Existence of Jesus

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Did Jesus exist? Can be be certain either way?

The existence of Jesus as a real, historical figure has been debated for centuries. The argument is a type of Argument from historical sources and often used as a basis for the Christological argument, such as that he was divine or that his teachings should be followed.

There are many historical theories about the existence of Jesus. However, the historical evidence is relatively weak, so it is difficult to come to any definitive conclusion. There is a complete lack of primary sources or physical evidence for his existence or any biographical detail, which are prerequisites for claiming any historical certainty on the topic. Christian apologists often exaggerate the strength of the evidence to support the historicity of their beliefs.

Historical and mythical theories[edit]

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The biggest problem with talking about a "historical Jesus" is that there are two "historical" Jesus Christs forming the ends of a huge spectrum of hypothesis. Touched on by Remsberg in 1909[1], by Rudolf Bultmann in 1941 (and used by Richard Carrier in 2014), and reiterated by Biblical scholar I. Howard Marshall in 2004,[2] these two ends (the italicized clarifiers are from Marshall) are:

  • Reductive theory (Remsburg's Jesus of Nazareth): "Jesus was an ordinary but obscure individual who inspired a religious movement and copious legends about him" rather than being a totally fictitious creation like King Lear or Doctor Who
  • Triumphalist theory (Remsburg's Jesus of Bethlehem): "The Gospels are totally or almost totally true" rather than being works of imagination like those of King Arthur.

Various authors have tried to subdivide this Historical Jesus spectrum regarding Jesus including John Remburg (1909) [3], Dan Barker (2006)[4] and Eddy-Boyd (2007)[5] However, as Eddy-Boyd points out these the categories are "admittedly over simplistic", "ideal-typical", and a "useful heuristic" they should not be taken as absolute definitions.

"Anyone who examines the literature of the present generation of scholars will find that, indeed, by this standard there are almost as many theories of historicity as there are experts to pronounce them, and there is no apparent consensus as to whose theory is more probably correct, nor an indication of such a consensus developing any time soon.[6]"
"the vast variety of interpretations of the historical Jesus that the current quest has proposed is bewildering[7]"

Moderate historical (mainstream)[edit]

Main Article: Jesus was deified by later Christians

Jesus historically existed and was a minor preacher who possibly claimed to be a Messiah and the Gospels give a reasonable view of his life. This gained the attention of a few fanatical followers, such as Paul the Apostle, who founded Christianity and deified Jesus. This is the mainstream view of scholars but some historians are critical of the methods and evidence used to support it.

  • "Jesus of Nazareth is a historical character and that these narratives, eliminating the supernatural elements, which they regard as myths, give a fairly authentic account of his life."[3]
  • Jesus did exist, and that some parts of the New Testament are accurate, although the miracles and the claim to deity are due to later editing of the original story."[4]
  • A historical Jesus did exist but was very different from the gospel Jesus.[5]

Proponents of this theory include:

Triumphalist theory/extreme historical/Biblical literalism (fringe)[edit]

Main Article: Biblical literalism

This view considers that Jesus existed exactly as described in the New Testament.

  • "Christ is a historical character, supernatural and divine; and that the New Testament narratives, which purport to give a record of his life and teachings, contain nothing but infallible truth."[3]
  • "The New Testament is basically true in all of its accounts except that there are natural explanations for the miracle stories."[4]

Proponents of this theory include:

No credible historian argues that the evidence supports Jesus actually being God or even Jesus making that claim (because being son of God or Messiah are separate claims). If there is any scholarship, it is overshadowed by the literalist view. Contrary to the assumption of many believers, the Bible is not a reliable historical source and Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. The Bible also contains many contradictions. These facts lead virtually every historian to conclude that some or all of the stories about Jesus are myths.

