Did Jesus really exist?
Do the Christian Gospels have credibility?
What does recorded history actually have to say about Jesus?
The available facts?
This article assesses information from both ancient non Christian (secular) and Christian sources to determine whether Jesus really: did live and die as a human being; rise from the dead; was God incarnate.
To some extent the article also looks beyond the written word for evidence.
This subject is quite a hot topic on the internet. It is of great interest to both Christian and atheist writers. Both sides approach their tasks with great energy, obviously with opposing results. I am a committed Christian but I have tried to provide an objective approach in this article. The written facts seem to speak for themselves, and reasonably well in my opinion (I have made a living in the past from my analytical skills).
Now, if all this seems a bit too much for you … say if you are even struggling with the possible existence of God … please begin by reading the article, “Can I really believe in God?”. Trust me on this one: if you are ready to believe, then you can!
A little warning here! This article is one of the biggest on the website. But if you want to know why the experts (Christian theologians) believe it all to be true, then please read on. But take your time please. Yes it’s big, but it ‘covers a lot of ground’.
2. NON CHRISTIAN SOURCES
I need to explain about ‘credibility’, in reference to secular (non religious) historical records. And I am referring to the ancient secular records that we do rely on today to accept the Bible’s account of Jesus.
Now, in the ideal world of evidence, what would actually be expected today to prove the human Jesus did exist in history? Well we would require a first hand account of Jesus’ life written by a credible non Christian. This person would be an eye witness. And then we would need to also have other credible witnesses ‘backing up’ what had been recorded through ‘sworn’ statements. Any statements on events relayed, and not personally witnessed, would be referenced to credible and verifiable sources.
Did any of this occur to validate Biblical statements about the life and times of Jesus? Of course not, and the reason is simple! Historians of that era just did not operate like we do in the 21st Century. However, many atheist writers who challenge Jesus’ historical existence begin their cases with such demands. You know, if that level of credibility was demanded in relation to our general knowledge of history, then a large amount of it would ‘go down the gurgler’.
2.1 Establishing credibility
Christian scholars (and secular scholars for that matter), evaluating information on Jesus and Christianity from that era, do in fact use internationally accepted methods to validate old documents:
- How many copies are in existence;
- When were the copies produced and when was the ‘original’ document written;
- How many copies are identical, or if not identical how serious are their differences.
Other factors can also be applied during analysis, e.g. can archeology be used to verify statements made within documents.
What I am saying here is that Christian scholars do use the same credible methods of assessing documents that secular scholars use. Their research must be as exacting as it can be. If it is not, then they will eventually be challenged by their ‘peers’.
But having said all that, because of past time, it is obvious that relying on ancient documents can never be a totally exact science! The fact is that original documents are often lost with that passing of time. Quite often, modern scholars and historians need rely on later documents that relay information that has been sourced from original documents that are now lost.
2.2 Available evidence
Firstly, I do agree with present day atheist writers, in that there are no non-Christian eye witness accounts of Jesus’ actual existence. I mean available from his own time. But, as I have already said, this is a common result when researching ancient history.
Josephus’ ancient records
The first available writing, coming from the late first century AD (i.e. the same century during which Jesus lived), was from the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus. Now Josephus’ writing has received more analysis than most other ancient historians. This is clearly because of his comments about Jesus and Christianity. But it is known he did exaggerate some of his information on non-Christian history, when it suited his agenda. And that has been taken into account, when studying his Christian records.
None-the-less there is a general appreciation for the insight into ancient Roman and Jewish history that he did provide. And as far as Jesus was concerned, Josephus would have had no hidden agendas, i.e. it is considered that he ‘said it as he saw it’. Most modern scholars, whether Christian or non Christian, consider that the basis of Josephus’ writing was accessed from reliable sources of information that he had access to, at that time.
Josephus’ writing indicates that, as a minimum, Jesus ‘did’ exist. His writings include details of Jesus’ condemnation by the Roman governor of Israel, Pontius Pilate. Jesus’ subsequent crucifixion is also included. Josephus also mentions in another statement that James, “the brother of the so-called Christ” had also been condemned to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Josephus also wrote of the life and execution of John the Baptist, although he did not connect him with Jesus in any way. All credible secular scholars accept these events as ‘history’, just as Christian scholars do.
Bear in mind that Christian scholars, since the sixteenth century, have suspected that a particular phrase was added to Josephus’ work after he wrote it. And it was done to exaggerate original details of Jesus during re-writes of his works. (There were no photocopiers or scanners, let alone printing presses in those days. So old crumbling documents had to be copied by hand for posterity.) Modern day atheist writers rightly highlight the suspect nature of the wording that I refer to, but in truth they are just a little late with their findings. Making a noise about what was already doubted.
