Did Jesus, as described in the New Testament, ever live? Or, as some have affirmed, was the "New Testament Jesus...a myth" (see Barker)?
What Difference Does It Make?
What if Jesus never existed? Does it really matter whether he really lived, or whether he was merely a figment of the imagination of a few deranged first-century zealots?
The answer to this question is of vital significance. The validity of the Christian faith hinges upon the historicity of Christ. Our faith is not merely in "the plan;" it also resides in "the man" (cf. Mk. 8.38). A rejection either of Christ or his words is a rejection of Christianity itself.
If Christ was not actually born of a virgin (cf. Mt. 1.23); if deity never really became flesh (cf. Jn. 1.1., 14; 1 Tim. 3.16); if Jesus did not actually raise the dead (cf. Jn. 11.1ff), walk on water (cf. Mt. 14.22-33), or repair the sight of those who were congenitally blind with only his word (cf. Jn. 9.1ff); if, in reality, he was not crucified by a godless horde (cf. Mk. 15.14-15; Acts 2.36), or resurrected the third day (cf. Lk. 24.7); then Christianity itself is baseless (cf. Rm. 1.1-4; 1 Cor. 15.12-19). It ought to be abandoned, world without end (cf. 1 Cor. 15.32).
Everett F. Harrison put it like this:
"Some religions, both ancient and modern, require no historical basis, for they depend upon ideas rather than events. Christianity is not one of these" (11).
One of the world’s foremost experts on the Dead Sea scrolls, Millar Burrows, writes
“that the historic revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth must be the cornerstone of any faith that is really Christian. Any historical question about the real Jesus who lived in Palestine nineteen centuries ago is therefore fundamentally important” (p. 55).
Noted apologist and professor John Montgomery observed that the historicity of Jesus, if proven, is of “paramount significance” and would provide “the necessity for a complete realignment of personal philosophy.” And if his existence were “unfounded,” then Paul was correct when he spoke of the “miserable” condition of the Christian should that be the case (1 Cor. 15.19).
It is not insignificant, then, that the “religious bankruptcy” (as Montgomery put it) of our present era has only intensified as generations have slowly drifted away from pursuing a rational investigation into the historical credibility of the New Testament Jesus and have instead embraced a subjective philosophy which does not rely on reason or evidence (p. 15). Indeed, if Christianity’s historical authority is discarded, upon what basis should we trust its moral authority?
While the Bible is not a history book per se, it does claim to record real historical events. These historical events are designed to demonstrate God's presence in the world, as well as to prove that the God of the Bible is the "only true God" (Jn. 17.3), and that Jesus Christ is his divine "Son" (cf. Jn. 20.31-32). Hence, if the Bible's history is accurate, it ought to be followed; if it is not, it ought to be discarded. This is especially true of the reality of Jesus.
The Bible itself addresses this very question. Its verdict on the issue reflects the gravity of the matter.
John insists that he saw Jesus with his eyes, handled him with his hands, and that his testimony in this respect was meant to provide a fulness of "joy" to the believer (cf. 1 Jn. 1.1-4). Take the historical Jesus away, and that "joy" is rendered obsolete.
John further insists that anyone who does "not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh" (i.e., actually living in human form), is called "a deceiver and an antichrist" (2 Jn. 7; cf. 1 Jn. 4.2-3). This is not a trivial matter.
There are several ways of demonstrating the historical reality of Jesus. We shall only consider a few.
In an unbiased court of law, the testimony of eyewitnesses plays a crucial role in defense of a case.
Such testimony is no less crucial in defense of the historical reality of an individual. Was Julius Caesar real? Consult the testimony of his contemporaries (e.g., Cicero, Sallust, Virgil, Ovid, etc.)!
Even so, the existence of Jesus may be confirmed on the basis of the testimony of those who walked and talked with him.
At least twelve individuals were personal companions of the Lord, and many more followed him during the course of his earthly ministry. Paul argues that over five-hundred individuals witnessed his resurrection. He “was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once” (1 Cor. 15.5-6).
Consider this: Many of these witnesses were martyred for defending their faith in this Jesus of Nazareth. This poses the question: If they knew Jesus was a myth, why would these individuals be willing to die for him?
Hundreds of these eyewitnesses were hunted down like animals (cf. Acts 9.1) and mercilessly slaughtered (cf. Acts 7.57-60; 12.1-2), all because they refused to deny that Jesus is the Christ, who was "manifested in the flesh" (1 Tim. 3.16; cf. 1 Pet. 1.20; 1 Jn. 1.1-4). The fact that they affirmed his existence and remained loyal to him to the point of death demonstrates that Jesus not only existed, but was a remarkably influential character.
The Early Historians
Several Jewish and Roman historians and philosophers allude to Jesus in their writings. These historians were not supporters of the cause of Christ, and many were antagonistic to him. Yet none of them ever denied his existence (see Van Voorst, 15).
Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote under Roman purview between 37-100 A.D., mentions in his Antiquities of the Jews a man who became popular among “many Jews, and also many of the Greeks” whose name was “Jesus.” He calls him “a wise man” and “a doer of marvelous deeds.” Josephus' "Jesus" was one who was “condemned” by another man named “Pilate.”
