Before diving into the evidence, it is important to take a look at other historical figures and how you determined whether they existed or not. Remember we are not at the stage of determining whether Jesus was the Son of God but instead, whether a man, named Jesus, actually existed and became the catalyst for the largest religion in the world. Many people accept that Alexander the Great existed or that Genghis Khan existed. They believe that those people existed despite limited evidence and no body to ‘prove’ their existence. We can feel confident that they existed because, despite the limited evidence, there is enough that allows us to believe they existed ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. We can do the same with Jesus as well.
The Written Evidence
Did you know that there are more ancient manuscripts written about Jesus than any other figure from ancient times? You may be wondering how does having lots of manuscripts of the original writings potentially validate that Jesus really existed. Whenever you are dealing with ancient writings, you want to have a lot of confidence that the writings were not corrupted and that you are viewing what was originally intended. Having so many manuscripts gives us confidence that we are reading the original thoughts of the writers. While this doesn’t mean that what they wrote was true, it does allow us to feel confident that we are viewing their original claims.
One thing to contend with is that sometimes unbelievers will point to the ‘bias’ nature of the Gospels. The irony here is that biases exists with all people including those that say the Gospel’s are biased. I recently read an article that quoted Bart Ehrman as saying “These are all Christian and are obviously and understandably biased in what they report, and have to be evaluated very critically indeed to establish any historically reliable information”. Bart Ehrman is a self described agnostic and atheist (yes both, that is correct). Ask yourself, would Bart Ehrman exhibit any biases when it comes to scriptures? Should we discount everything he says because he is inherently biased against Christianity (or belief in God for that matter). Of course not.
Dating the Scriptures
If we determine that the New Testament remains largely in its original form, then the next step is to date the scriptures and see if we can determine if the authors were true eye witnesses. By doing that, we can at least come to the conclusion that they are claiming to have witnessed something that they actually would have had the ability to witness. It would not be a valuable testimony if someone said they witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus and they did not even live in that time period.
One way you can get a reasonable date for a publication is if you notice that others quote it. For example, if an ancient author or early religious leader quotes the Gospel of Luke as widely accepted scripture, that tells us two things.
1) The Gospel of Luke had to have been written earlier than the quoting of it.
2) The assumption by the ancient author or early religious leader that it was widely accepted scripture not only tells us that it was written earlier, but that it was written early enough that it was wide spread.
Indeed, the Apostle Paul (1 Timothy 5:17-18) quotes Luke (Luke 10:7):
The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (1 Tim. 5:17–18)
Now if we can date either one of these books, it tells us something about the other. Most theologians peg the writing of 1 Timothy to be between 62 and 66 AD (30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ). That means the Gospel of Luke was written earlier enough that it was widely known and accepted as scriptures. Additionally, Luke is not considered the first Gospel written. In fact, many believe the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel to be written and they peg the date to be around the mid-50s.
They Are Early But Do They Confirm Jesus Was a Real Person?
One of the things about people is that they lie. A lot. And it is certainly possible that the Biblical authors were lying in a grand conspiracy. But the trouble with that thought is that while people lie a lot, they will never die for a lie that they know to be a lie. The one thing about the Apostles is that all but one died for their belief that Jesus was a man, conducted many miracles, the greatest of which was that he died on the cross and was risen on the third day. They died because they truly believed that what they saw was real and worthy of spreading. This alone provides some of the clearest evidence yet that Jesus was a real man. In fact, it goes beyond that by strongly indicating he was more than a man.
In our age of instant communication, it is easy to take for granted how slow communication was in ancient times. For something to have happened in one country and to be written about in another country must have been of significant importance. Additionally the writings would have likely been about something that occurred decades before versus just mere weeks before. Keep this in mind as you explore the extra-biblical writings.
Probably the most famous extra-biblical source is Flavius Josephus was an ancient historian who was born right about the time of Jesus’ death and lived to 100 A.D. He wrote about Jewish history in his famous chronicle called “The Antiquities of the Jews” around the year 97 A.D. (just about 65 years after Christ’s death). While some of content is in dispute, there is very little dispute on the fact that he referenced Jesus at least once. As a non believer, in order for him to consider this to be an important enough event to consider part of Jewish history, it would have had to been widely accepted.
Two other extra-biblical sources include Pliny the Younger and Tacitus. Pliny the Younger wrote about Christian persecution and Jesus in 106 A.D. Tacitus was also an early historian and wrote Annals and the Histories which referenced Christians and even the widely held belief in the resurrection of Jesus. His writings started in no later than 105 A.D. and likely had a much earlier start.
Persecution of Christians
One of the critical pieces of Tacitus’ writings involved Nero who was the Roman Emperor from 54 A.D. to 68 A.D. Tacitus wrote about the incredible Christian persecution that was conducted by Nero during his reign which means that Christianity would have had to have gotten a foothold within Rome in a mere 20-30 years after Christ’s death. This account is backed up by several later historians and is possibly backed up by the contemporary historian, Suetonius.
Incredibly, persecutions of Christians so close to the death and resurrection of Jesus creates such compelling evidence that Jesus existed simply because Christianity had spread through multiple countries within no more than 30 years. It had such an impact by this point that leaders were having to put down “a new and mischievous superstition”.
What can we conclude from all this?
Jesus was a real man that changed the world within a short period of his existence.