The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

What is the Physical Evidence for the Existence of Jesus?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 21, 2011

The Easter season is upon us, and members of the world’s most populace religion – Christianity – will be celebrating the traditional event that serves as the foundation of their beliefs: the supposed death & resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Now, I’m not really interested in getting into all the philosophical & metaphysical questions regarding the beliefs of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ here.  Rather, I am more interested in asking a much more direct question: did Jesus actually exist as a historical figure?

To address this question, and the related issues which are presented in a (pardon the pun) newly risen branch of theological discourse called the Jesus/Christ myth theory, we must take into account the physical evidence (or lack thereof) for the existence of Jesus.

To address these questions, I would like to reference this excellent article from LiveScience.com:

Jesus Christ the Man: Does the Physical Evidence Hold Up?

Jesus Christ may be the most famous man who ever lived. But how do we know he did?

Most theological historians, Christian and non-Christian alike, believe that Jesus really did walk the Earth. They draw that conclusion from textual evidence in the Bible, however, rather than from the odd assortment of relics parading as physical evidence in churches all over Europe.

That’s because, from fragments of text written on bits of parchment to overly abundant chips of wood allegedly salvaged from his crucifix, none of the physical evidence of Jesus’ life and death hold up to scientific scrutiny.  [Who Was Jesus, the Man?]…

This is a particularly interesting point that I think some Christians need to address.  Many insist that the world around us provides evidence for their beliefs: that God is real, and Jesus died for our sins to save us, etc.  However, when we really analyze the world around us to address questions such as “Did Jesus really exist?” the evidence seems lacking; and then those same believers dismiss this lack of evidence and then proceed to point to the Bible as “evidence”.  People who argue in such a manner are not being consistent in their argument nor are they being intellectually honest, because they want to stack the deck of evidence, so to speak.

[**Addendum (4-22-11): Even for those who wish to try gathering all of their “evidence” for the historical reality of Jesus from the Bible, there are very troublesome inconsistencies.  To see why, try taking this Easter Quiz on the Biblical account of Jesus’s death & resurrection over at Skeptic Money]

So let’s talk about the supposed physical evidence for the existence of Jesus, and see just why it is that it doesn’t pass muster.  For example, a recent “documentary” claimed that the original nails used to crucify Jesus on the cross could have been found, but according to the LiveScience.com article…

… In their coverage of the new film, Reuters reported that most experts and scholars they contacted dismissed the filmmaker’s case as far-fetched and called it a publicity stunt.

It turns out publicity stunts abound when it comes to holy hardware. In 1911, English liturgical scholar Herbert Thurston counted all the nails that were at that time believed to have been used to crucify Jesus. Though only three or four nails (the exact number is up for debate) were supposed to have pinned Christ to the cross circa A.D. 30, in 1911, 30 holy nails were being venerated in treasuries across Europe.

In an entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Thurston, a Jesuit himself, offered this explanation for the surplus in hardware: “Probably the majority began by professing to be facsimiles which had touched or contained filings from some other nail whose claim was more ancient. Without conscious fraud on the part of anyone, it is very easy for imitations in this way to come in a very brief space of time to be reputed originals.”

Along similar lines, enough wood chips from the “True Cross” – the cross on which Jesus was crucified – are scattered across Europe to fill a ship, according to this famous remark by the sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin: “There is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen. In some places, there are large fragments, as at the Holy Chapel in Paris, at Poitiers, and at Rome, where a good-sized crucifix is said to have been made of it. In brief, if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big shipload. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.” …

Wow.  So apparently, if everyone who makes such claims is to be believed, Jesus wasn’t crucified upon a single cross but an entire fleet of ships!

Okay, but what about the funeral blanket that covered Jesus’s body after he died – also known more famously as the Shroud of Turin?  Well, it ends up that the claims of the Shroud’s authenticity deserve some critical analysis (as I’ve outlined in a previous blog post)…

… Perhaps the most famous religious relic in the world, the Shroud of Turin, is believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus. The 14-by-4-foot linen blanket, which bears the ghostly image of a man’s body, has been worshipped by millions of pilgrims in a cathedral in Turin, Italy. But scientifically speaking, the Shroud of Turin is a fake.

Radiocarbon dating of the shroud has revealed that it does not date to the time of Christ but instead to the 14th century; coincidentally, that’s when it first appeared in the historical record. In a document written in 1390, Bishop Pierre d’Arcis of France claimed the image of Jesus on the cloth was “cunningly painted,” a fact “attested by the artist who painted it.”

Today, the Catholic Church does not officially endorse the Shroud of Turin as authentic, though many of the faithful, including Pope Benedict, have indicated that they personally believe in its holiness. …

So while the Catholic Church doesn’t “officially” state the Shroud is authentic, they also have their highest officials state publicly they believe it to be the real thing and don’t encourage any sort of critical thought one way or the other on the matter.  Man, talk about trying to have it both ways… but I suppose when you’re concerned about putting asses into church pews (and therefore money into the collection plate) you’ll use whatever sloppy thinking you can get.

