What should I think of occasional claims made in the media that Jesus Christ is legendary and never existed?
Anyone can make wild claims about New Testament events. And if they couch their claims in an entertaining way (like the novel The Da Vinci Code or the online movie Zeitgeist),1 they can be assured lots of attention. But anyone willing to do a little research soon discovers how few genuine, accredited biblical scholars there are—whether Christian believers or unbelievers—who deny that the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke were written between AD 60 and 90 (much too soon for legends about a nonexistent Jesus to take form). This is actually about the time one would expect them to be written, as there would be no need for an authoritative written record of Jesus Christ’s life and ministry while numerous eyewitnesses—including Jesus’ disciples—were still alive. 2
Historians overwhelmingly concede that 1 Corinthians was written by the apostle Paul somewhere between ad 53 and 57. In this epistle, written less than 30 years after Jesus’ ministry, Paul declared:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all He appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (1 Cor. 15:3-9 NIV).
Paul had formerly been Saul, a militant Pharisee, enemy, and persecutor of the church, converted after a personal encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 7-9). After his conversion, he established close relationships with many of the other key witnesses of the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ, including the apostle Peter, James, and the elders of the Jerusalem church (Acts 9:27-28; Galatians 1:18-19).
One can’t learn the truth about any historical event without a reasonable amount of research, and it shouldn’t surprise us that a confident perspective about one of the most crucial events of history requires the investment of some time and mental energy. The evidence supporting a high view of the historical and theological accuracy of the New Testament is overwhelming, but it, like knowledge of any kind, requires a reasonable amount of motivated inquiry.
Historical argument alone cannot force anyone to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. But historical argument is remarkably good at clearing away the undergrowth behind which skepticisms of various sorts have been hiding. The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivaled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity. The obvious fact that this remains hugely challenging at worldview levels—challenging personally, socially, culturally, and politically—ought not put us off from taking the question very seriously (Craig A. Evans and N. T. Wright, Jesus, The Final Days, “The Surprise of Resurrection,” p. 105).
Here are some great books that describe the evidence for reliability of the Gospels: Fabricating Jesus by Craig A. Evans; Jesus, The Final Days by Evans and Wright; The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition by Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd; The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels by Luke Timothy Johnson; Misquoting Truth by Timothy Paul Jones. (This list is by no means exhaustive, but it provides a good starting place. See the ATQ article, Why Do Many Western People Doubt the Accuracy of the Gospels?)
- Although Zeitgeist’s attack on the historicity of the Jesus tradition is uninformed and misguided, it is worth seeing. Back To Article
- Richard Bauckham notes that in Paul’s statement regarding the eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-9) he “takes for granted the continuing accessibility and role of the eyewitnesses, even extending to a very large number of minor eyewitnesses as well as to such prominent persons as the Twelve and James.” Bauckham continues: “One reason Gospels were written was to maintain this accessibility and function of the eyewitnesses beyond their lifetimes. . . . The Gospels stepped into the role of the eyewitnesses, which they had vacated through death. They interacted with the oral tradition, influencing it, doubtless becoming partially oralized in the form of new oral traditions, but also functioning as the guarantor of the traditions, as the eyewitnesses had in their lifetimes, and as controls on the tradition, making it possible to check its faithfulness to the testimony of the eyewitnesses as now recorded in writing” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, pp. 308-309). Back To Article