Thursday, January 04, 2007
Response: Did Jesus Exist?
When you boil this challenge down to "proof" that might be acceptable in a modern US court room, you've got big problems. There's no direct evidence of Jesus of Galilee. All the evidence that we have of Jesus was created after the fact. The earliest known texts discussing Jesus, such as the Gospel of Thomas, were written no less than 15-20 years after the crucification of Jesus. Mark came a bit later, around 30 AD, then Matthew (45 AD), and Luke (50-55 AD). All three of these share a common source (called "quell" by the scholars or Q for short) and structure. Because these are so similar, they are called the "synoptic gospels". John, which is so entirely different from the other gospels that it is called the "logos gospel" (logos being the Greek word for "word"), also came much, much later. Incidentally, it is the least flattering toward Jews in general and is also the only gospel written after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Non-Christian sources are also very light in terms of court room evidence. The contemporary historian Flavius Josephus wrote a lot about Christ and Christians. But his writings were entirely in the second-hand, such as my paraphrase of "I've heard a lot about this Jesus of Galilee, a worker of many miracles, and his followers are still very active in and around Galilee." That's hardly a smoking gun. What about other Roman sources? After all, the Romans were scrupulous record keepers. Unfortunately, they also used paper, most of which burned during the barbarian invasions. So there's no record of Christ's crucificion beyond a few blanket entries from the general time period that say things like "14,000 Judean rebels crucified". Nor is there even a record of the census called for by Augustus Caesar described at the beginning of the Nativity story in Luke. But does that mean that Jesus does not exist?
I'm not a forensic scientist nor am I a scholar. But I believe that there's a good analogy for proof of Jesus' existance. Here's the analogy - in constructing climatic records, scientists are only able to go back (at best) a couple centuries to examine actual hand-written records about the climate of a given time and place. But scientists are able to tell very definitively what the weather patterns were in certain areas centuries and even millenium in the past. How so? By examining a variety of other, non-written sources. For example, scientists can examine the rings of trees for evidence of forest fires, plus whether it was a wet or dry year. Scientists can also turn to rodent midden's that were buried and forgotten. Rats, mice, and other critters pack away food collected in about a 100 foot radius from their dens and, along with the food, lots of pollen from the vegetation of the area. Scientists can see, for example, whether pollen was present from trees at the time the midden was stocked to determine if a now desert and arid region once supported a forest. The midden can then be carbon-dated to correlate the vegetation of the region with the weather at the time the midden was stocked.
Similarly, we don't actually have to see physical evidence of Jesus himself to have a relatively strong assurance that he existed. For example, there are much stronger church records about the existence of James, brother of Jesus, and pre-eminent leader of the Christians in Jerusalem. Paul, in his epistles, mentions James and the poverty stricken Christians of Jerusalem a number of times. James is also mentioned in other early church records from the likes of Clement, Origen, and Ireneus. Ok, so - there's some proof that a guy claiming to be Jesus brother exists. But what else?
I think another very strong testamony to the existence of Jesus is the behavior of the Apostles after Jesus' crucifiction. Once again, we don't have court room evidence of Jesus himself. But we do have ample documentation of the lives of the people he touched. One question that puzzles me is this - why would the Apostles endure terrible torture and horrific deaths for someone who didn't exist? For example, Peter was crucified upside down because he requested it, saying that he wasn't worthy to be crucified in the same way as his Lord. Paul, thanks to his Roman citizenship, didn't have to endure a slow, torturous death and was instead granted a quick beheading. (Those merciful Romans!)
Every other apostle, with the exception of John, were also martyred for their faith. Even John, who claimed that his long life was due to Jesus' greater affection for him than for the other Apostles, upheld Christ and the gospel until his death amongst the other Believers at the church in Antioch.
So, in summary, I think of the lives and behavior of the Apostles as that of people who'd experienced someone very special - someone so special that their lives were forever changed. To continue the analogy, I don't know about a forest fire occuring at a specific time in a primeval forest. But what if the tree rings indicate an enormous outpouring of soot and carbon at a single date in the past? Hmmmm... Certainly looks like a forest fire to me.
Now, that brings me to what is a much more difficult question in my mind, that is - did the Apostles (along with Paul) get it right? Did Jesus' message get corrupted, altered, or expanded? Should Jesus more accurately be described as an Old Testament-style prophet for the Jews rather than a spiritual messiah for all races? Jesus certainly comes from the prophetic tradition and he was, above all other things, a righteous and conscientious Jew who was concerned for other Jews. And, in either case (prophet or messiah), what is his message to me today?
Food for thought...
Thanks for the detailed response to my post. Here are some responses to the points you make, picked at random from your post:
>>The earliest known texts discussing Jesus, such as the Gospel of Thomas, were written no less than 15-20 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. Mark came a bit later, around 30 AD, then Matthew (45 AD), and Luke (50-55 AD).
