I Believe Jesus Was a Historical Person

I know fellow bloggers here at DC may disagree with me, perhaps even Biblical scholar Hector Avalos. But let me very briefly outline the case for the historical person of the man Jesus. Even though I think the Christian faith is delusional, I think a man named Jesus existed who inspired people in the first century who is best seen as an apocalyptic doomsday prophet.

It’s a worthy question though, something I’m willing to learn about. But here are my reasons.

I think pure historical studies cannot prove whether Jesus actually existed or not. That something happened in the historical past doesn’t mean we can show that it did. That something did not happen in historical past does not mean we can show that it didn’t. You’ll have to read my chapter on “The Poor Evidence of Historical Evidence” to know why I think this, where I argue that if God revealed himself in the historical past he chose a poor medium and a poor era to do so. Historical studies are fraught with difficulties. Even Christian scholar Richard Bauckham acknowledges in his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that “Historical work, by its very nature, is always putting two and two together and making five—or twelve or seventeen.” (p. 93)

The very fact that several scholars have reasonably concluded Jesus probably never existed is proof that historical studies is a slender reed to hang one’s faith on. Historians disagree over a great deal, even over mundane things. Christian, your faith is based upon so many conclusions about history, including whether Jesus even existed at all, that with each question the probability of your faith diminishes. Why don't you admit this fact and then turn around and say something like this: "I am willing to stake my whole life on the basis of a probability from historical investigations. It's probable that my conclusions on a whole host of historical issues are true by, say ____% (insert the probability)." [51% 55% 60% ???].

I’ve read the relevant passages in Tacitus (64 AD), Pliny (112 AD), Suetonious (49 AD), Rabbi Eliezer (post 70 AD), the Benediction Twelve (post 70 AD), Josephus (post 70 AD). I’ve read the Christian inscription in Pompeii, too (79 AD). I understand the debates about them. But consider the majority scholarly consensus about the two-source theory of synoptic gospel tradition (Q and Mark) that predate the Gospels, and that we have early creeds inside Paul's writings (I Cor. 8:6; 12:3; 15:3-4; Galatians 4:4-5; I Tim. 3:16) that predate his letters. Consider also the close connection between the New Testament era with the early church fathers like John the elder, Polycarp, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and others. We have to date these texts, no doubt, and many of them are indeed late, and some were forgeries. But they still offer some kind of early testimony to the historicity of a man called Jesus. Even a tradition is based on something. I just don’t see why we must discount the various independent writers of the New Testament itself on the historicity of Jesus. Why, for instance, should we not believe anything at all in the New Testament unless there is independent confirmation from outside sources?

Furthermore, what Jesus may have did and said seems to correspond to the Jewishness of that era as best as we can tell. E.P. Sanders in his book, The Historical Figure of Jesus, even thinks there was nothing strange about his message that would've gotten him killed by the Jewish authorites (he argues instead that the Romans were the sole actors). He argued that "the level of disagreement and arguments falls well inside the parameter of debate that were accepted in Jesus' time." (p. 216). He adds, "If Jesus disagreed with other interpreters over details, the disputes were no more substantial than were disputes between the Jewish parties and even within each party." (p. 225).

I could be wrong. But here is why I think I’m right. Passionate cult-like religious groups are always started by a cult figure, not an author, and not a committee. It’s always a single charismatic leader that gathers passionate religious people together. So who is the most likely candidate for starting the Jesus cult? Jesus himself is, although Paul certainly was the man most responsible for spreading what he believed about his story. And even though Paul never met Jesus and only had a vision of him on the Damascus Road (Acts 26:19), his testimony is that there were already Christians whom he was persecuting in Palestine in the first century.

I think if we look at the New Testament texts it's clear Jesus was an apocalyptic doomsday prophet who's message, like that of John the Baptist before him, is for people to "repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." It was to be imminent eschaton in his day and age, when the prophesied “son of man” was to come. At his coming it was believed there would be cataclysmic events that would take place, even such that The Stars Will Fall From Heaven; literally! Such a message would be more than adequate for starting a cult-like group of people later to be known as Christians. That Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet has been the dominant Christian view since the time of Albert Schweitzer and given a robust defense recently by Christian scholar Dale Allison in his book, Jesus of Nazareth. For an excellent overall treatment of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet see Bart D. Ehrman’s book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

So even though historical studies are fraught with some serious problems, I think the evidence is that an apocalyptic prophet named Jesus developed a cult-like following in Palestine in the first century. I cannot be sure about this though, from a mere historical investigation of the evidence. I could be wrong. But that's what I think.

