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Did Jesus Exist?

An anonymous statement says, “All the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of mankind on this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.”

In Revelation 1:8, Jesus refers to Himself as the “Almighty.” This title means “the one who has his hand on everything.” It means that He is able to accomplish everything. We need to be passionate about Jesus and His influence on the world, but in order to do so, we must be convinced that He existed and is who He said He was.

The Credibility Evidence: Can The Biographies Of Jesus Be Trusted?

Is it really possible to be an intelligent, critically thinking person and still believe that the four gospels were written by the people whose names have been attached to them? If we can have confidence that the gospels were written by the disciples Matthew and John, by Mark, the companion of the disciple Peter, and by Luke, the historian, companion of Paul, we can be assured that the events they record are based on either direct or indirect eyewitness testimony.

The gospels are based on certain historical claims that God uniquely entered into space and time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Every gospel begins and ends with Jesus (Matthew 1:1; 28:20; Mark 1:1; 16:19; Luke 1:1; 24:51; John 1:1; 21:25). The writers believed that the life of Jesus was the most important event ever. It was meaningless if it was not historically factual that Christ died and was raised from the dead. Therefore, the very ideology that Christians were trying to promote required very careful historical work.

Strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous. However, the oldest and most significant evidence for the authorship of Matthew, Mark, and Luke goes back to Papias, who in A.D. 125 affirmed that Mark had carefully and accurately recorded Peter’s eyewitness observations. Papias also said that Matthew had preserved the teachings of Jesus as well. Irenaeus, writing about A.D. 180, confirmed the traditional authorship of all the gospels.

There are no known competitors for the authorship of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Authorship was just not in dispute among the early Christians. Furthermore, the early testimony is unanimous that John the apostle — the son of Zebedee — wrote the gospel.

There would not have been any motivation to lie by claiming that these men wrote the gospels when they really did not. They were unlikely characters. Mark and Luke were not even among the Twelve. Matthew was, but as a former tax collector, he would have been the most infamous character next to Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus! Contrast this with what happened when the fanciful apocryphal gospels were written much later. People chose the names of well-known and exemplary figures to be their fictitious authors — Philip, Peter, Mary, and James. Those names carried a lot more weight than the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

There are a number of tests that can be applied to the gospels to determine their credibility. First, the intention test seeks to determine whether it was the stated or implied intention of the writers to accurately preserve history. You do not find the outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing that you see in a lot of other ancient writings. They wanted to record what actually occurred. Second, the character test measures the evidence of dishonesty or immorality that might taint the ability or willingness of the writers to transmit history accurately. As far as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are concerned, there is no evidence to suggest that they were anything but people of great integrity. They were willing to live out their beliefs even to the point of being put to grisly deaths, which shows great character. Third, the consistency test attempts to determine if the gospel hopelessly contradict one another. The gospels are extremely consistent with each other by ancient standards, which are the only standards by which it is fair to judge them. Fourth, the bias test analyzes whether the gospel writers had any biases that would have colored their work. The disciples had nothing to gain except criticism, ostracism, and martyrdom. They certainly had nothing to win financially. If anything, this would have provided pressure to keep quiet or downplay Him — yet because of their integrity, they proclaimed what they saw, even when it meant suffering and death. Fifth, the cover-up text evaluates if the gospel writers conveniently forgot to mention details which would have been embarrassing or hard to explain. If they did not leave out this type of material, is it really plausible to believe that they outright added and fabricated material with no historical basis?

The Documentary Evidence: Were The Biographies Of Jesus Reliably Preserved?

There are no originals of the books of the Bible. All we have are copies of copies. This is not an issue unique to the Bible; all ancient documents encounter the same issue. What the New Testament has in its favor is the unprecedented number of copies that have survived. The more often you have copies that agree with each other, especially if they emerge from different geographical areas, the more you can cross-check them to figure out what the original document was like.

