Was Jesus just a myth?

Was Jesus simply a mythical figure--a fabrication by religious zealots who wanted a symbol to rally behind for whatever reason they needed at the time? Or, was Jesus an actual person who lived in Israel 2000 years ago? Most often, those who deny Jesus as a historic figure denounce the New Testament writings, particularly the gospels, as fabrications or highly-embellished stories passed down through the years. They must do this; otherwise, they would have to acknowledge that Jesus lived.

In reality, a person must then ignore a great deal of evidence establishing the historic accuracy of the gospels. In other words, the Bible alone is sufficient evidence that Jesus lived whether or not the critics want to admit it. But making this claim doesn't establish it as fact. So, let's look at reasons why Jesus is not a mythical creation but an actual man who lived in Israel.

The Gospels as history--date of authorship

According to the Christian church, the four Gospels were written by the apostles and/or those under the direction of the apostles of Jesus. That means that they were written under direction of eyewitnesses of the actual events. Also, none of the gospels mention the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70. This is significant because Jesus had prophesied concerning the temple when He said "As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down." (Luke 21:6, see also Matt. 24:2; Mark 13:2). If the gospels had been written after that date and if they were fabrications, then surely they would have contained the account of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple which are known historical facts. Yet, Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain no such information. Luke was written before Acts (Acts 1:1). The book of Acts is a history of the Christian church, which doesn't mention the fall of Jerusalem either; nor does it record the deaths of Paul, James, and Peter which all happened in the early 60's. This means that Acts was written at least by A.D. 62, and Luke was written before that. Therefore, the time between the events and the writings is around 30 years. This further means that eyewitnesses were around who could have corrected any statements written in the gospels. Yet, we have absolutely no corrective or contradictory writings from that time, from anyone, denying the accounts of the gospels. For more information on this please see When were the gospels written and by whom?

Therefore, we can conclude that the gospels were written well before the close of the first century.

The Gospels as history--historical content

The gospels do not have the sense of myth. If anything, they are written as eyewitness' accounts. Consider the first four verses of the gospel of Luke which clearly states that it is a researched document.

  • Luke 1:1-4, "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught."

This is not how myths are made. This is how you uncover evidence and record it. Luke examined the witnesses, interviewed them, and checked out the facts.

In Luke 2:1-2, we have historically verifiable information: "Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria." Also, see Luke 3:1-2, "Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 2in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness." We clearly see numerous historical statements that have been verified through archaeology. This is precise record keeping--not extravagant additions. In fact, "Sir William Ramsey has shown that in making reference to 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands he made no mistakes!"1 Sir William Ramsey (1851-1939) was a classical scholar and archaeologist. He taught at Oxford England, Aberdeen. He authored several scholarly books dealing with archaeology and had a major influence upon it as a science.

Nevertheless, there are many verifiable things found in the gospel accounts.

  1. Herod, king of Judea, (Matt. 14:1; Luke 1:5).
  2. Herodias, the wife of Herod's brother Philip, (Matt. 14:3).
  3. Pool of Bethesda, (John 5:2).
  4. Pool of Siloam, (John 9:7).
  5. etc.

There are many many more citations verified by archaeology that demonstrate the accuracy of the gospels. When they mention events dealing with rulers, places, events like a census, who was governor, etc., they are all accurate historically.

The Gospels as history--accuracy of transmission

A very important issue is whether or not the Gospels have been accurately transmitted from the original writings down to the copies that we have today. Yes, they have been accurately transmitted to us. The truth is that the New Testament documents are 99.5% textually pure. This means that only 1/2 of 1% of all the documents--of all the copies in
existence--has any question about the text. If this is compared to any other ancient writing, the New Testament comes out way ahead. See Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability for more information on this.

Nevertheless, the accuracy is really even greater than 99.5%. The reason is that many of the copies that have spelling errors, minor word omissions and additions, etc., are copied; and those copies contain those various minor errors. So, for example, if one manuscript has "Jesus Christ" and it is copied only as "Jesus," then the following MSS will contain only the word "Jesus" where other manuscripts might contain "Jesus Christ." All that is needed is to look at an older copy than all of them, and the error is cleared up. Therefore, we can easily know what the original said.
Also, if 10 copies contain the same copying error, then the total number of copies with error increases. But in reality by tracing the text back through parent manuscripts that are uncovered to archeology, we can uncover manuscripts that shed light on which rendering is correct.

Following is a partial chart detailing various copies of various ancient writings. It should be obvious that the New Testament documents are extremely well-preserved. Therefore, if the New Testament cannot be considered reliable, then neither can any of the other writings listed below.

Author2 Date
Written
Earliest Copy Approximate Time Span between original & copy

Number of Copies

Accuracy of Copies
Plato 427-347 B.C. A.D. 900 1200 yrs 7 ----
Caesar 100-44 B.C. A.D. 900 1000 10 ----
Aristotle 384-322 B.C. A.D. 1100 1400 49 ----
Homer 900 B.C. 400 B.C. 500 yrs 643 95%
New
Testament
1st Cent. A.D. (A.D. 50-100 approx.
c. A.D. 130
less than 100 years 5600
(in Greek)
99.5%

*For a larger, more complete chart please see Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability.

Miscellaneous Information

Noted Oxford expert on literature and myths, C. S. Lewis, said, "I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this [the Gospels]."2

Regarding the gospel of Mark. "A date before A.D. 50 leaves no time for mythological embellishment of the records. They would have to be accepted as historical."3 "New Testament books appeared within the lifetime of eyewitnesses and contemporaries. Luke was written by about 60, only twenty-seven years after Jesus' death, before Acts in 60-62 (see Hemer, all). First Corinthians was written by 55-56, only twenty-two or twenty-three years after Jesus' death (cf. 1 Cor. 15:6-8). Even radical New Testament scholar John A. T. Robinson dates basic Gospel records between 40 and 60 . . . there is no time or way for a legend to develop while the eyewitnesses were still alive to refute the story."4

Conclusion

There is no reason to doubt the reality of Jesus as a historic figure. The gospel accounts are four different accounts from four different people. They were penned by either eyewitnesses or under the direction of the eyewitnesses. These same gospels were distributed throughout the region very quickly, and we have no account anywhere on any of the contemporaries attempting to refute any of the facts written in them--including those accounts dealing with the miracles of Jesus.

In order for Jesus to be a myth, it would have to be shown that the gospel accounts were highly embellished and inaccurately copied and transmitted. But, considering that there are other, non-biblical accounts mentioning Jesus, it would be very difficult for anyone to demonstrate that He never lived.

  • 1. Geisler, N. L., and Thomas A. Howe, When Critics Ask : A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1992, p. 384.
  • 2. Lewis, C. S., Christian Reflections, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967, 154-55, cited in Geisler, N. L., and A. Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent in Light of the Cross,  2nd ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 2002, p. 244.
  • 3. Geisler, N. L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999, p. 188.
  • 4. Ibid., p. 518.

 

 

 

 
 
CARM ison