Did Jesus Exist? A 30,000-ft. View of the Evidence

Recently I watched the video of a drone that took off near my home. As it rose high into the sky, the camera revealed buildings, communities, and neighboring cities from a completely different vantage point. I could make mental connections impossible from the ground.

Sometimes a broad perspective reveals truths unimaginable from within a narrow framework. The same is true for the existence of Jesus. Sometimes people get caught up in the weeds of the discussion (which I am not implying is unimportant). But in this post, I am going to take a 30,000-foot view of the issue. In other words, here is the “big picture” of why the vast majority of scholars, of all faiths and backgrounds, accept the existence of Jesus.

Let’s consider four “big” sources of evidence for the existence of Jesus:

1. Biblical Sources

Skeptics often refuse to accept Christian sources as evidence for Jesus. But as my father and I document in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, there is good reason to trust the New Testament as reliable. There is no good reason to simply dismiss the New Testament out of hand. Minimally speaking, they are one piece of the evidence for the existence of Jesus.

The New Testament consists of twenty-seven books. All four Gospels present the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In his epistles, the apostle Paul refers to the birth of Jesus (Galatians 4:4), his death (Romans 1:4), and his multiple appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-7). Other New Testament books, such as 1 Peter, Hebrews, and James also refer to the historical Jesus.

2. Apostolic Fathers

The generation of Christian leaders in the first and second century are often referred to as “Apostolic Fathers.” Some of them, such as Polycarp, claimed to be followers of the apostles. Specifically, Clement of Rome (late first century) and Ignatius (early second century) both speak of Jesus as a historical figure.

In reference to Clement of Rome, Bart Ehrman concludes, “We have an independent witness not just to the life of Jesus as a historical figure but to some of his teachings and deeds. Like all sources that mention Jesus from outside the New Testament, the author of I Clement had no doubt about his real existence and no reason to defend it. Everyone knew he existed.”

3. Non-Christian Sources

There are a variety of non-Christian sources that corroborate the existence of Jesus. Some have little historical value, such as the Qur’an and Rabbinic tradition, but others are quite significant, such as the Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37-100) and the Roman historian Tacitus. (AD 56-120).

Scholars have debated the reliability and value of their respective references to Jesus. But minimally speaking, we have at least two early references (actually three if we count both references in Josephus) that support the existence of Jesus.

4. Archaeology

Archaeology cannot prove the existence of Jesus. But it is another piece of corroborative evidence that strengthens it. Researchers have now discovered Nazareth, Cana, Bethsaida, ancient synagogues, and inscriptions that mentions Pontius Pilate, the Roman authority who condemned Jesus to the cross, and one that may be the burial box for Caiaphas.

Again, archaeology cannot prove the existence of Jesus, but it can offer indirect credence to the reality of the people, places, and events described in the Bible. 

Taken together, the evidence from these four categories is enough to convince the vast majority of historians and theologians, whether Christian or secular, that Jesus existed. Even the atheist scholar Bart Ehrman concludes that “Jesus certainly existed.”[3] I concur.

[1] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 105.

[2] For responses to the most common objections against Tacitus and Josephus, see chapter 6, “The Historical Existence of Jesus” in Evidence that Demands a Verdict(Thomas Nelson, 2017), 150-158.

[3] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 173.

Sean McDowell is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He connects with audiences in a tangible way through humor and stories while imparting hard evidence and logical support for viewing all areas of life through a biblical worldview. Sean is an associate professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He is the Resident Scholar for Summit California. Sean still teaches one high school Bible class, which helps him have exceptional insight into the prevailing culture so he can impart his observations poignantly to fellow educators, pastors and parents alike. In 2008, he received the Educator of the Year award for San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The Association of Christian Schools International awarded Exemplary Status to his apologetics training. Sean is listed among the top 100 apologists. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot School of Theology with a master’s degree in theology and another in philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies in 2014 from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad, Sean speaks at camps, churches, schools, universities and conferences. He has spoken for organizations including Focus on the Family, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Backyard Skeptics, Cru, Youth Specialties, Hume Lake Christian Camps, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Association of Christian Schools International. Sean has also appeared as a guest on radio shows such as Family Life Today, Point of View, Stand to Reason, Common Sense Atheism and the Hugh Hewitt Show. Sean has been quoted in many publications, including the New York Times. Sean is the author, co-author or editor of over 18 books including The Fate of the Apostles (Routledge, 2015); A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016); The Beauty of Intolerance (Barbour, 2016); Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, with John Stonestreet (Baker, 2014); Is God Just a Human Invention? with Jonathan Morrow; and Understanding Intelligent Design, with William A. Dembski. Sean has also written multiple books with his father, Josh McDowell, including The Unshakable Truth, More Than A Carpenter and an update for Evidence that Demands a Verdict (2017). Sean is the general editor for The Apologetics Study Bible for Students. He has also written for YouthWorker Journal, Decision Magazine and the Christian Research Journal. Follow the dialogue with Sean as he blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. In April 2000, Sean married his high school sweetheart, Stephanie. They have three children and live in San Juan Capistrano. Sean played college basketball at Biola and was captain his senior year on a team that went 30-7.

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