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Did the Jesus of the Bible exist?

Posted by on 17 September, 2013 in Jesus Christ | 16 Comments
This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Jesus Christ as a historical figure

Jesus the Christ 2My earlier post asked the question did Jesus exist? This post addresses a slightly different question. Did the historical figure Jesus whose existence is attested by secular history resemble the Jesus which is described in the Christian Scriptures?

We could ask this question in several different ways. Is the New Testament historically credible or is it merely a ragged collection of ancient myths and legends? Were the historical accounts of Jesus’ life edited and manipulated by the followers of Jesus Christ to make him look good? Is the theory that Jesus was photoshopped by unscrupulous or enamored devotees credible? This topic could be approached from myriad angles. I’ve chosen four.

The historical record

The historical accounts of the life of Jesus Christ are numerous and extremely well attested. For instance, rather than one gospel with an “official version” of events, there are four gospels, written by four individuals at four different times and from four different perspectives. Nor do these four accounts correlate neatly. They contain the sorts of difficulties we’d expect from four independent accounts rather than the neatly packaged result of an organised propaganda campaign. Finally, there was no official structure or headquarters from which accounts were officially sanctioned. These accounts are published independently but accepted universally.

The sheer earliness of the accounts also argues for their untampered veracity. For instance, Evangelical scholars date the writing of Matthew, Mark, and Luke sometime before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and even the indefensibly late dates of Liberal scholars are being forced earlier and earlier by the growing historical data. Mark was probably written in the AD 50′s and Luke probably in AD 60 or 61. Considering that Jesus died probably in AD 30, this is astoundingly early. It means these accounts were written roughly 20-30 years after the young death and ascension of Jesus the Christ. This means that just about every Jewish person over about 35 would have had some personal recollection of this public figure’s life. It would be analogous to someone writing a bizarrely inaccurate biography of Elvis Presley in our day claiming that he publicly said and did and was all sorts of things he never said and did and was. Half of the people on the street could tell you from personal experience that it wasn’t true. To top it all off, the Apostle John, the closest human friend of Jesus during his time on earth, writes decades later in the AD 80′s, affirming, as an elderly man, the earlier accounts of Jesus’ life and portraying Jesus’ profound humanity with force rather than the progression toward an airbrushed version of Jesus that we’d expect if that was indeed what had been happening. John affirms the settled view of Jesus which had been seen by the nation and much of the world during Jesus’ time on earth and had then been affirmed in the following decades by the acceptance of the earlier gospels.

For a historian to look at the historical documents and conclude that the accounts of Jesus’ life are shrouded in myth and legend would require her first to argue that nothing in history is knowable with any degree of confidence. The evidence surrounding the lives of Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Aristotle, Josephus, Genghis Khan, and Xerxes I is vastly inferior from just about every conceivable standard of comparison. Indeed, if the accounts of other historical figures were treated in the same way as that of Jesus, history could not reasonably exist as an academic field.

The ethic of truth

The Christian ethic of truth and Jesus’ claim to be the truth contradict the notion of twisting him into something better than he was. Were Christianity based on an ethic of pragmatism and secretive hierarchy, it might make sense that it is based on the severely embellished tales of well-meaning followers. It is not. Christianity rejects darkness and shuns politically correct accommodations at the expense of truth. Countless believer’s went to their deaths via the lions or the stake precisely because they would not bend the truth—not even a little. They defied kings and popes, magistrates and loved ones for the sake of an uncompromised conscience before God. If the ethic of truth actually came from Jesus, it would be incongruous to twist the truth to make him look better. If the ethic came rather as part of the embellishment, the incongruity is only more stark.

The unbelievability of the alternative

No crime writer in history could have constructed the resurrection story. The intricate consistency and rugged authenticity of the accounts has been the final straw for many a doubter. Quite simply, it is harder to disbelieve the historical account of the resurrection than to believe it.

