Jesus: Real or Myth?

by Dave DeSonier

Introduction

While some individuals question his deity, and others argue about the truth of the resurrection, and still others contend that miracles cannot occur, only a quite small minority holds the position that Jesus did not even exist. Western society generally accepts that a man named Jesus lived on this earth roughly 2000 years ago for a period of about 33 years.In fact, a 2005 university study found that only 1% of Americans considers Jesus to be a “fictional character.”[1]

Why is this so? Because the evidence in support of Jesus’ historicity is reliable, diverse, persuasive, and, if objectively considered, nearly overwhelming. Given the variety of types of evidence—including oral creeds, New Testament biographies, archaeology, and ancient non-Christian writings— the life of Jesus is better documented than that of nearly any other historical figure.[2] As a result, “very few scholars hold the view that Jesus never lived.”[3]

Creeds

The earliest materials available concerning the life of Jesus are the oral creeds of the nascent Christian church. These creeds were formulated years before the New Testament books were written, and were passed down verbally among new Christians. Thus, the creeds “preserve some of the earliest reports concerning Jesus from about AD 30-50.”[4]

Several of the creeds speak directly to the facts of Jesus existence, including his birth, humanity, and lineage. As just one example, Philippians 2:7-8, considered part of a “pre-Pauline hymn” of the early church,[5] attests the human nature of Jesus:

[Jesus] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death. (NIV)

Collectively, the oral creeds clearly demonstrate very early belief in the existence of Jesus; they establish that “Jesus was a real flesh and blood person … who was physically born in the lineage of David … and came from the town of Nazareth.”[6] These basic facts about Jesus’ existence are “not only established historically but are recognized by virtually all critical scholars as well.”[7]

New Testament Biographies

As the basis for the Christian faith, the New Testament gospel biographies certainly attest to Jesus’ historicity. Given the import of the gospels, it is reasonable to examine how well they stand up under scrutiny as authoritative historical sources.

First, the time period between writing of the New Testament books and the oldest extant copies is quite small, especially in comparison to other accepted texts. Consider the works of both Tacitus and Josephus. Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome was written in about 116 A.D.; the first six books exist in a single manuscript copied in the year 850.[8] For Josephus’ The Jewish War, there are nine Greek manuscripts with the earliest dated in the tenth century; there is also a Latin translation dated from the fourth century.[9] In contrast, for the New Testament, “we have copies commencing within a couple of generations from the writing of the originals, whereas in the case of other ancient texts, maybe five, eight, or ten centuries elapsed between the original and the earliest surviving copy…

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