Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Did Jesus Christ Actually Exist?

I have noticed that many people actually hold to the belief that Jesus Christ never existed. While I am surprised that people hold this view, I do understand that it needs to be addressed. The existence of Jesus is obviously extremely important in regards to Christianity and history itself. I hope that after reading this you will also look for more information of the facts concerning the life of a carpenter from a small village in Israel who changed the world as we know it. I will start with a quote:

"Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty, and then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself... While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against Him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went thought the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While he was dying His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth - His coat. When He was dead, He was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen long centuries have come and gone, and today He is the centerpiece of the human race and the leader of the column of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever were built, all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life." - Anonymous

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." - John 1:1

Now, many things were said in that quote. Many who read that will say, "That quote is irrelevant because it's based on unsupported presuppositions and about a person who never existed." This is the basis for this post. Did Jesus actually exist? And if He did, can we really know what He was like when He was on this earth?

First, did Jesus exist? Many will find this question absurd. Many will be adamant that He either did, or did not, exist. But often times when I come across someone who does not believe that Jesus existed they won't have an answer to justify their beliefs. This is a very important belief which, in my opinion, demands justification. People often tell me that you can't know history or that Jesus was a fabrication of the Church centuries after the supposed events took place. Hopefully this post will clear up any questions concerning the existence of Jesus. And please feel completely free to raise any questions that you have!!!
Let us look at the historical evidence concerning the life of Jesus Christ. I will use the New Testament Gospels, the New Testament Epistles, historical writings from the 1st and 2nd centuries, and also books that were not included in the New Testament. The reason I am using the New Testament Gospels is because they are historically reliable. You have to understand that when the Gospels were written, they were written separately. The New Testament wasn't written as a book. The letters were put together later and became what we know as the New Testament. This is important to remember because when the Gospels were written they were written as letters. All four of the writers, independently, wrote about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. I will use the New Testament Epistles because they were written even earlier than the Gospels and were written by a former self-proclaimed enemy of Christianity, Paul, who was formally called Saul of Tarsus. He was a devout Jew who persecuted the early Christians and came to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior through a personal encounter with the risen Lord. There is no other reasonable reason why Paul would convert from his lifelong faith in Judaism to Christianity if he did not have an experience with a real person. And he wouldn't likely be persecuting Christians if Jesus Christ didn't even exist. Christianity started in Israel. The Gospel writers couldn't have written and talked about a fictional character and gotten that many followers in the very same area that they were claiming Jesus lived and did miracles and rose from the dead. Philosophically, if Jesus never existed then why would the apostles suffer and die for something they knew to be a lie? It doesn't make any sense. They wouldn't gain anything from creating a religion and sticking to it through persecution and death if it was based on a fictional person.
I would say that one would be hard pressed to find any knowledgeable person today that doesn't believe that Jesus Christ existed. Even the American revolutionary Thomas Paine never questioned the existence of Jesus Christ. Thomas Paine hated Christianity and held it and it's followers in utter disdain and contempt. Even so, Paine wrote, "He (Jesus Christ) was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before; by the Quakers since; and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any." When I come across people who deny the existence of Jesus I just show them that their belief is not justified by any relevant evidence. When people do their homework on Jesus they will discover what F.F. Bruce, who is a professor of biblical criticism and exegesis at the University of Manchester, discovered. Writes Bruce, "Some writers may toy with the fancy of a "Christ-myth," but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the 'Christ-myth' theories." And F.F. Bruce is definitely not alone.
Otto Betz writes, "No serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus." In response to those who deny the existence of Jesus, British New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall states, "It is not possible to explain the rise of the Christian church or the writing of the Gospels and the stream of tradition that lies behind them without accepting the fact that the Founder of Christianity actually existed." I am aware that just stating what authoritative figures have to say isn't sufficient, but it is, in my mind, extremely useful. The views of New Testament scholars (by the way, N.T. scholars aren't only Christians. There are atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, etc., who are New Testament scholars) are important to look at with regards to the existence of Jesus because they study the books written about Him. Now, on to the evidence!
