The following article, despite appearances, is not about whether or not Jesus existed. I accept that He did exist as an article of faith. This article is actually about a certain flawed way of thinking that we all sometimes fall into. As such, I admit up front that I know next to nothing about the historicity of Jesus. If you think you’re going to learn a lot about this subject by reading my post, you’re wrong. All that I know on this subject I got off Wikipedia from this article. Go read it yourself and draw your own conclusions. Maybe someday I’ll get serious about the historicity of Jesus and actually make a real attempt to study it. But in the mean time, bear in mind that this article has nothing to do with whether or not Jesus existed. And how does this relate to Mormonism? I believe it will apply across the whole Mormon spectrum.
Not long ago I came across someone on the internet on Yahoo Answers asking for evidence that Jesus even existed. Several decent answers were posted pointing to the non-Biblical sources that refer to, or seem to refer to, Jesus. These are:
- Josephus – Two references. The first reference is considered probably false by most scholars. The second is considered probably true: “The second reference states that in the year 62 CE, the newly appointed high priest “convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought them a man called James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others.”
- Tacitus – “Tacitus in the context of the Great Fire of Rome refers to ‘some people, known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was emperor by the order of Pontius Pilate. But this deadly cult, though checked for a time, was now breaking out again.'”
- Suetonius – “Suetonius, who wrote in the second century, made reference to unrest among the Jews of Rome under Claudius caused by ‘Chrestus’. This has been commonly identified with Jesus Christ, though in this case it must refer to indirect posthumous effects and gives no biographical information.”
- Pliny the Younger – “There are references to Christians in the letters of Pliny the Younger, but they give no specific information about the founder of this movement. However critics point out that all the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan demonstrates is that by about 110 CE there were significant numbers of people who would not recant their faith in Christ even under torture or the threat of death, that this was a significant problem for the Imperial authorities, and the authorities considered it a “perverse religious cult, carried to extremes.”
- The Babylonian Talmud – “The Babylonian Talmud contains several references that have been traditionally identified with Jesus of Nazareth. However, whether these Talmudic verses actually refer to Jesus of Nazareth or to various other persons that were only later identified with Jesus and with each other remains controversial.”
All sources found here.
As is typical of Yahoo Answers, the person asking the question was actually setting a trap for those that disagreed with him. Naturally someone eventually gave an answer he liked that said “Jesus didn’t exist! There is not evidence at all!” and our less than sincere questioner picked this answer as “best answer” and then gave his own statement about how Christians are all idiots for believing in a non-existent person for which there is no evidence. He noted that the references mentioned above are all later references not during the life of Christ so they didn’t count.
From a certain point of view, his argument sounds logical. Let’s consider the seeming strength of his view:
- He doesn’t believe in Christianity (he was an atheist) and he’d love to believe Jesus didn’t exist at all.
- There really are no contemporary accounts of Jesus currently in existence.
- There are some accounts a few decades later, as already noted, but they are all at least somewhat debatable and they came later.
- The Bible itself is actually later memories not written down in the moment it was happening.
- The Bible isn’t reliable anyhow since it’s all biased to a Christian point of view.
- How in the world could a figure like Jesus have existed without someone having noticed him and written something about him!?
Given that evidence, and considering none other, it seems like he might have a point. This really looks like a bad case for the existence of Jesus as a historical person. Given only this evidence, the existence of Jesus seems improbable at best.
But is this really correct thinking? Can the existence of Jesus be boiled down to “there is no evidence, thus I conclude He didn’t exist?” Intellectually, we all know that “proof of non-existence” and “no proof of existence” are two different things, but we seem to have a real problem applying that knowledge in real life.
According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, we humans have a fundamental evolutionary deficiency when it comes to telling the difference between “no evidence of existence” and “proof of non-existence.” He argues that because of the same evolutionary deficiency we are suckers for a good sounding explanations (he calls this the “narrative fallacy”). I believe this is what has happened with our poor question asker.
