- Elaine Pagels (Professor of Religion at Princeton University) – “Some hoped to penetrate the various accounts and to discover the “historical Jesus”. . . and that sorting out ‘authentic’ material in the gospels was virtually impossible in the absence of independent evidence.”
- David Noel Freedman, Bible scholar and general editor of the Anchor Bible series (Bible Review, December 1993, Vol. IX, Number 6, p. 34) – “When it comes to the historical question about the Gospels, I adopt a mediating position– that is, these are religious records, close to the sources, but they are not in accordance with modern historiographic requirements or professional standards.”
- C. Dennis Mckinsey, Bible Critic (The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy) – “Jesus is a mythical figure in the tradition of pagan mythology and almost nothing in all of ancient literature would lead one to believe otherwise. Anyone wanting to believe Jesus lived and walked as a real live human being must do so despite the evidence, not because of it.”
- Robert M. Price, professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute (Deconstructing Jesus, p. 260) – “It is important to recognize the obvious: The gospel story of Jesus is itself apparently mythic from first to last.”
In the face of all this negative speculation how to those of us who believe in a historical Jesus respond to such allegations? As we can see there are many "scholars" today and a much larger group of internet conspirators that maintain that Jesus never existed. Is there any solid ground we can find to stand on as we argue against their claims. Allow me to propose three reasons I am assured that Jesus is a real person.
1. THE "JESUS MYTHERS" HAVE NO HISTORICAL BACKING
There are those who claim that the majority of historians believe that Jesus never existed. Proponents of this clam are often referred to as "Jesus Mythers" because of their belief that Jesus is purely a mythical figure invented by the New Testament authors. Those within this group have painstakingly attempted to promote this unverified belief. In their attacks against the historical Jesus they have abused the source documents while offering an incredible lack of scholarly research of their own. In the process they have made some serious flawed claims.
Claim #1: None of the contemporaries of Jesus confirm the resurrections or wrote about Jesus.
This claim is basically that the historical sources we have available to us are secondary at best. In the case of the Apostle Paul they believe he was a contemporary of the Apostles and not of Jesus. Paul never saw Christ in person (only in a vision) so he could not have been writing from a first hand account.
This is a ridiculous sentiment. From what we know of Paul in the Scriptures we can conclude that he was a high ranking Pharisee before his conversion. He even studied under Gamaliel at Jerusalem. It is unlikely that Paul did not debate with Jesus during his earthly ministry. Furthermore, we read from Luke about Jesus' encounters with the Pharisees. Paul, a contemporary of Luke's never seeks to contradict or correct Luke's record. Since Paul was a high ranking pharisee he would of course have known about these interactions. His silence about Luke's record is a sign of his agreement about what was recorded.
The claim that none of Christ's contemporaries wrote about Him is dubious. Consider the following facts and think about that claim. Matthew, Mark, John, and Peter were all disciples of Jesus and each wrote eyewitness accounts. Luke interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus.
Claim #2: Historical evidence is invalid.
This claim begins with the presupposition that Christ did not exist. This false beginning point leads to the conclusion that any historical documents saying Christ did not exist are clearly flawed and should be thrown out.
No credible historian would ever sidestep such a mountain of evidence. Jesus is probably the most well established future in the history of the world. When we look at the documentation of Jesus we see that it is far more reliable than just about every other accepted historical work.
(Statistics on Classical writings from F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972), 16-17; Bruce Metzger, The New Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 34.)
- Homer's Illiad - 643 extant manuscripts
- Sophocles (combined writings) - 100-193 extant manuscripts
- Aristotle (combine writings) - 49 extant manuscripts
- Tacitus - 20 extant manuscripts
- Euripides - 9 extant manuscripts
- Plato - 7 extant manuscripts
- New Testament Greek Manuscripts - 5,752 (as of Dec. 2008)
- New Testament Latin Manuscripts - 10,000+
While the "Jesus Mythers" can go on making the claim that the New Testament is not a good historical source they will have to face the uncomfortable face (for them) that there is more evidence supporting the veracity of these manuscripts than any other historical work. All of the New Testament writings are better sources than any other ancient work. The bulk of the evidence weighs heavily in favor of those who claim that Jesus was in fact a real person.
Claim #3: Christianity finds its roots in mythology.
The best selling book The Davinci Code makes this stunning claim, "Nothing in Christianity is original. The pre-Christian god Mithras - called the Son of God and the Light of the World - was born on December 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days." (Dan Brown, The Davinci Code, New York: Anchor Books, 2009, 232).