Other ancient records
The next valuable writing, making mention of Jesus, comes to us from the early second century. Cornelius Tacticus, a Roman Historian, made mention of the founder of Christianity (i.e. Jesus Christ), his execution at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and of the Christian religion itself. Present day Christian scholars consider it probable that Tacticus also used earlier official records as a basis for his writing.
Written works from others around that time, such as Pliny the Younger and Lucian of Samosata, also refer to the Christians and their religion. Those early writings verify that Christians of the first century did actually worship Jesus. That is they considered him to be divine (he was God ‘in the flesh’).
3. CHRISTIAN SOURCES
The New Testament (the Jesus bits of the Bible) is accepted by Christian scholars as the best source of information on Jesus and the early Christian Church. They also believe that a very good trail of information existing from the early Christians to support the New Testament’s contents. There are literally thousands of copies and fragments of relevant documents. They date from the mid first century until 1200 AD and verify that nothing of importance has been altered.
3.1 The Gospels
There are four Gospels in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. (The word “Gospel” is usually interpreted to mean “good news”.) These are the “canonical gospels”. Many other gospels, or “non canonical gospels”, became available for inclusion, but the four chosen were all in sync, and clearly fitted with and supported the balance of the New Testament. If you wish, you can research these other gospels to see why they were rejected. I can assure you that there is nothing sinister about it. Some were, for example, based on ‘gnostic’ thought. It added a level of religious complexity that was unnecessary and did not sit well with the Christian Old Testament (much of which is also accepted by the Jewish religion).
Three of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are grouped together because of their similar content and style. They are known as the “Synoptic Gospels”. The term relates to the parallels that can be viewed within them. Although not considered as certain, it is thought that “Mark” was the first Gospel produced and it was the basis of the other two Synoptic Gospels. Even the most conservative scholars would not date Mark beyond 100 AD. However, it was probably written in the sixties of the first century, only thirty odd years after Jesus’ death. Some scholars have even justified that it could have been written much earlier.
It is therefore possible that some of Jesus’ apostles were still alive at the time that the Gospels were written, i.e. it was not impossible for them to have actually played a role in writing them. It has also been theorised that all the gospels (even some of the non canonical ones) may have relied on other written sources of information, e.g. records of Jesus’ sayings. Such theories are based on comparisons between the’ canonical’ and ‘non canonical’ gospels.
The Synoptic Gospels discuss a little of Jesus’ early life, and provide us with a good understanding of his ministry. Bear in mind that their writers were less interested in fine historical detail, than they were in giving us the ability to interpret Jesus through his parables, his miracles and speeches. This was because many of those indicated his divinity. That is, he was God in human form.
Gospel of John
The “Gospel of John” on the other hand is quite different from the Synoptic Gospels. Although without doubt it is complementary to them. It was written after the Synoptic Gospels, probably in the late first century or maybe in the early second century. Certainly the Gospel of John can be described as elegant and sophisticated when comparing it to the Synoptic Gospels. Its wording would have appealed more to Greeks, at that time, who were familiar with ‘Hellenistic’ philosophy.
So, the Gospel of John was probably aimed at a different audience than that of the Synoptic Gospels. However, again there is no doubt that it is very valuable for its theological input. That is because it gets to the real spiritual ‘nitty gritty’ of Christianity.
The Gospel of John also includes more complicated stories than those contained in the Synoptic Gospels. Like Paul’s Epistles, it makes it very clear that Jesus is God. That is, it is stated much more clearly than in the Synoptic Gospels. I have presented more detail on this in the article, “Jesus as God”.
A last look at the Gospels
Just a final word on the Gospels. Atheist writers highlight the minor differences, e.g. dates of events etc, between the Gospels to challenge their overall credibility. However this way of writing, within the Gospels, arose from my earlier statement that the writers wanted to clearly highlight Jesus’ true nature. As such, they highlighted the human, super-human and even supernatural nature of Jesus, rather than present exact historical accuracy. But in truth, it adds more evidence to its genuine truth, rather than the reverse. (So, I’m sorry atheist writers.)
The Gospel writers certainly knew what had been written previously by others, so differences were almost certainly deliberate. And although they altered fine details, to support their own interpretations of Jesus’ nature for example, they did not threaten the underlying historical accuracy of their works. In fact their historic content, by virtue of its relevance, helps scholars to verify and/or date recorded events within reasonable limits.
3.2 Acts of the Apostles
The Book of “Acts of the Apostles” performs another important role within the Bible’s New Testament. It is believed to have been written or put together by the author of the Gospel of Luke. Interestingly, about a third of it is written in the ‘first person’, apparently as a diary of someone who travelled with St Paul on his journeys. Scholars believe that other parts were accessed from oral or written sources associated with St Peter in Jerusalem.
No matter how the segments were put together by the author, the finished product definitely has a clear plan and purpose running through it. Again, it compliments and supports other areas of the New Testament.
