Was Jesus Christ Real? One Man’s Search for Evidence

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Case for Christ" by Lee Strobel. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Was Jesus Christ real? Is there proof that Jesus was real, and how do we know?

The answer to the question “was Jesus Christ real” is complicated. Scholars and theologians disagree over the facts, as well as the sources for the facts. One author, Lee Strobel, set out to find the answer to the question, “was Jesus real?”

Keep reading to find out Strobel’s findings on the question “was Jesus Christ real?” and the proof he uncovered.

Was Jesus Christ Real?

Many scholars have asked the question “was Jesus Christ real?” Journalist Lee Strobel set out to find proof, and in the process, find his faith.

1. The Biographies of Jesus (the Gospels) Can Be Trusted

Whereas Strobel once thought the gospels were legends concocted by biased authors, his conversation with Craig Blomberg, a scholar of the New Testament, confirms that the gospels bear all the markings of trustworthy eyewitness accounts: Their contradictions concern only small details; and even the gospel writers’ contemporary critics took much of Jesus’s story, including the working of miracles, for granted. If the central events of Jesus’s life weren’t contested in the years after his death, there’s no reason to question them today. But do the gospels answer the question “was Jesus a real person?”

2. The Biographies of Jesus Stand Up under Close Examination

It has long been noted that the gospels of the New Testament don’t all tell the same story, and some skeptics have latched onto that phenomenon to call Jesus’s reality into question. However, the fact that the gospels harmonize on all the major points while diverging on minor ones suggests that (a) the gospels are reliable and (b) the overall contours of Jesus’s story are factually accurate. Also, Christianity couldn’t have thrived in Jerusalem—as it did almost immediately after Jesus’s death—if the gospels had been exaggerated: Everyone would have known the gospel authors were lying. So what does this mean for the question “was Jesus a real person?”

3. The Text of Jesus’s Biographies Hasn’t Been Amended or Adulterated by Later Authors

Strobel’s interview with Bruce Metzger, a Princeton professor specializing in the textual history of the New Testament, confirms that the documents on which the New Testament is based date to an extremely early period in the Church and are authentic. This finding answers the suspicion that Jesus’s supernatural activities were added to the Gospels after the fact to establish his divinity, and cannot offer proof Jesus was real.

4. Secular Sources Attest to Jesus’s Existence

Many believe the only textual source for Jesus’s existence is the Bible itself, but Strobel’s investigation proves otherwise. In fact, there is more historical evidence for Jesus’s existence than for many historical personages whose reality we take for granted. And not only his existence: Secular sources, like Josephus’s Testimonium Flavianum and Tacitus’s writings, attest to Jesus’s ability to perform miracles as well as his crucifixion and his early followers’ belief in his Resurrection.

5. The Archaeological Record Corroborates Jesus’s Biographies as Well

No archeological finding has disproved the New Testament, and Luke’s gospel has proven especially accurate, with references to geographical and cultural landmarks later confirmed by archaeological digs in the Middle East.

11. Jesus Died on the Cross

Skeptics of the Resurrection have attempted to explain away Jesus’s “rise” by claiming he never actually died on the cross. Strobel interviews Dr. Alexander Metherell, a biblical scholar and medical doctor, whose medical analysis of Jesus’s brutal beating before the crucifixion, as well as the damage done by the crucifixion itself, establishes conclusively that Jesus was dead when he was entombed.

13. Jesus Appeared to Witnesses after His Death

There is ample biblical evidence for Jesus’s appearance after his death: The early-authored book Acts contains references to Jesus’s appearance, and the gospels describe encounters Jesus’s followers and others had with Jesus. But there is also a wealth of circumstantial evidence that corroborates the biblical account of the resurrection, including the disciples’ subsequent martyrdom and the remarkable speed with which Jews converted to Christianity. No person would go to his or her grave, or completely renounce the religion of his or her birth, for a lie.

Was Jesus Christ Real, and Did He Really Believe He Was the Son of God?

A crucial facet of the “case for Christ” is understanding what Jesus thought about himself. Did he view himself simply as a rabbi or prophet, one who would be aghast at his subsequent deification? Or was he indeed convinced of his own deity? Did Jesus truly believe he was the Christ? And is this proof Jesus was real?