Taleb also points out that an event that is very important later is not necessarily deemed important at the time. We have a backward bias of sorts that tricks us into being unfair in our evaluations of history. He writes: “The Roman chroniclers of that period did not even take note of the new [Christian] religion – historians of Christianity are baffled by the absence of contemporary mentions. Apparently, few of the big guys took the ideas of a seemingly heretical Jew seriously enough to think that he would leave traces for posterity.”
As difficult as it is for our deficient brains to fathom, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Jesus would stand out enough to warrant a non-follower mention from a political big wig.
But this begs the question: why do scholars, even non-believing ones, overwhelmingly believe Jesus did exist? As Wikipedia states: “The idea of Jesus as a myth is rejected by the majority of biblical scholars and historians. In 2004, Richard Burridge and Graham Gould stated that they did not know of any “respectable” scholars that held the view today” (link)
As it turns out, they have a pretty good reason – though obviously it’s not proof beyond doubt – to believe that Jesus did exist: How else do you explain the existence of Christianity and the Bible?
You see, if you want to assert that Jesus didn’t exist, you don’t just get to shoot holes in the beliefs of those who think He did exist – you have to come up with a viable theory to explain all the existing evidence. Shooting holes in someone else’s beliefs is far easier then coming up with your own hole-free belief system.
For example, Earl Doherty, one of the proponents of Jesus as a myth was forced to explain away the existence of Christians and the Bible – and more importantly the lack of any opponents of Christianity claiming Jesus never existed – by claiming that Jesus was a heavenly figure dreamed up by early Christian visionary prophets. As Wikipedia states:
“A more radical position is taken by Earl Doherty, who holds that these early authors did not believe that Jesus had been on Earth at all. He argues that the earliest Christians accepted a Platonic cosmology that distinguished a “higher” spiritual world from the Earthly world of matter, and that they viewed Jesus as having descended only into the “lower reaches of the spiritual world”. Doherty also suggests that this view was accepted by the authors of the Pastoral epistles [i.e. Paul’s pastoral epistles], 2 Peter, and various second-century Christian writings outside the New Testament. Doherty contends that apparent references in these writings to events on earth, and a physical historic Jesus, should in fact be regarded as allegorical metaphors.” 
But how believable is that story? Doherty is asserting that the entire Christian religion came into existence around a vision of a non-existent man – yet we have little or no documentation at all of these early visions, other than the forced example of Paul. This new religion forming around an imaginary person then goes on to document a real flesh and blood person named Jesus, and yet not a single person opposed to this religion seems to notice this fact or exploit it!? Is this possible? Perhaps. Is it likely? Intuitively, it seems considerably less likely than simply accepting that Jesus was overlooked by “the big guys.”
Worse yet, Paul’s own writings, the very little evidence Doherty puts forward, deny his own thesis. While Paul may have seen Jesus in a vision personally, there is counter evidence from his own writings that Jesus wasn’t just a visionary figure to him. As Wikipedia continues: “Opponents regard such interpretations as forced and erroneous eg in the Pastoral letter to Timothy the author speaks of Jesus as being ‘revealed in the flesh’. [see Timothy 3:16] Others also find Doherty’s argument lacking in credibility eg ‘The only way Doherty can make this statement is by engaging in blatant question-begging'”
No belief stands alone but it must always be compared to the next best alternative. In other words, as hard as it is to believe Jesus existed due to lack of evidence, it’s nearly impossible to believe he didn’t exist because there is currently no believable counter explanation. I am just using this as an example to explain my point. There are less radical views, all that have their own flaws. However, keep in mind that I am just explaining why the vast majority of scholars, even non-believing ones, believe Jesus existed. I’m not really trying to make my own case for the existence of Jesus.
Interesting article, and it brings up several points I hadn’t considered. I think something you should have mentioned, but didn’t, is that there are several dead civilizations that we now know about only through archeological evidence. The only evidence of these things is circumstantial and is very tenuous, yet the atheist that you present has no problem accepting the existence of these civilizations, and would probably not doubt in the least that there was a specific king of Egypt mentioned only in some pyramid.
