Did Jesus Exist?
Summary: The existence of Jesus has lately become a hotly debate issue throughout the atheist net. Increasingly, skeptics are arguing that the Catholic Church simply invented the Christian religion. Was the Roman Empire, under Constantine, truly responsible for gendering Jesus? In this article, apologist, Ben Fischer explains why Jesus of Nazareth most certainly existed. To sign-up for our emails, click here.
In his influential book, Cur Deus Homo, medieval Christian thinker, Saint Anselm, recorded the following: “The God man himself originates the New Testament…. and, as we must acknowledge him to be true, so no one can dissent from anything contained in these books.” (Anselm, 2.22)
The now historic treatise, written in the eleventh century, sought to answer the question of why God became a man. The monumental work singularly opened a fresh new chapter in Christian thought on Christ’s atonement. Drawing from the tools of logical reasoning, Anselm persuasively argued that the scriptures may be trusted, showing that so long as the incarnation was necessary, the Old and New Testaments were inescapably true.
Quoting from the volume, an alleged critique commented: “All things you have said seem to me reasonable and incontrovertible. And by the solution of the single question [you have] proposed, do I see the truth of all that is contained in the Old and New Testaments.” He then admitted: “you convince both Jews and pagans by the mere force of reason [alone].” (Anselm, 2.22) In this way, Saint Anselm sought to demonstrate that the full content of scripture was doubtlessly conclusive.
Anselm’s iconic argument was influential in his day. Indeed, few gospel spokesman had authored such an intrepid case. But with the dawn of the present era, new arguments have arisen, with some modern dissenters holding that Jesus never existed. Hence former president of the national organization, American Atheists, Frank Zindler, popularly claims that Jesus was a myth. And world renowned atheist, Richard Dawkins, has also stated: “A serious case can be made that Jesus never lived at all.” (Dawkins, 2006, 97)
What then are Christians to think of such assertions? Are these sorts of statements truly rooted in fact? Or, is it possible that the Church's one foundation is situated on little else but the babbling’s of a few credulous, albeit, well-meaning fishermen? For most Bible-believers, the existence of Jesus is settled historically from the scriptures. Sadly, most objectors argue further proof is needed—a move which for the biblically persuaded is categorically verboten.
The Myth of the Mythical Jesus
Some time ago, I was challenged with these issues. (One simply cannot avoid them in the work of modern evangelism.) I had recently uploaded a video to our ministry’s youtube channel and had begun to turn my attention to other important ministry duties. Within the space of an hour, an impressive list of questions were delivered, by atheists, all responding to my post. Judging from the comments, it appeared that most of my viewers seemed to regard the gospels texts as, loosely speaking, “a-historical.”
“No purported history confirming miracles can be trusted,” one commented. “Stories about ‘magic’ are the work of whim and fancy!” “We should no more believe in the existence of unicorns than in the existence of a man of such rare and miraculous abilities!” Others sternly argued that the history of Jesus is entirely comprised of religious propaganda. Together, all held that the gospels falsely claim to be independently written and are therefore un-objective.
Reading through the comments, I immediately understood them. For these sorts of grievances are common in our culture. Owing largely to the rise of modern anti-supernaturalism, society has slowly come to treat the gospels as “fable.” Additionally, further doubt has surfaced regarding the fuller scope of scripture history itself—a development which has lead some scholars to conjecture that the edifice of the Christian faith is once again collapsing. (see Price, 2003, 10)
Assessing the various charges, I fashioned my reply. I sought to provide an answer showing the reason for my reposal. For the deeper problem behind such confused allegations is that the notion that Jesus never existed literally has no antecedent. As noted atheist Bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, has written: “The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. It was made up in the eighteenth century. One might well call it a modern myth, the myth of the mythical Jesus.” (Ehrman, 2013, 96)
Knowing this to be true, I busily set myself to typing. I offered my defense for the historical Jesus. For when it comes to assessing various anti-Christian charges, few other claims manage to appear so plainly mistaken. Again, Bart Ehrman writes: “Not even [those] who attacked Christianity … entertained the thought he never existed.” (Ehrman, 2013, 96) What then of the plethora of comments which lay before me? It appeared that my objectors were simply ill-informed of their own position.
The Gospel Evidence
I therefore framed my argument by pointing to our principal sources: The surviving gospel texts and the written traditions behind them. For if Jesus never existed, as some author’s claim, how is it that today we seem to know so much about him? Indeed, the independent character of our biblical histories would be one of the clearest strikes against these modern proposals. Those who argue otherwise have only succeeded in becoming helpless to account for the curious rise of our biblical sources.
Unfortunately, skeptics often fail to properly acknowledge this. Many have chosen to favor a more conspiratol explanation. Declining to admit that our biblical sources are independent, many now argue that the gospels writers colluded. Hence Luke drew from Matthew, while Matthew copied from Mark. John then later drafted his gospel inspired by their traditions. In this way, it is contended that Mark is our only source, leaving us with but a single unaided witness to Jesus’ existence.
But do such theories truly explain away the evidence? Is the existence of Jesus as debatable as that? Skeptics who answer yes have essentially contended that Mark is the sole begetter of the “Christ-myth-fable.” On this account, the Christian faith is effectively plundered and is virtually robbed of its historical significance. The truth of the matter, however, is that the biblical evidence shows that our four gospel authors were in fact, independent.
