Is Jesus a myth? In other words, is there any credible evidence that Jesus of Nazareth historically existed, or is the Christian version of Jesus a copy of pagan gods of other religions?
Robert Price, author of Decontructing Jesus and a member of the controversial Jesus Seminar, has been an outspoken apologist for the mythical Jesus. In his words, "We will never know whether Jesus existed unless someone discovers his diary or skeleton." But this is not the whole story. Many lines of evidence beyond a personal journal or corpse are typically used to verify historical accounts. A look at these lines of historical and archaeological evidence reveals there is actually significant evidence for much of what is recorded concerning the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
First, we have 27 letters written during the lifetimes of Jesus' closest followers that provide a wealth of information regarding the life, teachings, and miracles of Jesus. Of these, four are the Gospel accounts of His life. Two of these, Matthew and John, were written by men who were disciples of Jesus, while Mark was recorded by a man who served closely with the apostle Peter, according to early church history. The fourth Gospel writer, Luke, claims to have written his gospel as the result of compiling the evidence from his time among eyewitnesses and other written records and was published most likely in the 60s AD, approximately 30 years from the time of the actual events. His prologue in Luke 1:1-4 reads:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Emphasis added).
Many, however, have objected that the New Testament accounts are biased or inaccurate. Yet the external evidence shows that approximately 5,800 handwritten Greek manuscripts exist (Greek was the original language of the New Testament), offering significantly more early copies than any other ancient work. In comparison, The Iliad by Homer, one of the greatest works of ancient literature, stands in second place with just 643 ancient manuscripts.
In addition, there is a high degree of accuracy among these thousands of early manuscripts. Researchers note that as much as 99.5% of the New Testament is accurately preserved.
The next question to consider is whether this early information from the New Testament is accurate. A wide variety of secular sources confirm many details mentioned in the New Testament. These writers include Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Thallus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and the Jewish Talmud, among others. The late New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce notes the following summary of events verified in extra-biblical documents in his work Jesus & Jewish Origins Outside the New Testament:
• Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius and Caesar.
• He lived a virtuous life.
• He was a wonder-worker.
• He had a brother named James.
• He was acclaimed to be the Messiah.
• He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
• An eclipse and earthquake occurred when He died.
• He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover.
• His disciples believed He rose from the dead.
• His disciples were willing to die for their belief.
• Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome.
• His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God.
In fact, New Testament scholar Gary Habermas notes, "Altogether, there are even about a dozen and a half non-Christian sources that mention Jesus within the first 150 years after his death." A full list and discussion of these sources are available in his book The Historical Jesus.
Archaeology provides even additional strength regarding the New Testament's accuracy. As noted in When Skeptics Ask by Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks, many inscriptions and locations from the Gospel accounts have been discovered, including references to Pilate, the man who condemned Jesus to death; Bethlehem, the city of Jesus' birth; Nazareth, the city where Jesus was raised; and the home of Pilate in Jerusalem.
But is there any way in which the information we have been given in the New Testament about Jesus is the result of pagan religious influences? Again, the accusation does not fit the facts. Two compelling reasons support this. To begin, the first pagan religion to include a resurrection account that we know of did not exist until the second century. As such, the pagan religious connections alleged to serve as the basis for the life and works of Jesus came after Jesus and the writing of the gospel accounts.
Second, even if it could be proven that these pagan accounts existed before the earthly life of Jesus (and they cannot be proven), these similarities would not necessarily mean they were borrowed or copied. The only way this could be proven would be to provide examples of specific connections that show the New Testament writers used specific pagan religious records in their narratives of the life of Jesus, something that cannot be shown based on existing evidence.
All of these historical facts make a strong case that the Jesus of the New Testament lived, came to popularity during the time of Herod, was put to death on a Roman cross under the authority of Pilate, and that His followers taught that Jesus was alive again, quickly resulting in the spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire.
As for finding the corpse of Jesus, if the message of Scripture is true, then it would never be found to provide 100% DNA evidence because Jesus is alive, not dead. This is not a myth, but a miracle, and one that proves Jesus was the Messiah, the risen Son of God.
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