Did Jesus Christ Really Exist?

Jesus - real or not

It is widely known today that Jesus did exist. Even the average non-religious person on the street can accept that Jesus was at least a good moral teacher (although there are issues with this position as C.S. Lewis points out). However, on rare occasions, we still overhear the claim that Jesus never really did exist, but instead he was a mere hypothesis as French philosopher Michel Onfray maintains.[1]

What is the evidence that he did exist?

1) Well firstly we have 4 biographies of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Now I know the automatic charge from a sceptic against this will be that “the New Testament (NT) isn’t a reliable document”, so let me quickly dispel that myth citing world renown atheist New Testament critical scholar Bart Ehrman. He says that:

If he [Bruce Metzger – most influential 20th century NT scholar] and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands.  The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.[2]

Now when we look at the dating of the four biographies, all four of them were written within at least 70 years of Christ’s death. This is excellent in terms of time frame because it means that not enough time has passed between Jesus and the biographies for mythology to creep in. To give you an example of how close this gap is within ancient history, let’s compare it to the Iliad written by Homer. The Iliad is ancient Greek epic poem written in dactylic hexameter.  The problem here is that there is at least a 400 year gap between Homer (850BC according to Herodotus) and the first copy of the Iliad (7-8th Century) available to us. 400 years compared to just 70 is a big difference.

The four biographies also pass the test as standard eyewitness accounts (or at least reports off of eye witnesses – for example the book of Luke) based within first century Jewish culture.

2) St Paul (New Testament evangelist) writes a letter in 1 Corinthians 15 attesting to the life and death of Christ. Scholars place this letter at about 25 years after the death of Christ. Within a historical context, this is a very close proximity, and so counts as valuable evidence adding to the idea that Jesus really did exist since he was being written about so soon after his death.

3) We also have many extra Biblical reports of Jesus cited from ancient figures around the time of Jesus (ill jus point out a few):

3a) Flavius Josephus who was a Romano-Jewish Scholar and historian. He was born 37AD and died 100AD and he wrote a history of Judaism around 93AD in which he makes a reference to James the brother of “Jesus, who was called Christ”.[3].

3b) We also have reports from Irenaeus. Irenaeus lived from 130AD to 202AD and he was an early church father and apologist. He references the four gospels in one of his writings confirming the claims of each of them. This provides good evidence because it shows that the gospels had to have been written before the 2nd century since someone in the 2nd century was referencing all of them. Jesus himself would have lived in the 1st century and so this places a lot more weight on the idea that the gospels were written by people who actually knew Jesus because they were living around the same time as him.

3c) Lastly, we have the Babylonian Talmud which is a commentary on Jewish laws written between 500-600AD. Within this text (Tractate Sanhedrin 43a), we see a clear reference to Jesus Christ and his death by hanging (on the cross) by the hands of the Jews and Romans. It even references the period of time in which Jesus was hung.[4]

We now return to Bart Ehrman prominent atheist scholar and historian. In a series of quotes in his book Did Jesus exist? Bart says that:

Every week I receive two or three e-mails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being. When I started getting these e-mails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously. Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?

…I decided to look into the matter. I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.

…I should say at the outset that none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world). Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed.

…But as a historian I think evidence matters. And the past matters. And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist. He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic. But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him.[5] 

Here we can see even Ehrman himself has no issue with admitting that the historical evidence points to Jesus being a real person. He essentially tells us within these quotes that it isn’t even a debate amongst trained historians and scholars, it only surfaces as a problematic question amongst untrained writers in this area who (possibly) have an agenda (evident in the fact that they misquote Ehrman in support of their point – the mythicist argument).

It seems it is implausible to claim that Jesus didn’t exist. If we can at least get this far then the next question to asses would be, was Jesus really God or just a fraud? And did he prove this on the cross or not?

 

References:

[1] Simon Gathercole. 2017. What is the historical evidence that Jesus Christ lived and died?. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/14/what-is-the-historical-evidence-that-jesus-christ-lived-and-died.

[2] Bart D. Ehrman. 2017. Misquoting Jesus:The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (Plus). [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Misquoting-Jesus-Story-Behind-Changed/dp/0060859512.

[3] William Whiston. 2017. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0146%3Abook%3D20%3Awhiston+chapter%3D9%3Awhiston+section%3D1.

[4] come-and-hear. 2017. Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin Folio 43a. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_43.html. [Accessed 2 August 2017].

