Jesus: Real or Myth?

Introduction

While some individuals question his deity, and others argue about the truth of the resurrection, and still others contend that miracles cannot occur, only a quite small minority holds the position that Jesus did not even existWestern society generally accepts that a man named Jesus lived on this earth roughly 2000 years ago for a period of about 33 years.In fact, a 2005 university study found that only 1% of Americans considers Jesus to be a “fictional character.”[1]

Why is this so? Because the evidence in support of Jesus’ historicity is reliable, diverse, persuasive, and, if objectively considered, nearly overwhelming. Given the variety of types of evidence—including oral creeds, New Testament biographies, archaeology, and ancient non-Christian writings— the life of Jesus is better documented than that of nearly any other historical figure.[2] As a result, “very few scholars hold the view that Jesus never lived.”[3]

Creeds

The earliest materials available concerning the life of Jesus are the oral creeds of the nascent Christian church. These creeds were formulated years before the New Testament books were written, and were passed down verbally among new Christians. Thus, the creeds “preserve some of the earliest reports concerning Jesus from about AD 30-50.”[4]

Several of the creeds speak directly to the facts of Jesus existence, including his birth, humanity, and lineage. As just one example, Philippians 2:7-8, considered part of a “pre-Pauline hymn” of the early church,[5] attests the human nature of Jesus:

[Jesus] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death. (NIV) 

Collectively, the oral creeds clearly demonstrate very early belief in the existence of Jesus; they establish that “Jesus was a real flesh and blood person … who was physically born in the lineage of David … and came from the town of Nazareth.”[6] These basic facts about Jesus’ existence are “not only established historically but are recognized by virtually all critical scholars as well.”[7]  

New Testament Biographies

As the basis for the Christian faith, the New Testament gospel biographies certainly attest to Jesus’ historicity. Given the import of the gospels, it is reasonable to examine how well they stand up under scrutiny as authoritative historical sources.

First, the time period between writing of the New Testament books and the oldest extant copies is quite small, especially in comparison to other accepted texts.  Consider the works of both Tacitus and Josephus. Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome was written in about 116 A.D.; the first six books exist in a single manuscript copied in the year 850.[8] For Josephus’ The Jewish War, there are nine Greek manuscripts with the earliest dated in the tenth century; there is also a Latin translation dated from the fourth century.[9] In contrast, for the New Testament, “we have copies commencing within a couple of generations from the writing of the originals, whereas in the case of other ancient texts, maybe five, eight, or ten centuries elapsed between the original and the earliest surviving copy.”[10]

Second, there are many more copies and fragments of manuscripts for the New Testament than for any other book of antiquity.  There are over 5,600 Greek manuscripts (and 19,000 copies in other languages) containing portions of the New Testament.[11] Thus, “we have far more information about Jesus than we do for most major figures of antiquity,” despite Jesus being (at the time) an unknown figure that had “at most a three-year public life as an itinerant Galilean preacher.”[12]

For comparison to the New Testament, consider Homer’s Iliad.  Written around 800 B.C., there are approximately 1,750 Greek manuscripts, with the oldest dated about 400 B.C.[13] Thus, the time gap is quite large, roughly 400 years, and the number of manuscripts only a fraction of the number in existence for the New Testament.  Importantly, the Iliad is considered the best documented of the works of antiquity, after the New Testament.[14] For someone to be skeptical that the original text of the New Testament books has been well preserved “is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.”[15]

Archaeology

Archeology can provide corroborating evidence as to validity of what is recorded in ancient documents, but it cannot prove whether or not Jesus existed. However, “if an ancient historian’s incidental details check out to be accurate time after time, this increases our confidence in other materials that the historian wrote but that cannot be as readily cross-checked.”[16] Thus, archeology can affirm (or not) details contained in the New Testament and other ancient documents, lending credence (or not) to their claims about Jesus’ existence.

Lee Strobel recounts several examples in which a New Testament writer was initially thought to be sloppy in their detail, only to find out later, via archeological discovery, that the author was correct all along. For example, in Luke 3 there is a reference to Lysanias being the tetrarch of Abilene in about 27 A.D. Scholars long thought Luke had made an error, since Lysanias is known as ruler of Chalcis half a century earlier.  But a later archaeological discovery found there was a second Lysanias, who was confirmed to be just whom Luke said.[17] Strobel points out that Luke, in particular, has been established as a “scrupulously accurate historian, even in the smallest details,”[18] and concludes that “archeology’s repeated affirmation of the New Testament’s accuracy provides important corroboration for its reliability.”[19]

Non-Christian sources

There are also a number of important, ancient, non-Christian references to Jesus. Gary Habermas examines 17 sources in The Historical Jesus and concludes, “When the combined evidence from ancient sources is summarized, quite an impressive amount of information is gathered concerning Jesus and ancient Christianity. … Few ancient historical figures can boast the same amount of material.”[20]

Habermas notes that these sources confirm that Jesus was the brother of James, ministered primarily around Palestine, reportedly performed miracles and made prophecies that later came true, was known to be a wise and ethical man, and had many disciples, both Jewish and Gentile. Habermas concludes:

While many of these facts are quite well known, we must remember that they have been documented here apart from the usage of the New Testament. … It is quite extraordinary that we could provide a broad outline of most of the major facts of Jesus’ life from “secular” history alone. Such is surely significant.[21]

Two secular sources, Tacitus and Josephus, are deemed especially important. Edwin Yamauchi, noted Professor Emeritus at Miami University in Ohio, considers Tacitus the most important Roman historian of the first century.[22]  He notes that Tacitus’ mention of Jesus “is an important testimony by an unsympathetic witness to the success and spread of Christianity, based on a historical figure—Jesus—who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”[23] In addition, the works of Josephus include a passage that refers to “James, the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ.”[24] Yamauchi, who regards Josephus as a very important first century Jewish historian,[25] says he knows of no scholar that has successfully disputed this passage.[26]  

Thus, non-Christian sources “establish beyond a reasonable doubt [that] Jesus was truly a historical person. This may seem silly to stress, but through the years some have denied that Jesus ever lived. The non-biblical sources put such nonsense to rest.[27]

Just a Myth?

Given the volume and credibility of the evidence in support of Jesus’ historicity, “surprisingly few scholars have asserted that Jesus never existed.”[28] Even so, there are a few who argue that Jesus never lived, that he is just a myth. Two such examples are Dr. Avrum Stroll and the 2007 film, Zeitgeist: The Movie.

Several decades ago Dr. Avrum Stroll, then of the Philosophy Department at the University of British Columbia, gave a lecture titled, “Did Jesus Really Exist?” At the close of that lecture he summed up as follows:

An accretion of legends grew up about this figure [Jesus], was incorporated into the gospels by various devotees of the movement, was rapidly spread throughout the Mediterranean world by the ministry of St. Paul; and that because this is so, it is impossible to separate these legendary elements in the purported descriptions of Jesus from those which in fact were true of him. [29]

In assessing Professor Stroll’s arguments, John Montgomery points out two key issues. First, Stroll totally ignores some of the primary documents, namely the letters of Paul, dismissing them “on the remarkable grounds that ‘all of them have at one time or other been challenged as genuine’ and that ‘Paul never met Jesus.’”[30] Most scholars agree that Paul’s letters, being some of the earliest documents we possess,[31] are critical to any assessment of Jesus’ historicity.

Second, Dr. Stroll “rejects the authenticity of the Gospel accounts on the ground that they attribute miracles to Jesus.”[32] Montgomery counters that “no historian can legitimately rule out documentary evidence simply on the ground that it records remarkable events; if the documents are sufficiently reliable, the remarkable events must be accepted even if they cannot be successfully explained.”[33] Because Stroll does not believe in miracles, he refuses to accept the Gospels’ eyewitness testimonies regarding Jesus’ existence.

Stroll reaches his conclusion that Jesus is a myth by conveniently disregarding significantly important documents that the majority of scholars find credible and highly relevant to the discussion.

Zeitgeist

More recently, a 2007 production, Zeitgeist: The Movie, includes a lengthy section asserting that Jesus is no more than a myth based heavily upon the zodiac and ancient religions. This is a well-made animated presentation that sounds definitive, scientific, and plausible. But it contains numerous statements that various reviewers have found to be, at best, inaccurate; others label it “agitprop” or “propaganda.”[34] A few of the (many) unsubstantiated claims include:[35]

  • Jesus, Horus, and over 30 other historical / mythological gods are said to share many aspects including: virgin birth, December 25 birthdate, a star in the east, 3 kings who followed the star, 12 disciples, burial for 3 days, resurrection, etc.
  • Ancient worship of the “sun” somehow transposes into worship of the “son” of God.
  • Contorted references or associations to astrology. The 12 disciples correspond to the 12 signs of the zodiac, not real men. The “wise men” correspond to the 3 stars of Orion’s Belt, not real people. “Resurrection” of the son correlates to “rising” of the sun; the sun is “buried” at the winter solstice, but three days later “arises” as days begin to lengthen. Bethlehem somehow refers to the constellation Virgo, not a real town on earth.
  • Use of a variety of biblical texts out of context.

In short, the movie presents a mishmash of statements and concepts, loosely tied together in a slick presentation, delivered with “passion and effective use of video editing,”[36] but with a clearly condescending and dismissive attitude toward Christian beliefs. Notably, no references are given for the statements made; the film is a popular work, not a scholarly work. Some “reviews assert that [the film] is ‘conspiracy crap’, ‘based solely on anecdotal evidence’ and ‘fiction couched in a few facts.’”[37] Others consider it “an example of unethical film-making … through the use of unreferenced and undated assertions.”[38] The film and its claims are popular with atheists and students, but have been dismissed by scholars.

Myth Counterarguments

Looking more broadly, any claim that Jesus’ existence is a myth, including those above, has to contend with significant counterarguments. Collectively, these objections provide very solid justification that the Jesus story is not a myth.