But the unbelievability of the premise here opposed is only just emerging. To understand the Jewish mindset at this point in history is to recognise the profound unbelievability of the notion that a Jewish sect whose founder ministered almost exclusively to Jews then came to admit not only Samaritan Jews, but Gentile dogs! And that they did this with only minor incidents of class friction, shedding their Jewish identities as necessary to maintain unity and accepting all, both Jew and Gentile, as being no different in Jesus Christ. Still more unbelievable is the notion that such a sect grew explosively both in Israel and among the separatist Jewish expatriates across the Mediterranean world. The notion that these Jewish people, from both the moderate and extreme sides of Jewish society, made such radical changes based on either known embellishments or unquestioned claims is inconsistent with everything we know about the Jewish thinking at this time in history. For a society that stoned blasphemers and adulterers, truth in any realm was no casual matter and the truth about the one YHWH was much less to be taken lightly. There is simply no believable explanation for the stunning sociological shifts in some of Jewish society apart from veracity of the accounts of the Christ we have in Scripture. Especially considering that the distinction between the “some” and the rest remains firmly intact to this day.

But again, this is only the beginning. A constructed or embellished account of Jesus’ life would not be theologically subtle and nuanced as Scripture’s accounts are. Nor would it choose as it’s strongest proponent someone who never met Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry. Nor would it portray Jesus as teaching through parables (a device explicitly designed to obscure his message to some). Nor would it portray his teachings as shocking and disturbing as Scripture does. It would not leave Jesus poor and politically powerless. It would not portray him as a servant to his disciples. It would downplay his humiliation. It would avoid detailing the frailty and depravity of his closest followers. It would omit details and specifics that could be verified or disproved. In short, if you were going to try to pump up a mortal and present him as a deity, the Bible is a thorough manual on how not to do it.

The lack of evidence

One of the marks of a conspiracy theory is that when you boil it down to its basis, the evidence for the theory is that there is no evidence. Such evidential tautology is inherently foundational for those who suggest that the accounts of Jesus’ life were embellished beyond recognition. This theory, in other words, amounts to little more than a wild—a very wild—conspiracy theory. Intriguing perhaps, but hardly credible.

This conspiracy theory view of Jesus the Christ is, therefore, analogous to the bogan who resorts to alien assistance in the building of the Egyptian pyramids. It is the retreat of the weak and lazy mind into an explanation which is as intellectually infantile as it is nonsensical and is equal parts laughable and pitiable.

Conclusion

A number of additional angles could be considered and a far more nuanced outline of the opposing views would be beneficial. Nevertheless, this discussion, I believe, exposes the foolishness of the unbelief that seeks to brush Jesus Christ aside based on shallow and shadowy pseudo-intellectualism. Jesus Christ is incontestably an historical figure and the historical record of his life is factual. And because that is true, we know that Jesus Christ is both alive and knowable today.

May God give you joy in Jesus Christ.

Grace to you.

Jason

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About Jason Harris

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Jason loves to communicate God's word both in the local church and at conferences and retreats. Jason has been involved with Worship Music since 1996 and InFocus since 2005. Jason has degrees in theology, music, and accounting and is currently a research student and lecturer in the School of Business at James Cook University, Cairns. You can contact Jason at jason@teaminfocus.com.au.

Comments (16)

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  • avatar

    Greg Gorton

    One of the greatest points for me has always been the lack of other motivation by the followers for Christ. No one in the first century after his death received any benefit, while many suffered for making these claims. Perhaps if we had no evidence of Jesus until the 4th Century a case could be made for “making it up”, but there is too much early evidence to couple with this early suffering to ignore.

    I also think, personally, that the DIFFERENCES of the gospels are a good point of evidence that they were written by separate people with separate perspectives, making the SIMILARITIES more valid as points of truth. Those similarities being Jesus Christ as preacher, healer, miracle worker, who said he was God’s son and who died on the cross to rise again.

  • avatar

    Alen

    Bart Ehrman has made the claim that he knows of no historian that disputes the historicity of Christ and this is coming from a man who wrote such books as ‘Misquoting Jesus’. While accepting that he existed, he nevertheless believed that much of what is found in the Bible to be later embellishments which is understandable after reading books like ‘The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man’ by Robert M. Price which go into incredible detail showing numerous pagan stories lining up with the stories contained within the 4 gospels.

