Jesus Existed—But How Do We Know He Was Who He Claimed to Be?
Jesus existed. We have historical documents proving this. Most mainstream historians won’t argue the existence of a man named Jesus who people kept calling the Christ.
A friend of mine posted this as his status on Facebook. “I believe in science. I believe in evolution. I believe in Nate Silver and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Christopher Hitchens. Although I do admit he could be a kind of a jerk. I cannot get behind some supreme being who weighs in on the Tony Awards while a million people get whacked with machetes. I don’t believe a billion Indians are going to hell. I don’t think we get cancer to learn life lessons, and I don’t believe that people die young because God needs another angel. I think it’s just crap, and on some level, I think we all know that, I mean, don’t you…? Look I understand that religion makes it easier to deal with all of the random crappy things that happen to us. And I wish I could get on that ride, I’m sure I would be happier. But I can’t. Feelings aren’t enough. I need it to be real.”
On some level, I didn’t disagree with him. I really don’t think people are rejecting God, as much as they are rejecting churches’ representation of who God is. Let’s face it, depending on which pew you are sitting in, it’s kind of a scary picture.
Jesus existed. We have historical documents proving this. Most mainstream historians won’t argue the existence of a man named Jesus who people kept calling the Christ. I even remember reading about Jesus in my public high school history book and thinking, “Cool dude.”
I will admit that there is a small group of scholars who do question whether or not Jesus truly existed, but the consensus with most historians is that He did. We have many writings from non-Christians in Jesus’s era who write about the man called “Christus” or Christ, who started a rebellion called the Christian movement.
We know that followers of Christus even marked their graves with crosses in order to signify that they were believers in the man who said He was the messiah and that died through crucifixion. The question isn’t really whether or not Jesus was a real person but rather: was He who He said He was, and how can we be sure?
To Jews, Jesus is a nonissue. Some may regard Him as simply a failed messiah attempt, and others as a great leader and good man. To Muslims, Jesus was one of God’s important prophets, and even a bringer of scripture, but not Lord. Christians, however, worship Jesus and believe He is a member of the Trinity. He is referred to as the Son of God and is said to have died sacrificially in order that humans may have eternal life. Some historians who have studied the life of Jesus believe He was a Jewish leader who taught a charismatic restoration movement that anticipated the end of the world. All agree that Jesus of Galilee was crucified by Pontius Pilate.
So to be clear, the debate is not, did Jesus Christ, the originator of the Christian church, exist and die a death of crucifixion, but: how do we know that He was who He claimed to be? Jesus says He has the power to forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-7). In John 14:9 He says anyone who has seen God has seen Him. In Matthew 16:13-17 He says that He is God’s son. Heavy claims for a poor carpenter from Nazareth.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg–or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
So how do we know that Christ was not a liar, or a lunatic? My answer has always been biblical prophecy.
David Williams, a computer systems manager for the mathematics faculty at the University of New Castle, said this when discussing the Bible’s prophecy: “For example, what’s the likelihood of a person predicting today the exact city in which the birth of a future leader would take place, well into the 21st century? This is indeed what the prophet Micah did 700 years before the Messiah. Further, what is the likelihood of predicting the precise manner of death that a new, unknown religious leader would experience, a thousand years from now—a manner of death presently unknown, and to remain unknown for hundreds of years? Yet, this is what David did in 1000 B.C. Again, what is the likelihood of predicting the specific date of the appearance of some great future leader, hundreds of years in advance? This is what Daniel did, 530 years before Christ.”
“By the way, the average atheist knows exactly why they don’t believe. I find it sad that the average Christian doesn’t know why they do.”
Peter Stoner, a professor and mathematician, discusses biblical prophecy in his book, Science Speaks. In this book he examines the best proof, or access to knowledge, that we as Christians have regarding Christ as the Messiah. The Bible was not just a tool given to us to better understand morality; it is also a prophetic and holy message that proves that Christ is who He said He is. The more people that understand biblical prophecy and use this understanding as a base for their faith, the better able we are when providing our answers to atheists. By the way, the average atheist knows exactly why they don’t believe. I find it sad that the average Christian doesn’t know why they do.
Stoner did a study using one of his math classes and found that there were more than 300 prophecies concerning Jesus as the Messiah in Old Testament Scripture. When Jesus was on this earth, He lived 33 years, and in that time fulfilled all 300 of these prophecies. Stoner found that the probability of one person fulfilling just eight of the prophecies was calculated at one chance in 1017. (one followed by 17 zeros).