One of the major problems facing any myth hypothesis is the observation that eleven of the apostles died as martyrs for their beliefs.[39] As McDowell points out, these men were eyewitnesses to the events, they were initially frightened and skeptical (e.g. Thomas, Peter, James), but they somehow were transformed into men of courage. “The apostles were in a position to know the facts about Jesus’ resurrection, and they still died for it.”[40] It is simply not credible that an entire group of followers would be willing to die—without a single member recanting—for proclaiming what they know to be a lie.

Second, if the Jesus story is a myth, it came into being over an extremely short period of time, an unprecedented feat. “Julius Müller challenged scholars of the mid-nineteenth century to show anywhere in history where within thirty years a great series of legends had accumulated around a historical individual and had become firmly fixed in general belief. Müller's charge has never been met.”[41]  

Next, authors of a Jesus myth would not have portrayed women as being the first to find the empty tomb. “If the empty tomb story were a legend, then it is most likely that the male disciples would have been made the first to discover the empty tomb. The fact that despised women, whose testimony was deemed worthless, were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb can only be plausibly explained if, like it or not, they actually were the discoverers of the empty tomb.”[42]

Finally, if they invented a myth story, why create one in which Jesus is buried by a member of the Sanhedrin? “As a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention. … There was an understandable hostility in the early church toward the Jewish Sanhedrists. In Christian eyes, they had engineered a judicial murder of Jesus. … Joseph is the last person one would expect to care properly for Jesus.”[43]

Conclusion

Though some scholars question Jesus’ deity, the resurrection, or whether miracles occur, nearly all scholars acknowledge that Jesus was a real historical person. It is easy to understand why: the evidence for Jesus’ existence is simply too compelling. As a result, “the vast majority of modern writers who are interested in disputing the truth of the Christian religion are content to argue for an unorthodox picture of Jesus rather than to argue that he never existed.”[44]

Those few who do claim that Jesus was a myth arrive at that conclusion by ignoring important data (e.g. Stroll) or by simply making up their own data (e.g. Zeitgeist).  These and other authors “may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ-myth,’ but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar.[45]

 

For Further Study:

  • History and Christianity, by John Warwick Montgomery. (At Amazon.) Short book that presents evidence that Jesus was a real, historical figure. (Sometimes hard to find. There's an alternative version titled History, Law and Christianity by the same author.)

  • Advanced:  The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, by Gary R. Habermas, who is one of the foremost scholars regarding Jesus and the resurrection. (At Amazon.)


 

[1] Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe (Waco: Baylor Univ. Press, 2008), 63, as quoted in Wikipedia, Jesus Myth Theory, 18.  Accessed 4-13-11.

[2] Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus:  Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ.  (Joplin: College Press, 1996), 251.

[3] Habermas, 27.

[4] Habermas, 143.

[5] Oscar Cullmann, The Earliest Christian Confessions (London: Lutterworth, 1949), 22-23, 28, 55, 57-62, as cited in Habermas, 145.

[6] Habermas, 167.

[7] Habermas, 170.

[8] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 60.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Strobel, 59.  Italics mine.

[11] Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 34.

[12] William Lane Craig, On Guard (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010), 185.  Italics his.

[13] Clay Jones, The Bibliographical Test Updated, Christian Research Journal (Vol. 35, No. 03), 34.

[14] Strobel, 60.

[15] John Montgomery, History & Christianity (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1986), 29.

[16] Strobel, 96.

[17] Strobel, 97.

[18] Strobel, 98.

[19] Strobel, 107.

[20] Habermas, 219.

[21] Habermas, 224.

[22] Strobel, 81.

[23] Strobel, 83.

[24] Josephus, The Antiquities¸ 20.200, as quoted in Strobel, 78.

[25] Strobel, 77.

[26] Strobel, 78.

[27] Robert Stein, Jesus the Messiah: A Survey of the Life of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 49, as quoted by Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 136.

[28] Habermas, 46.

[29] From a lecture by Avrum Stroll delivered at the University of British Columbia, as quoted in John Montgomery, History & Christianity (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1986), 14.

[30] Montgomery, 19.

[31] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 211.

[32] Montgomery, 20.

[33] Montgomery, 21.

[34] Wikipedia, Zeitgeist: The Movie, 1.  Accessed 4-13-11.

[35] YouTube, Zeitgeist - Jesus Connection To Other Mythical Saviors, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtRt4fnHFWw.  Accessed 4-13-11.

[36] Wikipedia, 4.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Josh McDowell, Sean McDowell, More Than a Carpenter (Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2009), 90.

[40] Lynn Gardner, Christianity Stands True (Joplin: College Press, 1994), 30, as quoted in Josh McDowell, Sean McDowell, More Than a Carpenter, 102.

[41] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 1996), 285, as quoted in Clay Jones, Prepared Defense, version 2.0, 2011.

[42] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 368.

[43] Craig, 364.

[44] I. Howard Marshall, I Believe in the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing, 1977), 16.

[45] F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1964), 119, as quoted by Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 120.