Did Jesus Exist?

by frankbeswick

No one in the ancient world denied that Jesus of Nazareth existed, not even his enemies.

In recent years there have been occasional writers who have asserted that Jesus of Nazareth is merely a legendary figure and that there was no historical Jesus. He was in their view a mythical figure invented by the early church. The purpose of this article is to uncover discuss the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus. It is not to discuss the correct theological interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth, his significance or his relationship to God.

Picture courtesy of aquaphoto

Historical Knowledge.

We can never know the past with certainty, for we can have no direct experience of it. Let us take an example. Did Julius Caesar exist? We have the word of ancient Romans that he did, but we have no body, as he was cremated. So how can we know that there was not a vast conspiracy to pretend that he did in fact live? We cannot, but what we can do is create a coherent picture of the world, using reports from the past, as if we were doing a jig saw. Slowly by eliminating inconsistencies we create a picture that seems meaningful and rational, and this we believe to be the true picture. In Caesar's case there is no meaningful picture of the past that excludes his existence. 

It is the same with Jesus of Nazareth. As with all historical knowledge we work by inference. We gather data together and interpret it. Often this is an ongoing process in which we are constantly obliged to revise our views, as new data is discovered. History is an attempt to create an accurate picture of the past by the use of inference; and there is no credible picture that excludes Jesus' existence. 

Those who deny the existence of Jesus have to deal with one undoubted fact: no one in the ancient world, not even his enemies, denied that Jesus existed. They may have thought him insignificant, they may even have thought him a wrongdoer, but the ancients spoke of him as a person who really existed. Jewish writings also mention Jesus as a historic person, as they state that he was executed for sorcery. These writings found in the Talmud are relatively late, but they confirm that the ancients were convinced that there was really a person called Jesus of Nazareth and that he was somehow linked to Christianity. The ancients were neither stupid nor gullible. Just like us they constructed their picture of the past in a reflective way, and throughout the history of the ancient world their picture of the past never included the belief that Jesus was fictional. 

We also have the question of the historicity of the gospel accounts. Few scholars would think that the gospels are purely factual history, but to go the other way and say that there is no  truth in them is to make the mistake of thinking in polar opposites. The gospels were written by people who loved Jesus and wanted to preserve his memory. Not all their recollection would be accurate, and it was shaped by the post-resurrection faith of the church, but to think it all false is as erroneous as to think it fully factual. The hard task is to tease out which bits are historical and which not.

But we also have the simple fact of the church. Though you can argue about the historicity of the gospels it is unarguable that the church did  consist of people who claimed to have known Jesus and that they passed on their memories and their faith in him to others. In the church we have an ongoing community rooted in the past which descends from those who claimed to have walked, talked and lived with Jesus. These people, the earliest Christians, claimed that their lives had been transformed by the encounter and they developed an intense commitment that was tested unto martyrdom in some cases. All this for a merely fictional figure! 

The Jesus deniers have against them the weight of the consensus of the ancient world, not all of whom believed in Jesus, but none denied his reality. 

Specific Writers

Several Roman writers mention Jesus, and none were Christians. Let us start with Josephus, who was a Jewish rebel who swapped sides when captured by Rome and managed to save his skin. He is responsible for a historical work, The Antiquities of the Jews, in which there is some reference to Jesus. Unfortunately, some copies of Josephus were adapted by a Christian scribe to exalt Jesus, but scholars have made efforts to eradicate what they think are the adaptations, and we have what seems to be the original text. The gist of the text, which was written somewhere between 73 and 98 is that Jesus was a good man who performed wonderful deeds and taught both Jews and Gentiles the truth, but was put to death at the suggestion of the authorities, but that his followers had continued his work. A later reference speaks of how the high priest had executed James the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ. This is independent testimony to Jesus' existence. 

There is an earlier work, which is only known through one quotation, and some people date it as early as 52 AD, though it could be as late as 100. Thallus was a non-Christian who wrote a history of the world from the Trojan War. Significantly, he speaks of the darkness that fell on the world when Jesus died. Thallus work is only known from one quotation in the works of another historian, Julius Africanus. It seems that both accepted that a darkness had befallen the world, but both try to explain it in naturalistic terms as an eclipse and the accompanying phenomena as an earthquake. So the ancients agreed that the events occurred, but felt the need to interpret them.

Tacitus, a Roman historian writing in the early second century speaks of the Christians as having derived from Christus, who was executed by Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. Note that he could assume that people knew who Pilate was, so the ancients could fix Jesus into a specific time and place. Suetonius [69-122]  writing in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, mentions riots at Rome instigated by one Chrestus, for which Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome for a while. Many  scholars think this a reference to Christ, but others are unsure and think that Chrestus was someone at Rome, as it was a well-known slave name, meaning useful. 

