By Josh Penduck
Just before Christmas, I read an article from the Washington Post asking the question if the historical Jesus actually existed. The article eventually opts for an agnosticism on the matter, and claims that mainstream scholars have little of substance to say (adding that Biblical historians use ‘atrocious’ methods). The article had sympathy with Richard Carrier’s idea that belief in Jesus started out as him being a purely celestial being, and gradually over time people began to imagine him as a historical figure.
This type of nonsense has become a staple diet for broadsheet newspapers over the last few years, and it almost doesn’t feel like Christmas until you have banged your head against the wall after reading such an article. The culprit ‘arguments’ usually go along the lines of this: 1) Jesus has a few similarities to ancient mythical figures; 2) The Gospels are unreliable as source material because they like Jesus, and have such things as miracles; historical scholarship has also discovered multiple sources behind the Gospels; 3) St Paul talks about a spiritual and Heavenly Jesus a lot; 4) There is a lack of eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus, in particular from sources that are impartial or opposed to Christianity or Jesus.
The problem is not so much that people ask the question over whether the historical Jesus actually existed. Nor is it that random people publish this stuff. It’s more that reputable newspapers like The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Independent actually publish it, meaning that otherwise reasonable people believe it. Sometimes the people who believe that there was no historical Jesus then think themselves superior in doing so, and label anyone who actually thinks otherwise as hiding from ‘the facts’. So, I’m going to give a few reasons why you can happily laugh at these kinds of articles. These are only five reasons – I could give you many more – but I think that together they add up to a pretty good case for believing that Jesus existed.
1) The Gospels have surprisingly little to say about later Christian debates, especially those from the period in which the Gospels were written. Let’s imagine that I am part of a society of t-shirt lovers, and we are currently having a big debate about whether we should wear blue or red t-shirts. We have principles and beliefs, but as far as we know, no actual founder. Now, in this big debate I believe in wearing red t-shirts. I decide that what we need is to make up a founder of our society, and so I create a character who is a personalised form of our society’s principles. Then I write a story all about him. I’ll call him George Chrust. Because I believe in red t-shirts rather than blue ones, one of the things I’d certainly write about is George Chrust saying that we should wear red t-shirts, or at least have him talk about the issue of what t-shirts to wear. Because what’s the point in inventing someone unless they talk about the big issues of what concerns my society today? The same goes with the early Church. The Church began as a Jewish sect, and gradually began to include non-Jews. So the big issue of the time is whether these non-Jews should be circumcised or not. It almost splits the Church from the start. If Jesus was invented, we should expect to see the Jesus-character in the Gospels talking about circumcision. But he doesn’t mention it once. This, if anything, should indicate that the Gospels have some level of historicity to them, because why invent a figure who doesn’t talk about the big issues of the society he set up?
2) The Gospels mention a few embarrassing things about Jesus. People may say we don’t know what was embarrassing in those days, but some things are certainly embarrassing about any society before the 20th Century. So, according to the Gospels, Jesus’ family think that he is insane and that the local teachers think he is demon possessed. Imagine my t-shirt society and it’s imaginary founder, George Chrust. What if I told you that George’s mother and brothers thought he had huge mental health issues, and that his teachers thought that he may be evil? You’d certainly have questions about him, and doubts about whether he was a good person to follow after. You may even have doubts about the t-shirt society. As such, I wouldn’t include such stories as part of my invented story about George Chrust. I’d write only the best stuff about him. Once again this indicates that the Gospels don’t simply invent history. Things are more complicated than that.
3) The Gospels mention embarrassing stories about the founding leaders of the Church, the Disciples. Many people in the Church knew the Disciples in the period that the Gospels were written. And yet the Disciples don’t come out of the Gospels particularly well. Let’s imagine me and my t-shirt society. If I’m going to add some weight to my belief that we should wear red t-shirts, I would probably add myself to the story as a Disciple myself. I’m going to say how I was with George Chrust from the beginning, that he chose me to lead the society because of my strong abilities and his love for red t-shirts. (So far so good for the non-historical Jesus case). But I’d further mention that though George Chrust was attacked, I stuck by his side and even suffered with him. I certainly wouldn’t say that I was a bad follower and even ran away when George was being attacked. And yet this is how the Gospels talk about the leading figures of the early Church, the Disciples. It simply doesn’t make sense to say that when they invented Jesus, the Disciples would make themselves look like cowards and fools as well!