Jesus myth theory (philosophical myth) (fringe)[edit]

Main Article: Jesus began as a myth and was later historicized

This view considers that Jesus was a celestial being who some experienced in visions, or people pretended to have visions of Jesus. The gospels were an allegory of the spiritual person on Earth (i.e. Jesus was euhemerized). These myths were then taught as if they were true. This effectively was Charles François Dupuis position.[8] Ideas from other religious traditions and philosophies were gradually incorporated into Christianity but they were not the origin of Christianity.

"[The most plausible Jesus myth theory is] the earliest Christians preached a celestial being named Jesus Christ, then later this godlike figure was fictionally placed in a historical setting just as other gods were, and the original concept eventually forgotten, dismissed, or suppressed.[6]"

Proponents of this theory include:

Both the Christ Mythism and pro-historical Jesus sides have their own armchair brigade and there is a lot of nonsense out there on both sides.[9]

Even those who say that Jesus is ahistorical (the evidence does not support the existence of a Jesus) are labeled as "Christ Myth"[10]

Other Jesus myth theories (very fringe)[edit]

One idea is that Christianity originated as an amalgamation of earlier pagan religions: a confused memories of an obscure historical figure were integrated into an already existing mythology (essentially Constantin-François Volney's position[11]) roughly falls here. This inverts the mainstream idea that Christianity came first and was influenced by various pagan ideas.

Other writers have suggested that Jesus originated as:

  • a political allegory,
  • a deliberate hoax.

Other theories about the development of Christianity[edit]

One idea that is somewhat fallen from favor is that the original beliefs in the early church were gradually replaced by the more influential churches that had accepted a Pauline interpretation of Jesus; this is known as the Bauer thesis‎.

Jesus was ahistorical[edit]

Some historians and critics of Christianity argue that the evidence for Jesus is very weak and therefore Jesus is ahistorical. [12] Arguments that are based on the lack of historical sources are sometimes called arguments from silence and are often considered as unreliable. The view that Jesus never existed is a minority view among historians. This is in contrast to other theories that seek to explain the existence of Jesus as either literally true, partly historical or mythical figure.

The claim that Jesus is ahistorical is one of the arguments for either Jesus began as a myth and was later historicized or Christianity is based on pagan religion.

  • "Many radical Freethinkers believe that Christ is a myth, of which Jesus of Nazareth is the basis, but that these narratives are so legendary and contradictory as to be almost if not wholly, unworthy of credit."[3]
  • "Other skeptics deny that the Jesus character portrayed in the New Testament existed, but that there could have been a first century personality after whom the exaggerated myth was pattered."[4]
  • There is just enough to show there was a first century teacher called Jesus and little else.[5]


No contemporary historians mention Jesus or his activities. Given that many miracles are said to have accompanied him, this would have left a strong impression on his audience. We would expect contemporary accounts and historians to mention Jesus if he was existed as described in the Bible. The Bible is not a reliable historical source and not contemporary. For this reason, some consider Jesus to be ahistorical.

Josephus was born several years after the death of Jesus. He wrote the Testimonium Flavian, which mentions Jesus but is of questionable authenticity.

While some miracles occurred in a private setting, many are said to have been performed in public. This includes miracles at Jesus's baptism and crucifixion.

  • If we expect primary sources to exist, we can say the life of Jesus, if he existed, was rather less notable than described in the New Testament.
  • If we do not expect primary sources to exist, Christianity is based on a mythical rather than historical person.

What is a primary historical source?[edit]

Primary sources are fundamental to the study of history and would be expected to exist if Jesus was a historical person.

"A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. [13]"
"Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented."

Note that the New Testament is not primary source with respect to the life of Jesus, mainly because they were written decades after the events by anonymous authors who were probably not eye witnesses. Also, they are clearly written to support a particular religious point of view by people within that religion. This makes them an unreliable secondary source for the life of Jesus.

Universal tax census[edit]

Census of Quirinius couldn't have happened at the time suggested by the Bible.[14]

Existence of Nazareth[edit]

There is some debate among amateur historians about the existence of Nazareth, the supposed town of origin for Jesus.

Various historians consider this to be fairly irrelevant, including Richard Carrier and Bart Ehrman.[15]

Miracles surrounding Jesus's baptism[edit]

"And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

Matthew 3:16-17 Bible-icon.png

There is no primary historical sources describing a voice from heaven at this time.

No observations of the alleged "Star of Bethlehem" are recorded by astronomers, even though good records were kept.[14]

Massacre of the Innocents[edit]

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

While Herod the Great does seem to have been a historical person, there is no evidence of Herod's slaughter of the innocent. Matthew 2:16–18 Bible-icon.png [16][14]

Miracles in a public setting[edit]

There are no independent reports of the miracles of Jesus that occurred in public settings. This includes the feeding of the multitude. Matthew 14:16-21 Bible-icon.png; Mark 6:35-44 Bible-icon.png; Luke 9:12-17 Bible-icon.png; John 6:5-14 Bible-icon.png

Ministry of Jesus[edit]

The ministry of Jesus is not mentioned by historians of the time.[14]

Arrival in Jerusalem[edit]

The arrival of Jesis in Jerusalem is not mentioned by historians of the time.[14]

Trial of Jesus[edit]

There is no record of a Roman tradition of releasing a prisoner at the Passover feast. [17] John 18:39 Bible-icon.png

In contrast to Jesus, Pontius Pilate does seem to have been a historical person.

Miracles surrounding the crucifixion[edit]

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

One of the more striking claims in the New Testament is that on the death of Jesus:

"Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many."

Matthew 27:52-53 Bible-icon.png

"And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom."

Mark 15:38 Bible-icon.png

"It was now about the sixth hour,[noon] and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour,[3pm] while the sun's light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two."

Luke 23:44–44 Bible-icon.png

Such remarkable events would have left an impression on witnesses, we would expect to see many accounts of the event from non-Christian sources. A darkening of the sun would be widely visible to many cultures, almost certainly including most of the Roman Empire and it would be been recorded. No such records survive. Therefore, these events did not occur.

Apologists argue that a secondary source, written by a Christian historian who lived hundreds of years after the event, still exists. [18] This is hardly compelling evidence.

"In Antiquities of the Jews Book V chapter 5, Josephus describes the temple curtain and the curtain to the Holy of Holies in some detail, with no suggestion of earlier damage or repair. [19]"

Some apologists interpret this prophecy figuratively. John 2:21 Bible-icon.png

"Jesus’ listeners later realized that the temple he spoke of was his body. [20]"

That still does not explain the lack of evidence of the darkness, the earthquake or the dead rising.

Post-crucifixion sightings of Jesus[edit]

Historians don't mention any post-crucifixion sightings of Jesus, which were apparently seen by many.

Speaking in tongues[edit]

A crowd heard the Apostles speaking and yet understood in the listener's own language.

"Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language."

Acts 2:5-6 Bible-icon.png

Counter arguments[edit]

Some evidence exists[edit]

While no contemporary evidence exists, apologists point to the New Testament and later writers who mention the early Christian church. [21]

Other historical figures are accepted on weaker evidence[edit]

Main Article: Other historical figures are accepted on weaker evidence than Jesus

The evidence of Jesus is sometimes compared with other historical figures or events, including: Julius Caesar[22], Alexander the Great[22], the Holocaust and others.

This is factually incorrect. The evidence for Jesus is a collection of writings that are not independent, that are anonymous, that have no physical evidence, that are written decades after the fact by non-eyewitnesses, and written as religious scripture not objective history. By comparison, the historical figures and events have multiple sources, often which are primary sources together with physical evidence.

Arguments from silence are weak[edit]

Using the lack of evidence is used to argue that Jesus never exist, this is an argument from silence. This is a fairly weak argument because records can be lost for any number of reasons though history. It is rather like a god of the gaps argument which can be overturned by new evidence.


