by Matt Slick
There are different definitions for proof. There are proofs in mathematics and logic. There is proof that you love someone. Proof is sometimes based on evidence, reasoning, certification, facts, or reasonable demonstration of the truth, but to prove that a historical figure existed is very difficult. Basically, the best we can do is provide evidence and leave it up to the individual to consider whether or not the evidence is sufficient. That is what we do with the whole of historical figures like Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, King George III, etc. People have no problem believing they existed, but when it comes to Jesus, suddenly a different standard is offered. Even though the historical evidence for Plato and Aristotle is in written form - and people have no problem with that - when it comes to the same standard for Jesus, many people won’t accept it. Why the double standard?
I get different answers from different people when I ask them what would be sufficient evidence that Jesus existed. No two answers have ever been the same. Many ask for the impossible, like a film or a lab experiment. Some have asked me to prove Jesus existed without using the Bible. For many, they want objective proof that will satisfy their personal preferences. That is the problem.
How do we prove a historical person existed beyond any doubt? Can we prove that Alexander the Great, or Plato, or Socretes all existed? All we have are ancient manuscripts that mention them and claim to be copies of copies of their writings. Yet, most people don’t have any problem believing they existed. However, when it comes to Jesus, suddenly things are different. I have never once encountered an atheist who argues that Alexander the Great, Plato, and Socrates never existed. It is only Jesus whom they attack as a historical figure. Why? I believe it is because of the claims of Christ, as recorded in the Gospels, are so incredible that atheists must reject Christ altogether. Alexander the Great and Plato don’t challenge their atheism. Jesus does.
But back to the topic. What is the evidence?
The evidence is primarily the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and the various epistles written by those who claim to have been with Christ, i.e., Romans, Hebrews, James, Jude, etc.
Still, some will say these documents are not reliable or they are fabrications, written too long after the fact. Therefore, they don’t constitute proof. Even though it’s difficult to argue with someone’s ignorance and fervent belief when denying Christ, it doesn’t mean we can’t present some basic evidence.
First of all, New Testament documents were written shortly after the life of Christ. Jesus died around the year 33 A.D. The book of Acts, for example, is a history book of the early church. It does not record the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., nor does it record the deaths of Peter and Paul which occurred around 60 A.D. Why would such incredibly important events not be recorded in a book that deals with documenting significant events in the early Christian church? The most logical answer is that the book of Acts was written before they occurred. That puts the book’s date around 60 A.D. or prior. This is significant because Luke wrote the book of Acts, and the gospel of Luke was written prior to Acts. So, maybe that was around 55 A.D. The book of Matthew was written before the book of Luke. Maybe that was around 50 A.D. Mark was written earlier than that, maybe 45 A.D. Jesus was crucified in 33 A.D. That means there was about a 12 year gap between the event and when it was first recorded. Plus, the apostles were all still around when Mark, Luke, and Matthew were written, and we have no record anywhere of the disciples who were then living saying the Gospels were incorrect in any way.
In addition, the Gospel accounts are very accurately transmitted from then to now. Let me illustrate something. When a Gospel was written, it was copied very carefully by scribes. Their living depended on their accuracy and competency in making copies. These copies would be disseminated throughout the Mediterranean area. So, for example, one copy of the gospel of Matthew was sent to one area, and another copy was sent somewhere else hundreds and hundreds of miles away. Then copies of those copies would be made with the same meticulous precision. Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of such copies, and they have compared them. The New Testament documents are better than 99.5% textually pure. That means less than one half of 1% of the copies, 5000 of them, have any textual variation in their copying. That is incredible and far more accurate than anything dealing with Plato, Socrates, etc.
So, is this evidence sufficient to demonstrate reasonably that Christ existed? It depends on the person’s presuppositions. If he or she is already leaning towards denying Christ’s existence, then this evidence would not be sufficient. But if another person was open to the historical evidence and did not have a leaning either way, the evidence can be easily sufficient.
We can’t prove absolutely that Jesus existed, but we can give sufficient evidence, the biblical Gospels, to show that he was an actual historical figure. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you accept or reject the evidence. Once you do that, then you have to face what Jesus said about himself in the Gospels.