Belief bias is strong, and we are very susceptible to it. Anyone who claims otherwise is being very foolish. Such is life.
People can argue about whether Jesus was the Son of God and the Savior of the world, that’s a matter of faith. However, you can’t really argue that Jesus the man did not exist. If you look at the matter as an objective historian, using the name techniques that you would use to investigate anybody else in ancient times, you have to conclude that Jesus existed. In fact, you can even come to an agreement about very broad outlines of his life. If you say that Jesus the man did not exist you have to do so by rejecting most of ancient history. The reason for this is that the evidence about the existence of Jesus is of similar quality to evidence that we have about other people in antiquity. If you say Jesus didn’t exist, you have to start saying a lot of other people did not exist either. Nobody bothers to doubt their existence because it does not serve a political, religious, or social agenda.
Great article. Yes, you can argue with the deity of Jesus or specific acts and things attributed to him. But, it does seem to me that His existence is indisputable.
Once of the interesting aspect of my own study of the new testament is that I see things very differently than most members of the church.
One idea is that most Jews of that time rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Well, I would say that most Jews of that time never even heard of Jesus, knew nothing about him and so, didn’t have an opinion either way. According to the new testament, the Jewish leadership, save a few, did reject his Messiahship. But then again, the history shows a plethora of Messiah candidates on the scene around the same time. Some of Judaism most revered Rabbis promoted their own choices for Messiah. Those turning out to not be up to the role.
Now, later on, Judaism as a whole, did reject the Messiahship of Jesus. But, as you stated, mentioned him in the Talmud. Mostly, in a negative sense. Many of those references were eliminated from some versions as not to incite the wrath of Christian against the Jews anymore than they were already experiencing.
David, that’s what I think people need to remember. There are two claims being made by Christians: first that there was a man named Jesus (or something similar that we have bastardized in to that), and that that man was the Son of God and Savior of the World. The first claim is nearly irrefutable. No serious historian is going to make a claim to the contrary. The second claim is a matter of faith, but only because the claims of all post-mortem supernatural events are ignored. Oh, a bunch of people claimed to have seen him–we’ll ignore that. Oh, another group here claimed to have touched, conversed and even eaten dinner with him after his death–ignore. So it becomes a matter of faith because of the extraordinary nature of the claims.
This is the exact same situation with Joseph Smith and the golden plates. Mormons make two claims: First that a boy/young man named Joseph Smith lived and produced a book called the Book of Mormon. Inarguable. No one disputes that, and it is unlikely that the fact will ever be disputed beyond a few people who muse whether or not he plagiarized the BOM from other sources, which is an incredibly unlikely story, given the compared sources. The other claim we make is that the BOM was engraved originally on gold plates which JS found buried in a stone box, and that they are the writings of prophets living at least partly in this part of the world. [We make some other extraordinary claims, also, but most of them are more on the level of theology rather than history, which makes them less germaine to the current discussion].
This second claim made by Mormons is the one that is difficult for people. First, the plates are no longer around, which makes it really easy to be skeptical. If the plates were still around, the only question would be one of the quality of the translation, not their existence. So what do we have for evidence of their existence? The translation, the statements of those who saw them, and the testimony of those who witnessed JS protecting something, even though they never saw the actual plates. That’s it. Frankly, given the actions of those that saw the plates, I’d say that their testimony of the existence of the plates is as good as a lot of what passes for eyewitness testimony in courts of law even today, and better than most.
