How Do We Know Christ Really Existed?
- Dr. Roger Barrier Preach It, Teach It
- 2015 13 Jul
Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am a high school senior and I got into a discussion about Jesus with my best friend. She is not a Christian and I’ve been trying hard to live a Christian life that might attract her to Jesus. We recently got into a somewhat heated discussion which closed with her saying, “No one knows if Jesus Christ even existed!”
So I’d like to know, is there any evidence for the existence of Jesus besides what we have in the Bible?
Fortunately, we don’t have to put up with your best friend’s challenge nor with the many who today deny the real existence of Jesus. Many secular, archaeological and historical references to Jesus from outside the Bible prove that Jesus was a real person who lived in the first century A.D.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, who was governor in Galilee in 66 A.D., wrote a history of the Jews from Adam through the time of Nero. His book was called the “Antiquities of the Jews”. He mentioned three references to Jesus including one about Jesus’ relationship with his brother James who was put to by the Sanhedrin.
The Jewish “Talmud” contains eight references to Jesus Christ. All are designed to discredit him. For example, one refers to the hanging of Jesus and mentions his practice of sorcery. Another ridicules the virgin birth and claims that Mary and a Roman soldier were his birth parents.
Both first century Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius make references to Christ and to his followers. Tacitus reports Nero’s persecutions and mentions that Christ was executed very the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Suetonius mentioned the expulsion from Rome of the who caused a great tumult under the influence of Christ.
The Roman Emperor, Trajan and Pliny the Younger, the governor of Asia, corresponded regarding how to handle the followers of Christ in judicial trials, including the execution of two courageous women who were leaders of the group.
Hundreds of second century documents refer to, or are written about, Jesus.
The “Apocryphal New Testament” consists of many false Gospels, false Acts and pseudo letters which were written to espouse theological Gnosticism. According to Gnosticism, Christ was one of many spirit beings who sprang forth from God and Sophia. These spirit beings brought salvation by special knowledge only to the spiritually elite.
Gnostics elements are still found today among numerous religious groups.
The “Pseudepigrapha” was written to give credence to Gnostic Beliefs. These false writings from the second through the fourth centuries contain stories like Jesus having a wife and children.
What Did Jesus Look Like?
“The Suffering Servant” (Isaiah 52:14; 53:2)
“The fairest of the sons of men” (Psalm 45:2)!
The Letter of Lentulus
The “Letter of Lentulus” was supposedly written from the Governor of the Jerusalem to the Roman Senate giving a physical description of Jesus Christ. It dates back to the second century A.D. and is obviously a forgery. Nevertheless, there’s a good chance that it contains a reflection of his real “appearance."
There has appeared in our times, and there still lives, a man of great power (virtue), called Jesus Christ. The people call him prophet of truth; his disciples, son of God. He raises the dead, and heals infirmities. He is a man of medium size; he has a venerable aspect, and his beholders can both fear and love him. His hair is the color of the ripe hazel-nut, straight down to the ears, but below the ears wavy and curled, with a bluish and bright reflection, flowing over his shoulders. It is parted in two on the top of the head, after the pattern of the Nazarenes. His brow is smooth and very cheerful with a face without wrinkle or spot, embellished by a slightly reddish complexion. His nose and mouth are faultless. His beard is abundant, of the color of his hair, not long, but divided at the chin. His aspect is simple and mature; his eyes are changeable and bright. He is terrible in his reprimands, sweet and amiable in his admonitions, cheerful without loss of gravity. He was never be in known to laugh, but often to weep. His stature is straight, his hands and arms beautiful to behold. His conversation is grave, infrequent, and modest. He is the most beautiful among the children of men.
Augustine wrote: “We are utterly ignorant of the earthly appearance of Christ.”
The Four Gospels Provide Our Best Source for Learning about the Life of Christ
Think about it, there are only five extant copies of the Iliad and yet nobody claims that they are not a reflection of historical facts. On the other hand, there are over 3, 500 extant copies of the New Testament from the first century, and yet many refuse to believe that the Gospels are accurate history.
Most history books are accurate until they are proven otherwise. Many are convinced that the Bible is basically wrong until it is proven to be right at every point.
Fortunately, the biblical records have been historically an archaeologically verified at point after point after point.
The word “Gospel” means “Good News”. The good news is that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. The penalty for sin is spiritual death. Jesus took our punishment for our sins on the cross and all who received him at his work on the cross will have forgiveness of their sins in a place reserved in heaven for eternity.
The gospels are not biographies. We basically know nothing about Jesus’ first thirty years. The gospel writers give only enough information to prepare us for Christ’s death and resurrection --and the significance of both. The Gospels are not really objective. They are written to convince others (John 20:30-31).
