Did the Jesus Christ of the Bible Really Live?

By Ron Halbrook

Notice carefully that we ask whether Jesus the Messiah really lived, not whether one of any number of Jewish peasants, politicians, priests, prophets, or teachers might have lived and worn the name “Jesus.” We do not ask whether some Jesus who claimed to be some kind of “savior”-national, social, political, religious, or other-lived, but whether the Jesus Christ of the Bible really lived. People sometimes say the Jesus Christ of the Bible is an inspiring “myth,” “a pious fraud,” or a “noble ideal;” one fellow even said Christ was not a person but was a “process.” It is not our purpose here to dabble in “possibilities” and theories about myths, frauds, ideals, or processes, but to face one specific question: Did the Jesus Christ of the Bible really live?

The question can be raised for any number of reasons. Honest inquirers have a right to the facts, to the truth about the matter. It has been preached for centuries that he did live and is the only God-sent Savior of men. If that be so, he lays direct claim to the lives of all of us. He “either did or either didn’t” live, he “either is or either ain’t” such a Savior, and we have a right to know! Surprisingly, the question has been raised and answered with doubt or in the negative by many of those who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Materialists and evolutionists have absolutely denied that the Jesus Christ of the Bible lived, because his claims and teachings contradict their pet theories. Such men have confused or converted many professed “Christians” who have tried to revamp the old faith without acknowledging rejection of the Christ and the faith. A large part of so-called Christendom reels and staggers before the question, “Did the Jesus Christ of the Bible really live?”

How We Answer Matters Very Much

Some folks have taken refuge in the fantastic solution which says that it does not matter which way we answer the question or whether we can answer it at all. Nineteen hundred years ago, the apostle Paul’s clear statement of the case precluded such sidestepping of the issue. “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:17ff). He “either did or either didn’t” and “either is or either ain’t.” All middle ground is sinking sand! If the truth is impossible to obtain, then for all the good he can do us Jesus Christ had just as well have been legendary or fictional anyway. The practical consequences of doubt are precisely the same as those of denial: our faith is unfounded, forgiveness of sins unsure, beloved saints perished forever so far as we know, and our misery the only certainty!

Just about every theory put forth in answer to our question-everything from the theories of university professors to those of dime store philosophers can be found in the modern play “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The popularity of the play has helped to spread such theories far and wide, and to reinforce them, along with other similar plays. The college student will hear the same concepts, dressed up a bit, in class. Judas says the crowds will “find they’re wrong” about Jesus’ being the true “Messiah.” “It’s all gone sour,” he explains, for Jesus is actually a deluded, ambitious fanatic. Mary is made to say, “He’s a man, just a man . . . .” She says she has had many men (which raises the question of how prostitutes “have” their men, and how this Mary “had” Jesus since she is presented as a prostitute)-“. . . in very many ways, he’s just one more.” “I want him so. I love him so.” The Apostles think they are the ones who ought to be remembered, so they discuss at the Last Supper their intention to retire to write the gospels so that they can be talked about for all time. The Jerusalem crowds proclaim Jesus as “Superstar” in their view of him as a political ruler who will lead against Rome. Annas and Caiaphas consider Jesus a troublesome fanatic, a danger to the Jews. The Temple crowds think Jesus can heal, but he cries out emphatically, “Heal yourselves!” Pilate regards him a “misguided martyr.” Peter is told by Jesus, “It was nice, but now it’s gone,” and in the next scene Peter denies Christ. Jesus, in this play, at times doubts himself, at times denies himself. “I’m not as sure as when we started. Then I was inspired. Now I’m sad and tired.” “Put away your sword,” he says, “Don’t you know that it’s all over? It was nice, but now it’s gone.” He repeats, “I’m through, through, through.” A song near the end raises questions about the identity of Jesus in an agnostic spirit, highlighting expressions of doubt but affirming nothing as certain. Is he like Buddah? Or, Mohammed? It only seems certain that he chose the wrong time to come. The grave is the very last thing referred to in the play, which itself leaves the clear implication that his dust lies a’smoldering in the grave.

What is the practical conclusion to all those theories (and their more complicated counterparts put out by “professors of religion” in highly technical language)? The Messiah himself and everyone else doubted and denied him. If we follow him, we too must doubt or deny him! On the other hand, we can decide not to follow him. (It’s amazing that in the views presented throughout this play, if we were to affirm his Deity, we would not be following him in that case.) Maybe not for the prof’ with his head in the clouds, but for the practical man with his feet on the ground we are left with only two choices: twiddle-dee (follow Jesus in doubt and denial about his mission, so that his word would have no more claim in our lives than that of anyone else), or twiddle-doe (simply make no pretension of following him at all in any sense). Let us stress that all of this is based on mere theories! There is not a shred of historical evidence that Jesus doubted or denied himself ever!