    I think the main issue that surrounds the discussion of the historicity of Christ is taking for granted things we assume today. For example, it would be hard to employ historical revisionism today but it was quite easy when the telephone, radio and television were non existent. We have to remember that during the pagan period of Rome up until its Christianization many Roman emperors were deified either during their life or after their death. Entire fables made up and believed despite people being alive to know better, simply because the way news travelled (or didn’t travel). Even before the Romans the Greeks did it with people like Alexander the Great.

    Further, we forget that Romans worshiped anthropomorphised gods. In other words, their gods were frail and fallible like ourselves. It makes incredible sense that these faults exist in the gospels because the people at the time weren’t expecting perfection; it’s like how action movies today show these anti-hero types or heroes that have severe faults.

    I hear these arguments used again and again but they are not honest, and not based on facts. I am in no way denying the historicity of Christ, but I am saying that if you are going to use arguments in defence of his historicity, these are poor ones to choose. The fact is, the Bible in its given state is exactly what one would expect of mythos arising during that period. I seriously recommend reading Price’s book, it is quite eye opening.

    • avatar

      Jason Harris

      I don’t see this argument as having much weight. The deification of the Roman Emperors was not through some sort of naivete or stupidity on the part of the people. It was a matter of law. And it was not deity as seen through the eyes of Judeo-Christian ideals, but rather deity of the sort that the Greeks indulged. The Greek god’s were not good. They were not great. By Judeo-Christian definitions, they were not gods.

      What specific fables are you suggesting were made up and believed?

      You point out that the Romans/Greeks would have had no problem with a god who was immoral or capricious. Yet Jesus is never presented as such. This clearly suggests that the early Christians understood him to be, not A god (of the sort the Greeks/Romans were used to), but THE God (he who was revealed in the Jewish Old Testament). This of course makes sense since the gospels were written by Jews.

      It is also crucial to understand that the manuscript evidence doesn’t allow us the “luxury” of assuming that Christians waited until Paul died and then changed his writings. By the time Paul died, his writings were scattered to the ends of the earth and could not have possibly been changed even a little without showing up clearly in the manuscript evidence.

      So if the record was changed, it was changed by the authors themselves… Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, and Jude (and possibly one more, the author of Hebrews being uncertain). So we’ve got three of Jesus’ twelve disciples, Paul and two of his close companions, and two biological brothers of Jesus Christ. And we’re suggesting that these guys intentionally twisted the record. It’s simply not a reasonable position to take.

    • avatar

      Alen

      I would not say it was a matter of law, not all emperors were made to be gods. Also, as mentioned the Greeks did it with their famous figures such as Alexander the Great. The point being is hellenized culture (which did affect the Jews as well) had no issue with deifying its authority figures.

      My argument wasn’t exactly that these gentiles had no problem with immoral gods (though that is true) but that they had no issue with gods not being presented in a fashion that Jews would have expected prior to the Babylonian invasion etc.

      As for the authors, I don’t think it’s a reasonable position to take that these were the actual disciples as there is no evidence within them to suggest so and only church tradition seems to believe so. Also, given the fact that most scholars believe that Q was written first followed by Mark and that the other two Synoptic gospels are based on both; it makes it quite unlikely a disciple wrote it since it carries the sense that these authors were using common sources and modifying them for their audiences.

    • avatar

      Jason Harris

      At least sometimes it was a matter of law as demonstrated in the later persecutions of Christians for refusing to worship Caesar.

      I don’t really see your suggestion that the Greek culture deified heroes as a given. Regarding Alexander, the Egyptians deified him. He sought to deify himself. But did the Greeks really try to deify him?

      Regardless, the Jews looked down on Hellenised Jews (as demonstrated in the Acts of the Apostles), let alone Greeks (read “gentile dogs”). The monotheism of the Jews was legendary. The Jews wandered after other gods on and off for a thousand years, but after the final captivity, never again wandered after and tolerated idols. Which is why Herod rebuilt the Jewish temple to Jewish specifications. The Jews would never tolerate the worship of the Roman gods.

      Your statement that “most scholars believe that Q was written…” boggles my mind. It’s simply nowhere close to true. Such petty dismissal of broad swathes of scholarship, particularly Christian scholarship, for a scholarship (“Christian” or non) the fundamental premise of which is that there cannot be a God, is simply not fair-minded.

