Almost a quarter of “adults in England [do] not believe Jesus was a real person.” According to a recent survey, Atheists often claim there is no tangible evidence for the existence of Christ, let alone the Son of God or Savior of the world.
As far as New Testament scholars are concerned, however, “there is little disagreement that he actually lived.”
The Debate about Jesus
Lawrence Mykytiuk of Purdue University wrote a lengthy article on the subject in 2015 for the Biblical Archaeology Review, which provides much scholarly insight. Although some modern writers doubt the historicity of Jesus, “there was no debate about the issue in ancient times,” according to Mykytiuk. “Jewish rabbis who did not like Jesus or his followers accused him of being a magician and leading people astray [...] but they never said he didn’t exist.”
The issue of his divinity was always the source of disagreement about Christ. While the gospels are our most complete record of Christ’s life and work, they do not convince everyone. Large numbers of Jews continue to await the arrival of their Messiah, for example.
One is more likely to meet a skeptical scholar than otherwise. No artifacts from his miracles survive: Only New Testament accounts. The burden of proof, as far as skeptics are concerned, is weak.
Skeptics might dismiss personal witness, but some of the hearsay evidence Christian scholars rely on today was written by trusted sources. “The ancient Romans helped lay the groundwork for many aspects of the modern world,” according to National Geographic.
The same unbelieving record keepers of Imperial Roman culture who lay that groundwork also confirmed that Jesus Christ lived and preached during the first century AD. “Within a few decades of his lifetime, Jesus was mentioned by Jewish and Roman historians in passages that corroborate portions of the New Testament that describe the life and death of Jesus,” writes Christopher Klein.
Ancient Manuscript Record
If historians doubt the legitimacy of Christian texts because of the gaps between events and extant manuscripts, one must compare the Bible with other famous texts from which we derive much of our history and the foundations for modern western culture.
We might as well “throw away the works of Homer, [...] of whose writings we have no [...] fragments even older than the sixth century — fifteen centuries after the blind poet died. Of the history by Herodotus there is no manuscript extant earlier than the ninth century, but this historian lived in the fifth century before the Christian era. There is no copy of Plato previous to the ninth century, and he wrote considerably more than a thousand years before that.”
Obviously, the gospels are written by believers. Their records are “understandably biased in what they report and have to be evaluated very critically indeed to establish any historically reliable information,” writes Bart D. Ehrman. “But their central claims about Jesus as a historical figure [...] are borne out by later sources with a completely different set of biases.”
If the writings of these unbiased authorities come into question with regard to Jesus, then one must question all of the many volumes from which historians have derived their knowledge of the Roman Empire as a whole.
Unbiased Roman Record
One historian, responsible for much of what we know about Rome in the first century AD, is Flavius Josephus. He composed “one of the earliest non-biblical accounts of Jesus.” Josephus was born shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus and, according to Ehrman, “is far and away our best source of information about first-century Palestine.”
Lawrence Mykytiuk assures readers that Josephus was able to write freely because of his unusual position of safety and privilege in Rome, while other Jews would have been cautious. Josephus mentions Jesus twice in his great work entitled “Jewish Antiquities,” dated around 93 AD.
As a “well-connected aristocrat and military leader in Palestine [...] during the first Jewish Revolt against Rome between 66 and 70 AD,” he did not follow Christ. Josephus “knew people who had seen and heard Jesus,” according to Mykytiuk.
The text talks about James, the brother of Jesus. Josephus further specified which Jesus he was referring to by adding the phrase “who is called Messiah,” or, since he was writing in Greek, Christos.
Although Bible scholars concede that Christians have made additions or changes to some historical texts, “this phrase — ‘who is called Christ’ — is very unlikely to have been added by a Christian” because Christian texts always referred to James as “the brother of Jesus,” and because “Josephus’s description in Jewish Antiquities of how and when James was executed disagrees with Christian tradition, likewise implying a non-Christian author.’ These small points identify a non-biased writer.
Tacitus, writing in the early second century, mentions the Christians and “Christus, the founder of the name.” According to Ehrman, “just about everything he says coincides — from a completely different point of view, by a Roman author disdainful of Christians and their superstition — with what the New Testament itself says: Jesus was executed by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, for crimes against the state, and a religious movement of his followers sprang up in his wake.”
Mykytiuk asserts that “Tacitus was certainly among Rome’s best historians — arguably the best of all — at the top of his game as a historian and never given to careless writing.” Mykytiuk adds that when Tacitus wrote what was reported to him, sometimes he was skeptical, but he passed on this opinion to readers. When he wrote about Christ, there were no such caveats.
Jesus is mentioned in passing by other writers. For instance, Roman governor Pliny the Younger referenced the Christians in a letter to Emperor Trajan saying, “that early Christians would ‘sing hymns to Christ as to a god.’”
It is possible that Roman historian Suetonius misspells “Christus” when he writes that “Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome who ‘were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Christus.’”
In other words, from the likes of Tacitus, Josephus, and others we learn that Jesus existed. He was known as Christ, had a brother named James, and “won over both Jews and ‘Greeks’ (i.e., Gentiles of Hellenistic culture).” Furthermore, his following grew after he died by crucifixion, and his death was ordered during the time of Pontius Pilate.
The Archaeological Record
Physical evidence associated with Jesus is difficult to come by, and apart from supposed relics whose authenticity has not been established, no museum possesses an item associated with Jesus’ ministry.
But Jesus was a poor man, and the poor “don’t normally leave an archaeological trail.” Hardly any person living at the time of Christ left anything behind for archaeologists to find, according to Mykytiuk.
On the other hand, artifacts help to verify the historical context of New Testament writings. Jesus speaks of currency, holds a scroll, visits a well, goes to a garden, and so on. Many gardens, wells, scrolls, and coins have been discovered; merely parts of everyday life in Palestine during the first century AD, but, still, the everyday life Jesus talked about, located in places where he realistically might have visited.
As Ariel Sabar wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, “Pilgrims have long come to these biblical lands hoping to find what Renan* called ‘the striking agreement of the texts with the places.’” (*Ernest Renan wrote about the region in the 19th century.)
Evidence of crucifixions has been found — not the cross, but evidence to say that crucifixions took place at the time of Jesus. Work is still being done by Christian and non-Christian groups eager to learn more about everyday life in first-century Palestine.
Unfortunately, archaeologists regularly run into trouble. “In some countries, fieldwork is impossible. In others, it’s very difficult to deal with the bureaucracies,” one archaeologist has commented. “It’s a perfect sandstorm.”
The Living Evidence
Hard science (biology, chemistry) demands tangible evidence that Christ was a person, but we lack that sort of evidence to prove the existence of many people from history. The absence of evidence proves nothing.
Even discoveries of ancient artifacts and ruined cities cannot establish that Jesus lived, although many of these finds help to corroborate Scripture more generally. Scientific findings can be interpreted by atheists and believers to mean what they like.
Christians do not rest their faith on items discovered beneath piles of earth, rock, and sand; Christians rest their faith on a living God. Christ lives in his believers and, as such, the strongest evidence for his existence is all around us.
We accept that this kind of evidence is difficult to examine or quantify by scientific means. Hebrews 11:1 confirms that God intends for us to live by faith which is “the conviction of things unseen.”
Yet, Jesus himself placed emphasis on the importance of empirical evidence: Producing multiple witnesses in a case brought to trial (Matthew 18:16; Deuteronomy 19:15). Paul encourages believers to “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Christian faith is not blind faith, and God invites us to use the minds he gave us.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.