Many people today and throughout history have denied that Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure. For example, Bertrand Russell, one of the most famous atheists of the 20th century, once said, "Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ existed at all, and if he did we do not know anything about him, so I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one." Is this a fair and reasonable position? Is it truly quite doubtful whether Jesus existed? To answer these questions we need to look at the historical record and investigate the evidence for the existence of Jesus.
The historical writings about Jesus - or that reference Him - can be grouped into 3 main categories. Firstly, there's opposition sources, which are historical writings authored by opponents or enemies of Jesus. Some opposition sources include: Roman historian, Tacitus in Annals; Greek physical, Galen in various writings; Rabbinic writers in the Talmud; and Greek philosopher, Celsus in True Doctrine.
Secondly, there are neutral sources, which are neither for nor against Jesus but record His existence for the purpose of documenting historical figures and events. Some examples include: Jewish historian, Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews; Greek writer, Phlegon in Chronicles; Roman historian, Suetonius in Lives of the Twelve Caesars; and a letter written by the stoic philosopher Mara Bar Serapion.
Josephus writes of Jesus stating, "He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those who loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again on the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." (Antiquities, XVIII, III).
Thirdly, there are affiliated sources, which are historical writings authored by personal friends and other followers of Jesus. The central affiliated sources are the 27 books of the New Testament. Most importantly for our investigation are the 4 gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These writings are historical records containing eyewitness testimony of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Other key affiliated sources include: Paul in 13 Biblical writings; John in 5 Biblical writings; Peter in 3 Biblical writings; and Luke in 2 Biblical writings.
We have looked at the historical record and briefly examined some of the evidence for the existence of Jesus. While these various historical writings (opposition, neutral, and affiliated sources) don't unanimously agree on everything in regards to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, there is at least one fact they all have in common. They all acknowledge the fact that Jesus existed. Christian apologist, Josh McDowell notes that, "We know more about the life of Jesus than just about any other figure in the ancient world. His birth, life, and death are revealed in much more detail than most ancient figures whose existence is taken for granted by historians." (Answers to Tough Questions, p.44).
Based on the historical record, it is clear that Jesus existed. We must now ask ourselves, who exactly is this historical figure named Jesus? And what impact does His life have on ours today?
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Further reading recommendations
'The Case for Christ' by Lee Strobel
‘In Defence of Jesus’ by Lee Strobel
‘Evidence That Demands a Verdict’ by Josh and Sean McDowell
'More Than a Carpenter' by Josh and Sean McDowell
'Is Jesus History?' by John Dickson
'Who Moved the Stone?' by Frank Morison
'Studying the Historical Jesus' by Darrell L. Bock
‘Man, Myth, Messiah’ by Rice Broocks
'The Historical Jesus' by James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy
'Can We Trust the Bible on the Historical Jesus?' by Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans