Did Jesus Really Exist?

January 18, 2016 David Read

            Radical skepticism about the claims of the gospels is in vogue, including the “Jesus as myth” position, which argues that Jesus never even existed. It would be nice if we could ignore these anti-Christian arguments, but we cannot. I hear reports of Adventist young people who were educated in our school system, yet had their faith shaken when they came across radical skepticism such as the “Jesus as myth” position. As I noted here, Adventists tend to start with the assumption that God exists and that Scripture is the word of God, then proceed to show how Scripture supports Christian doctrine, including our distinctive Adventist doctrines. Sadly, we tend to neglect what is sometimes called “pre-evangelism,” the refuting of radical skepticism. So let's partially redress that, and examine the argument that Jesus never existed.

            There is not space in a single article to refute all the arguments put forward by the “Jesus as myth” skeptics, so I will focus on one argument they all make, namely, that there is no First Century secular evidence to support the claim that a real man named Jesus the son of Joseph ever existed. Bart Ehrman, although he is a very liberal theologian, believes that Jesus did exist, but because Ehrman represents the skeptics in his phrasing of the issue, we will quote him:

What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind.

Notice how the statement is qualified: “first century secular evidence . . . pagan contemporaries . . . a solitary reference from a non-Christian, non-Jewish source . . .” Why would we want to exclude Jewish sources from consideration, when Jesus is believed to have been born a Jew, in Judea, and lived his entire life in Judea and Samaria (except for a brief childhood sojourn in Egypt)? Wouldn't Jews have been most likely to have heard of Jesus and to have left a written mention of his life? Isn't it an artificial, even bizarre, restriction to demand external corroboration of Jesus' life from foreigners who did not share Jesus' country, religion, or culture?

A.       Josephus

            You should be very suspicious of this artificial restriction on corroboration of the existence of Jesus, because it is designed to avoid noting that Flavius Josephus (AD 37 – 100) does mention Jesus in a history written during the First Century. Josephus is as respected and reliable as any ancient historian in the Western tradition. Yes, he was born a Jew and fought against the Romans during the First Jewish-Roman War (AD 66 – 73), but in AD 67 Josephus surrendered to Roman troops commanded by Vespasian, who later became emperor. He defected to Rome and was granted Roman citizenship. He Latinized his named; he was born Yosef ben Matityahu (Joseph son of Matityahu), but he took Vespasian's family name, “Flavius.” He was a friend and an adviser to Vespasian's son, Titus, who commanded the Roman legions at the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, which led to the death of over a million of Josephus' former countrymen, and the enslavement of nearly 100,000 more, according to Josephus himself.

            Now, by the time Josephus wrote Antiquities of the Jews (c. AD 94) in Greek for a gentile audience, was Josephus a “religious” source or a “secular” source? Do you see how Ehrman's statement was carefully tailored to leave out the fact that Josephus, a Jew by birth but a Roman by choice, mentioned Jesus in a credible history written during the First Century?

            In Antiquities, Book 18, Ch. 5, 2, we find Josephus discussing Herod Antipas's murder of John the Baptist, an important verification of the gospel story:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man... Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion... Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.

            But Josephus' most important and noteworthy mention of Jesus is in Antiquities, Book 18, Ch. 3, 3:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

This passage is referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum, the testimony of Flavius. Now, I must warn you that, at this point, the skeptics will jump in and say that this passage was not actually written by Josephus but is a later forgery. Well, the skeptics are partially right: some of the Testimonium probably was added later. Most scholars suspect that later Christian redactors tampered with the passage to add three “interpolations” supportive of Christian orthodoxy: (1) “if one ought to call him a man,” (2) “he was the Christ,” and (3) the sentence referring to the Resurrection.

            To dig into this issue in greater detail, the earliest extant version of the Testimonium is in a quotation by a Fourth Century Christian apologist and historian, Eusebius, in his Historia Ecclesiastica (History of the Church) written around AD 324. But an earlier Christian source, Origen (AD 184-253) mentioned in his writings that Josephus had written about Jesus, but had not recognized Jesus as the Messiah. This suggests that Josephus had originally written a neutral, objective description of Christ, something like, “He was called the Christ,” but Eusebius or an earlier Christian redactor had either left out the word “called” or had inserted the entire phrase “He was the Christ” to make it appear that Josephus had endorsed Jesus as the Messiah.