There are various sources that are cited that supposedly support the existence of Jesus. Unfortunately, the New Testament is not consistent or unbiased about Jesus. Historians mention that followers of Jesus existed or they are forgeries. However, these historical claims only demonstrate that Christians existed (rather than Jesus). These include:

These later writers only provide evidence that the early church existed, not that the church's beliefs were valid.

"None of these authors recorded any part of ‘the biblical storyline’ of Jesus. Nor does any other author—who wasn’t just repeating what they read (or were told was said) in the Gospels. And just repeating what a book says does not corroborate it.[24]"

We also need to consider historians that don't mention Jesus, or his miracles, but should have:

It must be said that Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and Tacitus were good friends and regularly corresponded with one another and so could have easily gotten what little they knew about Christianity from each other and so can't be considered independent sources.

All other sources (Christian and non-Christian) come from even less reliable sources, some of which include: Ignatius (50 - 98? C.E.), Polycarp (69 - 155 C.E.), Clement of Rome (? - circa 160 C.E.), Justin Martyr (100 - 165 C.E.), Tertullian (197 C.E.), Clement of Alexandria (? - 215 C.E.), Origen (185 - 232 C.E.), Hippolytus (? - 236 C.E.), and Cyprian (? - 254 C.E.). All of these are merely hearsay.

See also[edit]

Recommended reading[edit]

Pro historical Jesus:

  • Van Voorst, Robert E. (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ASIN B003VPWXH4.
  • Theissen, Gerd; Annette, Merz (1998). Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Fortress Press. ISBN 978-0800631222.

Pro Jesus myth in the "Jesus didn't exist at all as a human being" vein:

  • Doherty, Earl (1999) The Jesus Puzzle - the work that showed Richard Carrier that the Jesus didn't exist at all as a human being part of the Christ Myth theory wasn't off in tin foil hat land.
  • Carrier, Richard (2014). On the Historicity of Jesus. Sheffield Phoenix Press. ISBN 978-1-909697-49-2. - only peer reviewed published by a recognized academic publisher work that is known to exist


  1. "Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus of humanity, the pathetic story of whose humble life and tragic death has awakened the sympathies of millions, is a possible character and may have existed; but the Jesus of Bethlehem, the Christ of Christianity, is an impossible character and does not exist." Remsburg then clarifies this position by stating "That a man named Jesus, an obscure religious teacher, the basis of this fabulous Christ, lived in Palestine about nineteen hundred years ago, may be true. But of this man we know nothing. His biography has not been written."
  2. Marshall, Ian Howard. I Believe in the Historical Jesus. Regent College Publishing, 2004, p. 27-29.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 The Christ
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Barker, Dan (2006). Losing Faith in Faith page 372
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Eddy, Paul R.; Boyd, Gregory A. (2007). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Academic. pages 24-25
  6. 6.0 6.1 Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, 2014
  7. Helmet Koester, in Studying the Historical Jesus, 1994
  8. Wells, G. A. "Stages of New Testament Criticism," Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 30, issue 2, 1969.
  9. Carrier, Richard C. (2014). On the Historicity of Jesus. Sheffield Phoenix Press. ISBN 978-1-909697-49-2. page 4-7
  10. Eddy, Paul R.; Boyd, Gregory A. (2007). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Academic. pg 24.
  11. Wells, G. A. "Stages of New Testament Criticism," Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 30, issue 2, 1969.
  12. [1]
  13. [2]
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 14.5 14.6 14.7 14.8 14.9 David Fitzgerald, [3]
  15. [4]
  16. [5]
  17. Charles B. Chavel, The Releasing of a Prisoner on the Eve of Passover in Ancient Jerusalem, Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 60, No. 3 (Sep., 1941), pp. 273-278]
  18. [6]
  19. [7]
  20. [8]
  21. [9]
  22. 22.0 22.1 [10]
  23. [11]
  24. Richard Carrier, Five Bogus Reasons to Trust the Bible
  25. [12]

External links[edit]