My daughter-in-law Annie posted on Facebook about the historicity of Jesus. Addressing the question if Jesus was a ‘real’ historical figure or simply a myth or legend that developed over time so the early church could gain power and influence.

One of the comments on her Facebook page was they had never heard of such a thing. That is, questioning if Christ was a real historical character. I smiled when I read that because it is a common claim online in the atheist and skeptic circles I visit occasionally.

I decided to take a look online to see what I could find. After a quick search I found a Washington Post article by Raphael Lataster who lectures at the University of Sydney. Below is a clip of his article I wanted to address.

“The first problem we encounter when trying to discover more about the Historical Jesus is the lack of early sources. The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith. These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them. The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources – which they also fail to identify. Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.”1

Wow, what do you say to something like that? So many claims and assertions that undermine what we believe to be true. Of course many think the only sources we have about Jesus are in the scriptures and those can’t be trusted. The best way to tackle a series of claims like this is to break it down into smaller pieces. Let’s parse this out.

Lataster says, “The first problem we encounter when trying to discover more about the Historical Jesus is the lack of early sources. The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith.”2

Lataster is making a claim but does not back it up with any evidence and is dismissive of what evidence there is. In fact, the early sources are significant. Let’s look at the Gospel of Mark which most scholars agree it is the earliest written of all the Gospels.

Documents outside the Bible state that Mark was an eyewitness account of the apostle Peter. An early church bishop, Papias, born around 70 A.D., wrote that Mark was an interpreter of Peter and accurately put down what was remembered. Irenaeus, who was a student of Polycarp, who in turn was a student of the apostle John, said, “Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.”1 Clement of Alexandria, another early church father, said those who heard Peter’s teachings asked Mark to write them down so they could study, share, and pass the instruction from Peter on orally.3

If Mark and the other gospels were written hundreds of years later, then some elements particular to Mark would not be present. Let me explain.

Mark, by all accounts, was close to Peter. He not only acted as a scribe and interpreter at times for Peter; he was a close friend and confidant. Because of their close relationship, the Gospel of Mark has some peculiarities that indicate this close relationship. Had the gospels been written hundreds of years later, those peculiarities would not be present.

For example, Mark often paid Peter respect and significant prominence compared to the other gospel writers. For example, Mark referred to Peter 26 times, and Matthew, in his much longer account, 29 times. Keep in mind that Matthew has 28 chapters while Mark had 16, and the total number of verses for Mark is 678, while Matthew had 1,071.4

Mark also avoided some of Peter’s more embarrassing moments. Do you remember Peter’s failed attempt to walk on water like Jesus was doing? Matthew 14:22-33 It is interesting that Mark does not even mention Peter’s attempt. Mark 6:45-52 Another example is when Luke describes the miraculous catch of fish on the sea of Galilee. Luke 5:1-11 Peter says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (NKJV) In Mark’s version, Mark 1:16-20 this is omitted.5

There are other examples of this where Mark omits Peter’s name and instead uses ‘the disciples’ for various accounts. This aspect of favoring Peter and attempts to save him some embarrassment would not be present had the Gospel of Mark been written by someone other than a close and personal friend of the Apostle Peter.

Lataster also writes, “These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them.”

Lataster claims the New Testament events were compiled long after the life of Christ, and they were written by Christians which gives us reason to doubt their validity before we even get out of the gate. Do we dismiss research and accounts of astronauts concerning NASA because they are astronauts? That kind of thinking is silly and points to the obvious bias held by Lataster. To dismiss the historical validity of scripture because it was written by Christians would mean we should dismiss the accounts of every religion written by its adherents.

But I will not defend that, rather let’s look at the non-Christian sources concerning the life of Christ.

Anyone who is familiar with biblical history has heard of Flavius Josephus, (ca. 37- ca. 100). He was a historian for the Roman Emperor Domitian. Josephus wrote, “At this time [the time of Pilate] there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive, according he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”6 This is coming from a Jew who became a Roman and had nothing to gain from promoting Jesus and His life.

Pliny the Younger was a Roman senator and lawyer in Rome. He was a prolific letter writer and we have copies of most of his writings. In one of his letters, he was asking for advice on how to deal with Christians who refused to deny Christ. He wrote, “They had met regularly before dawn on a determined day, and sung antiphonally a hymn to Christ as if to a god. They also took an oath not for any crime, but to keep from theft, robbery and adultery, not to break any promise, and not to withhold a deposit when recliamed.”7

I mention the Piliny example, (one of many outside the New Testament) to point out the durability of eyewitness testimony decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Romans considered Christianity nothing more than a cult, yet despite frightful persecution, it was growing and spreading all over the Mediterranean and into Rome. Pliny the Younger would give Christian’s three chances to deny Christ, yet time and time again they would refuse and he would have them taken away to be executed.

Finally in the first 150 years after the birth of Christ, if we include Josephus, we have ten non-Christian writers who mention Jesus in their works. Looking at and then piecing together what the non-Christian sources say about Jesus we have the following list:

1. Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Caesar.
2. He lived a virtuous life.
3. He was a wonder worker.
4. He had a brother named James.
5. He was acclaimed to be the Messiah.
6. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
7. He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover.
8. Darkness and an earthquake occurred when he died.
9. His disciples believed he rose from the dead.
10. His disciples were willing to die for their belief.
11. Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome.
12. His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God.8

Lataster continues, “The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources – which they also fail to identify.”

He is right, none of the authors of the Gospels name themselves. It is only in the book of John that there is any suggestion to the author. The author says it is someone whom Jesus loved. John 21:24

Nevertheless, there are context clues throughout scripture that suggest who they may be and we have church traditions which should not be outrightly dismissed.