Well, what evidence do we have to go on? If there is any historical evidence bearing on the question, “Did the Jesus Christ of the Bible Really Live?”, then certainly justice and fairness demand that that evidence be heard.

First Line of Evidence

I. Historical Evidence From Friends. We have the testimony of the New Testament, real historical documents, that Jesus Christ really lived. Christianity “appeals to certain definite historical facts, . . and stakes all upon their actual occurrence” (S. H. Kellogg, The Light of Asia and the Light of the World, p. 369; cf. 1 Cor. 15:14-18). But can we be sure we have the original New Testament documents? Yes, because (1) there are about 4,500 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, in whole or in part, the oldest part dating back to about A.D. 140 (or, about forty years after the death of the last author). (2) In addition, there are many early translations of the New Testament, dating from about A.D. 150 and following. (3) Numerous quotations from the New Testament, in other works dating as early as Apostolic times. In other words, the refined science of Biblical criticism has presented us an accurate text of the New Testament. Many years of painful research have identified no more than 150,000 variations in the text (counting the most insignificant); but,

Only about 400 of the . . . variations materially affect the sense. Of these, again, not more than about fifty are really important for some reason or other; and even of these fifty not one affects an article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other and undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching. (Philip Schaff, A Companion to the Greek Testament and the English Version, p. 1771).

So, the New Testament is “by far the best-preserved ancient document in the world” (Ira Maurice Price, The Ancestry of Our English Bible, 3rd. Rev. Ed. By William A. Irvin and Allen P. Wikgren, p. 161).

But can we be sure Apostolic men wrote the Bible? Might the New Testament be a forgery? As one writer points out, “There is . . . far better evidence of authorship (of New Testament books) than exists with respect to the works of almost any classical writers” (George Rawlinson, Historical Evidences, p. 159). It is correctly pointed out that the New Testament books are “productions of contemporaries and eye-witnesses.” Archibald Alexander points out, “The genuineness of the books of the New Testament having been admitted by friends and enemies . . . , in those ages when the fact could be ascertained easily, it is too late in the day now for infidels to call this matter in question” (The Canon, p. 248). In summary, the testimony of the friends of Jesus “can be traced up into the very generation in which the events narrated are said to have occurred” (Kellogg, op. cit., p. 32). Every archaeological and historical fact discovered, having any relation to the Bible record, illuminates or verifies the historical references in the Bible. The New Testament documents are primary evidence, rooted in history, proving that Jesus Christ really lived.

An example of the testimony given by contemporaries of Jesus is found in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:22-36. Four lines of evidence are given. (1) Jesus did miracles; the audience, as well as the speaker, was called upon to verify the fact (vv. 22f). (2) Also, Jesus fulfilled prophecies of the Old Testament; the historical documents of the Old Testament still existed, and the audience could verify the fulfillment in their presence along with the speaker (vv. 23ff). (3) The resurrection of Jesus, “whereof we are all witnesses,” said Peter of the Apostles. (4) The miracles done by the reigning Christ through the Apostles, which were witnessed by the audience (vv. 33ff). The necessary conclusion, then and now, must be: “God has made Him both Lord and Christ!”

Second Line of Evidence

II. Historical Evidence from Enemies. Not only does Luke challenge “the scrutiny of the whole world” as to the historical accuracy and reality of his report (Lk. 2:13; 3:1-2), but also secular historians, all of whom wrote within less than 100 years after Christ’s time, present testimony which begs for examination. These historians were neither preachers nor friends of Jesus; in fact, the testimony they provide comes from the adversaries of Jesus Christ. Let the adversaries-“hostile witnesses”-tell us whether Jesus Christ really lived.

(1) Tacitus (d. A.D. 117) tells how some Romans complained that Nero, their own Emperor from A.D. 5468, set Rome afire.

To suppress, therefore, this common rumor, Nero procured others to be accused, and inflicted exquisite punishment upon those people, who were in abhorrence for their crimes, and were commonly known by the name Christians. They had their denomination from Christus, who in the reign of Tiberius was put to death as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate (Alexander Campbell, The Christian Preacher’s Companion (Reprint Ed. by College Press, Joplin, Mo., 31).

(2) Suetonius (ca. A.D. 70-ca. 160) wrote a life of Emperor Claudius, who reigned from A.D. 41-54. Of the Emperor, Suetonius says, “He banished the Jews from Rome, who were continually making disturbances, Chrestus being their leader” (ibid., p. 41).

