How do we know Jesus existed?

PHOTO: LISA JULIA PHOTOGRAPHY/BAYARD INC.
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BY FR. DAVID J. ENDRES

How do we know Jesus ever existed? From time to time an article or a book will make its way into the market arguing that Jesus’ existence was a coordinated hoax or a collective hallucination. Since modern society is so often fascinated with empirical proof, many Christians are confronted with questions from nonbelievers about their beliefs, including whether Jesus’ existence is a myth. Can Christian believers prove that Jesus walked on earth in first-century Palestine?

There are not many writings that mention Jesus in the first and second centuries, but the records are more numerous than some other historical figures, including significant figures whose existence is not questioned. It has been said that there is as much evidence for Jesus as the written references to the lives of the Roman consul Julius Caesar or the successful military leader Hannibal. This reminds us that ultimately everything we know about history is based on the testimony of another. And one must trust, dismiss, or qualify such evidence.

In relying on the authority of others, Christians have as a starting point the four Gospels. Though they might not agree in every detail, the Gospel accounts provide an overall narrative of the life of Jesus. They agree, for instance, that Jesus lived in first-century Palestine, that he gathered followers around him, performed miracles, and preached the coming of the kingdom of God. Ultimately Jesus clashed with religious authorities of his day, was sentenced to death, and rose from the dead after three days. Such agreement within the scriptural texts is significant, especially since there is internal evidence that the Gospels are true. If the Gospels were fictionalized accounts, the apostles would likely have been presented in a better light. However, the embarrassing details provided about them — their lack of understanding and unbelief — offer evidence that they are truthful accounts.

Outside the Gospels and other sacred writings, we can find evidence of Jesus. For nearly all who lived in the ancient world, there is no surviving documentation, but there are a few surviving non-Christian sources that testify to Jesus’ existence. Unlike the Gospels, these sources, usually historical annals, do not seek to provide a theological interpretation for believers, but they help illustrate the basic contours of his life, communicating a general understanding of Jesus and the early Christians held by nonbelievers.

The first-century Roman historian Josephus, for instance, in his Antiquities of the Jews refers to “Jesus, who was called Christ.” And even though some doubt whether his reference to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was in the original work of Josephus or later added by a Christian scribe, the testimony to Jesus’ existence is not questioned. Similarly, the Roman senator Tacitus’ Annals, written in the early second century, mentions “Christus” who “suffered the extreme penalty [crucifixion] during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” This passage is believed to be from the hand of Tacitus without alteration, providing an early non-Christian testimony to the passion and death of Jesus.

Even if we were to lay aside the written record, there is archaeological evidence that confirms some of the details of the Gospels, including an inscription referencing “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.” Archaeologists have also discovered the remnants of the foundation of a first-century synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus is believed to have given the Bread of Life discourse attested to in the Gospel of John (6:22–59).

The Christian faith is not one without evidence, but believers are asked to trust that evidence and the authority of another — the Church — to interpret and pass on what the evidence conveys. For believers, this evidence is not merely data but conveys the content of revelation: God became man in the person of Jesus. That he lived, what he said, and what he did when he walked on earth is an essential part of every believer’s intellectual assent.

But while Christians are challenged to have faith in Jesus, this does not mean that one should not ask the fundamental question: Did Jesus live? Questioning whether Jesus existed is not irreverent; it can be a healthy part of the process of seeking. It is intellectually honest to ask questions and look for their answers. Asking such questions can help us in the journey to faith. For if we can trust that Jesus lived and that his life is witnessed to in the Scriptures, we will find ourselves closer to believing in his teachings and putting them into practice in our lives.

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