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17 Feb 2024
Thomas D. Williams, Ph.D.

NextImg:As Easter Nears, Some Atheists Insist ‘There Was No Jesus’

The Christian season of Lent always triggers the anti-God squad, and 2024 is no different, with limelight-seeking atheists trotting out the tired “Jesus never existed” thesis in preparation for Holy Week.

Writing in Aeon, professional provocateur Gavin Evans leads the band of God-slayers with his February 15 article, entitled “There Was No Jesus,” rehashing old arguments that Jesus was the invention of a group of unscrupulous hucksters who sought to create a religion around a myth of their own creation.

The gist of Evans’ plodding 4,100-word piece is that “a cult leader who drew crowds, inspired devoted followers and was executed on the order of a Roman governor” should have left a deeper trail in contemporary records.

Evans’ screed apes the argument of the likes of Richard Dawkins, who wrote that it is possible “to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all” as well as the musings of Christopher Hitchens, who asserted that Jesus’ existence is “highly questionable.”

Yet as biblical scholar Stephen K. Ray pointed out to Breitbart News, the first century did not have the Internet and social media, much less newscasters and chroniclers. Moreover, Jesus was raised in a backwater village and performed his ministry away from the metropolis and as secretly as possible for only three short years.

His trial was rushed partly at night to push it through the Jewish Passover, and Jesus was one of thousands executed as a disrespected criminal who would have been buried in a common grave had it not been for one of his secret followers.

Despite all this, there is more documentary evidence for the existence of Jesus and the historicity of the four Gospels than for any other ancient historical figure. No one in the first centuries ever doubted his existence, much less his ministry.

We “know” Jesus really existed insofar as we can know any historical fact. That is to say, none of us was present on the earth two thousand years ago to empirically verify Jesus’ existence, so we must rely on the historical record.

But the historical record is as conclusive as we could possibly hope for. As Theodore Dalrymple noted in the City Journal, “If I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove.”

In other words, what you believe depends on what you are willing to believe.

Plenty of scholars have undertaken to collect all ancient historical references to Jesus, which are surprisingly ample. They include the celebrated Roman historian Tacitus; Suetonius, chief secretary to the emperor Hadrian; Julius Africanus, who quoted the historian Thallus in a discussion of the darkness that followed the crucifixion of Christ; Pliny the Younger, who in his Letters recorded early Christian ritual practices; Lucian of Samosata, who stated that Jesus was crucified for introducing new beliefs.

The Jewish historical record includes the most famous ancient Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, who, in his Antiquities, refers to James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ” as well as to Jesus’ death under Pontius Pilate.

The Babylonian Talmud confirms Jesus’ crucifixion on the eve of Passover and the accusations against Christ of practicing sorcery and encouraging Jewish apostasy.

The texts of the New Testament itself, which include historical assertions about Jesus, were written not many years after his death, when many of his contemporaries were still alive. Yet there is no record of any contemporary figure refuting these claims or asserting that Jesus never lived.

The clearest evidence of Jesus’ historical existence is the witness of literally thousands of Christians in the first century AD, including the twelve apostles, who were willing to give their lives as martyrs for Jesus Christ.

They could have escaped death by disowning Christ or stepping forward to say that it all had been a hoax. This did not happen. Some people will die for what they believe to be true; no one will die for what they know to be a lie.

Yet, as Stephen Ray observed, there are many today who want to make a name for themselves by spouting off about something they cannot prove and with a hatred for something they intensely want to disprove.