I have shown that the basic story of Jesus Christ, as told in the New Testament, fits the description of the Suffering Servant, and many other statements in Jewish scriptures. Since Jesus’ story, with the exception of Judaism, has become a part of the Bible, let’s now spend some time examining the man, and the claims made about him.
The Christian claim is that he was the Son of God. But if God doesn’t exist, then neither can there be a Son, except in the mind of Christians. On the other hand, if God does exist, then it’s at least possible Jesus was God’s son, although this doesn’t automatically mean he was, or that the claims about him are correct, which is why we need to investigate the matter further.
Of course, the first issue to be addressed is whether Jesus even existed, or is just a myth. A few thousand years after he was supposed to have lived, some people doubt he was a real person.
Since Jesus was said to have been born as a Jew, and many of the stories about him involve disputes with the Jewish leaders of his day, ancient Jewish sources are more likely to know whether he existed than anybody else. For example, the Babylonian Talmud, which is a commentary on Jewish law that was compiled several hundred years after Jesus supposedly lived, says Jesus was hanged on the eve of Passover, that he practiced sorcery, led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy.1
This is clearly not a flattering description. The details of his life and death differ from the version presented in the New Testament, but this is to be expected, if he appeared to perform miracles. To his disciples, the miracles would have been evidence of his approval by God. To his opponents, they must have been trickery or sorcery. Either way, Jesus must have been some kind of a teacher, in order to have been able to lead Israel astray, from the perspective of Judaism.
Jewish rabbis and scholars through the centuries have treated him as a historical character, although they did not accept the claim that he was the Messiah or the Son of God, unless they had already become Christian. For example, Maimonides, one of the most influential Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages, wrote about Jesus, saying that he aspired to be the Messiah and was executed by the court. He argued that Jesus caused Jews to be slain by the sword, their remnants to be scattered and humiliated, the Torah to be altered, and the majority of the world to serve a God other than the Lord.2
Clearly then, to Jewish scholars like Maimonides, Jesus was all too real. And if Jesus was indeed the mysterious “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah, then we can begin to understand why Isaiah referred to this one as “him who is despised in soul” and “the one whom the nation abhorred.” People like Maimonides believed that Jesus was a major source of his people’s troubles.3
But do we have any evidence of Jesus’ existence, outside of the New Testament, and closer to the time he is supposed to have lived? Roman historian Tacitus briefly mentions Christians and their leader, and there is a letter from Pliny the Younger to Roman emperor Trajan, written about 80 years after the alleged death of Jesus, asking for counsel on dealing with Christians.
There are also two references by Jewish historian Josephus. The first is such a glowing testimony, and harmonizes so perfectly with the New Testament story about Jesus, that most skeptical scholars think it must have been altered or even forged altogether by later Christians, because it mentions that he appeared to his disciples on the third day after his execution, and that the prophets had foretold these things about him.4
The second reference in Josephus is much briefer and also much less controversial, and simply mentions James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” 5 This detail about Jesus having a brother called James agrees with the New Testament.6
For a small number of skeptics, because there isn’t more said about Jesus by the historians of his day, this is proof Jesus was a myth. However, from the point of view of Roman historians, Jesus, if he existed, would have been just another cult leader in a backwater part of the Roman empire where religious fanaticism was already rife. They would probably not have believed the story of Jesus’ resurrection any more than a skeptic does today. They also wouldn’t have had the benefit of hindsight to know how much of an impact Jesus would have on the world, and there would have been no monuments or statues of Jesus, because the authorities didn’t believe in him.
Nevertheless, it appears that people closer to the time had more evidence than we have today. For example, the early Christian writer Justin Martyr, writing about a hundred years after Christ, said that people could check Jesus’ birth records. If he was lying, it would blunt any other arguments he made about Jesus.
In any case, most scholars accept there probably was a historical Jesus, because of the existence of the gospels, the letters of the apostle Paul, the existence of the Christian church and later Christian writings, and the occasional references to this new faith by contemporary historians.
However, even if skeptics and atheists accept this, they can’t accept that all of the things written about Jesus in the gospels are true. In other words, they are perhaps fine with Jesus being a holy man who inspired a following. But they can’t accept that he was born to a virgin, walked on water, and was raised from the dead.
1 Tractate Sanhedrin 43a. 2 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings. 3 See Isaiah 49:7. 4 Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, Section 3. 5 Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, Section 1. 6 See Matthew 13:55 and Galatians 1:19.