I feel as though this number has to be written out in order to see its massiveness. Stoner discovers that someone fulfilling just eight of the 300 prophecies that Christ fulfilled, is calculated at one chance in 100,000,000,000,000,000. Look y’all, I can’t even read that number.
It would be impossible for one person to arrange the city of their birth before their birth, or arrange their death to fit a certain style of torture and murder, or to arrange to have their murderers gamble for their shoes, though Scripture tells us that with Christ, this is exactly what took place.
To make a picture of what all this math looks like, Stoner says that you would have to take the state of Texas and fill it two feet deep with silver dollars. Before I go on, I should also explain to you just how big the state of Texas is. To get a mass the size of Texas, you would have to combine Ohio, Indiana, along with the Middle Atlantic states. Once these are all combined, you have a mass the size of Texas. So once all 268,581 square miles (695,622 square kilometers) of Texas is covered two feet deep in silver dollars, you would need to put a giant X on one of the silver dollars and then toss it back somewhere in Texas.
Now is the fun part: You blindfold a man, or a woman, or a child, or even a monkey, and send them into Texas. They bend down and reach their hand into the 268,581 square-mile area of Texas, and on their first try, pick up the one silver dollar with the big X on it. This is what one in 1017 looks like. Stoner found that, mathematically speaking, based on probability and concepts, the likelihood of this happening is the same as Jesus Christ fulfilling just EIGHT of the 300 prophecies He fulfilled. That silver dollar is comparable to eight prophecies, and JESUS FULFILLS ALL 300! There is literally not a number big enough to even contain what Christ did.
Stoner concludes, “Any man who rejects Christ as the Son of God is rejecting a fact, proved perhaps more absolutely than any other fact in the world” (Stoner, p. 112).
And your next question may be, “Ya but, isn’t the Bible unreliable as a source?” Such sentiments are certainly expressed in a quote from The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins: “To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries” (see citation below).
“No other book has had more attempts to be destroyed, burned or dismantled than the Bible and yet here it still sits. It’s readers were tortured, killed, brutalized and yet those pesky followers won’t stay dead.”
Dawkins is intelligent and extremely accomplished, but when it comes to his writings about the Bible, I fear he was a bit out of his element. Dawkins did not study why the Bible is true, he simply studies why it isn’t. In order to come to an informed opinion, one must look at both sides.
There is no book or ancient manuscript that even remotely compares to the Bible in both prophetic accuracy and archaeological confirmation. When compared to other writings, the Bible is in a league of its own. We have 663 original manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad, the second most preserved literary work, compared to more than 5,000 copies of the New Testament. The Dead Sea scrolls also provide us with remarkable evidence for the reliability of the Bible. It is interesting to note that scholars regard the ancient text of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War as authentic though just 10 copies have been preserved, the earliest one dating to about 1,000 years after its original composition. Yet the authenticity of the Bible is ALWAYS questioned?
There are 764 disputed lines in The Iliad, and just 40 disputed lines in all of the New Testament. Homer’s classic contains approximately 15,600 lines, with 764 of those lines having been called into question. Mathematically, this represents about 5 percent of the entire text.
Compare this with the New Testament, of which only 40 lines of approximately 20,000 are disputed. Mathematically, these 40 lines represent one quarter of 1 percent of the entire text. We should note that these 40 disputed lines are mainly translation errors that have arisen because the Bible has been translated from Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. It’s bound to happen.
No other book has had more attempts to be destroyed, burned or dismantled than the Bible and yet here it still sits. It’s readers were tortured, killed, brutalized and yet those pesky followers won’t stay dead.
I do not and will not pretend to have all the answers. There is a certain level of faith that must exist when believing in any realm of spirituality. I just think it’s strange that we can all agree to respect Islam, give reverence to Judaism, and if someone is Buddhist people are all, “Cool what’s that like?” but Christians are always idiots.
I had lunch with an atheist the other week. He was gentle, and kind, and yet firm on his rejection of faith systems. “I don’t like religion,” he said to me. “I don’t like the wars it starts or the nastiness it evokes. But I do like when I see people who are loving, and I am able to appreciate that it is their spiritual worldview that has helped make them that way.”
You don’t have to agree with my faith. But I do hope that you can appreciate that faith is what has made me who I am. Christians need to do a better job of having that be a good thing.
If we did, I don’t think nonreligious people would have such a bad reaction to our Christianity.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published by the Spilled Milk Club.
Heather Thompson Day is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Andrews University. She is the author of five Christian books, including Life After Eden, and writer for The Spilled Milk Club. Facebook her, or check her out on Instagram.
Photo by decafinata
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