What about those recently-discovered lead books which are supposedly windows into the early history of Christianity?  Well, surprise, it seems the media hype (and accompanying religious fervor) may not be living up to scrutiny…

… Seventy metal books allegedly discovered in a cave in Jordan were hailed in recent weeks as the earliest Christian documents. Dating them to mere decades after Jesus’ death, scholars called the “lead codices” (they’re written in code and cast in lead) the most important discovery in archaeological history. Even BBC News stated: “Never has there been a discovery of relics on this scale from the early Christian movement, in its homeland and so early in its history.”

Christians took the books to be proof of the real-life existence of Jesus, because one page displayed an image of him. Nearby, a fragment of text reading “I shall walk uprightly” was interpreted by many as a reference to Jesus’ resurrection — strong evidence that it actually happened, coming so soon after the fact.

But as Life’s Little Mysteries reported, the lead codices are fakes — a jumble of anachronistic dialects and borrowed images probably forged within the past 50 years. “The image they are saying is Christ is the sun god Helios from a coin that came from the island of Rhodes,” Oxford archaeologist Peter Thonemann told the press. “There are also some nonsense inscriptions in Hebrew and Greek.” The main scholar who had been backing their authenticity was later revealed to be a fringe thinker with no real credentials. …

Oops, that’s embarrassing.

So a great deal of the physical evidence which supposedly testifies to the historical reality of Jesus Christ is either misrepresented, fraudulent, or of stunningly poor scholarship.  Not only that, but then there’s the evidence which is reasonably authentic but which cannot lead the experts in the field to agreeable conclusions…

… One of the most important archaeological finds that actually dates to the time of Jesus may or may not provide evidence of his existence, depending on who you ask. The Dead Sea Scrolls, a vast trove of parchment and papyrus documents found in a cave in Israel in the 1940s, were written sometime between 150 B.C. and A.D. 70. In one place, the scrolls refer to a “teacher of righteousness.” Some say that teacher is Jesus. Others argue that he could be anyone. …

… Before Jesus was crucified, the Gospels say, Roman soldiers placed a crown of thorns on his head in a painful mockery of his sovereignty. Many Christians believe the thorny instrument of torture still exists today, albeit in pieces scattered across Europe. One near-complete crown is housed in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The documented history of Notre Dame’s Crown of Thorns goes back at least 16 centuries — an impressive provenance — but it doesn’t quite trace back to A.D. 30. Furthermore, as Nickell points out, Notre Dame’s crown is a circlet of brush, and is completely devoid of thorns. …

Okay, so – outside of the Bible – the best physical evidence presented so far that Jesus actually existed as a historical figure is inconclusive when examined by experts in the field?  Wow, that’s not really a very strong argument, is it?

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18 Responses to “What is the Physical Evidence for the Existence of Jesus?”

  1. Chris said

    There was an interesting interview on Point of Inquiry about a month ago with Frank Zindler (3/7/11) who attacked another of the pillars that the historical Jesus seems to stand upon. His research shows that neither Nazareth nor Bethlehem existed as towns during the supposed time of Jesus. He also has investigated every supposed Old Testament reference to Jesus and has shown that none say what Christians claim they say.

    The historicity of Jesus could be supported by physical evidence, which you rightly point out is insubstantial. The biblical evidence also is late and self-referential, so provides no more support for a historical Jesus than Homer’s Odyssey provides for a historical Cyclops.

    Bart Ehrman has very well demonstrated that the current New Testament is far from a consistent or reliable historical work, but is instead replete with re-writes and edits, intended to conform to the accepted christology of the copiers and editors.

    However, the remaining fall-back position has always been to question “then where did Christianity come from?” This last, I think, is well addressed by Earl Doherty’s that demonstrates that even the New Testament writings originally directly referred to a mythical, spiritual Jesus and not a bodily, physical person.

    I’m convinced. It’ll be interesting if the idea catches on.

    However…

    I worry that the methods used to attack a historical Jesus — of picking apart individual details, while possibly ignoring overall bodies of evidence — falls into a similar category as do global climate change denial and attacks on evolution. I’ve got to do a little more thinking on this to be sure I’m not just suffering from confirmation bias.

  2. Chris said

    I suppose my html tagging didn’t go as planned. Let’s try that again. The link was to Earl Doherty’s (I think I left off the ending “>” symbol)

    Am I a denialist like those who deny global warming, evolution, the holocaust, etc? Or is this different?

  3. Chris said

    One more try: The Jesus Puzzle”

    (feel free to delete these two and provide a courtesy edit of my original post)

  4. Blamer .. said

    Also one ought to mention as a baseline the level of physical evidence we have for other more plausable persons thought to have lived circa 0 BCE.

  5. Christ Crucifixion site and the Ark of the Covenant found burred under a trash pile in Jerusalem.

    http://arkofthecovenant2.blogspot.com/

  6. John said

    My curiosity is peaked in the New Testament writer’s motivation (multiple) . Knowing that the writers of the new testament were either eye witness OR scribes of eye witnesses… they had a choice to make. They could believe what they were hearing and write it down, or they could make up a religion. Regardless, these writers were stoned, beaten, and killed for writing such “blasphemies.” So why would they suffer pains worse than death over something they knew wasn’t true? I feel like if they really didn’t know Jesus, or didn’t believe at ALL what they were being told… then it would be ridiculous to continue to encourage such beliefs that caused deadly harm to all who claimed it. Thoughts? I don’t know if you would consider “martyrdom” a physical evidence?

