Did Jesus Christ Really Exist?

Jesus - real or not

It is widely known today that Jesus did exist. Even the average non-religious person on the street can accept that Jesus was at least a good moral teacher (although there are issues with this position as C.S. Lewis points out). However, on rare occasions, we still overhear the claim that Jesus never really did exist, but instead he was a mere hypothesis as French philosopher Michel Onfray maintains.[1]

What is the evidence that he did exist?

1) Well firstly we have 4 biographies of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Now I know the automatic charge from a sceptic against this will be that “the New Testament (NT) isn’t a reliable document”, so let me quickly dispel that myth citing world renown atheist New Testament critical scholar Bart Ehrman. He says that:

If he [Bruce Metzger – most influential 20th century NT scholar] and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands.  The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.[2]

Now when we look at the dating of the four biographies, all four of them were written within at least 70 years of Christ’s death. This is excellent in terms of time frame because it means that not enough time has passed between Jesus and the biographies for mythology to creep in. To give you an example of how close this gap is within ancient history, let’s compare it to the Iliad written by Homer. The Iliad is ancient Greek epic poem written in dactylic hexameter.  The problem here is that there is at least a 400 year gap between Homer (850BC according to Herodotus) and the first copy of the Iliad (7-8th Century) available to us. 400 years compared to just 70 is a big difference.

The four biographies also pass the test as standard eyewitness accounts (or at least reports off of eye witnesses – for example the book of Luke) based within first century Jewish culture.

2) St Paul (New Testament evangelist) writes a letter in 1 Corinthians 15 attesting to the life and death of Christ. Scholars place this letter at about 25 years after the death of Christ. Within a historical context, this is a very close proximity, and so counts as valuable evidence adding to the idea that Jesus really did exist since he was being written about so soon after his death.

3) We also have many extra Biblical reports of Jesus cited from ancient figures around the time of Jesus (ill jus point out a few):

3a) Flavius Josephus who was a Romano-Jewish Scholar and historian. He was born 37AD and died 100AD and he wrote a history of Judaism around 93AD in which he makes a reference to James the brother of “Jesus, who was called Christ”.[3].

3b) We also have reports from Irenaeus. Irenaeus lived from 130AD to 202AD and he was an early church father and apologist. He references the four gospels in one of his writings confirming the claims of each of them. This provides good evidence because it shows that the gospels had to have been written before the 2nd century since someone in the 2nd century was referencing all of them. Jesus himself would have lived in the 1st century and so this places a lot more weight on the idea that the gospels were written by people who actually knew Jesus because they were living around the same time as him.

3c) Lastly, we have the Babylonian Talmud which is a commentary on Jewish laws written between 500-600AD. Within this text (Tractate Sanhedrin 43a), we see a clear reference to Jesus Christ and his death by hanging (on the cross) by the hands of the Jews and Romans. It even references the period of time in which Jesus was hung.[4]

We now return to Bart Ehrman prominent atheist scholar and historian. In a series of quotes in his book Did Jesus exist? Bart says that:

Every week I receive two or three e-mails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being. When I started getting these e-mails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously. Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?

…I decided to look into the matter. I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.

…I should say at the outset that none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world). Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed.

…But as a historian I think evidence matters. And the past matters. And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist. He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic. But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him.[5] 

Here we can see even Ehrman himself has no issue with admitting that the historical evidence points to Jesus being a real person. He essentially tells us within these quotes that it isn’t even a debate amongst trained historians and scholars, it only surfaces as a problematic question amongst untrained writers in this area who (possibly) have an agenda (evident in the fact that they misquote Ehrman in support of their point – the mythicist argument).

It seems it is implausible to claim that Jesus didn’t exist. If we can at least get this far then the next question to asses would be, was Jesus really God or just a fraud? And did he prove this on the cross or not?



[1] Simon Gathercole. 2017. What is the historical evidence that Jesus Christ lived and died?. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/14/what-is-the-historical-evidence-that-jesus-christ-lived-and-died.

[2] Bart D. Ehrman. 2017. Misquoting Jesus:The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (Plus). [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Misquoting-Jesus-Story-Behind-Changed/dp/0060859512.

[3] William Whiston. 2017. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0146%3Abook%3D20%3Awhiston+chapter%3D9%3Awhiston+section%3D1.

[4] come-and-hear. 2017. Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin Folio 43a. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_43.html. [Accessed 2 August 2017].

[5] Bart D. Ehrman. 2017. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0062204602/?tag=stno-20.


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