I have had discussions with many people online over the years who challenge the very existence of Christ. They often question, “did Jesus really exist?” Skeptics suggest there would be more evidence of his existence were he really the Son of God who did miracles.
These skeptics believe there is no good evidence for Christ outside the Bible, and of course, the Bible cannot verify itself. Even though Christ’s existence is recognized by billions of Christians and Muslims, these skeptics doubt the evidence.
Is this a realistic objection? Is this objection based in fact or is there sufficient evidence of his existence to convince most atheist scholars? While laypeople might not have much experience in ancient world history, historians have identified means for determining the likely veracity of historical evidence – it is their job.
The Evidence to Answer the Question, Did Jesus Really Exist?
There are two kinds of evidence for determining whether a particular historical figure actually existed or whether they are just mythological and invented later in history.
These two kinds are internal evidence relating to Scriptural evidence, and external evidence relating to evidence outside of Scripture. Scholars have spent their lives evaluating this evidence – it is at the core whether Christianity represents a valid worldview, or whether it is just wishful thinking.
Probably the internal evidence of Christ’s existence is most difficult for skeptics to accept as being valid. How could the Bible prove itself as being a valid historical document?
The challenge has been leveled against the Bible for two thousand years by atheist skeptics and by skeptics from other religious faiths. Until recently, it has been difficult for many Christians to answer convincingly these objections.
Recent archaeological discoveries have made it much easier to evaluate the internal evidence of Scripture.
Many skeptics have suggested the books of the Old Testament are unreliable; they have been copied and recopied so many times that their content likely does not resemble original manuscripts. Also, more recent scribes likely altered the Scriptures to conform to current events.
Prophesies of ancient events were written after the actual events occurred, and ancient events are purely fictional accounts of mythological figures and events such as Moses parting the Red Sea.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has made the Christian’s case much stronger. Many of these scrolls and fragments are nearly identical to modern versions even though they were written about two-thousand years ago.
The Isaiah Scroll assumes particular importance because it contains the entire Biblical Book of Isaiah from beginning to end (except for a few damaged portions). Even more importantly, carbon-14 dating of their book indicates it was written hundreds of years before Christ.
This dating of the Isaiah Scroll before Christ is important because it negates the argument that many had made previously that the Messianic prophesies contained in Isaiah were written after Christ (or the myth of Christ) lived and died.
There are many specific allusions throughout Isaiah to the future Messiah that were met perfectly in Christ; the possibility that this specific events could occur by chance is negligible.
Other internal evidence consists of the detailed history in both the Old and New Testament. We now have archaeological evidence of the existence of many important ancient figures that were considered purely mythological until recently. These include King David, Isaiah himself, several ancient Jewish Kings, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, among many others.
The internal evidence is consistent and has been proven by recent archaeology when possible.
External Evidence – Christian
The ancient Church Fathers of the first four centuries wrote extensively about Christ while defending Christianity from heretics and skeptics alike. They quoted from Scripture while writing these rebuttals and in so doing documented the accuracy of modern-day renditions of the same Scriptural quotations.
If the modern New Testament were destroyed somehow today, it could be reproduced using these quotations. Every part of the Scriptures is quoted somewhere in the extensive documentation provided by the ancient Church Fathers.
The agreement of our modern Bible with these ancient letters also proves the fact that Scriptures have not materially changed over the intervening nearly two-thousand years.
One such historical example consists of the writings of Justin Martyr. Justin lived from about 100 to 165 AD and was an early proponent of Christianity writing to Roman Emperors to defend the faith. He recognized Christianity as not being a challenge to the government but were Roman citizens who as a whole committed no crimes and kept to themselves.
Justin was born to pagan parents and spent much of his young life searching from truth in various philosophies of the day. He evaluated the Greek philosophers who were popular at that time but for one reason or another found their philosophy lacking. He eventually found Christianity which he believed the best able to explain the world as it was.
In our discussion, Justin is important in that he documents many details written in Scripture about Christ. For example, he visited the Bethlehem grotto were Christ was born, and discusses Christ’s working as an apprentice carpenter in his foster father’s shop. Apparently, the shop specialized in producing agricultural implements such as plows and yokes for oxen.
External Evidence – Jewish
Jesus was Jewish and is discussed at length in many rabbinical passages. These sources spell his name in Aramaic (Christ’s native language) as Yeshua Hannotzri – Joshua (Jesus) of Nazareth.
One interesting record is the arrest notice for Jesus which reads,
He shall be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and lured Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything to his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. Anyone who knows where he is, let him declare it to the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.
