Monday, September 8, 2014

Jesus in the Gospels a
Jesus in the Gospels a (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was an article in on September 1, 2014 titled 5 Reasons to Suspect that Jesus never Existed. This is problematic, if true, for scholars of the historical Jesus, but more problematic for the millions upon millions of people who believe in Jesus not just as a human being but also as a divine being. It is not true, of course, but I want to talk about why such a view might be gaining traction now and why such a view is not firmly grounded in historical research. I will then take a look at each of the five reasons offered as to why Jesus does not exist in this article and demonstrate the problems with each of them. Keep in mind that the argument that Jesus did not exist is different than the positions taken by some skeptical historical Jesus researchers that Jesus did indeed exist, but was not divine and many of the miraculous things said about him, such as the miracles and the resurrection, were concocted after the fact by his followers. There might be overlap between these two positions, but even the most skeptical of historical Jesus researchers grants that Jesus lived.

Why might such a view be gaining traction now? First, it is a minority, marginal position, not held by many in the academy, regardless of their confessional or lack of confessional position, but while I might have argued in the past that no one took such a position, now one can claim that at least some scholars do. The first scholar of whom I was aware that argued against Jesus’ historical existence was Robert Price. His article “Jesus at the Vanishing Point” in The Historical Jesus: Five Views  is demolished by John Dominic Crossan, James D.G. Dunn, Darrell Bock and Luke Timothy Johnson in the pages that follow. Price is not clear about the basic meaning of history or how to carry out the historical enterprise. Still, some people have been following his lead. Why is that?

There is enough skepticism with the Church, or with Christianity, or with organized religion in general that the texts to which people have gone since ancient times to find Jesus have themselves come under attack and suspicion. Enough doubt has now been cast on the basic trustworthiness of the Gospel and the New Testament that many people mistrust anything in them and now they doubt that he even existed. But to doubt the actual historical existence of Jesus is not a view firmly grounded in historical research or historical process. When we do ancient history, we have to rely on ancient sources and we want as many sources as possible that were produced by those closest to the historical subject or person and that were written within a reasonable historical time-period. 

Most scholars acknowledge that the four canonical Gospels are the earliest Gospels we have and that the letters of Paul are the earliest written documents of Christianity. Some scholars make a strong case that the Gospel of Thomas contains some of the earliest traditions about Jesus – and I accept that this might be the case, but only for some of the content.[1] There are a number of other later documents purporting to tell the story of Jesus and a number of them are called Gospels, such as the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of the Ebionites, and the Gospel of Judas, but these are dependent for the most part on the canonical Gospels or responding to the canonical Gospels and do not offer much independent historical information. There are also a few stray fragments from pagan or Jewish texts which speak about Jesus, but these Jewish and Greco-Roman texts are either too late, too short, working from second or third-hand information, or their authenticity is doubted, which means that while we can get bits of historical information, we cannot get any valuable portrait of Jesus himself.[2]
I accept that Jesus was an historical person, and I believe that the New Testament sources give us more than enough data to make this claim, but what are the arguments against Jesus’ existence?

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.
This is a fascinating reason to doubt Jesus’ existence since I am not certain what would qualify as “secular” evidence in antiquity. If you are looking for evidence in antiquity free from religious taint you will not find it. The Romans, the Greeks, like the Jews, were all “religious” in various ways, yet I suspect that what is meant is that there is no good evidence from non-Christian sources. I would agree with that, with the possible exceptions of Josephus in a couple of instances, but they do not add much to our knowledge of Jesus.

The more important question is: why would there be early evidence of Jesus from Roman, Greek or Jewish sources at the time he lived? Jesus was a pronounced nobody from a fairly remote backwater, Galilee, not even Judea, and he died a criminal’s death. Precisely who from the intelligentsia of the Greco-Roman world would pay attention to him and why? The Apostle Paul was probably a much better known person in his lifetime, who was educated formally in Tarsus and Jerusalem, and travelled widely throughout the Roman Empire. Could doubters in Jesus’ existence point me to Greek, Roman or Jewish sources written about the Apostle Paul while he lived? Do we have to doubt Paul’s existence too? 

