Whether you believe Jesus was the messiah or even that he was a complete myth, it’s indisputable that Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most influential characters in recorded history. He is unique among the philosophers, sages and other influencers of history in that he didn’t just describe a good philosophy but himself embodied the core of his message; that he would die, taking on the punishment for everything we’ve done wrong, and would rise again in victory over it providing us a way to live free from the bondage of our own brokenness. He and his disciples emphasized the importance of his death and resurrection being a real, physical, tangible thing that happened in history and not just a figurative or spiritual thing to believe. Paul put this in no uncertain terms in a letter to the church in Corinth; “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1Cor 15:14)

That alone would set Jesus apart, but when you look at the historical and archaeological evidence (as we will below) it becomes clear that the story of Jesus and the writings of the apostles are in a league of their own. Even though two thousand years later we can’t go ask our neighbor if they saw Jesus crucified and then alive a few days later, recent archaeological finds have given us unprecedented evidence of Jesus as a real, historical character.

Not only, however, did Jesus and the Apostles emphasize the reality of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, but they claimed he was the fulfillment of a number of prophecies written centuries before which told of God sending someone as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins who would symbolically "crush the head" of the serpent from the garden of Eden. Not only do we have reason to believe the Gospel accounts are historically accurate, we have manuscripts of the prophecies Jesus claims to have fulfilled that are dated to a century before Jesus was born. To be clear, the physical documents we have today that are listed below aren’t just copies of a document believed to be authored before Christ, they are physically themselves dated to around the first century BC through methods like paleography, radiocarbon and accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating, and are copies of the Hebrew scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) that are much older.

Prophecy# Date of
  manuscript/fragment
Manuscript/fragment Verse Text Prophecy
1 1st/2nd cent BC 1QIsaA Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin
  shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
Messiah will be a male born to a virgin.
2 1st/2nd cent BC 1QIsaA Isaiah 9:1-2, 6 “…but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the
  land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in
  darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
  on them has light shone.…For to us a child is born, to us a
  son is given”
God will elevate Galilee through the coming of the Messiah
3 1st/2nd cent BC 1QIsaA Isaiah 52:13-14 “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and
  shall be exalted. As many were astonished at you— his appearance was so
  marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of
  mankind”
“Lifted up” likely double-meaning alluding to the process of crucifixion,
  especially given the juxtaposition with him being disfigured
4 1st/2nd cent BC 1QIsaA Isaiah 53:5 “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our
  iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his
  wounds we are healed.”
Messiah will be "crushed" and pierced
5 1st/2nd cent BC 1QIsaA Isaiah 53:9 “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his
  death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his
  mouth.”
Messiah will be executed though innocent, as well as a description of the
  circumstances of his death and burial
6 Hasmonean (140-116 BC) 4Q88 Psalm 22:16-17 “For dogs encompass me; a company of
  evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet, I can count
  all my bones— they stare and gloat over me…”–
 
7 Hasmonean (140-116 BC) 4Q80 Zachariah 12:10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of
  Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on
  me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns
  for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a
  firstborn.”
Messiah will be pierced by those in Jerusalem
8 Hasmonean (140-116 BC) 4Q81 Micah 5:2 “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans
  of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel,
  whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”
Messiah to be from Bethlehem. “From ancient days” understood to be a
  reference to the original promise in Genesis 3:15
9 1st/2nd cent BC 1QIsaA, 1QIsaB, 4Q56 Isaiah B Isaiah 40:3 “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the LORD;
  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Describes messenger sent before the Messiah's coming
10 1st/2nd cent BC 1QIsaA, 1QIsaB: Isaiah 40:4 “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low;
  The crooked places shall be made straight Andthe rough places smooth;
Cont’d
11 1st/2nd cent BC 1QIsaA Isaiah 40:5-6 “The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, And all flesh shall
  see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Cont’d

There are more prophecies in the Hebrew Bible about the coming Messiah, including the original promise in Genesis when Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden (Genesis 3:15). The list above is of all the ones we have manuscripts of that are dated BC, and these are all I’ll focus on in this blog post.

