Did Jesus Really Exist?

Did Jesus Really Exist?

Reading Time: 9 minutes
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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.

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You can Trust the New Testament

You can Trust the New Testament

Reading Time: 7 minutes

One morning at church my pastor mentioned apologetics multiple times. To me, that topic acts as coffee in my system. He also mentioned some, what he called God questions. One of the questions was if we could trust the New Testament. I went home considering writing a post on the topic since I had not done one in a while.

Later that same day my daughter Beth shared a text with me that a friend of hers was questioning how accurate the bible can be if it was translated so many times, through so many different languages. Beth pointed out to her friend that it is just one language to English. For example, Greek to English or Hebrew to English. So it is not as if we have to translate it from Hebrew, to Greek, to Coptic, to Latin, to English.

Many equate Bible translations to the old ‘telephone’ game where one person at the start of a line whispers a statement which is then shared quietly with the next person in line and so forth down the line. By the time the message reaches the end of the line, it is confusing, convoluted, and nothing like the original message.

The New Testament authors not only support each other, but we have multiple sources outside of scripture that support the life, times, and teaching of Jesus.

Ignatius, (AD 35-117) was a student of John, who is the author of the Gospel of John, and history has preserved at least three letters written by Ignatius. Jim Wallace, in Cold-Case Christianity, reviewed some of Ignatius’ letters and listed the dozens of conclusions from those letters. Below I list only a few.
-Jesus was in the line of King David.
-He was, (and is), the Son of God.
-He was baptized by John the Baptist.
-He taught and had a ministry on earth.
-He spoke the words of God.
-He died on the cross.
-Jesus was resurrected.
-He had a physical resurrection body.((Wallace, James Warner. Cold-Case Christianity. Colorado Springs: David C Cook Publishing, 2013. Print.))

Polycarp, (AD 69-155) was also a student of John, and Polycarp became the bishop of Smyrna in what we now call Turkey. Polycarp wrote a letter to the church in Phiippi, and history has documented this, in which he talked about Paul and the other apostles he had met. The following conclusions can be made from Polycarp’s letters.
-Jesus was sinless.
-He taught the Sermon on the Mount.
-He suffered and died on a cross.
-His death on the cross saves us.
-We are saved by grace.
-Jesus was raised from the dead.
-Jesus is Lord.((Wallace, James Warner. Cold-Case Christianity. Colorado Springs: David C Cook Publishing, 2013. Print.))
As I did with Ignatius, I only listed a few.

Paul taught Clement (AD 80-140) of Rome, and Clement wrote a letter about Jesus, His ministry, and His followers. According to Jim Wallace, “Clement quoted or alluded to seven New Testament books (Mark, Matthew or John, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians) as he penned his work.” From his work, which agrees with Ignatius and Polycarp, you can conclude the following.
-The prophets predicted the life and ministry of Jesus.
-Jesus provided His disciples with important instruction.
-He taught principles as described by Mark and Luke.
-He was humble and unassuming.
-He suffered and died for our salvation.
-He was resurrected from the dead.
-He is alive and reigning with God.1

All of the above men had first-hand eyewitness testimony to the lives and teaching of the New Testament authors, all within the first century, not hundreds of years later as some may claim. History has recorded their correspondence, and this recorded communication confirms the writings and eyewitness testimony of the authors and Jesus.

According to Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, in their book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, we have nearly 5,700 handwritten Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and more than 9000 in other languages such as Latin and Arabic. Of these practically 15,000 documents (some are complete accounts while others are partial books, pages, or fragments), the message of the New Testament is clear, and we have more copies than any other ancient document.((Geisler, Norman. Turek, Frank. I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Crossway, 2004. Print.))

In history, the closer the copy was penned from the original, the better. In other words, historians expect the copies to be more accurate if they were written within a few years of the original vs. hundreds of years later. Aside from the letters in the New Testament, the earliest surviving copies of original historical documents are poems and stories from the Greek author Homer, with a 500-year gap. All of the New Testament was written within a few decades of the events they recorded.

Historians also look at the number of copies a document may have. The more copies, the better. If you look at the number of copies that support ancient documents, again, it is Homer who has the most with 643 copies compared to nearly 15,000 of the New Testament.((Geisler, Norman. Turek, Frank. I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Crossway, 2004. Print.))

Other researchers have put the total over 25,000. In his book Jesus On Trial, David Limbaugh wrote, “The evidence, however, is changing all the time based on new discoveries. Geisler recounts that when he began writing on this topic in the sixties, there were about 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts…and now there are closer to 5,800. The number of New Testament translations into languages of nearby countries – Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, Latin, Coptic, and others – totals about 19,300.”((Limbaugh, David. Jesus On Trial. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2014. Print.)) Add that to the Greek copies, and then we have some 25,000 New Testament manuscripts.

Historical documentation is not limited to believers. Anyone who is familiar with biblical history has heard of Flavius Josephus (ca. 37- ca. 100). He was a historian for the Roman Emperor Domitian and 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 is coming 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 recliamed.”((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 dreadful 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 what the non-Christian sources say about Jesus, we can piece together 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.))

Keep in mind the above list is compiled from non-Christians and even sources hostile to Christianity. This is a list void of anyone who believed in Christianity.

I will add as an endnote if we include the number of Christian authors who mention Christ within 150 years of his birth and add the ten non-Christian sources, the total is forty-three references who mention Jesus. Then if we look at the number of Christian and non-Christian sources that mention Tiberius Caesar in the same 150 year period, the total is ten.((Geisler, Norman. Turek, Frank. I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Crossway, 2004. Print.))

Christopher Hitchens, author of ‘god is not Great’ says the authors of the New Testament cannot agree on anything of importance. However, you can see from the above list even those who were not Christians and hostile to Christianity agreed on elements of great importance, which are verified by the overwhelming number of copies we have of the New Testament.

The New Testament has documentation above and beyond any other ancient manuscript. Not only in sheer numbers of copies that can be cross-examined for accuracy, but also written within a few years of the events that took place, while other historical documents are written centuries later. The New Testament also has evidence from numerous sources outside of scripture and sources hostile to Christianity. So you can trust the New Testament!
Creative Commons License
Can you Trust the New Testament by James W Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://christianapologetics.blog/you-can-trust-the-new-testament/.

Sources:

  1. Wallace, James Warner. Cold-Case Christianity. Colorado Springs: David C Cook Publishing, 2013. Print. []

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