How Do We Know Jesus Existed?

How Do We Know Jesus Existed?

(This is post #5 in my “65 Questions Every Christian Parent Needs to Learn to Answer” series. Sign up to receive posts via email to make sure you can answer each one!)

If you grew up in church, you may never have considered the following question: “How do we know Jesus actually existed?” I admittedly had never considered it before an atheist dropped the following comment on my blog last year:

“There’s not a shred of evidence that Jesus ever existed. Check it out for yourself.”

My “atheist extremist” radar went up at such a seemingly crazy claim. How could someone think Jesus never even existed as a person in history?! That said, I had no idea how to respond. I had always assumed Jesus existed and wasn’t prepared to offer any “evidence” to support my lifelong assumption. Off I went to research.

To my surprise, I learned there are many people who make an extensive case for Jesus being mythical. This wasn’t just the one-off view of a random person who landed on my blog. If you Google, “Did Jesus exist?”, you’ll see hundreds of thousands of pages on the topic (see this site as one example).

With Easter coming, it’s a great time to preface any discussions with your kids about the resurrection with a question of foundational importance: how do we even know Jesus existed? If you can’t answer that on your own, this post is for you.

 

EVIDENCE FROM CHRISTIAN SOURCES

Evidence for the historical Jesus is typically broken into two categories: evidence from Christian sources and evidence from non-Christian sources. Let’s touch briefly first on Christian sources.

  • The New Testament: The New Testament represents 27 individual documents (books) that provide evidence of Jesus’ existence. Most historians agree these sources are sufficient to testify to the existence of Jesus (though they disagree over their accuracy).
  • Writings of early church fathers: The earliest “church fathers” (church leaders who lived within two generations of the twelve apostles) left writings that are important because they presumably had first-hand knowledge and information sources independent of the New Testament writings. Especially important are Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. Clement wrote the earliest Christian letter outside the New Testament (about 96 A.D.), Ignatius was a student of the Apostle John who wrote a series of letters en route to his martyrdom (about 110 A.D.), and Polycarp was a Christian bishop who was probably the last surviving person to have known an apostle (he was martyred at about 86 years old around 160 A.D.).

 

EVIDENCE FROM NON-CHRISTIAN SOURCES

This is the category most non-believers are interested in: what evidence is there of Jesus from non-Christian sources (i.e., writers who had no motivation to write about Jesus unless he actually existed)?

While there are several ancient references typically discussed in this conversation (less than 10), there are four considered to be the most important.

Yes, just four references you need to know about!

You don’t need to get consumed in the details if you’re not into history. What’s important is understanding the nature of these mentions and how they support the historicity of Jesus. Here they are, listed in order of importance (starting with the most important):

 

1. Flavius Josephus (37-100 A.D.) is perhaps the most famous Jewish historian. He was a Roman and did not believe in Jesus as the Son of God. Josephus mentions Jesus in two separate passages of his writings.

The first passage is quite controversial because most scholars assume Christians edited it when copies were made in later years. It sounds too pro-Christian to have been the original writing of a Jew who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah. The following passage contains the controversial phrases in italics. If you try reading it without those parts, you can still clearly see what is considered by many scholars to be an authentic historical core:

“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 received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had fortold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.”

The second passage of interest is less controversial because it is written in a more disinterested way. Most scholars believe it to be authentic (i.e., not tampered with over time, like the first passage). It describes how the high priest Ananus was preparing to kill the Apostle James, brother of Jesus:

“So he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.”

This is significant because James was only important to the historical narrative through his affiliation with Jesus. If Jesus hadn’t lived, there would be no need to mention him, and no need to mention James. James was killed in 62 A.D. Josephus is known to have lived in Jerusalem from 54-63 A.D., which gives him credibility in discussing the event.

 

2. Cornelius Tacitus was a first century Roman Senator who wrote a history of the Roman Empire from 14-68 A.D.  He gives a highly valuable mention of Jesus when he describes how Emperor Nero tried to blame Christians for Rome’s fire in 64 A.D.:

“But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. 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.”

Skeptics argue that this cannot be considered independent evidence for Jesus because we do not know of Tactitus’ source – it could have been “hearsay.” However, his position gave him access to many official documents, and it is likely he had a reliable source for the information.

