Picture of Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

Oh, Good Grief: Yes, Jesus Was A Real Historical Figure

It’s almost Christmas– one of the holiest days of the year for Christians, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who was called the Christ.

But did Jesus even exist? Was he a real historical person?

It seems around Christmas or Easter there’s always some agnostic or atheist friends who make the claim that Jesus never existed as a historical person, or at least, that there’s “no evidence” he existed.

While the number of legitimate secular or historical scholars who make this claim are exceedingly few, it doesn’t stop the claim from being repeatedly made. The basic argument goes like this: we cannot trust the Gospel accounts, and there are no external references confirming Jesus ever lived, thus there is no evidence he was a real person in history.

In my opinion, this argument is both flawed and factually incorrect.

First, dismissing the Gospel accounts outright is the genetic fallacy– it’s rejecting information because you have already decided you do not like the source. Now, resisting the genetic fallacy doesn’t mean one blindly accept the Gospel accounts, but it does mean one has to actually contend with the information inside of them. Simply their existence and prevalence in this same time period speaks to the fact that they were at least based on a person who in fact existed.

The second argument is often that there are no historical references to Jesus outside the Gospels, but this simply isn’t true either– and even if it were, that actually wouldn’t be surprising.

Jesus was a first century rabbi living under a foreign occupation. He was not the most famous rabbi of his time, and he lived in a culture that predominantly preserved information orally compared to our modern culture which preserves things in written form. One would not expect there to be a considerable number of external references to Jesus because he simply was not an important figure outside his own circle. This would be true of any other comparable religious leader of the time– lots of external references would be a surprise, but they wouldn’t be expected for any of them unless they were super-famous. (And this isn’t just the case with religious leaders– even the Roman governor at the time, Pontius Pilate, had little evidence of his existence in history until archeological evidence proved it in 1961.) Essentially, this argument places a modern burden of proof on the ancient world, and that’s not how things work.

However, with Jesus there are external references to his historical existence. We have the historian Tacitus who was arguably the most prominent historian of that time. In Annals XV he references not just Christ but also that he was executed by Pilate, that his followers were called Christians, and that they believed in “superstitions” (Annals XV, 44). There is also the Jewish historian Josephus who references James, followed by “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ” (Antiquities XX, 9).

While those are the two most compelling references in my mind, there are still others that either reference Jesus, allude to Jesus, or directly mention early Christians during this period. See Suetonius, Pliny, Thallus, etc.

In short, for an obscure rabbi, the external references to him and his followers actually exceed my expectations for this context and period.

Even these arguments aside, one of the biggest things left unexplained by those who claim Jesus never existed is the birth of Christianity itself, and the dedication of its followers.

What is unarguable is that a new religion called Christianity exploded in the first century. We also know that these early Christians were utterly hated and persecuted. We have the writings of Paul of Tarsus who had dedicated his life to killing Christians until he became one. We have external references to how horribly Christians were treated and slaughtered by Nero. Thus, we know that during this period a religion named after Jesus was born, and that the followers of this new religion were willing– not to kill– but to be killed for it.

And yet, this religion continued to grow and grow until it became the official religion of the empire just a few hundred years later.

What is far more implausible is that a first century religion based upon the specific teachings of a specific leader– a religion that you were killed for joining–  took root and spread throughout that same century, even though the supposed leader never existed. If Christianity were born 500 or 1000 years after the life of Christ, I think one would have an interesting case– but that’s not the story of Christianity. Instead, we find the religion explode and grow in this same exact time period, including the production of a new religious Scriptures that all center around the life and teachings of the religion’s founder.

Christianity is a religion based on a person. It took root and grew during the period of time in which they lived, and flourished in the immediate generations after their death. The idea that all this could happen even though the person was a complete historical fabrication who never existed, is a really tough sell.

I love my atheist and skeptic friends– they have plenty of worthy points to make, lots of great questions, and even very valid critiques of the expression of Christianity they see in the world around us. I share many of those questions and critiques– and if you’ve followed my work, one knows that I value my relationship and discovered commonalities with the atheist and agnostic community.

But the idea that Jesus never even existed as a historical figure?

That’s simply not one of their more compelling arguments.

Picture of Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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13 Responses

  1. At the beginning, I was still puzzled. Since I read your article, I have been very impressed. It has provided a lot of innovative ideas for my thesis related to gate.io. Thank u. But I still have some doubts, can you help me? Thanks.

