Did Jesus Really Exist?

Posted: June 27, 2011 by Amy Hall in Jesus Changes Everything

In light of the challenge about Jesus’ existence last week, we thought we’d feature a new article on historical evidence for the existence of Jesus this week:

Because of the historical evidence of Jesus’ existence available to us today (biblical and non-biblical), there are very few scholars who attempt to argue that Jesus never lived. How do we know that Jesus was not simply a legendary character created decades later? Consider these bits of evidence…

Read about that evidence in the article, “Did Jesus Really Exist?” And while you’re there, check out the other featured articles on the STR Place homepage.

  1. Sam Harper says:

    Amy, how would you respond to the following arguments:

    1. We do not know what sources Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius used when writing about Jesus. It seems likely that they got their information from being familiar with the Christian movement itself. Christians, of course, believed that Jesus had been crucified under Pontius Pilate, but if Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius got their information from the Christians, then they don’t count as independent sources. And if the Christian belief in the historical Jesus of recent past was the result of a developing myth, then Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius don’t really provide evidence that Jesus existed.

    2. While Paul provides scant facts about the historical Jesus, he never places Jesus at a particular time in history. He says that Jesus was crucified, but he never says that Jesus was crucified while Pilate was procurator of Judea. For all we know, Jesus was a “once upon a time” character from Paul’s point of view. So the gospel tradition Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15 doesn’t really provide much evidence for a real Jesus who existed in the recent past. Your claim that the tradition dates to within 2 to 8 years of the crucifixion begs the question because you’re assuming the crucifixion happened in 30 or 33 CE, and not a hundred years earlier or “once upon a time.”

    • Amy Hall says:

      When you’re dealing with historical conclusions, no matter how close we get, there will always be room to come up with doubts simply because we weren’t there. But that doesn’t mean the doubts are more reasonable than the conclusion. I think it’s certainly unlikely that if all these different kinds of sources–Roman, Jewish, Christian–all are aware of a real man who lived and caused real unrest in the area, it would turn out to be something that a few disciples made up about a mythical person. Again, seeing as how the movement started in Jerusalem, it’s hard for me to believe that they would be able to get any sort of movement off the ground by talking about a Messiah that nobody had ever seen or heard of. The people of Jerusalem would have known He wasn’t real.

      And I don’t know that Tacitus necessarily used a Christian source to talk about Nero blaming the Christians for the fire. That historical bit of information shows the sudden appearance of Christianity and its very quick growth by AD 60–enough to cause trouble. Again, they were in a position to know if Jesus had existed. (How do we know it was a sudden appearance? Because there’s no mention whatsoever of Jesus before this time.)

      For Paul, the fact that he was closely connected with Luke says something since Luke clearly places the events in recent history. See also Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 which connects Jesus with John the Baptist and Pilate (of course, written by Luke), his reference to meeting with “James, the Lord’s brother” (what could tie Jesus more to a historical time and person than that?) and Peter in Galatians 1:18-19, and then Peter, James, and John again in 2:7-9, his reference to God’s displaying His justice and mercy on the cross “at the present time” in Romans 3:21-26, and his reference to Christ as “risen from the dead, descendant of David” (pointing to a real, historical person in the line of their kings who lived, died, and rose again). Those are off the top of my head, but there may be more.

      And even if you could say that Paul thought Jesus existed in the past and not recently, he’s still clear that he’s talking about death, burial, and resurrection–things that would happen to a real human being. But we know it didn’t happen some time in the past because someone would have written about it earlier and/or the movement would have begun earlier. So why did the movement begin and take off at this particular time? Why did the disciples and the disciples of the disciples believe in a real human being named Jesus who died and rose at a particular time?

      • Sam Harper says:

        Thanks, Amy. I think Paul’s personal acquaintance with Jesus’ brother, James, is one of the strongest arguments for Jesus’ existence. That, and the crucifixion.

        But if we didn’t have that, the fact that Paul believed Jesus was a real historical person wouldn’t really address these arguments I made. Paul himself may have been the recipient of a myth that he believed was true. And the myth may not have developed to the point of placing Jesus at the time of Pilate yet when Paul received it. If nobody at that time was claiming Jesus was a recent person who caused a stir in Jerusalem, I don’t think it would’ve been that hard for the myth to have taken hold in Jerusalem. There were lots of crucifixions in Jerusalem over the years, and it’s doubtful that everybody knew everybody who was crucified. So it wouldn’t be that hard to start a myth that one of those crucified people was Jesus. All myths have to start somewhere, so the fact that we don’t have any sources for Jesus earlier than the 30’s only tells us about when the myth got started–not when they originally claimed Jesus existed or died. The thing about myths is that they develop over time, and we can’t just assume that the people who first believed the myth held all the same beliefs as the people who believed it later on.

  2. philwynk says:

    Sam Harper’s attempt to put Jesus in the “once-upon-a-time” time frame in Paul’s writing seemed like an enormous stretch, so I did a quick review of Paul to see if there were comments that would root Jesus as his contemporary. Sure enough, right there in Galatians 1, Paul says that immediately after his conversion he retreated to Arabia. Then, says he,

    “…after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”

    Oops, there it is. Paul, speaking in the most casual of tones, notes that the Lord’s brother was alive when he visited Jerusalem. Unless Jesus’ was a very unusual family, and unless all of Luke’s comments about Jesus’ family history were fabricated out of thin air, Jesus would have to have been a contemporary of Paul’s, and not only that, but a resident of the same general part of the world. Plus, by the tone we can be certain that Jesus was a real person, not a myth.

  3. Amy Hall says:

    Sam, I don’t think it’s really surprising that Paul didn’t talk about Pilate or go into other historical details. His works are theological rather than biographical about Jesus, and other people who were with Jesus from the beginning were telling those stories already. However, Luke, who claims to have traveled with Paul (according to Acts, as he uses the word “we” to talk about Paul’s travels) does record a sermon where Paul does talk of Pilate and say that Jesus appeared after His resurrection to “the very ones who are now witnesses to the people.”

    The problem is that people can always say that Luke made this part of his sermon up or that someone inserted it later, but at some point, the argument becomes little more than speculation intended to support a previously held view.