Historical Jesus

What year is it? Whichever year it is when you read this, it represents the number of years since the birth of Jesus Christ1. Its a calendar system that is used by the vast majority of nations across the globe, from the de facto international standard Gregorian Calendar. The AD you often see in front of the current date in fact means “In the Year of Our Lord”2.

Historical Facts of Jesus Christ

While the year is a huge historical stamp of truth to the significance of the event it represents, it doesn’t by itself establish the historicity of Christ. What may come as a surprise to many is that even the most anti-Christian, progressive, liberal scholars agree that the following are well-established historical facts:

  • Jesus Christ was a real historical figure3.
  • Jesus Christ claimed to be God in the flesh (the Son of the triune God). 4
  • Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and was buried.5
  • The tomb Jesus Christ had been buried in was empty several days later6.
  • Numerous witnesses claimed to have seen the risen Christ7.
  • The disciples transformed from doubting cowards to courageous advocates.8
  • Skeptics James (Jesus’ brother) and Paul, who had persecuted Christians, later converted to Christianity. 9

These are all overwhelmingly considered facts of history by even the most anti-Christian scholars. Where critics most often try to find weakness is by challenging the reason why the tomb was empty. To challenge any of the other facts above exposes the critic as a charlatan among his own peers since the facts are so well-established. So let’s look at the empty tomb.

Empty Tomb – The Jewish View

Both historically recorded in the Bible, and admitted by Jews today, is their contention that Jesus’ disciples stole the body to promote their religion (Matt 28:13-15). But this has always been a weak argument given that 1) the tomb was guarded by highly trained Roman guards, 2) the tomb was given the official Roman seal, so it would be punishable by death for anyone to steal from the tomb, or for the guards to allow it to happen, and 3) numerous eye-witness accounts of a risen Jesus’ after the crucifixion.

Empty Tomb – Islamic View

It should first be noted that Muslims, obviously very zealous opposers of Christianity, firmly believe that Jesus existed, but only as a “Messenger of Allah”. Muslim scholars insist that Jesus was not resurrected, which is a key tenet of Christianity. They instead propose that he either did not really die on the cross, or that God transformed a person to look just like Jesus and this look-alike was crucified on the cross. Christ was then taken into heaven after meeting with his disciples after the crucifixion of his look-alike. This is of course a just-so story that does not jive with any of the surrounding historical evidence, especially the numerous written records of the many disciples who went to their grave teaching that Christ rose from the dead. This shows that Muslim scholars have no real answer for the empty tomb.

Empty Tomb – Liberal View

There have been many secular attempts to explain away the empty tomb, perhaps the most infamous being the Passover Plot10. To make a silly story short, Jesus purportedly had laid out an elaborate plan to be given a drug while on the cross to make himself appear dead even though he wasn’t. He planned it so that when he asked a follower to quench his thirst, the collaborator would instead given him the play-dead drug. Joseph of Arimathea would then take him down from the cross, and after he later recovered he could walk around and tell everyone he had risen from the dead. The plot was foiled when the Roman guard pierced him in the side with the spear. I would hope the reader recognizes the sheer desperation of such a story, which only bolsters the argument for an empty tomb.

The stone being rolled away from Jesus' tomb.Research from renowned historian and New Testament scholar Dr. Gary Habermas reveals that

“a strong majority of contemporary critical scholars seems to support, at least to some extent, the view that Jesus was buried in a tomb that was subsequently discovered to be empty.”6

So my question to remaining skeptics is this –  if you dispute that the facts support an empty tomb, why is it so easy to find scholars friendly to your point-of-view, that is, hostile to Christianity, who admit that the historical evidence does in fact favor an empty tomb?

There is no other historical figure of any religion that can even remotely come close to the long list of strong evidences that not only show that Jesus Christ was a real historical person, but that He also is who He claims to be, God in human form.

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  1. There is actually some debate on the exact year, but the point is that the year is intended to reflect the time since Jesus’s birth.
  2. In more recent times many now use C.E. for “Common Era” and B.C.E. for “Before Common Era” for politically correct reasons. There are few exceptions to nations who use a different calendar system. Its probably no surprise the small exceptions list includes Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
  3. For example, from secular Wikipedia, “…with very few exceptions, such critics generally do support the historicity of Jesus” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicity_of_Jesus.
  4. The vast majority of support for this comes from the Bible itself (e.g. Mark 14.61-64) , but there is also extra Biblical evidence, such as from the famous Jewish Historian Josephus who referred to “”the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ.” – Josephus, Antiquities xx. 200
  5. “The baptism of Jesus and his crucifixion are considered to be two historically certain facts about Jesus.” – Wikipedia, numerous citations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion_of_Jesus.
  6. The Empty Tomb of Jesus, by Dr Gary Habermas provides 20 solid reasons why history demands that the tomb was indeed empty.
  7. The Bible refers to many witnesses in 1 Cor. 15:3-8.  Studies done by A. N. Sherwin-White, a scholar of ancient Roman and Greek history at Oxford, showed that it would take more than two generations for myth and legend to distort the historical facts in any meaningful way. New Testament scholar and skeptic Gerd Lüdemann admits that “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” (What Really Happened?, p. 80). Famous atheist Antony Flew (who late in life renounced atheism), also acknowledged while he was still an atheist that the disciples witnessed a risen Christ.
  8. See Acts 4:13. People may be willing to die for something they know to be true, but not for something they know to be false.
  9. Obviously the greatest evidence for Paul and his conversion is the wide textual and archaeological evidence for the accounts given in the Bible, and from the letters of the early church fathers. There is also extra-biblical evidence for James from Josephus who mentions “”James the brother of Jesus” as a person who was stoned for his beliefs (Antiquities of the Jews , Book 20, Chapter 9, 1).
  10. Schonfield, Hugh Joseph (1965). The Passover Plot: a New Interpretation of the Life and Death of Jesus.