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The existence of Jesus Christ is a topic of debate among many people, but both modern and ancient authorities agree that he did exist. As a historian and expert on ancient classical civilization, Michael Grant stated we cannot reject Jesus’ existence if we apply the same criteria we use to evaluate the existence of other historical figures. Rudolf Bultmann, a professor of New Testament studies, believed that doubting Jesus’ existence is unfounded, and historian, writer, and philosopher, Will Durant, considered it more miraculous to invent someone like Jesus than to accept his existence. Even Albert Einstein, a renowned physicist, acknowledged the actual presence of Jesus in the Gospels, saying that his personality pulsates in every word and that no myth is filled with such life.
Explore the historicity of Jesus and the evidence that supports his existence. Learn about the viewpoints of scholars and ancient sources, as well as the role of archaeology in verifying the Bible’s account of Jesus.
Gary Habermas is a Christian philosopher and theologian who specializes in the study of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He has written extensively on the historicity of Jesus and argues that there is strong evidence for his existence.
Habermas believes that the historical evidence for Jesus is based on the early eyewitness testimony of his followers, including the disciples and other early Christian leaders. He argues that the fact that these individuals were willing to suffer and die for their beliefs demonstrates the sincerity of their testimony and supports the idea that Jesus really did exist and perform miracles.
Habermas also points to the multiple attestation of Jesus in early Christian and non-Christian sources, including the Gospels, the writings of Paul, and the works of historians such as Josephus and Tacitus. He argues that the consistency of these accounts and their early dates provide strong evidence for the historical reality of Jesus.
Overall, Habermas believes that the evidence for Jesus’ existence is strong and that it is reasonable to accept that he was a real historical figure who performed miracles and was resurrected from the dead.
Here are ten of his arguments:
- The existence of multiple independent sources – the four Gospels, Paul’s letters, and other early Christian writings – that attest to the historical existence of Jesus.
- The Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’ life and teachings is consistent with the historical and cultural context of first-century Palestine.
- The existence of non-Christian sources, such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius, which mention Jesus and the early Christian movement.
- The lack of any plausible alternative explanations for the origin and growth of the Christian movement, which began in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death.
- The existence of the criterion of embarrassment, which suggests that the Gospel writers included details that were potentially embarrassing to the early Christian movement, but which they included anyway because they were historically accurate.
- The presence of multiple attested miracles, which, while not constituting conclusive evidence for Jesus’ divinity, are consistent with his historical existence.
- The fact that Jesus’ disciples were willing to die for their beliefs, suggesting that they were convinced of Jesus’ historical existence and teachings.
- The existence of early Christian creeds, which predate the writing of the New Testament documents, and which attest to the belief in Jesus’ historical existence, crucifixion, and resurrection.
- The rapid growth of the early Christian movement, which suggests that there was a historical basis for its teachings and beliefs.
- The fact that the earliest opponents of Christianity, such as Jewish and pagan critics, did not deny the historical existence of Jesus, but instead questioned his divinity and the validity of his claims.
These are just a few of the arguments that Habermas has presented in support of the historical existence of Jesus, and there are many other scholars who have presented similar arguments.v
William Lane Craig
William Lane Craig is a Christian philosopher, theologian, and apologist who has written extensively on the historicity of Jesus. He believes that there is strong evidence for the existence of Jesus and that the historical data supports the traditional Christian view of Jesus as the Son of God and the Savior of the world.
Craig argues that the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings are historically reliable because they are based on eyewitness testimony and were written within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. He also points to non-Christian sources such as Josephus and Tacitus, which provide independent corroboration of Jesus’ existence and crucifixion.
In addition to the historical evidence, Craig argues that the transformation of Jesus’ disciples and the growth of the early Christian movement provide further evidence for the truth of Christianity. He points to the fact that Jesus’ disciples were willing to suffer and die for their beliefs as evidence of the sincerity of their testimony.
Overall, Craig believes that the evidence for the historicity of Jesus is strong and that it supports the traditional Christian view of Jesus as the Son of God and the Savior of the world.
Norman L. Geisler
Norman L. Geisler was an American Christian systematic theologian and philosopher who wrote extensively on the historicity of Jesus. He believed that there is strong evidence for the existence of Jesus and that the historical data supports the traditional Christian view of Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah.
