For perhaps the most famous and influential figure in history, Jesus of Nazareth is remarkably (and frustratingly) enigmatic. Veiled beneath a Turin Shroud of obscurity are not just the life and teachings—not to mention such supernatural elements as the miracles—but even the very existence of Jesus as a historically verifiable figure. It’s this last issue, and the controversy surrounding it, which has been argued pretty much non-stop since the late 18th century.
We shouldn’t be surprised the debate rages on. Christians generally have it in their best interests to defend the existence of the man upon whom their religion is founded, while those on the other side of this (often violent) argument have an easy target in challenging the historicity of Christianity’s superhuman founding father. What better way to go for the jugular than do ask, “well did he even exist?”
The answer, in short, is yes, he almost certainly did. The amount of written evidence we have is simply too overwhelming to deny his existence. I’m not talking about primary evidence—letters written by his hand, for example, or direct contemporary references to him in the form of writing, coins or statues. Primary evidence is gold dust for ancient historians, and we shouldn’t be too surprised that none of it exists for an obscure first-century Jewish preacher living under Roman-occupied Judaea.
We do however have a decent amount of secondary evidence for Jesus’s existence from Christian, Jewish, and Roman writers. Sceptics often criticize the quantity of such evidence for being a little too thin or sketchy. But these are shaky grounds for denying his existence outright. After all, if we’re going to impose a minimum requirement on the amount of evidence required to confirm someone’s existence, wouldn’t it make sense also to impose it on other people from antiquity for whom there’s little information?
Socrates offers us a good example. As with Jesus, we have nothing of his writing and no trace of him in the archaeological record. His teachings survive only as preserved by his contemporaries—Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes—and in later anecdotal references. Does this lack of primary evidence mean we should question his existence? Probably not… Then again, is there as much to gain from questioning Socrates’s existence on public forums or in heated religious arguments over, say, Jesus’s? Definitely not.
So what is our evidence for Jesus’s existence? The earliest comes from the letters of St. Paul, written around 25 years after Jesus’s death. Paul reveals that he knew Jesus’s brother, James, as well as his most fervent disciple, Peter. This is pretty good evidence for at least the existence of a historical Jesus. Then there are the four New Testament gospels—of Matthew, Mark, Luke and, a little more problematically, John—probably written within 40 years of Jesus’s death.
It’s difficult to see why they would have invented such a detailed, and more importantly Jewish, figure, especially given the relative unpopularity of Judaism in Palestine under the early Roman Empire. Then again, only two main episodes in Jesus’s life can be corroborated across all four gospels: The first was his baptism by John; the second was his crucifixion on the orders of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.