How Do We Know Jesus Existed?
By Natasha Crain
(This is post #5 in my “65 Questions Every Christian Parent Needs to Learn to Answer” series. Sign up to receive posts via email to make sure you can answer each one!)
If you grew up in church, you may never have considered the following question: “How do we know Jesus actually existed?” I admittedly had never considered it before an atheist dropped the following comment on my blog last year:
“There’s not a shred of evidence that Jesus ever existed. Check it out for yourself.”
My “atheist extremist” radar went up at such a seemingly crazy claim. How could someone think Jesus never even existed as a person in history?! That said, I had no idea how to respond. I had always assumed Jesus existed and wasn’t prepared to offer any “evidence” to support my lifelong assumption. Off I went to research.
To my surprise, I learned there are many people who make an extensive case for Jesus being mythical. This wasn’t just the one-off view of a random person who landed on my blog. If you Google, “Did Jesus exist?”, you’ll see hundreds of thousands of pages on the topic (see this site as one example).
With Easter coming, it’s a great time to preface any discussions with your kids about the resurrection with a question of foundational importance: how do we even know Jesus existed? If you can’t answer that on your own, this post is for you.
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EVIDENCE FROM CHRISTIAN SOURCES
Evidence for the historical Jesus is typically broken into two categories: evidence from Christian sources and evidence from non-Christian sources. Let’s touch briefly first on Christian sources.
- The New Testament: The New Testament represents 27 individual documents (books) that provide evidence of Jesus’ existence. Most historians agree these sources are sufficient to testify to the existence of Jesus (though they disagree over their accuracy).
- Writings of early church fathers: The earliest “church fathers” (church leaders who lived within two generations of the twelve apostles) left writings that are important because they presumably had first-hand knowledge and information sources independent of the New Testament writings. Especially important are Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. Clement wrote the earliest Christian letter outside the New Testament (about 96 A.D.), Ignatius was a student of the Apostle John who wrote a series of letters en route to his martyrdom (about 110 A.D.), and Polycarp was a Christian bishop who was probably the last surviving person to have known an apostle (he was martyred at about 86 years old around 160 A.D.).
EVIDENCE FROM NON-CHRISTIAN SOURCES
This is the category most non-believers are interested in: what evidence is there of Jesus from non-Christian sources (i.e., writers who had no motivation to write about Jesus unless he actually existed)?
While there are several ancient references typically discussed in this conversation (less than 10), there are four considered to be the most important.
Yes, just four references you need to know about!
You don’t need to get consumed in the details if you’re not into history. What’s important is understanding the nature of these mentions and how they support the historicity of Jesus…