This record is quite remarkable as it was likely composed prior to the arrest of Christ. The future tense is used, stoning was the usual Jewish means of execution (crucifixion is not even mentioned), and it accuses Christ of performing “sorcery” thereby explaining away his miracles. Apparently the accusation of sorcery and working with Satan was the way the Jewish aristocracy explained away his miracles (Luke 11:18).
The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus twice mentions “Jesus who is called the Christ (or Messiah)” in his Jewish Antiquities. He also notes the death of Christ’s half-brother James of Jerusalem. But perhaps the most well known extra-Biblical reference to Christ is in a discussion of Pontius Pilate,
At the time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.
(This is the recent, uninterpolated text that replaces the traditional version which had suffered early additions)
External Evidence – Secular
Some of Christianity’s most strident critics are from the ancient secular world. These critics produced writings which had the unintended consequence of confirming the Christian narrative.
Cornelius Tacitus was an ancient historian of first-century Rome who wrote an extensive year-by-year recording of events in the Roman Empire. During the year 64 AD there was a great fire of Rome which Nero blamed on the Christians. This is the first time “Christians” appear in secular history.
Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians [Chrestianos]. Christus, the founder of the name [auctor nominis], had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator [procuratorem] Pontius Pilatus, and a pernicious superstition [exitiabilis superstitio] was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.
Tacitus was a pagan historian who despised Christians as a “disease” – a term which he uses later in the passage. If Christ was not thought to have existed, no doubt Tacitus would have reveled in exposing the farce upon which the Christians misplaced their trust.
Skeptics have tried every imaginable means to discredit this passage but manuscript analysis and computer studies have not found any reason to call it into question. One source notes,
These four lines of evidence, considered cumulatively, decisively support the view that the line about Christ is an authentic part of Tacitus’s text and not a later Christian interpolation. The matter would be beyond any reasonable dispute whatsoever were it not for a single letter of the Latin alphabet in the text as it has come down to us.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus also mentioned the events of the first century in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars. He also regarded Christians as a sect “professing a new and mischievous religious belief” and cited “Christus” as well.
Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Christus, he expelled them from Rome.
Since it is unlikely that any Christian would have called Christ a “troublemaker,” called him “Christus” and placed him in Rome in 49 AD, the passage is generally considered genuine by most authorities.
Pliny the Younger
Pliny the Younger was another Roman official who referenced Christ and unintentionally established him as a real historical figure. Pliny the Younger was the Roman governor of Bithynia now part of Turkey who wrote Emperor Trajan around 112 AD asking what to do about “a wretched cult” which practiced “depraved, excessive superstition.” He conducted trials of suspected Christians as a result of anonymous accusations and was asking for advice about how they should be treated.
The specific crimes the Christians allegedly committed are never mentioned although it was likely the refusal of Christians to worship Roman Gods making them appear to reject Roman rule.
Pliny notes he gave the Christians multiple chances to renounced their faith but if they refuse three times the Christians are then executed. He also likely was concerned about the rapid spread of this “superstition” and their rejection of Roman rule as possible sedition.
Those who admitted to being Christians and who refused to recant their beliefs at the request of the governor were also guilty of denying a magistrate and therefore the Roman government.
The accused Christian could be pardoned only if they denied ever being Christian, if they prayed to the Roman gods in words dictated by Pliny himself, offered incense and wine to images of Trajan and the gods, and cursed Christ. Pliny notes true Christians were unable to curse Christ and so became convicted and executed.
This entire procedure was approved by the Emperor but it was not to “compel conformity to the state religion or imperial cult, but was a voluntary practice.
Christian Religion according to Governor Pliny. Pliny gives even more information about the Christians living in his territory. He notes they meed on a certain day before light were they sing hymns of praise to Christ as to be a god. They pledge not to commit any crimes such as fraud, theft, or adultery and share a meal of “ordinary and innocent food.”
The overwhelming majority of scholars admit the historical existence of Christ (although not necessarily his divinity).
The historical record is clear from multiple pagan Roman officials referring both to Christ and to Christians. Christ is a historical figure well documented in both Biblical and extra-Biblical records.
There is no mention of the possibility in any correspondence from any Roman official that Christ might not have actually existed – that he was a mythological figure. Certainly that would have been an argument if there was any doubt of his being only a fable crafted by poor Jewish Roman subjects.
The historicity of the man who founded the Christian faith can not seriously be held in doubt.