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Did Jesus Really Exist?
by Daryl E. Witmer
Every year on December 25th hundreds of millions of Christian believers from all over the world enthusiastically celebrate the birth of Jesus. But was Jesus really ever born? Did a first-century Jesus of Nazareth ever actually, historically, exist? Incredible as it may seem, there are those who say “No.”
How about you? If you are one who denies the fact that Jesus ever lived, exactly what are you saying?
1. Do you mean that reality is only present tense – that all history is actually only an invented memory implanted in the mind – so that no one in the past (not even a neighbor seeming to have visited you yesterday) ever truly existed. That no one in the past can have existed because the past itself doesn’t even exist.
If this is what you mean by saying that Jesus never existed, your objection is really epistemological, or philosophical, in nature. Space does not permit a complete response to such a postulate here. For now, suffice it to say that no one can actually ever live consistently with such a view for any significant period of time.
2. Do you simply mean that no great first-century religious leader by the name of Jesus actually lived?
Writer Arthur Drews, socialists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and philosopher Bertrand Russell are all notables who have held this view. Russell wrote this in Why I Am Not a Christian: “Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him.”
This is, quite simply, a factual error. Such errors are probably best challenged by referring all concerned to commonly recognized, reputable standards and sources of authority, such as:
a) A well-established line of encyclopedic reference, e.g. Britannica, World Book, Grolier.
b) A common Gregorian calendar, i.e. check the etymology of A.D. (Anno Domini = Latin, in the year of our Lord)
c) The written record of early secular (non-Christian) historians or authorities such as Tacitus (Annals XV, 44), Lucian of Samosata (The Death of Peregrine, 11-13), Suetonius (Life of Claudius), Pliny the Younger (Epistles X, 96), and Thallus.
d) The famous first century Jewish historian, Josephus.
e) Early Christian sources such as the New Testament documents, the Creedal Confessions, and the written testimony of Church figures such as Clement, Ignatius, and Justin Martyr.
3 Do you mean that Jesus as described in the Bible never existed? Do you mean that although an actual historical figure by the name of Jesus may have lived, He never claimed to be God, did miracles, rose from the dead, or intended to found a religion?
Christian apologist Dr. Robert Morey once engaged in a radio debate with Sheila Thompson, Assistant to the President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin. Ms. Thompson began by saying, “I am absolutely positive myself that there wasn’t a Jesus of Nazareth, any more than there was a Paul Bunyan.” By the time that she concluded, however, she had modified her position to saying (italics mine): “…current Protestant Biblical scholars do not believe that there was a Jesus of Nazareth who said and did all those wild things that you find Him saying and doing…”
Dr. Morey countered by saying, “There [are] literary works from His friends and foes, there is archeological evidence, letters, correspondence, historians… Only the most biased atheist could possibly close their eyes to [all of the] evidence.”
Such a denial of Jesus’ existence falls into the category of an interpretative objection, and probably constitutes the most common and complex form of all of the various denials of the historicity of Jesus. It essentially alleges that the Jesus which we read about in the Bible today is nothing but a legend and a myth who did not exist as such. Some then reinvent an acceptable version.
Jesus Under Fire is one of a number of excellent texts effectively refuting such desperate attempts by groups like the Jesus Seminar to reinvent the historical Jesus. In chapter 8 of this text, historian Edwin Yamauchi (Ph.D., Brandeis University) argues that we have better historical documentation for Jesus than for the founder of any other religion, including Zoroaster, Buddha, and Mohammed.