Its historical importance
‘Acts’ is a very important document for a number of reasons. First and foremost it is an historical account of the early Christian church – the journeys and actions of the Apostles, particularly Peter and Paul. It is believed to have been written before the year 65 AD, because of what it does not say. Despite including some minor historical information, it does not include important events that occurred after 65 AD: the deaths of Peter and Paul, the Jewish war, the fall of Jerusalem. So it was clearly written no later than thirty years after Jesus’ death.
The content of Acts begins where the Gospels end, i.e. the Apostles ‘witnessing’ about Jesus after the reported and foretold arrival of the Holy Spirit (on the day of Pentecost).
Clear statements about the future
Acts makes clear, bold statements:
- The Gospel belongs to the whole world;
- God led Jewish-born men to know that national boundaries should be broken down;
- There would be difficulty in getting the message out;
- But by the power of the Holy Spirit it would be achieved.
Acts also offers very important ‘threads’ that connect the contents of the individual Epistles of Paul (that are discussed next). It is presumed to have been written after the Epistles of Paul. But look, it is clear from small differences between them, that the writer has not read the Epistles. Despite these differences, there are many other instances of fine detail, that absolutely agree, between the two. The two documents are definitely ‘in sync’.
Now your average atheist writer hasn’t got a ‘hope in hades’ of picking up this sort of stuff. The real evidence is just plain lost to them, because they can only concentrate on looking for the little negatives!
The historical details of Rome and Palestine, that Acts includes, also have some reassuring parallels with the historian Josephus’ writing. That is again a serious and positive finding.
3.3 The Epistles of Paul
The Epistles (letters) of Paul provide us with high quality explanations of the practises and beliefs of the early Church. Other epistles from other writers are included in the Bible. But I refer here only to Paul’s because they provide us with the best understanding of the history of first century Christianity and its theology.
Genuine record of early Christianity
The first of the letters of Paul were probably written in the forties or fifties of the first century. It has been calculated, from other historical events mentioned in the Gospels, that Jesus died in the early to mid thirties of the first century. The ‘conversion’ of Paul (i.e. his documented meeting with the resurrected Jesus) can be timed to the late thirties of the first century.
Although Paul writes with authority about Jesus, after his death and resurrection, he does not give us a great deal of information about the historical ‘human’ Jesus. It is not that he would not have known about the human Jesus, because for example he relays details about his personality. It can be assumed that he would have personally ‘preached’ details of the human Jesus often enough to his followers. But Paul probably did not feel the need to repeat these details in his letters.
And although Paul states that he learnt about the risen Lord (Jesus after his ascension to Heaven) from the supernatural Jesus at his ‘conversion’, he would have learnt much about the human Jesus from Jesus’ own Apostles. Paul gave us details of having met both Peter and Jesus’ brother, James on one occasion. Peter also visited Paul on another occasion. So there were opportunities for Paul to learn about the human Jesus from those who had lots of first hand knowledge about him.
It is also certain that he had learnt much about the human Jesus, in earlier years, during the time that he actively persecuted the early Christians. Yes, Paul was actually an enemy of Christians before the ‘risen’ Jesus confronted him and converted him in no uncertain manner. This made Paul’s important input to Christianity all the more impressive.
We can therefore accept that Paul knew far more about the human Jesus than we can gather from his epistles. Clearly, the most useful and credible source of information on the human Jesus is of course the Gospels.
In sync with today’s church ‘spiritual events’
In my eyes, the Epistles of Paul really gain credibility by mentioning the Spirit of God at work within the ancient Church. That included the use of spiritual gifts of the Spirit (by Church members). I can absolutely vouch for the fact that this supernatural stuff still occurs in these modern times of ours. And wow … I can guess how that might look to you, if you’ve never been involved there!
Paul’s theology still makes sense
Paul was also, in effect, the first to clearly explain Christian theology in its own right. Essential examples are: Jesus died to save us; faith in him as our ‘redeemer’ does actually save us; he was raised from the dead; Jesus is God.
On the one hand, Peter and the other Apostles in Jerusalem had little need to present any theology to their followers. They had Jewish disciples. And, as practising Jews, they understood that their message of the resurrected Jesus and his saving grace provided an extension to the Jewish religion.
Paul, on the other hand, led the thrust of bringing Christianity to the rest of the world; to the completely uninitiated, i.e. the so-called Gentiles. Yes, Paul had to clarify ‘Christology’, in his own mind, so that he could explain it to those who may have had little knowledge of even the Jewish religion.
4. SUMMING IT UP
Finally after all that info that I have offered in this article, let’s have a look at the ‘big picture’. Firstly, I’m pretty sure we can accept the evidence that has made it into the 21st century. That is evidence that shows us that Jesus was the ‘real deal’.
4.1 The documented evidence
Within accepted ‘worldwide standards’, used to analyse documents from ancient times, we are provided with what is considered to be good quality evidence from non Christian sources.
