As I mentioned in my podcast earlier this week, one of the first things to make me seriously consider Christianity was the discovery that Jesus actually existed in history. This came as a complete shock to me. I had always assumed that Jesus was a myth just like Zeus, Apollo, Osiris, Mithras and a host of other ancient gods. But the fact that Jesus was a living breathing person that walked the earth changed the dynamic dramatically.
There are a handful of scholars that still believe that Jesus was a myth. They are pretty much on the fringes of the discipline however. The overwhelming majority do believe he existed in history. Just so we are clear, this does not mean they believe he was God. But even the skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman, who has written several books attempting to discredit the Bible, recently published a book arguing that the historical Jesus existed.
So how can we be sure that Jesus existed? We obviously have the 4 eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry that are recorded in the New Testament. We have good reason to believe all 4 accounts were written within the lifetime of the original Disciples, with the last being written at most 60 years after Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Why is this important? Because the fact that the gospels were written early means that there was no time for a myth to grow out of the accounts. Why? Because the people that actually witnessed the events that were recorded in the Gospels were still alive to refute them.
Imagine that your uncle Charlie passes away. A few years later a friend of Uncle Charlie begins telling wild stories about him. She tells people that Uncle Charlie lived a perfect life, once fed 5,000 people from one Taco Bell burrito, and was seen walking around after his death. You see the problem? You may love Uncle Charlie, but you know he wasn’t perfect, didn’t have a magic burrito and isn’t walking around town alive and well. You would know it was all a lie. What’s more, you definitely wouldn’t be willing to die to perpetuate the myth of Uncle Charlie. But the early followers of Jesus WERE willing to die for the claims they were making.
Now, people might be willing to tell a lie if they were going to profit from it in some way. But this doesn’t describe the disciple’s situation at all. None of them became rich off the message they were spreading. None of them were elevated to positions of power. None of them benefitted relationally either. All they got for spreading the message of a risen Jesus was beaten, tortured and killed. Not a great deal if you are lying.
At this point, some skeptics like to point out that many followers of different religions have been willing to die for their beliefs. You don’t have to look further than the 9/11 terrorists to see this is true. Here was a large group of people that were all willing to lay down their lives for what they believed to be true with horrific consequences. But the two situations aren’t as similar as you would think.
The terrorists on 9/11 were following what they believed to be true, but they didn’t KNOW if it was true. The disciples were in a position as eyewitnesses to know if what they were reporting was true or not. They maintained their story even while being beaten, tortured and killed. They never recanted or changed their story. And the Disciples were dispersed all over the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia. If one of the Disciples had decided to change his story, he couldn’t just call up the other Disciples and let them know about the new version of the story. Even if they could have communicated the changes, they would have needed to go back and alter all the handwritten copies already produced to reflect the changes. It’s just too implausible to believe this is what occurred.
All of this makes a powerful argument. But what if you were like me prior to my conversion? I wasn’t willing to believe the Bible at that time. I dismissed it out of hand. I would have argued that surely someone as important to history as Jesus would have been mentioned in documents outside of the New Testament. In my next post, I’ll list and discuss some of the non-Christian sources for the existence of Jesus as a historical figure.