“It was a surprise for me to see how influential mythicists are. Historically they’ve been significant and in the Soviet-Union, in fact, the mythicists view was the dominant view, and even today, in some parts of the west – parts of Scandinavia- it is a dominant view that Jesus never existed.” – Bart Ehrman
This is a discussion that needs to be had because there are a lot of atheists out there who believe there never was a historical Jesus. These people often call themselves mythicists because they think Jesus is nothing more than a myth. So what I’m going to do in this post is defend the position that there was a historical Jesus. Bare in mind that this is not the same as saying that there was a theological Jesus. The two have almost nothing in common and are almost completely different.
But before we go into the evidence, there are some other things that need to be addressed again. So let me repeat what I have said in my previous post about what it is that historians do.
What is it that Historians do?
It’s very important to clarify again what it is that historians do before we go into the evidence. Historians try to construct an image of the past, not reconstruct it. We can’t reconstruct the past, because once something is in the past, it’s gone. We can’t get back to it and we can only construct a view of what probably happend using the sources available.
Historians try to establish what probably happend in the past.
So this means that we can’t know what happend in the past, we can only have levels of probability about what happend in the past or not. So how do historians establish what probably happend in the past? Well, they use something called the “historical method” and it goes a little like this:
1. Any given source of historical information may be forged or corrupted.
2. First-hand information is more credible than second-hand information, which is more credible than third hand information, etc.
3. The more time transpires before recording an event , the less reliable the narrative becomes.
4. Multiple, independent accounts should all converge onto the same message in order for that information to be credible.
5. The more implausible the events are with respect to the known laws of physics, the less reliable the narrative becomes.
6. The more languages the record has been translated through, the less reliable it becomes.
7. The more biased a source is, either politically or socially, the less reliable that record becomes.
8. The more relics that can support a narrative, the more reliable it becomes.
What immediately becomes evident when you apply these rules to the gospels, is that they are historically unreliable for the most. The gospels are written decades after the alleged events by Greek speaking Christians who didn’t get their information first-hand and talk about events that can not historically be attested for because they violate the known laws of physics.
For instance. If a Christian tries to argue that the “Resurrection” really did happen, all you have to do is point him or her to the historical method and tell him or her that somebody being resurrected after being dead for three days is a violation of the known laws of physics and therefore it’s extremely improbable that it did happen. Even if it did happen, it can’t be proven historically since a miracle is the least probable explanation of an event. So the resurrection is in all cases a theological explanation, not a historical one.
But can we use the Gospels as historical sources at all? Yes, we can and must. Here’s what Bart Ehrman says about it in his book “Did Jesus Exist?”
“We don’t dismiss early American accounts of the Revolutionary War simply because they were written by Americans. We take their biases into consideration and sometimes take their descriptions of events with a pound of salt. But we do not refuse to use them as historical sources. To refuse to use them as sources is to sacrifice the most important avenues to the past we have, and on purely ideological, not historical grounds. So too the Gospels. Whatever one thinks of them as inspired scripture, they can be seen and used as significant historical sources.” (page 74)
The Matter at Hand
One would think that due to the nature of the gospels and other writings in the NT, proving that Jesus existed is a tough job if not an impossible one. Let’s face it, the virgin birth can’t be proven with the historical method, as well as Jesus walking on water and the resurrection. So all three events are highly improbable. The gospels, our main sources for learning about Jesus, were written decades after he died by people who got their stories not even second-hand and who were socially biased. But remember, we’re trying to establish whether or not Jesus existed. The improbability of the virgin birth, walking on water and the resurrection is irrelevant to the question whether or not Jesus existed.
One of the arguments used by the mythicists for instance to prove that Jesus never existed is to say that the town of Nazareth never existed at the time Jesus was born. Now, whether or not this is true is irrelevant to the question if Jesus existed. Proof that Nazareth never existed at the time Jesus was born, is proof that Nazareth never existed at that particular point in history, not proof that Jesus didn’t exist. Whether or not Barack Obama was born in the U.S. is irrelevant to the question of whether he was born.
Let me start off by talking about what we don’t have as evidence.
1. We don’t have any physical evidence.
2. We have no first century documents about Jesus.
3. We have no eyewitness accounts.
Mythicists are quick to point these three points out and true as it may be, this doesn’t make our job proving there is a historical Jesus impossible because there is other evidence. So let’s take a look at what we do have.