(3) In his life of Nero, he explains, “The Christians were punished; a sort of men of a new and magical (or, pernicious) superstition” (ibid., p. 42).

(4) In his life of Emperor Vespasian, the emperor who persecuted Christians as being a sect of the Jews, Suetonius gives the background to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Commenting on the hope which the Jews had nourished and carried everywhere they lived, he states, “There had been for a long time all over the East a prevailing opinion that it was in the fates (in the decrees or books of the fates) that at that time some one from Judea should obtain the empire of the world” (ibid., p. 43). If the statement seems vague in relation to the question, did the Jesus Christ of the Bible really live, remember that the writer is a Roman historian, not a Jewish priest, a supporter of Rome and her emperors, not of Jesus Christ. Then compare the statement with such prophecies as Ps. 2; Isa. 9:6; 11:1-15; and Dan. 2:44. Then study the fear of Herod (Matt. 2:1-18), the angel’s promise to Mary recorded by Luke (1:32-33), the intense desire of the crowd who came “to take him by force, to make him a king” (Jn. 6:15), and the probing question of Pilate, “Art thou the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Thou sayest that I am a king.’ To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth,” although he explained, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 19:33-38).

(5) Pliny the Younger was sent from Rome in A.D. 106 and arrived in Bithynia on September 18th to serve as Governor. After about a year he wrote Emperor Trajan (ruled A.D. 98-117) for advice on what to do with the Christians. Pliny explains, “For many of all ages, and every rank, of both sexes likewise, are accused, and will be accused. Nor has the contagion of this superstition seized cities only, but the lesser towns also, and the open country.” He says he has examined many such people already, “I have put the question to them, whether they were Christians.” He punished those who refused to deny Christ, but released those who “reviled the name of Christ.” He had learned it was their regular practice “to meet together on a stated day before it was light, and sing among themselves alternately a hymn to Christ, as a god. . . .” The Christians, Pliny added, repudiated “theft,” “robbery,” “adultery,” and all other forms of “wickedness”. He used the word “Christ” at least three times and “Christian” eight times (ibid., pp. 59-61).

(6) Trajan, the Emperor, responded that Pliny was handling well “your proceedings with those who have been brought before you as Christians” (ibid., pp. 61-62).

(7) Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-sometime after 100) left the ruins of Jerusalem behind when it fell in A.D. 70, accepting the hospitality of the Romans and serving as their historian of Jewish affairs. In Antiquities of the Jews (XVIII, iii, 3), he is discussing at one point the riots which resulted from false Messiahs. He says a wise man named Jesus won followers from among both Jews and Greeks, during the time of Pilate. “He was the Christ (Messiah),” explains Josephus, not speaking as a believer himself for he was a Pharisee, but probably helping readers distinguish this Jesus from the many others mentioned in Antiquities. “Principle men condemned him” but he appeared, to his followers, “alive after the third day” (some texts add “his followers reported” which is undoubtedly Josephus’ meaning at least). The tribe of Christians “are not extinct at this day” (ca. A.D. 92-93), he explains.

A Verdict Beyond Reasonable Doubt

Few scholars today deny that Jesus lived, though many of them talk about the “quest for the Jesus of history” – meaning some theory about Jesus other than the Bible account. One thing is certain: No informed historian can deny that Jesus lived, lived in the period reported in the New Testament, lived in Palestine, and was proclaimed as Savior by Jews and Gentiles in the first century-many of whom were not only contemporaries but also eye-witnesses of His life. Even the adversaries contemporary with and immediately following the lifetime of Jesus provide sufficient testimony to establish that much. This line of evidence might be a good starting place for someone who claims Jesus is nothing more than a misty myth or foggy fable; the fact of the life of Jesus can be established beyond all reasonable doubt from secular, unbelieving historians and ancient records. Nothing in this evidence gives the least credance to the theories of so-called scholars or of more popular writers who produce such material as “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

In the final analysis, only the Bible provides sufficient evidence to prove the character of that life. Here are the reports of contemporaries and eye-witnesses closest to Jesus Christ-and the documents are rooted firmly in history, more firmly than any other documents of antiquity! Here stands testimony “written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (Jn. 20:31). These witnesses testify that Jesus Christ, after rising from the dead, sent them out with this authoritative command: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mk. 16:15-16). So say the witnesses. What do you say, dear reader? The witnesses are unafraid of honest investigation; they invite it “that thou mightest know the certainty of those things” (Lk. 1:1-4). “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16). If you cannot accept this testimony, you cannot accept the testimony of anyone about anything, not ever. Yes, he lived. And lives! “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29).

Truth Magazine, XX:20, pp. 7-10
May 13, 1976