[5] Bart D. Ehrman. 2017. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0062204602/?tag=stno-20.

 

Can we Really Trust the New Testament?

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The foundations of the Bible have been under increasing attack over the last few centuries. Many people now hold to the view that the Bible has been disproven through science, history and the ‘fact’ that there is no God. Whilst the average person can appreciate that Jesus was a good man with great teachings (much like Buddha, or Confucius), they cannot accept the idea that he was supposedly God in human form, and that he proved it by dying on the cross and then resurrecting three days later. (In fact, read ‘Mere Christianity‘ by C.S. Lewis and he will inform you of why it is illogical to call Jesus just another good human moral teacher)[1]

Believers in Christ do hold to the former and the latter, however it is surprising to note that not many Christians today can actually defend why they believe this without referring to personal experience or ‘it is what I was raised to believe.’ (whilst these approaches are not wrong in themselves – they are vital in fact – they do not ultimately offer any solid objective reason for why your faith should be prescribed to a non-believer. A Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu could use the exact same reasoning).

When we look at the stats in UK, the fact is that “In five decades, the number of people with no religion in Britain has grown from just 3 per cent of the population to nearly half…[2]

The biggest drop out age rage is from the teens to the 20s. By the time this age group have gone through the educational system, many of them leave the faith. This is a huge number! Something is not right here.

When many of these former Christians are interviewed, the most common answers they give are that, they left the faith because there were too many unanswered questionstheir science classes on evolution disproved the bible, and/or they just didn’t know why they believed what they believed anymore:

Mitch’s testimony 

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(Mitch’s Testimony about his faith being shaken and then coming back to Christ)

The first thing Christians need to realize is that there really is evidence for what we believe and the evidence doesn’t consist of historical scraps loitering around that have been pieced together. On the contrary, there is an overwhelming load of well-preserved evidence right from the beginning in Genesis persisting up until our current times today. In this article I am just going to focus on the New Testament (NT) and Jesus Christ, however a strong case can be made for both the Old and New Testament equally.

World renown atheist Historian and NT scholar Dr. Bart D. Ehrman talks us through how historic records are compiled and how we can trust their reliability:

What kinds of evidence do scholars look for when trying to establish probabilities in the past? Well, the best kind of evidence, of course, consists of contemporary accounts; people who were close to the time of the events themselves…To determine which things are the things that happened, you want contemporary accounts, things that are close to the time of the events themselves, and it helps if you have a lot of these accounts. The more the merrier! You want lots of contemporary accounts, and you want these accounts to be independent of one another.[3]


Now lets use this criteria in comparing two ancient historical documents (Plato’s earliest writing, and the New Testament). We should be able to see which of the two we must consider more reliable.

Historical evidence for the NT and Jesus Christ?

  • I’m sure most people have heard of a person called Plato. Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived and died at about 428 – 347 BC. No one in general would argue that Plato didn’t exist, or that his writings weren’t his own (I believe just as most do that they probably are accurate and that he did exist). But when we look at the actual historical evidence, we detect a varying picture. In terms of actual manuscript (MMS) copies of Plato’s first writings, in total we don’t have 1000 of them, we don’t have 100 of them, we don’t even have at least 50 copies. All we have are 7 manuscripts copies total regarding his earliest writings (Tetralogies).[4] This might not seem significant, and that is understandable. The reason for this is because we have not yet compared it against anything else in order for us to make a valid judgement on, so lets do just that. Lets take NT manuscript copies and contrast them with Plato’s manuscript copies. The NT doesn’t just have 7 manuscripts, or maybe 100, or even 1000. The NT has over 5000 Greek manuscripts alone available[5] that we can access currently (this number was also confirmed when I had to the opportunity to ask Dr Drake Williams III who is a NT Scholar in a FOCL session he held discussing the question, ‘Are we mistaken about Jesus?‘ – 05,10, 2016).[6] The issue escalades downhill for Plato when we find out that all of the copies of Plato’s earliest writings only arrive roughly 12-1300 years after his death.[7]  The problem with this huge gap is that essentially, nobody on earth knows if the documents we have, have been altered within that timespan or not. Again when we compare this with the NT, document manuscripts arrive merely 20 years after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. Furthermore eyewitness accounts are found only 40 years (the book of Mark in the Bible) after Jesus’ ascension. 20-40 years compared to 12-1300 years is a big difference.

