I was listening to a podcast this week which featured Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed’s tech division who had just written a pretty dark piece featuring a term that might be new to many of us: ‘’reality apathy”. The idea is that the internet is moving beyond “fake news” to a place in which already Artificial Intelligence of certain tech is to the point that someone can edit video of anyone saying or doing anything with a level of realness that can easily fool our senses. The fear is that we will be so continually “Beset by a torrent of constant misinformation, people simply start to give up.” (https://www.buzzfeed.com/charliewarzel/the-terrifying-future-of-fake-news?) That as a society we will just simply stop investigating, stop thinking, stop reading, stop searching for truth. What happens when everything is fake news?
While it can be easy to get cynical about this, there is an opportunity here. As Christians we believe in things that we are not subject to modern manipulation. Where the modern news cycle deals in days, even hours, we deal in centuries. I believe that there is a bedrock of truthfulness about the Christian faith that can be easily investigated, and thus provide an anchor post of truth in this world of fake news. Perhaps now more than ever we need to train ourselves to think soberly and critically about the historical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. That’s what I hope to do in this series. Todays exploration: Did Jesus Really Live?
Introduce website: https://theconversation.com/weighing-up-the-evidence-for-the-historical-jesus-35319. We’re going to go Snopes on this baby today. “The Conversation: Academic Rigor, Journalistic Flair” - you have to be at least a PhD candidate to write for this site - so at least they have a standard to which they are holding their writers. The Author: tutor of religious studies at University of Sydney, so again, stressing the academic credentials. this is not fake news. But how rigorous is this piece really? Let’s go through some of his main points.
“The first problem we encounter when trying to discover more about the Historical Jesus is the lack of early sources."
Regarding the lack of early sources: True: Yet for a person of Jesus’ relative stature in the Roman Empire, it is exceptional that we have multiple, early attestations to his existence, both by those who claimed to know him or others who knew him, and by historians hostile to the Christian movement.
The first problem we encounter when trying to discover if any historical figure exists is the lack of early sources. Simply put, only a tiny percentage of a percentage of anyone who has ever lived in history puts a dent on the historical record. More soberly, most people who ever lived, especially before the time of paper and now digital archives, were forgotten within a generation.
If we were to take an objective look at the number of early sources attesting to the existence of Jesus, we must honestly conclude that yes, there are not many sources. We can admit that there are others from Jesus’ era for whom we have greater attestation of their existence. Some of the Caesars for example, are attested to by more sources, and some other government leaders … and that’s about it. What’s surprising about the life of Jesus is not the lack of early sources, but that there are any early sources at all. Jesus was not, in his lifetime, a famous man, outside of a small circle within Palestine, a fringe territory in the Roman Empire. He lived 30 years in complete anonymity as a carpenters son in a small-town in the middle of nowhere. He publicly ministered for only three years and was put to death as a disturber of the peace by local authorities. How much would you know of a school teacher all the way in Whitehorse who caused a political disturbance and was dealt with by local authorities? You might read his name in the papers the next day, but know one writing a history of Canada in 80 years would mention him. With that biography in mind, it is astounding that he stands behind only a few Caesars and political leaders in regards to number of sources attesting to his life.
Now his other claim: “The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith.”
The claim is that the earliest Christian writings knew nothing of the Jesus of History, in fact that the Jesus of history was only invented later to “fill in the story” and to overlay the Christ of faith onto the Jewish messianic expectations and to create a fictional, “historical” character. Later in the article, the author makes this stupendous, yet so easily refutable, claim.
"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”.
Even when discussing what appear to be the resurrection and the last supper, his only stated sources are his direct revelations from the Lord, and his indirect revelations from the Old Testament. In fact, Paul actually rules out human sources (see Galatians 1:11-12).”
It is claimed that the earliest Christian source, the apostle Paul, knew nothing of the Jesus of history. Paul proclaimed a cosmic Christ only, they say. And while it is true that Paul never claims to be an eye-witness to the historical Jesus, and that his focus could be described as a divine, cosmic Christ, is it honest to claim that Paul makes no reference to the historic Christ? No, it is not honest. It is not true.
