Did Jesus Really Exist?

Did Jesus Really Exist?

Reading Time: 9 minutes
Above Image by 165106 from Pixabay

My daughter-in-law Annie posted about the historicity of Jesus, addressing the question if Jesus was a ‘real’ historical figure or simply a myth or legend that developed over time so the early church could gain power and influence.

One of the comments on her Facebook page stated they had never heard of such a thing. That is, questioning if Christ was a real historical character. I smiled when I read that because it is a common claim online in the atheist and skeptic circles I visit occasionally.

I decided to take a look online to see what I could find. After a quick search, I found a Washington Post article by Raphael Lataster, who lectures at the University of Sydney. Below is a clip of his piece I wanted to address.

“The first problem we encounter when trying to discover more about the Historical Jesus is the lack of early sources. The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith. These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them. The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources – which they also fail to identify. Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.”((Lataster, Raphael. “Did historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn’t add up.” Washington Post, washingtonpost.com, 18 December. 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/18/did-historical-jesus-exist-the-traditional-evidence-doesnt-hold-up/))

Wow, what do you say to something like that? So many claims and assertions that undermine what we believe to be true. Of course, many think the only sources we have about Jesus are in the scriptures, and those can’t be trusted. The best way to tackle a series of claims like this is to break it down into smaller pieces. Let’s parse this out.

Lataster says, “The first problem we encounter when trying to discover more about the Historical Jesus is the lack of early sources. The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith.”((Lataster, Raphael. “Did historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn’t add up.” Washington Post, washingtonpost.com, 18 December. 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/18/did-historical-jesus-exist-the-traditional-evidence-doesnt-hold-up/))

Lataster is making a claim but does not back it up with any evidence and is dismissive of what evidence there is. Nevertheless, the early sources are significant; let’s look at the Gospel of Mark, which most scholars agree is the earliest written of all the Gospels.

Documents outside the Bible state that Mark was an eyewitness account of the apostle Peter. An early church bishop, Papias, born around 70 A.D., wrote that Mark was an interpreter of Peter and accurately put down what was remembered. Irenaeus, a student of Polycarp, who in turn was a student of the apostle John, wrote, “Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.”((Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writing of the Fathers down to A.D.325. Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Buffalo: Christian Literature, 1885. Print.)) Clement of Alexandria, another early church father, said those who heard Peter’s teachings asked Mark to write them down so they could study, share, and pass the instruction from Peter on orally.

Mark, by all accounts, was close to Peter. He not only acted as a scribe and interpreter at times for Peter, but he was also a close friend and confidant. Because of their close relationship, the Gospel of Mark has some peculiarities that indicate this close relationship. Those peculiarities would not be present had the gospels been written hundreds of years later. 

For example, Mark often paid Peter respect and significant prominence compared to the other gospel writers. For instance, Mark referred to Peter 26 times, compared to Matthew in his much longer account, referred to Peter only 29 times. Keep in mind that Matthew has 28 chapters, Mark had 16, and the total number of verses for Mark is 678, while Matthew had 1,071.((Just, Felix. “New Testament Statistics” Catholic Resources. Catholic-resources.org, 2 Sept. 2005. Web. 17 June 2015.))

Mark also avoided some of Peter’s more embarrassing moments. Do you remember Peter’s failed attempt to walk on water like Jesus was doing? (Matthew 14:22-33) Interestingly, Mark does not even mention Peter’s attempt. (Mark 6:45-52) Another example is when Luke describes the miraculous catch of fish on the sea of Galilee. (Luke 5:1-11) Peter says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (NKJV). In Mark’s version (Mark 1:16-20), this is omitted.((Wallace, James Warner. Cold-Case Christianity. Colorado Springs: David C Cook Publishing, 2013. Print.))

There are other examples where Mark omits Peter’s name and instead uses ‘the disciples’ for various accounts. This aspect of favoring Peter and attempts to save him some embarrassment would not be present had the Gospel of Mark been written by someone other than a close and personal friend of the Apostle Peter.

Lataster also writes, “These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them.”

Lataster claims the New Testament events were compiled long after the life of Christ, and they were written by Christians, which gives us reason to doubt their validity before we even get out of the gate. Do we dismiss research and accounts of astronauts concerning NASA because they are astronauts? That kind of thinking is silly and points to the obvious bias held by Lataster and other liberal bible scholars. To dismiss the historical validity of scripture because Christians wrote it would mean we should ignore the accounts of every religion written by its followers, which would be absurd.

