Did Jesus of Nazareth Really Exist?

Did Jesus Really Exist

Did Jesus really exist? I have read comments from skeptics who sincerely doubt that He lived. Raphael Lataster, professor of the University of Sydney, said in an online Washington Post article (December 18, 2014) that there are "no existing eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus. All we have are later descriptions of Jesus' life—events by non-witnesses, most of whom are obviously biased." Even the "reasonable" accounts by ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus are "shrouded in controversy," he said.

The skeptics then dismiss outright all testimony of the four Gospels—all written within 60 years of Jesus' death (the earliest manuscript of the Gospel of John, known as "P52," is dated to about AD 125, confirming that the Gospels were written before the end of the first century). And they brush aside testimony from the Apostles that they were eyewitnesses (cf. 2 Peter 1:16). But I will write about the historical reliability of the New Testament, and the Four Gospels in particular, in a later article. For now, let's just focus on what non-Christian writers in the ancient world said about Jesus.

In the first century we are blessed to have the writings of the Jewish/Roman historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37?-101?). He originally fought on the side of the Jews in their rebellion against Rome, but eventually switched sides. Because of his books we have a first-hand account of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and life in Israel in the first century. He specifically mentioned Jesus twice as a real, historical figure.

Even Christian scholars admit that, yes, scribes copying Josephus' works probably added the words that Jesus "is the Christ," and that "he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold them and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him..." The evidence is that those particular phrases are emendations by later scribes. But aside from that, what are we left with from Josephus? He said this about Jesus: "About this time there lived Jesus, a wise 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. 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. ... And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared (Antiquities, XVIII, 3,3)."