13 Letters of the New Testament are attributed to the apostle Paul. Of these, seven are undisputed - meaning that no one (even the most skeptical scholars) seriously questions their authenticity. This is important, because it is in these early, undisputed letters that Paul reveals that he knew eyewitness to Jesus, received and compared his teachings with those who knew Jesus, and that he is familiar with Jesus’ teachings, which he attributes to a man who lived and spoke in history. Let’s look at some of the evidence from Paul’s letters.
In Galatians 1, Paul reveals how after he had himself received a vision of the risen Lord Jesus, he travelled to Jerusalem to meet with important colleagues of Jesus:
Gal. 1:18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.
Notice a few things here. For someone who is supposed to be only concerned with the Cosmic Christ, Paul seems very concerned here with historical times and places: three years, fifteen days, Jerusalem. He meets with Peter, a man who purports to be an eyewitness of Jesus, but most importantly, Paul reports that he met with James, the Lord’s brother. Bart Ehrman, who is by no means a Christian scholar and in fact a person who seeks to do great damage to the biblical witness to Jesus, but nevertheless wrote an entire book as a New Testament Scholar defending the historicity of Jesus, write perhaps the greatest line of commentary on this meeting when he wrote in an article for the Huffington Post: “If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it.”
Paul writes with the understanding that he is passing on a historical report from eyewitness, attesting again to the Jesus of history.
1Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, 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 at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
Here he lists many eyewitness to not only the life of Jesus, but also that some of the eyewitness are still alive at the time of his writing and if you have questions about the historicity of this, you can ask them. The entire rest of that chapter has one argument - that if Christ did not truly raise from the dead in history then there is no Christianity.
Finally Paul reveals not only that he knows about the life of the historical Jesus, he knows which teachings specifically originated from him. There is that passage in 1 Corinthians 7 in which Paul makes a distinction between Jesus’s teachings about marriage and his own instruction. This distinction underscores Paul’s interest in the teachings of the historical Jesus. To argue that Paul only knew and was only concerned with a unhistorical, mythological cosmic Christ is slander of the highest order. In other places, Paul reveals that he knows that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law (Gal 4:4)”, “descended from David according to the flesh (Romans 1:3). It is simply a lie to say that Paul knew nothing of and was unconcerned with the historicity of Jesus.
Let’s talk about the gospels, for this is where the author of our piece goes next:
“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.”
Yes, it is true that the gospel writers write decades later and were eager to promote Christianity. Yet this can be said of the Roman historian who wrote decades after the Caesars lived and were eager to promote the prominence of the Imperial cult of Rome, and no one throws them out of the historical record for that reason. Or, for example, a Union biographer may paint a more flattering picture of Abraham Lincoln than a biographer who had been part of the confederacy, but it would be absurd to question the historicity of Lincoln for that reason alone.
And while it is true that the authors of the gospels fail to name themselves (which seems to be merely a convention of genre), at least two of them do in fact give their qualifications to write about the life of Jesus, and each demonstrate criticism of their foundational sources. It is true that they do not identify their sources - but no one in the ancient world identified their sources - what are we expecting - footnotes? Notice carefully how the gospel we attribute to Luke begins:
Luke 1:1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Here Luke clearly demonstrates knowledge of other writings about Jesus, reveals a critical interaction with his sources, and explains his methodology in corroborating with eye-witnesses. Luke, who also write the book of Acts and reveals a personal familiarity with Paul, Peter, and the brothers of Jesus, is regarded as one of the finest historians of the ancient world, if not all of history.
So let’s have none of this nonsense about the author’s of scripture having little knowledge or concern for the Jesus of History. Any one making that claim only reveals their ignorance of the texts and the historical discussion around those text. Any attempt to marginalize these texts as Christian texts and therefore biased, and therefore seeking to remove their contribution to the historical record, demonstrates an horrific appropriation of the historical method that if it were to be applied to other historical documents would render the study of history impossible.
