It’s almost Christmas– one of the holiest days of the year for Christians, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who was called the Christ.
But did Jesus even exist? Was he a real historical person?
It seems around Christmas or Easter there’s always some agnostic or atheist friends who make the claim that Jesus never existed as a historical person, or at least, that there’s “no evidence” he existed.
While the number of legitimate secular or historical scholars who make this claim are exceedingly few, it doesn’t stop the claim from being repeatedly made. The basic argument goes like this: we cannot trust the Gospel accounts, and there are no external references confirming Jesus ever lived, thus there is no evidence he was a real person in history.
In my opinion, this argument is both flawed and factually incorrect.
First, dismissing the Gospel accounts outright is the genetic fallacy– it’s rejecting information because you have already decided you do not like the source. Now, resisting the genetic fallacy doesn’t mean one blindly accept the Gospel accounts, but it does mean one has to actually contend with the information inside of them. Simply their existence and prevalence in this same time period speaks to the fact that they were at least based on a person who in fact existed.
The second argument is often that there are no historical references to Jesus outside the Gospels, but this simply isn’t true either– and even if it were, that actually wouldn’t be surprising.
Jesus was a first century rabbi living under a foreign occupation. He was not the most famous rabbi of his time, and he lived in a culture that predominantly preserved information orally compared to our modern culture which preserves things in written form. One would not expect there to be a considerable number of external references to Jesus because he simply was not an important figure outside his own circle. This would be true of any other comparable religious leader of the time– lots of external references would be a surprise, but they wouldn’t be expected for any of them unless they were super-famous. (And this isn’t just the case with religious leaders– even the Roman governor at the time, Pontius Pilate, had little evidence of his existence in history until archeological evidence proved it in 1961.) Essentially, this argument places a modern burden of proof on the ancient world, and that’s not how things work.
However, with Jesus there are external references to his historical existence. We have the historian Tacitus who was arguably the most prominent historian of that time. In Annals XV he references not just Christ but also that he was executed by Pilate, that his followers were called Christians, and that they believed in “superstitions” (Annals XV, 44). There is also the Jewish historian Josephus who references James, followed by “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ” (Antiquities XX, 9).
While those are the two most compelling references in my mind, there are still others that either reference Jesus, allude to Jesus, or directly mention early Christians during this period. See Suetonius, Pliny, Thallus, etc.
In short, for an obscure rabbi, the external references to him and his followers actually exceed my expectations for this context and period.
Even these arguments aside, one of the biggest things left unexplained by those who claim Jesus never existed is the birth of Christianity itself, and the dedication of its followers.
What is unarguable is that a new religion called Christianity exploded in the first century. We also know that these early Christians were utterly hated and persecuted. We have the writings of Paul of Tarsus who had dedicated his life to killing Christians until he became one. We have external references to how horribly Christians were treated and slaughtered by Nero. Thus, we know that during this period a religion named after Jesus was born, and that the followers of this new religion were willing– not to kill– but to be killed for it.
And yet, this religion continued to grow and grow until it became the official religion of the empire just a few hundred years later.
What is far more implausible is that a first century religion based upon the specific teachings of a specific leader– a religion that you were killed for joining– took root and spread throughout that same century, even though the supposed leader never existed. If Christianity were born 500 or 1000 years after the life of Christ, I think one would have an interesting case– but that’s not the story of Christianity. Instead, we find the religion explode and grow in this same exact time period, including the production of a new religious Scriptures that all center around the life and teachings of the religion’s founder.
Christianity is a religion based on a person. It took root and grew during the period of time in which they lived, and flourished in the immediate generations after their death. The idea that all this could happen even though the person was a complete historical fabrication who never existed, is a really tough sell.
I love my atheist and skeptic friends– they have plenty of worthy points to make, lots of great questions, and even very valid critiques of the expression of Christianity they see in the world around us. I share many of those questions and critiques– and if you’ve followed my work, one knows that I value my relationship and discovered commonalities with the atheist and agnostic community.
But the idea that Jesus never even existed as a historical figure?
That’s simply not one of their more compelling arguments.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.