Jesus of Nazareth – a Real Historical Figure?
Media pop culture today widely treats Jesus of Nazareth as a real historical figure. Evidence can be seen in many forms such as the 2013 History Channel mini-series The Bible and its adaption into the 2014 major motion picture release of Son of God. The next year followed with the 2015 NBC mini-series A.D.: Beyond the Bible picking up where the Gospels ended with the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.
National Geographic published in 2015 the hard cover book Jesus: An Illustrated Life where its website promo begins by saying “Two thousand years after his death, Jesus of Nazareth remains one of history’s most influential and fascinating figures.”[i] The 2016 spin-off magazine special edition entitled The Story of Jesus states “Jesus of Nazareth remains one of history’s most influential and fascinating figures.” The premise of both is based on the factualness of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem during the end of King Herod’s reign; his Roman crucifixion at Jerusalem, and the claims of his Resurrection that spawned a new religion.
Decades earlier the magazine US News & World Report ran as its cover story on April 16, 1990, “The Last Days of Jesus: The new light on what happened.” The article was based on the premise that Jesus was a real person who lived, died and quite possibly rose from the dead.
Movies, books and magazines do not necessarily prove Jesus was a true historical figure. Did Jesus really exist – was he a real historical figure? While many may react by thinking this is a dumb question, there are those who are skeptical with some who adamantly insist that he never existed at all and, as a consequence, Jesus cannot then be the Son of God.
Of those who do not believe the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, that small percentage still translates into millions of people. Many consider themselves to be agnostics or atheists, but not all. On what do they base their belief that Jesus never existed?
Theories loosely center on some manner of Christian conspiracy ranging from a passive form of legend that developed over centuries to a full blown conspiracy where Christian activists created a fictitious messiah figure.[ii] Quotes from the promo webpage for the aptly named book, The Christ Conspiracy by D. M. Murdock, are examples of these views:[iii]
“Jesus is a mythical figure in the tradition of pagan mythology and almost nothing in all of ancient literature would lead one to believe otherwise. Anyone wanting to believe Jesus lived and walked as a real live human being must do so despite the evidence, not because of it.” – C. Dennis McKinsey
“The gospel story is an artificial, non-historical work. It has been fabricated from source materials that can be identified and traced to their incorporation into the gospels. There is not a particle of hard evidence that ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ ever existed.” – Harold Leidner
Standing opposed to these charges are diverse sources outside the Bible reaching from today back through the centuries to within just a few years after the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. They come from Roman era historians and a Greek celebrity; non-Christian major religions – even some atheists.
Virtually all the sources that corroborate the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth are antagonistic toward Christianity. When opposing forces agree on a common point of information, it becomes the strongest form of a truth because both sides have essentially established – willingly or reluctantly – that it is a fact. It is a strategy used by courtroom lawyers who artfully attempt to extract common points of truth from the witnesses who testify in a trial. Using the testimony of their opposing witnesses, they extract truths and establish facts that strengthen their own cases.
Some sources do not directly discuss the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, but in denouncing or criticizing the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, they have conceded by inference that he was born, lived and walked this earth. Others refer to the crucifixion of Jesus, a recognition that he once lived in order to be put to death.
Credentials of each of these sources are key to weighing the integrity of their statements or positions in-spite-of their antagonism. One is the highly recognized Roman historian of the Jews, Josephus, himself a former Jewish Pharisee priest and military General. Others include prominent Roman historical figures. Perhaps the most credible sources are two other major religions, Judaism and Islam.
Setting all the evidence of those sources aside, there is one overarching impression to consider. The personage of Jesus has made such an impact on the world over the past 2000 years up to this very day – as can be witnessed weekly if not daily in current news stories – the name of Jesus of Nazareth still causes religious tensions, political turmoil, persecution, brutal atrocities of martyrdom and wars to be fought.[iv]
What are the odds that all these consequences are the result of a false premise, one that says Jesus was not a real person? To many, these things alone attest to the fact that something profound happened involving a historical figure two thousand years ago that forever changed history; nevertheless, some will still continue to believe it is all a myth. Was Jesus of Nazareth a real person?
Updated September 1, 2021.
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[i] Isbouts, Jean-Pierre. “Jesus: An Illustrated Life.” National Geographic Society. 2015. <http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Illustrated-Life-Jean-Pierre-Isbouts/dp/1426215681/ref=sr_1_1/185-6473608-4923818?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1462376067&sr=1-1&keywords=national+geographic+jesus>
[ii] Gauvin, Marshall J. “Did Jesus Christ Really Live?” (ca. 1922). Infidels.org. <http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/marshall_gauvin/did_jesus_really_live.html>
Ron Csillag. “For scholars, a combustible question: Was Christ real?” TheStar.com. 2008. <http://www.thestar.com/article/557548
“Was Jesus a Real Man?” The Atheist Apologist. 2010. <http://www.atheistapologist.com/2010/06/was-jesus-real-man.html>
“Historicity of Jesus.” New World Encyclopedia. 2012. <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Info:Main_Page>
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Wolchover, Natalie. “Proof of Jesus Christ? 7 Pieces of Evidence Debated.” 2013. LiveScience.com. <http://www.livescience.com/38014-physical-evidence-jesus-debated.html>
Gloag, Paton J. Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. 1895. “Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels.” Online Books Page. <http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008728595>
[iii] Murdock, D.M. aka S., Acharya. The Christ Conspiracy. Advertisement. <http://www.truthbeknown.com/christ.htm rel=”nofollow”>
[iv] Chiaramonte, Perry. “Christian persecution seen in more locations across the globe, new report shows.” February 02, 2017. <http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/02/02/christian-persecution-seen-in-more-locations-across-globe-new-report-shows.html>