Independent Online: “Historians are questioning if Jesus ever existed at all.” Is there any substance to it?

Caravaggio, 'The Incredulity of Saint Thomas' (circa 1601-1602)
Caravaggio, ‘The Incredulity of Saint Thomas’ (circa 1601-1602)

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The Independent Online recently re-posted on Facebook a story from 21 June 2017 whose headline read, “Historians are questioning if Jesus ever existed at all.” But is there any substance to this story?

The Independent Online’s article opens by admitting that the existence of Jesus has seldom been questioned:—

“Whatever you think about him being the Son of God, the fact that Jesus existed as a historical figure has rarely been disputed. […] However, historians and bloggers are now increasingly questioning whether the man called Jesus actually existed at all. He may be no more a historical figure than Hercules or Oedipus.”

Independent Online, 21 June 2017

Whatever you think about him being the Son of God, the fact that Jesus existed as a historical figure has rarely been disputed.
After all, he is referenced across Christian, Jewish and Roman texts. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, written around AD 93-94, mentions the biblical Jesus in books 18 and 20. Meanwhile the Roman historian Tacitus, in his Annals, written around AD 116, referred both to ‘Christus’ and his execution by Pontius Pilate.

You know there is a ‘but’ coming very soon, and it follows immediately on the above:—

However, historians and bloggers are now increasingly questioning whether the man called Jesus actually existed at all. He may be no more a historical figure than Hercules or Oedipus.

The article then goes on to present its ‘evidence’ that Jesus may never have existed.

Whilst it’s pleasing to see some actual facts in this article — cf. the references made to the non-Christian writers Josephus and Tacitus in the quotation above — the truth is that its ‘evidence’ and its arguments are weak. They don’t really make any kind of solid case for Jesus’ non-existence. Here’s why.

1.) The historians cited don’t actually claim that Jesus never existed

The article refers to a number of books which “explore the subject from a fresh angle.” But which subject?

“At least one of the books cited by the Independent Online, Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, explicitly denies that Jesus didn’t exist.”

At least one of the books cited, Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, explicitly denies that Jesus didn’t exist.

Bart Ehrman is a former conservative evangelical Christian turned skeptical New Testament scholar. In the book mentioned he spends some time discussing what, in his view, we ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ know about Jesus from the New Testament documents. In the chapter, ‘The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Can Know,’ he writes:—

There can be no doubt, historically, that some of Jesus’s followers came to believe he was raised from the dead — no doubt whatsoever. This is how Christianity started. If no one had thought Jesus had been raised, he would have been lost in the mists of Jewish antiquity and would be known today only as another failed Jewish prophet. But Jesus’s followers — or at least some of them — came to believe that God had done a great miracle and restored Jesus to life. This was not a mere resuscitation, a kind of near-death experience. For Jesus’s disciples, Jesus was raised into an immortal body and exalted to heaven where he currently lives and reigns with God Almighty.[1]

So the Independent Online article’s list of authorities on why Jesus may never have existed, is actually not half as solid as may appear on a cursory glance.

Let’s be honest about it — its list of authorities who “explore the subject from a fresh angle” was probably compiled in five minutes using the search facility on Amazon.co.uk. That is after all the level of journalistic rigour we are normally dealing with when we come across Independent Online articles on Christianity.

2.) No new evidence

When we come to a question such as, ‘Did Jesus exist?’ we are really not dealing with any new evidence that hasn’t been around for a long, long time.

Sure, many ancient texts have emerged during the twentieth century, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi texts and the Gospel of Judas.

“Texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi documents provide fascinating insights. But they really don’t tell us anything new at all about the existence or non-existence of Jesus.”

These texts provide fascinating insights. The Dead Sea Scrolls give us a great deal of new information about the state of Judaism in Palestine in or around the 1st century A.D. The Nag Hammadi texts and the Gospel of Judas give us valuable new information about second- and third-century Gnosticism. But they really don’t tell us anything new at all about the existence or non-existence of Jesus.

When we approach this question, we must necessarily deal with the same texts that people have been dealing with almost for millennia — The New Testament itself; the early Christian writers such as Clement of Rome, ‘Barnabas,’ Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, and so on (for a list of some of these see here); and non-Christian writers such as Josephus and Tacitus.