  2. Sorry, but having spent a couple of decades trying to under the tyranny of christianity and the emotional, psychological and spiritual damage it has caused me, I can categorically state that “Jesus” was NOT an historical personage. The “gospel” accounts are not historical but fabricated myth. THERE IS NOT ONE VERIFIABLE, EMPIRICAL BIT OF EVIDENCE TO PROVE THAT THERE EVER WAS A MAN NAMED JESUS WHO EXISTED IN FIRST CENTURY PALESTINE. No, not one iota of evidence. Period. And the above article continues to push the opinion that all christian apologists do: well, the gospels exist; they all comment on a man named Jesus; therefore, Jesus existed. NO! The “gospels” are myth just as the judeo-christian bible is myth because there is not ONE VERIFIABLE, EMPIRICAL BIT OF EVIDENCE THAT ANY OF THE EVENTS AS RELATED IN THE BIBLE ACTUALLY HAPPENED! So, please! Do NOT insult my intelligence. Or anyone else’s for that matter. You want to believe in the myths of Big Daddy Sky God and His Magical Son Jesus? Then, please do so, by all means. But, keep that mess out of our secular lives. And, especially keep it out of our politics whether it is here in the U.S. or in any other country where evangelical effluvia are now corrupting the cultures and societies of countries in Latin America, in Africa and in Asia. My fervent with for 2017 is that we finally begin to rid this world of the cancer that is christianity.

    1. MAJ,

      If someone claimed to be a Christian and damaged you then they are not Christians.

      As for the evidence of Jesus existing, you will have to ask yourself why you summarily dismiss the Gospels
      and other non-Christian references to Jesus.
      You also need to realise that 99.99999999 % of the people who have lived are never mentioned in any book,
      text or parchment.

  3. “Simply their existence and prevalence in this same time period speaks to the fact that they were at least based on a person who in fact existed.”

    I’m going to have to disagree, here. Their existence and prevalence at this time speaks to the fact that there were believers in a story. We don’t have first or second-hand sources on any of what’s within.

    “and even if it were, that actually wouldn’t be surprising.”

    Eh, that goes into saying that evidence of absence is not evidence of absence. That much is true. But, absence of evidence *is* absence of evidence.

    “However, with Jesus there are external references to his historical existence. We have the historian Tacitus who was arguably the most prominent historian of that time. In Annals XV he references not just Christ but also that he was executed by Pilate, that his followers were called Christians, and that they believed in “superstitions” (Annals XV, 44).”

    Here’s where we get to a lot of my issue with people who argue that Jesus, as a person, is evidenced to have existed. Tacitus was born in 56 AD, after the alleged death of Christ. Unless he referred to an actual contemporaneous record, referring to Christ as executed by Pilate says very little save that that was part of the story of Christ by that time.

    I don’t even have to argue that Christ didn’t exist in order to say that. Pilate wasn’t in the business of executing people on behalf of Jews. This isn’t to say there isn’t a reason Pilate would have done so, but it is to say how easy Pilate can have been drafted into stories about a Christ figure who died.

    And, we get to persecution and dying for faith and…

    Let me summarize what you have as evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and the faith existed to be referenced. That’s it. That’s all. At least that’s all you present here. If there is any actual evidence to be presented, you’ve not presented it.

    Now, that doesn’t prove the absence of a Jesus. At best, you’ve got even money.

  4. If one looks at the archeological record regarding Israel, there seems to be interesting things that keep showing up.

    One of the oldest, the victory stele of Memeptah (~1205 BC), noting the victory over Israel, and either their crop was destroyed, or some posterity. Indicating Israel is a tribe without holding any significant cities, that Memeptah was interested in. As to weather Israel as a agricultural or pastoral tribe, is not determined, but it could be a little of both. But the main point, Israel was worth noting in the 1205 BC campaign of Ramses II’s son.

    The 2nd more recent item is the discoveries at Qeiyafa in Israel’s Elah valley, scene of Davis & Goliath’s duel. Here a heavily fortified city, with casemate wall, administrative center, overlooking the valley was found. Carbon dating indicates use from about 1025-950 BC. It also fits the Biblical description as having 2 gates, Sha’arayim in 1 Sam. 17:52.

    The other interesting discoveries were examples of early Hebrew writing. One (Qeiyafa Ostracon) relating to a prayer, and the establishment of a kingdom.

    This was before many hold that Israel had any

  5. The Case for Christ is a well-written analysis of the evidence for Jesus, both man and God, by author Lee Strobel. Granted he interviews only believers, but when he did this he was NOT a believer (he became one after the interviews). I found the book educational and convincing. On the comments that the Bible is composed of myths and legend, a recent book by archeologist Collins, called Discovery of Sodom, confirms the truth of this story which occurred 3,600 years ago (one of the oldest Bible stories….. Genesis 19). See http://www.IanDexterPalmer.com, and search for Sodom. The details of this discovery, which track well the Bible story, make it much more difficult to assert that the Bible stories are just fairy-tales.

  6. Well said! The atheist argument should center around Jesus’ divinity versus his historical existence. There is evidence of Jesus’ existence but then what? Are the Christian claims which surround Jesus true?

