Christians take their name from Jesus Christ. According to World Population Review, there are 2.38 billion Christian adherents across the globe. However, there is also a large portion of the world’s population who know little to nothing about Jesus. Research by Baxter in 2007 found that during that year, 30 million people would die without having heard about Jesus.
While some might deny His existence and pass off any record of Him as a “fairytale”, it only takes a quick trip over to Israel to notice the impact His alleged mission had on the area—even though around 2000 years have passed. There’s the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which many claim is the exact spot where Jesus was born, the Sea of Galilee where the Bible says He walked on water and the Jordan River where He was baptised.
Accepting that events happened in these exact places, however, neglects an irony that is present across the region. There are actually two places that claim to be the “exact” place of Jesus’ baptism: one a UNESCO World heritage site in Jordan, the other is the “Qasr Al-Yahud” site on the West Bank. The latter is considered a major tourist site, managed by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.
Accepting that a holy man named Jesus once stayed at the Kahf Il-Messiah cave in Jordan, that He was tempted in the desert near the modern-day Monastery of the Temptation, or that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre really is the exact spot where He died, means accepting historical inference, local legend and a fair amount of tradition as evidence.
If there is such dispute about these supposedly historic sites, the question remains: Do we have any verified evidence that a man named Jesus once walked the earth?
The primary source
Christians’ primary evidence for Jesus comes from the Bible, which was written by scribes and authors—some who interacted with Jesus—and others who lived before and after Jesus’ time. The Old Testament in the Bible contains various supernatural appearances by God and a number of predictions that seem to have come true through the life of Jesus, while the New Testament “Gospels” describe Jesus’ interactions in human form—the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and a brief appearance in Acts.
For Christians, accepting the existence of Jesus Christ becomes as simple as accepting the credibility of the Bible. For sceptics, however, author Kent Kingston cites three main evidence points in his Signs of the Times article “Is the Bible History?” to support the historical text theory:
• The biblical record is one of the only written records about the Hittites and has recently been substantiated by archaeological discoveries in Turkey.
• A 1946 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in an Israeli cave contains parts of the Old Testament and is dated two centuries before Christ’s birth.
• The extensive manuscripts—24,000 in fact—used to write the Old Testament have unprecedented cohesion in their themes and accounts.
But if a man with powers like healing, multiplying food and walking on water once existed on the planet, wouldn’t more than just His devoted followers write about Him? Where is the evidence for Jesus outside the Bible?
The other evidence
It’s not just Christians and biblical scholars who acknowledge the existence of the historical evidence for Jesus. Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian born in Jerusalem four years after Jesus’ crucifixion. In his text Jewish Antiquities—which has been accepted by most historians as being authentic with some potential Christian interpolations—he writes at 18:63: “At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and other nations became his disciples . . . he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders.”
It’s not just Jewish historians who substantiate the biblical account. One of the earliest sources collaborating the biblical account of Jesus’ existence comes from Publius Tacitus, a Roman historian and politician born in AD 56. In Book 15 of The Annals, he writes: “Christus, from whom the name [Christian] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.” There’s no denying that as a Roman, there was very little love lost between Tacitus and the Christians—and yet, his words support the account of Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross as described in the biblical gospels, including Luke 23.
Then there’s also Roman governor Pliny the Younger (born AD 62) who wrote in a letter that Christians “sang a hymn to Christ, as to a God”, or Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (born AD 69) who wrote in The Life of Claudius 25.4 that “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Christus, he expelled them from Rome” (italics added).
A large number of historical sources that corroborate the existence of a historical Jesus make it largely undeniable that a man called Jesus once walked the earth. However, simply accepting non-Christian accounts of Jesus will lead to little more than accepting His existence and raises the question of why so many people still follow His religion.
Jesus as a historical figure is also described in another religious text with varying interpretations about His role and powers. The Qur’an, a text read by Muslims, asserts that Jesus was a prophet and performed miracles. It does not, however, claim that Jesus was a God or a “Messiah”, and His teachings are seen as less important than the “final prophet” Muhammad.
Similarly, while Jesus does not appear in the Jewish Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—the Jewish people acknowledge His existence as a real person on earth, though many vary in their perception of Him. However, they don’t accept the authenticity of the New Testament—which includes the books where Jesus is described as a “Messiah”. They are also united by one idea: as Jewish theologian Edward Kessler writes for the BBC—“The belief that Jesus was God is an impossibility for Jewish thought.”
So, the general consensus amongst the world’s major religions is that He existed. But was Jesus just a man, a prophet or God?
The Messiah claim
Adherents of Christianity believe Jesus was more than just a religious leader because He fulfilled ancient prophecies about a “Messiah”—a Saviour, which Jesus described as being for all of humanity rather than just one ethnic or religious group. Let’s consider a few of the prophecies recorded in the Old Testament long before He was born and how they were fulfilled.
- Micah 5:2 says that a “ruler over Israel, whose origins are of old, from ancient times” would come from Bethlehem. Matthew 2:1 states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
- Zechariah 9:9 predicted a king coming into Jerusalem, “lowly and riding on a donkey”. Mark 11:7–11 records Jesus entering the city riding on a donkey.
- Isaiah 53:5–12 predicted the “Messiah” would be sacrificed for humankind’s sin. Romans 5:6 states that with Jesus’ death, this is exactly what happened.
These are just three of at least 55 Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in the New Testament—some count more than 300 prophetic texts. All the prophecies detail specific circumstances and events around Jesus, and all happened exactly how they were described—right down to the fact that He would be falsely accused, spat on, crucified with criminals, given vinegar to drink and that His bones wouldn’t be broken. The Dead Sea scrolls, carbon dated before Jesus’ birth, also showed the Old Testament prophecies hadn’t been altered down the ages to make them fit these events in Jesus’ life.
Jesus described Himself as the Messiah on multiple occasions. “Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’” (Mark 14:61,62).
If Jesus was in fact the Son of God, what does that mean for you and me?
His claim to Godhood would mean He has all the powers attributed to God in the Bible, including being all-powerful and all-knowing. He exhibited these traits on multiple occasions too, performing at least 39 miracles recorded in the Gospels, including healing, turning water into wine (John 2) and even resurrecting a man (Luke 14). Indeed, He knew everything about the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and a number of Bible verses claim Jesus knew others’ thoughts (Matthew 9:4, 12:25, Luke 6:8, 11:17).
Given time and again He has proven He is God, it also means we can trust all the promises He made for us. He accepts us—“whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). He loves us—“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Now remain in my love” (John 15:9). And He’s promising to return again to take those who believe in Him back to heaven—“My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? . . . I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2,3).
All this evidence forms a logical sequence. The evidence strongly suggests that Jesus existed. Given this is the case, we should take His claims and the prophecies around Him seriously—either He was a crazy man, or what He said was true. And given His arrival on earth fulfilled many prophecies that He is the Messiah, that means we have a hope for a life beyond our current mortal lives—because He promised as much.
As we end our Big Questions series, the final question should be: what is there to lose from giving Jesus a go? When Jesus’ 12 disciples asked Him who can be saved, His response was: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). While we may still have a lot of big questions, there is assurance that Jesus has a lot of big answers. They won’t all be answered now, but there is coming a time when we will all be able to ask Him personally.
Daniel Kuberek is assistant editor for Signs of the Times magazine. He lives in Sydney, NSW.