If there is one pivotal belief that defines Christianity, it is the existence of Jesus Christ.
Christ as teacher, example, and most importantly as savior is the foundation and the center of Christian worship. But many have asked the question: did Christ exist? How can we trust the accounts of Jesus when the Bible is the only source?
Internal References *
Before we can defend Jesus outside the Bible, we must defend his validity within the Bible. Because of the Bible, Christians believe that Jesus was a wise teacher and a sinless man who was also fully God. His life and death served to remove the sins of the entire human race, past and future. He was raised from death into eternal resurrection and is coming again to make the whole world new.
Many have argued that the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were exaggerated by early believers. It is true that the Gospels were compiled as early as 50 years after Christ. However, earlier Biblical texts discuss Christ as divine in the same way as the Gospels do. One essential passage is a letter written by the apostle Paul to a church in Corinth about 15 years after Jesus’s death:
“ For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [Peter], and then to the Twelve [disciples]. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep [died]. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
Paul identifies, directly and indirectly, more than 500 people who were witnesses to the life and resurrection of Jesus. Importantly, Peter, James, the disciples, and most of the 500 witnesses are still alive at the time this letter was written. Paul makes great claims about the divinity of Christ and the purpose of his life, and he invites the readers of his letters to confirm these claims by asking the people who witnessed Jesus’s resurrection.
External References **
It’s great that the early believers could confirm the teachings about Jesus, but how do we know that Jesus wasn’t still a legend made up by the apostles? The written testimonies of the 500 have not been found. However, the Christian can take comfort that Jesus and his movement were recognized by many non-Christian writers, too.
First and second century historians of the Roman empire, Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, and Thallus, have all made references to Christ as the source of explosive Christian movements. Tacitus, who recorded Annals, directly mentions Jesus’s crucifixion as the start of the Christian movement. Suetonius, chief secretary to Emperor Hadrian in the early second century, references the early church and its persecution and also identifies Christ as the instigator of “continuous disturbances,” or major religious disputes. Thallus, whose first-century writing has been preserved in part by other historians, even references the darkness that occurred at Jesus’s death (Luke 23:44-45).
Josephus, a well-known Jewish historian and revolutionary, references the life of Jesus in his Antiquities. While Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, he does include a glowing description of Jesus’s life and works. A disputed manuscript describes the three-day resurrection of Christ and the great miracles he performed. Since Josephus denied Jesus’s Messiahship, it is unlikely he wrote about the resurrection so confidently.
The passage, though, does not seem to be made up. An Arabic manuscript contains the same basic sentence structure about Jesus’s life, death, and ministry, but without claiming that he was truly the Messiah. This accepted passage is still significant because it corroborates many claims of the Gospel writers: that Jesus was wise and virtuous, that he cultivated many followers (Jews and gentiles), that Pilate ordered him to be crucified, that the disciples claimed his resurrection in three days, and that he claimed to be the Messiah of the Jewish prophecies.
Without Jesus, the Christian movement would have died out quickly. Jesus taught equal treatment of all people, including women and outsiders, and often challenged Jewish traditions that were not prescribed by God’s law; he demanded religious reform and condemned the worship of anything besides God. In this way, his teachings threatened the Jewish and Roman culture that surrounded the early Christian movement.
Both Biblical sources (the books Acts) and external sources discuss the heavy persecution Christians faced when they adhered to this teaching. In the early second century, letters were exchanged between Emperor Trajan and his officials describing the practices of early Christians and prescribing punishment and forced conversion should a person claim to follow Jesus. The fact that the church grew exponentially under this persecution shows the dedication of Jesus’s followers to his revolutionary teaching, a dedication that would not be possible without the hope of Jesus’s resurrection.
Jewish officials were also well aware of Jesus and the movement he sparked. Several passages from the Talmud, a collection of Rabbinic teachings on history among other subjects, reference not only the early Christian movement but also Jesus as its source. One revealing passage discusses the execution of Jesus “on the eve of the Passover” after many days of attempted stonings under the accusation of sorcery and blasphemy. This historical account follows the events of John 8:58-59, 10:31-33, 10:39 and Matthew 26 (and the corresponding Gospel accounts) perfectly.
In addition to these sources discussed, many, many historical accounts of the life of Jesus can be found in manuscripts and records of all major contemporary powers - political, religious, military, and legal.
Like the early church, we as Christians take our hope, comfort, and peace from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The best way to resist the ministry of the Gospel is to deny the source of its meaning, but this is a foolish endeavor. There is overwhelming evidence for the life of Jesus as described by the Biblical Gospels. Because of this evidence, we must accept that Jesus lived, and that his teachings sparked a controversy so strong that it led to his execution on the cross and the martyrdom of countless early followers. Who would know the content of that teaching better than the disciples, eyewitnesses to Jesus? We must accept these Biblical accounts alongside secular and historical accounts.
If, as the Gospels claim, Christ has died for our sins and lives eternally, then we must evaluate our lives. Jesus has offered us freedom from the unpayable debt of sin. He has offered us divine love and the security of our salvation despite our perpetual condition of sin.
“For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Acts 2:39
Kaitlin Silvey, Impact Christian Fellowship at IUPUI Student President
*This argument is derived from Timothy Keller in The Reason for God.
**For a more detailed discussion of the external sources and their translations, see The Big Book of Christian Apologetics: An A to Z Guide by Norman L. Geisler under "Jesus, Non-Christian Sources for."