Did Jesus Really Exist?

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 03/05/2013

Because of the historical evidence of Jesus’ existence available to us today (biblical and non-biblical), there are very few scholars who attempt to argue that Jesus never lived.1 How do we know that Jesus was not simply a legendary character created decades later? Consider these bits of evidence:

  • Cornelius Tacitus, the well-known and respected ancient Roman historian who lived in AD 55–120, records in his great work, the Annals, the fact that Emperor Nero blamed Christians for the great fire that occurred in Rome around AD 60. Tacitus goes on to explain who Jesus was and how and where Jesus was executed.2 This is an extraordinary piece of information. Though Christianity began in Jerusalem (an amazing fact in itself, since those who lived in Jerusalem were in a position to know for a fact whether or not Jesus had really existed), a mere three decades after Jesus, there was such a large number of his followers that they had spread as far as Rome, and there were enough of them to get even the emperor’s attention! To understand how unlikely it is that such a thing could happen if Jesus had never actually lived, imagine the following scenario: Suppose you decide you would like to start your own religion, so you invent the story of an amazing man named Hobart. You head off for Los Angeles and start proclaiming that a few years earlier, Hobart had, in that very city, done countless miracles and caused such an uproar that, eventually, the city officials got involved and held a public execution, but then Hobart—amazing as he was—rose from the dead. How many followers would you get? You would be lucky if you got one! Everyone in Los Angeles would remember perfectly well that no such man had existed. You would never gain enough followers to get any sort of movement started. Such a plan is obviously ridiculous and doomed to failure. And yet, to claim that Jesus never existed, one would have to assume this very scenario occurred successfully in first century Jerusalem—a city with significantly fewer people than Los Angeles!
  • Tacitus was not the only ancient historian to discuss the existence of the man, Jesus. Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote about Jesus around AD 90–95.3 In addition, Roman historian Suetonius (c. AD 120)4 and the Talmud (Jewish oral tradition and commentaries compiled AD 70 to 200)5 both refer to Jesus as a real, historical person. Just as one wouldn’t question the ability of a historian living today to know about the existence of President Roosevelt, so it is more probable than not that all these ancient historians, writing just as near to the time of Jesus, were correct in their assessment that Jesus did, in fact, exist.
  • Even more impressive than the evidence of the ancient historians is the pre-biblical creed recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:3–5. This creed states that Jesus was crucified to pay for our sins, He died and was buried, and then He rose from the dead on the third day and was seen by eyewitnesses. It is clear from the style and wording of the creed that it did not originate with Paul, the author of 1 Corinthians. In fact, it is generally accepted—even among skeptical, non-Christian scholars—that Paul received this creed from someone else in Jerusalem between only two to eight years after Jesus’ death!6 Since the creed was already established when Paul received it, we know it was formulated even earlier, and the beliefs would, of course, pre-date even the creed, bringing us back to the time of the crucifixion itself. Regardless of whether or not the claims about Jesus in this creed are true, it is unreasonable to believe that such a creed would be created and accepted in Jerusalem right at the time of Jesus if He never even existed.