Weighing Up the Evidence for the Historical Jesus: A Response to Raphael Lataster

If Christianity is true, then one of the key questions it has to be able to answer is whether or not Jesus was an actual historical person. It might seem obvious to spell this out, but I will anyway - if there's no Christ, there's no Christianity. If Jesus is invented, then so is the religion named after him. Nobody should believe the Christian message - no matter how inspiring one finds it - if it isn't actually true and there never was a man named Jesus of Nazareth.

Charles Roffey/Flickr

If however there was an actual Jesus, then we can learn about him and determine the truth about him based on the historical records we have of his life. So it is important for any seeker of truth (religious or historical) to answer the question of whether Jesus existed in the first place.

Recently I stumbled across an article on The Conversation website on this topic that I think warrants a response. You can read the original article here, but to sketch out a brief thumbnail summary, the author wants to argue that we should divorce the Christian "Jesus of faith" from the "Jesus of history". He would argue that the former is mythical, and that the latter is only briefly attested to in a handful of secular historical documents, leading to the conclusion that we should be agnostic about whether or not Jesus actually ever existed.

This is a methodology and conclusion I find highly questionable, and I will document the reasons for my skepticism about the article as I respond to the author's claims one-by-one.

Did a man called Jesus of Nazareth walk the earth? Discussions over whether the figure known as the “Historical Jesus” actually existed primarily reflect disagreements among atheists. Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved.

Why ought Christians not be involved in any quest to find the truth about Jesus? Thinking Christians care deeply about whether or not the object of their faith is who they believe him to be and are very interested in the evidence that points in either direction. One suspects that this opening paragraph is written to preempt the overwhelming challenge to "Mythicism" from New Testament scholars who also happen to be Christians.

Numerous secular scholars have presented their own versions of the so-called “Historical Jesus” – and most of them are, as biblical scholar J.D. Crossan puts it, “an academic embarrassment”.

This is true. Perhaps the article could have finished there? The reason these academic reconstructions of Jesus all suffer so terribly is that the attempt to delineate between the historical Jesus and the historic Christ whom Christians follow is an artificial one. The earliest and most reliable depictions of Jesus we have all unanimously describe a miracle-worker who was resurrected after his execution. It might be difficult to make sense of 2000 years later, but that's the data we have. Trying to ham-fistedly force the story to fit various interpretive frameworks has so far only brought us academically embarrassing dead-ends.

The first problem we encounter when trying to discover more about the Historical Jesus is the lack of early sources. The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith.

Here we encounter an old chestnut: The earliest sources (the Gospels) "only reference the Christ of Faith." and therefore the assumption is that they are of no historical value to us today. This contention is laid to ruin by the fact that all of the contemporary scholars that the author mentions in his article draw exclusively from the Gospels to furnish their various reconstructions of the life of Jesus. If it's good enough for professional historians, it will do for me.

These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them. The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources – which they also fail to identify.

"Compiled decades after the events". Sounds bad huh? What the author knows but has chosen not to mention is that having documents that were written within mere decades of a historical event is almost unheard of in historical studies. Nearly every ancient historical event we know about has a gap of centuries between the event and the first written source we have that attests to it. The fact that the Gospels were all written within the 100 years of Christ's birth makes them remarkably contemporary to the events they describe.

And so what if the authors were Christian and were keen to promote Christianity? The question is not whether they were biased (everyone is), but whether or not their biases caused them to report and record truth or lies. Choosing to disbelieve them purely because they are Christians is like choosing not to believe stories from Holocaust survivors about conditions in the concentration camps. Aren't they similarly biased in wanting people to believe their story and take up their point of view? If their bias leads them to report honestly then it's not an issue, and we can say the same for the Christian authors of the Gospels.

Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.

"Heavily edited over time..." Anyone with a basic grasp of textual criticism knows that while there are small number of sections in a small number of manuscripts that have been edited, we have so many copies of the text that we know where the edits were made and when in history they were added. None of them concern vital elements of Christian belief, and none of them invalidate the historical testimony about Jesus. This is an argument that actually ends up strengthening the Christian position - the manuscript evidence is so very good that we are able to detect the edits and discern between them and the original phrasing.

I'm not sure that it's relevant whether or not critics trust the mundane historical claims of the gospels. The question is whether or not historians do, and they overwhelmingly do. Which means I can too.

Paul’s Epistles, written earlier than the Gospels, give us no reason to dogmatically declare Jesus must have existed. Avoiding Jesus’ earthly events and teachings, even when the latter could have bolstered his own claims, Paul only describes his “Heavenly Jesus”.

Raphael, you've just stepped into a world of pain. Gary Habermas would like you to pay attention. 1 Corinthians 15 has a section in it that scholars date to within 3-5 years of the crucifixion of Jesus:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. [1 Corinthians 15:3-8]

Firstly, can a "Heavenly Jesus" die and be buried? Paul also says "I delivered to you what I also received", which is the language of passing on rabbinical traditions. He references living eyewitnesses - Cephas (Peter), James and more than 500 fellow believers, and we know from Galatians that Paul met both Peter and James and learned from them. Any notion that Paul believes in a heavenly Jesus with no ties to actual history or human witnesses is dead because of this passage.

Also important are the sources we don’t have. There are no existing eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus. All we have are later descriptions of Jesus’ life events by non-eyewitnesses, most of whom are obviously biased.

"No existing eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus." Richard Bauckham has shown convincingly the nomological evidence that places the gospels squarely in 1st Century Palestine, when the eyewitness lived (tick). He's demonstrated from the writings of the church father Papias that the eyewitness testimony of the apostles was valued highly amongst the early Christians, who wanted to know about Jesus from people that knew him personally (tick). He's demonstrated the internal evidence that supports the tradition that Mark wrote his gospel based on the eyewitness accounts of Peter (tick), the evidence that suggests the authors of Matthew and John were both eyewitnesses themselves (tick) and the evidence that Luke was well-accustomed to the accurate historiographical approach of contemporary Greek historians of his day, which emphasised interviewing eyewitnesses (tick). While I can't do more than simply mention his work here, it gives the mythicist or anybody who claims that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses more evidence than can be easily dismissed.

Given the poor state of the existing sources, and the atrocious methods used by mainstream Biblical historians, the matter will likely never be resolved. In sum, there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence – if not to think it outright improbable.

We've already touched on the exemplary manuscript evidence for the gospels, and that there are a multitude of good reasons for thinking they were written by eyewitnesses. The methods used to derive historical information from the gospels are the exact same methods used in every area of historical study, with every other ancient text. It seems ludicrous to dismiss the entirety of the historical process just because we dislike a conclusion that it leads to about the historical existence of a particular Galilean carpenter.

The author may think that there are good reasons to doubt the existence of a historical Jesus, but I'll let the atheist New Testament scholars have the last say on that:

I don’t think there’s any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus …. We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period. - Bart Ehrman, UNC Chapel Hill 

 This view [that Jesus didn’t exist] is demonstrably false. It is fuelled by a regrettable form of atheist prejudice, which holds all the main primary sources, and Christian people, in contempt. …. Most of its proponents are also extraordinarily incompetent. - Maurice Casey, University of Nottingham
Weighing Up the Evidence for the Historical Jesus: A Response to Raphael Lataster Weighing Up the Evidence for the Historical Jesus: A Response to Raphael Lataster Reviewed by Nathan on 11:33 PM Rating: 5
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