Why four Gospels? “Out of the mouths of two or three witnesses everything should be established.”
The Gospels are not written in chronological order. Each gospel writer organized his material with a plan in mind, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, for best presenting the “good news” about Jesus.
It is fair to say that the gospel writers were inspired, that means breathed upon, by the Holy Spirit, who did not dictate the Gospels, but allowed the writers to interact with the Holy Spirit and recorded just exactly what God wanted to have recorded. The Holy Spirit guided and superintended the writings (John 14:16-17 and 15:26-27 and 16:13).
How Did the Gospel Writers Come to Write the Gospels?
The Gospels Are Divided Into Two Main Divisions.
- Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called “the Synoptics” which means “to see together.”
- John stands alone, it is unlike all the others.
About 60 A.D. Mark decided to write down his version of the life of Christ.
Peter (Acts 10:37-42): Mark is an outline of Peter’s sermon to Cornelius.
Papias (130 A.D.): “Mark is a copy of one of Peter’s sermons.”
Irenaeus (180 A.D.): “Mark transmitted to us in writing the things that Peter preached.”
By the way, Mark puts his signature on the book in Mark 14:51-52.
About five years later, 65 A.D. Matthew used at least five sources to compose his gospel:
- The Holy Spirit
- The Gospel of Mark
- A collection the sayings and teachings of Jesus called Q (Q is French for source” and is only postulated.) This material is included almost identically in both Matthew and Luke and is not found in Mark nor John.
- The birth narratives from Joseph’s side of the family.
- Matthew’s own personal experiences with Jesus (most of which appear in no other gospel).
About 65 A.D. Luke used five major sources to compose his gospel:
- The Holy Spirit
- The Gospel of Mark
- A collection of Jesus sayings and teachings called Q
- The birth narratives from Mary’s side of the family
- Research from those who met Jesus personally
About 95 A.D. John obviously had read Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he decided to fill in the gaps. John assumes that the reader has read Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He selects eight miraculous signs— most are not included in the other Gospels— to present Jesus Christ as God.
The four Gospels give us four different views of the life of Jesus. Several snapshots help present a unified picture of Christ.
Matthew Presents Jesus Christian as a King.
Matthew was a Roman tax collector who was interested in the power and authority of Rome. He began his gospel with a boring but quite significant genealogy that established Jesus Christ’s royal lineage. Genealogy begins with Abraham and traces backward to Joseph.
He presents the birth story from Joseph’s point of view and emphasizes wise men, gifts, worship and houses — the kind of things that kings are interested in.
He alone presented five sets of all discourse and teaching describing how to live in the kingdom. He announced the great commission to his followers in the same way that a king would give orders (Matthew 28:19-20) to his subjects.
Matthew's target was Jewish Hebrews.
Mark Presents Jesus Christ as a Servant.
“The son of man came to serve” (Mark 10:45).
Mark has no genealogy. Mark has no birth story. Who cares about the ancestry of a servant?
The book just begins. The key word is “immediately” as the servant moves rapidly from one task to the next. There is little interpretation or discourse. Jesus’ actions and miracles simply speak for themselves.
Mark’s target was the Romans who were interested in movement, activity and getting things done.
Luke Presents Jesus Christ as a Man.
Luke was a Gentile physician born in Greece. He then had a heart for people in need. The book has a special emphasis on women and children. He tells the birth story from Mary’s side of life by mentioning things that she would be interested in— like shepherds, mangers, baby clothes, singing and angels.
Luke’s genealogy is from the human side of Jesus. It traces from Mary back to Adam. He never knew or met Jesus. It’s obvious that some of the material in Luke was the result of his talking to others who knew Jesus.
The Good Samaritan is unique to Luke. The stories of the lost sheep and coin are unique to Luke. He includes a long section on Jesus’ concern for, and time taken, to expound the truth of the resurrection to two wondering disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Luke is the first volume of a two-volume work known as “Luke and Acts”.
John Presents Jesus Christ as God.
John has no genealogy because God doesn’t have one.
He left his signature as “the one Jesus loved” in John 13:22-25.
He selected eight signs to prove that Jesus Christ was God.
John included long discourses and teachings given by Jesus-- most of which are not included in the other Gospels. He laid the groundwork for basic Christian doctrine.
The Gospel, The Story Of The Life Of Christ Is A Singular Message—Yet Each Individual Gospel Presents A Decidedly Different Aspect Of Jesus Christ As Revealed In Ezekiel And Revelation.
Ezekiel 1:10: “Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.”
Revelation 4:6-7: “… around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. he first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle.
Britny, I know that I answered more questions than you asked. Nevertheless, I hope that you find my answer helpful, fascinating, informative and encouraging.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
Publication date: July 13, 2015