What people are saying
You don’t have to travel far on the internet to find sceptics who claim Jesus never existed and there is no worthwhile historical evidence for him. What is the historical evidence, and how should christians answer these claims?
Where will we get our information?
Most of the people arguing that Jesus was a myth base their views on writers who are not well-credentialled historians. But we need to learn from the experts. Most of us don’t have access to the relevant documents, speak the ancient languages nor understand the New Testament culture and archaeology, and without these our opinions are not based on the real facts available. Some expert historians have their biases too, but we can surely trust the scholars who are recognised and respected by their fellow historians.
Secular historians do not endorse everything christians believe, but they are the only place to start if we want to give a reasonable answer.
The verdict of expert historians
Almost all historians believe Jesus did indeed live. The following quotes from historians who have specialised in that period of history are typical:
Prof Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina: “I don’t think there’s any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus …. We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.”
The late Michael Grant, eminent historian of the Roman Empire: “we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned.” and “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.”
Prof James Charlesworth, Princeton Theological Seminary: “Jesus did exist; and we know more about him than about almost any Palestinian Jew before 70 C.E.”
Robert Van Voorst, Western Theological Seminary: “Biblical scholars and classical historians now regard it [the theory that Jesus didn’t exist] as effectively refuted.”
NT Wright, formerly of Oxford University: “The historical evidence for Jesus himself is extraordinarily good. …. From time to time people try to suggest that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, but virtually all historians of whatever background now agree that he did”
These scholars represent a range of views from non-belief to christian, so cannot be considered a biased selection.
Why have the historians concluded this?
Historians draw their conclusions based on the historical evidence – e.g. whether we have independent sources, whether the documents we have were written close to the events and whether they are consistent with other known history and culture. The New Testament satisfies these requirements better than most other ancient documents (see The Gospels as History) – it includes a number of independent sources, the gospels were written within a generation of the events, and archaeology and other history generally confirms the New Testament (see Archaeology and the truth of the Gospels).
Robert Van Voorst
Robert Van Voorst gives 7 reasons why historians are confident Jesus lived:
- The Apostle Paul did not say a lot about Jesus (an argument sometimes used by sceptics), but Paul did know about Jesus, but was unlikely to write a lot of historical detail in letters. This is an argument from silence and therefore invalid without real evidence.
- The gospels are too early for invention (too many people would have remembered the real facts), and their accurate references to Palestinian geography would not have been possible if the stories were invented later.
- The development of the early christians’ understanding of Jesus which can be seen in the gospels (another argument sometimes used) is not sufficient to justify the belief that they were inventions.
- No early opponents of Christianity, whether pagan or Jew, ever denied that Jesus truly lived, or even questioned it.
- Scholars are generally agreed that references to Jesus in the Roman historian Tacitus (early second century) and the Jewish historian Josephus (late first century) are both genuine, though some parts of Josephus appear to be later additions.
- Most arguments that Jesus wasn’t a historical figure have come from people opposed to Christianity and thus not unbiased, whereas scholars of all viewpoints from atheists to Christians accept the historicity of Jesus.
- Proponents of the mythical Jesus view have not been able to offer any credible hypothesis that explains the stories of Jesus and the birth of Christianity.
Bart Ehrman and ‘Did Jesus exist?’
In his book Did Jesus exist?, Ehrman gives a number of reasons why we can be sure Jesus existed and lived a life broadly as described in the gospels:
- The gospels and Paul’s writings are extremely useful independent historical sources. Even though they were written by people with a particular viewpoint, they cannot be discounted because most ancient sources had viewpoints, and historians have learnt to discount biases. Likewise, any discrepancies in the stories don’t take away from the significant agreement on the main facts.
- Historians can discern at least seven different sources behind these documents, some clearly based on earlier sources in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), some dated within a few years of his life. This is unprecedented in ancient history.
- Other sources (other books in the New Testament such as Acts, Hebrews and Revelation, non christian historians Josephus and Tacitus, and several christians writing in the early second century, Papias, Ignatius and Clement) provide corroboration.
- Paul, who lived at the time of Jesus, didn’t know Jesus (as far as we know), but knew one of his closest followers, Peter, and his brother, James. As Ehrman pithily says:
If Jesus never lived, you would think that his brother would know about it.
- No Jew would invent a story of a crucified Messiah, for this was a scandal to a Jew. Only the historical fact that Jesus truly lived and was crucified can explain this.
- The alternative theories proposed to explain the facts are often based on unhistorical and misrepresented ‘facts’ and incorrect methodology. For example, theories about dying and rising gods are not based on real historical information, but on old books whose research has been discredited, and there are no comparable pagan stories of virgin births, as is claimed. (See Was Jesus a copy of pagan gods?.)
- Those who believe Jesus was a myth often resort to self-serving methodology when confronted with inconvenient facts. Many attempt to gloss over textual evidence against their theories by claiming the inconvenient text is a copyist’s interpolation.
In Jesus of Nazareth, historian Maurice Casey is adamant that
professional scholars regard the question of Jesus’ existence to have been settled years ago, and quotes the findings of EP Sanders in The Historical Figure of Jesus in support (see Jesus and the historians).
Casey says that the gospels are very good sources by ancient history standards and analysis shows they reflect first century Jewish culture and language. Luke was, he says
an outstanding historian by ancient standards. He says Paul’s letter clearly support the conclusion that Jesus was a real person, and claims to the contrary reveal a poor understanding of historical method.
He argues that those (generally non-experts) who think otherwise base their conclusions on
ludicrously late dates for the Gospels, incorrect comparisons with pagan myths, tampering with ancient texts to remove
inconvenient evidence, poor application of accepted historical methods and disregard for the work of major scholars in the field.
Responding to mythicists
Those who believe that Jesus was a myth will generally try to argue against the scholars, using arguments that have been rejected by modern scholarship. Rather than argue each point interminably, I think it is wisest to simply quote the scholars and the reasons they have come to their conclusions, and ask: “Why should I believe you rather than all the experts?”
- Bart Ehrman quote comes from a video interview with The Infidel Guy. Bart Ehrman’s book is Did Jesus Exist?
- Michael Grant quote from “Jesus: an historian’s review of the gospels“.
- J Charlesworth quote from “Jesus Within Judaism“.
- NT Wright quote from the Guardian.
- Robert Van Voorst quote and information from “Jesus outside the New Testament“.
- Maurice Casey’s book is Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching.