[Not] Questioning the Historical Existence of Jesus

Popular Skepticism

Today more and more, historians and bloggers alike are questioning whether the actual man called Jesus existed. That’s what Philip Perry claims over at The Big Think. To support this skepticism, he cites a litany of reasons.

  1. A lack of historical sources
  2. In the Bible, whole chunks of his life are missing. Jesus goes from age 12 to 30, without any word of what happened in-between.
  3. Gospel authors cannot clearly be established
  4. Gospels written decades after the fact
  5. The gospel accounts are contradictory
  6. Paul is the only NT writer to write about events chronologically

Are these valid observations? Let’s take a quick look.

A Lack of Historical Sources

While Philip Perry claims skepticism among historians is large, reputable scholars disagree. Those like Lawrence Mykytiuk of Purdue University observe that only a few vocal scholars raise such doubts. In a recent post at Bible History Daily, he provides an informative look at a variety of credible evidences for the historicity of Jesus. Since skeptics view biblical sources as biased and therefore unreliable, he provides a variety of evidence from Jewish and classical sources. A review of his work indicates that ample historical sources exist to uphold the historicity of Jesus.

***To read Mykytiuk’s valuable article, Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible, click here.

Whole Chunks of His Life are Missing

Philip Perry is right about this fact. The four New Testament gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) provide zero information about the life of Jesus from age 12 to 30. But this fact does not undermine the fact of the historical existence of Jesus. The gospel writers did not intend to provide exhaustive biographies. They wrote for a different reason: to reveal the nature of Jesus as God and man, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and the Savior of our sins. Biographical information from the middle years of Jesus’ earthly life did do not serve this purpose. But information about Christ’s birth, public ministry and teaching, death and resurrection does. That’s what they include.

Gospel Authors Cannot Clearly be Established

While it is true that none of the four gospel writers identify themselves in the manuscript texts, early first and second century sources widely recognize the legitimacy of the traditional authors. Furthermore, as named titles for each gospel began to emerge in manuscript copies, the multiplied copies that follow feature the same names. This underscores a universal acknowledgment among church leaders and churches for the identity of each author. Believers copied these manuscripts widely, with no organized, centralized authority to guide them. This being the case, you would expect there to be a variety names and titles added by a variety of copyists. But remarkably, no alternative author names exist. Doubt on this point is a modern development, not a historical one.

***For another brief but helpful explanation of this, Apologetics: Who Really Wrote the Gospels, by Timothy Jones of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, click here.

Gospels Written Decades After the Fact

So, how is this a problem? Philip Perry himself says in his article:

Historians have measures in terms of a burden of proof. If an author for instance is writing about a subject more than 100 years after it occurred, it isn’t considered valid.

Neither of the four gospels fail this criterion, having been written only a few decades after the ascension of Jesus. Furthermore, the traditional authors for each gospel benefited from an eyewitness perspective of the life of Jesus. Mark wrote on the behalf of Peter, a disciple of Jesus. The early church fathers verify this, and internal evidence supports it. Luke wrote fastidiously based upon a wide variety of eye witness accounts. Early church fathers widely attest this as well, and internal evidence underscores it. Matthew, of course, was a disciple of Jesus, and so was John. Eyewitness reports are the strongest form of historical credibility. All four gospels provide this.

The Gospel Accounts are Contradictory

This is not true. What is true is that each of the four gospels present different details about the life of Jesus. Skeptics are quick to point out the differences between the six New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus (Matt. 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20–21; Acts 9; 1 Corinthians 15). Once such difference is the order of events, which appears to be different in the various accounts. For example, the Gospels list Mary as the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection, but 1 Corinthians 15:5 lists Peter. Furthermore, Matthew 28:2 names Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as the first to the tomb, but John 20:1 names only Mary Magdalene as being there.

These differences and others do not contradict each other. Observant study of each account leads to a coherent, harmonious sequence of events between them. So, why are there differences? Because each writer recorded details that suited his specific purpose. Furthermore, if all four gospels mirrored each other completely, skeptics would accuse the authors of collusion.

Ample Evidence

Norman Geisler, a Christian apologist, references the following testimony of a famous Harvard Lawyer, Simon Greenleaf, on the historical credibility of the Gospel writers:

Simon Greenleaf, the famous Harvard lawyer who wrote a textbook on legal evidence, was converted to Christianity based on his careful examination of the Gospel witnesses from a legal perspective. He concluded that “Copies which had been as universally received and acted upon as the Four Gospels, would have been received in evidence in any court of justice, without the slightest hesitation” (Greenleaf, 9–10). [1]

Philip Perry claims that more and more historians and bloggers are questioning the existence of the actual man called Jesus. If this is true, they are doing so for spurious reasons. The historical existence of Jesus Christ is confirmed by solid witnesses. Of that you may be assured.

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[1] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 649.

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