Less than half of Australians believe Jesus existed: Here’s what 12 top historians think

I was shocked to read a recent survey that found less than half of Australians believe Jesus was a real person. Whatever else you may think of him, to be uncertain of Jesus’ very existence is absurd: that Jesus was a real person can be established historically beyond any reasonable doubt.

To put the above research into perspective, more Australians (55%) believe in the existence of some supernatural power than believe in the historical Jesus.

That is crazy.

Let’s put aside the question of God’s existence — there are plenty of world-class philosophers who can deal with that. I find it hard to believe that our education system has failed to convince 51% of Australians that the most influential man who ever lived even existed.

This is pretty basic stuff.

Did Jesus Exist? Historians say “yes”

While the average Australian can’t seem to decide whether Jesus existed or not (largely thanks to our school curricula and secularised media), professional historians are in overwhelming agreement: Jesus existed, and we actually know a fair bit about him.

In 2014, Australian ancient historian Dr John Dickson made a pledge, which he published in the ABC’s The Drum program: “I’ll eat a page from my Bible if Jesus didn’t exist.”

He challenged anyone to find a full professor of Ancient History, Classics or New Testament at a legitimate university around the world who argues that Jesus did not exist.

Seven years later, Dickson wrote another piece in the ABC confirming that his Bible was still safe and sound.

In light of Dickson’s comments and the recent survey, I thought I’d set myself a challenge. I’m not a professional historian (although I studied History for my undergraduate degree); however, I have quite a few eminent historians in residence on my bookcase.

I determined to pull down the books on my shelf written by history specialists and see what they either argue, accept or assume to be true about the historic Jesus.

I must say, the results didn’t surprise me.

Let’s call the experts.

Experts 1-4: Profs Mary T. Boatwright, Daniel J. Gargola, Noel Lenski and Richard J.A. Talbert, The Romans, 2nd edn., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012 (p. 343)

  • Prof Boatwright is Professor Emerita of Classical Studies at Duke University. She holds a PhD from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbour.

  • Prof Gargola is a Professor of History, Modern & Classical Languages, Literatures & Cultures at the University of Kentucky. His PhD is from the University of North Carolina.

  • Prof Lenski is a Professor of Classics and History at Yale University. He holds a PhD from Princeton University.

  • Prof Talbert is the William Rand Kenan, Jr., Professor of Ancient History and Classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His PhD is from the University of Cambridge.

Boatwright et al. are writing about the Romans — as the title of the book indicates — but they mention enough about the historical Jesus’ life to warrant our attention.

These four historians assume that Jesus lived in Judea at the time of governor Pontius Pilate. They also accept the “earliest accounts” as useful for reconstructing Jesus’ life and death.

Towards the end of his life, they recount, Jesus was brought before Pilate, accused of being a potentially dangerous religious leader. Evidently, Jesus had gathered quite a following. The trial that followed was tumultuous. Apparently, the governor did not know what to do with Jesus.

Ultimately, Pilate capitulated to the pressures of the Jewish leaders and crowd. He was evidently scared of “traditional Roman fears of subversive provincials” and wanted to affirm his loyalty. Finally, Pilate decided to have Jesus executed.

Boatwright et al. apparently see no good reason to doubt any of the above facts — as they are presented to us in the earliest sources. They also accept the existence of a “growing body of Christian literature”, which “seems to have been completely unknown to writers in Rome…”.

Expert 5: Prof David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism, London, Head of Zeus Ltd, 2013 (pp. 50-51)

  • Prof Nirenberg is the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Distinguished Service Professor of Social Thought, Medieval History, Fundamentals, Middle East Studies, Romance Languages and Literatures, and the College at The University of Chicago. He holds a PhD from Princeton University.

Prof Nirenberg does a lot more assuming than he does arguing for Jesus’ existence. Nonetheless, he does confirm for us that Jesus was a 1st-century Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans (possibly as a political agitator) in the AD 30s.

