Building a case for the historical Jesus
When I wrote my first book (co-authored with Stanley Porter) just over ten years ago, my friends were very excited. The first question was always on what the book was about. When I explained that the book presented the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus, their expressions became confused. Writing a book showing that Jesus actually lived was as relevant as writing a book that the Earth was round. Everyone already knows that.
Except that they don’t. In the Case of the Missing Jesus, we saw that there are growing number of people who claim that Jesus never existed.
Are beliefs Jesus just a matter of faith or is there actually historical evidence that Jesus lived? Here are three reasons why historians (not just Christians) are confident that Jesus existed.
Testimonies of the Gospels
The best evidence that we have for Jesus are the Gospels. What are the Gospels? Scholars have compared them to other contemporary writings and have concluded that they are ancient biographies. This is the genre that authors used to record the words and deeds of historical figures.
Skeptics attempt to dismiss the historical value of the Gospels with three criticisms:
- The Gospels are too late to be accurate - The Gospels are far closer to the original events than most biographies we have. Often historical figures (e.g. Alexander the Great) are separated by centuries from their earliest biographies. The Gospels were likely written forty to fifty years after the events at the latest.
- The Gospels as Scripture cannot be historical - Historians do not exclude religious texts when looking for evidence of ancient figures. What matters is the value of the text not what religious people do with them. The Gospels have repeatedly shown themselves to be historically accurate.
- The Gospels are biased - The concern is that the Gospels were written by people who believed in and followed Jesus. Such skeptics would prefer unbiased accounts of Jesus. The problem is that such writings do not exist for any historical figure. All ancient writings have a strong bias, whether religious, philosophical or political. If we waited for unbiased writings, we would never be able to do history.
Testimony of Paul
The Apostle Paul was the early church’s greatest missionary, church planter and theologian. His writings are our earliest Christian texts, predating even the Gospels. Paul never writes a biography of Jesus, as his aim was to address specific situations within the churches.
But that does not mean that Paul rejected the historical Jesus for a glorified Christ. Paul attests to the Davidic lineage of Jesus, cites some of his teachings, passes on the story of the last supper and names witnesses to his resurrection.
We also see Paul interacting with disciples of Jesus such as Peter and John, as well as Jesus’ half-brother James. Paul’s writings testify to a real and earthly Jesus.
Testimony of Josephus
Josephus was a first century Jewish historian who wrote for a Roman audience. He is one of our main sources for the Jewish history of the first century. Josephus talks about John the Baptist, James (the half-brother mentioned earlier) and most importantly, Jesus.
Some have suggested that Josephus’ testimony of Jesus is a Christian forgery. It is true that some Christian did add to what Josephus originally said about Jesus but scholars are able to reconstruct the original text. Even the most liberal of scholars admit that Josephus said something about Jesus.
Did Jesus exist as a historical figure? Historians do not question the existence of Jesus. The evidence for Jesus is much more than most other ancient figures. The only way to dismiss Jesus is to hold him to a different historical standard that is used for other people in history. Some will still deny the evidence for the historical Jesus (as there are people who deny a round Earth) but Christians can be confident that the evidence is on our side.
For further reading, check out Unmasking the Pagan Christ: An Evangelical Response to the Cosmic Christ Idea by Stanley E. Porter and Stephen J. Bedard.
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