Proving Jesus (a.s.) Existed to an Atheist

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

One of the assertions of atheists is that Jesus’ (a.s.) never existed.  How do we go about showing that at the very least, he was a historical person? We cannot use the Qur’an as a measure since that Revelation came down about 600 years later.  A non-believer would say that the Muslims took from the Christian “myth”.

Jesus (a.s.) is mentioned in early Christian sources; the gospels, the other writings of the New Testament, and the works of the early Church fathers.  He is the main subject of both canonical and apocryphal works.  Because these are Christian sources, their evidence is sometimes discounted by skeptics.  We then look for references in early non-Christian sources that mention Jesus (a.s.).  He is mentioned in the writings of a number of Roman writers who lived in the first century of Common Era.  He is also mentioned in the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus.  Skeptics also raise objections for these sources as well.  They contend  that they do not represent independent evidence for the existence of Jesus (a.s.) because the writers in question only know about Jesus (a.s.) from what they have learned from Christians or the hearsay of the times.  This may or may not be true.  In some cases, some of these writers may have had access to information about Jesus (a.s.) independent of the Christian sects.

If, instead of looking for references to Jesus (a.s.), we consider references to the Christian movement itself, there is greater evidence of it there.  The same sources that refer to Jesus (a.s.) tend to refer to the Christian movement.  Here, we can quickly establish a number of early references to Christianity.  It was mentioned by amongst others, Suetonius, writing around 121 CE; Tacitus, writing around 116 CE, Pliny the Younger, writing in 110 or 111 CE, Emperor Trajan, writing back to Pliny in 110 or 111 CE and, of course, Josephus himself, writing around 93 CE.  The inclusion of Josephus in this list independent of the Testimonium Flavianum found in his “Antiquities”, 18:3:3.  Setting aside that reference, which is partially corrupted, Josephus, elsewhere, referred to Jesus (a.s.) having followers, even noting that he was called “Christ”, in a passage which has no evidence of manuscript corruption, “Antiquities” 20:9:1.  This proves we have multiple references for the existence of a Christian movement that date to the end of the first century and the beginning of the second.  At that time, this movement still comprised of various sometimes competing sects or cults.

These same references indicate a considerable geographical spread for the movement.  Josephus wrote about events in Judaea, which other sources also indicate was the origin point of the movement.  But Suetonius and Tacitus wrote about the movement existing at Rome itself as well.  Pliny the Younger indicated that it was widespread in Bithynia, now northern Turkey.  This wide geographic spread makes it unlikely to have been a fabrication of later times.

These writers wrote of Christianity as a contemporary movement.  This is also indicated by the same sources, placing the origins of Christianity within the first century.  Josephus linked Jesus (a.s.) to his “brother”, James (r.a.), who he said passed away in 62 CE.  Pliny, in his “Letters”, said he was at a loss for how to deal with this religious movement, since it was so new that the protocols of deal with its members was still in the process of being established.  Suetonius specifically said that Christians were a new movement in “The Twelve Caesars”.  Tacitus said in his “Annals” that Jesus (a.s.) was “executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator, Pontius Pilate.”

The earliest Christian sources agree with all this.  They acknowledge that Christianity began in the first century.  This is significant, because it would not be in the early Christians’ interests to claim this.  It is much easier to promote a religion if one can claim an origin in antiquity for it.  Every faith tradition wants to be seen to have a connection to some “ancient” wisdom.  The early Christians did this by pointing to the origins of their movement in Judaism.  Their testimony of a recent origin is credible because if Christianity had been older, they would have claimed that it was older.

Pliny indicated that some of the people he interviewed had been Christians as many as twenty years previously.  Working backward from when he was writing, that would suggest Christians were in Bithynia by 90 CE.  Tacitus and Suetonius both wrote of Christians being in Rome during the reign of Nero, which was from 54 to 68 CE, and Suetonius possibly alluded to them being there during the reign of Claudius, from 41 to 54 CE.

The Gospel according to Luke has this:

Luke 3:1
1 It was in the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius’ reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, when Herod was prince in Galilee, his brother Philip in the Ituraean and Trachonitid region, and Lysanias in Abilina.

The fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar is most likely 28 CE.  All four canonical gospels indicate that the Christian movement began after the ministry of John the Baptist (a.s.) had already begun.  These sources paint a portrait of a rapidly spreading movement.  It, apparently, began in the Roman province of Judaea some time in or after 28 CE.  It spread as far as Rome no later than 54 to 68 CE.  It is likely it was in Rome quite possibly earlier.  And we know it had spread to Bithynia no later than 90 CE.  Allowing for other first and second century sources, it is apparent that Christianity was in other places as well, including Syrian Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Philippi, and many other locations in the Near East.

The rapid spread of Christianity is the clearest indication that it was very organised despite being in its infancy.  This was particularly the case in the ancient world, where travel was slow, difficult, dangerous, and often expensive.  This could only have been the result of a deliberate strategy of evangelisation.  This required significant organisation.  And organisation means they had leaders.

Romans 10:13-15
13 Every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be Saved.  14 Only, how are they to call upon him until they have learned to believe in Him?  And how are they to believe in him, until they listen to him?  And how can they listen, without a preacher to listen to?  15 And how can there be preachers, unless preachers are sent on their errand?  So we read in scripture, “How welcome is the coming of those who tell of peace, who tell of good news.”

Early Christian writings show the movement was organised and how its organisation developed during the first century of its existence.  It was organised into local groups known as churches.  These had local officers including bishops, priests, and deacons.  The churches themselves tended to be founded in the early days by individual apostles and evangelists.  All the sources we have, including the documents of the New Testament, the writings of the early Church Fathers, the Gnostic gospels and related religious writings, indicate that the earliest work was done by “apostles”.  This word is derived from the Greek term, “apostolos”, meaning “someone who has been sent”.

Highly organised movements had founders.  There is often a single figure at its inception who played a key role setting it up, developing its vision, and appointing leaders who carried it forward.  Christianity, as shown above, was from the first century, a geographically diverse organisation that spread rapidly.  It had leaders known as apostles founding local congregations.  And our logical assumption is that it, too, had a founding leader.  Coming full circle then to the writings of the era, that figure was identified as Jesus of Nazareth (a.s.).  All the earliest accounts we have agree that Jesus of Nazareth (a.s.) founded the Christian movement.  He may not have intended it to develop in that manner doctrinally, but he did play some part in gathering followers, appointing leaders amongst them, trained them, and then sent them out as his apostles.  Based on this, we conclude that Jesus of Nazareth (a.s.) existed.


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