Could it be that Jesus never existed? Has everyone who believes in him been deceived?
There are few things more disappointing than finding out something or someone you believed in—like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy—doesn’t exist. But eventually we grow up and figure it all out.
Yet we still wonder: Are there other tall tales I’ve blindly believed? Who else never even existed?
In 1921 the Washburn Crosby Company, an American flour company, recognized the benefit of responding personally to questions about their products. So the company created a “warm and friendly” name, used a signature from a contest-winning employee, and voilà: Betty Crocker as we know her was born.1
Of course, discovering Betty Crocker was not a real person has little bearing on our everyday lives. But what about one of the most famous people in history, Jesus of Nazareth? Is it possible that he never existed, that everyone who believes in him has been deceived?
Of course, almost anything is possible. Yet the important question in this case is not “Is it possible?” but “Is it probable?” Let’s look at the evidence.
Classical and Jewish Works
There is a long list of references to Jesus as a historical person in ancient records. Scholars suggest that Jesus was born in about 4 BCE and died around 30 CE. Below is a brief chronological catalog of some of these references.2
- In 55 CE, the historian Thallus explained the darkness that fell at midday when Jesus was crucified to have been an eclipse, not a miracle. Thallus’s original work is lost, but the text survives through quotations by later historians.
- Shortly after 73 CE, Mara bar Serapion, a Stoic with little known background, wrote a letter to his son describing how the Jews had killed “their wise king.”
- In the 90s CE, the Jewish historian Josephus wrote his second major work, Antiquities of the Jews. In it, he described the death of the apostle James, “the brother of Jesus called Christ.”3 But consider what his book says before that:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.4
- In 111 CE, the Roman governor Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan regarding administrative matters. His preserved letters represent the largest administrative correspondence to survive from Roman times. In one letter, he asked about the treatment of Christians who are on trial. He derogatorily mentioned Christ three times, and his description of Christian behavior and worship patterns matches much of what we know from the New Testament.5
- In 116 CE, Tacitus, a well-known Roman historian, published the Annals, a year-by-year history of several Roman emperors. When describing the great fire in Rome in 64 CE, he noted the popular theory that the “Chrestians” started the fire. In light of the popular misspelling, he set the record straight: “Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate.”6 After this historical footnote, Tacitus continued to deride the Christian movement as a “pernicious superstition.”
There are other references: Suetonius (120 CE), Lucian of Samosata (165 CE), Celsus (175 CE), and Jewish rabbinic literature (after 200 CE). What makes this initial list so significant is that none of these writers were Christians; they had no reason to propagate a myth that, in reality, threatened their own interests.
The New Testament
As would be expected, numerous Christian authors in the first and second centuries—such as Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian—wrote about Jesus as well. But the largest body of evidence for Jesus’ existence is found in the New Testament itself.
Four different books written before 100 CE—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—stand as biographies that chronicle Jesus’ life. These biographies do not claim to be neutral. They were written by followers of Jesus with a specific purpose. As one writer put it, these reports were recorded so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”7
This fact does not necessarily call the texts’ reliability into question. No historian is entirely neutral; complete objectivity is unattainable. Moreover, the best historians often have a vested interest in their subjects.
For example, who most cares about documenting the Holocaust, exposing what truly happened, and preserving its memory so that humanity never allows it to happen again? Jewish historians. And no one would—or should—challenge their competency and passion to “get it right.” The gospel writers are no different when it comes to Jesus.
Other New Testament authors like Paul and James wrote letters even before the Gospels were composed and circulated. They tell the same general story of a Jewish man named Jesus whose teachings were astounding, whose death was sacrificial, and whose resurrection changed everything.
To be sure, perhaps the strongest evidence for Jesus’ existence is the effect he had on the world. If Jesus never existed, why did so many people claim to follow him and then die telling others about him?
How did a story about a simple Jewish carpenter from the backwoods of Galilee on the edge of the Roman Empire make it into the greatest history books of the Empire? And how did the accounts written by his followers become more widely copied and circulated than those written by Tacitus himself?
Michael Grant was one of the foremost ancient historians of the twentieth century. In fact, his translation of Tacitus’s Annals remains a standard in the field. As an open atheist, he studied Jesus extensively and wrote a book called Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. Consider his conclusion:
To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory [that Jesus never existed]. It has "again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars." In recent years, "no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus" or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.8