Opponents in polemical religious debate are always on the lookout for a handy silver bullet. Some students of Mormon thought like to load their revolvers with “Mormons aren’t Christians” (which is not the topic of this blog). On another note, some observers of Christianity prefer “Jesus Never Existed” ammunition. I’ve always considered both of these claims on the ridiculous side, distractions really, from far more important issues. But in the search for the historical Jesus, we need to consider the question how we “know” he existed.
“What if . . . there were absolutely no evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus?” asks the back cover of the popular book The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? by authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. Wait a minute, I just read The Da Vinci Code and Holy Blood Holy Grail which clearly demonstrate the startling fact that the lineal descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene are still alive today, probably living (to the embarrassment of some) in France. I guess you could reconcile these two theories by combining them: “What if there were absolutely no evidence for the existence of descendants of the historical Jesus?” There, that’s easier to swallow.
Well, if what Freke and Gandy have recently claimed were the case, then I might believe their book. But it’s not the case, not at all. I hate to point out the obvious, but there are multiple documentary sources that attest to the existence of the person known as Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, there is more evidence Jesus existed than there is for the existence of many other persons we read about in antiquity. Here’s a brief look at some of that evidence and its evidentiary worth.
Of course, the earliest Christian writings are the letters of Paul beginning sometime in the 50s AD (the gospels being written after 65-70 AD). You’d think that Paul, the greatest Christian missionary of the early church, would present enough evidence in his letters to demonstrate the mere existence of Jesus. Not according to Freke and Gandy: “It is a completely remarkable fact … that Paul says nothing at all about the historical Jesus! He is concerned only with the crucified and resurrected Christ, whose importance is entirely mythical …. Paul’s Christ, like the Pagan’s Osiris-Dionysus, is a timeless mythical figure.” (p. 151, emphasis added). Okay, it is true that Paul never met Jesus (other than in a vision, something beyond historical inquiry) and that he is mainly interested in the death and resurrection of Jesus as the heart of his gospel message. Okay, okay, it is also true that some of Paul’s message about the death and resurrection of Jesus mirrors myths of dying and resurrecting gods throughout the Ancient Near East. But is it a fact that Paul says nothing at all about an actual person named Jesus of Nazareth? Um …. no.
Let’s look at 3 of Paul’s undisputed letters: Galatians, 1 Corinthians and Romans. Here are some facts gleaned from those letters:
1. Jesus was born a Jew (Gal. 4:4) (that counts as 2 facts, actually).
2. Jesus had brothers, one named James (Gal. 1:19; 1 Cor. 9:5) (ditto).
3. Jesus was a teacher to Jews (Rom. 15:8; 1 Cor. 7:11; 9:14).
4. Jesus had 12 disciples (1 Cor. 15:5) (okay, I’m not going to count that as 12 facts).
5. Jesus held a last supper with his disciples (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
6. Jesus was betrayed (1 Cor. 11:23).
7. Jesus was crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).
Any thoughts? Please note at this point we’re not trying to construct an historical Jesus from this information, just demonstrate the mere existence of Jesus. Next week we’ll look at the “existence” evidence in the gospels, in particular at what we lawyer-types like to call “admissions against interest” that are widely viewed as not just admissible evidence, but weighty evidence for the truth of the matter being asserted. Later we’ll see that this type of evidence is used by scholars for demonstrating the historicity of many details in the life of the historical Jesus, not just his mere existence.