Jesus Existed

Jesus Existed

Contents


Introduction

Jesus existed.

The opinion that Jesus never existed has been around for a few centuries. However, it has always been on the fringe of scholarship, and for good reason: it is not a reputable opinion to have. The early twenty-first century, however, has seen this errant view elevated by pseudo-documentaries (e.g. Zeitgeist: The Movie) or pseudo-scholars (Richard Carrier) who lucked onto the stage of pop culture at the right time. Jesus mythicism—delivered amid a heap of insults, pejoratives, and half-truths—has acquired a veneer of credibility it does not deserve thanks to these improperly revered sources. Jesus, they say, is a fabrication of theology, a cosmic savior entirely imagined by his followers and falsely regarded as a historical figure after-the-fact. Or, as some insist, he was a fiction borne from a Roman conspiracy to tame Judean revolutionaries.

While it is easy to dismiss any mention of the scholarly consensus that Jesus existed as little more than the fallacious argument of ‘appeal to popularity’, any serious student of the subject must ask the obvious question: Why is this the consensus view, despite several centuries of higher biblical criticism demonstrating that scholars do not have a problem with casting doubt on the historicity of other parts of the Bible? This includes huge swaths of the Hebrew Bible and the gospels themselves. Whole books in the New Testament have been relegated as pseudepigraphical (literally, ‘false writings’). Yet within all this, most scholars still consider Jesus to have been a historically real person. The reason why is because this is simply the most sensible conclusion to draw from the evidence available.

This article will take a less formal approach than I usually demand of myself. My intention here is not to provide an exhaustive survey of every speck of evidence, but a general (if banal) statement in favor of Jesus’ historicity, for anyone who may arrive at my website and find themselves curious as to where I stand on the issue.


Evidence

When investigating the historicity of any person or event, the starting point is the question of evidence. It helps to consider two examples.

First, take the exodus. We have available a collection of texts which describe a series of events that affected the lands of Egypt, Canaan, and the territory between. These events took place during a forty year period sometime around 1400–1200 BCE. The events in question consisted of the utter social, ecological, and economic ruin of Egypt within a single year, the deaths of an enormous portion of its population (human, fauna, and flora), the migration of a few million people and animals, the encampment of those migrants in a desert inhospitable to such a multitude, and the violent conquest of Canaan just a few decades later.

Despite the efforts of relic hunters, archaeology has found no evidence in favor of the exodus. Egyptian records do not mention anything resembling the exodus, nor do any of their neighboring countries. Even mathematically the exodus story encounters a problem: the Hebrew population grew from about seventy people (Gen 46.26; Exo 1.5) into an estimated three million (cf. Num 1.45–46) over just four generations (Exo 6.16–20), which is plainly outrageous. All the data we have about the exodus begins with the biblical texts that mention it, but the earliest of these were not written until at least five centuries after the fact, and they cannot provide specific details on when the exodus actually happened, nor even which pharaoh was ruling at the time. Consequently, except for those whose theological convictions compel them to defend a historical exodus, scholarship across the board agrees the exodus did not happen.

The scale of the exodus demands incredible evidence, yet nothing can be mustered in its favor. Contrast this to the rulers of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The Book of Kings covers a few dozen of them, the full length of each of their narratives lasting a few pages. Many specifics are provided that help us narrow down when they ruled. What sort of evidence should we expect to find for these kings? We must take into consideration the size of their kingdoms, the lengths of their rules, the level of impact their social status enabled them to make, and the type of archaeological evidence contemporary rulers of neighboring kingdoms left behind. What we have found thus far of these biblical kings—objects like the Black Obelisk, the Mesha Stele, the Lachish letters, or various bulla seals—is more or less the sort of evidence we should expect to find.

All of this is to say: the type and amount of evidence we should expect to find for a historical event or person must be proportionate to the type of event or person in question. A nation-ending catastrophe should leave behind a wealth of evidence, not zero. The memorable king of a minor Near Eastern kingdom will probably leave behind a smattering of artifacts, or receive a few mentions by his neighbors. When we look at the evidence for Jesus’ historicity, it is vital that we maintain perspective on this point: the evidence should be proportionate to the type of person he was and the scale of impact he made.


Paul

The earliest surviving evidence we have for Jesus, of any kind, are the letters of Paul. Specifically, seven of the thirteen letters attributed to him in the New Testament. Paul does not provide much in the way of autobiographical information, but the few historical details he does offer up allow us to estimate that his seven letters were written in the range of 50–60 CE. Paul indicates that he had been a follower of Jesus for about two decades by the time he was writing some of these letters (cf. Gal 1.18; 2.1), and he indicates that he joined the Jesus movement after it had already been around some time (Gal 1.13; 1 Cor 15.8). And while Paul never suggests he personally met Jesus (outside his visionary experiences, anyway), he did meet with three men reputed as ‘pillars’ of the movement: a man named John, a man known as Cephas or Peter (Aramaic and Greek for ‘rock’, respectively), and a man named James.

