This question comes up regularly. Although I have written extensively on the theory that Jesus never existed, it might be helpful to present the primary evidence for the existence of Jesus in a concise and clear manner. I’m well aware that Jesus mythicists reject each of these sources and so I will try and explain why they should be taken seriously.
I see three pieces of evidence that present the strongest case. There is other evidence. Comments by Romans, such as Suetonius, Tacitus and Pliny the Younger are often offer. I believe that they are helpful but are not the strongest evidence we have. Rather they present a nice addition to what I consider the three strongest historical sources.
I know that there are plenty of people who want to reject the Gospels as historical documents. But there is no reason to do so. Yes they are written by biased believers and yes they are part of religious scripture but neither of these reasons disqualify them as evidence. I appreciate the comments by Bart Ehrman, an agnostic New Testament scholar:
The fact that their books later became documents of faith has no bearing on the question of whether the books can still be used for historical purposes. To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly.
There is a general consensus that the Gospels belong to the genre of ancient lives. They are as valuable for speaking about Jesus as Arrian and Plutarch are for attesting to the life of Alexander the Great. We would love to have four lives of other ancient figures, especially written so close to the events.
The Apostle Paul
Even earlier than the four canonical Gospels are the writings of the Apostle Paul. Mythicists will want to disqualify Paul for the same reason that they want to disqualify the Gospels. I have already responded to that objection.
In addition, mythicists frequently claim that Paul never speaks about the historical Jesus. According to them, Paul only speaks about the heavenly and glorified Christ. This is simply not true. I wrote an article on this for a scholarly and peer-reviewed journal, where I present what Paul says about the historical Jesus in 1 Corinthians. You can read it here.
The final piece of evidence comes from Josephus. There is a passage in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews that refers to Jesus. People have long noticed that what Josephus says about Jesus here sound too Christian. It is obvious that some Christian has tampered with the passage. Mythicists use this as an excuse to dismiss everything that Josephus says about Jesus. That is going too far.
Scholars of Josephus and the New Testament are generally agreed that Josephus said something about Jesus. I’m not talking about evangelical scholars, but scholars of every and no religious persuasion. It is likely that Josephus originally said something like:
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following among many Jews and among many of Gentile origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) had not died out.
It was to this bare statement that some Christians embellished the description. If Christians were open to simply adding descriptions of Jesus where none existed, we would wonder why they did not do the same in Philo’s writings. In addition, Josephus mentions Jesus elsewhere in his description of the death of James. That passage is not contested.
What About Everything Else?
Some might ask about where all the other descriptions of Jesus are if he really existed. With the abundance of first century Jewish and Roman writings, why are they strangely silent? The truth is that there is no abundance of first century Jewish and Roman writings. We have very little when it comes to Jewish writings and the few Roman writings we have were not all that interested in religious squabbles in a fringe province.
We really do have good evidence for the existence of Jesus. If you are still struggling with this, I have a few suggestions for you:
- Look into the nature of historical evidence for other ancient figures and compare what we have about Jesus.
- Consider how inclusion into a scriptural canon could affect historical value.
- Ask why among scholars of history and biblical studies who teach in universities that the existence of Jesus is almost universally accepted.
- Read what scholars really say about Josephus. Not just mythicists but historians who are trained in this fiend and who have published scholarly articles on it.
Here are some recommended books that will help to work through this evidence:
Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth
What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (The Biblical Resource Series)
Unmasking the Pagan Christ: An Evangelical Response to the Cosmic Christ Idea
I would also recommend that you would listen to this podcast episode on the the topic.