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 zeal, often with opposing results. Obviously 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, “How to believe in God”. Trust me on this one: if you are ready to believe, then you can!
2. NON CHRISTIAN SOURCES
Firstly, I need to clarify the level of credibility extending to secular historical records that we rely on today. And that refers to the validation of Biblical statements and there place in ancient history in general. In the ideal world of evidence that would be expected today to prove the human Jesus existed in history, we would require a first hand account of Jesus’ life written by a credible non Christian. This person would, as already stated, be an eye witness, and would also have other credible witnesses validating 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 opponents of Jesus’ historical existence begin their cases with such demands. If that level of credibility was demanded in relation to our general knowledge of history, a large amount of it would ‘go down the gurgler’.
2.1 Establishing credibility
Christian scholars (and credible secular scholars for that matter), evaluating information on Jesus and Christianity from antiquity, do in fact apply 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 extreme 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 maintaining is that Christian scholars do use the same credible methods of assessing documents (to establish historical Biblical events) as secular scholars utilise. 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, by virtue of elapsed time, it is obvious that relying on ancient documents can never be an exact science! The fact is that original documents are often lost with the 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 non Christian antagonists, in that there are no non Christian eye witness accounts of Jesus’ existence available from his own time. As I have already said, this is a common outcome when researching ancient history.
The first available writing, coming from the late first century AD, was produced by the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus. Josephus’ writing has received more analysis than most other ancient historians, as much as anything else, because of his comments about Jesus and Christianity. He is known to have exaggerated some of his information on non Christian history, when it suited his agenda.
None-the-less there is a general appreciation for the insight into ancient Roman and Jewish history that he provided. 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 derived from reliable sources of information that he had access to.
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 and his subsequent crucifixion. He also mentions in another statement that James, “the brother of the so-called Christ” had 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 contemporary 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 phrase was added to embellish original details of Jesus during re-writes of Josephus’ 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 antagonistic atheist writers rightly highlight the suspect nature of the wording that I refer to, but in truth they are a little late with their findings.
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 demise at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and of the Christian religion itself. Present day Christian scholars consider it probable that Tacticus also accessed official records to provide 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, i.e. they considered him to be divine (he was God incarnate).
Incidentally, these writings also oppose the fictional basis of Dan Brown’s book “The Da Vinci Code”, which maintained that the divinity of Jesus was only established by Church leaders three or more centuries later. The Biblical “Gospels”, “Acts of the Apostles” and “Epistles of Paul” also agree on the divinity of Jesus, so it is clear that The Da Vinci Code should only be enjoyed as a bit of fun.
3. CHRISTIAN SOURCES
The contents of the New Testament (the Jesus bits) of the Christian Bible are accepted by Christian scholars as the best source of information on Jesus and the early Christian Church. There is also no doubt that a very good trail of information exists from the early Christians. There are literally thousands of copies and fragments of relevant documents dating from the mid first century until 1200 AD to 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 complemented 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 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. 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 presenting us with the ability to interpret Jesus through his parables, his miracles and speeches, many of which indicated his divinity.
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 by comparison to the Synoptic Gospels. Its wording would have appealed more to Greeks, at that time, who had familiarity with Hellenistic philosophy.
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. The Gospel of John also relies on more elaborate stories than those contained in the Synoptic Gospels. Like Paul’s Epistles, it makes it very clear that Jesus is God, i.e. it is stated more explicitly than in the Synoptic Gospels. I have presented more detail on this in the article, “Jesus as God”.
Just a final word on the Gospels. Antagonistic atheist writers highlight the minor inconsistencies, dates of events etc, between the Gospels to challenge their overall credibility. This manner of writing, within the Gospels, arose from my earlier statement that the writers wanted to present clarity on the human, super-human and even supernatural nature of Jesus, rather than presenting exacting historical accuracy.
The Gospel writers certainly knew what had been written previously by others, so differences were more than likely deliberate. And although they altered fine details, to support their own interpretations of Jesus’ nature for example, they did not threaten the underlying historicity of their works. In fact their historic content, by virtue of its relevance, assists 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 an important role within the Bible’s New Testament. It is believed to have been written or compiled 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 derived 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 portions of the New Testament.
‘Acts’ is a vital 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 65 AD, because of what it does not say. Despite the inclusion of some minor historical information, it does not include important events that occurred post 65 AD: the deaths of Peter and Paul, the Jewish war, the fall of Jerusalem. So it was 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).
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 Spirit it would be achieved.
Acts also provides invaluable threads that connect the contents of the individual Epistles of Paul (that are discussed next). Although presumably written after the Epistles of Paul it is clear, from small inconsistencies, that the writer has not read them. Despite these inconsistencies, there are many other instances of fine detail in parallel between the two. The two documents are definitely harmonious.
The historical details of Rome and Palestine, that it includes, also have some reassuring parallels with the historian Josephus’ writing.
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 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.
The first of the letters of Paul were probably compiled 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 authoritatively 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 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 post crucifixion) from the supernatural Jesus at his conversion, he would have learnt much about the human Jesus from Jesus’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 extensive first hand knowledge.
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 all important input to Christianity all the more impressive.)
We can therefore know 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 my eyes, the Epistles of Paul particularly gain credibility by mentioning the Spirit of God at work within the Church and the application of 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. (Please read the articles, “’God’s presence in the Church” and “Experiencing the Holy Spirit” to better understand this.)
Paul was also, in effect, the first to clarify 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. Peter, and the other Apostles in Jerusalem, had little need to present theology. 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 Gentiles. 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.
Within the internationally accepted standards of analysing documents from antiquity, 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, and a lack of meaningful conflict, with information from non Christian sources.
The New Testament is indeed a very complex collection of writings. The different writing styles evident within it indicate a number of authors were involved with its production. When studied, it is clear that these writings are exquisitely interwoven and supportive of each other. The consistency of essential themes is beyond question. 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 occurs. 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 New Testament just be the work of fraudsters? 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 apparent to me (and obviously 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”.
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, 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 was subsequently condemned to death for his witnessing. Paul also endured incredible hardship and suffering, as well as eventual execution. I would say that Paul’s letters (produced through tenacity in the face of severe adversity) provide us with a solid step towards comprehending 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.
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 one’s life.
And, as another example, why do supernatural events still occur in so-called Born Again/ Charismatic services, just as Paul documented in the ancient Church? Whilst I have witnessed, and been personally involved with, these events in the past, I am not a member of a so-called Born Again/ Charismatic congregation at this time. I have long practised solely within a traditional Protestant church. 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, manifest himself so obviously in these services? Yes, he is ready to spiritually 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 thus proving what is written. Incidentally, I have not been able to locate another area within monotheism (e.g. Judaism or Islam) that utilises the actual ‘presence’ of God so tangibly as the Born Again/ Charismatic movement. Again, to my mind, the fact that these events still occur within a Christian setting raises the probability that God is providing validation of the religion’s core beliefs.
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 experiences, particularly those that are available within the Born Again/ 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.)
Join in please. Ask questions. Leave a comment. Etc.