This argument reminds me of the question of King Arthur’s existence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_arthur):
“The historicity of the King Arthur legend has long been debated by scholars. One school of thought, based on references in the Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, would see Arthur as a shadowy historical figure, a Romano-British leader fighting against the invading Anglo-Saxons sometime in the late fifth to early sixth century. The Historia Brittonum (“History of the Britons”), a ninth century Latin historical compilation attributed in some late manuscripts to a Welsh cleric called Nennius, gives a list of twelve battles fought by Arthur, culminating in the Battle of Mons Badonicus, where he is said to have single-handedly killed 960 men. Unfortunately, recent studies suggest that the Historia Brittonum cannot be considered a reliable source for fifth- and sixth-century history. On the other hand, the tenth century Annales Cambriae (“Welsh Annals”) also links Arthur with the Badon and this has often been taken to confirm that Arthur really did fight this battle. The Annales dates this battle to 516/8, and also mentions the Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut were both killed, dated to 537/9. However, the latest research into the Annales Cambriae shows that this chronicle was based around one which was started in the late eighth century in Wales, around 300 years after Arthur is meant to have lived. Worse, because of the complex textual history of the Annales Cambriae there can be no certainty that the Arthurian annals were put into it even that early. It is more likely that they entered it at some point in the tenth century and that they had no existence in any earlier set of annals, with the Badon entry probably being derived from the Historia Brittonum. This lack of convincing early evidence is the reason that many modern historians prefer to avoid including Arthur in their accounts of post-Roman Britain. Thomas Charles-Edwards recently commented that “at this stage of the enquiry, one can only say that there may well have been an historical Arthur [but]… the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him”, and this is one of the more positive assessments. Indeed, it is not certain that Arthur was even considered a king in these texts: neither the Historia or the Annales call him this, with the former calling him instead dux bellorum or “dux (leader) of battles”.
It’s all academic calisthenics anyway. Confirming the historicity of Christ takes a back seat to the necessity of faith in Christ.
The two arguments are very different. The sources for Arthur are contradictory and late. The main sources for Jesus (Gospels) have substantial points of agreement and date from 30-60 years after he died. That’s why you can say things about a historical Jesus, but not a historical Arthur, the nature of the evidence is different. It’s not about academic calisthenics. I also would dispute the argument that confirming the historicity of Jesus takes a back seat to the necessity of faith that he was the Christ. They are both important. Knowing Jesus better informs one’s views of what it meant to be the Christ. Indeed if Jesus was not a historical figure then I would argue that the concept of Christ has no meaning. If he was a historical figure, then we can and should use historical tools to understand Jesus the man.
Interesting post, Bruce.
As my Forensic Science instructor used to often say: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
I don’t think there’s much question as to the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. I see no reason not to believe that the man, Jesus, was a tradesman-turned-rabbi, who became troublesome to the political and ecclesiastical elite, and was publicly executed as a result. I’m even willing to believe that he said some of the wise things which are attributed to him in the New Testament writings.
Now, the spiritual/religious claims which have been attached to him are quite another matter. Many of them, if not most, directly parallel prior mythology from other regional religions. The synoptic gospels were almost certainly not written by their alleged authors, and were written considerably later than even the epistles of Paul. These writers contradict one another on a whole variety of points, and several historical details don’t happen to square with other reliable historical sources. In short, the New Testament is a highly unreliable set of documents. Personally, I am convinced that christianity, with all its mythos surrounding Jesus, is the invention of Jesus’ over-zealous, post-mortum followers.
“Personally, I am convinced that christianity, with all its mythos surrounding Jesus, is the invention of Jesus’ over-zealous, post-mortum followers.”
I guess carrying that thought to its logical conclusion, this can be said of all religions. Certainly the religious books such as the old testament and the koran. Even less evidence exists for their own claims.
So, where does that leave us????
It leaves you with choice. You can choose to believe, if you find that belief (and its consequent choices) brings you joy. I like to think that Joseph Smith never said or wrote anything more true than (1) “Men are that they might have joy,” and “Happiness is the object and design of our existence, and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it.”
In short, the New Testament is a highly unreliable set of documents That is only if you compare them with modern documents. For ancient documents they are about as reliable as any other document. Of course one would dearly love to have newspaper articles, transcripts, journals, opposition research doc, etc. But since there are none to be found ancient historians make do with what they have, and the New Testament is on average of the same quality as other documents from the period. If you accept the idea that you can do ancient history at all then you have to accept the New Testament as containing history.
