Acts 11:26 that the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. Tacitus writes that the founder was Christ. Though Jesus didn’t “found” a religion, it did all begin with him and his crucifixion. Tacitus not only records that Christ was the cause of these Christians, but he records that Christ was executed by Pontius Pilate; as the gospels declare:
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves. And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.
Matthew 27:24-26 ESV
Flavius Josephus: Another secular source where we find Jesus mentioned is in Antiquities of the Jews, written by Flavius Josephus. Josephus was a Jew recording Jewish and Roman history in the first century (c. 93-94 AD). Josephus, as far as we know, did not believe Jesus as the promised Jewish Messiah and probably would not have cared to even mention him. He only mentions Jesus because in his work, he’s recording the death of James (Jesus’ brother; Galatians 1:19). And since James was a common name (of course James is the English translation of the Greek and Hebrew name; they did not speak English in that time) during that time, he needed to clarify which James he was referring to. And then the only reason he mentions James is because he is recording why the Jewish high priest during that time (Ananus) lost his position as high priest. Josephus writes:
Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.
Jewish Antiquities, XX
Josephus is recording that Ananus lost his position because of instigating the death of James. Because James was a common name, he had to clarify him as “the brother of Jesus.” And since Jesus was a common name, he has to clarify which Jesus he’s referring to, and that’s why he specifies Jesus as the one “who is called Messiah/Christ” because his followers labeled him the promised Jewish Messiah.
Another quote from Josephus is again in his Jewish Antiquities. There is debate about whether Christian scribes added to his statement so I have left the debated portions out. It reads:
Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man,…For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks…When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him…And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out.
Jewish Antiquities XVIII
From this passage, we learn that Jesus did surprising deeds (the gospels record many miracles done by him; i.e. John 9), and that he “won over” many Jews and Greeks (Jesus and his disciples were all Jews and others followed him, both Jew and Greek; i.e. Matthew 8). He, like Tacitus, also confirms that Jesus was sentenced to crucifixion by Pilate; but not only that, he writes that Jesus’ followers did not give up their affection and that the “Christians, so called after him” had not died out. Jesus was crucified around 30-33 AD. Josephus is writing at the end of the first century (93-94) and he is saying that 50+ years later, there were still followers of Christ (little would Josephus know that Christianity would become the official religion of Rome 250 years later!). Even today, Christianity is the most widely known religion in the world. It reminds me of the event recorded by Luke where the high priest and Jewish council wanted to kill the apostles because they were proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection, but Gamaliel (a Pharisee) told them:
“Men of Israel, pay close attention to what you are about to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and nothing came of it. After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census, and incited people to follow him in revolt. He too was killed, and all who followed him were scattered. So in this case I say to you, stay away from these men and leave them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking originates with people, it will come to nothing, but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, or you may even be found fighting against God.”
Acts 5:35-39 (written 60-70 AD)
Lucian: The next source I want to mention is from a guy named Lucian. Though Lucian did not write in the first century, this is an important quote, because he derides Christians. He wrote ‘The Passing of Peregrinus’ in the second century ridiculing Peregrinus Proteus, who burned himself alive in the Olympic games of 165 AD, and in this he mentions Christians because Peregrinus took advantage of the generosity of Christians. Here is the quote describing Christians:
These deluded creatures, you see, have persuaded themselves that they are immortal and will live forever, which explains the contempt of death and willing self-sacrifice so common among them. It was impressed on them too by their lawgiver that from the moment they are converted, deny the gods of Greece, worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws, they are all brothers. They take his instructions completely on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods and hold them in common ownership. So any adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who knows the world, has only to get among these simple souls and his fortune is quickly made.
Passing of Peregrinus 11-13
He says a handful in this passage! He describes the Christians as thinking that they were immortal (John 3:16), that they had contempt for death and weren’t afraid to be killed and would do so willingly (John 15:13), that they worshiped Jesus who was crucified (the core of Christianity; Jesus is divine), denied all other gods, that they were brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:50) and then that they didn’t love worldly goods (Matthew 6:19-21, 24). This satirical passage alone not only affirms Jesus’ existence, but affirms many fundamentals of the Christian faith!
From these four sources alone, they tell of a Jesus, who had a brother named James, who attracted a group of people (Jews and Greeks), who did surprising deeds (miracles?), who was sentenced to be crucified by Pontius Pilate and who after his execution, people worshiped him and kept his laws and were called Christians. To deny Jesus’ existence, you have to deny many historical sources. And on top of that, you have to come up with an alternate explanation as to how and why Christianity came about, how and why this Jesus person was invented, and why the people who wrote about him in the New Testament documents would be executed for something that they made up. There are many professional articles and books written on this topic that’s readily available. The evidence of Jesus’ existence is overwhelming. In the words of two famous skeptics of Christianity:
“He [Jesus] certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees, based on clear and certain evidence…Whether we like it or not, He certainly existed.”
“One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate.”
Bart Ehrman (skeptic), New Testament scholar and textual critic
“Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if no follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixion, we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus.”
John Dominic Crossan, Historical Jesus scholar (skeptic)
Recommended Books, Articles and Professional Scholars
Dr. William Lane Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology; Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus; www.reasonablefaith.org
Dr. Gary Habermas, Distinguished Research Professor at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and Graduate School; Chair, Department of Philosophy, Liberty University; The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ; www.garyhabermas.com (there’s a free ebook on his website); www.garyhabermas.com
Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi, Professor Emeritus of History at Miami University (now retired)
Dr. Craig Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary; The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Dr. Bruce Metzger, Former Collard Professor Emeritus of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary; regarded as one of the best New Testament scholars of all time
Dr. F.F. Bruce, Former Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester; Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament
Josh McDowell, New Evidence That Demands A Verdict
Dr. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ
Jesus: Myth or Messiah Debate, Dr. James White (Christian) and Dan Barker (atheist). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XKOlOnRsD4