Did Jesus Really Exist?

Even as Christians prepare to celebrate Easter, various folks insist the story of Jesus is nothing but a myth and maintain there is really no reason to believe He ever existed. This claim, however, flies in the face of the historical evidence. The four gospels contained in the New Testament provide a clear and compelling account. However, even if one insists on excluding these and all other Christian material, there is still significant testimony concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Over a dozen references to Jesus appear in non-Christian sources during the first centuries of the “Common Era.”

The writers who refer to Jesus are a diverse group. They include Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, the Jewish Talmud (an encyclopedia of rabbinic traditions), the Greek writers Lucian of Samosata and Mara bar Serapion, and the Roman historians Thallas, Tacitus, Pliny, and Suetonius.

What do these non-Christian authors say about Jesus? Well, Tactitus (early 2nd century), writes about Nero’s persecution of Christians and then explains, “The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator, Pontius Pilate.” Josephus (late 1st century) refers to Jesus as a “wise man,” “a worker of amazing deeds,” and “one accused by the leading men among us, who condemned him to the cross.” The Talmud acknowledges that Jesus worked miracles but accuses Him of being one who “practiced magic and led Israel astray.” It is hardly feasible to suggest these are all references to a man who never existed.

Dr. Craig Blomberg notes that these historians also provide confirmation to the claims of the early Christians about Jesus. He says if we use only non-Christian sources, we can still conclude that “Jesus was a Jew who lived in Israel during the first third of the first century; was born out of wedlock; intersected with the life and ministry of John the Baptist; attracted great crowds, especially because of His wondrous deeds; had a group of particularly close followers called disciples (five of whom are named); ran afoul of the Jewish religious authorities because of His controversial teachings sometimes deemed heretical or blasphemous; was crucified during the time of Pontius Pilate's governorship in Judea (A.D. 26-36), and yet was believed by many of His followers to have been the Messiah, the anticipated liberator of Israel. This belief did not disappear despite Jesus' death because a number of His supporters claimed to have seen Him resurrected from the dead. His followers, therefore, continued consistently to grow in numbers, gathering together regularly for worship and instruction and even singing hymns to Him as if He were a god (or God).”

The evidence seems clear: Jesus is not a myth, but a real person, who lived in a particular place and time. However, recognizing that Jesus is not a mere legend is just the first step in coming to grips with this man. We then need to consider His remarkable claims which include an authority to forgive sins, an existence thousands of years before His birth, and an identity as the eternal Son of God.  As C.S. Lewis pointed out there are only three logical responses to these claims. We can conclude Jesus was a liar who made them up to deceive people so they would become His followers, or we can decide He was a lunatic who really believed His claims, (Lewis said this would put Him on the level “of a man who thinks he is a poached egg”), or we can choose to believe that Jesus was and is who He claims to be, the eternal Son of God, who died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead.

I have made my choice. Have you?
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Dan Erickson