4) St Paul talks about knowing Jesus’ brother. Far from not talking about the historical Jesus, St Paul mentions him quite a bit. For instance, he talks about how Jesus gave a supper for his friends, and he talks about Jesus’ crucifixion. But more to the point, he knows the people who knew Jesus. People like Jesus’ brother, James, who was the head of the Church. So if Paul doesn’t believe in the historical Jesus, what on earth is he doing saying that James is his brother? Just read Galatians 1 vs 19! Imagine me inventing George Chrust, and then saying, ‘Oh, and he was the brother of Tom over there.’ People would then turn to Tom and say, ‘Hey Tom, I didn’t know your brother founded this society?’ At which point, Tom says, ‘I don’t have a brother.’ Everyone then knows that I’m lying, and that George Chrust is completely invented. We move on in life. We don’t keep on saying that he founded our society. It simply doesn’t make sense to say that Jesus was invented when, according to St Paul’s letter – the few documents from the New Testament that all scholars view as pretty authentic – Jesus’ family were leading figures in the early Church!
5) The first Gospel was written at most forty years, at the least twenty years, but most likely just thirty years, after the events it records. The journalist Richard Carrier believes that people used to believe in a mythological or angelic being called Jesus, and that gradually people began to imagine him as a real historical figure. He notes that this happened with other figures in that period. But the problem here is that in all of the other occasions where a mythological figure becomes imagined as a historical one, the history records the figure as living hundreds or even thousands of years beforehand. The Gospels of Mark, on the other, was likely written only thirty years after the events it records, and talks about real historical figures such as Pontius Pilate and the Jewish High Priests. This means that if someone like Carrier is correct, and Jesus wasn’t a historical figure, in the space of around thirty years Christians would have gone from believing that Jesus was some celestial figure to being a fully historical figure, complete with a family and friends who are still around today. Call me credulous, but I find it difficult to believe that in just thirty years people simply forgot that they had originally believed that Jesus was simply a mythological figure.
I could go on and talk about the Jewish context in which the Gospels and St Paul’s letters were written, about the other historians who write about Jesus, and the nature of eyewitness testimony, but let’s leave it at this for the time being. I didn’t talk about miracles or things like that either, simply because I don’t want to talk about who Jesus was, only that he actually existed in history. Even though I’d argue against it, I can understand when people say that Jesus’ miracles and the claim that he was the Son of God was a bad case of a story getting out of hand. But let’s stop with this stupid idea that Jesus of Nazareth never actually existed. It doesn’t make any historical sense, and sounds more like a conspiracy theory.
Why do I say a conspiracy theory? Because in the light of the above, in order for the historical Jesus never to have actually existed, you’d have to say: A) That the writer of the Gospel of Mark simply forgot that ten or twenty years previous the biggest issue in the early Church (and one that was still dividing the Church at the time) was circumcision; B) The writers of the Gospels invented the embarrassing things about Jesus to make his character more compelling, despite there not being any parallel to this happening in any other similar kind of documents at the time; C) The Apostles happily put themselves down and told bad stories about themselves for no good reason in a culture that despised cowardice; D) The text about James being the brother of Jesus was later added in, despite there being no textual signs that it is a later edition to Paul’s letter; E) That the stuff about Pilate and the High Priests were later editions to a much older story (that would go back at least a hundred years).
But all these counter arguments are based on being overly suspicious. They all rely on the idea that this was either one of the biggest cover ups in history, or else everyone simply forgot that Jesus didn’t actually exist. If pushed, I would say that you might be able to string together a half plausible case from this to say that Jesus never existed, but your case wouldn’t stand in any reputable court. It would probably be thrown out straight away. If you typically believe in conspiracy theories, and that most of life is a cover up, fine, but we’re not going to get very far. But if you’re a genuine seeker after truth, and believe in the rational and publicly reputable means of seeking it, then let’s stop with the nonsense: of course Jesus was a historical figure. Of course he existed. Instead, let’s move on to the proper conversation: is he who he said he was, or at least who others later on said he was?