Argument from Authority
Maybe not the most relevant evidence, but important none the less. No professor teaching antiquities, New Testament studies or classical history on a major university in the western world teaches that Jesus does not exist. The issue whether or not Jesus existed, isn’t even an issue amongst these scholars as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman points out in the video below.
Professor Ehrman points out that if you want to disprove the consensus on the universities that the theory of evolution is true, one must come with extremely convincing evidence. The same goes of course for disproving the consensus that there was a historical Jesus.
The Gospels as Historical Sources
The Gospels are historical sources and should be treated as such. Now, this by no means means that the information in them is 100% accurate, but the Gospels should be examined as any other historical document from its time.
The gospel of Mark is considered our oldest gospel, written somewhere around the year 70 CE and written probably in Rome. So what we have here is a relatively full account of many things Jesus said and did and of his death by crucifixion written within 40 years after his death. How much we can trust from this account is another question.
It is commonly agreed upon that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark and used Mark as one of their sources for telling their version. Besides using parts from Mark’s gospel, the gospels of Matthew and Luke have some information not found in Mark’s gospel. Also, the gospels of Mark and Luke have information about Jesus found only in either the gospel of Matthew or the gospel of Luke. The gospels of Matthew and Luke were written somewhere between 80 and 85 CE. So within 55 years or so after Jesus his death we have three “independent” accounts about Jesus his life, assuming he lived. I use the word “independent” because Matthew and Luke also present information that’s different from Mark. Although they borrowed from Mark, they also have some independent things to tell themselves not related to each other.
But there is are still more “independent” gospels. The gospel of John presents information about Jesus not found in any of our synoptic gospels. Even when the information seems to be the same, it’s written and told in such a different way that it’s safe to say that the author of the gospel of John didn’t use any of the synoptic gospels as his source. The gospel of John is our oldest of the four, written somewhere between 90 to 95 CE. So within a century after Jesus his death, we have four sources more or less independent of one another.
There are more sources still. There is the Gospel of Thomas. Although there continues to be debate about it’s dating because some scholars would say that it’s written somewhere in the first century, it’s more widely thought that the Gospel of Thomas was written somewhere between 110-120 CE. Although there are overlaps between Thomas, Mark, Matthew and Luke, it’s commonly thought that Thomas got his information from an independent source. The same goes for the Gospel of Peter. It is also commonly thought that the gospel of Peter is based on an independent account. So we now have six more or less independent accounts of Jesus his life and death.
There is the Papyrus Egerton 2. The partial remains of this gospel consists of 4 stories about Jesus not found in any other gospel.
So this leaves us with 7 “independent” accounts about the life of Jesus. There are of course other gospels still written up till the Middel Ages, but we are not going to use those and we are going to restrict ourselves to everything written within a hundred years after Jesus his death. Why? Because with the passing of time, these accounts became less and less independent.
Written Sources for the Surviving “Witnesses”
The consensus from the mid-nineteenth century onward is that the gospels as available to us now, are based on written sources that predate the gospels but are now lost to us. Luke even tells us so:
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.” – Luke 1:1-3
There is no reason to suspect Luke is lying here. He knew of “many” earlier authors. So we can infer that Luke wasn’t very impressed by a lot of Mark’s account, even though he borrowed from Mark. Luke also had other sources besides Mark.
One of the other sources would probably have been the hypothesized “Q” source. “Q” stands for “Quelle”, German for “Well”. The reason for thinking that this source was written prior to the synoptic gospels and that it was available to Luke, has to do with the literary relationship Matthew, Mark and Luke to one another. There is obviously some kind of relationship between them since they tell many of the same stories often in the same sequence and even in the same words. Even though Matthew and Luke share a lot with Mark, they share a number of passages not found in Mark and there are solid reason to think that Luke didn’t get it from Matthew and vice versa.
Luke also contains material exclusive to Luke and scholars agree that Luke didn’t make all this up. So Luke probably used another source and this source is called “L” (Luke’s special source). If the “L” source consisted of one document or many or oral traditions, we don’t know since we don’t have the source.
The same goes for Matthew. His gospel also contains material only found in Matthew. So Matthew probably used another source scholars label as the “M” source.
So this leaves us with four “sources” from the first century: Mark, Q, L and M.
