Consider how difficult it would be to convince someone that an imaginary person existed and had been famously walking around town just two months ago. Now try to convince the same person that they themselves saw this imaginary person perform a miracle. According to the book of Acts, written in the first-century AD, the apostle Peter said this:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— (Peter in Acts 2:22, ESV).
It is sometimes claimed that Luke simply got it wrong when he wrote down these words of Peter. Ancient fake news perhaps. It is sometimes claimed the church must have rewritten the book of Acts somehow, although they would have had to do that very, very early. We do have quite a number of ancient manuscripts after all. What isn’t really up for debate, however, is that the Christian religion was a big presence in Jerusalem very soon after the time of Jesus. The people who lived at that time and in that place sure acted like people who would agree with Peter in the verse above. They had seen Jesus and the miracles for themselves. Why else would they become believers in droves?
A few thousand years later, we aren’t so sure, of course. Last month as Christmas approached, the Washington Post published a three-year old article that questioned whether Jesus really existed. The article suggested that Jesus was nothing more than a myth. The same idea shows up around the internet but when it shows up in the Washington Post, it carries more weight.
Except it doesn’t.
The three-year old article had been previously debunked (debunked with amazing force) and even atheist historians and archaeologists believe Jesus was a real person. The disagreement is over what Jesus said and did, not whether He was real or imaginary. Ironically, the claims of Christianity are taken more seriously by scholars and experts, than by our popular media culture. Of course, there is that meme of Bart Ehrman saying:
In the entire first Christian century Jesus is not mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet. His name never occurs in a single inscription, and it is never found in a single piece of private correspondence. Zero! Zip references! -Bart Ehrman (at a debate in a church)
However, Ehrman wasn’t arguing Jesus didn’t exist as the memes suggest. He was arguing the only sources we have for any large amount of information about Jesus are the Gospels. Ehrman also made a similar statement in his book Jesus, Interrupted to argue that Jesus wasn’t all that important to the people in the ancient Roman world. The internet memes are twisting his words and taking them out of context. I know, shock right?
Historically speaking, Jesus was a real person. He lived and walked the earth and changed the world forever. He is mentioned a few times in some minor written records by Roman authorities like Pliny and Tacitus. Both of them missed Bart’s deadline of the first century, but just barely. Jesus also gets a brief mention or so by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus who did write in the first century. Jesus is also mentioned in writings by ancient Christians. Yes, the writings of Christians such as Paul and the Gospels do count as evidence. Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians, for instance, are mid-first century, and considered very significant by the scholarly world. Notice Ehrman did not say Jewish sources when he made his statement.
It gets better. Consider some sociological facts for a minute. Myths take hundreds of years to develop, but Christianity was growing all over the Roman empire just a few years after Jesus. The teaching of what Jesus had said or done, the miracles He had performed, and fact of His death and resurrection did not take decades or centuries to be written down or preached. Christians were saying these things from day one. The earliest Christian creed that Paul wrote down in I Corinthians 15:3-7 is believed to have been given to Paul just a year or two after Jesus. Yes, even atheist scholars have said this. Myths don’t usually develop instantly.
Wait, actually never.
Also notice what Peter said above. The famous apostle was preaching this sermon barely two months after Jesus had died on the cross. Many of the people to whom he was speaking had been able to see Jesus with their own eyes. That’s why Peter says that Jesus did miracles “as you yourselves know.” The people who lived in Jerusalem would have known if Jesus was imaginary, and they would have known if Jesus hadn’t really done any miracles. That’s why myths take centuries to develop. Most people are a bit skeptical of such things, especially if those same people had been there.
It’s also why it is amazing that after Peter finished speaking, 3,000 people put their faith in Jesus. The same city full of people who had seen Jesus with their own eyes, exploded with belief. Even if you reject the accuracy of the story, historical evidence from writings and archaeology shows that Christianity developed in Jerusalem far, far too early to be explained by a myth. The historical evidence implies not only that Jesus was a real person, but that something extraordinary had happened.
It’s not like supposed messiahs hadn’t been killed before. They had. Jesus was obviously different for some reason. I would argue this is the sort of historical evidence that leads toward believing there was something to those miracles and especially, the resurrection.
It’s also why, outside of the internet and the Washington Post, it is difficult to find current scholars or historians who are able to credibly argue that Jesus did not exist. Sure, you may quote one from somewhere, but everyone else can raise you a hundred. Read the link above by John Dickson that debunked the Post’s article in 2014 as just an example. There is a growing body of evidence that easily demonstrates Jesus was a real person, including everything from writings, carvings, paintings, letters, manuscripts, and the history of Christianity itself. His existence is the easy part. The real debate is on the miracles and the resurrection. There are simply too many details to explain away in order to claim Jesus was imaginary. Plus, there’s the big, obvious, glaring detail that cannot be overlooked:
Out of all the ancient writings from Jews and Romans who argued against Christianity, and there were plenty of ancient skeptics, not a single one of them ever argued that Jesus didn’t exist. No one argued Jesus was imaginary until centuries later.
Think about that. It took centuries to develop this Jesus-Is-Imaginary idea.
That’s how myths work. Thus, the actual myth here, the idea that no one believed then but people accept now thousands of years later, is the whole Jesus wasn’t real thing.
If you’re not into myths, then good news, the evidence says Jesus was, in fact, a historical reality. The best part: He is also a present reality.