Time is an interesting concept. How we understand time, shapes our existence in more ways than we often care to acknowledge. If I were to ask you what year it is, you would say "2021" (the time of this writing). If I were to ask you why it is 2021, you may look at me with a confused expression on your face, as if to say, “what do mean?”
I do not think that we think about why it is the year it is as often as we should.
Prior to modern scholars bastardizing our universal time designations, we collectively understood exactly what our year represented. That is to say, before modern scholars started jamming BCE and CE (which stand for “Before Common Era” and “Common Era” respectively) down our proverbial throats, most scholars distinguished ancient history from modern history with the demarcations “BC” and “AD.” The former of course stands for “Before Christ” and the latter stands for anno domini, which is Latin for “In the year of the Lord.” In other words, before agnostic academics tried to change the historical rules by which most of us have faithfully adhered to for over a millennia, it was much more apparent to everyone exactly what our year represented.
The origin of how we calculate our year in the Western World began with Dionysius Exiguus in 525 AD. No one is exactly sure which method he used for measuring his own time period back to the incarnation of Jesus. Nonetheless his calculations were quite accurate. Perhaps he got his calculation from the 4th Century Church historian Eusebius, who posited that Jesus turned 30 in the year 28/29 AD, thus placing his birth around 2/1 BC. The traditional scholarly consensus, puts Jesus’s birth between 6 BC and 4 BC. So, as you can see, Dionysius’s understanding of his own time in relation to that of the historical Jesus was quite accurate.
The point is, we say that it is 2021 because it is believed that Jesus was born approximately two thousand twenty one years ago. Furthermore, it seems preposterous on the very face of it, to have to prove whether or not Jesus the man historically existed, when the way in which we understand history itself is directly related to his life. Nonetheless, with this post I will present four reasons that I believe prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth.
You may not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but hopefully by the end of this you will believe that he was at least a man.
Before I present you with four reasons why you should believe that Jesus of Nazareth historically existed, I must first address one piece of “evidence” that is often cited whenever this subject is discussed. When the topic of the historical Jesus is brought up, it is common for the Shroud of Turin to be invoked as tangible proof of his existence. Believers claim that the Shroud of Turin is the actual burial shroud of Jesus. Indeed, it is difficult for anyone to explain how or why it seems to bear his likeness in the fibers. The shroud is without a doubt extremely intriguing, but pardon my pun here, it is too deeply shrouded in mystery to be of any practical use to our current discussion. The controversial nature of the carbon dating has kept both, believers and skeptics, from claiming a definitive victory in the matter, and therefore, unfortunately, neither side can cite the shroud as proving or disproving anything.
Nevertheless, despite not being able to use the Shroud as evidence to prove the historicity of Jesus, I implore anyone to try to recreate anything like it; it simply cannot be done. So in that sense, the shroud is absolutely miraculous, and should not be disregarded. It is of incredible value — how much value it holds, however, remains to be seen.
I mention all of this to highlight the intent of this writing. This post does not seek to prove miracles. The goal of this post is simply to present a reasonable argument for the historical existence of a man known to the world as Jesus of Nazareth.
1. History vs. Myth
In scholarly circles, the contention that Jesus did not historically exist is called the Christ Myth Theory. In this section, I will attempt to refute two common arguments in support of this theory. The first is that Christianity was not a new religious phenomenon, but rather, it is the syncretism of Greek and Jewish belief structures at the time, and the second is that the story of Jesus fits a hero archetype pattern found in many other ancient myths, and is therefore just an invention and has no basis in historical fact. Without a doubt, there are elements of truth in these two mythicist arguments. Nonetheless, just because they can be argued for persuasively and contain elements of truth, does not mean that they are the TRUTH. Let me explain what I mean by this distinction.
As for the first argument, that Christianity is just an amalgamation of Greek and Jewish thought and belief, and is therefore not the new phenomenon that many claimed that it was. I am sorry, but that is not exactly a ground breaking revelation. The New Testament is written in Greek, mostly by Jews to persuade both Jews and Greeks to convert to Christianity. It seems self-evident that if you want people to understand you, you need to speak their language, as it were. So, it is not exactly earth shattering scholarship to point out that these two cultures coalesced into parts of Christianity.
