Is it possible that the most famous Man in history never actually existed? That is precisely the claim made by some atheistic scholars. There is a lot at stake in this debate. If Jesus never actually existed, then the main claims of Christianity cannot be true. The Bible is not a collection of wise sayings and moral axioms. Most of it is a true record of actual historical events. Those who deny the existence of Jesus build their case by dismissing the historical accuracy of the Gospels and minimizing the significance of collaborating evidence.
However, many people who reject Christianity remain convinced that Jesus did exist. E. P. Sanders has shown that the core facts of Jesus’ life are accepted by the majority of historians, regardless of their religious beliefs. In fact, some former atheists like Dr. Michael Bird cite the evidence for the historical Jesus as a key reason for their conversion to Christianity. Here are three solid historical arguments for the existence of Jesus.
First, the Christian community viewed the literal life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as central to their belief from a very early date. For example, Paul seems to reference an early Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15. This passage was written by the mid-AD 50s. In fact, nearly all of the New Testament was written and in circulation within a generation of the events that it records. There simply is not enough time for a mythological or mystical Jesus to be invented by the early Christians.
Second, the Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37-97) wrote about Jesus at least twice. Once he calls James “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” A longer passage, found in Antiquities 18:3, has several variants and is sometimes disputed. However, even the passages considered most likely not to contain later Christian interpolations reads, “At this time there was a wise man named Jesus. His conduct was good and was known to be virtuous. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who became his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion…”
Finally, the Roman historian Tacitus (AD 55-117) wrote of the burning of Rome under Nero. He is definitely a hostile witness, and did not have a good opinion of believers in general. In the Annals he records, “Nero fabricated scapegoats and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians… Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus.” It is interesting to note that Nero’s persecution of the early church is known to historians only through a source that is hostile toward Christianity. This record affirms not only that Jesus existed, but also records some of the essential elements of His ministry.
There are as many non-Christian literary sources that verify Jesus’ existence as there are for Tiberius Caesar! With this in mind, not even an atheist should claim that we must deny the existence of Jesus because of a lack of historical evidence.