Geisler argues that the Gospels are historically reliable because they are based on eyewitness testimony and were written within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. He also points to the numerous agreements between the four Gospel accounts, despite their differences in perspective and emphasis, as evidence of their reliability.
In addition to the Gospels, Geisler argues that the New Testament letters of Paul and other early Christian writers provide further evidence for the historicity of Jesus. He points to the fact that these writers were themselves eyewitnesses or were closely connected to the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and teachings.
Geisler also points to non-Christian sources such as Josephus and Tacitus, which provide independent corroboration of Jesus’ existence and crucifixion.
Overall, Geisler believes that the evidence for the historicity of Jesus is strong and that it supports the traditional Christian view of Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah.
What About History Outside the Bible?
While the primary source for information about Jesus’ life and ministry comes from the four Gospels, several non-Christian sources from the first and second centuries mention him. These sources include the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman historian Tacitus, and the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata, among others. The fact that multiple independent sources, both Christian and non-Christian, mention Jesus provides strong evidence for his historical existence.
(c. 56-120 C.E., or Common Era)
Tacitus was a Roman historian who lived in the first century CE. He is considered to be one of the greatest Roman historians and is known for his extensive writings on the Roman Empire.
Tacitus wrote about Jesus Christ in his work called “Annals,” which covers the history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius Caesar to the reign of Nero. In Book 15, Chapter 44, Tacitus mentions the persecution of Christians under Nero and refers to Jesus as the “founder of the name” of Christianity. He also notes that Jesus was executed under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius.
Here is the relevant passage from Tacitus’ “Annals”:
“Nero fastened the guilt [of the burning of Rome] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class 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 one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”
Tacitus’ mention of Jesus is significant because it provides independent corroboration of the historical existence of Jesus and the fact that he was executed under Pontius Pilate, as recorded in the Gospels.
(c. 69–a. 122 C.E.)
Suetonius was a Roman historian who lived in the first and second centuries CE. He was a contemporary of Tacitus and is known for his “Lives of the Twelve Caesars,” a series of biographies of the first 12 Roman emperors.
Suetonius mentions Jesus in his biography of the emperor Claudius. In Chapter 25 of “The Deified Claudius,” Suetonius writes:
“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [Christus], he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”
While the wording of this passage is somewhat unclear, it is generally interpreted as a reference to Jewish unrest in Rome caused by disputes over Jesus. The name “Chrestus” may have been a misspelling of “Christus,” which was a common way of referring to Jesus in the early Christian era.
Suetonius’ mention of Jesus is another independent source that corroborates the historical existence of Jesus and the fact that he had followers who were causing disturbances in the Roman Empire.
PLINY THE YOUNGER
(c. 61-113 C.E.)
Pliny the Younger was a Roman politician, lawyer, and writer who lived in the first and second centuries AD. He is known for his extensive writings, including letters that provide valuable insights into the daily life and politics of the Roman Empire.
Pliny the Younger mentioned Christians in his letter to the Roman Emperor Trajan, which is often referred to as the “Pliny correspondence.” In the letter, Pliny describes how he dealt with Christians who were brought before him on charges of refusing to worship the Roman gods and participate in emperor worship. Pliny stated that he gave them several opportunities to recant, but those who refused were executed.
Here is an excerpt from Pliny’s letter:
“[The Christians] affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up.”
Pliny’s letter provides valuable insights into the early Christian practices and beliefs, as well as the persecution they faced in the Roman Empire. It is also another independent source that confirms the historical existence of Jesus and the early Christian movement.
(c. 37-100 C.E.)
Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived in the first century AD. He was born in Jerusalem and was a member of a prominent priestly family. Josephus is best known for his works “The Jewish War” and “The Antiquities of the Jews,” which provide important information about the history and culture of the Jewish people.
Josephus mentions Jesus in his work “Antiquities of the Jews.” In Book 18, Chapter 3, he writes about the trial and execution of James, the brother of Jesus, who is called the Christ. Here is an excerpt:
“But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.”
Josephus’ mention of Jesus is another independent source that corroborates the historical existence of Jesus and the fact that he had followers who were willing to suffer and die for their beliefs. The authenticity of the passage has been disputed by some scholars, but most experts agree that at least part of it is genuine.
The Talmud is a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, consisting of two parts: the Mishnah, which is a collection of legal decisions and discussions of Jewish law, and the Gemara, which is a commentary on the Mishnah. The Talmud was compiled and edited over several centuries and is considered one of the most important Jewish texts.