Let us look at a clear example of how easily this syncretism can occur, and why it is not the huge problem to Christian faith that mythicists believe it is. The minority of modern scholars that believe that the apostle John is the actual author of the Gospel that bears his name, contend that he wrote the gospel during his exile in Patmos. Or another way to put it, a Jewish man was writing in Greece about the life of Christ. Looking at it this way, it is not difficult to see where and how certain aspects of Jewish and Greek culture innocuously converged via early Christianity. The point I am trying to make here is that this seems to be a misguided set of parameters by which to judge the reliability of the historical basis for someone.
In fact, if anything, the fact that Christianity holds within it some age old truths from two ancient cultures full of wisdom enhances Christianity, it does not diminish it. As Augustine wrote in Retractions, “That which is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the human race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion which already existed began to be called Christianity.” In other words, Christianity is the ultimate culmination of something that was already centuries in the making. I do not think any Christian would (or should) deny that fact.
The Jewish people looked to their scripture for signs of the Messiah (i.e. an anointed King sent by God) who would come and save them. And the Greeks looked to their philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, and others) to make sense of their world by acquiring wisdom. We open up the Gospel of John and read, “In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” With one line John has brought together the language of the Jewish scripture with the philosophy of the Greeks into a new belief structure which came to be known as Christianity. “In the beginning” is the same language we see in the Book of Genesis — the first book of the Law of Moses— and the Logos is a Greek philosophical concept that means wisdom or reason. Mythicists may argue that Jesus is an amalgamation of Jewish and Greek culture, but believers could just as easily (and perhaps more persuasively) argue that Jesus is just the fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecy AND the perfect embodiment of Greek wisdom. Which, to achieve both simultaneously, seems like a miracle unto itself. But like I said earlier, this post is not trying to convince you of miracles.
As for the second, and much more controversial argument of mythicists, that Jesus fits the typical mythical hero archetype, and because of that he was not a real historical figure. There is a lot to unpack here. Before I proceed any further I should address what is meant exactly by the “mythical hero archetype.” Its more technical scholarly moniker is the Rank-Raglan Mythotype. This narrative concept is derived from the work of Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank and anthropologist Lord Raglan. Other notable names in this academic arena include Joseph Campbell and James G. Frazer.
Rank and Raglan each outlined a set of hero tropes that they saw as the repeating pattern found in the stories of mythical heroes across different cultures. Mythicists like to claim that because the story of Jesus has some of these traits, then it must mean that he is mythical.
There are three huge flaws in this argument:
The first is that, according to prestigious folklorist Alan Dundes, Lord Raglan never actually denies the historicity of the heroes he studied. And Raglan’s successor in this field of study, Joseph Campbell, is quite explicit about the historical basis of Jesus. Campbell writes, “If we think of the crucifixion in only historical terms, we lose the symbol’s immediate reference to ourselves.” Campbell’s point may be in favor of the allegorical over the literal interpretation, nonetheless, it still confirms the existence of the literal, which is to say, the historical Jesus.
The second flaw of this mythicist argument is that the parameters that define the hero are so general that many prominent people who are indisputably historic figures like Abraham Lincoln or Augustus Caesar fit the description of a Rank-Raglan mythical hero even better than actual mythical heroes like Achilles or Odysseus they are meant to describe. To apply generalizations such as “unusual conception,” “coming from a royal line,” or “grew up” as a way to determine if someone historically existed or not is ridiculous.
And the third flaw of the argument, that Jesus’s story is just like any other ancient mythic hero, is that the statement in and of itself is verifiably false. Let me put it this way: I invite any mythicist who makes such a claim to tell me exactly what mythic hero story in the 1st century AD or prior, ever depicted the hero as having no army, preaching non-violence, and dying the death of a disgraced criminal? Although Jesus may fit into some general mythic hero tropes, Jesus’s story is a lot less common than you may think.
