Guest Post: Greg Monette, Ph.D. student at the University of Wales/Oxford Centre for Mission Studies

Did Jesus exist?  At first blush this might seem a silly question.  “Of course he existed,” you might say.  However, movies like Zeitgeist, as well as authors Tom Harpur [1] and Robert Price, [2] seem to think that a minimalist position on the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is the most historically responsible position to hold.

In a recent interview published in the United Church Observer, Canadian author Tom Harpur, a lapsed Christian, said the following about conservative and liberal New Testament scholars who “take the historical Jesus pretty seriously”: “Yeah, but they don’t offer a shred of historical evidence. Since my book was published, there has not been one scholar come forth with solid evidence from the first century, apart for [sic] a dubious reference in Josephus that they love to hurl around, a reference that is clearly, clearly, clearly false. I’ve been waiting for the evidence to show up” [3] Is Harpur right? Is there not “a shred of historical evidence” that Jesus of Nazareth existed?  Is Christianity based on a myth?

For economy of space and time, I will not reproduce every early source that attests to Jesus’ existence from antiquity. However, I will list some of the major references where you can find the exact quotations relating to Jesus if you are interested in looking further: 1. Roman: Pliny the Younger (AD 62-113) Epistles 10.96;  2. Roman: Tacitus (AD 60-120) Annals 15.44; 3. Roman: Suetonius (AD 75-160) Life of Claudius 25.4; 4.  Roman: Mara Bar Serapion (2nd or 3rd Cent.) in a letter; 5. Jewish: Flavius Josephus (AD 37-100), a disputed passage most historians feel was interpolated: The Antiquities of the Jewish People 18.3.3 [18.63-64], and one undisputed passage: Antiquities of the Jewish People 20.9.1 [20.200-203]. 6. Jewish: Various Rabbis (2nd-5th Cent.) The Talmud: b. Sanhedrin 43a (Babylonian Talmud).

There are also many other references to Jesus in Gospels not located in the New Testament due to their late dating (mid to late 2nd Century composition). There are too many to list here, the following book would be helpful to consult for some of these ancient texts: J.K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009).

However, despite this mountain of supporting evidence to the existence of Jesus in these non-Christian sources, the best evidence is found in the New Testament.  The New Testament is made up of twenty-seven different documents (ancient biographies, letters, apocalyptic writings), all written in the 1st Century.  Yes, the New Testament is biased because Christians composed it, but every text is biased.  Bias does not necessarily equal unhistorical; if this were the case, every text from antiquity would be unhistorical. Historians agree that what we have in the New Testament alone is good enough to solidify the historical position that Jesus of Nazareth did exist.

Why do historians feel this way? The strongest argument is that before and during the time of Jesus, Jews did not believe that the Messiah (or Christ) was going to die.  They believed that the Messiah was going to rise up and conquer the Romans, taking back Jerusalem, where the Messiah would replace Caesar as king.  There is no way that the early Christians (a group of 1st Century Jews) would have made up a fictional story about a Messiah who dies. Even the skeptical New Testament scholar and co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan wrote “That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be” [4]

In fact, New Testament historians use the historical fact of the death of Jesus (attested throughout the New Testament as well as outside the New Testament in many of the non-Christian sources referenced above) as a criterion for determining historically authentic material (sayings and deeds of Jesus) in the New Testament Gospels. There must have been a reason Jesus was put to death by the authorities. He must have said and did certain things to infuriate the establishment. He did not get crucified by telling people to love one another.  He said a few other things too and scholars look to find these in the New Testament Gospels. University of Notre Dame New Testament Scholar John P. Meier is famous for saying: “A tweedy poetaster who spent his time spinning out parables and Japanese koans, a literary aesthete who toyed with 1st-century deconstructionism, or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field—such a Jesus would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him threaten no one.” [5]

So far we have laid out the literary evidence for Jesus’ existence.  This alone is more than enough to convince serious historians that Jesus of Nazareth existed.  However, it may surprise some to know that we may actually possess genuine archaeological evidence for Jesus’ existence, namely a 1st Century burial box or ossuary with the following inscription: Ya’akov bar-Yosef akhui diYeshua (English translation: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”). If genuine and not forged, it may be hard non-literary evidence for the existence of Jesus.  The burial boxes discovery was announced at a meeting on October 21, 2002 in Washington co-hosted by the Discovery Channel and the Biblical Archaeology Society. The Israeli Antiquities Authority took the owner of the ossuary (Oded Golan) to court accusing him of forging the box.  However, most experts called to testify during the court proceedings have supported Oded Golan in claiming the authenticity of the box and its antiquity.  The Israeli judge is deliberating at this moment in order to decide whether or not the burial box was forged or not. After more than 5000 pages of testimony and 75 witnesses who gave expert testimony, the judge advised the prosecution in open court to highly consider dropping the case as their evidence against the boxes authenticity was weak.  We will see in the coming months what the verdict is on this potentially very important artifact from antiquity which may provide hard evidence for the existence of Jesus. [6]

One final argument for the existence of Jesus is, quite simply, the existence of Christianity.  It is a historical fact that Christianity exploded in growth in the second-half of the 1st Century and has continued to grow until today. [7]  The minimalist needs to give a convincing argument to explain all of this away, and so far it has not been done.

All in all, I have yet to hear an intellectually plausible reason why one should believe Jesus never existed.  Can you imagine if people started writing books about Caesar Augustus never existing, Alexander the Great or Muhammad? No serious historian doubts that any of these famous men from the past existed.  It has been said that there is more historical evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth than any person from antiquity; this is probably true.  Historians in other fields would love to have the embarrassment of riches that New Testament historians have to work with when they reconstruct historical portraits of Jesus of Nazareth. So, did Jesus exist? What do you think?

[1] Tom Harpur, The Pagan Christ (Walker & Company, 2005);

[2] Robert Price, “Jesus at the vanishing point” in James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (eds.), The Historical Jesus: Five Views (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009) 55–103)

[3] Tom Harpur: as quoted in Ken Gallinger’s, “A Truly Spiritual Person Never Stops Thinking about the Implications of the Christos,” United Church Observer 74/11 (2011) 30–31, with quotation from p. 31).

[4] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1994),145.

[5] See: John P. Meier, “The Criterion of Rejection and Execution,” in A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Vol. 1, New York: Doubleday, 1991), 177.

[7] See: Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Princeton: HarperCollins, 1997).