  7. The idea that Jesus ben Joseph was an historical person is not controversial at all. The controversy is about the psychological archetype of his persona being taken as literal truth, so that, for example, “the virgin birth” is not seen as a symbol of our own deepest self as the birth of our own Christ Consciousness, but taken as a literal historical event that happened to the historical Jesus ben Joseph. Instead of recognizing that everyone born is a true child of God, the literalists say that Jesus was the “only son of God.” This is what is stupid and wrong.
    Historically, Jesus was born into an Essene family and his parents, Mary and Joseph, were members of the Essene community of Nazareth near Mt. Carmel. His cousin John was also born into the Essene community. The mission of the historical Jesus was to bring the teachings of the Essenes to the wider Jewish community and break the sectarian divisions created by the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus’s mission was not to make the other two sects into Essenes, but to teach a Universal Judaism that was based on and included the Essene truths but went beyond the Essene’s self-removal and separation from the wider society.

  8. Excellent essay. People who deny that Jesus was a historical person are as goofy as the people who think God created the entire universe 6000 calendar years ago.

  9. Really, this is important for you to assert at this time of year?

    I’m one of those atheists that would disagree with you on the amount of evidence for Jesus, AND on the amount of evidence you would expect to find if Jesus were a real historical figure.

    You say Jesus would not have been considered all that important because of where and when he lived, and would likely not have been written about. David Fitzgerald has done what I think is a convincing job of summarizing some of the historians living at the time who should have noticed Jesus:

    – Seneca the Younger (3 BC – 65 AD). Fitzgerald writes: “In another book, On Superstition,, Seneca lambasts every known religion, including Judaism. But strangely, he makes no mention whatsoever of Christianity, which was supposedly spreading like wildfire across the empire.” Seneca also apparently wrote a book on eclipses and other natural phenomena, but doesn’t mention the earthquake or darkness that occurred in the Gospels when Jesus died. Not only that, Fitzgerald reports that Gallio, who appears in Acts as the magistrate who heard Paul’s case, was the brother of Seneca. If he was that closely associated with the dealings of Christians, why wouldn’t he mention it?

    – Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – 50 AD) was “one of the more prolific writers in the ancient world,” according to Fitzgerald, and wrote on contemporary politics and events of note affecting the Jews. His family was “intimately connected with the royal house of Judea,” and he wrote extensively on other Jewish sects including the Essenes.

    – Jewish historian Justice of Tiberias, who died A.D. 101, was a native of Galilee and secretary to one of the King Herods, and wrote a history of Judah covering the time Jesus lived. He doesn’t mention at all this wonder-worker who apparently had all of Jerusalem waving palm branches and hailing him as the messiah.

    – “Nicolaus of Damascus wrote a world history in 144 books up to the end of Herod’s reign, relying heavily on Herod’s personal memoirs and of course his own first-hand knowledge.” But no mention of the visit by the magi or the subsequent execution of children in Bethleham.

    Remember the Bible says the news about Jesus “spread all over Syria” and he drew large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, and Jerusalem (Matt. 4:24-25), and that the faith spread rapidly immediately after. This should have been a big deal to anybody writing about religion.

    I looked up the Tactitus passage you list, and it’s interesting to me he doesn’t even use the name “Jesus” in that passage; he says the Christians were founded by Christus. All it says about this Christus is that he was executed by Pilate, nothing else about him. Does Tactitus say anything more about Jesus anywhere else?

    The passage says Christus was executed by Pilate. You just said there was “little evidence” for Pilate until the 1960s. Does this passage not count as evidence for Pilate? Also note that Tactitus was writing the annals in 117 AD, nearly 100 years after the death of Jesus.

    The Josephus passage you mention is curious as well because it seems to be about how a man named Jesus son of Damneus became high priest. The passage says Ananus, the high priest, ordered James the brother of Jesus stoned to death. This caused an uproar and then King Agrippa made Jesus son of Damneus high priest. The passage makes no sense until you realize that “the so-called Christ” could easily be an accidental interpolation. It’s very possible the whole passage is talking about Jesus son of Damneus who became high priest, NOT about a completely different Jesus whose brother would have nothing to do with the choice of high priest.

    The birth of Christianity could have happened any number of ways, including growing out of visions of a heavenly Jesus or myths about Jesus that later got put into a historical context.

    If I recall my history correctly, Christianity really flourished and took off throughout the empire, and in Rome itself, moreso than right there in Jerusalem. Could that be because the stories were more compelling elsewhere, where people could really believe them?

    In other words, the historical evidence is spotty at best which would speak to a historical Jesus, and there are numerous explanations for how Christianity came about that don’t require a Galileean miracle-worker.

    And forget about Christmas for a moment. I’m not worried about Dec. 25, I am worried about Jan. 20. We now have a ruler of the most powerful nation in the world who has shown unapologetic antipathy towards women, towards gay people, towards religious minorities, and towards dissent or opposition of any kind. Life is about to get very, very bad for anybody who cares about human rights, about freedom of the press, about democracy triumphing over oligarchy and fascism, or about the ability of people to choose their own religion rather than following the proper “Conservative American Christianity” that our leaders tell us is the only valid form. I think we have better things to worry about than whether or not Jesus really lived in 33 AD Palestine.

  10. benjamin many of the gospels were written years after jesus’s supposed life. not only that but the historical evidence of his existence outside the bible is usually unreliable or sometimes outright fake

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