The dates on all of these are off, in my opinion. No scholar except those of ultra conservative schools of thought dates any of the gospels before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (c. 70 CE) because they “predict” it (e.g., Matthew 24). See Wikipedia’s entry on the Gospel of Matthew, for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Matthew#Date_of_gospel.
Also, the earliest books are the authentic epistles of Paul. These include Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galations, Ephesians and maybe one or two others. The pastoral epistles (I & II Timothy, and Titus) are almost certainly pseudopigraphal.
These books mention almost nothing of the Jesus of the gospels. No virgin birth, no miracles, no teachings or parables, no appearance before Pilate or the Sanhedrin, no baptism, no temptation in the wilderness, no Joseph or Mary—none of these things. In fact, they talk about Jesus as though if he ever existed, it was at some distant point in the past—much longer ago than a mere few decades. They can, in fact, be interpreted to be referring to a spiritual Jesus only or perhaps to a Jesus that existed physically but that was resurrected spiritually, not bodily.
>>The contemporary historian Flavius Josephus wrote a lot about Christ and Christians. But his writings were entirely in the second-hand, such as my paraphrase of "I've heard a lot about this Jesus of Galilee, a worker of many miracles, and his followers are still very active in and around Galilee."
Josephus actually wrote very little about Jesus, even though the extant copies of his work are entirely from Christian sources. There are only two passages in Josephus’ complete works that mention Jesus. I’ll cover both of these. Let’s start with the least significant of them (Antiquities of the Jews xx 9.1):
“…Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned…” (http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=2359&pageno=648)
So, there’s a passing reference to Jesus here, but not much more than his name. I’ll come back to this one. Here’s the more substantial reference (Antiquities of the Jews xviii 3.3):
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
To say that it strains credulity to believe that a devout Jew such as Josephus would effuse about Jesus as this passage maintains is an understatement. Virtually all non-Christian scholars (and many Christian ones, for that matter) discount the majority of the above text as an interpolation by a Christian copyist. He evidently recognized the same problem I’ve pointed out many times—that there’s virtually no hard evidence that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived—and decided to invent some.
Besides Josephus’ own religious beliefs, there are many other reasons for not accepting the above passage as authentic. One, the great Christian thinker Origen, writing after Josephus’ works were published, neglects ever to mention the passage even though he discusses Josephus’ works extensively. He even goes so far as to say that Josephus did not believe in Jesus and did not accept him as the Christ. Surely he would have been familiar with the passage had it existed, and surely he’d have known about Josephus’ unequivocal pronouncement about Jesus had Josephus actually said such a thing.
Two, the entire section amounts to a deviation from the points Josephus is making at the time; there is an abrupt and obvious interruption in the flow of thought he has established. Remove it, and the passage reads much more smoothly.
Three, the notion that such an effusion would be as isolated as it is here strains belief. If Josephus really felt this way about Jesus, he’d have mentioned him far more than he evidently does and would have heaped similar praise on him elsewhere in his writings. Alas, that’s not the case. Other than the two passages cited, Josephus never mentions Jesus.
Fourth, and this takes us back to the first citation as well: the idea that Josephus would refer to Jesus as “the Christ” is highly suspect—not because the title can only refer to divinity, but because it is a title in the first place, not a name, and betrays a Christology (doctrine of Christ) that did not yet exist at the time Josephus wrote, especially outside the church. It is an anachronism. If Jesus ever lived, he almost certainly was not called “Jesus Christ” or “Jesus the Christ” while he lived or anytime soon there after. It was decades after his death before that title began to be applied to him, and, even then, that was almost exclusively within the church for some time. Prior to that, he was probably known as “Jesus, son of Joseph” (Yeshua ben Yosef) or “Jesus of Nazareth.” Josephus, as an historian, especially a Jewish one, would have preserved this conventional naming rather than labeling Jesus “the Christ,” unless, of course, we are to believe he had become a Christian himself, contrary to what Origen wrote.
Wikipedia has a great article on Josephus’ comments about Jesus that you can read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_and_jesus.
>>Nor is there even a record of the census called for by Augustus Caesar described at the beginning of the Nativity story in Luke.
There’s no record of this because Judea was not yet a Roman province when Jesus was ostensibly born (c. 1 CE). Judea did not become a Roman province until 6 CE, thus, Rome had no authority to tax or require a census of the citizens of Judea at the time of the birth of Christ. Unless, of course, the calendar is very far off, something else I’ve discussed on occasion, this census could not have occurred when Luke says it did.