In saying all of this, my aim isn’t to disprove Plato’s writings (as I mentioned, I don’t doubt that his writings aren’t his own), but rather to show that from a logical standpoint, if someone is willing to believe in the reliability of Plato’s work based on the limited and delayed evidence we have of it, then there is not much excuse for not believing in the reliability of the NT. The evidence for the NT far outweighs the evidence for Plato’s dialogues.

 

Referencing:

[1] C. S. Lewis (2012) Mere Christianity, : Collins. [P52]

[2] R. Gledhill (2014) Exclusive: New figures reveal massive decline in religious affiliation, Available at: https://www.christiantoday.com/article/exclusive.new.figures.reveal.massive.decline.in.religious.affiliation/

[3] Dr. W.L. Craig (March 2006) Is there Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?, Available at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-there-historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-craig-ehrman 

[4] Jeremy Norman (2017) The Oldest Surviving Manuscript of Plato’s Tetralogies, Available at: http://www.historyofinformation.com/expanded.php?id=1880

[5] [Norman Geisler & Peter Bocchino, Unshakable Foundations, (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2001) p. 256.

[6] D. Williams (2016) Are we mistaken about Jesus? Examining other Gospels outside of the New Testament, Available at: https://www.anymeeting.com/WebConference/RecordingDefault.aspx?c_psrid=E954DE8784473E

[7] Bill Pratt (2012) HOW DO OTHER ANCIENT TEXTS COMPARE TO THE NEW TESTAMENT?, Available at: http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/tag/manuscripts/

Atheist Scholar Agrees that the New Testament is Reliable?

Greek NT Bible

If you haven’t heard of him, then you will have after reading this. New Testament Critic Professor Bart Ehrman has become an iconic figure in his field of work making a name for himself as one of the foremost critics of the New Testament (NT). Ehrman you could say he is the Richard Dawkins of Biblical Scholarship.

Ehrman was not always an atheist, however since becoming one, has devoted much of his time to writing intensively on the supposed issues (known as textual variants) within the NT. This is probably made most obvious in his popular best-selling book Misquoting Jesus in which he essentially argues that the NT cannot be accurately reconstructed, and therefore cannot be trusted as a historical document of truth, especially when it comes to the information about Jesus Christ.

Whilst I hugely respect Ehrman as a person and professor who clearly knows his stuff very well, I do not respect the deceitful work he has at play when we further investigate his true convictions about the accuracy of the NT.

Firstly let me point out the fact that the accuracy of the NT is almost completely undeniable. The bottom line is that we have at least 5000 Greek manuscripts, and a further 20,000 (at minimum) quotations from the early Church fathers. All of this combined together gives us a huge degree of certainty in what the NT document really does say. Most liberal and conservative scholars also would agree with these figures.

If you were to buy and read through Misquoting Jesus, the ‘evidence’ provided might very well convince you that Ehrman has successfully punched some huge holes in the accuracy of NT effectively disproving the whole thing. This façade however totally disappears once you read up on his academic works and also the appendix of the paperback edition of Misquoting Jesus.

In 2005, Ehreman helped Bruce Metzger update and revise the classic work on the topic – Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament.

Here is what Bruce Metzger and Ehrman agree on according to Melinda Penner of Stand to Reason. She says,

 

Ehrman and Metzger state in that book that we can have a high degree of confidence that we can reconstruct the original text of the New Testament, the text that is in the Bibles we use, because of the abundance of textual evidence we have to compare.  The variations are largely minor and don’t obscure our ability to construct an accurate text.  The 4th edition of this work was published in 2005 – the same year Ehrman published Misquoting Jesus, which relies on the same body of information and offers no new or different evidence to state the opposite conclusion.

 

Now here is what Ehrman himself says during an interview found in the appendix of Misquoting Jesus (p252):

 

Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. And even though we may disagree on important religious questions – he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not – we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions. If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands.  The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.

 

The only question we are left with now is why did he do this? One could speculate a few ideas. Maybe he did it in order to sell more books, the more controversial the book, the more sales, can always be a motivator; perhaps, he knew that he could fool the average layman who bought his book, however not any real NT scholar, and definitely not Metzger. In this regard he is forced to tell the truth when in presence of other NT scholars, but free to manipulate the truth in the presence of the average layman. Whatever the case is, it is interesting discover that even a prominent atheistic scholar cannot present satisfactory evidence that undermines the NT but rather we find that he himself believes in it’s accuracy!