Did Jesus Exist? (Part One)

As a Christian, my beliefs are grounded in history. I believe in the Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, performed miracles in Galilee and Judea, and died and rose again in Jerusalem.

Which is why an article entitled 5 Reasons to Suspect that Jesus Never Existed naturally caught my attention. To be faithful witnesses, Christians must listen to their critics, consider their arguments, and respond to them with intellectual honesty. In regards to this article, I’ve attempted to do just that in this 2-part series.

Christ Cleansing the Temple, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1875

Christ Cleansing the Temple, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1875

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef (the Aramaic name for Jesus the Nazarene).

I see two problems with this argument. First of all, this statement implies that historical claims made by 1st Christians cannot be taken seriously. Only those made by writers outside the Christian community can serve as solid historical evidence.

Secondly, Christianity was originally a small Jewish sect, so it doesn’t surprise me that Jesus doesn’t appear in 1st century histories outside of the Christian tradition. That being said, there are extra-biblical mentions (however brief) of Jesus Christ in ancient writings, such as Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny the Younger to name a few.

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.

Aside from Paul’s account of the Last Supper, the earlier New Testament books provide few historical details of Jesus’ earthly life (the Gospels were among the last to be written). Paul admits that he is not an eyewitness like the Apostles. He credits his conversion to an encounter with the risen Christ while traveling to Damascus, an account that skeptics will quickly dismiss as fanaticism or fable.

Does an absence of historical details mean ignorance?

Paul is writing as a theologian and a pastor, not an historian. He is concerned with answering questions of theology, rebuking bad behavior, and encouraging the churches he had planted. It doesn’t surprise me that he doesn’t provide many historical details about Jesus.

If our salvation depends on the Jesus of history, these are important criticisms to answer.

(Part 2: Eyewitnesses, contradictions, and modern New Testament scholars)

About Corey Sharpe

Where do we get our beliefs? Three theological perspectives have significantly shaped my Christian identity: Evangelicalism, the early Methodist tradition and liberation theology. From my coming to faith in a Baptist church and throughout my education in a Baptist school and college, I was nurtured by convictions that emphasized a spiritual rebirth, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the centrality of the Bible. Even when I disagree with certain aspects of evangelicalism, it has deeply influenced my sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. My seminary studies spawned my interest in early Methodism, particularly its approach to spiritual formation. Its leaders were convinced that only a foundation of doctrine and discipline would lead to a meaningful transformation of the heart and mind. In other words, having the mind of Christ enables me to be more like Christ. Life in a suburban culture obscures the increasing gap between the poor and rich, as well as the Bible’s close identification with the poor. My doctoral work in socio-cultural context exposed me to liberation theology, which helps me see redemptive history as a history of oppressed groups, written from the perspective of the powerless, about a God who is actively involved with the poor in their struggles. I am now the pastor at Huntingtown United Methodist Church in Calvert County, Maryland. Together my wife and I are raising 4 young theologians.
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