Hence, any modern assessment of whether Jesus existed is merely re-evaluation of the existing evidence, which has been pored over for so many centuries.

And this in itself ought to make us pause. If scholars, theologians and experts have been in possession of these texts for centuries and have generally not concluded that Jesus never existed, what has changed now?

Only ­re-evaluation. People — “historians and bloggers,” as the Independent Online puts it — are re-evaluating and in some cases arriving at the conclusion that Jesus never existed. Dare I say, in some cases this may not be out of good scholarship or out of a genuine pursuit of the truth, but merely out of certain people wanting to make a name for themselves with yet another hot-potato conspiracy story?

3.) The lack of Jesus’ personal history aged 12-30 is no indication he didn’t exist

Another argument put forward in the Independent Online’s article is that,

In the Bible, there is no mention at all of Jesus’ life between the ages of 12 and 30 — a pretty glaring omission for a man who only lived to be 33.

Whilst it is true that the New Testament documents give us no record of what Jesus was doing between the ages of 12 and 30, this is no “glaring omission” as the article suggests. It is intentional.

“It is true that the New Testament documents give us no record of what Jesus was doing between the ages of 12 and 30. But this is no ‘glaring omission’ as the article suggests. It is intentional. The writers of the article are failing to take into account what kind of writing the New Testament Gospels are.”

In saying this, the writers of the article are failing to take into account what kind of writing the New Testament Gospels are. The Gospels are sometimes treated as biographies, but they are not biographies in the sense we would understand the term today. It is not their intention to give a full account of Jesus’ earthly life.

Rather they are accounts narrating the ‘acts of Jesus as theology.’ Hence it is possible to regard them as a literary category of their own — e.g., Craig Blomberg’s classification of them as ‘theological biographies.’

Thus, instead of giving a complete account of Jesus’ earthly life, all four of the New Testament Gospels focus heavily on their central theological event — the Passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Understood like this, it is no surprise that around half the text of John’s Gospel[2] is taken up with the last week of Jesus’ earthly life up to and including the resurrection; or that around a quarter of Matthew’s Gospel covers the same period.[3]

4.) The New Testament documents are reliable sources for Jesus’ existence

“‘Historians point out the lack of reliable historical sources. Most of the accounts of Jesus of course come from Christian sources — and even these are largely third party narratives written years after his death.’ But this is a perishingly simplistic argument.”

Another statement made by the Independent Online article is that,

Historians point out the lack of reliable historical sources. Most of the accounts of Jesus of course come from Christian sources — and even these are largely third party narratives written years after his death.

Once again, this is a perishingly simplistic argument.

It assumes that “Christian source” = “totally unhistorical,” and finds a problem in an account of someone’s life having been written years after the event, when we readily expect this both of ancient and even of modern biographies, generally without batting an eyelid about the account’s reliability.

To take an ancient example, Plutarch’s Life of Caesar was written at a longer interval after Caesar,[4] yet we consider it a valuable primary historical source and do not impugn it as a fabrication in spite of the passage of time.

The truth is, a close examination of the New Testament will show that it is full of details about Jesus’ life that can only point to an historical person.

Consider the following New Testament passages:—

(a) Galatians 1:18-21. “James, the Lord’s brother”

“Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”

Paul the Apostle, Letter to the Galatians

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.[5]

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is one of our earliest New Testament documents. It was probably written around 50 A.D.,[6] that is, around two decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Writing to the Christians in the province of Galatia, Paul says that he personally had gone up to Jerusalem and stayed with Cephas [= the Apostle Peter], and had also met James the Lord’s brother.

How would it be possible for Paul to make such a statement about James if Jesus had never existed?

(b) Matthew 2:19-23. “He lived in a city called Nazareth”

“But when [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth…”

Matthew 2:22-23

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”[7]

If we’re considering the question of Jesus’ existence, then the Gospels’ insistence that Jesus came from Nazareth is most significant.

Theologically there is no reason why the Gospel-writers should ‘want’ Jesus the Messiah to come from Nazareth. In first-century Palestine every Jew knew that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. As far as they were concerned, Nazareth in Galilee was the last place a Messiah would come from (see John 7:50-52)!

Why would they represent him, then, as coming from Nazareth? The only possible reason is that he was from Nazareth — and thus he must have been a real, historical individual.

