Can the New Testament Be Used as Evidence for Jesus’ Existence?

Skeptics like Ellen Johnson, past president of American Atheists, dismiss the New Testament as evidence for Jesus, calling it “biased.” However, even most non-Christian historians consider ancient New Testament manuscripts as solid evidence for Jesus’ existence.

Cambridge historian Michael Grant, an atheist, argues that the New Testament should be considered as evidence in the same way as other ancient history.

If we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned.¹

The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) are the primary accounts of Jesus’ life and words. Luke begins his Gospel with these words to Theophilus: “Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.”²

Noted archaeologist Sir William Ramsey originally rejected Luke’s historical account of Jesus. However, he later acknowledged, “Luke is a historian of the first rank.… This author should be placed along with the very greatest historians.… Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.³

The earliest accounts about Alexander were written 300 years after him. But how close to the life of Jesus were the Gospels written? Would eyewitnesses to Jesus have still been alive, or was there enough time for a legend to have developed?

In the 1830s, German scholars argued that the New Testament was written in the 3rd century, much too late to have been written by Jesus’ apostles. However, manuscript copies discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries by archaeologists proved these accounts of Jesus were written much earlier. [See “But is it True?”]

William Albright dated all the New Testament books “between about a.d. 50 and a.d. 75.”4 John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge dates all New Testament books by a.d. 40-65. Such early dating means they were written when eyewitnesses were alive, much too early for a myth or legend to develop.5

After C. S. Lewis read the Gospels he wrote, “Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that…the Gospels are…not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing.”6

The quantity of manuscripts for the New Testament is enormous. Over 24,000 complete or partial manuscript copies of its books exist, putting it far above all other ancient documents.7

No other ancient historical person, religious or secular, is backed up by as much documentation as is Jesus Christ. Historian Paul Johnson remarks, “If we consider that Tacitus, for example, survives in only one medieval manuscript, the quantity of early New Testament manuscripts is remarkable.”8


The above post was excerpted from the Y-Jesus article “Was Jesus a Real Person?”


¹ Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (London: Rigel, 2004), 199-200.

² Luke 1:1-3.

³ Quoted in Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 61.

4 William Albright, “Toward a More Conservative View,” Christianity Today, January 18, 1993.

5 John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 352-3.

6 C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 158.

7 F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1984), 168.

8 Paul Johnson, Ibid.