Defending the Faith: The evidence for Jesus is early and powerful

By Daniel Peterson

On Christmas morning, I published a column here that discussed, among other things, whether Jesus really existed. But Christmas mornings are busy, and that column seems to have gone largely unnoticed. So I’m revisiting the topic. It’s urgently important — not only because Jesus is fundamental to the New Testament (on which Latter-day Saint Sunday schools around the world will focus this year) but because the question “What think ye of Christ?” (Matthew 22:42) is altogether central to this life.

As the great Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan (d. 2006) remarked, “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen — nothing else matters.”

“If in this life only we have hope in Christ,” wrote the apostle Paul, “we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

So whether Jesus even existed in the first place is vitally significant.

However, as I’ve observed before, although the notion that Jesus might be merely fictional has become fashionable (through the miracle of the Web) among some aggressive atheists, it was, until recently, almost exclusively the domain of fringe cranks. And — how I can I put this gently? — it still has no real, serious merit.

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In addition to the items that I’ve mentioned in previous columns (see “An agnostic’s argument that Jesus did exist,” for example), I would like to call readers’ attention to an article appearing in the current (January/February 2015) issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review.

In “Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible,” Lawrence Mykytiuk, who holds a doctorate in Hebrew and Semitic studies and serves as the history librarian at Purdue University, examines the most important extra-biblical evidence — classical and Jewish writings — regarding the question.

First he looks at Tacitus, perhaps the greatest of all Roman historians, whose “Annals,” written around A.D. 116-117, discuss Nero’s attempt to blame the Christians for the great fire that ravaged Rome in A.D. 64. Tacitus, a very careful writer who, during earlier service as Roman proconsul of Asia, had probably presided over trials in which Christians were interrogated, knows the title “Christus,” though he mistakenly considers it a personal name. He knows that “Christus” founded the Christian movement, which derives its name from him. He’s aware that “Christus” was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea, whom he identifies as Pontius Pilate…

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Defending the Faith: The evidence for Jesus is early and powerful | Deseret News