 

3. Pliny the Younger (61-112 A.D.) was a Roman official who is known for his hundreds of surviving letters to notable people in the Roman Empire. In his correspondence with the emperor Trajan, he reported on the activities of early Christians and asked for instruction on how to deal with them. Here is a sample passage:

“They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of a meal–but ordinary and innocent food.”

This passage is significant for describing the activities of early Christians who would have had first-hand knowledge that Jesus actually existed (otherwise, why would they be doing these activities?). Skeptics argue that these Christians were already too removed from Jesus to know if he actually existed.

 

4. Thallus was one of the first Gentile writers to mention Jesus. In 52 A.D. he wrote to give a natural explanation for the darkness that covered the land at the time of the crucifixion (Matthew 27:45). His original writings no longer exist, but we know of them from citations of other writers. Julius Africanus, a Christian writer about 221 A.D., wrote:

“Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun – unreasonably, as it seems to me’ (unreasonably, of course, because a solar eclipse could not take place at the time of the full moon, and it was at the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died).”

Read more here about the debate over the quality of this reference.

Phew! Did you make it here? I’d love to hear what your most interesting take away was!

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Comments

  1. David Crain says:

    Great work! 5 citations are more than Bart Ehrman comes up with in his lectures, “The Historical Jesus”, which I recall only notes Number 2 above, where Cornelius Tacitus recounts how Nero tried to blame his foibles on the Christians.

  2. Renat Ilyasov says:

    Great job in putting together a concise testimony of the early sources, Natasha! We can have confidence that historical evidence must and does exist, “for this thing was not done in a corner” (Ac.26:26)!

  3. John Watson says:

    It seems to me that there really was a leader, that his name was Jesus amd that he had a brother called James. However, was Jesus a “religious” leader or a “political” leader ? It seems more probable, doesn’t it, that he was leader of some sort of independence movement seeking freedom from the Roman Empire ? Claims or miracles, a virgin birth and resurrection were added later to provide mystique. Also, was James a half-brother or was he too a son of God ?

    • Graceus says:

      I’m curious how one would justify the claim that it seems more probable that Jesus was a leader seeking independence from the Roman Empire? Is there any actual evidence in Jesus’ actions or words that he was trying to do this? Jesus was certainly a religious leader being called “Rabbi” when he travelled about teaching.

      “Claims or miracles, a virgin birth and resurrection were added later to provide mystique.” That is also a curious claim. The New Testament is the best attested ancient document; since there are about 5,000 manuscripts (compared to the Iliad which has only 1700 copies). The New Testament has undergone extensive textual criticism, and the manuscripts can be compared to each other to see if changes had been made to the texts. Where did these changes occur to support your claim?

      • John Watson says:

        Well, I agree that he could also have been a religious leader. I am not an expert and have not read any of the scriptures in their original form. There were certainly revolts and rebellions being fomented in Roman Palestine, however, and it is unlikely that Jesus would have been uninvolved in them. I think the Roman records do actually refer to one local leader whose name could be interpreted as “Jesus”.

        The theory that the miracles and so on were added later comes from a Professor of Theology at (as I remember it) Chicago University. It was used as a basis for a TV documentary five years ago that I found rather convincing. The stories were added by St Paul. He was convinced that the Roman Empire needed a unitary deity if it was to survive and thus became a follower of Jesus. The miracles were added to increase the appeal and mystique of Christianity.

        And I do have a problem with miracles. People don’t rise from the dead. Loaves and fishes do not appear from nowhere. People can’t walk on water. Statues never bleed or cry. We know pretty well all there is no know about the molecular and sub-nuclear world and there is simply no way, physically, that such things could happen. So, in the modern age of science, what we need is a miracle-free form of Christianity. The stories of the Pauline conversion seem to me to be the best lead towards them.

        John Watson

  4. Daesha Cuttrell says:

    I love this series, and am using it as a springboard to deeper study for myself. Will you please site your sources as you slog through these answers? It would be so helpful! Thank you for all your hard work and insight on this.

  5. Jenna Miller says:

    For one, I believe that Jesus Christ is a son of the most high! And all the signs are there.. We should never question the Bible!

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