The answer is “Of course he did, don’t be silly”
Nonetheless it’s become popular for semi-learned skeptics to deny even the historical existence of Jesus, just for fun.
I say “just for fun” because it’s not important in their mind that Jesus didn’t exist. They don’t care, what’s important to them is that you can’t prove that Jesus existed, and that’s ridiculous, so you are obviously an ignorant brainwashed religious fool… It’s a sort of a test, you see.
And armchair apologists play right into it when they memorize proofs verbatim from Lee Strobel about things like the reliability of scripture and the Case for Miracles while holding very few cards on the obvious things because nobody in their right mind would deny something like that.
The good news though is that if you can defend the historical existence of Jesus, you have the opportunity to impress a skeptic who’s not at all expecting you to meet their challenge. Often these people will have read one website about how Jesus may not ever have existed, and how the silly xtians can’t even prove that much, and then walked away satisfied that Christianity had been thoroughly debunked, without bothering to learn that they could challenge us to prove some much harder things if they wanted to.
So let’s do that shall we? Let’s get a good defense going for the historical Jesus, so we don’t end up embarrassing ourselves when the time comes.
There are 3 base assumptions of the critics that I want to address first, to help us have a nice clean discussion and don’t end up subtly misunderstanding one another. All of these statements are trueish And in order to speak accurately we need to be able to parse the truth from the fiction, and agree with clarification.
There are no contemporary records of Jesus’ life
This is technically true, The historians who wrote about Jesus did so in retrospect, after his death. There are no newspapers from 31 AD recording the Wedding at Cana or anything. But it’s also misleading. I’d much prefer to say “No contemporary records of Jesus’ life have been preserved.” usually the skeptic will make it sound very problematic by saying something like “I’m supposed to believe that this guy was running around performing miracles and nobody wrote anything about it until almost a century later?” and you want to correct them by saying something like “I’m sure lots of people wrote stuff about it, but none of what they said was copied over and over and preserved in monasteries for 2000 years, or hidden in airtight jars, or carved into stone, so we don’t have it anymore. What we do have is good historical evidence just like any other character in antiquity.”
There’s another implicit assumption hidden within this statement: that contemporary evidence is something we should expect from someone who lived 2000 years ago. That’s not the case. We learn about Socrates from Plato, about Alexander the Great from Plutarch, about Julius Caesar from Suetonius. All of them writing after the deaths of their topic people.
This is how it is done.
…Of course most of us believe there were some surviving documents written by eye-witnesses, the problem is just that those eye witnesses converted and their writings were included in the bible. Which brings us to our second assumption
You can’t use the bible, that’s circular reasoning!
Once again, like Santa Clause, this is true and not true. many Christians, when confronted with this or any issue for the first time will start spouting the first defense that comes to their mind, and often those defenses are biblical and circular. Since most articulate atheists have heard and seen this happen over and over, they are used to responding to the word “Bible” with a knee jerk reaction of “Circular Reasoning!” because 99% of the time they’re right.
However, since the bible is old, even if it were not reliable as the word of God it would be useful to teach us about the time in which it was written, just as the Qur’an, Bhagavat Gita, And Enûma Eliš are.
It’s important to understand the subtle of the difference between using the New Testament as a inerrant text to prove itself true, versus using it as a series of documents from the 1st century which give us historical clues. It will be critical when the time comes to defend something hard (like the resurrection)
In this case however, you can knock this one fairly out of the park without ever mentioning the bible, And you might as well since it’ll score you brownie points and save your argument from appearing circular (even if it isn’t) When you do, you’ll no doubt run head first into assumption #3
The Historical Jesus is different from the Jesus of the Bible
This is true of course, In the sense that proving Jesus was a man that existed is very different from proving that Jesus died for your sins. But it’s very false and unfair to take for granted out the outset of the argument that the Jesus that existed is not the one that died for sins. He might be, he might not be, you think he was, they think he wasn’t, that’s the argument!
Like I said earlier it’s not important to most skeptics that Jesus didn’t exist, only that you can’t prove he did. It’s already pretty obvious from the fact that Christianity began in the first place that there is some human person upon whom the legend is based. Peter James and John hung out with somebody before they became radicals, certainty.
So when backed into a corner they’ll often grant this for you, and then explain that “what they really meant” was that you can’t prove the Historical Jesus is anything like the Biblical Jesus. You can’t prove he turned water into wine, or preached the sermon on the mount, or anything!
The Historical Jesus may or may have been named Jesus, he may or may not have been from Nazereth, he may or may not have died on the cross. And you’re going to have to prove each of these things individually from extra-biblical contemporary sources or else admit to them that “You can’t prove that your Jesus even existed”
This is of course not, in any way shape or form what they “really meant” to start with. So to avoid this, you’ll need to establish very clearly at the outset what it is they do mean. Set the goalposts before you kick or you’ll find them moving on you.
And if they say at the beginning “What I mean by Jesus existed is that he existed as described in the bible, and did everything the bible said he did” then you should humbly admit “You’re right, I can’t prove that everything in the bible is true, You need to believe the bible before you believe the healing of the lepers. What I can prove was that Jesus was a guy. And then later, we can move on to his claims being true, and the resurrection, and eventually come back around to the bible”
More probably though, if you ask them as the beginning “What do you mean by ‘Jesus never existed'” They’ll say something like “You can’t prove Paul didn’t just make the whole thing up” Which is a much fairer thesis. Or if I were to put it in my terms “There was actually a person upon whom the gospels were based”
Once you’ve clarified those things, and done so winsomely and articulately, you should find that the problem is ready to crumble all on it’s own. You could blow on the case for the historicity of Jesus and it would fall over in your favor.
So let’s drop a train on it shall we?
Stay tuned for the next article