Did Jesus Actually Exist?

An Italian court has ordered a Catholic priest to prove that Jesus was an historical figure. This is the result of a case brought against the priest by an atheist named Luigi Cascioli, author of The Fable of Christ. Three years ago Cascioli began legal proceedings against Enrico Righi after he denounced Cascioli in the parish newsletter. The judge, Gaetano Mautone, earlier ruled against Cascioli but a Court of Appeal overruled him and required that the case be heard, claiming that Cascioli had a reasonable case for his accusation that Righi was "abusing popular credulity" ("Prove Christ Exists," The Times of London, Jan. 3, 2006).

Cascioli contends that apart from the New Testament there is no reliable evidence that Jesus is an historical figure and there is, then, no reliable basis for Christianity. He claims that evidence for Jesus' existence apart from the Bible is gleaned from statements made after the time of "the hypothetical Jesus" and therefore is unreliable.

In fact, it is Cascioli who is abusing credulity.

TACITUS, a Roman historian who lived from A.D. 55 to 120, mentions Christ in his Annals. This historian, who was born only a short time after the death of Jesus, says, "Nero fastened the guilt . . . on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus [Jesus], from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilatus..."

Tacitus thus states the historicity of three figures that are mentioned in the New Testament: Jesus, Tiberius, and Pontius Pilate.

That Tacitus was writing a little after the time of Jesus is irrelevant. This is still powerful extra-biblical evidence that Jesus was an historical personage.

JOSEPHUS, the Jewish historian who wrote toward the end of the 1st century, refers to Jesus twice in his Antiquities of the Jews. He describes Jesus as "a wise man" and one who "wrought surprising feats." Josephus says Jesus "drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles." Some historians claim that Christians later edited the statements by Josephus and added things, but even without the alleged additions, even when we accept the testimony only of those portions of Josephus that are universally believed to be original, it is still obvious that Josephus believed that Jesus was an historical figure. Further, a 10th century Arabic edition of Josephus' Testimonium Flavianum, which would have been written before the date of the alleged editing, says: "At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders" (James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism, 1988, p. 95, cited from Ancient Evidence for Jesus from Non-Christian Sources by Michael Gleghorn http://www.probe.org/content/view/18/77/#text5).

Josephus was a Jew and not a Christian. He had no reason to write about Jesus beyond a mere historical one. The evidence from his writings is a powerful and authoritative extra-biblical witness to the historicity of Jesus.

LUCIAN OF SAMOSATA, a Greek satirist who wrote in the second century, referred to Jesus in one of his writings as follows: "The Christians ... worship a man to this day--the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . . . [It] was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws" (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, transl. by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, 4 vols., Oxford: Clarendon, 1949, vol. 4., cited in Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus, p. 206).

It is obvious that in the late first century and into the second century Jesus was considered by non-Christian scholars to be an historical man who was crucified and was the founder of the Christian religion.

The fact that the previous statements and others that could be cited were written after the time of Jesus is insignificant. It is not uncommon for historical facts to be documented from material that was written after that time. For example, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than 400 years after Alexander's death. In spite of this, historians consider them trustworthy.

Further, even if THE NEW TESTAMENT were the only document that describes the life of Jesus Christ, it is more than sufficient to prove His historicity. It was written only a short time after Jesus' death and while many intimate eyewitnesses to His life, crucifixion, and resurrection were still alive.

PAUL, for example, wrote soon after the death of Christ and he personally knew Peter and John and the other apostles who had lived with Jesus. Even the most liberal of theologians and historians do not doubt that Paul wrote at least most of the epistles that bear his name in the New Testament.

Take THE BOOK OF ACTS for another example. It was written by Luke, who was a co-laborer with Paul and who also knew the apostles firsthand. He wrote not only the account of Jesus' life in the Gospel of Luke but also the book of Acts, which documents the spread of the early churches. Modern secular historians have demonstrated that Luke's account of the spread of the first churches in the book of Acts is accurate.

"The book of Acts overlaps significantly with secular history of the ancient world, and the historical accuracy of Acts is indisputable.

This has recently been demonstrated anew by Colin Hemer, a classical scholar who turned to New Testament studies, in his book The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Hemer goes through the book of Acts with a fine-toothed comb, pulling out a wealth of historical knowledge, ranging from what would have been common knowledge down to details which only a local person would know. Again and again Luke's accuracy is demonstrated: from the sailings of the Alexandrian corn fleet to the coastal terrain of the Mediterranean islands to the peculiar titles of local officials, Luke gets it right. According to Professor Sherwin-White, 'For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd' [Sherwin-White, Roman Society, p. 189]. The judgment of Sir William Ramsay, the world-famous archaeologist, still stands: 'Luke is a historian of the first rank . . . . This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians' [William M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915, p. 222]" (The Evidence for Jesus, William Lane Craig, http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/rediscover2.html).

If the book of Acts is accurate and historical, there is no reason to doubt the historicity of the Jesus described therein, as He is the One who inspired the religious zeal and sacrificial living written in its pages.

We repeat, it is the atheist who is abusing credulity.

January 24, 2006 (David Cloud, Fundamental Baptist Information Service, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, 866-295-4143, fbns@wayoflife.org; for instructions about subscribing and unsubscribing or changing addresses, see the information paragraph at the end of the article) -

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