Clinton Chisholm | Did Jesus really exist?
It is perfectly legitimate to ask of any person in ancient history, ‘did he/she really exist?’. Because we were not around back then to express personal knowledge of anyone’s existence, we have to repose faith or trust in persons, documents, artifacts and the like to prove the existence of any ancient individual, be that one Plato or Paul, Josephus or Jesus, Alexander the Great or Agrippa.
Apart from material written on stone or similar durable material, we have no original documents from the first century of this era and before.
No one, therefore, can be unquestionably proven to be a real existent in history except through copies of original documents originally written on paper-like material. These copies are called manuscripts.
When drawing from such manuscripts, we have to ask a few critical questions:
1) When was the original written?
2) What is the time gap between the original and the earliest copy available to us today?
3) How many copies do we have today?
Here is a shocking but indisputable fact. The New Testament (as a collection of documents) is superior to most in terms of time lapse between event and writing, superior to all in terms of time lapse between writing and the earliest copy, and, as well, in terms of number of copies.
From event to writing, two authors have a shorter gap than the New Testament documents, namely the Greek historian Thucydides (who wrote about and during a war in which he was involved); the other is Pliny the Younger, a Roman trial judge who documented the trial of Christians and sent his report to Emperor Hadrian, seeking sentencing guidance for obstinate Christians.
Nonetheless, the earliest New Testament document that mentions Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection is Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians; the date of writing, by general scholarly consensus, is about AD 40.
With reference to the gap between writing and the earliest copy, the New Testament documents (as a whole collection) is superior to all, with a mere 225 years.
The closest rival here is Homer’s Iliad, at 400 years.
Concerning number of copies, the New Testament is embarrassingly superior, with almost 6,000 Greek manuscripts. The closest runner-up is again the Iliad, at 643.
Beyond the gap concerns, one needs to probe a document to see if the author is reliable enough to be trusted for truth content if the document, on its face, purports to be historical.
MARKS OF TRUSTWORTHINESS
A couple noteworthy marks of trustworthiness in the Gospels would be the following:
1. Damaging material to the disciples of Jesus (betrayal, did not understand their master’s teaching, jockeying for power, rebuked by the Master, chief eyewitness/disciple rebuked as Satan).
2. Damaging or unhelpful material to their central case about the resurrection – WOMEN AS FIRST WITNESSES OF JESUS’ EMPTY TOMB (Mt. 28; Mk. 16; Lk. 24; Jn. 20) - when the testimony of women was worthless in a 1st-century court!
So, if you doubt the reliability of the New Testament documents, then you have to cast doubt on almost all of classical literature that’s written on paper-like material.
The New Testament documents affirm Jesus’ existence.
But here is something else to ponder. Assume, as some critics do, that Jesus never existed. How then do you deal with the fact that a prestigious Roman historian like Tacitus mentions that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate?
In his Annals, 15.44 (written ± AD 115) while dealing with the fire of Rome, Tacitus says:
“Consequently to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate…”
How can you crucify a non-existent person? Seriously, how? Jesus Christ was a real historical person. Tacitus corroborates the historicity of Jesus.
The modern atheist and specialist historian on Christian Origins, Bart Ehrman, says:
“Up to this stage in our quest to see if the historical Jesus actually existed, I have been mounting the positive argument, showing why the evidence is overwhelming that Jesus really did live as a Jewish teacher in Palestine and was crucified at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate…” (Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? 2012, p. 177.)
- Rev Dr Clinton Chisholm is a former lecturer in Greek at the Jamaica Theological Seminary; in Greek exegesis at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology; and teaching assistant in Hebrew at Sheffield University in the United Kingdom. Email feedback to email@example.com