(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!