Our children’s library contains many different books, recounting the adventures of various characters like: The Gruffalo, Superworm, The Monkey Who Lost His Mum, The Whale and the Snail, Thomas the Tank Engine, and many others. We also have a collection of beautifully illustrated books about the Bible, retelling stories about Jesus.
Now, you probably have never lost any sleep over the question: Does the Gruffalo actually exist? Of course, not – we recognise that it belongs the realm of fiction. However, have you ever wondered if Jesus actually existed in fact? That’s a question that has consumed a significant portion of my life and the lives of countless others for almost two millennia.
The good news is that it’s a question we can answer beyond reasonable doubt. Even the agnostic professor of the New Testament Bart Erhman begins one of his popular books: “The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist”.
We have as much reason to believe that, as we do to believe that Caesar Tiberius existed. There are 10 sources for his existence recorded within 150 years of his life (one of which is a Christian source); while there are 42 sources for Jesus’ existence in the same period (9 of which are non-Christian sources).
In his book “Is Jesus History?” the historian John Dickson takes the reader on a guided tour of those ancient sources that corroborate much of the Bible’s testimony about Jesus. For example: two mentions in the Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 18:3, 20:9); one mention from the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 15:44); as well as mentions from critics who record not only the existence of Jesus but also that Christians worshipped Jesus as God from the earliest of times:
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account” (Lucian)
“Now if the Christians worshipped only one God they might have reason on their side. But as a matter of fact they worship a man who appeared only recently. They do not consider what they are doing a breach of monotheism; rather they think it perfectly consistent to worship the great God and to worship his servant as God… When they call him Son of God, they are not really paying homage to God, rather, they are attempting to exalt Jesus to the heights” (Celsus)
So, without any further commitment, it is reasonable to conclude with a high degree of probability that Jesus really did exist. The more interesting question is why some 2000 years later should we care that he existed, any more than we care about the Caesars?
The philosopher Peter Kreeft paints a picture that helps us see how remarkable it is that we remember Jesus at all:
“He never entered politics, never fought a battle, and never wrote a book. He lived in a backwater nation, never went more than one hundred miles of his home, and was executed by crucifixion as a dangerous criminal. His moral teachings were not completely new. Nearly every piece of advice he gave us about how to live can be found in his own Jewish tradition, as well as in the philosophies of others. What caused his unparalleled impact?” (Peter Kreeft).
To answer this question, we need to consult the primary historical sources of those who witnessed the life of Jesus, who watched Him perform divine acts, who heard Him claim to be a divine person. For example, you could take an hour or two to read the shortest and earliest of the gospels – The Gospel According to Mark.
Mark’s pre-eminent question is: WHO IS JESUS? He starts off by telling us the answer, which he will seek to persuade us of throughout the rest of his book: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). At the centre of the book, there is a conversation between Peter and Jesus where Jesus asks “And who do you say I am?” and Peter replies with his marvellous confession: “You are the Christ” (8:29). Also, near the end, Mark records a Roman centurion who witnessed the death of Jesus: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (15:39). Mark’s gospel is all about identifying Jesus.
In this first half of the gospel, Mark takes us breathlessly through a series of action packed stories of Jesus. If you simply skim through these early pages of the gospel you’ll see Jesus:
- 1:21-28: Jesus liberates people suffering from demonic oppression
- 1:29-34: Jesus heals people suffering from diseases
- 2:1-12: Jesus forgives people of their sins and offences against God
- 4:35-41: Jesus calms a storm at sea
- 5:21-42: Jesus heals a woman from an incurable illness and raises a little girl from the dead
Mark wants us to see the good news that Jesus can overcome over the greatest threats to human flourishing: natural disasters, demons, diseases, and death. Mark also wants to show us that Jesus not only claims to be God, but does things that only God could do!
At the climax of the gospel, Jesus is arrested and sentenced to death for the crime of blasphemy – of claiming to be the Son of God. Jesus should have been just another forgotten victim of Roman brutality – another failed Messiah. However, in the final chapter of Mark’s gospel we read the account of the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead – vindicating His claims to be the Son of God and the Lord of life.
Strangely, however, Mark ends on a minor key: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (16:8). Obviously, that’s not the end of the story – more happened afterwards. But the question is why does Mark end this way? It seems Mark is wanting to draw you, the reader, into the story. He’s challenging you – now that you know who Jesus is – it’s your job to respond to the story and then you need to go and tell.