To illustrate this point, take our account of Easter morning. Precisely how many women visited the garden on that day? The gospel of Luke specifically mentions three women, along with a larger group who apparently also went. (see Lk 24:10) Yet oddly enough, the gospel of John adversely reports: “on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came…” (see Jn 20:1) The text then mentions that after seeing the empty tomb, she alone ran and told the other disciples that Jesus was missing. (see vs. 2)
The question thus arises: How many women were there? Precisely who was it that visited the garden that day? The skeptic would do well to acknowledge that the answer would apparently depend on which gospel we happen to be reading. Thus according to the gospel of Luke, the greater number is undisclosed, while in the gospel of John, only Mary Magdalene is named. It would therefore appear that our gospels differ on the number of women in the garden who were witness to Jesus that day.
This point alone would be a strike against collusion. For if John and Luke conspired, why isn’t the number of women the same? In fact, atheist scholars, the likes of Bart Ehrman, have readily admitted that this is a sign of literary independence. Hence, Luke and John are clearly recalling the same event, while also telling the story in markedly different ways. It cannot therefore be that Mark is our only source. The other writers, as well, authored independent histories.
Sadly, in response, my critics were unaccepting. Many attempted to argue for alternative reasons for doubt. Examples like the gospels often reorder key events were thrown out as a reasonable grounds for unbelief. But varying descriptions of the same historical event do not necessarily show a given account is unreliable. In fact, such discrepancies could serve to prove the opposite point; namely—that our gospel sources are drawing from the same traditions.
Looking again to John’s gospel, we find this point illumined. Mary Magdalene arrived to where the disciples were fearfully hiding. John records her words: “They have taken the Lord … and we do not know where they have laid him.” (Jn 20:2; emphasis added) Here we see that John appeared to know that Mary Magdalene was not alone in the garden on that day. For he recalls her greeting with the telling phrase: “we do not know.” It would seem that Luke and John were thus in touch with the same tradition.
In light of these various issues, Professor Bart Ehrman concludes: “it is quite wrong to argue that Mark is our only independent witness. The other [gospel] accounts are completely or partially independent as well.” (Ehrman, 2013, 78) He therefore emphasizes: “I have repeatedly stressed that a tradition appearing in multiple independent sources has a greater likelihood of being [historical].” (Ehrman, 2013, 290) It would thus appear that this common skeptic charge is henceforth baseless.
I therefore pressed my atheist viewers hard on this point. I sought to advocate for a more conservative position. For the fact that the four gospels often narrate the same stories does not negate the truth of their literary independence. Nor is it the case that it is impossible to distinguish sources that collude from those that merely share the same tradition. The gospels therefore seem to corroborate Jesus’ story—a point which at the very least would surely prove that he existed.
Finally, we consider various untutored assertions to the contrary—for example: Richard Dawkins’ claim that Jesus never existed. Here the world’s “most famous atheist” cites G.A. Wells for supposedly “debunking” Jesus’ existence. (see Dawkins, 2006, 97) Unfortunately, two problems loom behind his claim, which together make it wholly impossible to trust. In fact, one of the problems would appear to flatly demonstrate that the “Christ-myth” argument is steeped in misinformation.
Hence the first major problem would be that Wells’ views have been misstated. He simply no longer holds to his previously held position. For reasons that we are now only free to speculate, Dawkins has (deliberately?) cited long-outdated information. Returning to Bart Ehrman, the atheist scholar confirms that professor G.A. Wells has now admitted to Jesus’ existence. (Ehrman, 2013, 241) Consequently, Wells himself would probably disagree with Dawkins’ citation. So much for tall claims to proof of Jesus’ non-existence!
Secondarily, however (and perhaps more pertinently) Wells is no authority on the subject of ancient history. His comments are rather delivered as a European professor of German linguistics out of Birkbeck University. Thus his one-time claim to Jesus’ nonexistence, was, in all likelihood, due to professional inexperience. Since the late 1990’s, however, Wells has corrected his views. He now no longer holds to a “mythical-Jesus” position.
For this reason, professor Ehrman rightly judges that atheist claims like these should be relegated to the cottage industry. For he writes: “We are talking about a large number of sources, dispersed over a remarkably broad geographic expanse.” He therefore ends by questioning: “On the basis of this evidence alone, it is hard to understand how Jesus could have been ‘invented.’ Invented by whom? Where? When? How then could there be so many independent strands of evidence?” (Ehrman, 2013, 171)
In conclusion, Christians today can boldly claim that Jesus Christ existed because “the Bible tells it so.” No further reason is ultimately necessary, since the existence of Jesus is so plentifully attested. Thus the four biblical gospels, unaided by other proofs, are completely adequate to settle this nagging issue. The only remaining question is: Will our atheist friends at long last decisively come to grips with Jesus’ existence?
This Easter season, may you be bold as you put your faith and trust in Jesus’ resurrection. And may you, by your example, cause others to take interest in the simple gospel message. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Anselm, Cur Deus homo
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Bantam Press, Great Britain, 2006)
Robert Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man (Prometheus Books, Amherst, 2003).
Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument For Jesus of Nazareth (Harper Collins Publishing, New York, 2013).