Did He Live? Did He Die?

Clarence Darrow is quoted as saying, "I don't believe in God, because I don't believe in Mother Goose."(1) Darrow was certainly a bright person, and I would be unwise to try to question his intelligence by anything I say here. His statement would likely prompt a strong emotional response from many Christians, but part of the reason for that might be–on some level deeper than we normally pay attention to–we fear that he was right. 

As I mentioned in our first post, there is an angle from which we can look at the claims of Christianity and understand how they can be seen on the same level as stories about Zeus or Darrow's Mother Goose. It isn't difficult to see the myth-like qualities of assertions that Jesus could do things like walk on water, heal people's dead children, cure terminal diseases, or multiply food (I won't even mention rising from his own grave yet, but will get to that next week). In addition, one difference between Jesus, Zeus, and Mother Goose is that there are no ancient Greek gods, fairy tales, nor nursery rhymes that make demands on us at the level Jesus does. No Mother Goose story says anything close to Jesus' statement, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple...any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple."(2)

Another tremendous difference, though, is fairly obvious: Christians (as well as many non-Christians) believe that Jesus was a historical person. The claim is that if you had lived in the same community in Israel at the same time, you would have known him as your neighbor because his life was every bit as real as ours. So we are faced with an immensely important question: Did he live? Is it more intelligent to think that he probably did live, he probably didn't, or that there aren't enough important facts for us to make any judgment either way? Is this ancient Jewish rabbi who lays claim on our full allegiance someone who ever walked around on this planet, or was he something drawn up in the minds of the most wildly successful storytellers in human history? 


In recent years, I have become more aware of the amount of advertising with which we are endlessly bombarded from every direction, and have become increasingly cynical and distrustful toward any kind of ad. I sometimes entertain myself with a game in which I listen to the commercial, and then follow its claims in my mind by saying, "...according to [insert the name of the person/group doing the advertising]. For example, a commercial might say "Bob's Car Lot has the best prices in town," and then I insert "...according to Bob's Car Lot." (Perhaps I am way too easily entertained, but you should try it.) Here's a start: "Daniel's writing is the most helpful and entertaining stuff you'll ever read...according to Daniel."

The reason I find this entertaining is because it brings to light the ridiculous, self-interested claims we allow to be constantly pushed on us, and when we see things as being that self-interested, we rightly know we have good reason to doubt them. So, when Christians base their entire belief that Jesus existed simply on the accounts of the Bible, it can seem like we're saying, "Followers of Jesus have been exactly right about him all along...according to followers of Jesus."

That's why, to me, four names that are not Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are very important for coming to a reasonable conclusion that Jesus existed: Thallus, Tacitus, Pliny, and Josephus.

  • Thallus wrote in Rome (AD 52) and included an attempt to explain the darkness which Mark 15:33 says came at the moment of Jesus' death. He explained it as an eclipse of the sun, but the most notable thing about it is that a non-Christian historian in Rome saw a need to explain the phenomena within twenty years of the event.
  • Tacitus, another Roman non-Christian, was a historian of the empire who wrote about Christians in his Annals (AD 117), saying that "The name Christian comes to them from Christ, who was executed in the reign of Tiberius by the Procurator Pontius Pilate."
  • Pliny was an ancient Roman governor whose letters to the emperor (from around AD 112) describe the social impact that the early Christians were having (like the closing of pagan temples for lack of business) and his perplexity that even while he continued to give Christians the death penalty, they appeared to him to be very harmless.
  • Josephus was a Jewish historian who mentioned Jesus twice in his Antiquities (AD 94), including a reference to James as being Jesus' brother.

These four writers are notable in relation to Jesus, precisely because they were not his followers, but were so close to his time and all, to some degree, part of groups which tried to extinguish Christianity. In different ways, they each say from those earliest years, "Here is a detail about Jesus and his earliest followers...according to those of us who were opposed to their success."


