In the previous article, “Is Jesus For Real? (Part 1), I wrote of the evidence for the existence of Jesus as written about by non-Christians in the first and early second centuries. In this article I will conclude with the evidence for Jesus’ existence from extra-biblical sources written by Christians.
There are documents produced by Christians very early in church history that are not actually part of the biblical New Testament documents, which testify to Jesus’ existence. Most of them were written by the early church fathers, who were church leaders who lived within the late first century and first half of the second century. These writers presumably had firsthand knowledge independent of the New Testament sources. Especially important are Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna and Justin Martyr. There are certainly many others, but these are considered to be the main ones from the early church, some of whom were actual disciples of Jesus’ apostles.
Clement’s letter to the church in Corinth around AD 95 is one of the most important non-New Testament writings in the early church, outside of the writings of the apostles. He wrote to the Corinthians to help settle a dispute between some church members and elders. In his letter he wrote:
The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. So, then Christ is from God, and the apostles are from Christ. Both, therefore, came of the will of God in the appointed order. Having therefore received a charge, and having been fully assured through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and confirmed in the word of God with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth with the glad tidings that the kingdom of God should come.
Polycarp of Smyrna was a Christian bishop who was probably the last surviving person to have personally known an apostle. He was martyred around AD 160 at about 86 years old. Just before he was killed, he prayed:
Father, I bless you that you have deemed me worthy of this day and hour, that I might take a portion of the martyrs in the cup of Christ… Among these may I today be welcome before thy face as a rich and acceptable sacrifice.
Ignatius of Antioch was a student of the apostle John and wrote a series of letters on his way to his martyrdom (about AD 110). These letters also contain several historical references. In his letter to the Trallians, Ignatius wrote:
Jesus Christ who was of the race of David, who was the son of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and on earth and those under the earth; who moreover was truly raised from the dead, His Father having raised Him, who in the like fashion will so raise us also who believe on Him.
The following quote from Ignatius describes his all-consuming passion for Jesus:
It is not that I want merely to be called a Christian, but to actually be one. Yes, if I prove to be one, then I can have the name… Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—only let me get to Jesus Christ!
Ignatius, a disciple of the apostle John, came to believe in Christ through John’s testimony and teaching and became a passionate follower of Jesus.
With the work of Justin Martyr there is a difference between what we see in the apostolic writings of the New Testament, which have been described as devotional, doctrinal and practical exhortations, and the writings of Justin which are more apologetic. That is, he’s giving reasons for defending the truths of Christianity.
In his First Apology, written soon after AD 150 and addressed chiefly to Emperor Antoninus Pius, Justin refers to various aspects of the life of Jesus, including his virgin birth and his physical line of descent. From his writings we learn the following points:
- Jesus was born of a virgin.
- He was a physical descendant of Jesse, of the tribe of Judah.
- The village of Bethlehem was his birthplace.
- Which was located 35 stadia (approx. 5 miles) from Jerusalem.
- The location and fact of Jesus’ birth could be verified by consulting the records of Cyrenius (Quirinius), the first procurator of Judea.
Bart Ehrman, author of “Did Jesus Exist?”, a professor of religious studies at the U of NC Chapel Hill, and a self-professed agnostic writes,
“Paul knew Jesus’ brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did,” Ehrman says. “If Jesus didn’t exist, you would think his brother would know about it, so I think Paul is probably pretty good evidence that Jesus at least existed.”
“The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies – and so if you’re going to make up a messiah, you’d make up a powerful messiah. You wouldn’t make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and then killed by the enemies.”
In addition to teachings that Jesus did not exist, there is also the teaching that Jesus was just a myth and his life story was copied from pagan mythology has become somewhat popular. Again, same old story in a new package. The truth is that those claims have been around for a very long time (since at least the middle of the 1800s) and have been widely discredited. But if you take the stories of gods like Horus or Mithras without a full and careful examination, they seem appealing on the surface. However, upon careful, side-by-side examination with the gospels you find that the comparisons fall apart.
The New Testament attests to the fact that, in the first century, Jesus was not mistaken for any other god. When Paul preached in Athens, recorded in Acts 17, this is what happened:
“Some of the Epicureans and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”
Now clearly, if Paul were simply retelling stories of other gods that they were already familiar with, the Athenians would not have referred to his doctrine as a “new” and “strange” teaching. If dying-and-rising gods were plentiful in the first century, why didn’t the Epicureans and Stoics, or others who may have been present, respond with, “Ah, just like Horus and Mithras, or “Hey, that sounds like what happened to some of the gods”?
Why didn’t they? Because the Epicurean philosophers generally believed that God existed but that He was not interested or involved with humanity and that the main purpose of life was pleasure. The Stoic philosophers believed that God was the world’s soul and that the goal of life was to rise above all things so that one showed no emotional response to either pain or pleasure. And they were both unfamiliar with the concepts of: a God who took personal interest in them, salvation, the resurrection, or the even the need for a savior. Paul had to convince them that they were lost and had sinned against God, before he could present them with the gospel.
The claim that Jesus is a copy of mythological gods is just not true. These claims originated with authors whose works have been discounted by academia, they contain logical fallacies, and cannot come close to comparing to the New Testament Gospels, which have withstood nearly 2,000 years of intense scrutiny.
“And the alleged parallels between Jesus and other gods disappear when the original myths are carefully examined. The Jesus-is-a-myth theory relies on selective descriptions, redefined words, false assumptions, and poor research.”
Jesus is truly unique among the so-called gods.
There is much more that could be said with regard to everything I’ve mentioned in both this article and the previous one. I am not trying to provide an exhaustive explanation. I do encourage you to be good Bereans and search these things out on your own. Be good students. If you do, your faith and commitment to the Lord will become even stronger.
One final thought I want to share with you which is very closely related to our purpose at Equip 4:12. Paul used apologetics. Read the rest of Acts 17. His apologetic method and his knowledge that the people did not even know what God is really like led him to go back to Genesis and to the beginning of creation. They had a completely wrong view of God, so they needed to hear what God really was like before they could understand the message of the gospel. Paul explained to them the sovereign God who created all things. He explained that it was God who created from one individual all men and nations. He continued by explaining the closeness of God and their need to repent of their rebellion against Him. He completed his message by introducing them to the One before whom they would all stand one day and be judged—Jesus Christ, whom God had raised from the dead.
The results of Paul’s preaching? Some believed and were saved, others mocked Paul and rejected his message, and still others were open-minded and desired to hear more.
We can learn some very important and practical things here. That’s what happens when we share God’s truth. Some believe. Some mock. And some want to pursue it further and hear more. We just need to be faithful to take advantage of the opportunities God places in our path and be faithful to communicate what God, through his Holy Spirit, lays on our hearts to tell them and then trust Him for the results. But we need to be prepared! Paul was. Are you?
As always, thank you for watching. I’m glad you were able to join me. I hope you’re learning and benefitting from these vlogs as much as I am. Don’t forget to leave a question or comment. Just be respectful and courteous.
In the next article we will look at the reliability of New Testament documents. Can We Trust the Bible? You won’t want to miss that.
Until, then… Remember, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
I credit much of the information in this article and the previous one to GotQuestions.org… “Is Jesus A Myth?”