The historical Jesus: An introduction

Regarding the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, Bertrand Russell once wrote, “I may say that one is not concerned with the historical question. Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if he did we do not know anything about him, so I am not concerned with a historical question, which is a very difficult one. I am concerned with Christ as he appears in the Gospels.”1

It was not too long ago when very few people with whom I came into contact actually denied the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. They may have denied his claims to be the Son of God, but they at least acknowledged that a man named Jesus lived in Palestine in the first century.

Perhaps my exposure to the right people was just severely limited back then, but it seems to me that, in more recent years, a vociferous denial of the existence of Jesus is gaining popularity. And it seems to be gaining popularity not only among educated elite, but among the everyday man on the street. Atheism, once a somewhat exclusive religion limited to those given to hefty philosophical discussions, is becoming more popular, and with it more and more people are buying into the lie that “it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all.”

Josh McDowell and Don Stewart contend that “those who make such an accusation are certainly not historians, but are surprisingly ignorant of the facts.”2 A consideration of the historical evidence substantiates their claim.

Some may wonder whether it is really all that important that Jesus ever existed. Is it not possible to cling to the Christian faith even if it does not find its basis in historical events? Superstitious religion, sans historical foundation, thrived in ancient cultures for centuries; can we not expect Christianity to do the same?

The problem is, the Bible presents itself as history in a way that other religious texts do not. It is written as a historical account, and if its history is to be doubted, its message must likewise come under scrutiny.

John wrote his first epistle out of a desire to defend the historical character of Jesus Christ. While the Gnostics were promoting a version of Jesus who was nothing more than a god of their own making, John urged his readers to believe the historical biblical records about the person and work of Christ. He wrote,

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

(1 John 1:1–4)

For John, it was important that his readers believe in a historical Jesus. Those who did not embrace the historical facts about him were guilty of idolatry (1 John 5:21). The Jesus whom the apostles preached was the Jesus who must be believed.

The apostle Paul had similar convictions. Writing to the Corinthians, he affirmed the historical facts of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ as events that could be confirmed by eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 15:1–11). He added that, if they denied the resurrection as a historical fact, their entire faith would be futile (vv. 12–19).

If Jesus never existed, then he never died, was never buried, and never rose again. And if this is the case, then Christians “are of all people most to be pitied.” As Richard Wagner has said,

The Christian faith isn’t an obscure belief system with Jesus as a mythological figure. Rather, Christianity is based entirely on real space-time history; in the words of Francis Schaeffer, its central figure is an actual man who “hung on a cross in the sense that, if you were there that day, you could have rubbed your finger on the cross and got a splinter on it.” Therefore, when you consider the Christian faith, you also have to examine its historical claims of truth.3

Charles Anderson adds his voice: “It cannot be stated too strongly that Christianity is an historical religion, and that it is so intimately tied to history that if the historical credibility of its sources were to be proven false, it would at once collapse as a possible claimant for our loyalty.”4

Josh McDowell is a Christian apologist, best known for his work, Evidence that Demands a Verdict. McDowell has authored several apologetic books and wrestled with a host of difficult questions, many of which sceptics employ as ammunition to deny the veracity of Christianity.

One of the questions with which McDowell wrestles at length is the historical character of Jesus Christ. Did he exist on earth as a human? Was he born of a virgin? Did he believe he was (and claim to be) God? Was he the long-awaited Messiah? McDowell’s fullest treatment of this subject is He Walked Among Us,5 in which he traces historical evidence in various forms to affirm the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, and shows clearly that no one who has honestly examined the evidence will have any good reason to doubt whether Jesus existed.

Because I am increasingly coming across those who, like Russell, claim that there is little evidence that Jesus ever existed, I want to take some time in my next few posts to examine the evidence that exists for a historical Jesus. If Jesus never existed, the entire Christian faith collapses. Affirmation of his existence as a historical person does not necessarily mean that he was who he claimed to be, but it does at least mean that his claims cannot just be ignored with impunity.

Historical, archaeological and scientific arguments may (and often do) validate the biblical record, but these arguments in and of themselves are powerless to save sinners. Nevertheless, they do serve the important purpose of encouraging the faith of believers, and reminding us that our faith is not a nebulous concept without historical foundation, but that it is rooted in space-time history and is therefore reasonable.

Did Jesus of Nazareth exist? Yes he did. The historical data is presented in the biblical Gospels and corroborated by extrabiblical history. Was he who he claimed to be? Yes he was, and the greatest evidence of this is the millions of lives that have been changed by faith in him. I am no expert in ancient Palestinian history, but I am convinced that the available evidence proves, when dealt with fairly, to be evidence that indeed demands a verdict.

  1. Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1967), 11n.
  2. Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask about the Christian Faith (San Bernardino: Here’s Life Publishers, 1980), 42.
  3. Richard Wagner, “Retracing Christianity as a Historical Faith,” http://goo.gl/4MVYQ, retrieved 12 September 2012.
  4. Charles C. Anderson, The Historical Jesus: A Continuing Quest (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 55.
  5. Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, He Walked Among Us: Evidence for the Historical Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993).

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