            This theory is consistent with Josephus' later mention of Jesus, in Antiquities, Book 20, Ch. 9, 1, where Josephus is careful to state that Jesus “was called Christ,” not that he necessarily was the Christ:

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned

Scholars almost universally acknowledge that this passage in book 20, in contrast with the Testimonium in Book 18, is original and un-tampered with. Thus, It constitutes a separate confirmation of the historicity of a man named Jesus who was called Christ and who had a brother named James.

            Thus, the modern scholarly consensus about the Testimonium Flavianum is that Josephus had written a neutral description that was later modified to make it more friendly to Christian orthodoxy. If the three suspected interpolations are removed, the rest of the passage flows smoothly within its context, fits Josephus' writing style, fits well with an Arabic language version of the passage that was only discovered in the 1970s, and is likely authentic. The English scholar and theologian James Dunn believes that the original Flavian passage was similar to this:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

There is very little scholarly support for the view that the Testimonium Flavianum is a total forgery, and in any case the mention in Book 20 of Jesus as the brother of James is a separate mention of Jesus as an historical figure. So contrary to Bart Ehrman's carefully contrived implication, there is a First Century mention of Jesus by Josephus, a very reputable historian and a naturalized Roman citizen--a pagan by choice if not by birth.

B.       Tacitus

            Now that we've exposed Ehrman's technically correct but misleading claim that there is no First Century “pagan” mention of Jesus, we should note that there is also a crucial reason for his arbitrary cutoff point of the end of the First Century. There is an early 2nd Century mention of Jesus by an entirely pagan, gentile, Roman historian—Tacitus. In his Annals, Book 15, Ch. 44, written around AD 116, Tacitus discusses how Nero blamed the Christians for a fire in Rome that many believed Nero himself had ordered:

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures 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, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”

Even while acknowledging that the Christians were falsely blamed for the fire, Tacitus is contemptuous of Christianity; he asserts that Christians practiced “abominations,” and he includes Christianity among “all things hideous and shameful.” No friend of Christianity, Tacitus is merely reporting the historical facts, and these facts are entirely consistent with, and provide an independent secular verification of, what is recorded in Scripture.

            Does the fact that Tacitus was writing in the early 2nd Century, in AD 116, render his history unreliable or unworthy of mention? Are historians writing today, in 2016, about events that occurred in 1931—the same time gap between Tacitus' Annals and the crucifixion of Christ—considered unreliable or unworthy because of the passage of time? To ask that question is to expose the absurdity of the contention. When we write about 1931, we're writing about recent history. Eighty-five years is but one lifespan; many who are still alive today were born before 1931, including two of my uncles and one aunt.

C.       Excessive Skepticism Renders Normal Scholarship Impossible

            Strictly speaking, these historical references to Christ do not absolutely prove that Jesus existed, only that many people in the first and second centuries, including very reputable historians, believed and reported that Jesus existed. But that is all the proof we have for the existence of the overwhelming majority of historical figures. As historian Michael Grant writes:

“If we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned.” Michael Grant (1977), Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels

In other words, if we applied to other ancient historical figures the level of skepticism necessary to deny the existence of Jesus, it would become almost impossible to write history. Those who understand history as a scholarly discipline do not make absurd evidentiary demands, which is why virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus was an historical figure who really lived and died.

D.      Christianity Proves that there Was a Christ

            But perhaps the best argument for the historicity of Jesus is Christianity itself. How was Jesus able to inspire a movement if he never existed? For the first 250 years of Christianity, there was no worldly advantage in being a follower of Jesus, only the very real possibility of persecution, imprisonment, and martyrdom—a painful and humiliating death. Is it reasonable to believe that the world-transforming movement of Christianity grew from nothing, no one, a non-person, a non-event? Relying solely on human reason and experience, the overwhelming likelihood is that there was a real person underlying the phenomenon of Christianity. To assert otherwise is the height of irrationality.