Did Jesus Really Exist?

From time to time I get asked this question–Did Jesus really exist? Recently, a student of mine in a University of Manitoba class more than a dozen years ago wrote to me to ask the same question. So here are two answers: one short, and the other long–in the form of two book recommendations:

No serious scholar that I know of disputes the idea that Jesus existed–only nuts on the fringe who advertise their own books at the back of magazines! The gospels have been fought over for a few centuries as to just how much they record that can be taken as historically accurate, but no one in that long dispute has ever doubted that there is someone, Jesus, behind them as the source of at least the authentic sayings and stories.

For that matter, how does the Christian religion begin, with all its fresh ideas and energy, without a Jesus at its heart? How do all the apostles tell such different stories in the various books of the New Testament that nonetheless cohere so well unless there is a Reality (Jesus) to which they all correspond?

For some good discussions of the historicity of the New Testament, I’d start with these fine books, written by scholars I know and whose scholarship is beyond dispute:

Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ (Eerdmans, 2009)
Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (InterVarsity, 2008)

There is a lot to ponder in the career of Jesus and there is lot to argue over regarding the records we have of his life. But whether there was such a person? I think it’s more likely to assert that Moses or Plato or Julius Caesar or Muhammad didn’t exist.

0 Responses to “Did Jesus Really Exist?”

  1. Robert Minto

    Thank you for these recommendations. I’ve been looking for an appropriate introduction/summary of the historical Jesus debate for some time!

  2. donsands

    This is a good post for me. I am debating with an atheist, who is actaully a professor who teaches Darwinism.
    He gave me this youtube video to watch, and then to discuss. i thought, if you have the time, would you mind checking this out, and letting me know what you think. I appreciate it. but if you don’t have time, I understand.

    I came to your blog via Modern Reformation, and your interview with Michael Horton. Actually I put a portion of your interview on my blog, and it has caused some heated discussion, let me tell you.

    Have a blessed Lord’s day. Hebrews 10:25

  3. John Stackhouse

    I couldn’t stand to watch more than a few minutes of this video, frankly, since everyone involved is a terrible package of confident semi-ignorance. The Christian woman says, for example, that every place name in the Bible is verified archaeologically, which is wildly untrue. The atheists say that the New Testament was not written by eyewitnesses, which is also untrue: Matthew, John, and Peter were disciples of Jesus; James was Jesus’ brother; Mark and Luke clearly are connected with eyewitnesses; and Paul was an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ.

    Yes, I’m well aware that the authorship of most of the books of the New Testament has been contested. I’m well aware that the gospels themselves don’t have authors’ names anywhere in the text. I’m well aware that Paul’s testimony to seeing the resurrected Christ is incredible to someone who doesn’t believe in resurrections.

    As a professional historian myself, however, I’m convinced that what we have in the New Testament are indeed documents that reflect eyewitness testimony. Moreover, these documents were affirmed (among many other Christian writings circulating in the earliest communities, including other writings by the same authors, such as other Corinthian letters by Paul) as so reliable they were venerated as new scripture–and Jews (as the earliest Christians mostly were) take the category of “scripture” pretty seriously!

    A little knowledge goes a long way in standing up to blowhards like these Austin atheists. Alas, too few churches teach that knowledge and leave their people vulnerable to embarrassment and confusion. Maybe it’s time for an adult education class to walk through one or both of these books?

  4. donsands

    Thank you John for your response. Would you mind if I quoted you to the atheist friend of mine, who I have been sharing the gospel with.

    It has been an on going debate for a year or so. He is quite sure there is no God. Yet he doesn’t know what to do with Dr. Luke’s epistle of the Acts of the Apostles. And he has no idea what to do with Peter, who saw Jesus after he rose from the dead.
    So, he is open to video’s like this one.

    Thank you so much for taking a look. And sharing. I appreciate it very much.

    I have quite a debate going on at my blog over your thoughts on inclusivism with a good friend, who has been a missionary in Nepal for 12 years now. A good brother in the Lord, who likes to speak his mind.
    Gal. 6:14

  5. Henry Cullihall

    Dr. Jon

    Bart D. Ehrman’s DVD series Lost Christianities;as well as The Gnostic Scriptures and the Nag Hammadi Texts have contributed significantly to my continual learning of Christology.

    Now I have to lean Coptic,,GRrrrrrrr.

    Henry Cullihall
    Winnipeg

  6. john

    “I’m not saying he didn’t exist” was his final comment to the caller which means that while he claims there is no evidence that he exists nothing tells him he didn’t. Felt that was a bit thin if not a tad on the cowardly side of things. Forgive me if that is a tad unkind.

    I actually like the atheists advice to the Christian; that being, to read some books on alternative views. Might that have helped her piece together a more compelling argument? Hardly would hurt a person to understand the heart and mind of one who uses historical evidence or a lack of it to conclude that god is fictitious.

    Appreciate the post here.