Of course what you do with the facts is your own business.
David, I don’t doubt that all ancient documents present a challenge when it comes to reliability. The idea that the New Testament documents are about as reliable as other period documents doesn’t make them reliable, however.
For the record, I’m sure there are historical facts contained in the New Testament. I strongl suspect that the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is one of those historical facts. Whether all the words and actions attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament are historical facts, is quite another matter.
Your points are taken, but not without flaws themselves. There are places where the Gospels contradict, and yet they’re all considered authentic. Plus, a lot can be embellished in 30-60 years. As to the importance of verifying Christ’s historicity, perhaps there’s a reason for the lack of documentation outside of the scriptures. Perhaps the Lord doesn’t want His story to be a historical certainty. I believe we’re supposed to dig into His words and actions as chronicled by His servants to come to know Jesus the Man, not to rely on factual proof He existed to come to know Him better.
Beside, I merely said the argument reminded me of the King Arthur question. I didn’t say they were facsimiles.
The idea that the New Testament documents are about as reliable as other period documents doesn’t make them reliable, however. It is true that most ancient documents are problematic, they simply did not have the same conceptions about history and historiography that we do. As an avid student of ancient history, I find this part of the fun of it.
Whether all the words and actions attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament are historical facts, is quite another matter. Agreed. This is why following a proper methodology is so important in gleaning information from ancient sources. It’s no guarantee that you will get at the truth, but it does help historians maintain honesty and objectivity in so far as those are possible. It also gives you the best chance of actually finding the truth.
here are places where the Gospels contradict, and yet they’re all considered authentic. Authentic does not mean 100% without flaws. As you point out there are contradictions. However even a believer should not just say, “Well both sides are true.” You need to attempt to decide which, if any, is correct. Granted, in most cases the answer will probably be to suspend judgment on the matter, but I still think one should attempt to figure out what was going on.
Plus, a lot can be embellished in 30-60 years. Agreed. It’s another reason to try and follow a proper methodology when investigating the historical Jesus.
As to the importance of verifying Christ’s historicity, perhaps there’s a reason for the lack of documentation outside of the scriptures. Yes, most likely as a Jewish peasant no one thought much of him at the time, and so they didn’t write much down. It’s not like the ancient sources are awash in stories about 1st century Jewish peasants.
I believe we’re supposed to dig into His words and actions as chronicled by His servants to come to know Jesus the Man And there are two ways of going about this. One is to follow a historian’s methodology to look for the historical Jesus. Another is to treat the Gospels as literature and use literary analytic techniques to figure out what the author is trying to say about Jesus using techniques such as dialogue, narrative structure, irony, grouping, juxtaposition, etc. Most believers take door #3 and just take the Gospels at face value. While that is fine there are two things you have to be careful of. First, you miss all of he insights of the first two approaches. Second, when people approach the Gospels this way, they tend to find their own biases, mores, politics, and ideas in Jesus. In this case reading the gospels becomes an exercise in reinforcing what you already think, not in figuring out what the life of Jesus was all about. It’s not an accident that many Mormons reading the Gospels come to the conclusion that Jesus espouses 21st century, American, middle class, conservative values. It’s because that’s what their values are.
It is true that most ancient documents are problematic, they simply did not have the same conceptions about history and historiography that we do. As an avid student of ancient history, I find this part of the fun of it.
Absolutely, though we’re not just talking about determining history here. We’re talking about basing major life decisions on the contents of these ancient documents, and when you think about it that’s a risky affair, whatever one may think of “metaphysical evidence” of their truthfulness.
It’s not an accident that many Mormons reading the Gospels come to the conclusion that Jesus espouses 21st century, American, middle class, conservative values. It’s because that’s what their values are.