(c) Mark 6:1-6. “He could do no mighty work there.”

“And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief.”

Mark 6:5-6

He went away from there and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour, except in his home town and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief.[8]

Again we have a reference here to Jesus’ home town (Nazareth); to his family members including brothers and sisters; and most intriguingly, to the fact that he could not do many miracles there (according to Matthew) because of their unbelief.

None of this particularly helps the case that Jesus really is the Messiah — so why would two of the Gospel writers mention all this?

Again the only plausible explanation is that this historically happened: Jesus did have brothers and sisters living in his home town of Nazareth, and people there did reject him, and consequently he could not do any (or many) miracles there.

5.) The idea that the works of Christian scholars cannot be considered independent sources is a fallacy

Another point which the Independent Online article picks up is an argument by one of the authors it mentions, David Fitzgerald. According to the article,

Fitzgerald argued that for centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were Christians themselves, and so even secular accounts rely heavily on the religious texts that did the groundwork. They therefore cannot be considered independent sources.

This argument seems to be predicated on two assumptions. Firstly that:

  • Christian source = biased source
  • secular source = unbiased source

And secondly that:

  • biased source ≠ independent source

But both of these assumptions are fallacies.

“When dealing with sources — religious or secular — the historian’s job is always to pick through the inherent biases. Just because a source may have inherent bias, that does not thereby render it ‘not an independent source.’”

In truth, all sources — religious or secular — are to some degree biased towards their particular viewpoint. Bias comes about not only in what is said, but in what is omitted: a written source is always making editorial choices, after all. And this may or may not be intentional bias, but nevertheless bias inevitably is there.

When dealing with sources — religious or secular — the historian’s job is always to pick through the inherent biases.

And just because a source may have inherent bias, that does not thereby render it ‘not an independent source.’

A few examples will illustrate this.

Firstly, consider the Galatians passage we quoted in the previous section. In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul writes,

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.
Galatians 1:18-21[9]

Clearly Paul is writing his Letter to the Galatians for a specific reason, and to address a specific issue in the church there — namely, to counter a “different gospel” which some people have been preaching to the believers there. If you like, this is Paul’s ‘bias.’

Does this mean that Paul cannot be regarded as an independent source? When he writes the above, should we therefore not believe him when he says that he went into the regions of Syria or Cilicia, or that James was “the Lord’s brother”? Of course we should!

“Much has been made of the discovery of a number of second- and third-century Gnostic Gospels among the Nag Hammadi library around the middle of the twentieth century. Contrary to popular belief, none of what they told us was very surprising; because we already knew what the Gnostics believed, from the writings of Christian theologians who preserved their beliefs in their refutations.”

Let’s take a second example. Much has been made of the discovery of a number of second- and third-century Gnostic Gospels among the Nag Hammadi library around the middle of the twentieth century. These Gnostic Gospels furnished us with a great deal of new information about the Christian heresies commonly termed Gnosticism.

But guess what? Contrary to popular belief, none of what they told us was very surprising. And why not? — because we already knew what the Gnostics believed, from the writings of Christian theologians who preserved their beliefs in their refutations.

The most obvious example of this is Irenaeus of Lyons’ second-century, five-volume work Against Heresies. In this work — especially in Book 1 — Irenaeus gives us a great deal of detail about what the different Gnostic sects believed.

Should we disregard Irenaeus as an independent source because he is a Christian source? Clearly not! — the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts has, in fact, only confirmed the truthfulness of the information he gives us.

Or to take a third, modern example. One of the major sources used for the ‘History’ articles of etimasthe is the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series of translations of the works of Christian writers from the first eight centuries of Christianity. These translations were published mainly in the latter half of the nineteenth century and are now freely available online at http://www.ccel.org/fathers.html.

Because these translations are generally complete works, they often translate material which may be considered embarrassing or unhelpful to the particular theological view of the translators. For example, there is one passage in Book 3 of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies[10] in which Irenaeus says that all churches should agree with what is taught by the church at Rome.

At the time Irenaeus wrote this there was no concept or suggestion of a ‘Pope.’ The bishop or overseer of the church at Rome was simply one of many Christian bishops scattered throughout the known world — he just happened to be bishop of the church in the Imperial City.