While I’m on the subject: the notion that Joseph would have had to have returned to his ancestral homeland because of a Roman census is absurd. The Romans were interested in what they would tax from their subjects where they lived, not where their ancestors did. Registering in Nazareth would have been just fine with the Romans (had Nazareth, in fact, existed in the first century, but that is another story).
>>By examining a variety of other, non-written sources.
So, you are saying that the physical existence of Jesus can be determined through indirect means. Before I get to that, does it not seem strange that there’s such scant direct evidence for the most important person who ever lived? Doesn’t it seem weird that there’s more evidence for the existence of King Tut or Weird Al Yankovic than for Jesus? Now let me address your indirect evidence.
>>For example, there are much stronger church records about the existence of James, brother of Jesus, and pre-eminent leader of the Christians in Jerusalem. Paul, in his epistles, mentions James and the poverty stricken Christians of Jerusalem a number of times.
The term “brother of Jesus” does not necessarily mean biological brother. It could mean biological brother, cousin, step-brother, or just fellow believer. The same Greek word is used in many difference contexts. The fact is: we don’t know exactly what it means. By traditional Christian doctrine alone, it can’t mean full biological brother because Jesus’ father was God himself. And according to the Catholics, Mary remained a virgin in perpetuity, and James and his siblings were either Jesus’ cousins or children Joseph had had with a previous wife. The gospels mention four brothers of Jesus (James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas), but we have to remember that these are Christian sources. If we accept Christian sources uncritically, there’s ample evidence that Jesus existed historically without needing to resort to his brothers. But thanks to that census we talked about not having ever been taken (or its records not being extant, depending on your point of view), we have no secular evidence that Joseph, Mary, or any of their alleged children ever existed. It is strange that none of their descendents appear in any historical records ever. Let’s assume James was the brother of Jesus and was killed for his faith. Did he not have a wife or children of his own? Where are they in the historical record, or, for that matter, in church records? You could ask the same question about virtually any New Testament personage: Peter, John, Paul, etc. Even assuming that many of them were martyred for their faith (which is a shaky assumption, as I’ll get to in a moment), where are their descendents? What became of them? That they all disappear by the second century literally reeks of mythology.
>>I think another very strong testimony to the existence of Jesus is the behavior of the Apostles after Jesus' crucifixion…why would the Apostles endure terrible torture and horrific deaths for someone who didn't exist?
You might ask the same question about any group of people who were willing to die for their god or their beliefs. Take Jim Jones and his Jonestown folks. Hundreds died for their faith in Jim. Take the Branch Davidians or the Heaven’s Gate people. All died for their delusions. Take the September 11th bombers—they died pretty grisly deaths, as has every suicide bomber that has ever struck, but they did so for their beliefs. And remember that this doesn’t apply exclusively to religious zealots. Take the Nazis, for example. Millions died out of allegiance to Hitler and Nazism. The list could go on and on. The fact that some will die for a belief doesn’t make it any more true. It may indicate that they believed it to be true, but it does not in and of itself shed any light on whether the belief itself is factual.
And, one more thing: many of the martyrdom stories about the apostles and others of the early church are either unsubstantiated by historical evidence or completely fictitious. There are no records of the martyrdom of either Peter or Paul outside the church. The imperial court records of ancient Rome, many of which are still extant, make no mention of either of them. The Acts of the Apostles, the most logical place to record their martyrdom, does not record their deaths, but instead ends with Paul in prison in Rome. That he was beheaded and Peter was crucified (upside-down or otherwise) is based on church traditions dating decades or centuries after the supposed events. That doesn’t mean they didn’t occur, but isn’t it strange that none of the gospels, all of which were likely written after the death of both men, detail their deaths? Acts was written after the Gospel of Luke and certainly after the death of Paul if the church traditions about his death are true—why does it not record his death at the hands of Nero (who was deposed in 68 CE, well before any of the gospels were written)? The Gospel of John alludes to Peter’s death via this curious passage in chapter 21:
18 “…I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.
Doesn’t sound like crucifixion to me. Sounds like Peter will live into old age and will not be able to dress himself or get around very well.
On the whole question of historicity: wouldn’t it have been easier if God had seen fit to have preserved at least some incontrovertible extra-biblical evidence that Jesus and his disciples existed? Wouldn’t that make the whole discussion moot? Wouldn’t it be nice if no one challenged the existence of Jesus any more than they challenge the existence of Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln or Julius Caesar? Wouldn’t that make the world a better place and save a lot of souls a lot of pain? I’d love for someone to explain to me why it’s better that we have to guess about whether Jesus ever existed than to have concrete evidence that he did. And—please—don’t try the “faith” argument on me. There’s plenty of room left for faith once we establish that Jesus, in fact, did exist historically. For me, the evidence makes a lot more sense when viewed from the opposite direction.
PEACE BE WITH YOU