Did Socrates live? We have nothing from Socrates. Everything we know about Socrates comes from a few people who claim to have known him. But were we to walk into a college philosophy or history class and raise doubts as to the existence of Socrates, we would be laughed out of class. The evidence for and influence of Socrates is overwhelming.
We actually have more eyewitness accounts for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth than of Socrates. By any historic measure of evidence, the man Jesus existed. Some will say that he claimed to be the Messiah, therefore we must offer extraordinary and overwhelming proof. But as to his existence as a man, there can be no historic doubt.
Polycarp and Ignatius, two early Christian martyrs, studied under the Apostle John. They provide independent confirmation of John’s existence and veracity. They confirm John’s gospel as an eyewitness. Ignatius also knew Peter. Both were killed for refusing to renounce Jesus. Likewise, Clement of Rome both corroborates the existence and veracity of John as well as of Peter and Paul. These were known people. They existed. They all were willing to die to proclaim Jesus as the risen Lord.
Polycarp stood in a fire. The Roman authorities ordered him burned for his refusal to renounce Christ. The eyewitnesses say Polycarp announced, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong.” So honest was he that he first fed his captors and prayed for them, before climbing on the pyre to be burned. They did not even tie him to a post. Some claimed the Romans stabbed him through the heart because the flames would not consume him. We know Polycarp lived, we know he testified about John, and we know he died because he refused to renounce Jesus.
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Ignatius died in the Circus Maximus, eaten by wild animals because he refused to renounce Christ. The Romans tied Clement to an anchor and threw him in the sea for the same reason.
The eyewitness, John, confirmed by multiple people, wrote about his encounters with the Christ. He notes that Jesus’ own brothers rejected his claim to be the Christ. At Jesus’ execution, his brothers did not show up. Jesus had to leave his mother in the care of John. But for some reason, Jesus’ brothers became leaders in the early church. His brothers James and Jude, both authors of New Testament letters, were executed. Historic accounts of James tell that leaders in Jerusalem asked James to renounce the claims of the resurrection. But James not only refused, he proclaimed that his brother was Yahweh. The city leaders carried James to the top of the temple wall and threw him off to his death.
Jesus either was an excellent conman who surrounded himself with some other excellent con men who were willing to die to keep the con going and who got others to keep the con going, or there is something more to the story. Dozens claimed to be the Christ, but only Jesus is remembered and worshiped as the Christ. Why is that?
Perhaps because it is true. I, however, cannot convince you more than that the historic evidence for his existence and the willingness of many to die for him is true. But if I am right, then you can ask Jesus yourself. Take to your knees and embrace the wonder of this season. Cry out to Jesus, be still, and listen. Merry Christmas.
Erick Erickson is host of Atlanta’s Evening News on WSB Radio.