“If, as the article says, ‘even secular accounts rely heavily on the religious texts that did the groundwork,’ it is precisely because these works are reliably translated that they have been consistently used thus.”

One may easily imagine how this passage has been used in the centuries since to bolster the claims of successive Popes. It is therefore testament to the sincerity and honesty of the translators of the Ante-Nicene Fathers that they have faithfully translated this passage, however much it might be regretted for the later use to which it was put.

Because the many scholars who worked on the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series in the nineteenth century were Christian scholars, should we therefore consider their translations unreliable? Of course not!

Indeed if, as the article says, “even secular accounts rely heavily on the religious texts that did the groundwork,” it is precisely because these works are reliably translated that they have been consistently used thus.

Hence the notion that sources cannot be relied upon simply because they’re Christian sources is a fallacy.

A note about Josephus

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus mentions Jesus in two passages of his Antiquities of the Jews — in book 18[11] and in book 20[12].

The Independent Online’s article repeats the claim from Richard Carrier that references to Jesus in this work are additions done by Christian scribes, and it behoves us to say something about this.

Wikipedia has an excellent article discussing the authenticity of these two passages in Josephus, as well as a third passage mentioning John the Baptist.

“The authenticity of [Antiquities] 18.3.3, which describes Jesus as “a doer of wonderful works,” is questionable. However, neither the question of Jesus’ existence, nor indeed his nature and status as the Son of God (for those who believe it), relies on the authenticity of this passage.”

According to this article, the reference to “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” in Antiquities 20.9.1[13] is regarded by modern scholarship as absolutely genuine.

The authenticity of the other passage, 18.3.3, which describes Jesus as “a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure,”[14] is questionable. The passage is now generally thought to have been subjected to Christian interpolations after Josephus published it.

This is based on internal textual arguments — and certainly it is true that the passage seems to be an intrusion into the flow of Josephus’ text. It is also based on an external “argument from silence” which in my opinion has to be taken seriously.[15]

However, neither the question of Jesus’ existence, nor indeed his nature and status as the Son of God (for those who believe it), relies on the authenticity of this passage. As to his having existed, Antiquities 20.9.1 on its own is adequate to show that he did.

Conclusion

The Independent Online says that “historians and bloggers are now increasingly questioning whether the man called Jesus actually existed at all.”

No doubt that some are; and no doubt that some people will continue to do so, world without end.

“The foregoing remarks are sufficient to show that the existence of Jesus as a real, historical person is absolutely rock solid.”

I would argue, however, that there is no real basis for such a claim.

On the contrary, I think the foregoing remarks are sufficient to show that the existence of Jesus as a real, historical person is absolutely rock solid — particularly when one considers the three passages I mentioned in point 4.

And that leaves us with the question:— If Jesus was a real, historical person, is it possible that he really did rise from the dead?

Those who proclaimed him to the nations back in the first century A.D. certainly believed so.[16] Why not find out today what you believe about the enigmatic Preacher from Galilee who changed the world?

 

 

Note
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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. © 2014. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., London: Chapter 5. ‘The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Can Know.’

[2] That is, from John 11:55 onwards.

[3] From Matthew 21:1 onwards.

[4] Julius Caesar died 44 B.C. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Caesar); Plutarch wrote the Life of Caesar some time around 100—125 A.D. (https://www.biography.com/people/plutarch-21338531; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutarch).

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians+1%3A18-21&version=ESVUK

[6] https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/paul/timeline.cfm suggests the dates A.D. 49, or A.D. 51-52. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauline_epistles#Authenticity gives the date as circa A.D. 53.

[7] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+2%3A19-23&version=ESVUK

[8] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+6%3A1-6&version=ESVUK

[9] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians+1%3A18-21&version=ESVUK

[10] “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church [of Rome], on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those faithful men who exist everywhere.” Against Heresies 3.3.2 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.iv.html)

[11] Antiquities 18.3.3. http://sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/ant-18.htm

[12] Ibid., 20.9.1. http://sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/ant-20.htm

[13] http://sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/ant-20.htm

[14] http://sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/ant-18.htm

[15] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus#Testimonium_Flavianum_2 for an outline of the various arguments against the authenticity of Antiquities 18.3.3.

[16] Cf. point 1, above.

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