To answer these questions, Strobel travels to Kentucky to interview Dr. Ben Witherington III, a professor at the Asbury Theological Seminary. Educated at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and the University of Durham in England, Witherington has taught at the Divinity School of Duke University and written over fifty books, including The Many Faces of the Christ, Jesus, Paul, and the Ends of the World, and Women in the Ministry of Jesus. 

Jesus’s Shyness

It has long been remarked that the Jesus presented in the gospels is hesitant to refer to himself as the Messiah or Son of God. In 1977, a book coauthored by more than a dozen theologians argued that Jesus never thought of himself as God or the Messiah, and that any references to his deity were added after his death.

However, there are a number of clues that suggest that Jesus did indeed think of himself as God incarnate

  • Like God’s twelve tribes of Israel, Jesus has twelve disciples. These disciples, like the tribes, are intended to be the foundation of a people. Given that Jesus establishes these disciples, as God did the tribes, the implication is that Jesus sees himself as God.
  • Jesus describes John the Baptist as the “greatest man on Earth” (emphasis added). However, Jesus goes on to perform amazing feats that far exceed John’s, implying that Jesus didn’t think of himself as a mere “man.”
  • Jesus’s pronouncement that defilement stems not from what enters a person but rather what comes out of his heart contradicts great swaths of Jewish tradition. When the Pharisees object to Jesus’s message, he assures them that God has new plans. Jesus’s confidence in his authority implies he believed in that authority
  • Jesus was crucified during Passover with a sign over his head that read “King of the Jews.” That sign wouldn’t have been there unless he made the claim himself or someone thought he had.

Was Jesus Christ Real? What About Jesus’s Miracles

The fact that Jesus performed miracles isn’t necessarily a token of his deity—his disciples later performed similar feats without claiming deity for themselves. Rather, it’s how he thought about his miracles that sets them apart. Are these miracles proof Jesus was real?

For example, when Jesus would perform a miracle, he would situate it in a very specific context: as a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Rather than view himself as simply a worker of miracles, Jesus saw himself as an emissary of God, through which God’s promises would come to pass. In short, he saw himself as transcendent

Jesus’s Words

Some have latched onto the fact that Jesus was called “rabbi” by his followers to argue that he simply viewed himself as a religious instructor. But Jesus’s way of teaching and speaking distinguishes him from the rabbis of his time.

For example, Jesus refers to God as “abba,” a term of intimacy a son would use with a beloved father. Whereas most Jews of the time tried to avoid saying God’s name at all, for fear of mispronouncing it and disrespecting Him, Jesus, by using “abba” and encouraging his disciples to use it, evidenced a personal familiarity with God.

(Jesus also referred to himself as “Son of Man.” See Chapter 1 for a discussion of this long misinterpreted phrase.)

Jesus in the Gospels

Those familiar with the gospel of John will recall the poetic and powerful opening lines, wherein the author praises Jesus as the fleshly embodiment of the Word of God (ergo God Himself). But the question is: Would Jesus recognize himself in those lines? 

The scholarly consensus is “Yes.” Although John’s gospel is more interpretive than the Synoptic Gospels, commentators agree that John’s theological presentation is the natural extension of the Jesus described in the first three gospels

And, even without John’s gospel, a Messianic Jesus is inescapable. In Matthew 16:15, when Peter names Jesus as the Christ, Jesus affirms him.

The Historical Case

The question “was Jesus Christ real?” is only part of the equation. For all Jesus’s gnomic references to his own deity, the history of the church immediately subsequent to his death strongly implies Jesus believed he was the Christ.

For example, the oldest doctrinal and liturgical documents in the Christian church—the oldest sermon, the oldest secular report of the church, the oldest liturgical prayer—refer to Jesus as the “Lord” or “God.” Given that these artifacts were created within decades of Jesus’s death, while many of his original followers were still living, it stands to reason that they were honoring Jesus’s own beliefs about himself.

In sum, there is little doubt Jesus believed that he was the son and agent of God, put on Earth to save the world through his own sacrifice. But was Jesus a real person? You’ll have to decide based on the evidence.

Was Jesus Christ Real? One Man’s Search for Evidence

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Lee Strobel's "The Case for Christ" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Case for Christ summary :

  • How an atheist lawyer-journalist researched Christ and began believing
  • The key arguments against the existence of Christ, and why they don't hold up
  • How to make up your own mind about whether Christ existed

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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