Did Jesus even exist?
Due to the overwhelming evidence, the existence of Jesus as a historical person is accepted by all serious historians.
Why Bother with History? Evidence for Jesus’ existence
David Bebbington discusses the eyewitness testimony for Jesus’ existence.
DAVID BEBBINGTON: The funny thing about Jesus is that we actually have more evidence relating to him than to any other figure of the ancient world, including the Roman emperors. We know more about Jesus from what people said about him, including eyewitnesses who insisted on being eyewitnesses (and some were very insistent they were eyewitnesses of the resurrection, or the empty tomb after the resurrection more precisely). So, I don’t really think there is much of a case for anybody saying “we don’t know about Jesus” or, like some radical German critics at the end of the 19th century, that Jesus wasn’t a historical character. He plainly was a historical character. But, there is a difference of interpretation about his significance.close
Did Jesus really exist?
Richard Burridge outlines the extra-biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus.
JOHN DICKSON: A question we like to put to New Testament specialists (especially ones with a real historical bent like you) is whether Jesus lived at all? Because there is a revival – maybe not amongst historians but amongst some sort of pop-theologians – to say “he never lived at all, we can’t have really any certainty about this”.
RICHARD BURRIDGE: I don’t think there’s any shred of doubt that any serious ancient historian or any serious academic-theologian believes that Jesus existed. These are pop-atheists, the New Atheists, that do come up with this idea that it’s a complete myth. In this period of the end of the first century the three key authors are Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus; all of them have references. In Tacitus’ Annals Book 15, or in Pliny’s letter, or in Suetonius’ Life of the Emperor Claudius – there are references to Jesus in those. It’s there in the writings of Josephus, although precisely how that is to be interpreted can be debated. The fact that all of these things are there is as clear as anybody else from the ancient world, and we have to compare the reliability with the reliability we deal with in the ancient world. The key issue is not Did Jesus exist? – he clearly did – and if he didn’t we would have needed somebody to explain why this movement gets going in the first place and changes the Roman world within a century; that’s a historical fact that requires explanation. And the only possible explanation looks like Jesus, walks like Jesus, talks like Jesus, and therefore probably is Jesus! The really important thing is What’s his significance? – and that’s what the gospels are trying to argue for. What kind of person is this, that the wind and the waves obey?close
Beyond Doubt: Evidence for Jesus’ Existence
Lynn Cohick on why we can be confident that Jesus existed.
JOHN DICKSON: How are you confident at all that the figure of Jesus lived in history?
LYNN COHICK: Well that is a question easy to answer; the answer is he did live. People who have no connection at all with Christianity but are just interested in the history of this time will admit that the evidence that Jesus existed is overwhelming. Not using the gospels or any Christian material at all, but you can turn to Jewish sources of the first century – Josephus for example in his Antiquities Chapter 18 mentions Jesus. Now the text there may be elaborated on by later Christian scribes but most Josephus scholars will say there is a significant amount of that material that flows, it sounds like Josephus. He knew Jesus existed. Then you turn to Roman historians of the first and second century and they mention people who are following this fellow Acrestus who lived at the time of Tiberius and who was executed at that time – those are details that fit so carefully the biography that’s mentioned in the gospels about who Jesus is.
JOHN DICKSON: But some will say these were just interpolated, that someone stuck those paragraphs into Tacitus or Josephus.
LYNN COHICK: Well there’s no reason to stick it into Tacitus, there’d be no benefit to that, and there’d be no reason to put that in. I mean, the church did preserve Josephus, but this text of Josephus flows in the overall argument, so I think that would be stretching and straining credulity. I mean, that’s a vast conspiracy.close
Was Jesus a real historical figure?
Paula Gooder outlines the firm facts we know about the historical Jesus.
JOHN DICKSON: Seven percent of Australians think Jesus didn’t even live…what makes you confident there really was a Jesus?
PAULA GOODER: Well I think there’s very, very strong evidence that Jesus existed. There are many ancient sources that are available from the time of Jesus and also slightly later which, to me, make it very clear that Jesus existed. The two facts about Jesus that most people would accept are historically accurate are that Jesus was baptised by John and that he was crucified. There’s lots in between that people would dispute historically, but those two I would argue would be very firm facts that you can demonstrate from sources that are around at the time of Jesus and just later than him.
JOHN DICKSON: So, do you mean historically, rather than as a theologian, that you’re confident Jesus existed?
PAULA GOODER: Absolutely. You can find sources like the Roman writers Tacitus and Lucian who definitely refer to a person called Jesus who lived in Palestine at the time that we’re talking about who did the kinds of things that are reported in the gospels, so that’s very much a historical answer rather than a theological answer. There’s obviously loads more to say from a theological perspective, but from a simple ancient historical perspective I think we can be confident that Jesus lived, was baptised by John and was crucified.close
- As a class, play this game of ‘Real or Fake’, guessing whether each image is a genuine photo or a fake.
- Was there any answer that particularly surprised you? If so, why?
- Write a number between 1 and 5 to describe how sure you are that Jesus existed; 5 being certain that he did exist, 1 being certain that he did not exist, and 3 being unsure.
Understand & Evaluate
Watch the videos and read the article.
- In small groups, creatively summarise the evidence given in the videos and the article that support the idea that Jesus was a real historical figure. Afterwards, present your summary to the class.
- Discuss in small groups or as a class:
- Why do you think Jesus’ existence is sometimes doubted?
- John Dickson mentions the work of Richard Carrier, who argues that Jesus started out as a religious myth, and then was later written into accounts purporting to be history by the Gospel writers, and because of this people began to think he was a real person. What is John Dickson’s main complaint against Richard Carrier?
- Which piece of evidence about Jesus’ existence do you find most persuasive?
- What other evidence would you like to see for Jesus’ existence?
- Write your answers to the following questions and post them on an online discussion board. Respectfully comment on at least one other student’s answer.
- After evaluating the information from the content you engaged with, do you think Jesus existed? Why or why not?
- Do you think it matters today whether or not Jesus existed? Why or why not?
- Choose one of these ancient writers: Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus, and Lucian. Find out what that particular writer said about Jesus and/or Christians, and write the answer to the following questions:
- What information can we learn from this writer about Jesus?
- Do you consider this writer’s account to be persuasive evidence for Jesus’ existence?