Did Jesus exist?

The title of this post is a bit odd for a blog about Christianity. After all, I believe Jesus exists (present tense) so the question is a bit like “have you stopped beating your wife?”.

Well, it wasn’t the original title, but I let myself wander a bit with this post, as you’ll see at the end.

Regarding the historicity of the Bible, there’s a spectrum of thought. On one end, we find those insisting every word is true, and should be interpreted as plainly as possible, even where it disagrees with modern science.  From this perspective, often associated with fundamentalism, the Earth should be seen as literally having been formed in six days. An example of this line of thinking can be found here. It wouldn’t be difficult to compose a point-by-point rebuttal, but the primary objective of this blog isn’t to tear down anyone’s faith in God, but to help those struggling with a lack of faith find more.

On the other extreme, we find those claiming that the Bible is a work of theology and fiction, devoid of any useful historical material, and that even Jesus never existed. This perspective is often associated with atheism, although presumably some followers of other religions believe this too. An example of this line of thinking can be found here, in a piece from 2014 by Raphael Lataster.

Sometimes (especially when discussing the parts of the Bible dealing with the kings of Israel and Judah) these extremes are called the Maximalist and Minimalist positions, respectively.  Most commentators find themselves somewhere in-between.

My own position, as discussed throughout this blog but especially here, is that the Bible is not one book but a collection of books, of varying authorship and varying degrees of historical reliability. A casual summary might be that I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but not a six-day creation or a worldwide flood, but it would more accurate to say that asked about any event recorded in the Bible, I would give thought to the content, the context, and other factors, and express a different confidence level in its historical accuracy. To me, this seems like the proper way to approach any source, whether it’s the Bible, an autobiography, a magazine article, or Wikipedia.

Anyways, let’s go back for a moment to that article by Lataster that I mentioned above. Both because of its content, and the implicit credibility given to it by the editorial decision to put it on the website of the Washington Post, I think it’s worth pausing to make a few points.  First, note how the argument is framed from the start by excluding most of those who would disagree with its conclusion:

Did a man called Jesus of Nazareth walk the earth? Discussions over whether the figure known as the “Historical Jesus” actually existed primarily reflect disagreements among atheists. Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved.

With apologies to any readers who are offended at my getting involved, I’d just note here that “implausible” and “easily-dismissed” are simply assertions of the author’s own feelings.  He has a right to these of course, and there’s nothing wrong with pursuing an “in-house” argument among the small but increasing influential slice of the population that feels this way. Christians do this sometimes too, laying out a spectrum of possibilities, while assuming a great deal of common ground (sometimes so much that only a subset of Christians can relate), as here for example.

I suppose what irks me the most here is that the Post would be extremely unlikely to provide space for an article that would dismiss atheism out of hand and then explore an in-house Christian debate, but finds itself a suitable venue for the mirror image.  I think this partly reflects the growing clout of atheism in American discourse, but also reinforces it as well.

The next paragraph is worth noting as well.

Numerous secular scholars have presented their own versions of the so-called “Historical Jesus” – and most of them are, as biblical scholar J.D. Crossan puts it, “an academic embarrassment.” From Crossan’s view of Jesus as the wise sage, to Robert Eisenman’s Jesus the revolutionary, and Bart Ehrman’s apocalyptic prophet, about the only thing New Testament scholars seem to agree on is Jesus’ historical existence. But can even that be questioned?

The author’s complaint here seems to be that a near-unanimity of secular scholars accepts that Jesus was a historical figure.  He’s looking to shift the discussion a bit, so that a previously extreme view could find its way into the mainstream.  Again, nothing inherently wrong with that.  Scientific research and historical scholarship often involve ideas making there way from the fringes to the mainstream (and sometimes back again). Whenever there is new archaeology or documentation to look at, or a fresh way of seeing old evidence, it’s good to raise questions.

To the general reader, though, what should be noted here is, by the author’s own admission, the strong consensus at present – even among mainstream secular scholars (leaving believers out of the discussion) – in favor of Jesus’s historical existence.

The facts of what actually happened all those years ago in Judea is a topic I care about deeply and I have spent much time and energy delving into it.  While certainty escapes me, trying to call it as accurately as I can is important.  The stakes are high. As Paul put it,

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.

1 Corinthians 14:15a

Obviously, I don’t have a similar amount of time to devote to all topics.  Take global warming, for example. I’ve never worked my way through any of the scientific literature, or attended a conference on the subject, or set up weather instruments in my backyard to spot-check a data source. I don’t have any close personal friends who work in the field. All I really know it that there seems to be a strong consensus that yes, the planet is getting warmer, and yes, human activity is a major contributor. And that’s the reason I personally believe it.

