Recently, I ran across someone claiming Jesus was a myth. This, at first, made me laugh. Not from a religious perspective (though these claims seem to crop up during Easter like clockwork), but from the perspective of ancient history. I also shook my head on the realization that more and more people don’t test such claims. People are way too trusting. That’s another story altogether, but what does history tell us about this “Jesus didn’t exist” theory? Why has the evidence from history has compelled most scholars, regardless of their religious beliefs, to believe Jesus was real? First, this:
There are more ancient documents attesting to Jesus than any other individual from antiquity.
“So what?” says the skeptic. “Most were written by Christians.”
True, but since the writers were Christians (or what we would now consider such), does that automatically mean we should suspect deception? By that logic (or lack of), we should also be suspect of any non-christian writing about Christianity.
More importantly, the Gospels were all written relatively close to the time of Jesus. So people who had seen, known or encountered Jesus were still alive to verify the writings or serve as sources. Verses in Paul’s epistles have been recognized as coming from early creeds that date within a few years (the first two), if not months, from the death of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 there are various clues that indicate Paul is repeating an early creed, both in the language and style he uses and the underlying Aramaic. This is also why some of Paul’s writings predate the writing of the Gospels.
Also note that other sources do not deny Jesus existed. Jewish writers, who had more reason than anyone else to show Jesus didn’t exist, did not do so. Instead, they argued he wasn’t the Messiah. This brings us to the next important point:
The New Testament is not the only collection of ancient documents writing about Jesus.
Many Christians don’t even know this. Some examples: Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus in Annals; Suetonius, chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian; Flavius Josephus, Jewish historian in Antiquities; Julius Africanus in Extant Writings refers to the lost works of Thallus who describes the darkness and earthquake at the time of Christ’s death; in Pliny the Younger’s Letters; in letters from Emperors Trajan and Hadrian; Jewish documents the Talmud and the Toledoth Jesu; writings by Lucian, second century Greek satirist.
Understand that most of these writers were not “pro-Jesus” by any stretch. Even if some of the Josephus references were added later, as some claim, we are still left with a large body of undisputed writings. Nor have we mentioned the large body of apocryphal books that appeared in those ancient times.
And for those who claim the New Testament is unreliable, I’ll briefly state this: Pseudoscholars claim there are hundreds of thousands of variants between New Testament manuscripts. In reality, most of these variants are spelling variations, using different synonyms or language-to-language translation issues. What you are left with are a few verses like John 7:53-8:11 that are not in early manuscripts and Bibles denote them as such. These verses, and none of the variants, impact the orthodox beliefs of Christianity.
Claiming Jesus is a “myth” is nothing more than a futile attempt to rewrite history.