A Beginner’s Guide to the Argument from the Life of Jesus ?

At the centre of the Christian faith is Jesus: the Resurrected Son of God. If Jesus is the Son of God, then how we respond to this is vitally important for this life – and the life to come. If Jesus isn’t the Son of God, then frankly Christianity is pointless and irrelevant.

The purpose of this short article is to focus on some of the evidence for the life of Jesus. Does this evidence point to Jesus being the Son of God? Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus will be covered in another article in this series.

So, what does the evidence say about the life of Jesus?

Jesus Really Existed

Historians have been extensively researching the historical evidence for Jesus for around 200 years. This research has come to the clear conclusion that the Jesus who Christians follow really existed. You may hear or read people suggesting otherwise – but this position has virtually no serious supporters among today’s historians (including many non-Christian historians) who specialise in this period of history.

The Historical Jesus

If today’s historians are agreed Jesus existed, what else do they agree upon? EP Sanders is one of today’s leading scholars on the historical Jesus. In his book: “The Historical Figure of Jesus”, Sanders provides a list of “secure facts” about Jesus – on which he says the majority of today’s historians are agreed. Here is a reprint of that list:

  • Jesus was born circa. 4 BCE, near the time of death of Herod the Great.
  • He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village.
  • He was baptised by John the Baptist.
  • He called disciples.
  • He taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities).
  • He preached “the kingdom of God”.
  • About the year 30 [AD], he went to Jerusalem for Passover.
  • He created a disturbance in the Temple area.
  • He had a final meal with the disciples.
  • He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest.
  • He was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.
  • [After His death] His disciples first fled.
  • They saw him ([but] in what sense is not certain) after his death.
  • As a consequence, they believed that he would return to found the kingdom.
  • They formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.

You’ll notice that these “secure facts” are very close to what is described in the Biblical gospels. Which brings me to the next point.

The Gospels and New Testament Letters Can be Used for Historical Research

Historical research has concluded that the Gospels in the bible were written between 30 to 50 years after Jesus’ death. The letters the apostle Paul wrote were written even earlier than this – his first letter written just under 20 years after Jesus’ death. The letter attributed to Jesus’ brother James may be even earlier than this – possibly the mid to late 40’s AD.

Secondly, today’s historians are of the view that the Gospels and the New Testament letters we read today are largely identical to what was originally written.

There is undoubtedly debate among scholars about the accuracy of some of the events in the Gospels and some of the words spoken by Jesus. However, this is a focus on detail. The consensus view is that the Gospels provide a generally accurate picture of Jesus’ ministry – and of Jesus thinking and acting as if He was the Son of God.

Liar, Lunatic or Lord? (or Just Wrong?)

In his book “Mere Christianity” CS Lewis said the following about Jesus (sometimes called “The Trilemma”):

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.

The historical evidence shows Jesus thinking and acting as if He was the Son of God. If He wasn’t the Son of God, then He was either mad – or a terrible, malicious liar (given the disruption and persecution heaped on those who followed Him).

We have four detailed accounts of Jesus mission in the Gospels which historians tell us are pretty accurate. Do we see any hints of evidence of Jesus behaving like a lunatic or a malicious, pathological liar? Read the Gospels for yourself and see what you think.

You’ll notice I added a fourth option to the heading above. This is because some non-Christians dismiss CS Lewis’ trilemma by saying that Jesus was in some way honestly mistaken (or just wrong) that He was the Son of God. The argument is that people are wrong about all kinds of things in their lives. Why not Jesus about this?

The issue here is what you’re honestly mistaken about.

I’m sure you’ve been honestly mistaken about things in your life. It doesn’t necessarily make you mad. However, there are some things that you can be honestly mistaken about (like thinking you’re a poached egg or thinking you’re the Son of God) that also require you to have a screw loose.

In short, if you think you’re God then you’re either mad – or you are God.

Further, if you think you are God and, like Jesus, are prepared to do something about it by going on a mission that collects followers, challenges the established religious order and ends up getting you killed, then you really are mad – or God.

Conclusion

In an article of this size, I’m never going to cover the wealth of evidence pointing to Jesus being the Son of God. For example, I haven’t even touched on over 300 Old Testament prophesies fulfilled by Jesus – many of which couldn’t have been fulfilled by Jesus (the man) deliberately setting out to make sure He fulfilled them.

I also haven’t touched on the mass of evidence pointing to Jesus’ Resurrection being a historical event.

If what you’ve just read is too superficial, I’d suggest you do what I did before I became a follower of Jesus. Do your own research. There are plenty of books and online videos to check out. I’ve made a few book suggestions at the end of this article. For a summary of this evidence, there’s also the “Jesus: The Evidence” booklet – available as a free download or hard copy from the website jesustheevidence.com.


Photo of Derek MacIntyre

Derek McIntyre was an atheist until he read and considered the evidence for the life of Jesus. He lives in Scotland, and works in the water industry, and runs the website, Jesus the Evidence.

Further Reading 

EP Sanders “The Historical Figure of Jesus” (1995 Penguin Books)

Geza Vermes: “The Changing Faces of Jesus (2001 Penguin Books)

Geza Vermes: “The Passion” (2005 Penguin Books)

Geza Vermes: “The Resurrection” (2008 Penguin Books)

Dale Allison Jr: “Constructing Jesus” (2010 SPCK)

Maurice Casey: Jesus of Nazareth (2010 T&T Clark International)

Luke Timothy Johnston: “The New Testament – A Very Short Introduction” (2010 Oxford University Press)

James Beilby (Editor): The Historical Jesus: Five Views (2010 SPCK)

Jesus: The Evidence booklet. Available at jesustheevidence.com