The Historicity of Jesus: How Do We Know He Ever Existed?
Did Jesus ever actually live? Some people claim He did not, suggesting instead that Jesus was just a myth and not a real person at all. In recent years, there seem to be more and more people who hold this opinion. Where did this belief originate, and does it have any validity?
The claim that Jesus did not really exist arose in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and has been almost universally refuted. Very few scholars would make such a claim today. Nevertheless, this claim has found new life on the Internet and many people in our society believe it to be true.
So what proof is there that Jesus actually existed? What basis do we have for believing that the Biblical Jesus lived in real time and space?
First, the New Testament provides evidence of Jesus’ existence. The New Testament includes four biographies of Jesus, plus twenty-three other books and letters that reference Jesus as a real person. These documents, possibly all written during the first century, were written either by eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus or by those who had access to the eyewitnesses. Though these documents were eventually compiled into the New Testament, they originally stood on their own as 27 separate documents in support of Jesus.
The four biographies in particular are consistent with other first-century Jewish biographical writings, making reference to historic people, locations, and events. They were not written with mythological qualities; they were written to be read as historically accurate. Furthermore, they were composed during the lifetimes of witnesses to the life of Jesus and in the very vicinity where Jesus lived and traveled. If Jesus had merely been a fictitious character, the people would have known.
Second, an abundance of non-Biblical documents reference Jesus as an historical figure. Mostly from the late 1st and early 2nd centuries, documents and writings from people like Flavius Josephus (AD 37–100), Tacitus (c. AD 56-117), Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61-112), and Clement of Rome (c. AD 96) refer to Jesus. In addition, there are the Apocryphal and Gnostic writings.
In total, 39 ancient non-Biblical sources reference Jesus. Plus, other documents may have existed which have since been lost. To have this number of early documents about Jesus is remarkable, especially considering that at the time not a lot of people knew about Jesus. Jesus lived and ministered in a relatively localized area, in a rather insignificant part of the Roman Empire, and was only a public figure for about three years. Yet there exists a lot more information about Jesus than most major public figures at the time.
According to historian Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, Professor Emeritus of History at Miami University and an expert on first-century Christianity, we could know over one hundred facts about Jesus without even consulting the New Testament. We could know that some saw Him as a miracle worker, a healer, and the Messiah. We could know that He was executed by crucifixion on a Roman-style cross. We could know that—even after His crucifixion—there were those who claimed He was still alive. The extra-Biblical sources contain an abundance of information about Jesus and treat Him as a real historical figure.
Third, thousands of Christian martyrs in the first century alone attest to Jesus’ historicity. Those martyrs were put to death because they believed Jesus was a real person as well as the Son of God. To them, He was not just a comic book character, nor was He just a compilation of pagan myths; He was a real breathing person who lived and walked where they lived and walked. Many of them even knew Him personally.
People will die for what they believe to be true, but nobody will willingly die for what they know to be a lie. These martyrs were not giving their lives for some grand deception, nor were they dying to protect their loved ones; they were dying because they truly believed that the Jesus who lived among them was in fact the Son of God. Thousands of people in the first century alone willingly went to their deaths for this claim. Did they believe Jesus was real? They certainly did, and their proximity to the time frame when Jesus lived makes them prime witnesses.
There’s really no doubt that Jesus was in fact a real historical figure and not just a work of fiction. But was He more than that? Now that’s a question worth exploring.