Did Jesus exist? Is there historical evidence that Jesus existed?
Typically, when historical evidence of Jesus' existence is sought, what is meant is evidence "outside of the Bible." But the Bible is a reliable historical source of evidence for the existence of Jesus and nothing in the Bible has ever been discredited by secular historians. In terms of ancient evidences, writings less than 200 years after events took place are considered very reliable evidences and the entire New Testament was written within 100 years of Jesus' death. Further, the vast majority of scholars (Christian and non-Christian) will grant that the Epistles of Paul (at least some of them) were in fact written by Paul in the middle of the first century AD, less than 40 years after Jesus' death. In terms of ancient manuscript evidence, this is extraordinarily strong proof of the existence of a man named Jesus in Israel in the early first century AD.
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There are more than 25,000 ancient manuscripts of parts or all of the New Testament, and there would be many more had the Romans not invaded and destroyed Jerusalem and most of Israel in AD 70, killing most of the people. Cities were burned to the ground, persecution against Christians reigned, and many of the survivors were forced into hiding. Further, the second century in particular and the third century, for sure, was a time of immense Christian persecution and an effort to stamp out Christianity and its followers. Had this not been the case, possibly thousands more manuscripts would be extant. But the Lord preserved the ancient texts we have today, copies of those manuscripts very close to the original. It is universally accepted among historians that the closer a copy is to the original, the more accurate it is.
By way of comparison, the second most common ancient document in the manuscript world is Homer's Iliad. Next to the New Testament, there are more copies of the Iliad than any other ancient piece of literature. But there are only 643 of them, a miniscule number compared to 25,000 New Testament manuscripts. And the oldest copy of the Iliad is from the thirteenth century AD and Homer wrote it in the eighth century BC, a span of 2500 years. Clearly the accuracy of the New Testament and its attestation to Jesus' existence far outweighs that of any other ancient document.
One of the more accurate historians of that time, Roman Tacitus, recorded a man of the first century named Chrestus, which translates "Christ", who suffered under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. And the chief secretary to Emperor Hadrian, Suetonius, wrote of a man who lived during the first century named Chrestus, or, Christ, as well (Annals 15.44).
The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, wrote in his Antiquities of "James, the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ... who was condemned under Pontius Pilate to be put to death." He further recorded: "At this time there was a wise man named Jesus. His conduct was good and He was known to be virtuous. Many people from among the Jews and other nations became His disciples. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after His crucifixion, and that He was alive; accordingly He was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders."
A second-century Greek writer named Lucian of Samosata spoke of Jesus' crucifixion, having taught His followers the need for conversion, the necessity to deny all other gods as well as self-denial, and many new teachings. These believers had the hope of eternal life. Another evidence of Jesus' existence comes from Pliny the Younger, who recorded in Letters 10:96 that these early Christians believed that Jesus was God and lived very ethical lives, and his writings also made reference to the Lord's Supper and the love feast. An interesting fact noted by historian Thallus in a discussion with Julius Africanus spoke of the darkness following the crucifixion of Christ (Extant Writings, 18).
Today, followers of this Jesus are seeing the end time prophecies written in His Book, the Bible, unfold before our very eyes (Matthew 24; 1 Timothy 4:1-5; 2 Timothy 3:1-5, 4:3-4; 2 Peter 2-3). Those who follow Jesus have experienced His existence in the form of a personal relationship with Him (John 1:12, 3:1-21) and the transforming power He exerts in that relationship. Christians through the centuries have been so influenced by that relationship that they willingly and gladly became martyrs to their faith in Him. Many were stoned, beaten to death, burned at the stake, and boiled in oil. Who would endure such horrors for someone who never existed?
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