Fire away now, on both sides. I stand in the middle.

For a Part 2 on this topic read this post.


District Supt. Harvey Burnett said...


I believe this may be one of your more balanced reviews. Based on even minimal facts, the historicity of Jesus can be affirmed but most atheists tie it all up with a grand 4th century conspiracy.

At least one atheist (you) affirm that there is evidence for the person and that's good, and also in line with most critical scholars on the issue.

Scholar Gary Habermaus also offers convincing testimony using minimal facts and critical scholars such as Leudemann(sp)and about 31 other critical and atheistic scholars who also affirm that creedal statements regarding the humanity and historicity and divinity of Jesus were in place and fully developed as early as 40 to 50 AD.

I agree with you there is plenty to debate and discuss and that we should look at all things critically, but the evidence is there. One of the major scholars in disagreement even with most other ctitical and atheistic scholars regarding the historical Jesus is Robert Price. He's way off the charts and makes ridiculous arguments regarding this in my opinion.

I've noticed on this site that many of the bloggers get their information from him and his site so it doesn't surprise me that some of you won't conceede even on the historicity of Jesus.

Anyway, thanks and I look forward to the "mythic crowd" chiming in on this one.

Jennifer said...

Did E.P. Sanders mention the tension between the followers of Hillel and Shammai?

Whether or not the words of Jesus would have been acceptable debate for the era seems to hinge somewhat on which group he was interacting with.

The use of the word "cult" sparked another question about how we interpret historical movements of faith. I wonder if any mention is made of what civilization or people group did not have a cult and what language is used to distinguish a cult from a legitimate religion.

Philip said...


A cult is usually a religious group within a society, often led by a charismatic leader and whose members are usually told to live somehow in a way that does not follow along with the overall society or culture.

A religion is a religious view which has a developed structure, larger following, and acknowledges and compromises with the larger culture.

So Christianity was a cult, now it's a religion. Same with Islam, same with Mormonism, which were once cults but are now religions.

(these definitions were taken from my Intro to Sociology class)

Philip said...


Many religions are known to likely have not started as cults, namely Hinduism, Shinto, various animistic Central Asian, African and South American religions.

Oh, and Buddhism could count as having once been a cult, as well.

Harry McCall said...

That a Jesus existed there is no doubt since Joshua (Hebrew) - Jesus (Greek) would have been a very popular name much like our Richard, Paul and Tom. In short there were, in all liklyhood, thousand of Jesuses of the first century CE.

However, the cultic Jesus movement ended when this charismatic figure’s prediction about the Kingdom of God fail to appear and he was killed by the Roman as a criminal. Once the disciples disbanded in disillusionment after the crucifixion, it was up to Paul (a Jew who in all probability never meet Jesus) to systemize a theology out of the Hebrew texts from Israel (we might note here the theology of Original Sin is a Pauline exclusive drawn form apocryphal text such as the Wisdom of Solomon).

In this sense, it was Paul and NOT Jesus who founded Christianity as we have come to know it today. The fact that the Pauline corpus predates the Gospels and Acts by decades proves this.

In short, the fact that Paul gives meaning to the evangelical salvation Gospel tracts via his refined systematic theology of sacrifice in the Jewish cult means it is really Paul who gives the Gentile world their salvation and not Jesus!

ahswan said...

Harry, I am aware of the "Paul started Christianity" debate, but confess that I haven't read much about it aside from some of NT Wright's comments. However, there would seems to be enough evidence from the NT documents themselves, plus writings of the apostolic fathers (who, unfortunately, many Christians don't know exist) such as Ignatius and Polycarp, who were both reportedly students of the apostle John, to support that a Jewish cult following Jesus existed before Saul's conversion.

In fact, I've heard the theory that Paul's writings were possibly not given that much importance - as he was not one of the original 12 - until perhaps the 2nd Century. Certainly Ignatius, Polycarp and others focus more on John.

And, of course, even Paul himself writes about the problems he had with the existing church leaders, specifically Peter.

So, even if you don't accept the divinity of Jesus, there is evidence to support the notion that a "Jesus cult" existed pre-Paul.

Anthony said...


I also tend to agree with you. Although I respect Robert Price and others who take the Jesus myth position I do however think the evidence is better explained if there really was an historical figure.

