Does History Demonstrate that Jesus Existed? – Evidence for Easter Part 1
Easter is a special time when the interest about Jesus and his death, burial, and resurrection is piqued for many. There are lots of people who share opinions. But few share the facts. This is the first of three posts giving facts about Jesus and his death, burial, and resurrection.
Why are the facts important? Don’t Christians just accept Jesus by blind faith?
No. The Bible never commends blind faith.
Instead, the Bible commends the use of our minds and good reason. The Bible records that Jesus was once asked how to inherit eternal life. As you read Jesus’ answer, ask yourself: How does this apply to using our minds?
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28).
When Jesus tells us that to inherit eternal life, we must love God, Jesus describes a love that is holistic. He describes four different ways to love God—with one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind.
We must use our minds.
As part of a holistic approach, the Bible tells us that the use of reason and factual thinking is important. The Bible has an ancient proverb that helps us on this point. It describes building a life using the analogy of a house. As we build a house, so we build our lives. It describes the use of reason as key to proper building.
By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established (Proverbs 24:3).
So in this three-part series, we want to remind everyone of the importance of the mind and the question of factual truth.
The first question we want to consider is focused on the factual basis of Jesus’ existence. We want to honestly ask, “Was Jesus a real person in history?” “Do we have good reason to believe that the things the Bible describes actually happened?” “What facts do we know, independent of the Bible, that show us whether or not the core events of Jesus’ life described in the Bible are true?”
These important questions call us beyond the Bible to seek additional sources of information. The Bible is the earliest and best attested source of information about Jesus, but it is not the only source. And it is easy for the unconvinced to discount it as prejudiced.
The popular archaeology journal The Biblical Archaeology Review featured an important article with a title that asked the question, “Did Jesus Exist: Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible?”[i] In the article, Lawrence Mykytiuk summarizes the evidence about Jesus from sources outside the Bible. It may be surprising to know that numerous ancient and non-Christian historians like Josephus and Tacitus tell us about Jesus as a historical person. It is a good, scholarly article, and it succinctly addresses a question many people want to know.
Again, this is information that is NOT found in the Bible, but from other, secular sources.
Here is what they tell us about Jesus:
- He existed as a man.
- His personal name was Jesus.
- He was calledChristos in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah.
- He had a brother named James.
- He won over both Jews and Greeks.
- Jewish leaders of the day expressed unfavorable opinions about him.
- Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed.
- His execution was specifically by crucifixion.
- He was executed during Pontius Pilate’s governorship over Judea(26-36 AD).
One of the world’s leading experts on Jesus and his kingdom today is N.T. Wright, a scholar respected by believers and non-believers alike. Wright summarizes the scholarly consensus about Jesus among historians: “Jesus’ life, his announcement of God’s kingdom, his radical re-definition of that kingdom, and his death on a Roman cross—we can be certain of all that. Few serious historians of any background or belief would deny those facts.”[ii]
So not only do the facts of history—apart from the Bible—factually demonstrate that Jesus existed. They also demonstrate that the major elements of his life are grounded in historical reality. This is a good place to start.
In the next article we will look for the same kind of historical evidence regarding two participants in Jesus’ death.
[i] Lawrence Mykytiuk, “Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible,” Biblical Archaeology Review (January/February 2015): 45-51, 76.
[ii] N.T. Wright, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes It Good (Harper One, 2015), 58-59.