Did Jesus exist? The answer is we do not know. In the hard sciences we can confirm the results of a study by repeating its experiment and getting the same results, but we have no such means when it comes to confirming historical events or existence of specific people in the distant past. Instead the best we can do is find sources that support that the proposal (in this case, the existence of a historical Jesus of Narareth) and that are independent, corroborative, close in time and space to the events they describe and from disinterested parties.
It should be noted that claims that defy the laws of physics (such as all of Jesus’ miracles) should require a greater level of evidence than more mundane claims, as they are far more unlikely and have far more important consequences, for the intellectually honest. Given the criteria listed above, the four gospels, which are our main source for supposed biographical information about Jesus, utterly fail.
It should be noted that before we continue, that aside from the four Gospels found in the New Testament that there are numerous others that we have found copies or fragments of or references to in other ancient writings. Richard Carrier estimates there are around 40 known gospels as well as 30 epistles that are known to be fake. The point is that of this huge number of Gospels we know of, only four have made it into the bible while the others are dismissed by nearly all Christians and everyone else as folkloric, mythical, gnostic, dishonest, and having no little to know value as historical documents.
There is little to no reason to assume that the four gospels that made it into the bible are likely to be much better, as they were still in the process of being selected well over a century after Jesus life. This selection process for all we can tell had as much to do with popularity and sectarian infighting as it had to do with their historical accuracy.
With that out of the way, we return to how the gospels in the bible stack up in terms of being independent, corroborative, timely and from disinterested parties. The three synoptic gospels can be largely dismissed as being independent when it comes their to shared material. Simply put the vast majority of stories in the gospels attributed to Mark can also be found in those attributed to Matthew and Luke, in identical or slightly modified wording, leading scholars to accept this material as being dependent rather than independent. This includes most events in Jesus’ life as well a some parables (such as the parables of the mustard seed). This shared material should not be view as coming from three independent sources but one source that has been copied and modified.
This also true of the “Q” material, which is the material that appears word for word identical in Matthew and Luke’s gospel but is absent from both Mark and John. This includes, nearly all of Jesus sayings and teachings in these two gospels. Examples include the majority of the sermon on the mount (Matthew includes some lines not found in Luke), and the vast majority of parables. Again the word-for-word identical nature of the shared material indicates that these should be seen as instances of a single source, rather than two independent sources. The hypothetical shared source for both gospels has been name Q and can be read about here.
Of course there is additional material found in all three synoptic Gospels as well as in the Gospel attributed to John, that is unique to them, and this is where we run into our second piece of criteria: collaborativity. Simply put, one should question details presented by a source that cannot be verified elsewhere, or are contradicted by other accounts of the same events. If two friends describe to you, their takes on a fight that they witnessed, but cannot agree on the descriptions of those presents, the time and place it took place or any of the underlying details, you have doubt the reliability of either account.
This is what we see in the unique material from each of the gospels. Each does little to nothing to corroborate the stories in the other three. Matthew and Luke feature two different and conflicting genealogies, two completely different birth narratives. Matthew’s birth narrative features King Herod, the Magi, a strange celestial phenomenon and the slaughter of the innocents (references to which are found in no other ancient source), while Luke’s birth narrative features angels, shepherds and a world-wide census, which is mentioned nowhere else, and violates everything we know about how the Roman’s conducted such things (making people return to the homes of their ancestors, is not a recorded practice, and one that would be highly impractical to implement).
Mark and John’s gospels completely neglect to mention there being any unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus birth, as does the rest of the new testament. This is not to mention that no other recorded source features the bodies of the dead rising and entering Jerusalem found in Matthew (yes, a full out zombie invasion happened, and the only document every to record it was the Gospel of Matthew). Furthermore Matthew is unique in alleging that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on two animals (Mt. 21:2–7) and that a soldier guarded Jesus Tomb. Luke is the only gospel to alleged that Jesus promised the men crucified next to him a trip to paradise (Lk. 23:35–43). Additionally, an improbability shared by all the synoptic gospels is the period of three hour afternoon darkness, that accompanied Jesus’ crucifiction, that despite being shared in these gospels is inexplicably not collaborated by any of the histories of that time.
John’s gospel features events in Jesus’ life and teaching of Jesus that are completely absent from the other three. It features long speeches by Jesus, that are highly detailed in very eloquent Greek How could the author possible remember all of these in the years between Jesus’ death and his writting? It also uniquely includes many instances of Jesus directly discussing his role in the Christian cosmology, often with statements starting with “I am”, for example “I am the way the truth and the Life” (John 14:6). It is also unique in featuring Jesus, in connection with “the word” having him turn water into wine, making three separate trips to Jerusalem over three years (instead of one) and raising Lazerus from the dead. Additionally John’s gospel changes the day of Jesus crucifiction and also fails to mention the ascension, transfiguration or the raising of Jarius daughter (all events the other gospels claim he witnessed).
In short where the gospels are independent they fail to corroborate each other, and where the are corroborative they show evidence of being copied form a shared source. The next piece of criteria to examine is proximity in time and place to the events they describe. The most conservative scholars tend to optimistic place their authorship sometime after 70 CE, because they refer to events that took place around this time. We have no manuscripts or mentions of them predating the second century, so precise dates are anyone’s guess. One thing that is known about them is that they were written, in the previously noted eloquent Greek, which would not have been the language of the illiterate fishermen and tax collectors described as Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem. What is more is that they all rely on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Hebrew old testament, a highly unlikely source for the Jewish Galileans, who were supposedly Jesus’ followers. This is not to mention that John’s Gospel specifically makes little mention of Galilee (the author’s alleged homeland) makes frequent unnecessary references to “the Jews” as if they are some sort of foreign people (reflecting a period in Christian history, in which the new religion has long distanced itself from it’s Jewish roots).
The final piece of criteria, looked for in evaluating historical claims is disinterest in the sources reporting, the supposed historical information. Every book of the New Testament completely fails in this as all are clearly interested in promoting the Christian belief system. There are in fact no non-Christian sources for the existence of Jesus until several decades after his supposed lives, and the earliest of these are likely forgeries or late enough to be repeating hearsay spread by Christians.
This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reliability of the Gospels. The other books in the New Testament are problematic as well, but that can wait for a future entry. Thanks for reading.