Early Christian History

The Historicity of Jesus

I fully admit the question of Jesus’ existence is very controversial, among scholars more expert than I am. So I hardly hope to settle the matter. This article simply outlines my own views on the subject.

Terminology and Basic Notions

The question of Jesus’ historicity is muddled at the outset by the question, “Which Jesus specifically are we talking about?” There are many ideas about who Jesus was, what he did, what he said, etc. This gives us several levels of investigation, which are:
  1. Did Jesus exist at all? Was there ever any person from whose teachings Christianity emerged?
  2. If there was a Jesus, was he the divine being described in the gospels and in Christian tradition?
  3. If Jesus existed but was not divine, what can we know about him?

From here on, I will refer to Jesus in two ways: as “the Gospel Jesus,” i.e. the Jesus of prevailing Christian thinking who was both God and man, who performed miracles, died, and was resurrected; or as “the Historical Jesus,” a hypothetical person who actually existed in the Levant in the 1st century and on whose life Christianity was based, but who had no supernatural powers and who wasn't resurrected after his death.

Ageless Assumption, Newly Questioned

It was once considered unthinkable to question whether or not Jesus lived. For centuries this question was never asked —that the Gospel-Jesus had existed, and had done all the things attributed to him by tradition, was so basic a notion that no one imagined that it even could be asked, let alone should be asked. The question was never seriously considered until the late 19th century. And until the early 20th century, those who dared question this were few; this means that serious investigation of this question has only been going on for less than a century.

This means that the review of Jesus’ historicity is fairly recent, compared to the history of Christianity itself. That is ... we’ve had a solid 15 centuries or so of unthinking acceptance of the Gospel-Jesus, but only one in which his existence has been truly examined. This means almost by definition that the idea that Jesus may not have lived, will be a minority notion, and considered “fringe” by many ... but this does not necessarily invalidate it.

For many believers — having been raised as they were in the western world in which Jesus’ existence was such a foregone conclusion that no one questioned it for over a millennium and a half — the idea that anyone might question Jesus’ existence is bizarre, freakish, and/or absurd. Scholarship on the matter is considerably cluttered with accusations and insinuations along these lines. Popular books and other media on the matter are also ill-received by the believing majority, in the US at least, because this question so sternly violates preconceptions. But getting to the truth — wherever it may lead — requires asking this question, no matter how much discomfort it may invoke.

Emotionality Entwined With History & Legend

History is determined by a review of evidence. We commonly believe a lot of things which are not necessarily borne out by the evidence. Some of these are referred to as “urban legend” or “myth.” Most Americans are familiar with the story of George Washington and the cherry tree ... however, it’s all but certain this event never happened. Many more tales are told which are either questionable, uncertain, bogus, or even fraudulent — yet they’re widely believed nonetheless.

The difference here, however, is pretty obvious: If you explain to the average American that George Washington never cut down the cherry tree, s/he’s not likely to balk at it. Americans are generally willing to accept that this story is exactly that ... a story ... a moral tale about the value of honesty in general, as well as an assertion of Washington’s virtue. Most accept the metaphorical value of the story even if they acknowledge that it never really happened.

But if you question Jesus’ existence, all bets are off! Many believers become upset with this idea. Merely asking it is insulting to many. The idea that a long-held tradition may not actually be based upon truth, is unacceptable to many people. Why should this be the case? The only difference here is one of emotional investment: Believers in Christianity have a sentimental and emotional attachment to the idea that Jesus was actually the son of God, who walked the earth in the 1st century, was executed and resurrected, all for humanity’s salvation. Really, however, all that’s happening is that the literal veracity of an old story is being questioned. It is no more “wrong” to ask if there was a Jesus, or if there was, was he the Gospel-Jesus, than it is to ask if George Washington actually confessed to cutting down a cherry tree, when he was a boy.