If I were to take on a job as an environmental regulator, or were appointed science adviser to a president, I do a lot more digging to assure myself that the consensus was correct. But as a voter, or someone deciding whether to buy or rent if someday I live near the water, I think I’ve given it enough thought. As for the small minority of global warming skeptics, I guess I can’t be sure they won’t someday be vindicated. After all, I suppose my opinion of what counts as scientific consensus has been, in part, shaped by respected outlets like the Post. But I have enough trust in the variety and number of institutions that are backing up this particular consensus up to think it unlikely that the skeptics are right (as regards the existence and causes of global warming anyways… the possible policy responses are varied and could benefit from a lot more debate).

Because of this dynamic, statements about the consensus around Jesus are important as they can shape the views of many. Millions of Americans live in a middle ground between atheism and Christianity, and can’t be expected to engage fully with the debate. A claim that Jesus never existed, left unchecked, has a good chance of closing off further engagement with Christianity in some listeners. When I think of all the world’s philosophies and religions, historical and scientific claims, and the daily barrage of medical advice, rumors, and conspiracy theories that have been presented to me over the years, it’s clear that each of these, as the jingle goes, “never gets a second chance to make a first impression”.

The more important ones get a bit more time from me than the trivial once, but a limited amount of Googling is often all the patience I have.  Take Mormonism for example.  The few Mormons I’ve met casually seem nice enough, and the stereotypes I have are mostly positive.  Mormons consider themselves Christians, and I respect that.  The impulse to label people who label themselves Christian but hold differences of opinion from one’s own as “not a real Christian” strikes me as something to be discouraged, and probably ought to be reserved for groups who appear to be tossing God’s name around with blatantly insincere motives.

Sure, I’ve also read about child marriages in fundamentalist Mormon sects, and some especially odd doctrines like “magic underwear”, but I don’t make assumptions about individuals’ beliefs. Just as non-Mormon Christians are a diverse bunch, theologically and otherwise, I assume Mormons are as well. So at one point, I took some interest in what Mormonism was all about, and gave its claims a bit more investigation and consideration than, say, breatharianism.

What I found pretty quickly turned me sour on Mormonism’s truth claims. I went back to the founder – Joseph Smith – and was unimpressed. His ministry was analogous to Muhammad’s in some respects.  It seemed based much more on things revealed to him by God in private than things done in public to demonstrate divine identity.  Plus there were all the attempts to build a political power base, and lots of very young brides as part of the perks of being a leader.  He may have talked a lot about Jesus, but in terms of character and sincerity of motive, they don’t look similar to me.

Then again, none of us really do. Pillars of mainstream Christianity, from Luther to the Popes, all have their dark sides of character. And it’s made clear in the New Testament that even the first generation of apostles were flawed men with their own sins and weaknesses of character. I can accept that God can use flawed people for good.  But I am skeptical about accepting revelations from God being delivered through a person just on that person’s own say-so (and yes, this means I treat the Book of Revelation more skeptically than the Gospels).

Jesus, on the other hand, always struck me as above the fray, quite likely to be the genuine article, and doing what He did with miracles, in crowds, starting the most successful movement ever without resorting to politics, conquest, business savvy, or the skills of a ladies’ man.

But I digress. My point was that Mormonism had a limited window to make a good first impression – perhaps an hour or two of curious poking around online – before I filed it in the “unlikely to be true, no time to pursue further” folder in my head. Perhaps I did so unfairly. Perhaps some of the information I accepted without much inquiry.  For example, I may have seen this Wikipedia article, which lists numerous problems with reconciling the Mormon story with archaeology, and (as of today) says simply that “the theory that the Book of Mormon is an ancient American history is considered to fall outside academic credibility”.

Speaking of Wikipedia, claims about Jesus’s non-existence play out there too. Given its immense popularity and the role it seeks to play as a neutral source of information, one would hope it could be a voice of reason on the matter. Especially when the public is likely to have encountered criticism of Christianity from media like The Da Vinci Code and Zeitgeist that playfully blur the lines between fact and fantasy.

So at first glance it’s gratifying to see the main Wikipedia article on Jesus, as of this writing, saying “virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed historically”.