"Jesus Mythers" claim that certain gospel stories carry stunning similarities to the pagan religion called "Mithraism." The claim is basically that Mithra was born of a virgin on December 25th, he had 12 disciples, was called "Messiah." was crucified and buried in a tomb, and then on the third day he rose again from the grave.
This claim is one of the most dubious claims made by the "Jesus Mythers." Very little is recorded in history about Mithraism. What we do know about it, however, makes it very clear that Jesus was nota story ripped from Mithraism. Notice what the Encyclopedia Britannica has to say:
- “There is little notice of the Persian god [Mithra] in the Roman world until the beginning of the 2nd century, but, from the year AD 136 onward, there are hundreds of dedicatory inscriptions to Mithra. This renewal of interest is not easily explained. The most plausible hypothesis seems to be that Roman Mithraism was practically a new creation, wrought by a religious genius who may have lived as late as c. AD 100 and who gave the old traditional Persian ceremonies a new Platonic interpretation that enabled Mithraism to become acceptable to the Roman world.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, Article Entry: Mithraism 2004 edition.)
As for the claim that Mithra was virgin born there is much historical evidence to suggest that the Romans taught that Mithra was born as an adult out of a rock in a cave.
- "Wearing his Phrygian cap, issues forth from a rocky mass. As yet only his bare torso is visible. In each hand he raises aloft a lighted torch and, as an unusual detail, red flames shoot out all around him." (Fran Cumon, "The Dura Mithraeum" in John R. Hinnels (ed.), Mythic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, Manchester University Press, 1975, 173.)
There is further no record anywhere that Mithra was a great teacher or that he had 12 disciples. There is also no evidence that Mithras bodily rose from the dead and nothing in history mentions a crucifixion.
2. EVEN CRITICS OF THE BIBLE ADMIT THAT JESUS LIVED.
Even those who are critical scholars and spend their time ripping the very heart out of the Word of God admit that Christ was in fact a historical person:
- Gunther Bornkamm – “To doubt the historical existence of Jesus at all . . . was reserved for an unrestrained tendentious criticism of modern times into which it is not worthwhile to enter here.” [Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, Translated by I. and F. McLuskey with J. M. Robinson (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1960), p. 28]
- Will Marxsen – “I am of the opinion (and it is an opinion shared by every serious historian) that the theory [‘that Jesus never lived, that he was purely a mythical figure’] is historically untenable.” [Willi Marxsen, The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1970), p. 119.]
- Rudolf Bultmann – “Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community.”[Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (London: Collins/Fontana, 1958), p. 13.]
- Michael Grant – “To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars.’ In recent years ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’ – or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.”[Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), p. 200]
3. ACCEPTED EXTRA-BIBLICAL SOURCES ACKNOWLEDGE JESUS' EXISTENCE
Where is the proof from non-Biblical sources that tells us that Jesus is indeed a real person? Although the NT is full of quotes that claim that Christ is the Son of God who really did live on earth many are still reluctant to believe what it says unless they see some independent testimony. The fact is that there is collateral proof available to us that proves Christ really did exist.
Evidence From Tacitus
This is probably the most important reference to Jesus we find outside of the New Testament. Tacitus in A.D. 64 about the rumors spread about Nero burning Rome makes the report:
- “Nero fastened the guilt . . . on a class of hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilot, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome . . .” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44, cited in Strobel, The Case for Christ, 82.)
From this ancient quotation we note that Tacitus reports that the Christians derived their name from a real historical person call "Christus" (from Latin) or "Christ." Further, it is reported that Christ "suffered the extreme penalty" which is most probably referring to crucifixion. Lastly, the time of this penalty was said to have been done during the reign of Tiberius and was administered by Pontius Pilot. All of these facts agree with the New Testament record.
Evidence from Josephus
Outside of the Bible there is perhaps no more remarkable references to Jesus than those found in the writings of Josephus. It is his astonishing statement found in Testimonium Flavianum that is particularly relevant to this discussion.
- “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats. . . . He was the Christ. When Pilate . . . condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared . . . restored to life . . . And the tribe of Christians . . . has . . . not disappeared.” (Josephus, Antiquities 18.63-64)
I trust after wading through all of this weighty evidence you will conclude with me that there are clearly many good reasons to believe that Jesus really did exist. This includes evidence from extra-biblical sources, the church fathers, and first-hand testimony of the apostles. I understand that there is much much more that can be added to this topic but I think these three points are at the very least a good starting point for those interested in the debate over the historical Jesus.