Did Jesus Really Exist?

With well over a billion Christians (myself included) and nearly a billion Muslims, for whom the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth is an article of faith, plus rows upon rows of Historical Jesus books, one might think that the question posed above was nonsense. The fact of the matter is that some Christians have false views about how strong the evidence of the historical Jesus is, and some anti-Christians have false views about how weak the evidence is. What I would like to do on this page is to explode some of the myths on both sides.

The Myths

The Archko Volume
The Archko Volume has some truly wonderful documents detailing aspects of Jesus' life as told by prominent historical figures. Chapters include: "Jonathan's interview with the Bethlehem shepherds--Letter of Melker, Priest of the Synagogue at Bethlehem", "Report of Caiaphas to the Sanhedrim concerning the execution of Jesus", "Gamaliel's interview with Joseph and Mary and others concerning Jesus", "Herod Antipater's defense before the Roman Senate in regard to his conduct at Bethlehem" and "Pilate's report to Caesar of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus". The book is a complete and utter fraud, written by a Presbyterian minister named Mahan in the 19th century. He got kicked out of his church for writing it. For details, see Modern Apocrypha by Edgar Goodspeed, Beacon Press, 1956. It's out of print, but not impossible to find.
Dates (early/late) of the Gospels
Briefly, some on the affirmative side have unreasonably early dates for the writing of the Christian Gospels (the 40's) and some on the negative have unreasonably late (2nd century) dates for the writing of the Gospels. While the actual dates of the composition of the Gospels is subject of much debate, most authorities place their writing somewhere between these two extremes. I have compiled some fairly standard dates from commentaries and reference works.
Josephus proves Jesus existed
Flavius Josephus was a Jew born some time around 30 AD (near the date of Jesus' death according to the Gospels). He was a Jewish military leader who later became a historian for the Romans. He might be considered a Jewish apologist. In any case, Josephus wrote extensively, and is probably the best source we have for historical events in 1st-century Palestine. The bias of his reporting is debated, but what is of interest here is the two references in Josephus to Jesus. The main citation is from Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews 18:3.3, popularly called the Testimonium Flavium. It says in part: "Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works--a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; Pilate...condemned him to the cross...and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." We know that after Christians took over the Roman empire through the conversion of Emperor Constantine, various forgeries and alterations (sometimes called "interpolations") were made in documents. The Testimonium Flavium is widely thought to have been one of those interpolations.
All historians know that the mentions of Jesus in Josephus are Christian forgeries
It is true that there is significant doubt by historians about the authenticity of the citations about Jesus in Josephus. However, it is far from true that all historians believe that there is no authentic mention of Jesus in Josephus. Certainly the Testimonium Flavium sounds rather too good to be true, but the other reference, a passing one mentioning Jesus, is thought by many historians to be authentic. That text in Antiquities 20:9.1 says "Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned."
Jesus was not on the list
"The fact that Jesus is missing from the meticulously-kept Roman list of executions, proves that the crucifixion of Jesus never happened." The fact of the matter is, there is no such list.
Citations from Roman Historians prove Jesus existed
There are several, but their value is limited. None were eyewitnesses to anything. About all they prove is that some time around 60 AD there was a group called Christians.
The Gospels are Fiction
"The Gospels are fiction, therefore Jesus never existed." That's really begging the question. We do know that some things in the Gospels are not fiction, like John the Baptist (mentioned in Josephus), Herod and Pontius Pilate. Those are historical figures. The ossuary of the high priest Caiaphas was recently unearthed.
The Gospels are Miraculously Accurate, therefore they must be completely true
This, again, is begging the question but from the other side.
The lack of independent documentation of Jesus from the 1st Century proves Jesus was fictional
There is a general lack of documentation on just about everything from 1st Century Palestine. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, which might have contributed to this lack of documentation.
Christianity is just like other religions of its day, e.g. Mithraism
There are striking similarities between Christianity and Mithraism including a resurrected savior and a sacred meal. Therefore "Christianity is a fiction made by adapting Mithraism." There are also striking differences. If you look just at the similarities, they look persuasive--but only if you ignore the differences.
Jesus came from a fictional town
The argument here goes that the town of Nazareth, which is Jesus' "hometown" according to the Gospels did not even exist until hundreds of years after his death. It is true that Nazareth is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. However there is archaeological evidence that the town we now call Nazareth had been inhabited since 400 BC.

My View

As an article of faith, I believe Jesus was a historical person. From the intellectual side, I also believe that Jesus was a historical person. While the Gospels don't always sound like literal events, they seem to point to a definite person. There are indications in the Gospels that some of Jesus' contemporaries thought he was illegitimate and insults like "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" These don't seem to be the marks of a story constructed to glorify a fictional hero. The very fact that the Gospels aren't clones of each other, having difficulties and contradictions all point to individual views of a historical person, not adaptations of a fictional account. Historically we know that at least from around 50 AD there was a sect of Christians who seemed to believe that Jesus was a historical person. We know that "Jesus" was a very common first century name, and we know that various faith healers, baptizers and miracle workers went around attracting followings at that time. There is certainly nothing implausible about the story of an itinerant healer and preacher who ran afoul of the authorities and was executed for his trouble. I see no cause for discounting the basic narrative of the Gospels.

In my view, the simplest explanation for the Gospels and the "race of Christians" is that it was founded by a person named Jesus. As for his miracles and role as Savior of us all, that will have to be left to faith.

Kevin (kevin@davnet.org)

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