I think if we look at the New Testament texts it's clear Jesus was an apocalyptic doomsday prophet who's message, like that of John the Baptist before him, is for people to "repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." It was to be imminent eschaton in his day and age, when the prophesied “son of man” was to come. At his coming it was believed there would be cataclysmic events that would take place, even such that The Stars Will Fall From Heaven; literally!

In essence the expectation that Jesus (based upon his own prophetic statements in the Olivet Discourse) was to come back during the apostles life time, a prophesy that failed. This reminds me what how Kenton Sparks (God's Word in Human Words, pp. 116-118) describes Daniel's prophetic vision (7-12) that was to culminate during the Greek period (when the true author wrote) in the coming of God's eschatological kingdom, a prophecy that failed.

AIGBusted said...

I've been on the fence about this question for a while.

On the one hand, we do have the attestation from Josephus (which most scholars agree sounds like something he would write).

On the other hand, the passage is not mentioned by Justin Martyr and may very well by a forgery by a clever scribe.

exapologist said...

For purposes relevant to the primary aim of this blog, I like to put John's point in condtional terms:

1. If the NT is at least moderately reliable, then Jesus was probably a failed apocalyptic prophet. Most Christians will like neither the Modus Ponens nor the Modus Tollens of arguments with that conditional:

1. If the NT is at least moderately reliable, then Jesus was probably a failed apocalyptic prophet.
2. The NT is at least moderately reliable.
3. Therefore, Jesus was probably a failed apocalyptic prophet (1, 2 MP)

1. If the NT is at least moderately reliable, then Jesus was probably a failed apocalyptic prophet.
2. It's not the case that Jesus was probably a failed apocalyptic prophet.
3. Therefore, the NT is not at least moderately reliable. (1, 2 MT)

Orthodox Christians who want to hold onto the claim that the NT is at least moderately reliable will therefore have to deny (1). Unfortunately, as Sanders, Ehrman, Allison, et al. argue, it's about the best supported thesis about Jesus there is. It passes virtually all the criteria of authenticity, such as earliest strata, multiple independent attestation (and in multiple forms), embarrassment. So Jesus' message of an imminent eschaton is authentic if anything is in the NT.

This is perhaps the most challenging problem for Orthodox Christians. It's the cause of many an aspiring NT scholar to lose their faith.

Harry McCall said...

Ahswan, the historical figure of Jesus is of little importance in the foundation of Christianity anymore than a single small hamburger restaurant in California called McDonald’s is the same fast food establishment we eat at today.

That there was some small Jesus movement in early first century Palestine there can be no doubt anymore than there were many other Messianic or Christian sects totally apart from that of the Gospel Jesus (see: Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era Edited by Jacob Nusner, W.S. Green, and Jonathan Z. Smith, Cambridge University Press, 1987. Especially “From Jewish Messianology to Christian Christology: Some Caveats and Perspectives” by J.H. Charlesworth, pp.225 - 264).

In fact we might want to change the concept of “Judaisms and their Messiahs” to “Judaisms and their Christianities” in that there is totally nothing special about Messiahs (Hebrew) and Christianities (Greek) except the theology built into the term “Christianity” by Paul’s Greek writings.

Also compare the concept of the Messianic / Christian figure of Moses in Samaritan theology. Here Moses is the promised messiah who will redeem the true Jewish faith which are those who were not part of the 5 - 10% of the Jews carried away into exile and corrupted with theological concepts from Babylon and Persia, but who returned with the blessings of King Cyrus and are responsible for the texts of Ezra and Nehemiah forcing the real Jews out as corrupt.

Although the book of Acts tries to redeem Peter , by Acts 14 he is given the boot in favor of the gentile preacher Paul as Christianity spread westward towards Roman and the seat of power (we might note here that we are NEVER told if or how Christianity spread north, east or south of Palestine).

I is a sad testimony that of the 12 to 72 or more apostles / disciples who the Gospels tell us were taught by the master Jesus himself, that apart from the limited and controversial roll of Peter, NONE of the other apostles leave us any texts except as forged in apocryphal accounts created to embellish the latter Christian’s faith and piety (remember, the names of the Gospel authors are traditional and NOT historical as assigned to their text).

Icelander said...

I think Jesus was a historical person as well, or perhaps a collection of historical persons. Judea at the time was a wellspring of apocalyptic preachers. It's simple chance that one of them would be inspiring enough to gain followers.

