The question we are looking at today is this: Did Jesus actually physically exist on the earth? This question is a question that is not really considered by modern historians because evidence in favor of Jesus’ existence is so definitive. So, we will briefly look at the evidence, know that we are reasonable in our belief that Jesus did physically exist, and then will move on to a more pressing question: Why does it matter?
Did Jesus exist?
The first evidence that we have, of course, is the evidence presented to us by the Gospels. There we see both eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) and those who heard about Christ from eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke). We discovered in Session 2 that the Gospel accounts (and the Bible as a whole) is most likely both authentic and reliable. In fact, the Bible is so engrained in and confirmed by history that if the Bible were to be removed as a valid historical resource, no work of antiquity could be considered a valid historical resource if we are to be consistent in our treatment of historical documents. Next, Jesus’ existence is also confirmed in the Roman historical record.
Josephus, who lived from A.D. 37-c. 100 (within a century of Jesus), was a Jew who recorded history for the Roman empire. He was not, by any indication, a follower of Jesus. In his Antiquities, Jesus is mentioned twice. One instance is questioned by most scholars (and myself) and so I will not quote it here. The other instance is most certainly written by Josephus’ own hand for the purpose of Roman history. In Antiquities 20.9.1 Josephus described the death of James the Just, who was a half brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ. Not only to we have secular evidence of Jesus’ earthly existence, but also that James was his half brother as it is described in the Biblical text.
There was another Roman historian who was not a Jew. His name was Tacitus. In his Annals (44:3), he described the crucifixion for the purpose of Roman history less than a century after the event. Again, Jesus is recorded in the secular history of the Roman Empire. Not only is it clear that Jesus existed, but also that Jesus was crucified. Once again we read the same story in the secular history of Rome that we read within the Gospels.
In A.D. 112, there was a Roman investigator by the name of Pliny the Younger. By this time, the Christian faith had become considered by Rome to be its own religion instead of a sect of Judaism. The Christian people refused to worship the Emperor as a god and so the Christian faith had been outlawed. Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan, who was having the group investigated. Here is what Pliny wrote as he described the meetings of the early church:
“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.”
Here we see in the secular history of Rome that, from early on, Jesus was worshipped as God and that those whose lives He impacted devoted themselves to a life of self-sacrifice. We also see that Jesus’ life had a great impact not only on those who knew Him physically, but through the generations for years and years.
The evidence we see, then, suggests that Jesus did, in fact, exist. Not only did He exist, but He was worshipped as God from very early on. Christians from the start contented themselves to live lives of sacrifice, to love their enemies, to practice self denial, to tell the truth, to pay their debts, and to be good citizens (to be innocent in the eyes of the law of the state where it was possible). Again, not only did Jesus exist, but His life and ministry had an impact on many people through every generation.
The implications of the historical record are empowering for the Christian. We are not reasonable to question Jesus’ existence. Anyone who claims that Jesus did not exist simply has not taken the time to observe the historical record present in both the Gospels and in the secular Roman history.
This is not the breadth of the question, though. We want to shift our attention and answer as to whether or not Jesus’ existence actually matters.
Does it matter?
If the Bible is truly authentic and reliable (refer to session 2), then Jesus, who most certainly existed physically, actually claimed to be God. Furthermore, the Biblical account is confirmed by the secular Roman history. Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. The Old Testament, which is also most likely authentic and reliable, repeatedly predicts the coming of a Messiah. Micah 5:2 declares that this King would be from antiquity and from eternity. Through the 1,400 year development of the Old Testament, the Messiah is constantly and consistently predicted. If any event that had been predicted for at least 1,400 years came to fruition and was accomplished by one person, that event and that person would be the most important event and person within and throughout all of history for us to consider.
It is my discovery, then, that Jesus not only existed, but seems to be the most important person in all of history because history is centered around Him and leads to Him. If anyone is to insist that Jesus’ existence does not matter, he or she also insinuates that history does not matter. If we insist that history does not matter, then we also insinuate that the products of history do not matter. As I understand it, current cultures, worldviews, traditions, religions, scientific discoveries, and philosophies are all products of history. Therefore, to insist that Jesus’ existence does not matter is to insist that nothing that anyone believes or thinks in the contemporary age matters at all. It must be the case, then, that in order to reasonably hold any viewpoint, the life and ministry of Jesus must be considered. If it is not considered, we cannot arrive at our current conclusions with any degree of certainty.
We receive yet another empowering implication: Jesus’ existence matters not only for the Christian, but for everyone. It is important for everyone, then, to examine the life of Jesus and decide for himself whether or not He is the Christ. Jesus claimed to be God. He claimed to be the Messiah and the Christ. John Duncan formulated a trilemma that was later used and popularized by C.S. Lewis:
Christ either  deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or  He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or  He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.
It was impossible for Christ to have been just a good moral teacher. We cannot approach the historical existence of Jesus as if He was just a good example or just gave good precepts by which we should live. In John 6:6-71, Peter states that Jesus is the only on who has the keys of eternal life. If Jesus is who He claimed to be, then He is the most important historical figure of all time. Not only the Gospel, but also secular history, including the Jewish records and Roman records, seems to indicate that Jesus was who He claimed to be. Secular history confirms the story in the Gospels. Added to this, we see that Jesus still impacts billions of lives today. To say, then, that Jesus’ life is unimportant is to blatantly ignore all of history. Christ Jesus is the only one who has the keys to eternal life. We cannot find eternal life through any worldly avenue no matter what other people promise us. Jesus is the only one.
In the context of church and of the Christian life, Jesus is not just someone we talk about. He is the one person who means the difference between eternal life and eternal condemnation for us. This means that we must ask all ourselves whether we have faith in Christ or not. Do we want Christ, or just the promises of the Christian faith? If we only want the promises of the Christian faith and do not place our faith in the person of Christ, we have placed our faith and our trust without purpose.
If Jesus truly is the most important person in all of history, then we should know that it is worth every sacrifice to get this message to everyone! Everyone must hear about Christ!
Charles Peace, a man who was on death row in England in the 1870’s, was visited by a pastor and he had this to say:
“Sir, I do not share your faith. But if I did- if I believed what you say you believed- then although England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would crawl the length and breadth of it on hand and knee and think the pain worthwhile, just to save a single soul.”
If the people in the church today truly believed what they claim to believe, there would be no sacrifice that was too much in order to reach just a single soul with the message of Christ.
Remember to subscribe to this blog to keep up with the conversation! These resources will be made available free of charge to any church after we finish this series at Eastside.
Very excellent dissertation of the man Jesus while building to the God Man Jesus.
What is a shame is that there are so many, even proclaiming Christians, who have trouble with this.
In my personal view, my belief on the existence of and personification of who He claimed to be is wholly entombed in the faith given me by God at my salvation. Upon His Faith there is no proof within any secular discovery or writing that can cause doubt of whose I am and His existence and works on my behalf.
I have not dealt in apologetics only until very recently as the faith given me has been my sufficiency for me. However, and as His word so theologically sound puts it, “therefore”, being of a witness for him it is deligent that I learn that others may understand, not to argue or boast, but to give secular witness as to the historical documentation of unrefutable accounts of whose I am and allow His faith that opportunity to work in the lives of otherwise doubters and unbelievers.
My fellow brother and worker in Christ, keep the faith and keep up the good works of Him and the great writing you do.
My prayers are for your continued use by Him for His glory.