As we enter Lent and the run-up to Easter, the thoughts of the media turn to Jesus. On CNN there is a second series of ‘Finding Jesus’ – Mark Goodacre has a post about it here. Associated with this series is an article on CNN online about the possibility that Jesus did not exist:
Although it is pleasing that this issue is being aired in mainstream media, the article itself is rather depressing. First, we have the usual suspects on the mythical Jesus side, Freke, Price and Carrier. None of these three gentlemen can offer a joined-up account of Christian origins. We also have the customary mention of Josephus and Tacitus’ accounts of Jesus as if these relatively late sources dating from no earlier than the 90s AD could somehow resolve the issue. The article does not mention the links discovered between Josephus’ account of Jesus and the Gospel of Luke, links which rule out Josephus’ account as a source independent from the gospels. (And it certainly does not mention the idea that I favour, that Tacitus was using Josephus as his source.)
The main thrust of the article is the theory that the Jesus cult emerged from the gods of the pagan world. It starts with Freke’s third century pagan amulet of a crucified man who he equates to Osiris-Dionysus. Typical of Freke, this is both sensational and anachronistic. Why should this amulet be relevant to events that had happened two hundred years previously? It comes from a time when Christianity was becoming prominent across the Roman world, and we know that pagans loved to combine features of different gods and sects.
The Jesus as pagan god theory is absurd because the origins of Christianity are obviously Jewish. The historical Jesus school actually loves the straw man of the mythical Jesus. They can topple it with one finger or a single puff of breath. Other non-historical Jesus theories, such as my “Shaman paradigm” theory involving a spiritual Jesus, are dismissed by association.
Dismissal by association is something that the historical Jesus scholars are good at. Look at this wretched quote from Bart Ehrman:
“There are people out there who don’t think the Holocaust happened, there wasn’t a lone JFK assassin and Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.,” Ehrman says. “Among them are people who don’t think Jesus existed.”
I find this implied association of those of us who do not believe in the historical Jesus with Holocaust deniers to be morally abhorrent. The Holocaust involved immense suffering of millions of people. It took place in living memory with thousands of eyewitnesses. No reasonable person doubts that the Holocaust took place.
The other conspiracy theories Ehrman mentions also concern events that happened in the recent past. As does the idea floated by Dominic Crossan that denying the existence of Jesus is like denying the existence of President Obama:
“It’s a way of responding to something you don’t like,” Crossan says. “We can’t say that Obama doesn’t exist, but we can say that he’s not an American. If we’re talking about Obama in the future, there are people who might not only say he wasn’t American, but he didn’t even exist.”
The point of all these comparisons is to place the existence of Jesus on a level with things that no reasonable person would doubt. So how does the evidence for Jesus stack up?
We have only one accepted source from a near-eyewitness and that is the genuine letters of Paul. As the article mentions, Paul is notoriously silent about the details of Jesus’ life. He also seems to know very little about Jesus’ teachings; he never once quotes a parable or a saying of Jesus. So what does he say about Jesus? Paul believed that he was in direct spiritual communication with the Lord Jesus Christ, that Jesus was the divine Son of God, and that he was the Saviour who had come to supersede the Jewish law. Not much sign of the Galilean peasant preacher there! What scholars call Paul’s High Christology actually causes the historical Jesus theory great problems. There is no more than a few years between the time when Jesus was supposed to be living on earth and the time when Paul had this incredibly exalted view of Jesus’ role as the redeemer and ruler of the Cosmos. How is it possible for such a view to emerge in such a short time?
So how about the only sources that tell us the story of Jesus’ life, the Gospels? We now know that Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were not written by the early figures to whom they are traditionally attributed. Nor are they eyewitness accounts. The first to be written, Mark, is normally assigned a date in the 70s AD with the others following rapidly in succession. Each Gospel was written with knowledge of its predecessors, so we do not have four independent accounts but four iterations of the same account.
In my book, The Rock and the Tower, I develop the concept of streams of early Christian literature. Because each Gospel was written with full knowledge of its predecessors, they form one single stream. The idea is that in the first century the various streams were mostly independent of each other, but that the Gospel stream was so popular that it eventually swamped everything else. By the middle of the second century, all Christians would have been aware of the Gospels, and the majority would have accepted the gospel view of Jesus.
So what about the other streams that were in existence in the first century or very early second but which were independent of the Gospels? I identify a number, including the letters of Paul, the Gospel of Thomas, Revelation, the Odes of Solomon, the Shepherd of Hermas and the other letters in the New Testament. And it is here that we find something remarkable. Not a single one of these other streams shows any knowledge of Jesus’ life on earth. The Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas or the Odes of Solomon is clearly spiritual in nature. Revelation has many wonderful things, such as a woman giving birth to a child in the sky, and a great dragon cast down to earth, but it has no stories about a Jesus who lived in Judea. Indeed, the only detail it gives about Jesus life is that he was crucified in a city that can only be Rome and not Jerusalem!
Just think of how unusual this situation would be if Christianity did start with a historical Jesus. Stories about Jesus would have been treasured and transmitted throughout the movement. So why does one stream end up with a great number of stories about Jesus and the all the others with none at all? In a mathematical sense, this is impossible. A process of diffusion must have distributed some stories to those who authored the other streams. There is only one explanation for this odd distribution, and that is that the Gospel stream is a literary invention. The stories start with the Gospel of Mark and are further developed in the other gospels, all written in the same genre and with knowledge of Mark.
I have left the best to last. The most absurd thing in the article is perhaps this quote from Craig Evans:
The words of Jesus also offer proof that he actually existed, Evans says. A vivid personality practically bursts from the pages of the New Testament: He speaks in riddles, talks about camels squeezing through the eye of a needle, weeps openly and even loses his temper. Evans says he is a man who is undeniably Jewish, a genius who understands his culture but also transcends his tradition with gem-like parables.
So here we have it, definitive final proof that Jesus existed. It the same type of proof that makes us sure that Sherlock Holmes existed, because no one could have invented his detective genius, coined his aphorisms, or made up his drug taking.