No matter how much you stress the point that the Bible itself contains sufficient historical attestation of the life of Jesus to satisfy that he truly existed, some will still write off Christian attestations as biased. So do we have any attestations to the life of Jesus outside of the New Testament? Surprisingly, yes we do, and good attestation. Now again, even this evidence can be written off by the committed skeptic, for example, our writer:
Little can be gleaned from the few non-Biblical and non-Christian sources, with only Roman scholar Josephus and historian Tacitus having any reasonable claim to be writing about Jesus within 100 years of his life.
This is staggeringly false: We’re told that only Josephus and Tacitus mention Jesus - yet these only the most greatest Jewish historian of the ancient world, and the greatest Roman historian of the ancient world. Its like arguing about the definition of a word and claiming that the only dictionaries that recognize that meaning are Meriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary. The fact that both Tacitus and Josephus mention Jesus, who as I said above was not a famous man in his lifetime outside of a small circle in Palestine, should immediately shift the burden of proof on anyone who claims Jesus’ non-existence.
For my money, Tacitus’ attestation is the most convincing, not only because of his universally recognized skill as a historian, but because he had been a member of a religious organization in charged with investigating the origins of non-Roman religions. Read Tacitus’ account:
[N]either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts … whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ [Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate … Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular.
Tacitus is not friendly toward Christians, but confirms that this “Crestus”, as he called him, was executed in the reign of Tiberias, by the procurator Pontius Pilate, and that a religious movement erupted in his name afterward. The reference to Pontius Palate is very important as there is good reason to believe that Tacitus had access to Roman archives through his work investigating non-Roman religions.
Josephus, the greatest Jewish historian of the ancient world, mentions Jesus twice, two chapters apart from each other in his work called Antiquities. Now, there is some skepticism about the first reference, but the thing is, the second reference (which no one denies as authentic) does not make sense without the first reference. So in the second reference in chapter 20, Josephus writes,
Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.
Again, this is a skeptical distanced account of a trial including someone directly connected to Jesus - again, his brother, James. And note that Josephus is not favourably disposed to Jesus, but records the account as, well, a historian. Finally, notice that no other details about James or Jesus are given here to provide a context for this account - which means either that the identity of Jesus and James are so well established that there need not be any context given, or that we should read carefully to see if Josephus supplied any context. And if you read Josephus carefully you will find that only two chapters earlier more of the story is indeed given supplying adequate context:
Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him, for on the third day, he appeared to them restored to life. The prophets of God had prophesied this and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out.
Now, I have shaded out some of the lines of the text, not because they are textually disputed: every Greek manuscript that we have found to this day, all include all of the words of the passage. However, most scholars agree that while the phrases in black are written in Josephus’ style and vocabulary, the portions in grey could not have been written by Josephus, for if he wrote those things he would not be a Jewish historian, but a Christian! Yet even if we concede that only the black text is original to Jospehus, we still are left with the most important Jewish historian testifying about the existence of Jesus.
Taken together with Tacitus, we have the two most important historians of the ancient world attesting that:
- Jesus existed as a historical figure,
- that His personal name was Jesus, but that he was called Christos in Greek,
- that he had a brother named James, executed in the 60’s
- that He won over both Jews and “Greeks”,
- that Jewish leaders of the day expressed unfavorable opinions about him,
- that Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed, and that His execution was specifically by crucifixion,
- and that He inspired a movement of people bearing His name that spread across the Empire, becoming boredom to Nero.
All of the above is consistent with the facts of Jesus’ life recorded in the writings of Paul, the Gospels, and other New Testament documents.
- The Historical Existence of Jesus Christ is Unprecedented in the Ancient World: No other wandering backwater rabbi is given such attestation.
- The Emphasis of the New Testament is not in Arguing for His Existence (It is assumed as Indisputable Fact) but in Explaining the Significance of His Life, Death and Resurrection.
1John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.