Did Jesus even exist?

by Marilyn Stewart, Correspondent |
Actor Jim Caviezel portrayed Jesus in Mel Gibson's film 'The Passion of The Christ,' a 2004 drama about the life and ministry of the Christ as well as his trial, crucifixion and resurrection. | Screen capture from the movie Passion

NEW ORLEANS (Christian Examiner) -- Did Jesus exist? Outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins suggested in his bestselling book "The God Delusion" that Jesus never lived. Other contemporary sources, such as the popular online movie Zeitgeist, mirror the claim.

But not every secularist, atheist and agnostic agrees.

Indeed, a surprising source defends Christians' claims about the existence of Jesus.

Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who says he is "both an atheist (about what I believe) and an agnostic (about what I know)," uses the historical method as well as sources as early as the decade after the crucifixion in his book "Did Jesus Exist?" to show that Jesus did indeed live.

Ehrman, the James A. Gray distinguished professor of religious studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of numerous books on textual criticism that also portray Jesus as a figure of legend rather than God the Son.

However, in "Did Jesus Exist?" Ehrman presents a host of biblical and extra-biblical sources to make the case Jesus lived. He writes, "Together all of these sources combine to make a powerful argument that Jesus was not simply invented but that he existed as a historical person in Palestine."

In the book, Ehrman contends:

  • Scholars are "almost universally agreed" that Jesus lived in first century Palestine and was crucified by a prefect of Judea.
  • Independent accounts are needed for corroboration and counts 7 independent narratives within a hundred years of Jesus' death: the four canonical Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter and the Papyrus Egerton 2.
  • Other independent "witnesses" Ehrman points to are Paul's letters; the speeches in Acts containing material that predates Paul's writings; Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation, all books by different authors; and the writings of three early church fathers.
  • Each written record relies on earlier written records or oral traditions that circulated among Christian communities. Ehrman stresses that certain Aramaic phrases in the Gospels dates the information to early first century Palestine, soon after the crucifixion, and corroborates aspects of the Gospel traditions. He notes that Paul's knowledge of Jesus appears to go back also to the early 30s.

These biblical or Christian sources are one part of the evidence supporting historians' conclusion that Jesus is an historical figure, Ehrman concludes.

Gary R. Habermas, noted Resurrection scholar and distinguished professor and chair of philosophy and theology, Liberty University, agrees that the evidence for Jesus' existence is credible and examines extra-biblical sources in his book "The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ."

"We have more than a dozen ancient, non-Christian sources within approximately 150 years of Jesus' death by crucifixion," Habermas said in an email interview. "Although most of these are quite brief, they total more than 50 different details regarding Jesus Christ and early Christianity. This is a surprising quantity of data, including a broad outline of many major facets of Jesus' life from secular texts alone, including even supernatural reports."

Those sources, referenced in a number of works, include non-Christian historians, philosophers and scholars who document different details confirming various biblical accounts about the life of Christ.

  • Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus lived during the rule of more than a half-dozen Roman emperors from 55-120 A.D. and wrote two historical volumes. The "Annals" covers the time from the death of Augustus to the time of Nero, and "Histories" picks up from there until the time of Domitian. Tacitus confirms the existence of Jesus, his death at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and makes an apparent reference to Christ's resurrection.

"But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the price could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also." (Annals XV, 44)

  • Phlegon was a first century Greek historian who indirectly corroborated the three hours of darkness and the earthquake associated with Christ's crucifixion as recorded in the New Testament. In his work "Olympiades," he fixes these events to a time frame that brackets 33 A.D.

"In the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad, there was a great eclipse of the Sun, greater than had ever been known before, for at the sixth hour the day was changed into night, and the stars were seen in the heavens. An earthquake occurred in Bythinia and overthrew a great part of the city of Nicæa."

  • Even Jewish sources acknowledge Jesus' existence. The Babylonian Talmud, which includes case law and commentaries about the Torah (the five books of Moses), rebuts claims about his virgin birth but notes Mary's lineage and Joseph's vocation.

"R. Shimeon ben Azzai said [concerning Jesus]: 'I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress'". (b.Yebamoth 49a; m Yebam. 4:13)

About Mary and Joseph: "who was the descendant of princes and governors, played the harlot with carpenters" (b. Sanh. 106a)

During a 2012 lecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Habermas said the growing historical evidence has reformed a lot of skeptics. causing some even to accept that Jesus was buried and rose from the grave.

"A lot of things have happened in resurrection studies during the last 30 years," he said.

During the 1970s, evangelicals accepted the notion of an empty tomb, the resurrection and post-crucifixion appearances by Christ, but skeptics simply laughed. Times have changed, he said.

"Today, the majority of New Testament scholars, theologians, historians and philosophers who publish in the area believe in the empty tomb," Habermas explained. "Almost two-thirds."

"Today, bodily resurrection is the predominate view in the academy."

Ehrman does not go that far, but he told NPR he approached the question "as an historian" and the historical evidence is overwhelming that Jesus did exist. A conclusion widely accepted among scholars of all faiths he said.

Moreover, in that 2012 interview, he said those who claim Jesus is a myth miss an important point: if someone invented Jesus, they would not have created a messiah who was so easily overcome.

"The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies – and so if you're going to make up a messiah, you'd make up a powerful messiah," he says. "You wouldn't make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and then killed by the enemies."

Ehrman emphasized his only relationship with Jesus is as a "historical" subject of research. Still, he said Jesus teaches valuable lessons.

"Jesus' teachings of love, and mercy and forgiveness, I think, really should dominate our lives," he said. "On the personal level, I agree with many of the ethical teachings of Jesus and I try to model my life on them, even though I don't agree with the apocalyptic framework in which they were put."