The dating of these manuscripts (all of which come from the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Qumran) is established by secular archaeology, as described by Joe Holden and Norm Geisler in The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible, “The Dead Sea Scrolls have been dated in a variety of ways. Radiocarbon (carbon-14) dating of the manuscripts has determined that the fragments are approximately 2000 years old. The paleographical method dated the texts to between 125 and 100 BC. More recent dating by Accelerator Mass Spectrometry try (AMS) between 1991 and 1998 placed the date for the Isaiah Scroll between 202 and 93 BC (combining results from Zurich and Tucson laboratories).” [1]

You can view the fragments themselves online and, in some cases, read transcriptions and translations of the text.

Dead Sea Scrolls archive from The Israeli Museum

Dead Sea Scrolls archive from the Israeli Antiquities Authority
 
- Of particular interest are the fragments of the Psalms including Psalm 22 from the above list.

You can also read the paper establishing the date of 1QIsaA (The Great Isaiah Scroll) here: Radiocarbon Dating of Scrolls and Linen Fragments from the Judean Desert

Are they really prophecies?

Before we move on to establishing that the things described really happened, one might ask “but are these really prophecies?” Aside from their obvious resemblance to the Jesus narrative we’re familiar with (which we’ll get into later) they seem to have been understood to be prophecy. The ideal evidence would be a BC manuscript like a targum (an Aramaic translation / commentary on the ancient Hebrew scripture) using the term “The Messiah” referring not just to the more general term “mashiach” but specifically to the messiah that Isaiah said would rule on the throne of David. The only BC targums I’m aware of are a few small fragments among the Dead Sea scrolls (you can view them at the above link) and do not contain mention of “the messiah”. We can, however, learn a lot by how the Jews reacted to Christ and what we have recorded in history. When Jesus and the apostles were claiming to the Jews that Jesus was the messiah, one response they never got was “the who?”

Edit: Probably the most vivid depiction of the Messiah character would be in Daniel chapter 7 which describes a vision of the Ancient of Days on his throne and "one like the Son of Man" coming on the clouds, approaching the throne and being given everlasting dominion over all nations. One could make the case from many of the messianic prophecies that they might not all refer to the same character, but here we get a picture of there being an actual specific character as a second agent in Heaven alongside the Father, and who looks like a man (other translations interpret it to say "one with the appearance of a man"). The same language is present in the Book of Enoch (also among the Dead Sea Scrolls and originally a part of the Hebrew canon, cited in Jude) chapters 46 and 48 which depicts a very similar scene and in chapter 48 even refers to the two figures as "The Lord of Spirits and His Annointed". Neither of these references, however, are specifically represented among the BC fragments in the Dead Sea Scrolls though many surrounding verses are. 

In this case we have to appeal to the historical reliability of the New Testament narrative (including non-Biblical sources), which indicates that the understanding of Jesus as the messiah was a large part of what got him killed. Many Jewish people at the time expected the messiah to be a political ruler that would deliver Israel from oppression (such as the Roman rule they were under at the time), as evidenced by the manner of their reception when he rode into Jerusalem on a colt (Matthew 21), and by the mocking inscription the Romans placed over his head on the cross; “King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). It seems too that this was at least partly the reason Pilate allowed him to be killed since Pilate’s line of questioning seemed to be directed at whether he claimed to be a king as the Jewish leaders said he did, which would have made him a possible rebel against Rome. 

It’s debatable if all of the writers knew they were writing prophetically, but prophecy doesn’t require that they did. The Psalmist David was likely writing figuratively about his own afflictions when he wrote “they have pierced my hands and my feet”. Crucifixion wasn’t practiced at that time and he likely meant it in a symbolic way. Given the context of crucifixion though, the prophetic nature of the verse becomes clearer. Prophecy in the Bible often has this quality of layered meanings.

Scripturally, we can see Jesus and his apostles understood the messianic prophecies as relating to Jesus and used them as evidence.

 

  • John 13:18-21 Jesus cites Psalm 41 as referring to his own betrayal.
  • Matthew 2:3-6 says that when Herod asked where the messiah was to be born, the priests understood Micah 5:2 to be saying the he would be born in Bethlehem.
    • As a side note, Herod the Great has been well established as a historical figure by coins found with his name on them, structures he built that are still standing (such as the fortress of Masada), and there is even a c. 400 AD reference to his slaughter of children under 2 in Saturnalia by Macrobius, though the characters citing it are understood to be fictional.
  • In Matthew 21 Jesus is said to have arranged to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey explicitly to fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah 62:11.
  • In Luke 4:16-21 Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1-3 and claims he fulfills it.
  • In Acts 2:25-27, the author attributes Psalm 16:10 as having been about Christ.
  • In John 7:42 the people hearing Jesus take issue with his claim to be the messiah because they knew him to come from Galilee (where he grew up) and expected the messiah to come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) not knowing Jesus had been born in Bethlehem.
  • In Matthew 27:46 Jesus quotes the first line of Psalm 22 while hanging on the cross; "My God my God, why have you forsaken me?". This is the same psalm that contains the verse "they have a pierced my hands and feet, I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me".

Though it might technically be possible that early Christians completely controlled the narrative surrounding Christ to fabricate the idea of the prophesied messiah and then embellished the Jesus narrative to match it, all evidence considered, that possibility is so remote as to be not worthy of consideration. There’s a good deal of evidence for the New Testament narrative that isn’t from Christian sources, and even orthodox Jews today recognize the concept of a prophesied messiah though they maintain that it wasn’t Jesus. How the early Christians would have gone about controlling that narrative successfully, given the very public nature of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection (and even their claim that it was public if it wasn’t), would raise far more questions than the theory would answer.

Did the events really happen?

So how do we know that the Jesus narrative is reliable and looks so much like the prophecies cited above? If we go back to manuscripts we physically have today, the earliest ones containing the scriptures that describe the fulfillment of these prophecies are listed below and are from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD except the Codex Sinaiticus from the 4th century which is the earliest existing copy of the entire New Testament.

2nd century Beatty II
  P64
Matthew
  3:1-2
In those
  days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying,
  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Messenger
  that comes before the Messiah
3rd
  century
P.Oxy. 2 (P1) Matthew 1:20 But while he thought about
  these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream,
  saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your
  wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.
Born a virgin
2nd
  century
Chester Beatty II P4 Luke 2-4 And Joseph also went up from
  Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is
  called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be
  registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were
  there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her
  firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a
  manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Born in Bethlehem
2nd
  century
Chester Beatty II P4 Luke 3:3-6 "And he went into all the
  region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission
  of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the
  prophet, saying:" (quotes Isaiah 40:3-5)
Messenger that comes before
  the Messiah
4th
  Century AD
Codex Sinaiticus Matthew 2:3-6 "When Herod the king
  heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all
  the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the
  Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written
  by the prophet:" (here they quote Micah 5:2)
Born in Bethlehem
2nd
  century
P. Oxy. 3523 (P90) John 19:33-34 But when they came to Jesus
  and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.
Prophecies 4, 5 6 and 7
  describing Jesus' death
4th century
  AD
Codex Sinaiticus Mark 15:27, 43-47 And with him they crucified
  two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. … Joseph of
  Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking
  for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the
  body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died.
  And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And
  when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to
  Joseph. And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in
  the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock.
  And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and
  Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.
Isaiah 53:9 – “And they made
  his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death”

This on its own might not be entirely convincing given the gap between when the events were supposed to have happened and the date of the manuscript itself, but there is good reason to date the gospels as early as the first century AD.