Although Paul refers to all three of these men as ‘pillars’, he mentions that Cephas/Peter behaved more conservatively when ‘men from James’ were around (Gal 2.12), hinting that James was regarded as the chief authority in the Jesus movement. Alongside this, Paul singles out this James as ‘the brother of the Lord’ (Gal 1.19). Paul uses the word ‘brother’ (αδελφος) frequently for fellow members of the Jesus movement, but he does not refer to just anyone as being the brothers of Jesus. Paul only twice mentions ‘brothers of the Lord’ in his seven letters: the previous reference to James, and another occasion where he refers to a sub-grouping of leaders which excludes Cephas/Peter, himself, and at least some of the apostles (1 Cor 9.5). It is not unusual for the immediate family members a founder to succeed them in leadership after their death, and it does seem James succeeded his brother Jesus as the leader of his movement.

There are a variety of other statements from Paul to bring together: Jesus was descended from David (Rom 1.3), had a body of flesh (Rom 8.3), was subject to the Torah (Gal 4.4), and was crucified (1 Cor 2.2). Paul’s occasionally awkward phrasing in regards to Jesus’ origins (Gal 4.4, ‘born of a woman’; Rom 8.3, sent ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’; Php 2.7, ‘born in human likeness’) are understandable in a context where Paul believed that Jesus was the human incarnation of a pre-existent divine being, born to a Torah-observant lineage descended from David, and executed by Roman authorities.

Alternate explanations to account for each of these statements from Paul stretch plausibility. This may be on account of the lack of evidence in their favor (such as the infamous ‘cosmic sperm bank’ argued by one pseudo-scholar to dismiss the attribution of Jesus as descended from David). Or, more often the case, the transparent misrepresentation of unrelated texts, such as the claim the New Testament belief in an angelic being named Jesus ultimately derives from Zech 3 (where a symbolic vision shows the high priest Jeshua, the prophet’s historical contemporary, being defended by an angel in a heavenly courtroom).

What is the simplest explanation for how Paul talks about Jesus? That he understood Jesus to be a recent, very real historical person, upon whom Paul (and others) fixated various theological claims found within Second Temple Judaism. The details which Paul provides his readers converge on a period shortly before 35 CE for the origins of the Jesus movement, and hence Jesus’ crucifixion.


Gospels

While the authors of the gospels were not writing history books, a helpful comparison may be made to Tacitus and Suetonius, historians who wrote about the Roman emperors. Suetonius, for example, reported that Emperor Nero hated the older buildings of Rome so much that he set fire to them, which caused a city-wide blaze that lasted a full week. As Nero watched his city burn from a tower, he dressed in a stage costume and sang about the destruction of Troy (Twelve Caesars: Nero 38). However, Tacitus provides the more likely history of the events: Nero wasn’t even in Rome at the time the fire began, but rather in Antium (a town further south). When news reached him that Rome was burning he hurried back to coordinate relief efforts, though perhaps with mind to exploit the situation for his own benefit (Annals 15.38–39).

Suetonius’ story is understandable as a product of authentically historical elements coalescing into a non-historical form. Nero was known to be volatile and prone to acts of violence, he was known for his love of music and stageplays, and there was an immense fire in Rome during his reign. It would be absurd to conclude that Nero never existed simply because Suetonius recounted non-historical versions of events which involved Nero. The responsible approach to the story would be to temper it against more reliable information about the time period (e.g. the contradictory account from Tacitus), and to ask why Suetonius—an obviously well-researched author—would favor the less likely version of events when telling about the fire. It has been suggested that Suetonius had an especially negative opinion of Nero, and so exaggerated or invented stories about the emperor to defame him. Understanding this allows us to approach the rest of Suetonius’ narrative with a critical eye that, while not guaranteed to be completely accurate, helps us detect where his stories about Nero diverge from historical fact.

Critical scholarship does not shy away from arguing that portions of the gospels might not be historical or certainly cannot be. (I will focus here primarily on the synoptic gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke.) Each author felt creatively free to edit their source texts and to invent new material to tell the story of Jesus in a way that resonated with them and their individual communities. This literary innovation is important for understanding how each author molded Jesus to their unique theological agendas, but it often overshadows a basic premise: they were working with pre-existing sources about Jesus. Mark did not invent his gospel narrative wholecloth, and Matthew and Luke did not completely invent the text their narratives contain in addition to their usage of Mark.

Mark was written around 75 CE, and some of his stories about Jesus reflect knowledge of the outcome of the Judean-Roman War. However, he also appears to have used much older sources: the baptism of Jesus by John, a pair of collections of miracle stories (found in chapters 4–8), a collection of controversy stories (chapters 2–3), a collection of parables (3–4 and 12–13), some eschatological teachings (especially parts of chapter 13), as well as the passion narrative (14–15). All of these show Mark’s editorial hand at work, but having a critical eye to detect where this editorialization happens does not mean identifying every story as pure fabrication. This approach applies further to Matthew and Luke; even when accounting for those authors’ theological agendas, our portrait of Jesus does not substantially change. This portrait also clicks with the biographical hints provided by Paul: Jesus’ death happens around 30 CE, he has a sibling named James and followers named John and Cephas/Peter.

