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Did Jesus Exist? A 30,000-foot View of the Evidence.
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Did Jesus Exist? A 30,000-foot View of the Evidence.

Posted May 04, 2018 by Sean McDowell

Did Jesus Exist? A 30,000-foot View of the Evidence.

SeanMcDowell.org

Recently I watched the video of a drone that took off near my home. As it rose high into the sky, the camera revealed buildings, communities, and neighboring cities from a completely different vantage point. I could make mental connections impossible from the ground.

Sometimes a broad perspective reveals truths unimaginable from within a narrow framework. The same is true for the existence of Jesus. Sometimes people get caught up in the weeds of the discussion (which I am not implying is unimportant). But in this post, I am going to take a 30,000-foot view of the issue. In other words, here is the “big picture” of why the vast majority of scholars, of all faiths and backgrounds, accept the existence of Jesus.

Let’s consider four "big" sources of evidence for the existence of Jesus:

1. Biblical Sources

Skeptics often refuse to accept Christian sources as evidence for Jesus. But as my father and I document in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, there is good reason to trust the New Testament as reliable. There is no good reason to simply dismiss the New Testament out of hand. Minimally speaking, they are one piece of the evidence for the existence of Jesus.

The New Testament consists of twenty-seven books. All four Gospels present the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In his epistles, the apostle Paul refers to the birth of Jesus (Galatians 4:4), his death (Romans 1:4), and his multiple appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-7). Other New Testament books, such as 1 Peter, Hebrews, and James also refer to the historical Jesus.

2. Apostolic Fathers

The generation of Christian leaders in the first and second century are often referred to as “Apostolic Fathers.” Some of them, such as Polycarp, claimed to be followers of the apostles. Specifically, Clement of Rome (late first century) and Ignatius (early second century) both speak of Jesus as a historical figure.

In reference to Clement of Rome, Bart Ehrman concludes, “We have an independent witness not just to the life of Jesus as a historical figure but to some of his teachings and deeds. Like all sources that mention Jesus from outside the New Testament, the author of I Clement had no doubt about his real existence and no reason to defend it. Everyone knew he existed.”

3. Non-Christian Sources

There are a variety of non-Christian sources that corroborate the existence of Jesus. Some have little historical value, such as the Qur’an and Rabbinic tradition, but others are quite significant, such as the Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37-100) and the Roman historian Tacitus. (AD 56-120).

Scholars have debated the reliability and value of their respective references to Jesus. But minimally speaking, we have at least two early references (actually three if we count both references in Josephus) that support the existence of Jesus.

4. Archaeology

Archaeology cannot prove the existence of Jesus. But it is another piece of corroborative evidence that strengthens it. Researchers have now discovered Nazareth, Cana, Bethsaida, ancient synagogues, and inscriptions that mentions Pontius Pilate, the Roman authority who condemned Jesus to the cross, and one that may be the burial box for Caiaphas.

Again, archaeology cannot prove the existence of Jesus, but it can offer indirect credence to the reality of the people, places, and events described in the Bible. 

Taken together, the evidence from these four categories is enough to convince the vast majority of historians and theologians, whether Christian or secular, that Jesus existed. Even the atheist scholar Bart Ehrman concludes that “Jesus certainly existed.”[3] I concur.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.    

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[1] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 105.

[2] For responses to the most common objections against Tacitus and Josephus, see chapter 6, “The Historical Existence of Jesus” in Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 150-158.

[3] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 173.


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