Crucifixion is believed to have been practiced as early as the 3rd century BC but there is archaeological evidence of it from around 70AD in the form of part of a foot found with a nail through it and particles of olive wood on the nail [2]. As far as we know, crucifixion was not practiced before 300 AD and was only practiced as an execution as early as the 1st century BC. 

I’ll let Norm Geisler make the case for the early dating of the New Testament books and letters[3] but he quotes the archaeologist William F. Albright as saying “'We can already say emphatically that there is no long any basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about AD 80…”. One of the reasons given for dating the writings before the earliest physical manuscript we have is that they get minor historical facts correct about the time and place they are describing, such as Matthew 27:59 describing an arched “arcosolium” type tomb correct for that period, or using the correct title for Lysanius the Tetrarch at the time of writing in the gospel of Luke (his title changed later). There are also thousands of references to the books from other early writings, as Geisler states; “Of the four Gospels alone there are 19,368 citations by the church fathers from the late first century on.”

There are non-Christian references to Christ’s story as well, including a letter written by a Syrian named Mara bar Serapion that is likely from the late first century AD which, in a list of wise leaders executed by their people it says “What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished”. The letter is held at the British Museum. Probably the most noted non-Christian reference to Christ and the apostles is the 1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus[4], who recounts the crucifixion of Jesus as well as the deaths of James, the brother of Jesus and of John the Baptist.

Historian Gary Habermas even makes the case in his book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus that we have excellent evidence for the resurrection without appealing to Biblical sources, based largely upon the fact that according to non-Christian sources like Josephus, the apostles and many other early Christians went to their deaths for believing that Jesus had risen again in bodily form. It’s one thing to willingly kill yourself for something you believe (such as a suicide bomber or a self-immolator), but it’s another thing to be killed against your will for something you believe that could be easily disproven by asking around in the town you live in. Old Jerusalem is not a large place, the city walls encircle an area just short of a square mile. At one of our chapter meetings we did some googling and found that our university’s campus is roughly the same size. One can imagine if someone was a popular public figure on a college campus and was killed, and then rose again and appeared to hundreds of people, it would be easy to refute that claim if it didn’t happen. Instead we see people like Paul actually using the fact that the events were widely known as evidence a few years after they occurred (Acts 26:26 referring to the resurrection; “For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.”)

There’s a popular saying among skeptics that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To some extent I agree, if someone told me their last name was Jefferson I'd take their word for it, but if they told me they were God I'd want them to do something extraordinary that only a god could do. An extraordinary claim should at least demand an extraordinary amount of evidence. I believe that just as Jesus gave Thomas the extraordinary evidence he asked for in inviting him to physically touch his wounds, we have extraordinary evidence that Christ did indeed live, was crucified, and rose again from the dead. The New Testament of the Bible is by far the most well-attested set of documents in existence, with roughly 5600[5] manuscripts and fragments from within the first few centuries since it was written. The closest runner-up is Homer's Iliad for which we have 643 copies, the earliest dated to 500 years after the original writing. Given their historical reliability, the fact that those events were described at least roughly a century before they happened (though likely centuries before), adds a whole other dimension. It wasn't just some guy who was raised from the dead, it was the one who was promised from the beginning of Man's fall. It’s a rabbit-hole of investigation but I encourage anyone who reads this to at least look into some of the sources cited here and see how well it holds up. It has the potential to be life-changing.

Additional references:

The Chester Beatty papyri of portions of the New Testament are on display online here.

Biblical Dead Sea Scrolls: Bible Reference Index. (2011). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Footnotes:
[1] Joseph M. Holden;Norman Geisler. The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible: Discoveries That Confirm the Reliability of Scripture (Kindle Locations 398-400). Kindle Edition.

[2] https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/crucifixion/a-tomb-in-jerusalem-reveals-the-history-of-crucifixion-and-roman-crucifixion-methods/

[3] https://www.bethinking.org/bible/the-dating-of-the-new-testament

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus

[5] https://carm.org/manuscript-evidence