  7. Robert Earl

    How can you actually believe that the “gospels” were written by the actual followers of Jesus, when there is scientifically documented proof that the earliest copies of these stories were written from 40-300 years AFTER the death of Jesus? The life expectancy back then was 30 years… do the math.

    All the “Tarzan” novels, as well as those of Pellicudar were written prior to 1944, or 65 years ago. The stories are masterfully constructed, as are the “gospels”, but untrue. The same goes for the “Doc Savage” series and let’s not forget Paul Bunyan.

    Any decent writer can create well written fiction. If people were not so afraid of death, the story of Jesus would be viewed far more critically and relegated to the shelves of fiction, between Bunyan & Pellicudar.

    Christians need more convincing arguments than: “God said it, I believe it, end of story.” At least Mohammed and Moses could write and left something, though transcriptions may have tainted these as well.!

    With the resounding rejection of Palin and the return to sanity in this country last November, simply yelling in a loud voice won’t work any longer. We need facts. YOU need facts.

    • John Stackhouse

      Well, Brother Earl, I’m afraid I have to say that you’re just wrong about the “scientifically documented proof” about the Gospels being written “from 40-300 years” (that’s a pretty big range!) after Jesus’ death. The consensus of experts in the field (that is, the scientists–in this case, historians) is that the gospels were written between 25 and 70 years after Jesus’ death. Almost no one dates the Synoptics later than about AD 70 and most date John before 100.

      (What does “scientifically documented” even mean in a context such as this? That phrase usually denotes experimental verification, I should think, and therefore you’re making a disciplinary mistake. We’re talking about history here, not natural science.)

      You refer to the “Tarzan” novels, but I don’t see why. Do you know of a large number of worshippers of Tarzan who mistakenly believe Edgar Rice Burroughs’s fiction is fact? No, you don’t. So there’s no point to the comparison. Ditto “Doc Savage” and Paul Bunyan. The point in question is whether a myth or fiction could spring up that fast and have the effects that the gospels did.

      So I’m afraid you just don’t know what you’re talking about. Read Prof. Craig Blomberg on the historicity of the gospels. Or consult a basic reference work such as the Anchor Bible Dictionary. I agree we need facts. I’m offering you some.

  8. Robert Earl

    Hide several disconnected books in the Tarzan series in clay jars in the desert for a couple thousand years and someone may find them, mistake them for historical fact and create a new “history” based on them.

    Worship? No. That argument is one of the “final” ones used by theists. No one would worship any of the fictional characters I mention. They were not written to be interpreted that way. I use them for comparison of misinterpretation milennia later..

    We don’t worship George Washington. Yet the majority of Americans think he actually DID chop down a cherry tree within the context of THAT legend and people were writing about him (as was he) AT THE TIME IT OCCURRED, not 25-70 years later, if I concede your point, which I will agree is highly argumentative either way. The point is they were written LATER and not in the first person.

    Humphrey Bogart never said,” Play it again, Sam.” some 60 years ago. Yet most think he did from the twisting that occurs naturally in retelling a story and THAT movie exists to be seen today.

    The biblical texts, all ancient texts, including their versions of Tarzan, were subject to interpretation of those transcribing, much like the childhood games of “Elephant” & “Telephone” and upon the clarity of those minds transcribing, which any number of things like disease, fatigue and alcohol could affect.

    Scientific documentation has dated the earliest existing versions of the gospels, all of them including the ones Constintine and others removed from the compilation now called the Bible. I don’t see any reference to any being written close to the lifespans of Jesus’s followers. Gnostic gospels were banned and burned. Now that several have been found, we see dramatic differences, but again, these were not written until years later and may well suffer from the “Play it again, Sam.” effect.

    Any “bible dictionary”, or likewise biased text, would of course play up the positive and ignore the negative to its point. This is human nature to do. But too many offer the opinion of someone marginally qualified, whose opinion agrees with theirs….. sort of like bringing in Richard Hoagland, whose only real claim to anything in space is that he briefly worked as a “contractor” for NASA, to discuss the existence of extra-terrestrials.

    You can do this all day with bible supporters denouncing carbon dating, physics, fossils, evolution, primal instincts, the last ice age & its ice coring samples, the big bang, billions of light years and so on.

    They would have me believe that my fossil & stone arrowhead collections, my mammoth teeth were all put there by “God” to test my “faith” and that the imperfect FOSSIL fuels we use today to pollute, er POWER the planet were created by God for our use???? Fossils fuels that are killing the planet were placed here for our USE by the god that loves and protects us???

    I can bring forth solid science that supports my position, which would bring up the final arguments from your side: “God said it, I believe it, end of story.” AND, “God supervised to transcribing of the gospels and thus they ARE the accurate word of God.” (maybe, but he stopped supervising CLOSELY about 14oo years ago, when he took Mohammed to the sky, or there would have been no Crusades, Inquisition, slaughter of American cultures like the Maya, etc., Holocaust, September 11th, 2005 tsunami, etc.

    The deity supposedly turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt (like a laser would) for looking back, but fails to stop a tidal wave that kills 250,000 devout followers of their faiths? To that one you say, “….we don’t always understand God’s motives….” as the final word!

    Proof is far too tenuous and your side’s supporting evidence is presented partially and by those with few, if any, credentials that don’t have religious ties to them.

    I once debated the man that would become John Cardinal Dearden twice in 1970-1, on the existence of God. Both times were a draw. The then Archbishop said after these that the debates, “….could be lost by either side, but never won….” due the the lack of PHYSICAL proof supporting the positive side and CONCLUSIVE proof supporting the negative.

    However, the best statement came from a barely educated egg farmer who tried to “save” me once and was losing the debate quite badly, “…. if I am wrong, what’s the worst that could happen? I live a good, decent life! But if I am right, think of the gain. Either way I do you no harm!”

    Granted. But he never studied the Holocaust, or the Crusades to see what religious extremism from Christians can do to fellow worshipers of one god.

    My “side” must exist and speak loudly or the pendulum of “truths” cannot swing in both directions and the “clock” stops.

    The best of the multiple Holiday season to you!

    Rev. Robert Earl (seriously, since 1971)

  9. Donald Shankoff

    The ideas and teachings contained in the Christian scriptures were NOT new. They are the same ideas postulated several centuries earlier by the Buddha snd Pythagoras. Strangely, the gospels were not written until about 40 years after the crucifixion, then suddenly they all seem to have magically appeared.

    Quite revealing are the more secular mentions of Jesus Christ or Jesus of Nazareth. First, we have the infamous ‘Testimonium Flavianum’ of Josephus made at the end of ‘Jewish Antiquities,’ which was not published until the middle of the 90s, then we have the quotes by St. Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome also made at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century. At that time, we also have the famous apologetics quotes by Suetonius and Tacitus about Jesus and the Christiani.

    Conversely, we have the Pauline Epistles which were written and preached during the 50s making no reference to Jesus of Nazareth. The author knows about a cosmic Christ the Savior, but nothing about a real live crucified Jesus Christ. Then we have ‘The Shepherd of Hermes’ which most scholars have attributed to the early second century, but others believe may have been written by ‘Paul.’ Paul was actually Apollonius of Tyana, who was of Greek ancestry, which makes him an obvous candidate to be the author. This scripture was a part of the early Church canon and makes no mention of Jesus of Nazareth. Then we have ‘The Epistle of Barnabas’ believed to have been written during the 80s. This early Church scripture only mentions Jesus Christ, but knows nothing about a real live flesh and blood Jesus of Nazareth.

    The gospel accounts of the life and passion of Jesus Christ are believed to have been first written during the late 60s and early 70s. Strangely, prior to this time no one ever heard of Jesus Christ or Jesus of Nazareth. It was only after the gospels were written that we hear quotes about Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were a real person who was crucified c 30 CE we would not need gospels to tell us that he existed and that these events actually happened.

    The motivation for creating the new religion is covered in ‘The Pisonian Conspiracy’ by Tacitus. The Jewish religion of the Messianic Jewish Movement was the fastest growing religion in the Empire at that time and the Romans were determined to stop it from spreading. Most peple don’t give the Romans enough credit, they were not only great military tacticians they were also coniving snakes.

    Dead Sea Scroll archivist Joseph Atwill in ‘Caesar’s Messiah’ clearly shows in the empty tomb narrative, which appears in all 4 gospels, that the gospels had a common source and were not eye witness accounts of some quasi-literate Jewish Apostles. Starting with John, then Matthew, then Mark and finally Luke, what we find is that in Matthew, Mary sees the tomb scene precisely as she left it in John and so on. This shows common knowledge among the authors of all 4 gospels. To learn more about how the Romans subverted the teachings of Yeshu and the Nazoreans and proclaimed them the revelations of their godman Jesus Christ visit: http://www. nazoreans.com

    • John Stackhouse

      Wow: This reply is so badly informed I can’t possibly take the time to refute its many mistakes.

      Let’s just illustrate with the first paragraph.

      To suggest that even the main ideas of the Gospels, let alone all of the “ideas and teachings of the Christian Scriptures,” appeared first in the teachings of the Buddha and Pythagoras is just wildly, hilariously wrong. It doesn’t matter what tradition of Buddhism you consult (Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Chan, Zen, Amida–you name it) nor any reputable summary of Pythagoras’s philosophy–none of them teach much that is similar to Christianity, and they all teach much that is quite different. (For example: no supreme creator God; no Trinity; no incarnation; no atonement; no death and resurrection–that should be enough, eh?)

      The Gospels are usually dated nowadays as early as the 50s stretching to the 90s (Mark to John, as the general consensus has it) and of course they don’t appear “magically,” but as codifications of and reflections upon the teaching of the apostles as the first generation of disciples is handing over the tradition to the second.

      I’ll stop there. Any reputable account, any basic textbook, about the historicity of Jesus, the rise of Christianity, and the emergence of the NT will give any interested person plenty of reason to shake their head at this fantastical attempt to revise well-established history.

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