It is also important to point out that the evidence used to make this point in the article is taken from Bart Ehrman, but while Ehrman doubts many of the claims made about Jesus, Ehrman certainly does not doubt Jesus’ historical existence. 

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.
Let me clarify: by “earliest New Testament writers,” the author means Paul. That would be singular. The article says, Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus.”  This is fair point to make, but only to a degree.  Paul never met Jesus – that is clear – so this might influence why he does not pass on much historical data about Jesus: he is not authorized to do so. The claims made in the article, though, go beyond the evidence in Paul’s letters.

The evidence is left in the dust when the author goes on to claim that, “Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!” 

Is it true that “the leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians”? Paul might diss Peter and James on one occasion in Galatians 2:1-14, but  he does not exactly dismiss them, since he realizes it is essential to meet with them (Galatians 2:2). Paul is angry with Peter, but Paul always remained in communion with him. If Paul repeatedly dismisses Peter and James, the other occasions would have to be pointed out because I am not aware of them.

As to the claim that Paul “virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels,” one would need to know where he “refuses to disclose any other biographical detail,” which would suggest a request that went unanswered. As for “the few cryptic hints” which “contradict the gospels,” I think evidence would be in order here. What evidence is the author referring to here?

In fact, Paul does note a number of traditions that come from Jesus, such as in 1 Corinthians 7:10, 9:14, and 1 Thessalonians 4:15. More significant, however, are three passages that speak against these previous claims and the assertion that “he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings.” I cite them here at length.

A)     Romans 1:1-4: Jesus’ birth and resurrection: 1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord
B)      1 Corinthians 11:23-25: Jesus’ disciples, teaching, betrayal and crucifixion: 23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."
C)      1 Corinthians 15:3-8: Jesus’ disciples, his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension: 3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

We might wish for more historical evidence from Paul, but it is clear that he is in a line of tradition and that he has received traditions and evidence about Jesus’ life, death, crucifixion, resurrection and teachings from people who were disciples of Jesus prior to Paul’s conversion. 

3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.
That’s not clear. Scholars believe that the Gospels certainly contain early traditions about Jesus, some from people who saw Jesus and knew him, and some traditions which were passed on in the Church where they were worked and reworked before being placed into the Gospel structure. While many scholars think some of this material might have its origin in the life of the Church (Sitz im Leben) most of it emerged in the oral tradition being passed on from the first disciples. Whether this counts as “first-hand accounts” depends upon one’s view of what constitutes a “first-hand account.” The earliest evidence we have on the authorship of the Gospels comes from Bishop Papias of Hierapolis (preserved in Eusebius of Caesarea) who says,

Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. [This is what is related by Papias regarding Mark; but with regard to Matthew he has made the following statements]: Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.
The material for these Gospels in both cases seems to come from eyewitnesses – Peter and Matthew – though these claims have to be evaluated, as do all historical claims. With respect to Luke and John, though, there are claims within the Gospels themselves which speak about the origin of the texts. Luke writes, “1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:1-4). Luke does not claim to be an eyewitness, but he does claim to have researched his sources, those who were eyewitnesses. John claims also to come from a direct witness, as in chapter 21 we find “23 so the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?" 24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:21-24). Again, all of these claims have to be evaluated historically, but to simply state that there are no first-hand accounts either misstates the evidence or misunderstands the nature of history writing. Sources are often used in writing history, even today, and for an author to rely on witnesses to events which he or she has not witnessed is a perfectly acceptable means to recount history.

4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.
Is this true? The author writes that the Synoptic Gospels “contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John, because they were written with different objectives for different audiences.” It depends on how the word “contradict” is being used because often it is used to mean “disagree with each other” or “have something different than another Gospel.” That is not contradiction. If the Gospels disagree over, for instance, who arrived first at the tomb of Jesus, this is not a contradiction but a disagreement of historical memory. A contradiction would be for one Gospel to claim that Jesus was raised from the dead and another Gospel to claim that Jesus remained dead in the tomb. Disagreements certainly evoke questioning and attempts ought to be made to understand these differences, but if someone claims the Gospels are full of “contradictions,” then I need to see evidence of at least one contradiction. Frankly, if I was inventing a story about a man I would have made certain there were no disagreements, but real history is not that simple.

5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons. 
Yes, yes, they do, but how are modern readings of ancient evidence proof that Jesus did not exist? The fact that people disagree on how to interpret ancient evidence is proof perhaps of the complexity of the evidence, or the person, or the interpreters themselves, but not of the subject’s “non-existence.” I have on my bookshelf a book called Paul was not a Christian by Pamela Eisenbaum, while I have many other books claiming he was a Christian, though some focus on Paul as a Pharisee and others as a man who was engaged with the Greco-Roman philosophers of the day, such as Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People. I wonder whether Paul actually existed, given this inability to come up with one portrait of the man. Why should the existence of Jesus be dependent upon whether modern scholars can come to agreement on the nature of who he is, and this without any evaluation of whether some of these scholarly portraits are good or bad scholarship? 

The Gospels and Paul give us evidence for the historical existence of a man named Jesus. It is implausible that of all of these “followers of Jesus” created a fictitious person, were able to agree on who he was and what he did, for the most part, and then maintained this strange conspiracy in the fabrication of his “life.” I cannot see a reason to invent him nor can I see an immediate payoff for those who would have invented him, given that we know that at an early point the followers of Jesus were persecuted by a few Jewish authorities and that not long after the Romans persecuted many Christians to martyrs’ deaths. Apart from this, a number of historical figures, verified from other sources, people the world of the earliest Christians, people such as John the Baptist, Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, Gamaliel, and Gallio for example. 

Yet, once we have established Jesus’ existence, we have the basics for history. When was he born? When did he live? When did he die? What did he do in between these major events? Who were his family? Who were his friends? Did he get married? Did he have children? What did he do for a living? What were his interests and hobbies? Do we get a picture of a man in full or just fragmentary, scattered pieces? Who is Jesus? Someone who existed, that is for certain, and next time I want to focus on the positive evidence for the life of Jesus.

John W. Martens
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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine The Good Word


[1] My thinking on this score was influenced by two works of April DeConick, who argues that there are both early sayings of Jesus preserved in the Gospel of Thomas, which came from the authentic oral tradition of the earliest Christianity, and later additions, which arose from the Syrian Church and its development of these sayings in its particular historical context. Unlike DeConick, though, I do not see these developments as a part of the orthodox growth of Christianity. Nevertheless, I believe that the early sayings of Jesus found in the Gospel of Thomas bear study, even if they do not have the weight of canonical text or inspired scripture. April DeConick, Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2005) and The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation: With a Commentary and  a New English Translation of the Complete Gospel (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2006).  A new book which challenges much of the early dating of the Gospel of Thomas and suggests it is dependent upon the canonical Gospels is Simon J. Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas:  Introduction and Commentary (Leiden:  Brill, 2014). I have not yet read his book.

[2] For a complete list of all the pertinent documents relating to early Christianity one can go to the site The site is a treasure trove for those wanting to explore all of the manifestations of early Christian thought, though it tends to be skeptical of the claims of Christian orthodoxy and often dates the New Testament as late as possible and the non-canonical texts as early as possible. For instance, the Gospel of the Egyptians, which is no longer extant was in use in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, but it is placed as an earlier document than the Gospel of John, which is highly unlikely, even in one opts for a late date for the Gospel of John. One can also find the excerpts from the Jewish and pagan texts at this site.