DID JESUS REALLY EXIST HISTORICALLY?
One of the questions I am frequently asked is, “Did Jesus really exist physically on earth.” Those who doubt need tangible proof that Jesus really walked on earth. Did he really walk among? Did he really say what is in the Bible? As a Doctor of Ministry, I can say with certainty that he did exist. Not because I want him to be real, but because he was real.
Historical information from the 1st century is much murkier than that of the 21st century. The internet didn’t exist. Great writings were not as prolific as they are today. As such, gleaning information about Jesus’s physical existence is much harder. Proof of his existence requires searching ancient records that are far more subtle than they are today.
This is compounded by two other facts, much of what was known was from oral history and that which was written, was only about the elite. Writings in the 1st century tended to be written about kings or emperors, the aristocracy. In fact, in the first century only five percent of the population could write. When they did write it was on material they may last only a few decades. Unless these writings were transcribed, they would disappear. So finding the truth in this quest is much harder than what we can do today with our own history.
If we discount what is written in the New Testament, can we still be sure Jesus really existed? My answer is yes! There does exist wonderful clues and writings that confirm Jesus’s existence.
We do know that Jesus existed from both Tacitus, at the beginning of the second century, a pagan historian, and Josephus at the end of the first century. Josephus referred to Jesus as a “yoke maker.” A reference to Jesus as a carpenter. Tacitus discussed the crucifixion in his writings, not only referring to Jesus, but Pontius Pilate. A non-Christian source of confirmation.
Dr. Gary Habermas wrote a book called the Historical Jesus. In this book, his research concluded that there are over sixty non-Christian references to Jesus. From writings of ancient luminaries such as; Tacitus, Josephus, Thallus, Phlegon, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Emperor Trajan, Emperor Hadrian, the Talmud, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion. Many of these I read during my formal education of obtaining a Doctorate degree.
Another clue in our detective work centers around the existence of a document now called “Q”. Q is a document that included a number of sayings by Jesus. We know this document existed as it was included in the three synoptic Gospels; Matthew, Mark and Luke, and other documents unearthed from archaeological finds over the last few centuries.
The three Synoptic Gospels were all written at different times, spanning sixty C.E to eighty C.E. Mark was written first, followed by Matthew and then Luke. We know that because of some similarities the content of Q is included in all three. The writings of Q also exist in other documents that are not in the Bible. For instance, the Gospel of Thomas includes a number of these sayings.
Christian writers who are not in the New Testament, also have writings supporting the existence of Jesus, such as; Clement of Rome, Diognetus, Aristedes, Papias, Barnabas, Polycarp, Ignatius, Melito of Sardis, Quadratus, and Justin Martyr.
While this evidence answers the question of Jesus physical existence, it is only a small part or start of our belief. When talking with those who doubt, this information is a start, but there is more. Jesus is not just seen, but felt. Feeling Jesus in our hearts extends his physical presence to that of a spiritual presence.
Just knowing Jesus existed isn’t enough for those seeking. It is from feeling Jesus. When I hear the question of did Jesus really exist, I know the person is the early stages of acceptance. Accepting that there is a higher force and a set of life values we can hang on to.
Accepting Jesus in our hearts comes from observing. Learning to discern what is coincidence and what is providence. The process starts with engaged dialogue, or prayer. Then watching and seeing the results. For some this will come quickly. For others, perhaps a lifetime. Ultimately developing a firm faith is believing in the unseen.
For some a crisis must first exist. For others, simply a prayer that is answered. But for all that seek Jesus, he will be found. Each journey is different. With different hills and valleys to wander. The eventual encounter with Jesus will be remarkable and deeply personal.
Sure Jesus walked this earth. But this knowledge is the start of our journey. Jesus is more than physical, he is spiritual. He wants not only our eyes to see, but our hearts to feel. Breaking down the barriers of doubt of his physical existence hopefully will lead us to the final answer. Jesus is God, whom we seek.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman
Photo by Grant Whitty
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