There are some questions that seem so absurd, on the face of it, that one wonders how they are entertained with such seriousness by so many people. The question of whether Jesus actually existed is one of those questions.
A thorough-going answer to that question would require a whole lot more than a single blog post, so my hope with this article is not to conclusively and exhaustively answer the question, but to provide one (of many) solid lines of evidence to demonstrate that we can be extremely certain that Jesus did exist. That line of evidence involves Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, part of the New Testament.
But before we get to that, here’s a little video of a scholar with no love for the Christian Faith – Bart Ehrman – who flat out chastises the “Jesus myth” crowd.
As Ehrman rightly observes, though, just because scholars (like him) believe that Jesus existed doesn’t constitute evidence. Remember, though, that when you come across a mythicist you are dealing with somebody who is at odds with scholars on that issue. Believing Jesus existed is not naive or foolish, nor any more “spiritual” than believing that Julius Caesar existed.
Where to start? If the person of Jesus is under suspicion then the best place to start is with what we can agree actually existed. Start from those things we know and move toward what is uncertain, right?
One thing we can know for certain exists is the Bible. You can read it online, or check it out from your local library. If you ask most Christians they would probably be happy to give you one for free.
So the most obvious question is, “where did it come from?” Did some people sit down and crunch out a whole bunch of religious literature some time last century, slap it between covers and call it “The Bible?” Nope, it goes a whole lot further back than that. The first edition of the King James translation of the Bible into English was published in 1611. The Vulgate is a much earlier translation of the Bible into Latin. It was completed around 400 AD and was the standard for the Western Church for centuries thereafter. But like the King James version this was also just a translation of what others had written.
In fact, the early church had been circulating and using the books of the New Testament for centuries before that. Here’s an interesting website I found that lists the early church fathers’ quoting of, or allusions to, the New Testament. The fact that a lot of different writers reference the New Testament tells us some very important things about the New Testament:
- These other authors didn’t claim to write it.
- The writings they reference were already accepted as some kind of “authority” on those matters (which is why they quoted them).
- The writings they reference were widely known, and therefore must have been widely circulated.
- The writings they reference must predate what the authors wrote.
That last point is kind of important. Some of those early church fathers were writing shortly after the year 100 AD, which means the documents they reference must have been written, copied, circulated and widely accepted as authoritative before those guys ever put pen to paper. So the documents of the New Testament clearly have to go back into the first century; prior to 100 AD.
Let’s think about that from the perspective of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Here we come to the answer to one of our key questions; who actually wrote this stuff down in the first place? That the Apostle Paul actually wrote the letter to the Galatians is generally accepted, even by non-Christians. This fact highlights one of the other facts of ancient history we can lean on in our quest to determine whether Jesus actually existed; the Apostle Paul actually existed. We know this because:
- We have his writings. It’s hard to claim somebody didn’t exist at all when we have a plethora of stuff that the supposedly non-existent person wrote! And to be clear, there is good reason to believe that he wrote it (unlike, say, the Gospel of Peter).
- Other New Testament writers reference him; much of the book of Acts, for instance, as well as Peter’s second letter.
- The early church also references his life and writings, as mentioned previously.
So our certainty on Paul’s existence is extremely high. And the fact that he actually wrote the stuff that he is alleged to have written (at least the letter to the Galatians) is also extremely high.
Two key facts about Paul’s life are very significant for this discussion. First, Paul was originally quite hostile to Christianity. He actively persecuted the church prior to his conversion. This is important because it means that Christianity must have been sufficiently established, and grown large enough, to be a nuisance worthy of persecution prior to Paul’s conversion.
Second, Paul is recorded to have died some time in the 60’s AD. Everything he did, said and wrote had to be wrapped up prior to that time. Dead people don’t tend to write much.
So, of all the letters that Paul wrote, why am I picking on Galatians? A few reasons. First, it is one of the letters that pretty much nobody disputes that he actually wrote. We are dealing with a high degree of certainty on the authorship. Second, and this is critical, it is one of the earliest, and possibly the very first, of his letters. Scholars estimate a range of dates, but somewhere around 50 AD seems generally in the ballpark of their agreement.
Letter writing involves at least two parties; author and recipient. So who was Paul writing to? As the letter states, it was written “To the churches in Galatia…”
Churches. Not just one church, but multiple churches. And what was the purpose of the letter? Paul provides us with a remarkably clear – though perhaps not very diplomatically worded – explanation for why he was writing this particular letter to this particular audience.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!
Well, he really doesn’t beat around the bush, does he, when the curses of God are brought into the conversation! But his point is simple, we preached the “right” Gospel to you, and somebody else is now preaching a “wrong” Gospel to you.