But I will not defend that; rather, let’s look at the non-Christian sources concerning the life of Christ.

Anyone familiar with biblical history has heard of Flavius Josephus (ca. 37- ca. 100). He was a historian for the Roman Emperor Domitian. Josephus wrote, “At this time [the time of Pilate] there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive, according he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”((Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jews. Trans. William Whiston. Blacksburg: Unabridged Books, 2011. Print.)) This account comes from a Jew who became a Roman and had nothing to gain from promoting Jesus and His life.

Pliny the Younger was a Roman senator and lawyer in Rome. He was a prolific letter writer and we have copies of most of his writings. In one of his letters, he asked for advice on dealing with Christians who refused to deny Christ. He wrote, “They had met regularly before dawn on a determined day, and sung antiphonally a hymn to Christ as if to a god. They also took an oath not for any crime, but to keep from theft, robbery and adultery, not to break any promise, and not to withhold a deposit when reclaimed.”((Van Voorst, Robert, Jesus Outside the New Testament, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000. Print.))

I mention the Pliny example (one of many outside the New Testament) to point out the durability of eyewitness testimony decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Romans considered Christianity nothing more than a cult, yet it was growing and spreading all over the Mediterranean and into Rome despite frightful persecution. Pliny the Younger would give Christians three chances to deny Christ, yet time and time again, they would refuse, and he would have them taken away to be executed.

Finally, in the first 150 years after the birth of Christ, if we include Josephus, we have ten non-Christian writers who mention Jesus in their works. Looking at and then piecing together what the non-Christian sources say about Jesus, we have the following list:

1. Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Caesar.

2. He lived a virtuous life.

3. He was a wonder-worker.

4. He had a brother named James.

5. He was acclaimed to be the Messiah.

6. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

7. He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover.

8. Darkness and an earthquake occurred when he died.

9. His disciples believed he rose from the dead.

10. His disciples were willing to die for their belief.

11. Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome.

12. His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God.((Geisler, Norman. Turek, Frank. I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Crossway, 2004. Print.))

Lataster continues, “The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources – which they also fail to identify.”

He is right; none of the authors of the Gospels name themselves. It is only in the book of John that there is any suggestion to the author. The author says it is someone whom Jesus loved. (John 21:24)

Nevertheless, there are context clues throughout scripture that suggest who they may be, and we have church traditions that should not be outrightly dismissed.

Starting with the book of Matthew, some of the arguments in favor of his authorship are:

*Papias mentioned that Matthew had composed an account.

*It is organized in a way that a tax collector would likely write.

*Matthew’s account talks about gold and silver 28 times. The author also has parables about money that the other Gospels don’t.

*The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew says, “And forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.” In Luke it says, “Forgive us our sins…”

*The early church ascribed the book to Matthew.((“Who Wrote the Gospels, and How Do We Know for Sure?” Zondervan Academic, zondervanacademic.com, 20 September 2017. https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-gospels/))

The early church almost unanimously agreed that Mark is the author of the Gospel of Mark and other church authors claimed the same, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Jerome.((“Who Wrote the Gospels, and How Do We Know for Sure?” Zondervan Academic, zondervanacademic.com, 20 September 2017. https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-gospels/))

Who wrote Luke? Again the early church fathers name Luke as the author of Luke and Acts. It is in Paul’s letters we find out that Luke was a doctor. Most scholars believe that the same person wrote Luke and Acts. Both Luke and Acts had very similar writing styles, both were addressed to Theophilus, and both expressed the same theology.((“Who Wrote the Gospels, and How Do We Know for Sure?” Zondervan Academic, zondervanacademic.com, 20 September 2017. https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-gospels/))

Who wrote John? This gospel claims to be written by an eyewitness; he was likely Jewish because many of his described events were attached to dates significant in Jewish culture. He also describes events that would only be accessible to an eyewitness. For example, the number of Jars in John 2:6; how long the man in Bethesda had been a cripple, John 5:5; the name of the man that had his ear chopped off by Peter, John 18:10; and the number of fish caught in Galilee, John 21:11.((“Who Wrote the Gospels, and How Do We Know for Sure?” Zondervan Academic, zondervanacademic.com, 20 September 2017. https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-gospels/))

Finally, Lataster writes, “Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.”