      Ultimately, the notion that we can authoritatively pontificate on the readings of Q, a document whose very existence was dreamed up in order to undermine the Christian Scriptures and of which we do not possess a single copy–indeed not even a reference to the existence of the alleged document anywhere, ever–, but that we can be confident the authors of the gospels were not the people held to be the authors from the first century, is ridiculous. The authorship of the gospels can only be contested based on a rejection of Christianity as a scam. Even then, it takes considerable imagination and ingenuity to concoct an alternative theory. It’s on par with the theory that George W. Bush was behind 9/11. Can you argue it? I suppose. Does it embarrass those around you when you do try to argue it? It probably should.

    • avatar

      Alen

      While I agree most Jews were monotheists, most Jews also rejected Christianity. The fact that Jesus was deified makes sense in a hellenized culture, had a greater proportion of Jews adopted Jesus’ teachings and had it not been taken up by gentiles, we would probably not see his deification, but I would not be surprised considering the state of the Jews at that time.

      Even if we were to say that Q was a theory held minimally by scholars (my argument doesn’t rest on it so it doesn’t bother me to give up on it), even you cannot disagree that even within evangelical and fundamentalist circles there is a strong acceptance of Markian priority (though obviously not so much as outside them). In other words, the “synoptic problem” is recognized and Mark is seen as the basis of the other gospels. This is still a “problem” if we accept apostolic authorship and seems to fit better in a model whereby it was written by those with agendas.

      I mean, let’s consider that the gospel of Matthew is attributed to the apostle Matthew by Eusebius quoting Papias. Let’s remember that Eusebius was also the man who “found” Josephus’ quotation regarding Jesus in the library that he inherited from Origen . In other words, he was a charlatan. I could be mistaken, but for this gospel alone most quotes we have concerning Matthew were “found” by Eusebius. This isn’t a reputable, or even a neutral source. Therefore it is only fair to take apostolic origins of these gospels with a grain of salt.

    • avatar

      vinnyjh57

      To expand on Alen’s comments, even in the passage that Eusebius quotes, Papias doesn’t quote the writings of Mark or Matthew and the descriptions he gives don’t exactly match the gospels that bear those names.

      The first person to quote the canonical gospels and identify the authors as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is Irenaeous late in the 2nd century and he doesn’t say why he thinks they are the authors. On the other hand, he does give the reason why he thinks there are only four gospels, which is that cherubim have four faces. I would think that such logic provides sufficient reason to doubt Irenaeous on other matters as well.

  • avatar

    vinnyjh57

    Imagine trying to reconstruct the life of Joseph Smith and the origins of the Latter Day Saints if the only sources you had were the writings of devoted Mormons from twenty to sixty years after the fact. I’m sure that you would know nothing about the Kirtland bank fraud or the Mountain Meadows massacre. You might even believe that Joseph Smith was the faithful husband of one wife since polygamy was not openly acknowledged or practiced before the Mormons reached Utah.

    The reason that historians can reconstruct the early history of Mormonism with some confidence is because of primary source material from outsiders, i.e., non-Mormons who dealt with Smith and his followers and ex-Mormons who left the fold. Unfortunately, we have very little outsider information from the first century of Christianity and none from the first half-century. How could we possibly expect to know what happened?

    • avatar

      Jason Harris

      Hello vinnyjh57,

      What invalidates that argument is the fact that Joseph Smith was not a public figure in any significant sense. My analogy to Elvis is far more apt since Jesus was a major national phenomenon with at least a degree of international renown before his crucifixion.

      To pluck someone from obscurity and inflate them is easy. To do so with a major public figure who lived among the people and was hated by many is impossible.

    • avatar

      vinnyjh57

      Jason,

      Unfortunately, the only evidence we have that Jesus was any sort of public figure comes from those insider accounts. We have no independent evidence that anyone knew of him outside a small band of followers until a belief arose that he had risen from the dead, and in fact many scholars believe that he probably lived a relatively obscure life until he managed to so annoy the authorities as to get himself crucified.