A final  reference was by Mara ben Serapion, whose dates are some time between 73 and about 200. It seems that this Stoic philosopher was imprisoned for some political offence, and he wrote a letter to his son. He deals with the persecution of the just man and the consequences. Having spoken of the punishment that he believes fell on those who killed Socrates and Pythagoras, he mentions how the Jews killed their wise king and the punishment of destruction that befell Jerusalem for it. He tells of how these great men still live on in their teachings. Though he does not mention Jesus by name. Jesus is the only candidate for the description. So we see that here is an ancient philosopher, a rational person as philosophers are, considered that Jesus existed.

How Close to Jesus is the New Testament?

There is a question about when the gospels were written. The present text of Mark seems to date from the late sixties, and Luke and Matthew from the seventies and eighties. John underwent evolution. While it was once thought by some scholars to be from as late as 130, this theory is not now accepted, and it is known that the text underwent evolution over a period of decades, the last stage of which could have been in the nineties. The authorship is disputed, and few scholars think that the apostles wrote the gospels.However, extremes are unwise in all cases, and some attributions of authorship may be accurate. 

However, recently Maurice Casey, professor of Aramaic at Nottingham University, has argued that behind Mark's Gospel is an Aramaic original that is far earlier than the conventional date for Mark. He believes that this original could have been compiled within a short time after Jesus' ministry, so if this is true then far from being written at a time distant from Jesus, the gospel of Mark was written close to Jesus' time. This  adds weight to claims that he existed. 

But the existence of documents other than the gospels has intrigued scholars. At the beginning of Luke's Gospel he speaks of how many others had tried to give an account of the events of Jesus' life. But where are these forgotten texts? Sadly lost, but if they are mentioned by Luke they are earlier than his works. So people were creating accounts of Jesus a few years after his death, hard to explain if he did not exist. 



There is a difference between history and archaeology. In the latter, you find a skeleton but it rarely has anything with it to give a name. In history you rely on written or oral reports about the existence and deeds of a person. The historian must evaluate these reports: are they truthful, are they complete, what are their intentions and so on? But there comes a moment when the historian must make a decision about what to believe. They have constructed a picture of the past and then they must commit to the truth or otherwise of the picture that they have  created. This is as much the case with Jesus as it is with  anyone else in history.

The weight of historical testimony is overwhelmingly in favour of Jesus having existed. Even Josephus, who did not believe in him, spoke of his great deeds and his teaching of the truth, which not only assumes his existence, but  indicates that Jesus' story was familiar even to those who had no reason to celebrate him. The evidence against Jesus' existence is vanishingly small. This does not mean that we can say that our Christian view of him is true, QED, because that would require a different kind of argument than the one given here. But what we have in the Jesus story is an invitation to reflect on him, his message and significance. It is also an invitation to follow the path of love that he taught. This was not an exercise in Theology, but an attempt to reveal to readers arguments against some of the weaker atheist claims, though even few atheists deny that Jesus existed. The religious significance of Jesus is another matter, but that is for a Theology. 

But in one sense the question of the historical existence of Jesus is swallowed up by the basic character of Christian experience: Christ is Alive; he has risen and is present in the lives of his people. 

Updated: 09/22/2015, frankbeswick
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sandyspider on 01/04/2016

Guess the truth will be told when we die. Interesting article.

frankbeswick on 10/20/2015

To add to my recent comment, I must say that the academic discipline of history has limitations, as it is constrained by the world view of the enlightenment, which rejected any spiritual realities. Take an example, did Macbeth see a ghost? The academic discipline of history could not assert that Macbeth saw a ghost, but only that he thought he saw one or people were convinced that he saw one. But suppose that he had done so, the academic discipline would be unable to deal with the reality as it fully exists.

The same goes for Jesus. Academic history cannot say that Jesus experienced the Holy Spirit, but only that he thought he did, and it cannot handle the resurrection. This means that as a discipline it is limited and incapable of dealing with certain experiences. Thus the fact that history cannot confirm any spiritual/miraculous dimension to Jesus' life is nothing other than its confirming itself to be a prisoner of its own assumptions and hence being inapt to deal with an important aspect of reality.

frankbeswick on 10/20/2015

There is a difference between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, but this is a conceptual difference in the aspects under which we analyse a person. Jesus was a historical personage, but there is limited knowledge of anyone in ancient history,and legends about Jesus with no historical basis could occur. But the Christ of faith is the significance that we give to him. The two are not alternatives but are complementary dimensions of the one reality.

However, Christian faith is based on the risen Christ who has transcended death through God's power and is now present in the world at the heart of his church. It is this risen and present Christ who was proclaimed initially orally by the church. Later the written history of the historical Jesus was compiled from what were believed to be reliable sources, and it was and still should be used primarily as a supplement to the proclamation of the risen Christ. The exact historical facts are useful, but the Christian faith does not depend upon them.