He assumes the Gospels are mythical, and J. Warner Wallace addresses this in his blog post

Virtually all scholars consider Luke’s account as historical. Even a 5th grader could see that. Chapter one of Luke reads… “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Luke 1:1-4

Eyewitnesses, accounts, investigated, orderly, draw, carefully, certainly, are just a few of the words Luke uses to make clear he is giving us history and to suggest they are non-historical is foolishness. Not only that, he addresses it to a specific person for the precise reason of giving him assurance and confidence in what he has been taught concerning Christ.

If you were to read the whole article by Lataster, he is dismissive of Bart Ehrman, who thinks it is foolishness to claim that Jesus was not a real person in history. Bart Ehrman is one of the most respected New Testament textual critics alive today and is no friend to Christians.

In his book Misquoting Jesus Bart Ehrman wrote about his mentor Bruce Metzger and the reliability of the New Testament. Ehrman wrote, “Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. And even though we may disagree on important religious questions – he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not – we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions. If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”((Ehrman, Bart. “Appendix” Misquoting Jesus, HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p.252.))

Jesus was an actual figure in history. Persecution, torture, and death awaited those who were “eager to promote Christianity,” as Lataster put it. It is foolish to suggest it was done for wealth, power, and influence. Not only can Jesus be found outside the scriptures, but the claims about Him within scriptures can also be trusted. Those that wrote about Him had nothing to gain and everything to lose. All but John lost their lives to share the gospel, which is not much of a vocational perk.

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Did Jesus Really Exist? by James W Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Sources:

GoPro and the Gospel of Mark

Reading Time: 6 minutes

In recent months I have seen some amazing GoPro videos that were from participants in extreme sports. Water skiing, snow boarding, sky diving, rock climbing, cliff jumping, mountain biking, etc., to name a few. Some of the clips look like a lot of fun and I would be willing to try; others I think to myself, “No way!” Not only would I not want to try it, but the danger factor was more than I would ever be willing to embrace. Yet, we have first hand documentation, (primary evidence), of what some of these athletes are able to do. No doubt if I was to try it, it would be an epic fail and end up on YouTube, but the temptation was there.

One example is Alexander Polli’s jump  through a small hole on the side of a mountain in Spain. An amazing 2 minute video documented not only by his own camera, but others as well.

So what is the difference between primary and secondary evidence in the historical record?

Evidence can be divided into two types of sources: Primary and Secondary.

Primary is first hand information or usually eyewitness testimony. Primary sources can include documents such as laws, speeches, diaries, and letters. It can also include visual evidences, photos, and as I have already pointed out, videos such as GoPro. Primary sources are so valuable because they are usually created at or near the time of the event.

Secondary sources are sources that did not actually witness the event. A history book from any school could be considered a secondary source. The authors gather information from many different sources and then write their interpretation of the events. An exception to this would be someone who has interviewed eyewitnesses to a particular event or events. The HBO TV series Band of Brothers comes to mind. Several of the Easy Company survivors were interviewed for the series. From those interviews, and other sources, they created the 10 part chronicles on the 101st Airborne Division.

When you read history, there are two things to reflect on and evaluate.

Consider the author’s purpose.
It is written to persuade the reader, inform the reader, or instruct the reader. For example, a technical manual on how to put together a new tent, or install a new motherboard processor, would have the purpose of instruction.

But let’s take a look at the Gospel of Mark for a moment. Documents outside the Bible state that Mark was an eyewitness account of the apostle Peter. An early church bishop, Papias, born around 70 A.D., wrote that Mark was an interpreter of Peter and accurately put down what was remembered. Irenaeus, who was a student of Polycarp, who in turn was a student of the apostle John, said, “Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.”1 Clement of Alexandria, another early church father, said those who heard Peter’s teachings asked Mark to write them down so they could study, share, and pass the instruction from Peter on orally.2

What is even more interesting are the claims that Mark, (agreed by many scholars to be one of, if not the, earliest written gospel) and the other gospels were written not by the apostles, but others hundred of years after the life of Christ. If Mark and the other gospels were written hundreds of years later, then some elements particular to Mark would not be present. Let me explain.

Mark, by all accounts, was close to Peter. He not only acted as a scribe and interpreter at times for Peter; he was a close friend and confidant. Because of their close relationship, the Gospel of Mark has some peculiarities that indicate this close relationship. Had the gospels been written hundred of years later, those peculiarities  would not be present.

Mark often paid Peter respect and significant prominence compared to the other gospel writers. For example, Mark referred to Peter 26 times, and Matthew, in his much longer account, 29 times. Keep in mind that Matthew has 28 chapters while Mark had 16, and the total number of verses for Mark is 678, while Matthew had 1,071.3

Do you remember Peter’s failed attempt to walk on water like Jesus was doing? (Matthew 14:22-33) It is interesting that Mark does not even mention Peter’s attempt. (Mark 6:45-52) Another example is when Luke describes the miraculous catch of fish on the sea of Galilee. (Luke 5:1-11) Peter says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (NKJV) In Mark’s version, (Mark 1:16-20) this is omitted.4

There are other examples of this where Mark omits Peter’s name and instead uses ‘the disciples’ for various accounts. This aspect of favoring Peter and attempts to save him some embarrassment would not be present had the Gospel of Mark been written by someone other than a close and personal friend of the Apostle Peter.

Evaluate the credibility of the author.
The Internet is a wealth of information, but not everything on the Internet, Facebook, or Pinterest is true. Someone might question the truth of Alexander Polli’s jump, but after researching his past experiences, interviewing others who have seen his past exploits, and of course the multiple cameras at the scene of the event, you would conclude there was sufficient evidence to consider it a credible claim.

Another example is Michael Jackson being accused of child molestation 2003. The victim’s mother took the stand, but the defense for Jackson showed that she had lied about shop lifting a few years prior. This called into question her credibility, and consequently the jury decided she could not be trusted to tell the truth. Maybe she was just enjoying the notoriety and spotlight, or simply hoping for some financial gain.5

Certainly the late Christopher Hitchens, no fan of religion, believed that Christian religion had roots of selfish gains of power and money. “I do not think it is arrogant of me to claim that I already…noticed the more vulgar and obvious fact that religion is used by those in temporal charge to invest themselves with authority before my boyish voice had broken.”6 Napoleon said that religion is what keep the poor from murdering the rich.

In their book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek list ten reasons the New Testament authors told the truth. Number ten on their list is that the New Testament writers abandoned their long held sacred beliefs and practices, adopted new ones, and did not deny their testimony under persecution or the threat of death. For example, they replaced the animal sacrifice system with the sacrifice of Christ, the binding law of Moses with the grace and forgiveness of God, and the conquering Messiah with the sacrificial Christ. Other contrasts could be made, and some would be punishable by death from their Jewish brothers.7

Just a few weeks after the crucifixion, thousands of Jews from all walks of life are following him. Within a few short years, this new Christian religion has greatly impacted not only the Jews, but Gentiles, all the way to Rome and the surrounding Mediterranean. Turek and Geisler wrote, “There’s no reason to doubt, and every reason to believe, the New Testament accounts. While many people will die for a lie they think is the truth, no sane person will die for what they know is a lie. The New Testament writers and the other apostles knew for sure that Jesus had resurrected, and they demonstrated that knowledge with their own blood.”8

Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler pointed out that some Christians think doubt is like a four letter word, and that real Christians should not ever doubt. They wrote, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is the forefather of faith. Doubt does not cancel faith; it should give way to faith. In fact, as in Thomas’ case, doubt can be the impetus that leads us to the truth.”9 Remember that all the other apostles doubted, but once they had seen their resurrected Christ they were willing to die for what they knew was true. Don’t be so hard on doubting Thomas. He had not see his resurrected Lord yet, but after he had seen, his doubt was gone. After presented with the evidence Thomas said, “My Lord, my God.” (John 20:28)

 

Sources:
1. Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writing of the Fathers down to A.D.325. Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Buffalo: Christian Literature, 1885. Print.
2. Wallace, James Warner. Cold-Case Christianity. Colorado Springs: David C Cook Publishing, 2013. Print.
3. Just, Felix. “New Testament Statistics” Catholic Resources. Catholic-resources.org, 2 Sept. 2005. Web. 17 June 2015
4. Wallace, James Warner. Cold-Case Christianity. Colorado Springs: David C Cook Publishing, 2013. Print.
5. Ibid.
6. Hitchens, Christopher. god is not GREAT– How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007. Print.
7. Geisler, Norman. Turek, Frank. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. Wheaton: Crossway, 2004. Print.
8. Ibid.
9. McDowell, Josh. Hostetler, Bob. Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1992, Print.

 

 

Creative Commons License
GoPro and the Gospel of Mark by James Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.dev.christianapologetics.blog.

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