So I’m writing a paper for grad school. (And yes, I did give in and enroll, but that’s a story for another day.) Here’s my assignment: What evidence do we have for the existence of Jesus outside of the Bible? Do we have any proof that he was a historical person at all?
Was he, like Shakespeare, a real person about whom we might have some inaccurate information handed down—history made myth?
Was he, like King Arthur, a fictional character whose lovably delusional fan club believes he was real—myth made history?
Or is it all true?
Who was this guy?
History is so much like detective work, adding up evidence, building a case. It’s fascinating, all the bits and pieces fitting together, making a puzzle that often has some obvious holes, then standing back and examining the whole picture. But it’s also really interesting, in this case, to watch the detectives work.
On the one hand is a group who’ve always believed Jesus was a real Jewish peasant circa Zero AD, but have worked and worked to discredit anything substantive that has been said about him. They tend to say things like, “Sure, he was a good teacher. But his followers never meant to imply he was God. That part got added in later.”
On the opposite side are those who think he was as historically valid as, say, Thor. “Sure, Paul worshipped him,” they’ll say, “but only a ‘heavenly’ version of him. Nobody ever thought he was a flesh-and-bone human.”
Funny, he can be human, or he can be god. But how could he ever be both?
It’s the age-old dilemma for Christianity. We understand a holy-and-divine Lord of All the Universe, remote, perfect, all-powerful. Or we can get our heads around a wise and salty teacher, relatable, tolerant, inspiring. But we have an awfully hard time understanding God made flesh. And so the heresies tip back and forth like a teeter-totter:
He was God, and he never actually died on the cross, and anything stained by unholy flesh is wicked.
Or he was human, the miracles are bogus, and of course he never “rose again.”
Or maybe we’re all gods-in-the-making, and he’s our best exemplar. Be good, be nice, be like Jesus.
The Christian story is wholly unique in its “fully human, fully God” doctrine. You can pick from a dozen either-or religions, but this one is, right down to the core, a mystery. All of the justice, purity, power, and goodness of deity packed in to a person limited by a breakable body, “tempted as we are but without sin” as Hebrews 4 has it. It’s a theological conundrum that begs the big question—why? Why in the world would omnipotent God condense himself in time and space to be born in a barn? “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”
I like that my God can’t be easily explained, can’t be reduced to a mathematical theorem. I like knowing that a lifetime of study can only scratch the surface, that sometimes the best we can come up with is “mystery.” It quite makes sense to me that God is bigger than the human mind can unravel. Otherwise he wouldn’t be much of a God at all.
It’s also intriguing that this God (if he really exists) refuses to dispense proof positive. I heard an atheist lamenting this on a podcast this week (fascinating show—you should really check it out). If he’s God, the question goes, why doesn’t he wave his magic wand and drive our doubt away? Where are the flashy miracles? Why can’t I ask him to show up and see his giant invisible finger write on the wall, “It’s me!”
If he’s God, he certainly could do that, and, Christians would say, he does do that from time to time. But ever since Moses went up against Pharaoh as the Jews’ first apologist, God has steadfastly refused to make anyone believe.
“Pharaoh’s going to ask you who sent you. Tell him it was I AM.”
“My name. It’s I AM.”
“I am what? What does that mean? Can’t you have a normal name, like Thor, God of Thunder?”
“What if he doesn’t believe me?”
“Throw your staff on the ground, and it will become a snake.”
“OK. Cool.” Ten minutes later… “Um, I Am? Pharaoh’s magicians can do the same trick.”
“Then turn water into blood.”
“All right.” Ten minutes later… “Yeah, they can do that, too.”
“Tell him I AM sent you. Let my people go.”
God lets the Moses-Pharaoh showdown drag on through ten plagues (which were miracle enough for the open-minded, but dismissed by the hard-hearted. Locusts? I mean, that’s not really a miracle. Hail? Have you seen my dented wagon? State Farm still owes me from last year.)
God always gives enough light for those with eyes to see. He’s not interested in arm-wrestling skeptics.
So is there any extra-biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus? Yes, as it turns out, there is. Out of the four major historians of the first century Roman world (Tacitus, Josephus, Plutarch, and Suetonius), three mention Jesus. That is to say, three non-Christian—agnostic, apathetic, and/or antagonistic—historians (two Roman, one Jewish) comment on the life and death of an obscure, impoverished, rabble-rousing carpenter in a backwater province. Furthermore, a pair of cranky politicians dither about what to do with those crazy Christ-followers who worship Jesus as a god, despite Rome’s best efforts to torture them into recanting. A satirical playwright skewers Christians for their cuckoo naivety. And an anonymous artist sketches a donkey on a cross, graffiti captioned “Alexamenos worships his god.” It’s hard, on the face of evidence, to argue that Jesus never existed. But maybe it is just as hard to see him for who he is: Immanuel, God With Us.