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Man or Myth: Is there any evidence that Jesus existed?

One of the biggest influencers going, Jesus has about 2.3 billion followers worldwide; most of the world measures the date by him and businesses shut up shop to celebrate his birth and death. But did he really exist? Explore the historical evidence – inside and outside the Bible.

Is Jesus real? What do the historians say?

A recent survey revealed that 40 per cent of people in England believe Jesus never existed and is a mythical or fictional character. But few scholars agree with this view, whether or not they have a faith. In fact, atheist Professor Bart D Ehrman, an author and historian, writes that Jesus ‘certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees, based on certain and clear evidence’. So, what is the evidence? 

Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, writing around CE 93, mentions various people who appear in the Bible around the same time as stories of Jesus, including King Herod and Pontius Pilate.  You might have heard about them from the stories about Jesus’ birth and death. Josephus also makes two references to Jesus. The longest calls him a ‘wise man’, who ‘performed surprising deeds’, and mentions his death and resurrection. Some scholars think Josephus’ original quote may have been embellished by early Christians.

But there is no such debate over the second reference, which talks about James, the brother of ‘Jesus, the so-called Christ’. Whatever Josephus made of the Christian claims about Jesus, he clearly believed him to have been an historical figure.

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote about Christ who ‘suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus’. This tells us not only that Jesus existed, but also confirms the time and circumstances of his death, agreeing with the accounts in the Bible. The Roman Governor Pliny wrote about Christians singing hymns ‘to Christ as to a god’ and Suetonius wrote that the Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome for making disturbances at the instigation of ‘Chrestus’, a reference to Jesus Christ.

So there is extra-biblical written documentation, which is fairly reliable, referring to a man called Jesus. Taken together, these references don’t give us any reason for believing that the Christian claims about Jesus’ miracles or resurrection are true, but they are evidence of his existence at a very specific point in history. Plenty of people in the first centuries disagreed with the idea that Jesus was ‘the Son of God’, but none of them seemed to doubt that he existed.

Is there archaeological evidence for Jesus’ existence?

Across the centuries, people have claimed to possess artefacts from Jesus’ life, such as splinters from the cross, the nails used at his crucifixion, or the Shroud of Turin – a linen cloth which some believe was Jesus’ burial robe. Very few scholars consider these to be reliable evidence.

There’s no firm archaeological evidence for the existence of Jesus, but that’s hardly a surprise. Archaeology is a fairly recent discipline, with techniques only having been refined in the past 50 years. And for many areas, only about two to five per cent of the land has been excavated, particularly since current settlements are built upon the older ones.

Most people who lived in the first century left no mark in the archaeological record. Rulers and the wealthy may have left a trace, with statues and buildings erected in their honour, but a wandering Jewish peasant is unlikely to have left anything physical that would still exist and constitute hard proof. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. 

So, does this mean that archaeology is irrelevant? Not at all. 

Even though there’s no physical evidence from Jesus’ belongings, archaeologists have corroborated all sorts of details from the Bible’s accounts of his life. These include names of towns and cities; evidence about key people, and events that took place at the time; and all sorts of local knowledge about geography, customs, weather and plant life, which – in a pre-Google age – would be difficult for someone to get right if they were making up the stories from a different time or place. 

As archaeological methods develop and as more land is available for excavation, who knows what discoveries may be made in the future? But as it stands, if we’re looking for proof of whether Jesus of Nazareth existed archaeology will only take us so far. Ancient writings will take us a bit further.

Does the New Testament count as proof?

The New Testament (that’s the second part of the Bible) includes four biographies of Jesus known as the Gospels. As well as recording events from his life and death, they also speak of his resurrection (and a few miracles along the way). Do these seemingly fantastical elements of the story mean that the rest of the content is unreliable as evidence?