Absolutely, though we’re not just talking about determining history here. We’re talking about basing major life decisions on the contents of these ancient documents, and when you think about it that’s a risky affair, whatever one may think of “metaphysical evidence” of their truthfulness. I would never advocate that someone make major life decisions based on a simplistic reading of the Gospels. In reality I don’t think anyone ever does that, though in some circles it is considered trendy to claim this so people do. However, one of the greatest thinkers and humanitarians of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer, was also one of the foremost scholars investigating the historical Jesus. His entire life was informed by Jesus. While this is only one data point, I think he is a great example of combining rigorous scholarship on Jesus and leading a life of profound goodness.
Not to off topic this totally (which as it turned out I did)the closest source to Arthur is Gildas (De Excidio Britanniae) who did not talk at all about an Arthur though he does someone Arthur like.
That person best fit in my opinion for Arthur:
I would never advocate that someone make major life decisions based on a simplistic reading of the Gospels. In reality I don’t think anyone ever does that, though in some circles it is considered trendy to claim this so people do.
I think you’re very much mistaken if you think that nobody ever makes major life decisions based on their reading of the New Testament, whether you consider their reading “simplistic” or not. In fact, I honestly don’t see how you could reach that conclusion, David, notwithstanding your not-so-subtle effort to slam nonbelievers.
Would you like some examples of people making major life decisions, based on a reading of the New Testament texts–even a “simplistic” reading? How about the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who devote their lives and resources to promoting their own simplistic reading of select fragments from the epistles of Paul? How about Catholic priests, who choose a life of celibacy, at least in part because Paul said it was better not to marry? Thousands have died, or even killed, in order to carry out what they believe they have read in the New Testament. How about early LDS missionaries, who travelled “without purse or script” (using those very words, despite their archaic nature), because they simplisticly read that phrase in the New Testament? We could go on and on, David. It’s simply not accurate to say that nobody makes major life decisions on the basis of the New Testament documents.
I made no effort, subtle or otherwise, to slam non-believers. I would ask you not to accuse me of doing so.
I have a reason for claiming that most people don’t make major life decisions based on New Testament texts, it’s that most people use scripture as a justification for behavior, not as a motivating force for behavior. Let’s just take your first example, the Westboro Baptist Church. I think what you have there is a complex social dynamic. First, you have a very stupid and hateful person who has a need to lead others (the pastor). Second, you have a group of people who have a profound need to see the world in black an white, combined with a need to feel superior to others, combined with a need to have strong in-group/out-group interactions. Third, throw in some racism and homophobia. Finally, mix in the fact that to pull this off you need a rallying point for this group’s supposedly moral high ground, and they grab for the New Testament.
This particular kind of dynamic gives rise to all kinds of hateful movements, religious and secular, sometimes a mixture of both. These types of groups coalesce in all cultures, in all times, and for a variety of reasons. The point is that I think these people are using the New Testament to justify their convoluted way of seeing the world, and not seeing the world through the New Testament.
That was my point. Feel free to disregard it. I don’t deny that there is a small group of people who truly do make choices based on the New Testament, that was my point in referring to Schweitzer. Claiming no one does that was too strong. I also don’t deny that many people CLAIM to have the New Testament as a motivating force, but in what sense can you claim a book as a motivating force when you willfully misread it? Most people’s claims along with $1.50 will buy you a coke and hot dog at your average Costco.
I find the study of the Historical Jesus as one of the most illuminating religious experiences of my life. And it all started with my reading the rather conservative Jesus the Christ by Talmage. Once you get past the secular viewpoints of many of the findings and take seriously the Mormon belief that Scripture is never perfect, then The Gospels become fascinating. I wish Mormons would, “follow a historian’s methodology to look for the historical Jesus” and “treat the Gospels as literature and use literary analytic techniques to figure out what the author is trying to say about Jesus using techniques such as dialogue, narrative structure, irony, grouping, juxtaposition, etc.” a lot more. Well, actually, at all. Mormonism lost out when it rejected Biblical Higher Criticism because the doorkeepers rejected the Miracles. Personally I think Mormonism’s theory of Scripture is far closer to Biblical Higher Criticism than Infallibility and Innerancy that was adopted in defense of the miraculous.