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Did Jesus Even Exist?

I had a great chat this week with a well-read non-Christian about whether Jesus actually existed or not. Now obviously, as a non-Christian, I had no expectation that he thought Jesus was divine, but I was still surprised that some people held the view he didn’t exist. From my perspective it was as preposterous as believing the world is flat. Bart Ehrmann, a noted agnostic and often vocal critic of Christianity puts it this way: “I think the evidence is just so overwhelming that Jesus existed, that it’s silly to talk about him not existing. I don’t know anyone who is a responsible historian, who is actually trained in the historical method, or anybody who is a biblical scholar who does this for a living, who gives any credence at all to any of this.” On the other hand, famous Christian scholar N.T. Wright puts it this way: “I have taken it for granted that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Some writers feel a need to justify this assumption at length against people who try from time to time to deny it. It would be easier, frankly, to believe that Tiberius Caesar, Jesus’ contemporary, was a figment of the imagination than to believe that there never was such a person as Jesus.” While N.T. Wright might not see the need, I think it is prudent to give you some background about why Christian and non-Christian scholars and historians alike are so certain about the actual existence of a man named Jesus, who was believed to be the Christ
Biblical Material
Some people who take the argument that Jesus never existed would like to just throw out all New Testament texts as simple figments of the imagination. The problem is that even historians consider them to be highly accurate historical records, even if they view the miracles and divine intervention to be a form of ancient mythology. There are many reasons for this, the main one being the early copies we have found of these documents. The earliest manuscript fragment we have of the New Testament dates to the first half of the second century. It is a fragment of John’s gospel, that scholar’s believe reached Egypt around 100AD. This is remarkably early, probably within 20 years of it first being written. This most certainly means that there are earlier copies that have since been lost, and note that John is universally considered as the last gospel written. That means that Matthew, Luke, and especially Mark are estimated to have been written before 70 AD. Paul’s letter pre-date even that, with most compiled in the 50’s, less than 2 decades after the events they depict. That puts them well within the lifetime of eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection. If these events were completely fictitious, without an historic figure at the centre, it is impossible that the Christian movement would have taken off as it did. Especially under the persecution of the sectarian Jews and the pagan Roman empire, a non-historic Jesus simply makes no sense. Why die for something that everybody knows you simply made up?
 
Christian Material
There are many other sources in the century or so following Jesus’ death that aren’t included in the bible. These include:
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The double-sided P52 fragment
Clement of Rome, 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Didache, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Fragments of Papias, Justin Martyr, Aristides, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Quadratus, Aristo of Pella, Melito of Sardis, Diognetus, Gospel of Peter, Apocalypse of Peter, and Epistula Apostolorum. The sceptic might point out that Christian sources 100 years after the fact should be given little weight. They might be surprised to learn that two of the most important sources for Julius Caesar are Suetonius and Plutarch. Both are bias in their pro-imperial propaganda, and are written over a century after the Caesar’s death.
Josephus 37-100AD
 
Non-Christian Material
Perhaps the most convincing material for the sceptic is the various historical documents that attest to Jesus of Nazareth that are from a non-Christian or even anti-Christian perspective. Perhaps the most well known of the historians is Josephus, and particularly startling is his main reference to Jesus: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receiving the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was called the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct to this day.
Those that are aware of this text might know that it likely to have been revised somewhat by a later Christian copyist. What historians don’t doubt is that this was a changing of material to be more flattering to Jesus, it wasn’t inserted completely from scratch. A recent Arabic manuscript of Josephus reveals what might have been the original message: “At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die, and those who were his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them 3 days after his crucifixion. Accordingly, they believed he was the Messiah as the prophets had told wonders”. A lot less flattering, clearly less Christian, but equally certain to his actual existence. Later in Josephus there is an undebated reference to Jesus when he is talking about the high priest: “he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.” As a Jew, Josephus held no affinity for the Christian movement, and his reference in his historical book date around 95 AD are a pretty convincing proof of Jesus’ existence.
Beyond Josephus, Jesus was also mentioned in Roman works, completely hostile to this upstart religion. There are many, but one needs a special mention. Tacitus writes that “Christus, the founder of the name, was Put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign Of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time Broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief Originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things Hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their Center and become popular” This is not exactly a glowing reference, but includes the bare facts of Jesus life with 80 years of his death.
 
Perhaps the earliest non-Christian reference to Jesus however comes from the Syrian Mara Bar-Serapion in 73AD. “What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment 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 
 
Tacitus 56 – 120AD

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; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given.” Not exactly a belief in the resurrection, but there is little doubt, even from secular historians, that the wise king referred to here is none other than Jesus Christ. Other secular sources that I don’t have time to go through now but I encourage you to look up if interested are Pliny The Younger, Lucian, Phelgon, Celus, Suetonius, and Thallus. I quoted at the beginning a quote from N.T. Wright that it would be easier to deny the existence of Tiberius Caesar than Jesus Christ. A bold claim, but this is why he can make it. Jesus’s existence is supported by 9 secular sources, 20 Christian non-biblical sources and all 27 New Testament texts. Compare this to the measly 10 historical references we have to the emperor that was in power at the same time. Furthermore, the quality and quantity of the historical documents supporting Jesus far outstrips roman leaders of the time. Take Julius Caesar, the most famous and unarguably historic of the Roman emperors. Historic information about his life is contained mainly in four different sources. These sources have between them around 53 manuscripts to work out what was actually written. The earliest of these dates to a good 500 years after Julius Caesar supposedly lived, with the majority being over 1000 years after the fact. Compare this to Jesus, with his 56 different sources, 5800 different manuscript, dating from as early as a few decades after they were written. To deny Jesus’ existence altogether is completely unfeasible from an historical perspective.

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Jesus looked like many other Jews of his time. This is perhaps the most accurate artist rendering to date

The Problem of bias

As we have seen one of the main arguments against the existence of Jesus is that early reports about him are biased. As we have seen, that criticism doesn’t discredit his existence, but it is important to keep in mind. The earliest historians of Jesus couldn’t help but be biased, because what they saw transformed their life. This leads to the true problem of bias we see today. Many non-Christians find the claims of Jesus and the bible hard to stomach. It is not that they are unbelievable, it is simply that they find them undesirable. An historic Jesus raises the real possibility of an historic resurrection. An historic resurrection means a risen Lord who needs to be trusted in and listened to, and who will one day judge the world. People trying to escape this reality would much prefer to put their heads in the sand and deny Jesus ever existed, against the overwhelming weight of evidence. The question of Jesus’ existence is well and truly a settled one. The more important question for us is what role will he play in our life today.
 
Pastor Dan Bassett