You might think that everybody at least agrees that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Because we have quite a lot of evidence for that, right?
But a surprising number of people in the US actually think Jesus never existed, that he’s all a myth.
Let’s be clear that they’re not claiming the resurrection of Jesus is a myth. They claim there wasn’t even a crucifixion of Jesus. They claim there wasn’t a Jesus to crucify. Many of them claim that Nazareth itself wasn’t populated at the time of Jesus.
There’s a term for these people. They’re called “Jesus mythicists.”
What the Experts Say
When investigating claims, it’s always a good idea to find out what the experts think. It goes without saying that the experts might be wrong. But it’s still smart to see what they think, because you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. You want to build on top of what they’ve already done.
In this case, the experts typically have PhDs in a field called “New Testament Studies.” The purpose of this field is to analyze the New Testament as a literary and historical document that contains information about what the authors of the New Testament believed. (So this field is not theology. This is essentially history.)
Many New Testament scholars are Christians, representing just about every possible denomination. A fair number are Jews, agnostics, atheists, or something else. So New Testament Studies is a diverse group of people whose common interest is studying the history and meaning of the New Testament.
It’s worth noting that the overwhelming majority of New Testament Studies scholars believe that Jesus existed. And most of them don’t think it’s a close call. Most of them consider it pretty obvious.
So what field do Jesus mythicists come from? Those who have PhDs almost never got their degree in New Testament Studies. This is not proof that they’re wrong to be mythicists. But it’s certainly a relevant fact.
You might think mythicism is “weird” and not worth your time to worry about. But there are enough mythicists in the world that you undoubtedly know one. And mythicists are extremely evangelistic in their belief that Jesus didn’t exist. So you might want to be prepared.
My Favorite Book on Mythicism
I’ve got two books in my library written by New Testament scholars about the serious problems they see in Jesus mythicism. The one I’ll discuss today is by Bart Ehrman, a well-known scholar of the New Testament at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Bart Ehrman was a Christian fundamentalist when he graduated from Moody Bible Institute. He went on to Wheaton College and then earned a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. At some point in his life, he became an agnostic and then an atheist. Bart believes pretty strongly (like the great majority of New Testament scholars) that Jesus existed as a real historical person.
Bart wrote a book awhile back titled, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. I’ve read it a couple of times and found it very useful in dealing with the occasional mythicist who wanders across my path.
I highly recommend Bart’s book, which you can get on Amazon. The meat of the book is in the first five chapters, where Bart talks about how historians work and what counts as evidence for a historian and why most historians are confident Jesus existed.
Evidence Versus Proof
The key word here is “evidence.” When you talk to mythicists, they’ll often ask for “proof.” But that’s misguided.
There are very few things in life you can prove to be true with absolute certainty. Most of them are mathematical theorems. You can know with 100% confidence that the Pythagorean Theorem is true.
I have a PhD in theoretical physics, a highly mathematical discipline, so I’ve proven a fair number of math theorems in my life. But in physics, we never prove theories. Theories are not theorems. Theories are simply models of how the world works. When you have a theory in physics, it may be very beautiful and elegant, but you still have to connect it to the real world. You do that by running experiments. All experimental data has errors. When you try to match the data to your theory, there is always uncertainty. Always.
So physicists don’t talk about “proving” a theory. They talk about testing a theory against data. Because the data has experimental error, you can never have absolute certainty that your theory is true. Never. You talk about your confidence level that the data fits the theory. The confidence level is always less than 100%. So a physicist looks for the theory that has the “best fit” to the data. (It’s actually a little more complicated than this, for those geeky few who know about Bayesian inference.)
Historians work pretty much the same way. They make hypotheses about how history happened, and then they compare them to the data. Generally, historians call their data “evidence,” but it’s the same thing.
So historians don’t “prove” their hypotheses either. They test their hypotheses against the evidence and estimate their confidence in the hypotheses.
To summarize then, in both physics and history, it’s “evidence” that matters, not “proof.” You can’t prove things, but you can pile up mountains of evidence. When the evidence strongly favors your hypothesis, you can say that you know it’s true with high confidence.
Types of Historical Evidence
Historical evidence comes in various types. Two important kinds of evidence for ancient history are:
- Ancient writings (manuscripts on parchment or papyrus or clay tablets or inscriptions in stone)
- Archaeological data (coins, buildings, human artifacts, statues, paintings, seeds, bones, etc.)
A basic rule of historians is that you have some level of uncertainty in all your evidence. Here’s why.
Writings might be modern forgeries. Or ancient forgeries. Or they might be authentic, but the original author might have been misinformed or crazy or bragging or lying or bending the truth. Ancient manuscripts might have been miscopied over the years. Scribes might have inserted a marginal note to explain something, and this might have been recopied later by another scribe who thought it was part of the original. Often, we can’t assign an exact date to a writing.
Archaeological data is often partly obliterated by time. When buildings fall down, the stones can be reused in new ways in new buildings. Bones may get separated. Coins may become unreadable. Artifacts might be broken or taken to a new location. Often, archaeological data can’t be dated precisely. And some archaeological artifacts are forgeries.
What Counts as Good Historical Evidence?