There were certainly legends about Jesus, but the church tried to rely on historical sources that were close to those who knew him, so that untrue legends would not creep in, and they rejected the apocryphal gospels mainly because their historical reliability was low, as they had no link to apostolic sources. However, Jesus must have been a big enough character, otherwise he could not have sustained any legends told about him.

Jesus is the leader but not the founder of Christianity. Christianity was founded by those who loved and responded to Jesus, the apostolic community after his resurrection. They were giving institutional form to their deep and profound religious experience of meeting the historical and the risen Lord.

I hope that these ideas are useful to you.

CountrySunshine on 10/20/2015

While attending college some 25+ years ago, I took several religion classes, including one on the historical Jesus. At that time, only one source (called "Q") other than the Bible, referred to him by name. I don't remember all of the specifics from that class, but I do know that it shook my belief. Since that time, I've often questioned whether he was just an ordinary person that was made into a legend, or if he was truly the leader of Christianity. Your article provides more sources than did the class, which I intend to use for my own research. Regardless, I do believe Jesus existed, but still I'm not sure in what capacity,.

frankbeswick on 09/26/2015

Don't worry about it. I spotted that there was a slip in language, but I understood the gist of what you were saying.

CruiseReady on 09/26/2015

A correction. The third sentence in my previous comment should have read, "There is really NO DOUBT in any mind that is even partially open that Jesus did exist." and next should say "That leaves THE other question..."
My apologies.

Veronica on 09/26/2015

Very logical and well reasoned .

Whether a person is Christian or not, Jesus' existence is beyond doubt. You have answered the question in the title perfectly. Well done.

CruiseReady on 09/26/2015

Frank, this is a wonderful piece. And I hope that everyone also takes the time to read your comments (below) and those of others. There is really in any mind that is even partially open that Jesus did exist. That leaves to other question., and each person has to decide that for themselves, but as for me and my house, well, you know the rest

frankbeswick on 09/25/2015

There is more to say on the fact that Jesus had historically attested relatives and can therefore be located in a historical place and time, and ideed a time that fits into a broader family history. According to Eusebius, after James the brother of the Lord was martyred in 62 AD, Simeon son of Cleopas, said to be Joseph's brother and therefore Jesus' uncle, took over James' leadership of the Jerusalem church. He later led the church to esape to Petra when the rebellion started. So we know the names of Jesus' uncle and cousin. The Cleopas in Luke 24 was therefore Jesus' uncle. It is also said that Joseph of Arimathea was Mary's brother and therefore Jesus' uncle. This ties in with the fact that he claimed Jesus' body, for the Romans were quite adamant on the right of relatives to claim the bodies of execution victims, for they feared vengeful spirits angry at being unburied.

That Jesus had relatives in Judea is quite normal, for the family of David, to which Joseph belonged, had lands in Judea, which they had reclaimed when Cyrus of Persia allowed Jews to return and reclaim ancestral lands. For some reason Mary's family ahd moved to Nazareth in Galilee, but I suspect that as Mary's kinswoman Elizabeth was of the family of Aaron, the priestly family, Mary was herself of that clan and therefore from a family of priests. The jigsaw again fits, for it explains Mary's journey to see Elizabeth. A Jewish girl of that period could not just get up and take a journey, but as priests used to migrate to Jerusalem to do priestly service, taking their families with them, Mary's journey makes full sense in historical context.

frankbeswick on 09/25/2015

I am relying on the ancient texts as they are given to us. The gospels speak of Jesus' brothers. Now, adelphos always signifies brothers or half brothers [some cultures do not discriminate the two] and phrater denotes a kinsman.The gospels use the word adelphos to speak of Jesus' brothers. Also, when you go to the tale of the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, you find that the word cousin is syngeneis, a word that denotes common ancestry, probably denoting membership of the same clan. There were ancient traditions of the Palestinian church voiced by St John of Damascus that Joseph was a widower who was left with children and so Mary was his second wife. Jesus' brothers are named in the gospels as James, Jude, Joset and Simeon, and the gospel also speaks of sisters. The Acts of the Apostles, Paul, and the historical work of Josephus, the Antiquity of the Jews, speak of James the Brother of the Lord, who also was responsible for the epistle of James [James the brother of John had been martyred by the time that this letter was written.]

There is theological disagreement about the permanent virginity of Mary. The main doctrine is the virginal conception, that Jesus had no human father. This is central to Christan teaching. Later on a legend arose that she had remained physially a virgin after childbirth. There is no scriptural justfication for this claim. Later on at Rome, there arose the claim, also non-scriptural, that she had remained a permanent virgin. I think it important to say that the key doctrine is the first one, the virginal conception. Nothing of significance rests on the other two claims.

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