I also think King Arthur was a historical person. (Perhaps a Roman General stranded in Britannia after the fall of the Empire.) But that doesn't mean he literally pulled a sword from a stone, or that he's waiting in Avalon to save England. And I'm sure that if the Prime Minister of England cut the British defense budget because of his unshakeable belief in King Arthur people would think he was mad.

Similarly, having people in places of power in the US who think we don't have to deal with global warming or that we should defend Israel because Jesus is coming back any day now should be treated with the same level of incredulity.

Evan said...

I agree with Harry that it's indisputable there was a man named Jesus in Palestine at some point between the start of the Hasmonean dynasty and the writings of Paul. It's highly likely that there were many (Josephus writes about several).

Where I disagree with you, John, is your acceptance of Mark and Q as even minimally historical documents. I don't believe they are, and they have all the markings of legends and midrash.

The central core of Jesus' teachings, apart from apocalyptcism (which was widely accepted by many Jews at the time and hardly revolutionary for 1st century Judea), is what exactly?

Be nice?

You're correct that the facts are unavailable to us, all we are doing is making assessments of probabilities. Yet I think the ideas of Wells, Price, Carrier, Doherty and others who call into question the veracity of all the Greek gospel accounts make it much more likely than not that the Greek gospels do not reliably report any history of the person(s) who originally began the Jesus story(ies).

Jennifer said...

Thank you for your reply, but I was specifically referring to the religions of Rome, Hebrews and the surrounding cultures. What was going on in the orient or Africa, dense jungle regions etc.., would be somewhat separate - hence some of the spiritual practices of isolated areas.

I was specifically wondering about how the "Christ - cult" would be different from that of Diana or some of the sects within Judaism.
Any thoughts on that?

Baconsbud said...

I am sorry this sounds like someone hoping that we close our eyes to what truth is. Let's look at all the information from that time and most says that you are wrong. I can say that from the frauds that have been committed by people within science that science is a lie or I can say that it is just fools denying truth. A few examples of someone that lived any where from 30-50 yrs before the writing of it is worse then anything for proof. Lets say I came forward saying that some person killed another but that I didn't see it happen would that be grounds to believe it. Would you believe me if I said this 30 years after I did see this murder?

Baconsbud said...

I know I am not the smartest person here but I do some might know the id. I have never said anything about myself and I can say I do that because I believe in privacy. Lets start with that i am non religious, I am neither an atheist nor a religious person. Some here don't believe in the supernatural and some do. Myself I believe that the supernatural exist but only because we haven't advanced enough to say why things we don't understand are natural. I believe most theist and atheist are on the same path but from different directions. Instead of trying to prove each other wrong why not trying to find common ground to grow from. Think about this why is it that only humans fight over beliefs. The only animal that fights over belief is humans so what does that say about us? I love arguing with anyone but I won't fight anyone unless my life is in danger. Does that make me weak? I feel it makes me more of a person then one who will base things on their emotions. Religion is based on emotions not faith.

david said...

Has everyone heard the latest buzz in archaeology?

Bowl dated between late 2nd century B.C. and the early 1st century A.D. references Christ as magician

James F. McGrath said...

I think you've managed to strike a nice balance, and to helpfully separate the issue of whether an individual named Jesus (or "Josh") who actually existed who was at the center of the movement that developed into Christianity, and whether the various pieces of information about him and claims made about him are historically verifiable, and if so whether they are supported by the evidence.

For me, the clincher regarding Jesus' historicity is the crucifixion. Being executed by the foreign overlords was as near to automatic disqualification from being the Messiah as one could imagine in the context of first century Judaism. To suggest that Christians invented a crucified Messiah is implausible in the extreme. A better explanation is that Jesus existed, and there were people who believed he was the Messiah in spite of the crucifixion and thus sought ways of dealing with the cognitive dissonance the combination created.

Evan said...

Interesting link, David. I was unaware of it. I was also unaware there was a historical figure associated with a religion named Chrestos. This would call into question whether Suetonius' reference is valid.

AIGBusted said...

I think the real question here is: Was first century Christianity mostly an apocalyptic cult or a wisdom/mystery religion? The first view means that there most likely was a historical Jesus, the second means that it may be more plausible to think that Jesus never existed.

Secondly, Paul does not seem to think of Jesus as an historical, earthbound man. Earl Doherty has made an excellent case for this.