Starting with the book of Matthew some of the arguments in favor of his authorship are:
*Papias mentioned that Matthew had composed an account.
*It is organized in a way that a tax collector would likely write.
*Matthew account talks about gold and silver 28 times. The author also has parables about money that the other Gospels don’t.
*The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew says, “And forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.” In Luke it says, “Forgive us our sins…”
*The early church ascribed the book to Matthew. 9

The early church almost unanimously agreed that Mark is the author of the Gospel of Mark and other church authors claimed the same, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Jerome. 10

Who wrote Luke? Again the early church fathers name Luke as the author of Luke and Acts. It is in Pauls letters we find out that Luke was a doctor. Most scholars believe that Luke and Acts were written by the same person. Both Luke and Acts had very similar writing styles, both were addressed to Theophilus, and both expressed the same theology. 11

Who wrote John? This gospel claims to be written by an eyewitness, he was likely Jewish because many of the events he described were attached to dates significant in Jewish culture. He also describes events that would only be accessible to an eyewitness. For example the number of Jars in John 2:6; how long the man in Bethesda had been a cripple, John 5:5; the name of the man that had his ear chopped off by Peter, John 18:10; and the number of fish caught in Galilee, John 21:11. 12

Finally, Lataster writes, “Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.”

He assumes the Gospels are mythical and I have addressed that in another post. Horus vs. Jesus so I will not touch on that any further. https://www.knowingforsure.com/2015/05/16/horus-vs-jesus/

Virtually all scholars consider Luke’s account as historical. Even a 5th grader could see that.

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Luke 1:1-4

Eyewitnesses, account, investigated, orderly, draw, carefully, certainly, are just a few of the words he uses to make clear he is giving us history and to suggest they are non-historical is foolishness. Not only that he addresses it to a specific person for the specific reason of giving him assurance and confidence in what he has been taught concerning Christ.

If you were to read the whole article by Lataster he is dismissive of Bart Ehrman who thinks it is foolishness to claim that Jesus was not a real person in history. Bart Ehrman is one of the most respected New Testament textual critics alive today and is no friend to Christians.

In his book Misquoting Jesus Bart Ehrman wrote about his mentor Bruce Metzger and the reliability of the New Testament, “Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. And even though we may disagree on important religious questions – he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not – we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions. If he 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.” 13

Jesus was a real figure in history. Persecution, torture, and death awaited those who were “eager to promote Christianity” as Lataster put it. To suggest it was done for wealth, power, and influence is absurd. Not only can Jesus be found outside the scriptures, the claims about Him within scriptures can be trusted. Those that wrote about Him had nothing to gain and everything to lose. All but John lost their lives for sharing the gospel and that is not much of a vocational perk.

Sources:
1. Lataster, Rapohael. “Did historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn’t add up.” Washington Post, washingtonpost.com, 18 December. 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/18/did-historical-jesus-exist-the-traditional-evidence-doesnt-hold-up/
2. Ibid.
3. Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writing of the Fathers down to A.D.325. Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Buffalo: Christian Literature, 1885. Print.
4. Just, Felix. “New Testament Statistics” Catholic Resources. Catholic-resources.org, 2 Sept. 2005. Web. 17 June 2015.
5. Wallace, James Warner. Cold-Case Christianity. Colorado Springs: David C Cook Publishing, 2013. Print.
6. Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jews. Trans. William Whiston. Blacksburg: Unabridged Books, 2011. Print.
7. Van Voorst, Robert, Jesus Outside the New Testament, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000. Print.
8. Geisler, Norman. Turek, Frank. I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Crossway, 2004. Print.
9. “Who Wrote the Gospels, and How Do We Know for Sure?” Zondervan Academic, zondervanacademic.com, 20 September 2017. https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-gospels/
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ehrman, Bart. “Appendix” Misquoting Jesus, HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p.252.

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Was Jesus a Real Person in History? by James Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

  1. Lataster, Rapohael. “Did historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn’t add up.” Washington Post, washingtonpost.com, 18 December. 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/18/did-historical-jesus-exist-the-traditional-evidence-doesnt-hold-up/
  2. ataster, Rapohael. “Did historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn’t add up.” Washington Post, washingtonpost.com, 18 December. 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/18/did-historical-jesus-exist-the-traditional-evidence-doesnt-hold-up/
  3. Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writing of the Fathers down to A.D.325. Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Buffalo: Christian Literature, 1885. Print.
  4. Just, Felix. “New Testament Statistics” Catholic Resources. Catholic-resources.org, 2 Sept. 2005. Web. 17 June 2015.
  5. Wallace, James Warner. Cold-Case Christianity. Colorado Springs: David C Cook Publishing, 2013. Print.
  6. Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jews. Trans. William Whiston. Blacksburg: Unabridged Books, 2011. Print.
  7. Van Voorst, Robert, Jesus Outside the New Testament, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000. Print.
  8. Geisler, Norman. Turek, Frank. I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Crossway, 2004. Print.
  9. “Who Wrote the Gospels, and How Do We Know for Sure?” Zondervan Academic, zondervanacademic.com, 20 September 2017. https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-gospels/
  10. “Who Wrote the Gospels, and How Do We Know for Sure?” Zondervan Academic, zondervanacademic.com, 20 September 2017. https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-gospels/
  11. “Who Wrote the Gospels, and How Do We Know for Sure?” Zondervan Academic, zondervanacademic.com, 20 September 2017. https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-gospels/
  12. “Who Wrote the Gospels, and How Do We Know for Sure?” Zondervan Academic, zondervanacademic.com, 20 September 2017. https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-gospels/
  13. Ehrman, Bart. “Appendix” Misquoting Jesus, HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p.252.
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