Did Jesus Exist? Almost certainly yes.
Because of the outspoken and surprisingly influential conspiracy theorists among us, I have recently written a book that sets forth the consensus-view on this question, held by virtually everyone else, and certainly by all the acknowledged experts in the field.
At the same time, even though most people have never had reason to doubt Jesus’ existence, writing my book proved to be a most unusual and interesting intellectual exercise. How do you demonstrate that someone from the distant past actually lived --when there is no physical or archeological evidence for his existence, no writings from him, and no references to him by writers of his own day? Oddly enough, as I came to realize in the course of my work, no previous scholar in the fields of biblical studies, ancient history, or classics had ever set out to prove that Jesus actually existed.
There is plenty of compelling evidence for Jesus’ existence, most of which I won’t be able to get into here. But there is one piece of the puzzle that is particularly relevant to the season. Easter is again upon us, and three days before that is the much less celebrated but equally important Good Friday, the traditional date of Jesus’ crucifixion. The celebration of Jesus’ death by crucifixion from the very early days of the Christian movement is, odd as it might seem, secure evidence that Jesus in fact really did exist.
The Christian claims that Jesus was the Messiah and that he was crucified by the Romans seem natural and coherent to Christians today. But in the early days of the Christian church, these two claims were recognized as highly paradoxical and potentially at odds with one another, creating the single largest stumbling block for convincing others -- anyone, really -- that the Christian faith could be true. The reason is not hard to find. Prior to the advent of Christianity, there was no one on the planet who thought that the Messiah was going to be --or was supposed to be --crucified.
Those who deny that Jesus ever even existed, including such prolific authors as Earl Doherty and Robert Price, typically claim that he was invented by early Christians in imitation of pagan gods and demi-gods who, like Jesus, but before him, were said to have died and risen again. This view is wrong on all scores. For one thing, there are serious questions about whether there were any dying and rising gods in pagan antiquity (Osiris, Adonis, Attis, Heracles, and other examples typically cited certainly do not apply). But what is equally significant, the earliest believers in Jesus did not think of Jesus as a dying-rising god. For them, he was not God. He was the Messiah. And there is a world of difference between the two.
Many Christians today appear to think that the Messiah was supposed to be God. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For ancient Jews, the Messiah was the figure sent by God to bring his deliverance to earth. Some Jews, probably the majority, understood this coming Messiah to be a (completely human) warrior-king, like King David of old. Hence the title “Son of David.” This one would destroy the enemies (the Romans, for example) and set up a new kingdom for Israel in its capital city Jerusalem. Other Jews thought the Messiah would be more like a cosmic figure, a great angel who would come from heaven and execute judgment on the enemies of God. Other Jews had different expectations of what the Messiah would be like. In none of them would he be God --let alone a god who died and rose again. More than that, in all of them he would be a figure (human or angelic) of grandeur and power who would overthrow the forces of evil in a mighty act of judgment and wrath.
And who was Jesus? He was, arguably, just the opposite: an itinerate preacher from the rural backwaters of Galilee known to be a crucified criminal. The idea that the Messiah would be crucified by the state, even if innocent of the charges, was so far removed from what anyone expected the Messiah to be that Christians had their hands full in trying to convince anyone that Jesus could possibly be the one expected, as the Apostle Paul himself tells us (1 Corinthians 2).
One of the most interesting questions in the history of religion involves how Christians argued with Jews over the matter, as they tried to show that despite universal expectations to the contrary, God’s Messiah was in fact supposed to suffer and die. The Christians appealed to scriptures of the Jews that never mention the Messiah (Isaiah 53; Psalm 22; etc.) but that speak of someone suffering; they urged their potential converts that these were in fact prophecies of the Messiah. Jews responded, sensibly enough, by pointing out that these passages never mention the Messiah and were never understood, prior to the Christian reinterpretations, to be referring to the Messiah. And the debates continue till today.
For the question of whether Jesus existed or not, this religious debate is both intriguing and decisive. If Christians wanted to invent a Messiah, they would not have created a crucified Messiah, since that was a Messiah no one expected and that proved to be the greatest “stumbling block,” to use Paul’s term, for anyone’s conversion. Why then did Christians proclaim a crucified Messiah? It was because they believed, on one hand, that Jesus was the Messiah and they knew, on the other, that he was a real person who had been executed by the Romans. Christians did not invent the existence of the man Jesus. They invented the idea that the Messiah had to be crucified. They had to. Jesus really lived and actually did suffer an ignominious death.
For many religions, the facts of history often clash with the claims of faith. When that happens, something has to give. In the case of Jesus’ death, the facts triumphed over the beliefs. Christians knew that Jesus was crucified, so that to call him the Messiah they had to alter what the Messiah was supposed to be. In doing so they invented a new theological concept, a suffering Messiah. Whatever one makes of the concept, one has to acknowledge that it is rooted in a historical reality, the very real and tangible life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, a man who lived and died in Roman Palestine. For Christians today, of course, these events of history continue to be considered a reality that convey good news, so much so that they still label the date of Jesus’ death a good Friday.
Bart Ehrman is the author of “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth,” now available from HarperOne.