As an atheist, it’s a given that I don’t believe Jesus died and rose again, let alone that he is the son of God. It would be easy to assume that Jesus was just some wise Hebrew teacher who got crucified because he went against the status quo, and that everything else was either made up or embellished over time – just like many legends. For a long time I assumed just that. But recently I have begun to wonder what the actual evidence out there says about Jesus. Was he a real person? If so, what was he really like?
On the surface, we are told there is plenty of evidence that Jesus was a real person, and how dare you think otherwise? But when you actually go down the rabbit hole and investigate? Things get a little murky. Here I am going to discuss different sources of information which have been used to vouch for Jesus being a real person and add my own viewpoints on it. I hope you find this interesting and informative. I will admit though, some of this is quite debatable until the cows come home.
The Canonical Gospels.
In case you don’t know already, I’m referring to the first four New Testament books, these are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These books describe the life of Jesus, his teachings and the whole crucifixion and resurrection shebang. For a long time, many people assumed that these were reliable evidence for the existence of Jesus, but now we know this not to be the case. Even when you take out many of the legendary elements, such as miracles and the resurrection, you still have many problems.
What problems? For starters there are several contradictions in each of the four books, they tell different stories and contradicting pieces of information. I’m not going to get into all that, but you can read here for a list of the many gospel contradictions. What I will go into is some of the many contradictions surrounding important aspects of Jesus’s life. That is, his birth, death and alleged resurrection.
Genealogies and Jesus’s birth.
Both Matthew and Luke give a list of the genealogies from David to Joseph (Jesus’s ‘dad’). In Matthew, we are told there were 27 generations from David to Joseph, but there were 42 generations in Luke. There is almost no overlap between the names on the two lists either.
Both Matthew and Luke tell different accounts of the birth of Jesus (compare Matthew 2 and Luke 2 with me). According to Matthew, Jesus was born in a house in Jerusalem. After Jesus was born and magi visited him, Joseph was told in a dream to escape to Egypt, because Herod wanted to kill Jesus. After Herod died, they then moved to Nazareth in Israel. According to Luke, Jesus was born in a manger as there was no room in an inn for him. There is no mention at all about Herod or moving to Egypt, which is odd, and that they lived in Nazareth but traveled to Bethlehem because of a census. Also, was Jesus born during Herod the Great’s era (Matthew), or during Cyrenius’s era, 9 years after king Herod’s death (Luke)?
Death and alleged resurrection.
There are disputes about what Jesus actually said when he was dying. After his resurrection, he first appears to his disciples on a mountain in Mark. The other three gospels have him first meeting them in some house and breaking bread with them, and they have a meal together. Also, the accounts of who he met after his resurrection in each gospel differ.
Given the several contradictions in the four gospels, combined with disputes about crucial moments in Jesus’s life, it should be clear that the gospels alone shouldn’t be used as reliable historical evidence for Jesus. But what do scholars say? The modern scholarly consensus is that the gospels are Ancient Biographies intermixed with a lot of Christian propaganda. Not to be confused with biography in the modern sense, they tell stories about aspects of ancient people and whether they should be imitated. But given the amount of propaganda present in the gospels, it should be said that telling a historical story wasn’t the main objective, so we shouldn’t treat it as such. Furthermore, the amount of editing and changes made to the texts over time mean that their historical accuracy would be highly questionable.
Therefore, it would make sense to look for extra-biblical evidence for Jesus, since the gospels can’t stand tall on their own. Were there any historians outside of the Bible who mentioned Jesus, or any archaeological evidence for him?
Archaeological evidence for Jesus.
I’ll begin this by saying there is no archaeological evidence for Jesus, and no, the Shroud of Turin and Holy Grail don’t count. We don’t have a body, or any evidence of where he was allegedly buried or crucified, no archaeological evidence directly related to Jesus. Now it should be mentioned that some places mentioned in the Gospels have been verified using archaeology, such as the Pool of Bethesda, but these findings don’t prove that the events written about in the Gospels occurred, it just means that the writers knew about those places at the time. Spider man takes place in New York, which is obviously a real city, but the existence of New York doesn’t prove Spider man.
So, this ends the first part in my ‘Historical Jesus’ series. In the next part, I will discuss extra-biblical evidence offered for Jesus, and some of my own thoughts on it.