Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Did Jesus really exist?

Below is an email conversation I had a while back with an ancient history professor. I email 5 academics from two different Australian universities and got two responses. One said that I should email someone else as it wasn't quite their field. Below is the other email I received (with my email on top) (names and any identification have been change).

Hi Dr H Story,

I heard an interview earlier this year between a historian (John Dickson, who was plugging his book) and an atheist. (It can be found online here). At the start of the interview (around the 3 minute mark) John Dickson says that no one in historical scholarship doubts that Jesus existed. John then puts out a challenge to find a university professor in a history department who denies that Jesus existed. I thought I might take up that challenge.

Did Jesus exist? and what historical evidence is that based on? Is the Christian bible reliable for historical evidence? What do you do with the supernatural events that Jesus did that is described in the Christian bible? Is there more credible evidence outside the Christian bible for Jesus?

Sorry for all my questions, I realise that you are probably busy and I would be grateful for any response, even links to journal articles about the historicity of Jesus would be great.

Thank you for your time

Below is their response:

Hi Andrew,

I think that John Dickson is basically correct - many historians are not Christians, and may doubt the divinity of Christ, etc., but few deny that Jesus existed. The evidence for the life and teaching of Jesus is comparable to that for the life and teachings of Socrates (who also did not write anything himself). As is the case with Socrates (it is unclear how much of "his" teaching is really Socrates and how much is Plato), it is not entirely clear how many early Christian ideas are from Jesus directly, and how many originate from, say, Paul.

There are some very early non-Christian sources for Jesus' existence - off the top of my head, Tacitus (the Annales, discussing the persecution of Christians under Nero) jumps to mind (writing perhaps 70 years after Jesus' crucifixion, discussing well-known events occurring about 30 years after Jesus' execution).

The Bible is not especially problematic as an historical source when compared with other ancient literature/religious texts.

Finally, lots and lots of supernatural events are recorded in all ancient sources - again, dealing with them is not unique to Christianity or the Bible as a historical source.

It's the interpretation and meaning of Jesus' life that is open to dispute, not so much whether or not he actually existed.

Ok, I hope this helps...I can find some references for you if you'd like, but any book on "the historical Jesus" from a reputable press should more or less reflect what I've written above - I don't think it's particularly controversial.

Best wishes,
Dr H Story

I replied and said thank for replying and for offering to dig up some references but I didn't want to waste more of their time.


  1. Hey &,

    Great blog btw - i havent checked it in a while so was pleasently surprised to find so much new and interesting stuff to read :D

    Just wondering if the guy that wrote back to you is Christian or not???

  2. Hey Ceny,

    Thanks for posting.

    I'm not sure if they (I'm been non-gender specific) were a Christian. They seem to say that Paul may have started some Christian ideas, which may well be true in some of his letters (once you remove the Holy Spirit from the equation). They didn't get into their personal ideas about Jesus and nothing about their profile on their uni staff page indicated one way or the other.