So where did Mark, Q, L and M get their stories? It’s agreed upon that they probably based their writings on oral traditions about Jesus circulating at that time. Stories about Jesus were told and retold and changed overtime as with all oral traditions.
Another interesting fact often overlooked is that the Aramaic origins of some of the oral traditions can be found in our gospels of today. Even though the gospels were written in Greek. These traditions date at least to the early years of the Christian movement.
In several passages in the gospels a key word or phrase has been left in the original Aramaic and the author writing in Greek has had to translate it for his audience. this happens for instance in Mark 5. When Jesus says “Talitha cumi” it’s not a Greek phrase. It is Aramaic. And so the author of Mark translates it for his readers. It means: “Little girl, I say to you, arise”.
This is a story originally told in Aramaic, so when it was translated into Greek, the translator left the key line in the original language so that it had to be translated by those who weren’t bilingual. This might seem strange, but actually it’s not. It happend and still happens a lot in multilingual societies. This sort of thing even happens at the end of Mark’s gospel when Jesus cries out: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachtani”. Mark is not the only gospel with this phenomena. It also occurs in John’s gospel.
There is very little dispute that some of the gospel stories originated in Aramaic and that therefore the go back to the earliest stages of Christianity. This becomes even more evident when some sentences in the gospels only make sense when they are translated back to Aramaic. An example of that phenomena is Mark 2:27-28.
Evidence from Outside of the Gospels
There are extra biblical sources that are not christian of nature. There is Josephus. Although his mention of Jesus isn’t seen as completely authentical and partly seen as a christian interpolation, when the interpolation is removed, his mention goes a little like this:
“At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. He was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. When Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease tot do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.”
Roman author Tacitus mentions “Christ” in his “Annals of Imperial Rome”. Although Jesus isn’t mentioned by name, it’s obvious he is referred to. There is nothing that suggest that the pagan Tacitus and the Jew Josephus got their information fro the gospels. They probably got it from christians or perhaps non-christians. so indirectly, Josephus and Tacitus provide us with evidence of Jesus his existence.
There are also independent christian sources from about the same time as Tacitus. They attest his existence without deriving all, or most, of their information from the gospels. There is the early church father Papias, Ignatius of Antioch and the letter of 1 Clement.
Canonical Sources Outside the Gospels and Paul’s Letters
The book of Acts is also an important source. The author of this book is seen as the same author who wrote Luke and often the two are referred to as actually being one book or the book of Acts is seen as a sequel to the gospel of Luke.
The “non-Pauline epistles” are a source. These letters (although not written by Paul himself) show no evidence of knowing our gospels.
Paul is our earliest surviving christian author. His first letter, 1 Thessalonians , is usually dated to 49 CE. It is commonly said among mythicists that Paul does not speak about the historical Jesus and has no understanding of the historical man Jesus. This simply is not true, as an examination of his writings show full well.
Here is a summary of things Paul mentions about Jesus:
– Jesus was born as a human
– Jesus was a Jew
– Jesus was a descendant of King David
– Jesus had brothers, one of them named James
– Jesus had a ministry to Jews
– Jesus had twelve disciples
– Jesus was a teacher
– Jesus anticipated his own death
– Jesus had the last supper the night he was handed over
– Jesus was killed at the instigation of Jews in Judea
– Jesus died by crucifixion
Most important is the fact that Paul knew Jesus his brother James. Did Paul really know a brother of a man who didn’t exist? Seems implausible to me. If Jesus didn’t exist, wouldn’t his brother know about it?
The reality is that every single author who mentions Jesus (pagan, Christian or Jewish) within the first hundred years after his death, was fully convinced that he at least lived. Even the enemies of the Christian movement thought so.
So yes, there was a first century Palestinian Jew who was called Jesus and who acted as an apocalyptic prophet. After his death by crucifixion, his followers told stories about him and an oral tradition was born and got spread throughout the Mediterranean. After a while these stories were written down and were used as sources for what we now know as the gospels. In the time between the emergence of the oral tradition and the first gospels, the stories changed but there was a real historical Jesus. Even though he doesn’t resemble the one a lot of us think he is.
I would like to sign of with a clip from Christopher Hitchens, somebody who is often idolized in the atheist community (and even by me I must admit), where half way through the clip even he admits that there has been a historical Jesus and explains why he thinks that.