Evidence of Jesus

By Mary Jane Chapin Chaignot


What if Jesus never lived? Wouldn't that mean all of this is just a hoax?


Let's look at the evidence. What we know about Jesus can be found in the gospel accounts. But even a cursory glance reveals many inconsistencies. Only Luke and Matthew include any information about Jesus' birth. Most of it is suspect from the beginning. Luke has Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem to participate in a census called by the Emperor in the days of King Herod. Herod died in 4BCE. The only census recorded around that time occurred in 6CE. Governor Quirinius ordered it for tax assessments. People did not need to return to their birthplace, but were required to go to the town where they owned property. Joseph could not have owned property in Bethlehem, since they were very poor and had no place to stay once they arrived.

Matthew's story is equally legendary. He doesn't mention the census, in part because he already has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem. He focuses on the slaughter of innocents by Herod, for which there is no record. He also has the star and magi. And of course, the genealogy supplied by Matthew does not correspond with the one Luke records.

All the evangelists describe Jesus' mighty deeds -- that he healed the sick, raised the dead, and controlled nature. Jesus was not the only ancient healer. In fact, one main issue with the Pharisees is whether Jesus' healing ability comes from Satan or God. And of course, a careful reading of the healing stories reveals many discrepancies or a merging of various stories.

All the gospels record Jesus' death by crucifixion, but Mark and John differ on which day this occurred. Most of the events that are described are problematic. The trial before the Sanhedrin would have constituted a colossal violation of Jewish law. Pilate thought Jesus was innocent but allowed him to be killed. There is no known custom for releasing a prisoner (Barrabbas) on feast days. Then there is the brouhaha over the empty tomb -- a point that is never even mentioned by the earliest writer, Paul.

These inconsistencies provide plenty of fodder for any skeptic. However, let's be real here. We live in a world of inconsistencies. Just watch any presidential debate or go to any courtroom and listen to both sides. Even where there is no controversy, people will describe the same event differently. Few scholars would ever make the claim that the evangelists' main point was to record Jesus' history. They were not interested in chronological events, historical accuracy, or verbatim reports. They were interested in telling those events that had value because there were lessons to be learned from what was described.

Clearly, Jesus did have an amazing impact on people's lives.

  • Perhaps the most striking change involved Paul. He was a zealous Jew enthusiastically persecuting Christians, when one day he encountered the Christ. He immediately did a 180-degree turn and just as enthusiastically worked for Christ.
  • The disciples were devastated and "cowering behind locked doors" after Jesus' death. After the resurrection and an encounter with the Christ, they boldly went out and could not be intimidated by the leading Jewish authorities.
  • Jesus' family thought he was "out of his mind" earlier in his career. After the resurrection, his brother, James, became a great leader in the Church.
  • Within a few years after Jesus' death and resurrection, thousands of people claimed to be his followers and were willing to die for it.

Something happened to these people to cause such changes.

  • Was it the empty tomb? Was that tomb really empty? We will never know.
  • But consider this: Each gospel reports that the first eyewitnesses were women. Women were not highly regarded back then. As a matter of fact, when Mary ran to tell the disciples, they didn't even believe her. If the gospel writers were going to make up the story, they wouldn't have had women be the ones to discover the empty tomb. That important role would have been assigned to the men.
  • The same argument can be used throughout the gospels. For example, if Peter hadn't really denied Christ, he certainly would never have allowed that story to circulate because it made him look bad. In the intervening years, he had become a very prominent leader in the church, and that would have been edited out -- unless it really happened! Then it became a classic event, illustrating what had happened before, and how he'd changed.
  • Time after time, the disciples are presented in a very unflattering way while they are with Jesus. They either don't understand what he's done; they ask inappropriate questions; or they're just plain dense. With the exception of Judas, they all went on to become leaders and workers in the church. Why would they have told those stories over and over unless they were true? That was before; this is now.

The same can be true for us. We can acknowledge that Jesus had a purpose and a message. Does it really matter if he was born in a stable with shepherds and animals nearby? His life was dedicated to revealing God's mercy and love. His was the way of truth, life, and love. When he talked, people listened. He wasn't out there bragging about himself, he was telling people about God. That message is just as clear, just as viable as it was 2000 years ago. God hasn't changed. We have only to make it our own, to follow, and to do likewise. There cannot be any hoax about that.

Works Cited

Lewis, Edwin. "The Problem of the Person of Christ." Methodist Review. Vol. 39. No. 1. January-February 1923. 116-127.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.

Ranke-Heinemann, Uta. Putting Away Childish Things. San Francisco: Harper, 1992.

Wells, GA. The Historical Evidence for Jesus. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1982.

----- The Jesus Myth. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1999.

Thiede, Carsten Peter and Matthew D'Ancona. Eyewitness to Jesus. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Dunn, James. The Evidence for Jesus. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1985.

Craig, WL. "The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus." New Testament Studies. Vol. 31. No. 1. Jan. 1985.

Bostock, Rev. Dr. Gerald. "Do We Need An Empty Tomb?" Expository Times. Vol. 105. No. 7. April 1994. 201-205.