Readers are justified in doubting the historicity of certain parts of the gospels, and some passages bear unmistakable anachronisms from a later period. Yet there is nothing anywhere in the gospels or their sources which suggest someone took an angelic being from the realm of theological speculation and laborously attempted to ground him in the realm of actual history. This is why the ‘criterion of embarrassment’ is a helpful tool. For example, if Jesus’ followers originally understood him to be an infallible angelic being, it is improbable their historicization of Jesus would involve him seeking out a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1.4). When we really put pressure on this detail, is the idea that Mark (or his source) completely fabricated this story—a story which implies Jesus was guilty of sin and needed John the baptizer to mediate his forgiveness via baptism, thereby diminishing Jesus’ authority relative to John’s—really the most sensible explanation? The mythicist claim strains credulity.


Conclusion

There are a few other early sources that may be considered. Josephus, another ancient historian, mentions Jesus on two separate occasions. One describes Jesus’ career and death, placed sometime in the late 20s or early 30s CE. This passage has, undeniably, been tampered with to make Josephus appear to be a Christian. When the most obviously Christian phrasing is emended or removed, the result is a brief summary that fits Josephus’ tendency to provide short asides on notable figures within his history. The other passage describes the murder of a reputable religious leader in Jerusalem named James circa 62 CE. Josephus identifies this James as the brother of a man named Jesus, the latter of which was regarded by some as the Messiah. This passage shows no signs tampering has taken place; James is killed amid a power vacuum in Jerusalem, and his familial relationship to Jesus is secondary, merely providing a way of distinguishing which ‘James’ is meant. Tacitus likewise briefly mentions the founding of the ‘Christians’ by a man executed in the land of Judah by Pontius Pilate, though Tacitus appears to mistakenly think the man’s name was ‘Christus’.

When we use the information from Josephus and Tacitus to supplement Paul and the gospel sources, this is the resulting portrait: Jesus was probably born in Nazareth, and followed the family business of craftsmanship, though he may have resettled in Capernaum. He had a few siblings, one of which was named James. Around 28–29 CE he was swept up by the teachings of a prophetic figure named John, who baptized Jesus. Soon after, Jesus returned to his home region, where he traveled between its rural communities as a theological teacher. He built up a small following as he engaged in healing practices, dispensed sapiential parables about God’s coming kingdom, and debated Torah with other religious leaders. After perhaps a year, Jesus visited Jerusalem according to the Passover pilgrimage custom. There, he caused a public disruption in the temple, and was soon after executed by a Roman prefect who was later removed from office by his superiors because of his notorious cruelty.

While it may be tempting to cast doubt on the historicity of Jesus by claiming his crucifixion should have brought his following to an abrupt and stern end, we do not need to look far to find examples of religious movements surviving the apparent failure/death of their founding leadership. The Sabbateans were a group of Jews who continued to believe Sabbatai Zevi, a seventeenth century rabbi, was the Messiah even after he converted to Islam and abandoned his followers. Millerism was a Christian movement which, following the teachings of William Miller, fully believed Jesus would return in 1844. Although the predicted date failed to produce anything, many of the Millerites continued waiting for Jesus’ imminent return; the Seventh-day Adventist Church descends from Millerism, and incorporates the 1844 prediction into its denomination’s theology. A small number of Jews today still believe the rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson will be revealed as the Messiah, despite that he died in 1994. There is also the recent case of Harold Camping, a Christian radio host who, despite numerous failed attempts to predict the date of the rapture, yet managed to secure a widespread following in the early twenty-first century before his final prediction also failed and he soon after died.

In historical terms, the portrait of Jesus that we find in our early sources is not remarkable. His theology was close to the Pharisees, and he used methods of argumentation (e.g. ‘light and heavy’, ‘construction of the father’) preserved in rabbinic literature. His eschatological teachings, in some ways, resembled that of the Essenes; circumstantial evidence connects John the baptizer to the Essenes, so Jesus may have picked these ideas up through time as John’s student. Some miracle-workers from the era are known, such as Ḥoni the circle-maker. We also have figures who led revolts or thought themselves to be a prophet or the Messiah only to be executed (e.g. John the baptizer, Judah of Galilee, Theudas).

This is why I find mythicism unconvincing. Everything we can discern about Jesus is completely plausible for a historical figure we might expect to have emerged from the time, place, and culture Jesus is supposed to have come from. The type of evidence, and the amount of evidence, is proportionate to the sort of person he was: a lower class figure whose initial following was primarily rural and uneducated, but which acquired literate followers over time, who penned short documents containing traditions about Jesus and his teachings, documents which were later still gathered together and edited into a more complete narrative about his public career.

Comments