Examining Jesus’ existence, therefore, requires some emotional detachment. Unfortunately, human beings — and Americans in particular — are emotional creatures, frequently unwilling to be dispassionate. If you are having a hard time with this question, because of emotion, consider that merely asking if Jesus lived or not, does not necessarily require that the answer be “no.” In fact, many have asked this question, and arrived back at the conclusion that Jesus did, in fact, live; and some of these, in turn, have concluded that the Jesus who lived was actually the Gospel-Jesus.

Appeal to Tradition

For many Christians the idea that Jesus might not have lived, is dispelled by the simple expedient of tradition itself: that is, millions of people have believed in his existence for so long, that it seems almost impossible that he could not have existed. Unfortunately for them, this is not logical; that people believed in Jesus’ existence isn’t evidence that he did —people have believed many things throughout history which have been shown to be false (such as, that the earth is at the center of the universe). Tradition is not veracity.

The fact is that Jesus’ existence requires more evidence — real, compelling, objective, historical evidence — than just the fact that people believed in him.

Weighing The Evidence

The evidence for the Gospel-Jesus’ existence, are found mainly in the four canonical gospels. These are the biographies on which Christianity has been based. While four independent biographies of someone may appear, at first glance, to be overwhelming evidence for his existence, consider:

While none of these considerations totally invalidates the gospels, they do — together — weigh heavily against them. That the gospels are not contemporaneous, alone, is significant.

Jesus is mentioned in the Antiquities of Flavius Josephus (XVIII.3.3), as well, but there are several problems with it:

Other ancient authors mention Jesus, e.g. Tacitus, Suetonius, the Younger Pliny, etc. — but these were all even later than Josephus, and written by Romans who never set foot anywhere near the Levant. They do, however, confirm that there were Christians by the turn of the 2nd century CE. Effectively, these additional Roman authors don’t help us know if Jesus lived or not.

Considerable ink has been spilled on whether or not Josephus’ remark about Jesus is genuine. The bottom line is that it is very questionable; but even if it’s genuine, it was still written decades after the fact and is not contemporaneous; and Josephus was born after Jesus and could only have known about him second-hand. As evidence, it is not compelling.

If you put together evidence which is not very compelling (i.e. the gospels, as well as Ant. XVIII.3.3), which does not necessarily confirm each other (the Josephus passage is too short to confirm the gospels’ details), you end up with a weak conclusion — which is that the Gospel-Jesus existed.

Common Claims About Jesus

The claim that Jesus’ existence is supported by historical evidence is often made, but is simply not true. For example, Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly frequently says his existence is supported by “contemporary Roman records.” Unfortunately for Mr O’Reilly, this is untrue. There are no contemporary (more like contemporaneous, i.e. “at the same time”) Roman records which mention Jesus. We have only later records, from the 90’s CE or after ... which are therefore not contemporaneous with the Gospel-Jesus who is said to have lived in the first 3 decades or so of the 1st century.

Going The Other Way

A few recent authors have claimed, based on the paucity of compelling evidence for his existence, that no Jesus (not even a non-divine Jesus) could have lived ... but this is no more tenable than the conclusion that he did. After all, a lack of evidence is not evidence of a lack! That the earliest Christian documents name their founding figure “Jesus” should not be ignored, even if that name was common among Levantine Jews.

Some of these folk have gone even one step further beyond even this position, claiming not only that there was never any Jesus, but that all of Christianity was a hoax cooked up for some purpose. Often the purpose cited was to advance the authority and power of the Roman regime in the 4th century. This position is absurd, however; concocting a fictional religion was not necessary at the time since there were many religions already in existence by then. (For example, a couple decades after Constantine, the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate attempted to rally his regime around not Christianity, but his own variety of Neoplatonic theurgy, which was the product of several centuries of religious practice and philosophy, its roots well-entrenched in the Greco-Roman aristocracy, military, and academies. Julian’s “church of Theurgy” certainly served his purposes, even if he died in battle before he could really propagate his policies across the Empire.) Quite the opposite is true: Christianity existed in an organized form by the middle of the 2nd century, the product of a period of religious syncretism, with many cults surging around the Empire, especially in the east. There would have been no need to “invent”a new religion, since many were at hand which already would have served the same purpose! There is no way in which the idea that Christianity is a 4th-century Constantinian concoction, is supported by the evidence.