The quantity and quality of New Testament material is almost embarrassing in comparison with other works of antiquity. We have New Testament copies dating within a couple of generations from the writing of the originals, whereas in the case of other ancient texts, maybe five, eight, or ten centuries elapsed between the original and the earliest surviving copy. Next to the New Testament, the greatest amount of manuscript testimony is of Homer’s Iliad, which was an epic story to the ancient Greeks. There are fewer than 650 Greek manuscripts of it today. Some are quite fragmentary. Furthermore, these manuscript pieces are 1,000 years old when compared to the time of writing. But modern scholars have absolutely no reluctance treating the Iliad as authentic. In addition to the Greek manuscripts, we also have translations of the gospels into other languages at a relatively early time (Latin Syriac, Coptic). Beyond these, we have what may be called secondary translations made a little later (Armenian, Gothic, Georgian, Ethiopic).

Distinguished scholars throughout the world agree that there is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of textual attestation as the New Testament. Sir Frederic Kenyon said, “In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament.” He further said, “The last foundation for any doubt that the scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.”

Another question which arises is whether all the words of Jesus are recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For example, the Gospel of Thomas, which was found in Egypt in 1945, claims it contains “the secret words which the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.” There are 114 sayings attributed to Jesus but no narrative of what He did, and it seems to have been written in Greek in Syria about A.D. 140. But the Gospel of Thomas has many elements that are completely foreign to the biblical gospels. Over the years, it essentially excluded itself because of the fact that it did not harmonize with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

If we compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we must declare it to be marvelously correct. This shows the tremendous care with which the New Testament has been copied — a care that has doubtless grown out of true reverence for its holy words. The New Testament is unrivaled among ancient writings in the purity of its text as actually transmitted and kept in use. There has never been any serious dispute about the authoritative nature of the four gospels.

The Corroborating Evidence: Is There Evidence For Jesus Outside His Biographies?

Corroborative evidence supports other testimony; it affirms or backs up the essential elements of eyewitness accounts. In effect, corroborative evidence acts like the support wires that keep a tall antenna straight and unwavering. The more corroborative evidence, the stronger and more secure the case.

On the whole, the gospels are excellent sources — they are the most trustworthy, complete, and reliable sources for Jesus. The incidental sources really do not add much detailed information; however, they are valuable as corroborative evidence.

Josephus, a historian in the first century A.D., in his book Antiquities Of The Jews, describes how a high priest named Ananias took advantage of the death of the Roman governor Festus — who is mentioned in the New Testament — in order to have James the brother of Jesus killed. Christ is mentioned in the passage, and there is no scholar who has successfully disputed this passage. If it had been a later Christian addition to the text, it would have been more complimentary of James. He furthermore wrote another section in Testimonium Flavianum which mentions Jesus’ miracles, death, and resurrection.

From time to time people have tried to deny the existence of Jesus, but this is really a lost cause. There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus did exist. The two references to Jesus by Josephus are highly significant especially since his accounts of the Jewish war have proved to be very accurate. The details have been corroborated through archaeological excavations at Masada as well as by historians like Tacitus.

Tacitus recorded what is probably the most important reference to Jesus outside the New Testament. In A.D. 115 he explicitly states that Nero persecuted the Christians, who took their name from Christ, as scapegoats to divert suspicion away from himself for the great fire that had devastated Rome in A.D. 64. Crucifixion was the worst punishment anyone could endure, and the fact that the church started based on a crucified man has to be explained. This is an important testimony by an unsympathetic witness to the success and spread of the gospel. It is significant that he said an immense multitude held so strongly to their beliefs that they were willing to die rather than recant.

Pliny the Younger, in his correspondence with Emperor Trajan, specifically refers to the Christians he has arrested. It was probably written about A.D. 111, and it attests to the rapid spread of the gospel, both in the city and in the rural areas, among every class of persons — slave women as well as Roman citizens.

