I can hear some people saying that it doesn’t matter. Many are happy to simply follow the inspirational teachings of Jesus. It’s not as simple as that. That is actually a different issue than the question of whether Jesus did exist. The study of the Jesus question has been enormous. None of us would have any idea just how many theologians, archaeologists and historians have examined the question of Jesus historical life.
The question is initially raised because there is no pyramid or monument built in his name. There are no Jewish or Roman written records save a reference to a historian Josephus to an itinerant preacher being crucified. Some expect proof only in physical terms. Hence they are happy to conclude therefore, that there is no proof that Jesus existed.
This issue of no proof is exacerbated because the records present Jesus as someone who did everything he could to leave no ‘physical footprint’ to use our modern terminology.
- On the mount of transfiguration he prevented the 3 disciples from building a monument of the transfigured experience.
- At a time his popularity was soaring, he hid from them for they wanted to make him their king.
- He never attached himself to any grandiose title.
- At times we read his disciples wanted to defend him with physical force. In these cases Jesus rebuked them.
He measured his life by a different value system.
Standing before Pilate and to his question, “Are you a king?” Jesus replied, "They are your words, My kingdom is not of this world." His was a kingdom born of a personal experience within a community devoted to God. Earthly kings love building monuments. Jesus was about people and the transformation of their minds and consequently modeled a humble attitude for them. So we come back to our question... Can we really hope to answer the question of his physical existence?
I believe we can significantly contribute to the discussion, by using other methods of research. Here in Southern Australia we call it fire season. Hot weather so often produces major bushfires. A common interest is to determine how a fire might have started when no one was there to witness it. The expert enquirer is skilled enough to find the origin and determine how it started by examining the remaining evidence. We hear of the skill of people who similarly trace a house fire back to its cause. Forensic police have great ability to put a crime scene back together again to describe the course of events.
Historians, theologians, sociologists are all similarly skilled in building a picture of prior events in their field of endeavour.
What cannot be disputed is that through the first century A.D. and immediately following Jesus so called death, a major community emerged out of the Jewish nation, known as ‘the way.’ It proclaimed a particular message ‘that Jesus was Lord’.
This community was an incredible annoyance to the Jews and Romans who did whatever they could to destroy this group. Maybe not of Jesus, but there are official records of persecution of members of ‘the way.’ This community grew quickly and spread through the Roman world, south into Africa, north into turkey and beyond, and west into Europe through Rome.
Within a century it is claimed that it appears as far east as India. The important point to note here is that it did not remain a small insular community that one could accuse it of deception. Members were scattered far to far across the known world at an early stage.
It was a passionate and powerful community and members were devoted to witnessing to the point of death. Such was its conviction that it did transform the known world on the strength of its witness and message. It has inspired so many in understanding the meaning and purpose of life, from the greatest minds to the simplest peasant. Its legitimacy of message is found in the resonance of the message with peoples own experience down through time. Somewhere this community had a beginning as it proclaimed some of the most profound wisdoms. Somewhere these emerged.
The greatest contribution is to be found in its message that told a story that went back into Palestine, Jerusalem and Galilee, and then deep into Jewish history. The story is consistent, from Jewish or Old Testament history, through the earliest years of this communities life, and ultimately through history to today.
The message appeared in written form in the first half of the first century of its life. In fact the epistles began to appear first of all in various communities merely 15 years after the death of its proclaimed founder, Jesus of Nazareth.These earliest writings were by Paul who only some few years after Jesus life and death and before his conversation set about killing anyone from this faith community.
The content of the letters he wrote, followed by the first gospel written just 35 years after Jesus death all bore witness to the person of Jesus and his life and teachings.
Leaders of this earliest community were required to be eye-witnesses of Jesus life and teachings. Along with many other eyewitnesses, the passion of this community to witness to the point of death inspired increasing numbers to join. Verification of the reliability of the accounts of Jesus life for new members was not difficult to ascertain amongst these eye-witnesses.
What kind of proof does one want? No there is no pyramid, monument, photo, painting or sculpture of Jesus to prove his physical existence.
History has always been recorded by the winners, the powerful and the authorities. At the time of his death he was regarded as a problem and guilty of treason by the Romans and blasphemy to the Jews. No way would they make any reference to him. So the lack of concrete evidence of his life means nothing.
The answer lies in the initial community that developed immediately after his death. The existence of a passionate and vibrant community, the existence of its documentation and the consistency between this written message, the nature of the life style of the people of the community, together with its consistency with the life and teachings reported to emanate from Jesus, is the strength of its truthfulness.
This community is the proof of Jesus existence.
One may declare that one doesn’t like the Christian message or even the interpretation of Jesus life by his community. The infamous Richard Dawkins is one such person who doesn’t like it. But he does not doubt that Jesus was a real person. To claim there is no proof of Jesus life is to ignore the breadth of evidence. Like the forensic police, or fire expert, theologians and historians know where and what they are looking for in ascertaining that Jesus was a real person who started the Christian faith.To say Jesus didn’t exist, you can’t just doubt it, you have to prove this first generation was fraudulent.