An Uncomfortable Conclusion

This leaves us with a conclusion that most people, believers and non-believers alike, consider uncomfortable if not unacceptable — which is, “We can’t know if Jesus existed or not.” The evidence for him is insufficient to demonstrate the Gospel-Jesus’ existence (and in fact, what we do know leans against it). But it’s also not sufficient to demonstrate that there could have been no Historical Jesus at all.

It seems ridiculous to have come this far with the question of Jesus’ existence, only to decide that there is no answer to the question! But this isn’t entirely the case. One thing is fairly sure: The Gospel-Jesus specifically is highly unlikely to have existed; as I noted already, had he lived and done all the miraculous, supernatural things he was said to have done, it seems almost inconceivable that there would have been no contemporaneous record of him. It is true that only a minority of people of the Levant in the 1st century were literate; yet the region had a large population (many millions, if one includes all of the region from southeastern Anatolia to northern Egypt); there were easily hundreds of thousands of people, then, who were literate. As it turns out, we have vast amounts of surviving documentation from the period, including from authors who were known to have lived in that time and region — but none of them mention the Gospel-Jesus, or anyone else who even vaguely resembles him.

Plumbing the Unknown

This leaves us with an interesting possibility ... which is that there was a Historical Jesus, but that this Historical Jesus was not the Gospel-Jesus. The problem with this is that there is next to nothing left to us which says anything about a non-divine Jesus. The only records that support the existence of any Jesus, are the gospels, which describe a divine Gospel-Jesus. We can only guess at who a non-divine Historical Jesus was, what he taught, and what he did. If there was such a person, then, we don’t know anything about him. We don’t know which of a Historical Jesus’ teachings actually ended up in Christianity, and which were assigned to him only later. The development of subsequent Christian traditions about him, has cluttered the historical picture and trampled anything which didn’t coincide with the notion of a Gospel-Jesus. The history of Christianity has, itself, destroyed that historical track.

Scholars have inquired about a non-Gospel Historical Jesus; these include scholars such as Albert Schweitzer (who wrote the famous Quest of the Historical Jesus), but currently the best-known of these is the Jesus Seminar founded by the late Robert Funk. While most of the Jesus Seminar scholars are bright and have many good ideas to offer, the problem is that they are really engaging in assumption, guesswork, interpretation, and extrapolation. (Most of them admit this ... J.D. Crossan, for example, in most of his works describes his methodologies and assumptions at length; while he’s obviously confident in their veracity, he nonetheless lets his readers know that these are assumptions.) This is not to say that their guesses cannot be correct — sometimes guesses are right! — but they must always be weighed accordingly, and their nature as guesswork must be accounted for.

The Need For Faith

Ultimately, the existence of the Gospel-Jesus can only be accepted on one basis ... faith. This hardly invalidates Christianity, since Christianity is a package of spiritual beliefs, and the spiritual is not equivalent to the material or the verifiably historical. History deals with material evidence, not with spirit; barring some discovery of a new document, monument, etc. which demonstrates that the Gospel-Jesus lived, there is no way that history will ever confirm him. (Centuries of Christian apologetics, revisionism, confabulation, interpretation and reinvention have taken care of that.) History does, however, allow for the possibility of a non-Gospel Historical Jesus, even if Christians themselves have robbed us of any chance to know whether or not he lived — and if he did, we also have no way to know any of the details of his career.

Accepting the Gospel-Jesus’ existence on faith and faith alone, is certainly acceptable. But what is not acceptable, is to claim that the Gospel-Jesus is thoroughly historical, because he is not, and likely never will be. Believing in the Gospel-Jesus is not a credential allowing a person to redefine the discipline of history, invent “evidence” claiming one’s spiritual beliefs are materially verifiable, or propagate fallacy in the name of rationalizing those beliefs. But by the same token, blanket denial of any possible alternative Historical Jesus is likewise as foolish.

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