The Talmud contains several references to Jesus, although they are generally negative and critical. One passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, refers to the crucifixion of Jesus:
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.”
This passage indicates that Jesus was executed for practicing sorcery and leading Israel astray. However, it should be noted that the Talmud was written several decades after Jesus’ death and reflects the opinions of the Jewish leaders who were opposed to his teachings.
Another passage in the Talmud, Babylonian Talmud Berakoth 17b, contains a negative reference to Jesus and his followers: “May we produce no son or pupil who disgraces himself in public like the Nazarene.”
This passage refers to Jesus as “the Nazarene” and indicates that his followers were seen as disgraceful. Once again, this passage reflects the opinions of the Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus and his teachings.
Archaeological Evidence that Indirectly Supports the Historical Jesus
The discovery of first-century tombs in Jerusalem: Several tombs have been discovered in Jerusalem that date back to the first century, including the famous Tomb of the Shroud. These tombs provide evidence for the burial practices of the time, which are consistent with the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial.
The discovery of ossuaries with inscriptions: Ossuaries are bone boxes that were commonly used in the first century to hold the remains of the deceased. Several ossuaries have been discovered that bear inscriptions that are consistent with names mentioned in the New Testament, including Caiaphas, the high priest who presided over Jesus’ trial.
The discovery of coins: Archaeologists have discovered coins from the time of Jesus that bear the image of Roman emperors, including Tiberius and Pontius Pilate. These coins provide evidence for the historical context in which Jesus lived and died.
The discovery of the Pilate Stone: In 1961, a stone inscription was discovered in Caesarea Maritima that bore the name of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who presided over Jesus’ trial and ordered his crucifixion. This discovery provides direct evidence for the existence of Pontius Pilate and indirectly supports the historical reality of Jesus’ trial and execution.
The discovery of the Nazareth Inscription: In 1878, a stone inscription was discovered in Nazareth that bears an edict from Caesar Augustus, threatening death to anyone who disturbs tombs or graves. While the inscription does not mention Jesus directly, it provides evidence for the Jewish custom of burying the dead, which is consistent with the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial.
Overall, while these archaeological discoveries do not provide direct evidence for the historical Jesus, they do indirectly support the Gospel accounts and the historical context in which Jesus lived and died.
EVIDENCE FROM THE BIBLE
The Gospels provide a detailed and comprehensive account of the life and ministry of Jesus, including specific details about the people, places, and times. Luke 3:1-2, for example, helps establish the exact date when John the Baptist began his work as a forerunner of Jesus.
According to 2 Timothy 3:16, all Scripture is inspired by God, and the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts is supported by external sources. Luke’s precise list of public figures, including Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, and chief priests Annas and Caiaphas, is well-known to historians.
Although some critics once questioned the existence of Pontius Pilate and Lysanias, their doubts were unfounded. Ancient inscriptions bearing the names of these officials have been discovered, confirming Luke’s accuracy. An inscription bearing the name of a tetrarch, Lysanias, has been found, confirming that he ruled over Abilene during the time Luke mentioned in Luke 3:1.
The evidence overwhelmingly supports the existence of Jesus Christ. As 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 says, “For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures.”
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Establishing the historical existence of Jesus is significant for several reasons. First and foremost, it verifies the authenticity of the Gospel accounts, which form the basis of the Christian faith. Without Jesus, Christianity would not exist, and so establishing his historical existence is crucial to the religion’s legitimacy. The question of the historicity of Jesus also matters for having the opportunity for eternal life. If Jesus truly existed and his teachings were true, then accepting him as the Son of God and following his teachings may lead to eternal life, as believed by many Christians.
Secondly, Jesus’ teachings and life continue to inspire and influence millions of people worldwide. Knowing that Jesus was a real historical figure lends credibility to his teachings and inspires believers to live according to his example.
Thirdly, Jesus’ message of love, forgiveness, and compassion has significantly impacted society throughout history. His teachings have inspired countless individuals and movements to work towards a better life now in a wicked world ruled by Satan and the common good of one’s neighbor.
In addition, establishing the historical Jesus can help scholars and researchers better understand the cultural and historical context in which he lived, which can shed light on the origins and development of Christianity and the wider world in which it emerged.
Overall, the question of the historical existence of Jesus matters because it has implications for the Christian faith, its impact on society, and our understanding of history and culture.