As for the Q documents: Can we be sure that these were not allegorical fiction? How much of the apocalyptic views were in Q?

Lee Randolph said...

As weird as this may sound,
I don't think Jesus existence is relevant. If he did or did not exist Christianity exists, and we have a record with interdependent arguments that can be evaluated.

In my view, the key is applying rational principles to the bible until the average Christian gets it and those Christian leaders that have thought about it long enough and should know better admit that they have no rationally principled basis for their belief.

I want to be clear, I think there is a difference in an irrational person and person that does not have enough information to make an informed decision. I think the majority of Christians are not interested in learning enough or cross-checking their evidence enough to foster a strong doubt and are just spinning their wheels in middle of a rational process.

arah said...

Excellence article

Religious scholars have long attributed the tenets of Christian faith more to Paul's teachings than to those of Jesus. But as much as I would like to jump into that subject, I think it best to back up and take a quick, speculative look at the Old Testament.

The Old Testament teaches that Jacob wrestled with God. In fact, the Old Testament records that Jacob not only wrestled with God, but that Jacob prevailed (Genesis 32:24-30). Now, bear in mind, we're talking about a tiny blob of protoplasm wrestling the Creator of a universe 240,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles in diameter, containing over a billion galaxies of which ours—the Milky Way Galaxy—is just one (and a small one, at that), and prevailing? I'm sorry, but someone was a couple pages short of a codex when they scribed that passage. The point is, however, that this passage leaves us in a quandary. We either have to question the Jewish concept of God or accept their explanation that "God" does not mean "God" in the above verses, but rather it means either an angel or a man (which, in essence, means the Old Testament is not to be trusted). In fact, this textual difficulty has become so problematic that more recent Bibles have tried to cover it up by changing the translation from "God" to "man." What they cannot change, however, is the foundational scripture from which the Jewish Bible is translated, and this continues to read "God."

Unreliability is a recurring problem in the Old Testament, the most prominent example being the confusion between God and Satan! II Samuel 24:1 reads, “Again the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” However, I Chronicles 21:1 states, “Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel.”

Uhhh, which was it? The Lord, or Satan? Both verses describe the same event in history, but one speaks of God and the other of Satan. There is a slight (like, total) difference.

Christians would like to believe that the New Testament is free of such difficulties, but they are sadly deceived. In fact, there are so many contradictions that authors have devoted books to this subject. For example, Matthew 2:14 and Luke 2:39 differ over whether Jesus' family fled to Egypt or Nazareth. Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4 differ over the wording of the "Lord's Prayer." Matthew 11:13-14, 17:11-13 and John 1:21 disagree over whether or not John the Baptist was Elijah.

Things get worse when we enter the arena of the alleged crucifixion: Who carried the cross—Simon (Luke 23:26, Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21) or Jesus (John 19:17)? Was Jesus dressed in a scarlet robe (Matthew 27:28) or a purple robe (John 19:2)? Did the Roman soldiers put gall (Matthew 27:34) or myrrh (Mark 15:23) in his wine? Was Jesus crucified before the third hour (Mark 15:25) or after the sixth hour (John 19:14-15)? Did Jesus ascend the first day (Luke 23:43) or not (John 20:17)? Were Jesus' last words, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit my spirit’” (Luke 23:46), or were they “It is finished” (John 19:30)?

These are only a few of a long list of scriptural inconsistencies, and they underscore the difficulty in trusting the New Testament as scripture. Nonetheless, there are those who do trust their salvation to the New Testament, and it is these Christians who need to answer the question, "Where is the 'Christ' in 'Christianity?'" This, in fact, is a supremely fair question. On one hand we have a religion named after Jesus Christ, but on the other hand the tenets of orthodox Christianity, which is to say Trinitarian Christianity, contradict virtually everything he taught.

I know, I know—those of you who aren't screaming "Heretic!" are gathering firewood and planting a stake. But wait. Put down the high-powered rifle and listen. Trinitarian Christianity claims to base its doctrines on a combination of Jesus' and Paul's teachings. The problem is, these teachings are anything but complementary. In fact, they contradict one another.

Take some examples: Jesus taught Old Testament Law; Paul negated it. Jesus preached orthodox Jewish creed; Paul preached mysteries of faith. Jesus spoke of accountability; Paul proposed justification by faith. Jesus described himself as an ethnic prophet; Paul defined him as a universal prophet. Jesus taught prayer to God, Paul set Jesus up as intercessor. Jesus taught divine unity, Pauline theologians constructed the Trinity.