    • mattusmaximus said

      What evidence do you have to support your assertion that the New Testament writers were eye witnesses or scribes of eye witnesses? Our best evidence to date suggests the NT books were written decades after the supposed life of Jesus.

      • How are “decades” long enough to put someone out of the loop, so to speak? Is 30 years really so long? I know it’s not “concrete evidence” but I have always thought that the martyrdom of the apostles was some good, hard evidence when it came to quite a few things.

        There is a letter from Clement, of Rome in the 1st century where he writes of the martyrdom of Peter. This man died for something. If not a living, breathing man who at least effected his life in such a way he would give it up gladly (we are not discussing his divinity), than what did he die for? And Paul’s death is discussed in this letter as well. That is documentation outside of the bible.

  7. Storm said

    There is bound to be little, if any, physical evidence of anyone who lived that long ago. We all obviously have ancestors who lived thousands of years ago or we wouldn’t be here today. Do you have physical evidence of them? Unlikely. The lack of 100% authenticated physical evidence does not in any way disprove that Jesus lived. That’s partly the reason it is called “faith”. True faith is believing in something despite the physical “proof”.

  8. I am pretty convinced that there was a historical Jesus. He surfaces in non-Christian sources, markedly Josephus and Tacitus. That there is not much more evidence for him (as compared to, let’s say, Julius Caesar) is probably because, at the time of his predication, he was definitely no big deal for the Romans or even for the Jews. He was perceived as one in a long line of Jewish agitators/messiahs that variously combined the prophet, the king and the magician. An instructive comparison is with Simon Magus.
    There is a whole Wikipedia page about them http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Messiah_claimants
    This one “Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times” by Howard Clark Kee, 1988 is a nice scholarly book on the topic.
    Likewise, there are not many historical sources about the early times of Christianity (outside of Christian texts like the Acts of the Apostles) because the early times of Christianity were no great shakes. It was a minority religion, popular among the lower classes, one of a bunch of funny soteric/mysteric cults that were running around at the time, like Mithraism. They became interesting only when they became sources of popular unrest by refusing to recognize the authorities or by attempting to destroy other people’s temples.
    It is a typical fallacy of Christian apologetes to present their belief system as a unique, unprecedented one: there were other comparable ones, but Christianity definitely succeeded in the market of ideas.

    Of course, that there was a historical person that was born, preached and then was crucified under Pontius Pilate tells us very little about the rest of the Christian belief package.

  9. skuyy said

    Test your faith. Read entire link. You may never believe in God again.

  10. George said

    Oh yee of little faith. How lonely and cold the world must seem without it. By grace, even you have been saved. You “are” only because God wanted it so. I pray you someday find your heart open to His mystery and accept His miraculous gift of love.

  11. Raven said

    I have discovered my “beliefs” to be in line with that of an agnostic. So I will point out before I ask anything, that I am genuinely interested in answers to my questions and I am unbiased at this point…. There are people today who would be willing to die for their beliefs. There are also people that would kill for their beliefs. Because these individuals were willing to die for their beliefs does that make their beliefs any more valid? Is there anybody you know personally that are willing to die for their beliefs? If a catholic, Buddhist, Mormon or other was willing to die for their belief would that make you believe their claims?

    • No Raven it would not. Insane people die for their beliefs too. All I know is that I do believe in God but am on the fence now about Jesus and I have been a Christian for over 20 years. I just want to the truth. Believing in a 2000 year old lie is all by itself insanity and makes all of us who died believing and living believing absolutely insane. If no one has watched the Zeigist you should. If you have netflix watch it. It will make you rethink everything you’ve ever believed because the truth can be traced all the way back to the pyramids.

  12. topinfoguy said

    It is such a pity that neither those who think of Jesus as real, nor those who think of Jesus as a myth, are willing to be interested in actual proof of the true existence of Jesus Christ.

    The reasoning behind this is simple, but is also far too lengthy to describe here.

    Go to http://goo.gl/38qhp and click on the flashing words “Watch / Listen”. This takes you on a web page tour of such proof of Jesus Christ’s/God’s existence, and does so via automatic web page scrolling along with complete audio coverage. It lasts about 10 minutes.

  13. Justin said

    If we had all the evidence in the world… Wouldn’t “faith” be pointless? Isn’t that all that is required?

  14. If we had all the evidence in the world…AND WE REJECTED IT… that means that we reject Jesus Christ, we reject God.

    Again, go to http://goo.gl/38qhp and click on the flashing words “Watch / Listen”. This takes you on a web page tour of such proof of Jesus Christ’s/God’s existence, and does so via automatic web page scrolling along with complete audio coverage. It lasts about 10 minutes.

    So far, as the years have passed by, everyone rejects the truth of it, thus everyone has rejected Jesus Christ and God.

    This is remarkable since it means total acceptance of the Devil instead.

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