However, if you were to click one link deeper into the article on the Historicity of Jesus, you would find (again, as of this writing) that “a plurality of New Testament scholars, applying the standard criteria of historical investigation, find that the historicity of Jesus is more probable than not”.  What exactly is meant by “plurality” here is unclear – to me, the word means the largest number of votes but less than half.  I’m kind of a numbers guy, so the disconnect between “virtually all” and “less than half” is disturbing, enough so to distract me from the subtler issues of tense, i.e. the aforementioned difference between “exists” and “existed”.

Looking even more closely, one can see a history of revisions to the Historicity of Jesus article as a battlefield on which different factions are competing for influence.  For those of us who believe He exists today as our risen Lord, and that this is Good News worth sharing, doubts about whether Jesus ever existed at all even as a man are corrosive (much, I would imagine, as how a passionate environmentalist feels towards skepticism about whether the Earth is even warming at all).  Whereas for critics of Christianity, the temptation must exist to promote doubt towards all things Jesus, even where it’s unwarranted.

Thus we find that while the 2007 version said “a very small minority argue that Jesus never existed as a historical figure”, by 2010 it was “the majority of scholars who study early Christianity believe that the Gospels do contain some reliable information about Jesus”.  Now in 2016 (permalink to the current “live” version) we are looking at a “plurality”, albeit with three out of four mouse-over notes still saying that it’s near-unanimous.  Has there been some major scholarly breakthrough in the past decade, or is it more likely that we are simply seeing shifts in public opinion being reflected in Wikipedia community politics?  (Happening page-by-page I might add, as the page Historical reliability of the Gospels still says “almost all scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed”.)

Of course, I don’t expect (or want) Wikipedia to speculate on questions of faith such as whether Jesus is the Son of God, or to take a definitive position on whether the Resurrection happened or not.  But the question of what “a consensus” believes should be in principle more objective.  Apparently Wikipedia hasn’t figured out a mechanism for harmonizing it across its articles.  This is not to belittle them in any way (offhand I can’t think of a solution), but it is just a good example to keep in mind of how the ways we all come to conclusions on what’s likely to be true, when time is limited, are shaped by such sources of information.

Moving back one level in this nested post, let’s pick up where we left off with Mr. Lataster. His criticisms of the reliability of the Gospels are pretty common.

The first problem we encounter when trying to discover more about the Historical Jesus is the lack of early sources. The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith. These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them.

This problem is ubiquitous in antiquity.  We have fewer sources about Socrates for example, but this problem doesn’t prevent a Wikipedia editor from stating without equivocation that Socrates “was a genuine historical figure” (permalink).  The documentation about Jesus would be considered quite extensive by comparison; the doubts about Jesus are primarily due to the miracles.

Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.

This works in both directions of course.  If the mundane claims seem well-documented (to me, the mundane details are part of why it reads as non-fiction to me), and the resulting impact on history hard to explain otherwise, and Jesus fits well with the kind of God one expects to exist from first principles, why not accept the whole story?  Not necessarily as free from all error, but at least as non-fiction.

The rest of Lataster’s account follows familiar lines.  For one there is the idea of there being no eyewitness or contemporary accounts.  While this view is widely held (but by no means obvious), most of Lataster’s “mainstream secular” opponents have no trouble inferring the existence of earlier sources, either written or oral.  Imagine all of our libraries burned down today, and the only four biographies about Lincoln survived, all written after 1900. Would you conclude that Lincoln was a fictional character, or that those authors must have had sources available to them that are lost to us?

Then, with links between Paul’s letters and the Gospels being few, there’s an insinuation that Paul just made Jesus up, quite apart from any historical anchor.  The comparison isn’t really fair, as the Gospels are biographical and narrative in style, while Paul’s letters are dealing with specific problems in the churches rather than telling the story that was likely familiar to his readers.  Usually the critics take the opposite tack, saying the Paul hijacked a Jesus ministry as a Jewish prophet and turned it into something different.  In the end, I think Paul and Jesus are basically saying the same thing (Garry Wills wrote an excellent series of books along these lines), but if they weren’t it would argue more, not less, for a real Jesus whose ministry predated Paul.

So it turns out my “pause to make a few points” has turned into quite a rambling detour indeed. The original title of this post was “How do we determine historical reliability?”, and I went searching for links to the extreme positions as a prelude to that and ended up focusing on Jesus’s existence, a pretty low bar.

My goal with this was to bring forth some additional ideas to share on the topic of historical reliability, but they would be best contained in separate post, and this will have to wait at least until tomorrow.

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