The judgment that Jesus actually did live and die is of immense importance. If it is true, it means we are dealing with a historical person rather than Zeus or Mother Goose. If there is no good reason to dismiss Jesus as a make-believe hero, responsible people who really want to know the truth are then left on the hook to find out more about him. But even if we can reasonably conclude that Jesus lived and was executed from these non-biblical/non-Christian sources, that still leaves us a long way from needing to devote our entire lives to following him. I know my great-great-grandfather's name and a few details about his life, but just because we're reasonably certain he lived and died, no one has ever suggested that we should trust James Harvey Harris for our eternal salvation.

If the non-Christian sources from the time give us enough of a reason to believe that Jesus really lived, we then have to look at the Christian sources (the Bible) to get information on what his life was like. Those non-Christian references to his life agree with the information in the gospels about Jesus' death (that he was executed under Pilate, and that there were many who believed him to be alive again afterward), but beyond that, how much can we rely on the stories about Jesus that we have in the Bible?

The issues surrounding how the Bible came to be what we have today are more complex than can be addressed here. The Bible was written by dozens of authors over more than a millennium. Many of the books were passed on as oral tradition before they were ever written. Each book was written for an audience in a time and place very different from our own, in ancient languages which are no longer spoken. Neither the Bible nor its history are simple.

Yet the evidence suggests that the Bible as we now have it is remarkably close to the documents as they were originally written. The amount of scholarship from Christians and non-Christians that has gone into the analysis of every detail of these texts throughout the centuries is without comparison, and we should welcome the best information on the scriptures from wherever it comes.

I read a book a few years ago by a textual scholar who is a leading critic of Christianity, Bart Ehrman. The book had a title that implied a hefty promise about the content: Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. After reading the book, however, the content came nowhere near living up to the promise of the title. The changes of the Bible Ehrman explores are variations in the texts of the surviving manuscripts which are all likely to be represented in the notes in the margins of any Bible you have sitting on your shelf right now. Some of them make interesting differences in how to interpret a specific passage, but none of them make any significant difference in how we understand any central Christian doctrines.

While accepting that our modern Bibles are very close to the original documents doesn't prove anything about whether or not the things the Bible says actually happened, the most important thing for us to note in considering Jesus' life is that the books of the New Testament, written so close to the time of Jesus' life, were circulated very widely very quickly. Certainly anyone who knew them to be false could have written other documents saying so. I know of no such early documents. Apparently it wasn't until the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries that questioning Jesus' existence began to be considered as logical.


My hope in exploring these topics in such a fly-by manner is not that anyone would take my brief answers as conclusive. The questions are serious enough that they deserve more of our best efforts than that. Did Jesus live? How did he die? How reliable is the information we have about him? In light of all of the times in my life that I have heard someone mention the importance of not just knowing about Jesus, but knowing Jesus, perhaps we should realize that it serves no one to eliminate either side of that equation. How well can we possibly claim to know him while we put so little effort into knowing anything historical about him?(3)

Instead of hoping that my comments would be finally persuasive to anyone, my aim is twofold: first, that any non-disciples of Jesus would become more open to the rationality of a lifestyle of complete devotion to this ancient Jewish rabbi; and second, that those who are already his disciples would embrace these kinds of questions rather than feeling like it is a duty of faith to ignore them. If the one who said, "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free" is who we claim him to be, he would eagerly and calmly encourage us to seek the facts and follow wherever they lead.


Scripture Readings for the Week*:

  • 2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14
  • Psalm 77:1-2,11-20
  • Galatians 5:1,13-25
  • Luke 9:51-62

A Prayer for the Week*:

Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) From a speech in Toronto (1930); as quoted in "Breaking the Last Taboo" (1996) by James A. Haught. (2) Luke 14:25-27,33, ESV (3) For a more in-depth exploration of some of the relevant questions about Jesus, see Avoiding Jesus: Answers for Skeptics, Cynics, and the Curious by Michael Green, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters by N.T. Wright, or A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life's Hardest Questions edited by Dallas Willard.

[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]