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Did Jesus Really Exist?

Premise A: If Jesus existed, there would be historical records to support this.

Premise B: The Gospels and other historical records of Jesus life exist.

Conclusion: Therefore, Jesus existed. 

Was Jesus a real person? Did He really live in Israel approximately two thousand years ago? How do we know what Jesus really said and did? Lee Strobel was an investigative journalist before he became a Christian. Instead of looking for scientific proof of God’s existence, he decided to approach the question of Jesus’ existence the same way an investigative journalist approaches as news story. His search was for legal proof that could establish a case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In The Case for Christ he interviews top scholars concerning historical proof for the claims of Christ. 

Lee Strobel asks, “How do we know anything about the past?” How do we know that George Washington crossed the Delaware, or that Plato really lived? None of us were alive back then. Our knowledge of history must rely upon historical reports. In the case of Washington and Plato, we rely on writings that tell us about their lives. Even though we never saw them ourselves, we can judge the reliability of eyewitness reports about them. Scholars believe Washington existed because they believe the reports that were written about his life. 

In the case of Jesus, we have four different reports that have been written about His life by people who were eyewitnesses or who interviewed eyewitnesses about his life. These four reports are known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In addition to the Gospels, there are a variety of other historical reports that prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus really existed. Let’s look at some of the evidence. 

The Epistles prove that Jesus existed 

The Apostle Paul wrote the Epistle to the Galatians in approximately 50 A.D. In this book, written twenty years after Jesus ascended to heaven, he confirms that Jesus lived, died, and rose again. In his first letter to the Corinthians believers, Paul states:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). 

When Paul says that the 500 people who saw Jesus after the resurrection were still alive, he means that they can be called on to corroborate his testimony. The Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and other New Testament epistles give evidence of a community of Christians who believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ during the mid-first century. 

The four Gospels prove Jesus existed 

Gospel simply means good news, and that’s what the four Gospels give us—the good news about Jesus the Son of God and Savior of mankind. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the synoptic Gospels because they contain much of the same material. This material (known by scholars as the Q material), may have come directly from the pen of someone who wrote down Jesus’ words as he spoke them. Perhaps Matthew, a well-educated tax collector, kept a notebook of Jesus’ sayings. The Gospel of John was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” John personally walked and talked with Jesus. He saw the miracles he records with his own eyes. 

Each of the Gospel writers provides a valuable and slightly different perspective. Matthew writes to a Jewish audience, Mark writes to people living in Rome, Luke writes his Gospel to the Gentiles, and John writes to the Church. Because they are writing to different audiences, the Gospel writers emphasize different aspects of the ministry of Jesus. Matthew focuses on Jesus as the long-awaited king, Mark presents Jesus as a suffering servant, Luke emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, and John reveals the divinity of Jesus. 

Much ado has been made about so-called “inconsistencies” between the different Gospel accounts. But, the differences in the stories of the Gospel writers are not a weakness; instead they are strengths. Each of the Gospel writers had a different perspective, just as different witnesses at a car wreck remember different details of what they witnessed. David Limbaugh writes, “These variations are not contradictions. In fact, they add weight to the authenticity of the writings, since if the writers aimed to produce fully synchronized narratives, they could have colluded to vet any discrepancies.” 

Some have argued that one cannot accept the Gospels as evidence for the life of Jesus because they were written by Christians—the idea being that only non-Christians could be trusted to tell the objective truth about Jesus. But this line of argument is like only trusting books on BBQ that are written by vegans. Often the best proof can be found in the writings of those who have been most impacted by an event. After carefully examining the evidence of the four accounts about the life of Jesus, it can be said with great certainty that Jesus really lived, preached, performed miracles, died, and rose from the dead. 

Non-Christian writers prove that Jesus existed 

Evidence for the life of Jesus is not just found in the Gospels. He is mentioned by a variety of non-Christian writers in the years following his death. 

1. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, mentions Jesus twice in his Antiquities of the Jews. The first time he mentions Christ is when he writes about the condemnation of James “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ.”Later he writes:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and from the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who became 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.  

Some scholars think part of this statement might be an interpolation by a later Christian editor, but the fact that a Jewish historian mentions Jesus at all is significant. 

2. Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan around A.D. 112 seeking advice concerning the prosecution of Christians in the court of law. Concerning Christians, he writes, 

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; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. 

3. The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in 115 A.D about the fire that destroyed Rome in A.D. 64, records:

Nero fastened the guilt […] 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, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. 

4. In 115 A.D. Suetonius wrote about Claudius who was emperor from 41-54. He mentions how a group of Jews were deported from Rome during his reign after disturbances “on the instigation of Chrestus.” It is likely that he misspelled Christus. If so, this reference puts Christians living in Rome in the 50’s A.D.  

4. The Babylonian Talmud mentions Jesus in a negative light. In writings dated to A.D. 70-200, they say, “On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald […] cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy’.”

5. Lucian of Samosata, a second century Greek satirist, wrote about the Christians, 

The Christians […] worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account […]. [It] was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.

Yes, Jesus was there

The enormous number of written accounts of Jesus’ existence written just a few decades after his life provide overwhelming evidence He really existed. Few historians question the existence of Hannibal, the rebel general during the Second Punic War, yet the earliest account we have of him was written by Polybius about one hundred years after the war was over. Most of we know about Hannibal comes from another historian, Livy, writing more than two hundred years after the fact.  The evidence for the life of Buddha in the Pāli Canon was written down about five hundred years after he was alive. But no one disputes the existence of Buddha or the main events of his life. Compared to the historical record supporting Hannibal and Buddha, the written evidence for the existence of Jesus and the events of His life could be considered “hot-off-the-press.” Based on this evidence, it is certain that Jesus was a real person.

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About the Author:  Dr. Daniel King is a missionary evangelist who has traveled to over seventy nations in his quest for souls. His goal is to lead 1,000,000 people to Jesus every year through massive Gospel Festivals, distribution of literature, and leadership training. Because of his experience and research on evangelism, he is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in mass evangelism. As an evangelist, he has a deep interest in using apologetics to convince skeptics that God is real.

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