If there’s one question that most believers never stop to ponder it is the question regarding the literal existence of Jesus. The question, to their way of thinking, is “Was Jesus God?”, not “Was there a man named Jesus who stated he was God?”. For the longest time I considered Jesus to be a literal person who had been warped into a god. I held this belief long after I quit believing in the existence of gods themselves.
The fact of the matter is there is no evidence that such a man ever existed. He left no writings of his own behind. Everything we know of him was written well after his death and by anonymous people at that. It is only tradition that says the gospels (the source of the Jesus story) were written by eyewitnesses. One of the gospels, Luke, actually begins by admitting that it is a report by what appears to be at least a second-generation believer.
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. – Luke 1:1-4, NRSV (emphasis added)
Matthew and Mark contain no such statements nor do they identify themselves. John merely contains a sentence that implies that it was the testimony given to the authors by “the disciple Jesus loved” and that they (the authors) trusted this person (John 21:24-25).
The closest we get is the letters of Paul who does not mention a historical Jesus at all. Removed from the shadow of the gospels, which did not exist at the time, Paul’s Christ appears to be a very different character.
Here’s an even bigger kicker. No one outside the early church noticed Jesus. There are accounts of other people in the gospels but no accounts of Jesus by his contemporaries. The man that turned water into wine, raised the dead, cured the crippled, cast devils into pigs and needed armed soldiers to bring him in was ignored by contemporary writers. It’s like the man never existed outside the walls of the local churches.
The above said, there are non-Christian sources regarding Jesus. The problem is that all were written well after the time Jesus is said to have existed.
Josephus Flavius – This is the Jewish historian who wrote Antiquities and is the earliest non-Christian and secular reference to Jesus. In 93CE. This is thirty years after Paul and a little under thirty years after Mark. Matthew and Luke had also been written. Most scholars are also of the mind that the Jesus reference was at least a partial ‘interpolation’ which is the nice way to say “added to the work by Christians after the fact”.
Pliny the Younger – A Roman governor who wrote a letter about Christians to the Roman Emperor in 112CE requesting guidance on what he should do about the Christians in his territory after having executed a group brought before him. This letter is nothing but a testimony to the fact that Christians existed in what is now Turkey.
Tacitus – The Roman historian who wrote Annals in 116CE wherein he details how the Christians were blamed for the Great Fire by Emperor Nero. In short, this passage is a hostile description of the then minority group Christians who were made scapegoats to suit a political goal. It is not a testimony to the existence of Jesus.
Suetonius – Another Roman historian who wrote in his autobiography in 112CE that Roman Jews had been expelled from Rome in 49CE (twenty years after the death of Jesus according to the gospels) after their leader whom he identified as Chrestus caused a riot. This passage may not even have been about Christians and is certainly not a testimony to the existence of Jesus.
Everything we ‘know’ about Jesus is second-hand, at best. There is not one shred of historical evidence in favour of him existing. The fact that many people believed and continue to believe such a man existed does not make it so. It is possible that the biblical Jesus is based upon someone who is long lost to history, but this is merely speculation and should be treated as such. What we do have is no more than the handed down historical beliefs of Christians dating back to the late first century and nothing more.
Resources for further study: