The Historical Evidence for Jesus – examined again
Guest post by AnOldHope, an evangelical believer and blogger living in Sussex.
A recent article in the Guardian Online looks into the commonly held belief that Jesus is a myth. According to this, 40% of the adult population of England believe he never existed as a historical figure- so what evidence is or isn’t there for his existence?
Periodically, the world looks at the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus and this recent article looks to be an honest analysis of the evidence. There are certainly a lot of common threads, some of which you might have seen previously analysed in one of the versions of the alpha course: the general evidence, the early Christian writings and the views of those who opposed Christianity.
“40% of adults in England did not believe that Jesus was a real historical figure”
Simon Gathercole, The Guardian, 14 April 2017
The first comparison chosen is curious in the form of the rather fanciful stories of King Arthur (Arthur meant “King” at the time so it is doubtful that there ever was a “King King” in England), but it serves as a good baseline for myth-based ideas and when they tend to come into play. The article notes that whereas Arthur is only mentioned “300 to 400 years” after he supposed lived and that compares extremely unfavourably with scriptures written “within 25 years” or “around 40 years” after Jesus’ death. The truth of the matter is that the scriptures compare very well to other documents on historical figures such as Plato (whose work we have fewer copies of from far later after the event than the scriptures were to the events of the resurrection). Would we trust our (admittedly possibly biased) contemporaries to record accurate historical data about us or “new evidence” put into circulation hundreds of years after our deaths?
“they meet on a certain day before light where they gather and sing hymns to Christ as to a god”
Pliny the Younger
“Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment”
The views of those who opposed Christianity is equally important, and evidence from them (Pliny, Tacitus) who have no axe to grind in proving the existence of Jesus, neither question the existence of Jesus nor the idea that these very early Christians worshipped Jesus as “a” God.
Again, this is good, honest scholarship by the mainstream site, compared to the usual work conducted from for example the Jesus Seminar according to which “Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him”, a conclusion reached by the voting of various scholars, hundreds of years after the events concerned.
The only major area where my views differ from the text to any extreme degree is the conclusion: “These abundant historical references leave us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. The more interesting question – which goes beyond history and objective fact – is whether Jesus died and lived.” Now this is the interesting idea: that some historical events, in this particular case the resurrection, exist outside of history (whether true or false) and outside of fact?
“The normal standard for assessing whether a document is valuable historical evidence, is the nearness to the time of the events and the quantity of accounts, a standard on which the New Testament scores highly.”
There is good reason for the author to write this, and it is entirely understandable as a conclusion, from say an agnostic point of view. But I would argue it is not accurate, and here is why.
The normal standard for assessing whether a document is valuable historical evidence, is the nearness (to the time of the events) and the quantity of accounts, a standard on which the New Testament scores highly. Now these historically valuable documents contain some amazing claims. We as Christians don’t expect everyone to believe them straight away. But I would argue that the usual historical argument looks something like this:
1) Examine the text
2) Evaluate its value according to the above criteria
3) Accept the text as having some historical value.
A different standard is applied to Biblical texts, just because they are Biblical!
1) God does not exist therefore miracles can’t happen
2) Examine the text
3) Evaluate its value according to the above criteria
4) Accept the text as having some historical value, except, because God does not exist and therefore miracles can’t happen, the miracles must be made up
5) Therefore there is no credible evidence for miracles
6) Therefore Jesus was not raised from the dead/did not exist etc.
I suspect (though can’t prove) that something of this second line of thinking results in much of the modern material such as the Jesus’ Seminar’s conclusions and I would argue that this is an example of cyclic reasoning: starting with the assumption that there can not be a God, we wind up concluding that there can be no evidence for God. There is however one key category of evidence that is really hard to refute.
“The first generation of Christians would hardly have knowingly gone to their deaths for a lie. ‘Wishful thinking’ does not explain why grown men and women of various walks of life winding up in various disparate places would have fastened on to a make-believe to the extent that they would all willingly die or be imprisoned for their faith. And that faith included a resurrection of Jesus.”
Many of the early Christians were killed for their faith, beginning at a time when they were contemporary with Jesus. I.e. some of them were eyewitnesses to the events of the resurrection. Now, supposing for a moment that the Biblical account is false: for some reason, these people fabricate the idea of a resurrection, steal the body somehow and so on. At this point they begin spreading the strange cult of Jesus of Nazareth, a figure publicly executed for his religious leanings and then they too begin to be persecuted (probably not a surprise).
The first generation would hardly have knowingly gone to their deaths for a lie. “Wishful thinking” does not explain why grown men and women of various walks of life winding up in various disparate places would have fastened on to a make-believe to the extent that they would all willingly die or be imprisoned for their faith. And that faith included a resurrection of Jesus. Is there still room for doubters? Of course, even Thomas wanted to see Jesus himself before he believed, and he had witnessed multitudes of miracles before this point, including the resurrection of the dead (we see him going along with Jesus to Lazarus’ resurrection). So no condemnation for the author of the work, but I believe that there is considerable historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, whether one chooses to believe it or not.
anoldhope.wordpress.com is another non full-time blog independently operating in Sussex, and is updated far less frequently than etimasthe. Do look there for articles on a range of Christian issues and challenges, and hopefully, encouragement.
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