He also tells us that Jesus was written about widely following his life and death, citing the early parts of the Gospel of Luke. The full passage he quoted reads as follows:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4 NIV)

Expert 6: Prof Martin Goodman, The Roman World, 44 BC–AD 180, 2nd edn., London & New York, Routledge, 2012 (340-342)

  • Prof Goodman is a Retired Professor of Jewish Studies and a Fellow of Wolfson College at Oxford University. He has a PhD from the University of Oxford and has written at least ten academic books, edited many more and published numerous academic articles.

Prof Goodman is worth quoting at length as he directly recounts some of the historical facts surrounding Jesus’ life and death.

“Jesus was a Jew from Galilee who during the period when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea gathered a considerable following of Jews, first in his home region, then in Jerusalem. His disciples seem to have been peasant Galileans, but his activities aroused sufficient interest in Jerusalem to attract opposition from the ruling élite in Jerusalem, who then handed him over to Pilate for execution like a common criminal. After his death, his followers believed that he was physically resurrected for a brief period before his ascent to heaven, and that he was the Messiah, a belief that he probably encouraged while he was alive. … his unparalleled emphasis on the Kingdom of God (either in the present or in the near future) seems to reflect a distinctive intensity in his call to individuals to repent. It is evident from the slight embarrassment of the Gospel authors about the relationship of the two that Jesus’ mission and following were similar to, but later than, the career of John the Baptist. About John, Josephus included a few remarks in his Antiquities of the Jews (18.116-119), where he was described as a popular preacher of repentance, with a large following which had political repercussions: ‘But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practise justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. … When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising.’ Josephus’ account of John’s demise at the hands of Herod Antipas in Galilee also agrees in essence with the Gospel account. Josephus was thus aware of John as a remarkable Jew, but saw him firmly within the context of other first-century prophetic and similar figures; in contrast to Jesus, he left behind no movement known to Josephus.” (340-342, emphases added)

On top of the basic facts, Goodman also affirms that Jesus was from Galilee and that he seems to have claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. Moreover, Jesus placed an “unparalleled emphasis on the Kingdom of God” and had a “distinctive intensity in his call to individuals to repent”.

Goodman also affirms several facts about what the disciples believed about Jesus — following his death.

They believed, firstly, that he was physically resurrected, secondly, that he ascended into heaven, and, thirdly, that he was indeed the Jewish Messiah.

Fascinating stuff.

Expert 7: Prof Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, London, Penguin Random House, 2009

  • Prof MacCulloch is Emeritus Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford.

MacCulloch treats the life of Jesus so extensively — primarily discussing the level of certainty concerning certain aspects of his life (from a non-theistic, sceptical perspective) that it is not worth quoting him here.

Significantly, however, MacCulloch never once questions whether Jesus existed historically or the central facts of his life (and many features of his message).

Experts 8-9: Longman Illustrated Encyclopedia of World History, Revised edn., London, Peerage Books, 1985 and Family Encyclopedia of World History, London, Reader’s Digest, 1996

I know they’re not individual specialists, per se, but, as I looked through my bookcase, I couldn’t help wondering what the editorial teams of these encyclopedias accepted about Jesus’s life.

From them, the following facts can be ascertained:

  • Jesus was Jewish

  • He was born in around 4BC in Roman-occupied Palestine during the reign of Herod the Great

  • He was raised in a Galilean village, Nazareth

  • He knew John the Baptist

  • He was a religious teacher with a travelling public ministry that attracted a large following

  • As he travelled, Jesus spoke in parables, preaching the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God (foretold by the prophets)

  • He trained twelve chosen disciples

  • He was alive while Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea (AD 26-36), and he didn’t get along well with the Jewish authorities

  • He travelled to Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate Passover and seems to have been aware of his impending death

  • On the evening before his crucifixion, Jesus celebrated a meal with his disciples

  • He was then handed over to Pontius Pilate, who reluctantly sentenced him to death

  • Jesus died by being nailed to a cross (crucifixion) and was buried in a nearby rock tomb

  • After three days, Jesus’ followers started claiming that the tomb was empty

  • They claimed to have seen Jesus and believed that he had risen from the dead

  • They we