The question of whether or not Jesus was actually born is a “no-brainer” for some. But the truth is, if Jesus actually existed is a serious question in the minds of some. The church’s response to these questions shouldn’t be one of judgment or fear. We are to “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22 ESV), and this is the culture we find ourselves in: one that doubts. So, Christians should be prepared to answer the doubts raised surrounding the historicity of Jesus, especially during a season when so many are focused on Jesus’ birth.
Is radical doubt sound?
Unfortunately, our culture is one in which it is viewed as intelligent and even progressive to doubt so radically. As a former atheist, this writer knows first hand of the smug confidence that comes with so sternly doubting what others seem to readily believe. However, it is time for our culture to doubt its doubt. So often, skeptics doubt only for doubt’s sake. Illogical and irrational doubt is neither progressive nor intelligent. The main flaw with this radical skepticism is inconsistency. Many are unwilling to acknowledge Jesus’ existence in the face of evidence, while accepting more emotionally soothing pseudo-facts without much inspection.
So, the radical doubters must ask themselves: why am I doubting? More often than not, the answer is an emotional one rather than one based on reason. Either way, there is enough evidence to rationally conclude that Jesus was a historical figure. In that endeavor, however, we must keep our search divorced from the strong emotions that can override logic. The historicity of Jesus Christ is not dependent on anyone’s feelings.
Jesus in non-Christian sources
The skeptic might conclude, “the Bible may talk about Jesus, but the authors of the Bible were biased, and believed in Jesus, so of course they wrote of him as if he were real.” But, what if there are writings and records of Jesus outside of the Biblical text? What if some first century non-Christian Roman or Jewish source includes references to Jesus? Would these faithless writers also seek to construct the fictional story of Jesus? —Certainly not. Within many extra-Biblical sources is found evidence for the historicity of Jesus, that is, that Jesus Christ actually existed. These sources are varied and reliable.
The famed Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus wrote in his Annals, “Christus [a Roman spelling of ‘Christ’]… was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius…” (Quoted in McDowell 121). Tacitus was a pagan, and had no reason to fabricate anything pro-Jesus. Likewise, ancient non-Christian historians, writers, philosophers, political leaders, and satirists allude to Christ as an actual historical figure. Some of these include Lucian of Samosata, Seutonius, Pliny the Younger, Thallus, Phlegon, and Mara Bar-Serapion (McDowell 120-123).
In addition to the secular Roman sources alluding to Jesus, there are several Jewish sources as well. One reference to Jesus (Yeshu) is in the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud is comprised of rabbinic sayings and teachings. It includes references to Yeshu the Nazarene (Jesus of Nazareth). The Talmud describes that Jesus was put to death for his crimes, and that he was a deceiver and a sorcerer (McDowell 124). Notice, the Talmud’s teachings do not include that Jesus did not exist, or that he was just a farce. According to the Talmud, Jesus did exist thought he was not the messiah.
Also, the well-known Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews referenced Jesus who was called “the Christ” and did “marvelous deeds.” Josephus added information about the trial of James whom he described as “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” (Quoted in Jackson 11).
It is also important to note that “the earliest enemies of the Christian faith did not deny that Christ actually lived” (Jackson 12). If any skeptic ever had the ability to conclusively declare that Jesus never existed, it was his earliest deniers. Though they distorted evidence to make Jesus the son of a Roman soldier or a sorcerer or a trickster, they never questioned his historicity. Even Lucian of Samosata, dubbed the Voltaire of his generation, never doubted whether or not Jesus existed (Jackson 13). These men who lived shortly after Jesus’ death easily could have come up with evidence for his non-existence if such were the case. But they were not so irrational.
The New Testament record
When the question of Jesus’ historicity is brought up, the New Testament record ought not to be thrown to the wayside. What we have in the New Testament is conclusive evidence of Jesus’ existence. Whether or not one accepts Jesus as Lord, it cannot be rationally concluded that he never existed. The New Testament is essentially a primary source to the existence of Jesus. Over 5,300 copies support the New Testament, dated to within 50-200 years of Jesus’ death (McDowell 38). In this sense, the New Testament is the most historically reliable and supported document in history. In contrast, the second most supported document is Homer’s Iliad with 643 copies, the earliest dated at 400 years after Homer wrote the original (McDowell 38). The New Testament was completed within 60 years of Jesus’ death, and out of the 27 New Testament books, at least 10 were written by personal companions of Jesus—people who followed and knew and touched and saw Jesus.
Overall, there is no rational reason to bow down to modern skepticism regarding the historicity of Jesus. The 1974 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica concludes its section on Jesus Christ thusly, “These independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus.” Indeed, the historicity of Jesus was never doubted until, on “inadequate grounds” it was done so “at the end of the 18th century, during the 19th, and at the beginning of the 20th centuries” (Quoted in McDowell 135). As German historian Adolf von Harnack declared, the historicity of Jesus is “far beyond the power of men to invent” (Quoted in Jackson 9). Jesus was indeed actually born. He lived a life of love and service, was put to death unjustly, and rose again on the third day. The evidence is sufficient; it needs only to be accepted.
Jackson, Wayne. Jesus Christ The Master Teacher. Christian Courier Publications, 2013.
McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. Thomas Nelson, 1999.