I’ve just read an “International Best-seller” on atheism. The author makes Richard Dawkins look quite reasonable! I have read a much bigger academic book on atheism recently and quite enjoyed the challenge. But this book is a rather irritating rant – high on emotion and low on rational argument. Well, he is a journalist rather than a scholar! He even casts doubt on the idea that Jesus actually existed, which hardly any scholar would do nowadays. Graham Stanton, Professor of New Testament Studies at Cambridge, wrote: “Today, nearly all historians, whether Christians or not, accept that Jesus existed and that the gospels contain plenty of valuable evidence which has to be weighed and assessed critically.”
But, let’s take the question seriously for a moment. How do we know Jesus existed? Firstly:
Non-Christian historians refer to Jesus
These include the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (AD 37-101), Tacitus, a Roman historian who was born 52-55AD, Pliny the Younger, Roman Governor of Bithynia who wrote to the Emperor Trajan about 112AD and the Roman historian Suetonius (c. 70-160 AD). All of these writers had cause to be negative towards Jesus and Christians. Josephus would have agreed with Jesus’ Jewish opponents. The Romans regarded Christianity as a threat to civil order and peace. Yet they recorded Jesus’ existence and some facts about him. Secondly:
The New Testament was written very soon after Jesus died.
This is important because the closer the accounts are to the events they describe, the more reliable they are and the less likely it is that legendary material has been added. Jesus died around 30AD and Paul’s earliest letters were written between 18 and 30 years later, obviously while eye witnesses were still around.
We know that people in the ancient world passed on historical accounts by word of mouth very accurately, as well as writing them down. The earliest Gospel (Mark) was written only about 30 years after Jesus died and it was based on earlier written accounts.
But, have the New Testament books been altered over the centuries? Are they still reliable? Yes, they are reliable because:
We have very early copies of New Testament writings
One of these ancient copies we have recently discovered was written only 30 years after the original was written. Other copies we have discovered were written 130 to 150 years after the original. And they show that our modern version of the New Testament is very accurate. In fact we have 25,000 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament.
This compares with less than 50 (and in many cases less than 10) copies of ancient manuscripts of non-Christian historians which were made around 1000 years after the originals were written. Yet nobody doubts their reliability.
The evidence for the New Testament being reliable history is overwhelming.
Jesus certainly existed and has had an amazingly profound impact on the world for 2000 years now. He’s not just a figure of history: he’d like to make an impact for good in your life. Why not invite him to do so? But don’t do it unless you mean it, because he will take you up on it.
 Christopher Hitchens, God is not great, (London, Atlantic Books, 2007)
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction