Defending Christ’s Existence

P52_rectoThere are some who say that Jesus Christ never lived or, at the very least, we can’t prove that He really ever lived. But of course He did, as we will demonstrate.

I call this one the Skeptic’s Lie. A true Skeptic believes that we really cannot know anything for sure. One is tempted to ask the Skeptic how we can really know that we cannot really know anything for sure; if it’s true that nothing can be known for certain, then we cannot be certain that the Skeptic is correct. If your head hurts about now, that’s OK. Only educated idiots take this one seriously. Since we’ve just demonstrated that such a position is self-refuting, we need not take skepticism itself very seriously, for skepticism is merely the defense of agnostics and others who would prefer to avoid the questions because they are certain they will not like the answers.

Nevertheless, whether we hold to skepticism or not, a man has a right to ask whether any person, place or event from history is verifiable. The clear implication of the Skeptic’s Lie is that if Jesus did not exist, the Resurrection is also a legend or lie. They suggest that we cannot prove whether Jesus really existed.

Now, it’s true that we can’t use the scientific method to prove Jesus existed. The scientific method deals with things that are observable, testable, repeatable and falsifiable. Since historical events are past, barring the invention of a time machine, we cannot directly observe them. Neither are past events repeated. So we can’t use the scientific method to prove Jesus existed any more than we can use it to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare or Abraham Lincoln ever existed!

In fact we use an entirely different method to verify past events, which we might call the forensic historical method. Exploring the past is like putting together the clues in a murder mystery. By way of example, if we were to verify that the Vietnam War or the Holocaust actually occurred [which they did], we would begin by examining the historical documentary evidence. We might also look for corroborating artifacts. If we’re lucky, we get to examine the witnesses. When we put the pieces together, we could be reasonably sure that these events had actually taken place.

In regards to the historicity of Jesus Christ, we have a wealth of information to examine. These evidences fall into three categories: The New Testament of the Scriptures, Early Historical References outside the Bible, and the existence of Christianity itself.

The documentary evidence for the New Testament [NT] Scriptures is overwhelming, and we may explore this later in a separate article. In the meantime, suffice it to say there are literally hundreds of thousands of manuscripts [copies] of the New Testament scriptures in existence. Some of these are copies of the entire NT like the Codex Sinaiticus or partially completed works like the Codex Vaticanus. In addition to copies of New Testaments and individual books of the NT, we can also compare NT scriptures included in the writings of the early Church Fathers, in lectionaries [which contain scripture verses in the order they are to be read for church services at appropriate times of the year], and the many small fragments of NT scripture archaeologists have found containing only a few verses each. Scholars who compare these manuscripts are amazed by the consistency displayed in these copies.

Within the New Testament Scriptures, the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John] are our primary record of Jesus Christ. Most scholars today acknowledge that the Gospels were completed by 70 AD, before the destruction of Jerusalem by Tacitus, which Jesus himself predicted in Matthew chapter 24. Interestingly enough, archaeological evidence suggests that the epistles of Paul were written much earlier than the Gospels, sometime between 54 and 57 A.D. Many scholars believe that in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 Paul is quoting an early Church creed:

“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.”

This is important since this passage establishes an early tradition of Jesus’ death for our sins, burial, resurrection, fulfillment of prophecy [i.e. “according to the scriptures”] and, in the verses following, His post-resurrection appearances.

There are many references to Jesus in accredited historical documents. It’s important to point out that some of these references are antagonistic, but they nonetheless corroborate the existence of Jesus Christ as hostile witnesses.

For example, in a section of his work The Antiquities, finished in about A.D. 93, the historian Josephus notes that a high priest named Ananias took advantage of the death of the Roman governor Festus in order to have James killed:

“And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus… 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, who was 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.”

This testimony corroborates the historical existence of Jesus, James [to whom is attributed the NT Epistle of James], and Festus, who are likewise mentioned in the New Testament Scriptures. Similarly, Josephus corroborates the historical existence of Herod and John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin:

“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man… Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion… Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.”

More to the point, The Antiquities also has a section commonly referred to as the Testimonium Flavium:

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people who accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has to this day not disappeared.”

Some dispute the veracity of portions of this passage. There is no consensus as to which portions may have been altered or to what degree. The passage is nonetheless important in establishing the historicity of Jesus, for even those who believe that some portions of this testimony were later additions to the text still affirm that whatever may have been altered was built around an original authentic kernel of Christ’s crucifixion by Pilate. Eusebius, writing no later than 324 AD, quotes the passage in essentially the same form.

Josephus is not our only corroborating historical source. In A.D. 115, the historian Tacitus wrote that Nero blamed Christians for the fire of Rome in A.D. 64 and how he set about persecuting them:

“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome… Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty: then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.”

In letters to Emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger writes of Christians he has arrested:

“I have asked them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished… They also declare that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery…”

One should also briefly mention that the Early Church Fathers wrote of the reality of Jesus in their works.

The existence of the Christian faith must also be explained. If Jesus never lived, it is very difficult to explain how Christianity came to be. Several aspects of the Christian experience corroborate the historical documentary evidence of Jesus’ existence. For example, the fact that devout Jewish believers chose to eventually supplant the traditional Sabbath [Saturday] commanded in the 4th commandment with worship on the Lord’s Day [Sunday] must be explained. The commemoration of the Resurrection sufficiently explains this mystery. Similarly, Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is specifically performed to show the Lord’s death till He comes. The bread represents Christ’s body, broken for the remission of sin, while the wine represents the new testament of Christ’s blood. This is not a traditional part of the Passover meal. The Lord’s Supper is a specific remembrance of Christ’s death and its meaning.

The Skeptic’s Lie simply crumbles under the weight of historical testimony. Given the documentary and corroborating evidence gleaned from the Bible, other accredited historical writings and the existence of the Church, we can reasonably conclude that Jesus actually existed.

–Rev Tony Breeden

Works Cited

  • Josephus. The Antiquities
  • Tacitus. Annals 15.44
  • Pliny the Younger. Letters 10.96

Recommended Reading

  1. The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel.
  2. The Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell.
  3. More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell.
  4. Know Why You Believe by Paul Little.
  5. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

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