This might be one of the strangest approaches ever conceived to answer the question of Jesus’ existence by someone like me. However, I am going to answer this question utilizing the arguments from one of the leading academic atheists in America today – Bart Ehrman. In fact, I would even recommend one of his books – Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (https://www.amazon.com/Did-Jesus-Exist-Historical-Argument/dp/0062206443).
Surprised? You shouldn’t be because Explore Messiah…? and Tzedakah Ministries has always promised to be honest and forthcoming with you from the very beginning. And I really enjoyed Ehrman’s book as you can tell by all the “sticky notes” and, yes, the colors of the “sticky notes” do mean something as I am more than a little AR about things like that…
Anyway, Ehrman as most good scholars does begins his book by presenting the anti-Jesus arguments:
- View that that the first century historical record is lacking evidence of Jesus’ existence
- View that Jesus is not a major character in the New Testament outside of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (seriously?)
- View that the Gospels are biased, full of contradictions and are unreliable
- View that all the Gospels are based completely on the story of Mark (Q Source)
- View that it is up to those who believe in Jesus’ existence to prove He is real and not the other way around
Response to the Anti-Jesus Arguments
Now I will disagree with Ehrman in some of his rebuttal arguments (but I would still recommend the book) but would also encourage you to read Mike Licona’s Why Are There Differences in the Gospels (https://www.amazon.com/Why-Are-There-Differences-Gospels/dp/0190264268). Another book that I don’t completely agree with but it is worth the read as well – especially if you like Roman history.
However, Ehrman does list several Roman and Jewish references to Jesus in the early 2nd century and even Jewish sources that are worth noting. And this pretty well eliminates the first argument against Jesus’ existence…
- Pliny the Younger’s letter of 112 CE writes of the Christian community who were gathering illegal to “sing hymns to Christ as to a god”
- Tacitus in 115 CE wrote the history of the Roman Empire from 14 to 68 CE and mentioned the story of Christ who was executed by Pontius Pilate but whose followers infected the city of Rome during the reign of Nero
- Suetonius in 115 CE wrote a biography of Claudius (41-54 CE) and mentioned how the followers of “Chrestus” were expelled from Rome. NOTE – It should be noted that Ehrman is not real comfortable with this notation but I would argue that this fits perfectly with the changing of the Roman fellowship from being primarily Jewish to Gentile in nature and I do so in my own work Paul’s Conundrum (http://wipfandstock.com/paul-s-conundrum.html).
- Josephus wrote about Jesus in the first century in two separate sections of the Antiquities of the Jews produced in c. 93 CE. One of the sections is brief and could almost be read as a footnote – “the brother of Jesus, who is called the Messiah.” The other is much longer and has been subject of much dispute. I agree with Ehrman and other scholars that the shorter and less flowery version is more reminiscent of Josephus’ writings.
- Rabbinic Sources of the Mishnah/Gemara are difficult to quantify because some of the modern versions have omitted those sections dealing with Jesus but I would encourage you to do an internet search on the Talmud, Jesus and words such as Panthera and “black magic in Egypt.” but be aware some anti-Semitic sites use these references to stir up animosity and not for good historical understanding. By the way, Explore Messiah…? and Tzedakah Ministries understands why the early rabbis would invent such stories against Jesus … FEAR that Jesus was/is the Messiah.
But what about arguments #2-4? Is Jesus mentioned outside of the “Gospels”? Is the Bible account of Jesus’ life full of contradictions and unreliable? Can I trust anything that anyone says about Jesus or anything anymore? Here are some answers that you might like to investigate for yourself…
- The entire “Book of Acts” tells the story of the founding of what is called the Early Christian Church around the Roman Empire but more importantly there are some amazing speeches especially in the first few chapters that are all about the life and testimony of Jesus – Acts 2; Acts 3:12-26; 4:8-20; 7:1-60; 13:16-44; and 22:1-14
- Paul was not the only writer of the New Testament after you get past the Book of Acts. Peter wrote two letters that were specifically written to Jewish believers. James and Jude, two brothers of Jesus, each wrote to a group of Jewish believers. John wrote not only three letters to churches but also the book of Revelation. Each of these books expand upon the Gospel story of Jesus.
- And Paul wrote expansively about the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15 and recounted in Galatians about his personal encounter(s) with Jesus after Acts 8 (see also 2 Corinthians 12). Honestly, I would encourage those who deny Jesus’ involvement in the New Testament after the Gospels to actually read the New Testament!
- But can we trust the Gospels? Aren’t there a lot of contradictions? Explore Messiah…? could give you all sort of easy charts and answers but you are smarter and deserve better. So … I would encourage you to read an interview of someone that I respect and have read. And while I might not agree with everything that he says, he makes a lot of good points — http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/may/michael-licona-gospel-differences-interview.html?share=ed822G7%2FeKHMbNvYka%2F7N8nR0xIEVITV.
- What about this Mark argument that there is only one Gospel? First, the anti-Jesus crowd needs to understand the Q Source a little better (and for you Star Trek: TNG fans as I am – I am resisting a Continuum joke right now). The Q Source has some merit but it is based on the idea that Mark wrote down everything that Peter recounted to him. However, we have to recognize that Matthew wrote his Gospel to a Jewish audience, Mark to a primarily Greek audience and Luke was the Hellenistic Jewish doctor who was seeking to be analytical about everything and so while they might have collaborated together – they still sought to have their own voice. And there are some who think that Mark was not the first Gospel written, but that it was Matthew.
- Additionally, the Gospel of John is separate in many ways. Matthew, Mark and John are considered the Synoptic Gospels in that they summarized the life of Jesus; whereas, John was interesting in writing about the theology of Jesus. Read John and Matthew and notice the differences for yourself. Additionally, we will examine John more closely in the question below Did Jesus Actually Claim to be Messiah?
So what about the deniers fifth argument that it is up to believers to prove that Jesus existed? Have you ever heard of the debate approach called “Moving the Goalpost.” This is what they are doing. However, I am going to use a quotation from Bart Ehrman, to make a good point about the Jesus deniers:
The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. It was made up in the eighteenth century. One might as well call it a modern myth, the myth of the mythical Jesus.” (Did Jesus Exist, page 96)
I know we have thrown a ton of information at you! And we are not trying to get you to buy a lot of books (we promise!) but we want you to know “where we get our information! And so, If you would like to discuss this with us more in a more casual way, come to the CAFÉ Kehillah Discussion Board and someone will either be there or will get back to you ASAP. Meanwhile — go ahead and check out the next two questions –– https://www.exploremessiah.com/proof-jesus-arose-from-the-dead/ and https://www.exploremessiah.com/jesus-claim-messiah-maybe-more/.