Each of the writers of the Gospels explains that they are writing an account for the purpose of helping specific people believe in Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel is particularly written to help Jewish readers believe that Jesus was the person they’d been anticipating for centuries – whom they called the Messiah; Luke wrote to give an ‘orderly account’ to someone who is already a believer; and John explicitly says that he chose a selection of stories from his own experience of spending time with Jesus, in order to convince people that he was the Son of God. Each of these writers clearly has a bias and an agenda, and they’re not trying to hide it. 

All accounts of historical events are biased to some degree, since every writer makes choices over what details to include and how to arrange and interpret them. Strictly objective history is impossible. But most of us don’t live our lives like complete historical sceptics. I doubt, for example, that you’ve ever had a sleepless night doubting the existence of Julius Caesar or Henry VIII!

Most of what we know about historical figures comes from the writings of their followers and fans. To be truly objective, we’d need to acknowledge biases are held on all sides. Roman and other non-Christian sources would have had the opposite bias to the writers of the New Testament, wanting to discredit the claims of the early Christians. If we were to dismiss every source that exhibited a hint of bias, we’d be unable to do any form of history. 

So if the New Testament is a valuable source of evidence, what does it say?

Evidence from the New Testament

The Bible contains four Gospels, which tell Jesus’ life story and record many of his teachings and deeds. Two of the writers, Matthew and John, arere thought to have been among Jesus’ 12 disciples, and Mark is believed to have recorded the disciple Peter’s memories of Jesus. Luke was the only Gospel writer not to have known Jesus personally, but he starts by explaining that he wrote his account based on reports from original eyewitnesses which he carefully investigated.

It's from these accounts that we discover the most information about Jesus: details about his birth, life, teaching, death, and the claims about his resurrection. Many details in the Gospels correspond to people, places and events attested to in other ancient sources and archaeological findings. 

It's hard to know precisely when these accounts were written, but scholars generally think that Mark’s account was written first, with Matthew and Luke coming next, and John being the last of all, around CE 90. So all of these accounts would have been written from 25–60 years after Jesus’ died.

Whether or not you take the supernatural elements of the Gospels at face value, these writings do seem to support the evidence that Jesus was a real historical figure. Given that they were written so soon after Jesus lived, it’s highly unlikely the writers would have got away with fabricating an entire person’s life and identity. The New Testament also includes letters, some of which were written even earlier than the Gospels. These show that belief in Jesus as an actual man (and perhaps even more than just a man!) spread rapidly throughout the Graeco-Roman world.

One writer called Paul, whose letters came to make up much of the New Testament, came to believe Jesus was the Christ approximately four to seven years after Jesus’ death, having previously overseen the arrest and execution of many Christians. Both Paul and those he persecuted clearly believed that Jesus was a real person, and Paul writes about having met Jesus’ original disciples and his brother James.

For the writers of the New Testament and those who lived around that time, it seems clear that they believed Jesus to be an actual person. People differed in what they believed about him, but there was no question for them that he existed. 

Who is Jesus?

From the evidence available to us, most historians accept that there was a man named Jesus, and that many of his earliest followers believed he was the Son of God. He left his mark, not in stone or inscriptions, but in his good deeds, wisdom, and teachings. These were passed on verbally, written down, embodied in church communities, and spread like wildfire throughout the ancient world. 

Whatever you make of the stories about him, it’s remarkable just how widespread Jesus’ influence has been. Whereas so many of his contemporaries are unknown to us today, there’s something about this ancient Jewish carpenter that has captured the minds and hearts of billions of people, right up to this day. 

If you want to investigate for yourself, here are the sources we’ve used in this article: 

Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, 3; Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 

Tacitus, Annals, Book 15, Chapter 44 

Pliny, Letters to Trajan, Book 10, 96–97 

Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Claudius, 25 

Bart Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the name of God  

Peter J Williams, Can we trust the Gospels?

Perspectives on archaeology from KA Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament  

The Gospel of Matthew

The Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Luke

The Gospel of John

Luke explains his intention to write an ‘orderly account’ in the first chapter of his Gospel

The reference to Paul meeting Jesus’ brother James is from Galatians chapter 1 verse 19

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