      If we only went by the Mormon insider accounts, we would surely think that Joseph Smith was the most significant person of his day as well. Even using non-Mormon sources, I think we would have to characterize Smith as being a public figure and the religion he founded was preached in Canada and England during his life so I guess that counts as international renown, too.

      More importantly, the fact that many people regarded Smith as a charlatan while he was alive never had much impact on the way that the Mormons portrayed him. There was never any shortage of people trying to debunk Smith’s claims, and while some of his followers were persuaded to leave the movement, those who remained became even more steadfast in their belief in him. I think we need to take the insider accounts of Jesus’s life with as big a grain of salt as we take the steadfast believers’ accounts of the lives of Joseph Smith, Muhammad, L. Ron Hubbard, and the founders of any other religion.

    • avatar

      Jason Harris

      Jesus never tried to start a religion. He, instead, pointed to the OT Jewish prophesies and said “look, that’s me.” And it was him. Prophesied centuries earlier.

      The suggestion that Jesus was only spoken about by insiders is inaccurate as demonstrated in the first post in this series. Jesus was clearly a significant public figure in his day, known by both religious and political authorities and known by the masses. This is demonstrated by independent witnesses as well as by such a broad array of insiders in such disparate geographical, cultural, educational, and social backgrounds as to make the dismissal of the evidence farcical.

      Note that Jesus’ ministry didn’t even begin until a third of the way through the first century.

    • avatar

      vinnyjh57

      Your first post in this series demonstrates that the religion that somebody founded was known sixty years after Jesus’s death. They do not demonstrate that Jesus was a significant public figure during his life.

    • avatar

      Jason Harris

      My first post in this series demonstrates that secular historians accepted early on the details the authors of Scripture and the church fathers outlined. To reject these historical writings, both Christian and non, as substantially inaccurate hardly seems reasonable.

  • avatar

    vinnyjh57

    The only detail that Tacitus accepted concerning the historical Jesus was that he had been crucified. Pliny doesn’t indicate that he knows any details about the historical Jesus. Neither one provides me any evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a significant public figure during his life.

    Assuming that some part of the Testimonium Flavium is authentic, Jospephus does seem to accept that Jesus was a public figure, but since his source was likely the stories that Christians told, it hardly constitutes independent confirmation.

    As knowledge and experience indicate that the stories religions tell about their own origins are often substantially inaccurate, it is entirely reasonable to be skeptical of the stories that early Christians told, just as I have no doubt that you are skeptical about the stories of early Muslems and Mormons.

  • avatar

    Greg Gorton

    The fact that among hundreds of crucifixions each, Jesus of Nazereth was mentioned by Tacitus IS important (not to mention that he comments a LOT more than just the method of death, read Annals 15-44). The other thing that must be remembered, is that YES, it is POSSIBLE that the stories of Christ were made up by his followers, but was it PROBABLE and REASONABLE? Likewise, it is possible that 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy that had nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden, but is it probable? reasonable?

    The stories of Mohammed ARE reasonable if you accept that he heard the voice of God exactly, had the words exactly transcribed by his followers later and that they are internally logical. Likewise, Joseph Smith’s stories would be reasonable if you agreed that he had reformed from his past and HAD obtained the original “Plates of Nephi” (which has never been seen by others besides him and his ex-cellmate).

    Too often we expect perfect proof regarding Christ (or other beliefs) when we accept that perfect proof is not given for anything in our world. The question is: is there REASONABLE evidence? I believe Jason has given a good summary of what reasonable evidence exists.

    • avatar

      vinnyjh57

      Greg,

      Despite the fact that there was never any credible evidence of the Golden Plates, there are approximately fourteen million Mormons in the world today. The fact is that there are, and always have been, gullible people who will believe fantastic stories without any evidence whatsoever. When enough of these people get together under the right circumstances, the result can be a major religious movement.

      One possibility is that all the supernatural events described in the gospels actually occurred as described. Another possibility is that they came to be believed the way so many other fantastic stories have come to be believed throughout history, i.e., through common human foibles like prevarication, gullibility, exaggeration, superstition, ignorance, and wishful thinking. How could I possibly assess the former as more probable or reasonable than the latter.

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