Did the Jesus of the New Testament Exist?

Part One: Internal and External Evidence from the Early Christians

Did the Jesus of the New Testament ever exist? Was he a genuine historical figure who lived in first century Palestine? Is all we know about this Jesus found only in the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The world wide web and bookshelves are filled with authors claiming that Jesus is a myth and not a true figure from history. Dan Barker claims:

“The Gospel stories are no more historic than the Genesis creation accounts are scientific. They are filled with exaggerations, miracles, and admitted propaganda. They were written during a context of time when myths were being born, exchanged, elaborated, and corrupted, and they were written to an audience susceptible to such fables. They are cut from the same cloth as other religions and fables of the time. Taking all of this into account, it is rational to conclude that the New Testament Jesus is a myth” (1992,p.378, emp added).

Internal Evidence: Gospels and Letters of the New Testament

In order to investigate the two opposing claims concerning the historicity of Jesus, it is essential to look at both the internal evidence and the external evidence. Internal evidence focuses on the historical proof of existence found in the New Testament. First, there are the four Gospels which tell the story of Jesus’ life on earth: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. John begins his gospel by pointing to the tangible evidence of being one of the apostles who saw with his own eyes and heard with his ears concerning the existence of Jesus.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us— that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full (1 John 1:1-4).

Luke states at the beginning of his gospel that various accounts had been written about Jesus. Writing as an investigator of these accounts Luke declares the historicity of Jesus’ life.

Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed (Luke 1:1-4).

Besides the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament abounds with evidence of the existence of the historical Jesus. This is especially true in the Book of Acts. Peter accused the Jews assembled at Pentecost: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). The great persecutor of Christianity in the early days of the church, Saul of Tarsus claimed to see Jesus on the road to Damascus. After becoming a Christian, “Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 9:22).

External Evidence from Early Christian Writers

The early Christian writers included Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and others. Today, one can still read what they had to say from a perspective of having known the apostles or the men taught by the apostles. No one for the past nineteen hundred years has had the opportunity that the first generation of Christians did.

Some believe that Clement of Rome was a companion of both Paul and Peter (Phil. 4:3). He wrote a letter to the church at Corinth in about AD 95. Of Jesus physical appearance while quoting from Isaiah 53:2. Clement wrote, “Our Lord Jesus Christ…did not come in the prom and pride or arrogance, although He might have done so. Rather, He came in a lowly condition, as the Holy Spirit had declared regarding Him. For he says… ‘He has no form nor glory. Yes, we saw Him, and He had no form nor comeliness. But His form was without eminence, yes, deficient in comparison with the ordinary form of men.” Irenaeus wrote about Clement of Rome, “This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their tradition before his eyes.” (Irenaeus, Heresies bk. 3, chap. 3 sec. 3). Origen describes Clement as “a disciple of the apostles.” (Origen First Things bk. 2, chap. 3, sec. 6).

Some of these men had direct and indirect contact with the apostles of Jesus. For example, Irenaeus knew Polycarp who in turn was very well acquainted with the apostle John. While he was on his way from Asia Minor to Rome for execution, he wrote several letters to churches in what is now modern-day Turkey. Ignatius wrote around 105 AD: “Jesus Christ…was truly born, and did eat and drink…He was truly crucified and died…He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will of Power of God. He was truly born of a virgin.” Ignatius (AD 70-110) in his seven epistles quoted from the books of Matthew, John, 1 Corinthians, James, 1 Peter and others. Ignatius had every opportunity to verify the accuracy of the life of Jesus through the eyewitnesses themselves.

In future bulletin articles more external evidence from both Jewish and Pagan Sources will be considered on the existence of Jesus.

– Daniel R. Vess

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