Many atheists attempt to lodge the radical assertion that Jesus of Nazareth never even existed. They want to reduce everything about Christian theology to pure mythology, so to not allow a divine foot in the door. To that end, they attempt to say that Jesus of Nazareth was a completely made up characters and there is no evidence that he even existed. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of secular, historical scholars disagree with this claim. There are several reasons that Jesus existed.
1 – The testimony of the church fathers proves that the New Testament manuscripts were prior to 100 AD. The church fathers wrote about Jesus of Nazareth and the gospel accounts prior to, and shortly after, 100 AD. Writing from Rome in 95 AD, Clement quoted Matthew, Luke, Romans, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter. There were numerous from Ignatius and Polycarp as well. Indeed, when Polycarp was martyred in 155 AD, he said, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong.” [Staniforth, Maxwell, trans. Early Christian Writings London: Penguin Books (1987): 115.]
2 – There are many 1st and 2nd century sources referring to Jesus. Just to illustrate what is usually required to establish the existence of a historical figure: the only data that we have of Socrates’ life is the testimony of Plato, Xenophane and Aristophanes. There are 10 sources within 150 years after his death for Tiberius Ceasar, who was the Roman emperor during the life of Jesus. There are 43 sources for Jesus of Nazareth. There are 10 for the emperor, and 43 for Jesus. Among those 43, 10 are non-Christian. They include: Josephus (historian), Tacitus (historian), Pliny the Younger, Plegon, Thallus (first century historian), Seutonius (Roman historian), Lucian, Celsus, Mara-bar Serapion, and the Jewish Talmud. For a complete list, see: The Historical Jesus by Gary Habernas, chapter 9.
3 – The testimony of Josephus. As indicated above, many of the sources who wrote about Jesus of Nazareth were historians, including Josephus. In response, many denialists will try to say that Josephus was not a contemporary of Jesus. That is true. But that is just the nature of a historians’ work. A historian does not have to be a contemporary of those who he has written about. It is also true that his passage about Jesus was a digression – but that is just the nature of Jewish literature. They often digress (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? page 62). Perhaps it could be argued that later Christian scribes edited what he said to include his claim of Christian faith. But it cannot be said that this was an outright fabrication. There is no evidence to suggest that.
4 – The destruction of Jerusalem proves that the New Testament manuscripts were prior to 70 AD. Suppose you read a book documenting the history of the World Trade Center. When the book ended, the towers were standing tall. You could only conclude that this was written before 9/11/2001. Otherwise it most certainly would have included the terrorist attacks. Similarly, suppose you are a first-century Jew. Jerusalem is your homeland; the center of your religion, the tradition carried on by your fathers, harboring the very temple built by Solomon and indwelled by God himself. A man named Jesus tells you that this city will be absolutely destroyed (Luke 13:34-35, 19:41-44). Then, it turns out that he was right. If you were to write a biography of Jesus, you would absolutely include the destruction of Jerusalem. Since the gospels did not, we can conclude that they were penned no later than 70 AD at the destruction of Jerusalem.
5 – The oral tradition about Jesus goes back to some point during the AD 30’s. In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:3-8), Paul the apostle recited a Rabbinic custom for passing on an oral tradition. He writes, “what I delivered to you… I received…” followed by the four line oral tradition that Christ died, was buried, rose, and appeared. From whom did he receive this? He wrote in his letter to the Galatians (1:18-29), three years after Jesus’ death, he went up to Jerusalem and stayed with Peter and James for two weeks. It was there that he learned the oral tradition. Thus the oral tradition that Jesus Christ died, was buried, rose again and appeared to many, goes back to 36 AD at the latest.
6 – The testimony was embarrassing to the disciples. One of the tests of historicity is whether a persons’ testimony embarrassed them. If it did, it is unlikely that they are making up a story. If they were fabricating a story, they would leave out details that embarrassed them. The apostles were called dim-witted (Mark 9:32, Luke 18:34, John 12:16). They are uncaring (Mark 14:32-41). Peter is called Satan (Mark 8:33). They are cowards (Mark 26:33-35). They are doubters (John 2:18-22, Matthew 12:39-41, Matthew 28:17. [Frank Turek, Norm Geisler, I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, page 276].
7 – Jesus said things that the disciples would not have made up. Jesus said, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) If the disciples were really trying to fabricate a religion that would appeal to men, they absolutely would not include such a taxing command. He told men that he alone was the absolute revelation of God and the only way to the Father (John 14:6), that they have to love him even more than they love their families (Matthew 10:37). He attacked the tradition that the Jews loved so much (Mark 7:13). If the disciples were going to make up a religion, they would not put these words in Jesus’ mouth. I went into more detail in my article 5 Sayings Of Jesus That The Disciples Would Not Have Made Up.
8 – The disciples went to their death proclaiming the truth of Jesus of Nazareth. It is true that many people will die for a lie. Muslims die for a lie all of the time. But the difference is that if these Muslims knew that Islam was a lie, they would not die for it. The apostles were in a position to know whether they were lying. The very fact that they were martyred is proof positive that they were not lying. Nobody will die for a lie that they know is a lie.
9 – One Solitary Life – from Dr James Allan Francis in “The Real Jesus and Other Sermons” “He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in still another village, where He worked in a carpenter shop until He was 30. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never traveled more than 200 miles from the place He was born. He did none of the things one usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but Himself. He was only 33 when public opinion turned against Him. His friends deserted Him. He was turned over to His enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. When He was dying, His executioners gambled for His clothing, the only property He had on earth. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today He is the central figure of the human race. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on earth as much as that One Solitary Life.”
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