These few verses provide insights into a remarkable amount of back story that is very significant. Consider all the preceding events that would have had to take place in order for this short passage of scripture to ever be written. This is what it would have looked like, if the tape were being played backwards.
- Paul was motivated (and found time) to respond to the false Gospel that the Galatian churches were accepting.
- Prior to that, Paul received word that the Galatian churches were accepting a false Gospel. He wasn’t in Galatia at the time, otherwise there would have been no need for a letter!
- Prior to that, news of the acceptance of the false Gospel traveled to Paul.
- Prior to that, somebody found out about the situation in Galatia and sent that news to Paul.
- Prior to that, the churches in Galatia were accepting a false Gospel.
- Prior to that, the false Gospel was introduced to the churches in Galatia.
- Prior to that, multiple churches in Galatia were established, based on the true Gospel.
- Prior to that, the true Gospel made its way to the region of Galatia for the first time, through an evangelist.
- Prior to that, the evangelist believed the true Gospel and decided to spread the news.
- Prior to that, the evangelist learned about the true Gospel.
- Prior to that, the true Gospel somehow came into being; these stories and doctrines started somewhere.
Each of those steps necessarily takes time. In particular, it is no easy task to establish a church. I was involved in a church plant once; trust me when I say it’s hard work that takes a long time. But not just one church was established, the letter was written to the churches – plural – in Galatia.
Now here’s where we start to bring Jesus into the picture, finally. The Gospel of which Paul speaks clearly has the person of Jesus at the center of it; in particular the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It’s right there in the first verse and is a central theme of much of Paul’s writing. So when the New Testament writers refer to “The Gospel” they are, quite simply, speaking of the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and the theological implications that flow from that.
Suppose you don’t believe that he rose from the dead. We’ll just skip that for now – though I have argued that there is good reason to see that as an historical fact – and focus on the person of Jesus himself. If he truly did exist then the stories of his life suggest he died around the year 30 AD.
So here’s where the math gets interesting. The letter to the churches in Galatia were almost certainly written around 50 AD, and the events of “The Gospel” to which that letter refers (if those events actually happened) occurred around 30 AD. That’s about 20 years apart.
If Jesus actually existed then “the Gospel” came into being in the year 30 AD because, quite simply, “the Gospel” is fundamentally just the record of his life, death and resurrection. So if Jesus existed, then we have 20 years for all those other events to take place. In ancient times (no FedEx, no email, no motor vehicles) that’s a believable length of time for all the events to transpire between the events of the Gospel and the writing of the letter to the Galatians.
On the other and, if Jesus did not exist then we are left with one critical lingering question, when were the stories about this non-existent person invented? The Gospel is inherently highly historical in nature – it refers to specific events, people, places – rather than being spiritually “other worldly” as some other religious texts are. Given this fact, it opens itself up to historical investigation. If you make claims like that, people are going to ask questions. This is probably why many other religions stick to vague spiritual-sounding “stuff” rather than getting all specific; vague spirituality cannot be investigated.
But if the events never actually took place, then that combination of the precision of the historical claims, and falsehood of the historical claims, would have spelled death for the Christian religion. A made-up Gospel that is highly historically detailed in nature could only have been believable if it was written a long time after the events. If it was written shortly after the events then people would have investigated the matter, discovered the deception, and rejected it. But if you wait long enough then all the key players would have died off and the tall tales have a fighting chance of being believed.
So here’s the kicker:
- A made-up Gospel (that includes many historical details) is never going to be widely accepted unless it is written a long time after the alleged events that are described in the Gospel.
- Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written about 20 years after the alleged events of the Gospel.
- All the prerequisite events that would have had to take place prior to the writing of that letter (Paul’s conversion, establishing of the church, false Gospel, etc) plausibly required all, or almost all, of those 20 years to transpire.
- Therefore, “The Gospel” must have come into being very shortly after the alleged events described in the Gospel in order to leave enough time for all the other events in point 3.
- That’s not enough time to make up a bunch of tall tales involving influential people.
If “The Gospel” was made up, it would have needed to have been made up within maybe 2-5 years of the events it allegedly describes in order to leave enough time for all the other historical events leading to the writing of the book of Galatians to take place.
That is not nearly enough time.
It is vastly more likely that the stories of “The Gospel” involved real people and real events – in particular, the historical person of Jesus – than it is likely the whole thing was made up. If such a complete fabrication of history actually happened, and was widely accepted by many people despite being so easily falsifiable, then that would have been a miracle as remarkable as Jesus rising from the dead.