I will start with the evidences from non-Christian sources. Cornelius Tacitus (c. A.D. 55-120) was a Roman historian who lived through the reign of 12 different Roman Emperors and was called the "greatest historian" of ancient Rome and was known for his moral integrity and essential goodness. His most popular works are the Annals and the Histories. The Annals cover the period from Augustus's death in A.D. 14 to the death of Nero in A.D. 68. The Histories begin after the death of Nero and proceed to that of Domitian in A.D. 96. While writing about the reign of Nero, Tacitus alludes to the death of Christ and to the existence of Christians in Rome. By showing that Christians were in Rome around 30 years after the death of Jesus (A.D. 33) gives evidence to the fact that Christianity was spreading rapidly, having started in Israel and spreading all the way to Rome within a matter of three decades. One thing to note is that Tacitus, along with many other pagan writers, spelled Christ as "Christus." Here is what Tacitus had to say, "But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince 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 the enormities. Christus (Christ), their founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition (most probable, the belief in the resurrection of Jesus), repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also." F.F. Bruce points out that Tacitus is the only pagan writer who mentions Pontius Pilate and says, "And it may be regarded as an instance of the irony of history that the only surviving reference to him (Pilate) in a pagan writer mentions him because of the sentence of death which he passed upon Christ." So from Tacitus we have evidence that Jesus, in fact, existed, was crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, that Christians were in Rome worshipping Jesus as God, and maybe even an allusion to Christ's resurrection.
Another ancient piece of evidence we have is from Lucian of Samosata, who was a Greek satirist in the latter half of the 2nd century (around 160 A.D.). He spoke scornfully of Christ and of Christians but never assumed or argued that Jesus never existed. Lucian wrote, "The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day - the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account... You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws." This is another important piece of evidence in the search for the historical Jesus. We see by Lucian's writings that Christians were in Greece in the latter part of the 2nd Century, that they worshiped Jesus, who was crucified, that Christians were willing to give up their life for their belief in Jesus as God and that they denied to gods of Greece. It is also important to note that Lucian says that Jesus was crucified on the account of His novel rites.
Suetonius, a Roman historian, also speaks of Christ. He writes in his work Life of Claudius, "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (another misspelling of Christ), he (Claudius) expelled them from Rome." Luke, the writer of the Gospel of Luke and Acts refers to this event in Acts 18:2, which took place in A.D. 49. Again, we see historical evidence for Christ's existence.
Pliny the Younger, who was governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor in A.D. 112 wrote to the emperor Trajan to find out how to deal with Christians. He explained to Trajan that he had been killing men, women, and children and that so many were being put to death that he wondered if he should continue killing every Christian he found or only certain ones. Pliny goes on to tell Trajan that he "made them curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do." In the same letter Pliny says, "They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, but never commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up."
One of my favorite ancient works which talks about Jesus is from Thallus. Thallus wrote around A.D. 52 about Christ and also the darkness that the Gospels talk about at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. Thallus' works now only exist in fragments but Julius Africanus writes about Thallus in his work Chronography. Wrote Africanus," Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun - unreasonably, as it seems to me (unreasonably, of course, because a solar eclipse could not take place at the time of the full moon, and it was at the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died.)" The text in parentheses is original to Africanus' writing and was not added by me. Interestingly, another secular historian wrote of the same eclipse. Phlegon confirms that darkness came upon the earth at the same time as Jesus' crucifixion and he too explains it as a solar eclipse!
Mara Bar-Serapion was a Syrian and most likely was a Stoic philosopher. Writing a letter from prison to his son he said, "What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished (the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70)... Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good, He lived on in the teaching which He had given." The capitalization of King and Him, in reference to Jesus, was original to Ber-Serapion's writings.
Now I would like to move away from pagan writings and focus on Jewish references of Jesus. And when I say pagan I'm not using it as an insult, just a description based on the writers religion. The first Jewish reference I will cite is from the Babylonian Talmud. "It has been taught: On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshua. And an announcer went out, in front of him, for forty days (saying): 'He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery and enticed and let Israel astray. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and plead in his behalf.' But, not having found anything in his favor, they hanged him on the eve of Passover." Another version of this text says, "Yeshu the Nazerene." The word "hanged" used in this passage is a common expression of crucifixion and is found in Luke 23:39 and Galatians 3:13. Also, in this text it says that Jesus was crucified "on the eve of Passover", just as John 19:14 states. Following this Jewish text there is a comment by Ammora, 'Ulla, which states: "Would you believe that any defence would have been so zealously sought for him? He was a deceiver, and the All-merciful says: 'You shall not spare him, neither shall you conceal him.' It was different with Jesus, for he was near to the kingship." That last phrase most likely refers to Jesus' genealogical descent from Israel's King David.
There is also evidence of the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin. He is referred to in the Talmud with the titles "Ben Pandera (or 'Ben Pantere') and "Jeshu ben Pandera". Many scholars agree that pandera is a play on words with the Greek word for virgin, which is parthenos. Joseph Klausner, a Jewish scholar, says, "The Jews constantly heard that the Christians (the majority of whom spoke Greek from the earliest times) called Jesus by the name 'Son of the Virgin,'... and so, in mockery, they called him Ben ha-Pantera, i.e., 'son of the leopard.'"
We also have the testimonies of Josephus. Although the passage about Jesus has created rigorous debate among scholars, it is still worth mentioning. I will talk about the debate after we read the passage. It says, " Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day." The italicized parts of the passage indicate the debated parts of the passage. Many think that a Christian copyist added those phrases into Josephus' work. But when you take out everything that's italicized you still have much information about Jesus. This is not the only passage about Jesus that Josephus writes. In his work Antiquities, Josephus says, "But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned." As Josh McDowell has written, "So even the great first-century Jewish historian Josephus, writing just a little more than half a century after Jesus' life and crucifixion, attests to the truth that Jesus was not a figment of the church's imagination but a real historical figure."
I could also go into the pre-New Testament creedal confessions (which i will in a later post) but for time's sake I will move on to the Church Fathers. The reason for mentioning the early Church Fathers is that their writings came before the 4th century and provide clearer evidence that Jesus was not a mythical figure made up later in history.
Clement of Rome was the bishop of the church at Rome toward the end of the first century. The passage by Clement of Rome affirms that the gospel message came from the historical Jesus. Clement writes in his letter Corinthians (not to be confused with the letters written by Paul), "The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. So then Christ is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ. Both therefore came of the will of God in the appointed order. having therefore received a charge, and having been fully assured through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and confirmed in the word of God with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth with the glad tidings that the kingdom of God should come." Keep in mind that this passage was written by a Roman Christian before 100 A.D. He talks about a historical person, Jesus, being the original giver of the gospel message and that He had apostles who went forth proclaiming His resurrection from the dead.
We also have the writings of Ignatius, a disciple of Peter, Paul, and John. On his way to his own execution in Rome, Ignatius, who was the bishop of Antioch, wrote a total of seven letters to his friend Polycarp. There are three references to the historical Jesus that are especially pertinant. The first is from Trallians, "Jesus Christ who was of the race of David, who was the Son of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and on earth and those under the earth; who moreover was truly raised from the dead, His Father having raised Him, who in like fashion will so raise us also who believe on Him." The second important passage comes from his writing entitled Smyrneans. In it Ignatius writes, "He is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, but Son of God by the Divine will and power, truly born of a virgin and baptized by John that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him, truly nailed up in the flesh for our sakes under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch (of which fruit are we - that is, of His most blessed passion); that He might set up an ensign unto all ages through His resurrection." Again, keep in mind that his letters were written very close to the time of Jesus. You can see that he believed Jesus was God and that Jesus was raised from the dead, which is important because many skeptics say that Jesus was deified later by the church, which is not the case at all. The third passage from Ignatius comes from Magnesians. "Be ye fully persuaded concerning the birth and the passion and the resurrection, which took place in the time of the governorship of Pontius Pilate; for these things were truly and certainly done by Jesus Christ our hope." We can see that Ignatius was obviously convinced that Jesus Christ was a real, historical person. To save time I will just name the rest of the early Church Fathers who wrote before the 3rd Century. There was Quadratus, who was a disciple of the Apostles and the bishop of the church at Athens. There was the Epistle of Barnabas which was written between 130-138 A.D. and talks about Jesus Christ. Then we come to Aristides who was a second-century Christian apologist and philosopher from Athens. We have Justin Martyr who is considered one of the greatest apologists of early Christianity. Then we also have Hegesippus, who was a Jew who went on a journey to discover the truth about Jesus of Nazereth and became a Christian because of his findings.
It is also worth noting additional secular sources who talk about Jesus. The Roman emperor Trajan talks about Jesus and Christianity. Macrobius, in his work Saturnalia writes a quote from Augustus Caesar about the slaughter of the babes of Bethlehem when Jesus was born. The Roman emperors Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius also talk about Christians and Jesus. Juvenal, Seneca and Hierocles also talk about Jesus and His followers.
In conclusion, I will cite Howard Clark Kee, professor emeritus at Boston University, talking about the sources outside the New Testament which mention Jesus. Kee writes, "The result of the examination of the sources outside the New Testament that bear directly or indirectly on our knowledge of Jesus is to confim his historical existence, his unusual powers, the devotion of his followers, the continued existence of the movement after his death at the hands of the Roman governor in Jerusalem, and the penetration of Christianity into the upper strata of society in Rome itself by the later first century."
Hopefully this has been helpful for anyone doubting the existence of Jesus Christ. It is obvious to me, and probably all New Testament scholars and first century historians, that Jesus Christ did, in fact, exist. Please feel free to leave your comments and objections and I will be more than happy to dialogue with you. Thank you so much for spending time searching for the truth.

-Joel Varner


beone070 said...

Pilate said to Jesus, "What is truth?" Never realizing that TRUTH stood before him battered and torn.....
Good start Son....cant wait to see what follows..

Joel Varner said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm going to do an article about truth because so many people don't believe you can know it. Post-modernism has reduced everything to relativism, which is ridiculous because then their post-modern views would be relative. Saying "truth is relative" is self-contradicting. All you have to say in response is, "is that a relative statement?"

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Joel Varner said...

Thank you Chad! Hopefully you will be back soon, I recently posted another article and would like to get some feedback.