Let’s get specific. All of the evidence that Jesus existed is written evidence, not archaeological. Jesus didn’t build any monuments or temples. He didn’t mint any coins or make inscriptions on stone buildings. He lived his life, and people later wrote about him.
When historians evaluate the written evidence that Jesus existed, they ask the following kinds of questions:
- How close in time is the writing to the lifetime of Jesus? The closer in time, the better.
- Who wrote the document, and did they know Jesus, or somebody who knew Jesus? The closer they were to Jesus, the better.
- Did they have an ideological axe to grind, and might that have a bearing on the evidence they give us? It’s best if the evidence they provide is unrelated to their ideological bent. (Everybody has some ideological point of view. That’s why they write, to transmit ideas.)
- How many independent pieces of evidence do we have, and do they corroborate each other, or are they inconsistent? Historians are OK with small inconsistencies. That’s normal, just like experimental error in physics. What they’re looking for is the overall best fit to the evidence, just like in physics.
The Evidence for Jesus
We don’t have as much evidence as we would like to make a full biography of Jesus. That’s just a fact. We know a fair bit about the last few years of his life, but very little before that.
But we’re not trying here to write a full biography. We’re just asking the question of whether Jesus existed. That’s a much simpler problem.
And we have a lot of evidence for the existence of Jesus, which is the question the mythicists are asking. The evidence is so strong that biblical scholars and historians are almost unanimous that Jesus did exist.
I’ll briefly sketch out three independent lines of reasoning here. You can read Bart Ehrman’s book for all the details.
Case 1: Many Independent Written Sources
Biblical scholars have mapped out numerous independent written sources that talk about Jesus as a real, walking, living person. Most of these are in the New Testament, written by early Christians, but there exist some others that are early enough to have value. For a list of these, with full explanations on each source, when it was written, and who stands behind it, see Bart Ehrman’s book.
A few of these sources go back in time to within just a few years of the crucifixion.
The sources are unanimous that Jesus was Jewish, that he came from Nazareth, and that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem during the Passover season. They say a lot more, but for our limited purposes, that’s all we need.
When you have that many independent sources going back that early, you have high confidence that Jesus was a real person.
Case 2: Paul Knew the Brother and Chief Disciple of Jesus
The earliest writings in the New Testament were written by Paul. New Testament scholars are a skeptical lot, and many of them don’t accept all thirteen epistles traditionally attributed to Paul. But even the most skeptical biblical scholars accept seven of these as certainly written by Paul: Galatians, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.
And these seven books, by themselves, tell us the following:
- Only a few years after the resurrection, Paul met for fifteen days in person with the apostle Peter and with James, “the brother of the Lord.” James was at that time the leader of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem, and he is one of four men named in the gospels as being brothers of Jesus. For more on the brothers of Jesus, see my blog post, The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus. For more on James, see my blog post, James, the Brother of Jesus.
- Paul knows a number of key data points about Jesus: that Jesus was “born of a woman,” that he was in the line of King David, that he had brothers, that he had twelve disciples, and that he was crucified. Paul knows more, but these are enough for our purposes. These are things that can only be true of a real human.
So the bottom line is that Paul believed Jesus existed, and he was in a position to know because he spoke in person with two men from the inner circle of Jesus, James and Peter.
If our only goal is to decide whether Jesus actually existed as a real person, then the evidence Paul gives us is very strong.
Case 3: The Radical Idea of a Crucified Messiah
The disciples of Jesus were absolutely stunned when he was crucified. The reason is because they believed Jesus would be the messiah. Like every other Jew, they believed the messiah would be a conquering soldier, not a crucified criminal.
After the resurrection, they came to believe that the prophets had foretold a messiah who would suffer and be killed. But they found this quite a hard sell when they tried to explain it to other Jews. As the apostle Paul says, the idea of a crucified messiah was a stumbling-block to Jews.
What does this have to do with the question of whether Jesus existed?
A lot. The Jesus mythicists claim that Jesus was just a myth created to fit the prophecies of a crucified messiah. But they can’t explain why anyone would ever invent a Jesus to fit these prophecies, when no Jew before Jesus ever believed the messiah would be crucified.
If Jesus were a myth invented to fit the prophecies, we would expect the Jesus myth to tell a tale of a powerful soldier who went to war against the enemy, Rome. The myth might plausibly end with this fictitious messiah being killed in battle, like Samson or King Josiah. It’s possible Jews might invent that kind of story.
What doesn’t make sense is that any Jew would invent a Jesus myth about a crucified messiah out of thin air. That would be like writing a romance novel featuring a man and woman who commit suicide in different countries, each without ever knowing the other exists. That’s a story, sure, but it’s not a romance novel.
Given the fact that the early Jesus movement was built on the idea of a crucified messiah, the best explanation is that there was an actual Jesus who really existed, and his followers thought he was the messiah, but then he was crucified.
You can’t “prove” Jesus existed, but you shouldn’t have to. Proof is a high bar that only a mathematical theorem can clear. For science and history and everyday life, we can say we know something when we have strong evidence that it’s true.
By this standard, we can say we know Jesus existed. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to “prove” it. You don’t. Strong evidence is enough.
If you want to know more about this, check out Bart Ehrman’s book.
I did a recent TikTok video titled “Did Jesus Really Exist?” In the few days since I posted it, the video has had over 10,000 views. If you’re into TikTok, check it out!