That last point, about Jesus dying the death of a disgraced criminal, provides us with a good segue to bring us to the second reason we know that Jesus historically existed:
Frankly, his story is kind of embarrassing.
2. Embarrassment Factor
Just to be clear: on this matter of the historicity of Jesus, it is the mythicists, who hold the minority opinion. There are two points about the historical life of Jesus about which the majority of scholars (skeptics and believers alike) are in agreement -- Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and Pontius Pilate sentenced him to death by crucifixion. Why are most scholars in agreement about these two points? It is simple: they are embarrassing to the followers of Jesus, because they are a direct challenge to his divinity. In the world of Biblical scholarship, this way of proving the historical reliability of something is referred to as the “Criterion of Embarrassment,” a phrase popularized by Biblical scholar John P. Meier in his seminal work, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.
First, let us look at Jesus’s baptism and why the criterion of embarrassment helps us see the historical validity of the story. The question must be asked, why would Jesus, who is the (supposed) sinless Son of God, need to be baptized by someone preaching a baptism for the repentance of sins? It does not make sense. And why would the (supposed) “King of the Jews” be seen bowing down before someone else in the middle of the Jordan River? So, even though this story can be interpreted in a light that makes Jesus seem imperfect and “less than,” his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist is depicted in all four gospels. Why would these Evangelists record this story, if it is a potential challenge to the faith? It is simple: because that is what actually happened.
Now let us look at Jesus’s crucifixion. According to Jewish scripture, the Messiah (i.e. the Christ) was supposed to be a man promised by God who would conquer the enemies of Israel, establish God’s Holy Kingdom, and set things right for God’s chosen people. Instead, what you have in Jesus is a man, tortured and humiliated by the oppressor and given the death of a criminal.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul acknowledges the difficulty that preaching a crucified Christ presented. He writes, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and a folly to Gentiles”. In other words, for Jews the fact that Jesus was defeated by the oppressors showed that he was not the promised Christ, and the fact that Paul preached that the Son of God died like a lowly criminal just seemed silly to the Greeks. The point here seems clear, we can infer that Jesus was really crucified, because it was such a shameful way for the Jewish Messiah and/or the Son of God to die. If people were just inventing the story of Jesus, as mythicists contend, then why would anyone add such a difficult event to explain to his story? The point: the story, as it is, makes his followers look foolish to outsiders, so it stands to reason that the only reason to write that a man named Jesus was crucified, is because in fact, a man named Jesus was crucified.
3. Eyewitness Testimony
It seems hard to believe that this year is the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. It seems like just yesterday when that tragedy unfolded before our eyes. Everyone remembers where they were that tragic day, where they stood shocked and deeply saddened by the sights they saw either on their television screens, or worse, in person. Everything seemed to change that day. It is difficult to comprehend how the events of one day could change the lives of so many people. So many different stories could be told by so many. Now let us keep all of that in mind — how the events of twenty years ago can still burn vividly in the memories of so many — as we transition back to the subject at hand.
Think about it, within less than twenty years of the crucifixion, Paul was writing letters about the death of a man named Jesus, “For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” Despite the fact that Paul’s letters leave out many of the biographical elements of the life of Jesus found in the Gospels, and the fact that he never met Jesus personally, Paul is very clear that Jesus was in fact a real man who actually lived on earth. But you may be wondering, if Paul never met him personally then how can we trust that Paul knew he really existed?
In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which is believed by many scholars to be his earliest letter, he explicitly states that he spent more than two weeks with Peter, Jesus’s closest disciple, and James, Jesus’s brother. This occurred, Paul tells us, when he went to Jerusalem three years after his conversion (which by most accounts is about five years after the death of Jesus -- circa 35/38 AD). One can only imagine that since Paul had given up everything in his life for his belief in this man Jesus, a man he never met in the flesh, that the most important thing for Paul to discuss with Peter and James was the man's life (that is, if that was a question at all). As agnostic biblical scholar