He further suggests that at the time he was writing, “the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not yet died out.”
Later, in discussing the deeds of the high priest, Josephus states that Ananus
“assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James.”
Indisputably, these descriptions depict the New Testament Jesus in precise detail. His testimony in this regard is dispassionate and unbiased. He simply states the facts. The Jewish historian, though not necessarily a defender of the cause of Christ, nevertheless acknowledged him as a bona-fide historical figure.
Celcus, a pagan philosopher who wrote during the second century, spoke of Jesus as having “come from a village in Judea.” After charging Jesus with being a “bastard,” he affirms that his poverty led him to Egypt.
“While there,” suggests Celcus,
“he [Jesus] acquired certain (magical) powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god."
One wonders how a mere "young child" (Mt. 2.21), who was in Egypt during his infant years (until the death of Herod, who died shortly after the family's exodus), could have learned any of these "powers," never mind learn them with sufficient deftness as to (falsely) make "himself out to be a god."
Even more disdain for the New Testament Jesus oozes from Celcus’ pen, and yet he too accepted Jesus’ existence.
Pliny the younger, in 112 A.D., governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, wrote to the Emporer, Trajan, to acquire his advice regarding certain Christians, who, according to Bruce, “were embarrassingly numerous in his province” (102). Pliny states that the Christians “were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light” to sing “an anthem to Christ as God.”
Cornelius Tacitus, an esteemed historian of the Roman Empire (cir., A.D. 115), spoke of one named “Christus,” whose followers were “styled Christians.” This
“Christus…had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was emperor,”
confirming the Bible’s account of Jesus’ death.
Lucian of Samosata (c. A.D. 115-200) was one of the earliest heckling critics of Christianity. He spoke against the faith with mocking disdain and zealous fervor. Yet, he never denied the reality of Jesus.
In fact, he referred to him as a "crucified sophist" (‡13) who was killed in Palestine "for bringing this new form of initiation into the world" (‡11). Rather than deny his existence, he dismissed Jesus as a common criminal, who swindled people out of their money through heretical doctrines. To Lucian, Jesus was a spiritual demagogue, but one who actually lived.
The fact that most of the historians, statesmen, and philosophers who spoke of Jesus were either apathetic to or hostile to the teachings of Jesus is significant. If Jesus were a myth, then those who were unfriendly to the claims of Christianity could have easily held this against his disciples. Instead, they recognized his existence.
These — and many other ancient sources — confirm the historical reality of Jesus. Many of them even document Jesus’ death on the cross during Pilate’s administration (see “Was Jesus Really Dead?”). Of course, if he died, then it follows that he lived.
The evidence for Jesus’ life is prodigious. Indeed, the agnostic-atheist Bart Ehrman argues forcefully for Jesus’ existence, noting that “about thirty or so independent sources” verified his existence within a century of Jesus’ death (Ehrman, 2016). These sources
“didn’t compare notes. They are independent of one another and are scattered throughout the Mediterranean” (ibid.).
The notion that Jesus was a myth comes purely from human imagination and fancy, not from fact and reason.
Considering the wide-range of evidence derived from early authorities, F. F. Bruce observes:
"Whatever else may be thought of the evidence from early Jewish and Gentile writers…it does at least establish, for those who refuse the witness of Christian writings, the historical character of Jesus Himself” (119).
Shall we believe the testimony of those who lived during that generation, or shall we believe those who are two-thousand years removed from these events, who are biased beyond all real credibility? Indeed, no amount of modern skepticism will ever expunge the testimony of these reliable first and second century witnesses.
Finally, we must not overlook the evidence staring us straight in the face — the gospels themselves. The record of Jesus' life, actions, and sayings, read like a newspaper, not like a legend or myth.
When Albert Einstein was asked whether he accepted the historical existence of Jesus, he replied:
“Unquestionably. No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. How different, for instance, is the impression which we receive from an account of legendary heroes of antiquity like Theseus? Theseus and other heroes of this type lack the authentic vitality of Jesus” (Viereck, p. 117).
Something must be said, then, of the subjective impact of Jesus’ biography on the lives of those who read about him in those documents. His reality jumps off every page.
The evidence in support of the historicity of Jesus is preponderant. The prodigious influence of Christ and Christianity will never give way to the false assertions of facile fools.
Without a doubt, to his twelve apostles, to those who sat at his feet, learning the impregnable truths of Jehovah, to those who witnessed his glory as he spoke with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, to those who heard his cries on the cruel cross of Calvary, to those who saw his scars and felt his wounds, to those who witnessed his ascension into heaven from the mount called Olivet, and even to those who denied him and despised him, Jesus was not a myth — on the contrary, he was a marvel.
The historicity of his life, coupled with the extraordinary integrity of his teachings, and the circumstances surrounding his death, make the Christian religion immeasurably incomparable to any other, and far superior to the myriad philosophies of this world, sacred and profane alike.