Did Jesus Exist? Oddly enough, the idea that Jesus actually existed in history is one of the things that moved me forward in my journey towards Christianity. I had always assumed that Jesus was like Zeus, Apollo, Osiris and other legendary gods. The idea that there was an actual, historical person that walked the earth named Jesus of Nazareth intrigued me. If Jesus actually existed, then it would be possible to investigate the claims He made about Himself.
A Modest Claim
But whether or not Jesus was God is a separate issue from that of His existence in history. The “Jesus was a legend” crowd is popular on social media. There are two types of legend theory advocates. The first group believes that Jesus existed, but the things attributed to Him are a product of legendary retellings of His story. The second group believes that there never was a man named Jesus of Nazareth that walked the earth.
Many of you may have friends or family that fall into this second group. And while this is a popular objection on social media, it’s not a widely held belief in academic circles. There are many fierce debates among Biblical scholars, archeologists and textual critics. But these disagreements are rarely about the existence of Jesus. His place as a historical figure is accepted by the majority of scholars.
Why Do They Believe That?
But simply saying “Scholars agree” isn’t always enough to convince someone. We should be asking why they believe this to be true. So in the case of Jesus, why do even skeptical scholars like Bart Ehrman agree He existed?
The reason is that there is so much historical evidence. We of course have the attestation of the New Testament writers. Even if one believes the miracles and supernatural elements cited in these accounts are lies, it’s clear that they mean Jesus to be understood as a real person. The authors set him in history, interacting with known historical figures of the time.
But That’s Just The Bible…
Even if you wanted to throw out the Bible entirely, there are still several sources outside the New Testament that mention Jesus and his followers. In total, there are 9 ancient sources that mention Jesus. I’ve written an article detailing 4 of the earliest, non-Christian sources for the existence of Jesus. These include the Jewish historian Josephus, the writings of the historian Thallus, the historian Tacitus and the Greek historian Phlegon.
All of these people lived around the time the New Testament was written or slightly after. So they were about as close to the events as you can be without being an actual eyewitness.
You will not find more reliable historical records for anyone living at that time. And considering we are talking about a Jewish peasant from a backwater town of the Roman Empire, this is saying quite a bit. Jesus and those that followed Him after his death were mentioned very prominently, and very quickly after the events took place.
Why Not Just Deny Jesus Lived?
Jesus and His followers created waves in both Jerusalem and the Roman Empire. The easiest thing to do for those in power to do to squash the movement would be to simply deny this person ever existed. But they didn’t do that. His enemies tried to explain away his miracles. They made up stories about His followers stealing His body from the tomb. They had to go this route, because there were too many people that could attest to the fact that Jesus lived.
Again, this doesn’t get you to Jesus being God. But it does place Jesus in history as a figure that has to be reckoned with. For Jesus to be God incarnate, he had to have actually existed. This is step one in our case. And I think the record clearly shows that we can make this step with confidence.
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