Even Jewish historians, who do not normally go into great detail about “heretics,” mention Jesus, calling Him a false messiah who practiced magic and who was justly condemned to death. They also repeat the rumor that Jesus was born of a Roman soldier and Mary, suggesting that there was something unusual about His birth. So even in a negative way, Jesus is attested of in the Talmud.

We have better historical documentation for Jesus than for the founder of any other ancient religion. Although Gathas of Zoroaster, about 1000 B.C., are believed to be authentic, most of the Zoroastrian scriptures were not put into writing until after the third century A.D. The most popular Parsi biography of Zoroaster was written in A.D. 1278. The scriptures of Buddha, who lived in the sixth century B.C., were not recorded for centuries, and the first biography of Buddha was written in the first century A.D. Although we have the sayings of Muhammad, who lived from A.D. 570 to 632, in the Qur’an, his biography was not written until more than a century after his death. We also have volumes of writings by the “apostolic fathers,” who were the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament. Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and others attest to the basic facts about Jesus, particularly His teachings, crucifixion, resurrection, and divine nature. Even if you were to throw away the every copy of the gospels, you still have a portrait by these men of Jesus as the unique Son of God.

The Scientific Evidence: Does Archaeology Confirm The Biographies Of Jesus?

Archaeology involves the uncovering of artifacts, architecture, art, coins, monuments, documents, and other remains of ancient cultures. Experts study these relics to learn what life was like in the days of Jesus. If an ancient historian’s incidental details are accurate, our confidence in other material that the historian wrote but that cannot be as readily cross-checked increases.

Luke and Acts together constitute about one-quarter of the entire New Testament. Consequently, a critical issue is whether Luke was a factually accurate historian.

The general consensus of both liberal and conservative scholars is that Luke is very accurate as a historian. In Luke 3:1 he refers to Lysanias being the tetrarch of Abilene in A.D. 27. Archaeologists found an inscription from the time of Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) which names Lysanias as tetrarch in Abila near Damascus. Furthermore, archaeologists working at the ruins of Caesarea Maritima found a stone slab bearing the name of Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:2; Mark 15:1; Luke 23:1; John 18:29). The dedication states that he was the “prefect/governor” of Judea. The early governors of Judea were prefect rank, the later were of procurator rank, beginning with Cuspius Fadus in A.D. 44 (cf. Luke 3:1). John 5:1-15 records how Jesus healed an invalid by the Pool of Bethesda. John provides the detail that the pool had five porticoes. For a long time people cited this as an example of John being inaccurate, because no such place had been found. But more recently the Pool of Bethesda has been excavated and there were indeed five porticoes, or colonnaded porches or walkways. Carved in relief on the triumphal Arch of Titus, in the ancient Forum of Rome, is a scene of Roman soldiers on parade carrying items looted from the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. These items included the Table of the Showbread, the Menorah (Golden Lampstand) and a scroll of God’s law (cf. Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6).

Archaeology has not produced anything that is unequivocally a contradiction to the Bible. On the contrary, there have been many opinions of skeptical scholars that archaeology has shown to be wrong. Archaeology’s repeated affirmation of the New Testament’s accuracy provides important corroboration for its reliability.

This is in stark contrast with how archaeology has proved to be devastating for Mormonism. Although Joseph Smith claimed that his Book of Mormon is “the most correct of any book upon the earth,” archaeology has repeatedly failed to substantiate its claims about events that supposedly occurred long ago in the Americas.

Those who know the facts now recognize that the New Testament must be accepted as a remarkably accurate source book.

There is no reason for anything to undermine your faith in the essential trustworthiness of the New Testament. Gary Habermas has detailed 39 ancient sources documenting the life of Jesus containing more than 100 reported facts concerning Jesus’ life, teachings, crucifixion, and resurrection. Most of these sources also specifically address the divine nature of Jesus.

We are going to learn by the end of this series that it will require much more faith for the atheist to maintain their atheism than to trust in Jesus of Nazareth. There is not a single explanation that fits the evidence of history nearly as well as the conclusion that Jesus was who He claimed to be: the one and only Son of God.