This applies particularly to the records of Josephus and Tacticus. They make it pretty clear that Jesus did live within history and indeed died in the way that the Christian Bible depicts. Details of many non Christian events are accepted in history from evidence with much less credibility.
The contents of the New Testament fundamentally do agree with, and support, each other. There are also many parallels between Christian and non Christian records, and a lack of any meaningful conflict between them as well. And look, that is significant when you do look at the facts.
The New Testament is indeed a very complex collection of writings. The different writing styles, evident within it, make it very clear that quite a number of authors were involved with its documents. When studied, it is clear that these writings are beautifully interwoven and support each other. The consistency of essential themes is again beyond question.
4.2 The ‘game changer’ concept
The ‘concept’ of God the Father (i.e. similar in character to the Jewish Yahweh and Islamic Allah) is acceptable within the three monotheist religions.
But, when the concept of Jesus is fully understood a huge enrichment happens. The term “grace” (remember the beautiful old hymn “Amazing Grace” that is so often sung at funerals) sits at the heart of this enrichment.
How could the themes carried through the New Testament just be the work of fraudsters, as atheist writers tell us? Really! I admit that, as a Christian, it might appear difficult for me to be truly objective. But bear in mind that as a long practising Christian, and experienced analyst, the sheer complexity of the overall works has become all the more clear to me. And that obviously applies to a good many others.
The end result of the writings is the basis of a religion of love: love of God and love of fellow humans. Indeed, if only the darkness could understand the light that shines within it. [see John 1:5] What an ideal world we would have! For a better understanding of Christianity itself, its ‘rules’ of love and the term “grace”, please read the article “Christianity explained”.
4.3 Why should we believe his followers?
Without doubt though, the most difficult aspect for the uninitiated is to accept the truth of Jesus’ divinity, i.e. Jesus arose from the dead; Jesus is God! The inclusion of this belief within early Christianity is indicated even in evidence from ancient non Christian sources. And of course the New Testament insists upon it. But, it is not easy for the modern mind to accept. I fully understand this. I had real trouble with it myself, when struggling to initially gain faith over thirty years ago.
Firstly, we need to ask ourselves why on earth would the Apostles proclaim that Jesus was the risen Lord God. That is when they knew that they ‘risked life and limb’ by doing so? We know that many of the Apostles did ‘historically’ lose their lives as a result. Why would they have been so adamant, to even accepting death over it, if they had not seen it for themselves? We also know that it was not easy for James, the brother of Jesus, to believe that his own brother really was the risen, divine Messiah (the Christ). Christian sources state that the resurrected Jesus had to prove it to him personally.
And from Josephus’ writing, we know that James went on to be condemned to death for his ‘witnessing’. Paul also endured incredible hardship and suffering, as well as eventual execution for the same reason. I would say that Paul’s letters (written by him through determination in the face of severe adversity) provide us with a solid step towards understanding the ‘real’ Jesus. It is evident that Paul genuinely believed himself to be in communion with the living Lord, and was ready to do whatever he was called to do. And I mean no matter what the cost.
4.4 We can experience ‘evidence’ now
For myself though, as with most Christians, it ultimately comes down to proving its basis for yourself, i.e. by putting Christianity into practice within the Church and your life. If ‘old analytical me’ could … well!
And, why do supernatural events still occur in so-called Pentecostal/ Charismatic services, just as Paul documented in the ancient Church? Yes I have witnessed, and been personally involved with, these events in the past. But I am not a member of a so-called Pentecostal/ Charismatic congregation at this time. I have long practised within a traditional Protestant church most of the time. So, do not think I am pushing the movement’s ‘wheel barrow’ here! I understand that the movement has 500 million worldwide members at present.
Why indeed does the Spirit of God, overflowing with the essence of Jesus and the Father, ‘manifest’ himself so obviously in these services? Yes, the Spirit is ready to ‘engage’ with members of the movement as and when he sees fit. I firmly believe that above all else he is ‘edifying’ his Church, and thereby proving what is written. As well as proving, to those who are willing to engage with him, that he is indeed the ‘real deal’.
And by the way, I have not been able to locate another area within monotheism (e.g. Judaism or Islam) that utilises the actual ‘presence’ of God so clearly as the Pentecostal/ Charismatic movement. Again, to my mind, the fact that these events still occur within a Christian setting raises the probability that God is validating the religion’s core beliefs.
4.5 Final word
Having said all this, as a one-time atheist myself, I am not surprised by the doubts of others who are yet to be exposed to Christian knowledge or experiences. Particularly those that are available within the Pentecostal/ Charismatic movement.
All I can say in closing is, please look into it with a truly open mind. If a questioning mind like my own can be satisfied, then I am sure that anyone’s can be. (To read about the who’s, how’s and why’s of this website please click here.)
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