For these reasons, many scholars consider Paul the main corrupter of Apostolic Christianity and Jesus' teachings. Many early Christian sects held this view as well, including the second-century Christian sects known as “adoptionists”– “In particular, they considered Paul, one of the most prominent authors of our New Testament, to be an arch-heretic rather than an apostle.”

Lehmann contributes,

What Paul proclaimed as ‘Christianity’ was sheer heresy which could not be based on the Jewish or Essene faith, or on the teaching of Rabbi Jesus. But, as Schonfield says, ‘The Pauline heresy became the foundation of Christian orthodoxy and the legitimate church was disowned as heretical.' … Paul did something that Rabbi Jesus never did and refused to do. He extended God’s promise of salvation to the Gentiles; he abolished the law of Moses, and he prevented direct access to God by introducing an intermediary.

Bart D. Ehrman, perhaps the most authoritative living scholar of textual criticism, comments,

Paul’s view was not universally accepted or, one might argue, even widely accepted …. Even more striking, Paul’s own letters indicate that there were outspoken, sincere, and active Christian leaders who vehemently disagreed with him on this score and considered Paul’s views to be a corruption of the true message of Christ …. One should always bear in mind that in this very letter of Galatians Paul indicates that he confronted Peter over just such issues (Gal. 2:11-14). He disagreed, that is, even with Jesus’ closest disciple on the matter.

Commenting on the views of some early Christians in the Pseudo-Clementine literature, Ehrman wrote,

Paul has corrupted the true faith based on a brief vision, which he has doubtless misconstrued. Paul is thus the enemy of the apostles, not the chief of them. He is outside the true faith, a heretic to be banned, not an apostle to be followed.

Others elevate Paul to sainthood. Joel Carmichael very clearly is not one of them:

We are a universe away from Jesus. If Jesus came “only to fulfill” the Law and the Prophets; If he thought that “not an iota, not a dot” would “pass from the Law,” that the cardinal commandment was “Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is one,” and that “no one was good but God”….What would he have thought of Paul’s handiwork! Paul’s triumph meant the final obliteration of the historic Jesus; he comes to us embalmed in Christianity like a fly in amber.

Dr. Johannes Weiss contributes,

Hence the faith in Christ as held by the primitive churches and by Paul was something new in comparison with the preaching of Jesus; it was a new type of religion.

A new type of religion, indeed. And hence the question, "Where is the 'Christ' in 'Christianity?'" If Christianity is the religion of Jesus Christ, where are the Old Testament laws and strict monotheism of the Rabbi Jesus' Orthodox Judaism? Why does Christianity teach that Jesus is the son of God when Jesus called himself the "son of Man" eighty-eight times, and not once the "son of God?" Why does Christianity endorse confession to priests and prayers to saints, Mary and Jesus when Jesus taught his followers, "In this manner, therefore, pray: 'Our Father …'" (Matthew 6:9)? And who appointed a pope? Certainly not Jesus. True, he may have called Peter the rock upon which he would build his church (Matthew 16:18-19). However, a scant five verses later, he called Peter "Satan" and "an offense." And let us not forget that this "rock" thrice denied Jesus after Jesus' arrest—poor testimony of Peter's commitment to the new church.

Is it possible that Christians have been denying Jesus ever since? Transforming Jesus' strict monotheism to the Pauline theologians' Trinity, replacing Rabbi Jesus' Old Testament law with Paul's "justification by faith," substituting the concept of Jesus having atoned for the sins of mankind for the direct accountability Jesus taught, discarding Jesus' claim to humanity for Paul's concept of Jesus having been divine, we have to question in exactly what manner Christianity respects the teachings of its prophet.

A parallel issue is to define which religion does respect Jesus' teachings. So let's see: Which religion honors Jesus Christ as a prophet but a man? Which religion adheres to strict monotheism, God's laws, and the concept of direct accountability to God? Which religion denies intermediaries between man and God?

If you answered, "Islam," you would be right. And in this manner, we find the teachings of Jesus Christ better exemplified in the religion of Islam than in Christianity. This suggestion, however, is not meant to be a conclusion, but rather an introduction. Those who find their interest peaked by the above discussion need to take the issue seriously, open their minds and then … read on!


Laurence B. Brown.
The author can be contacted at BrownL38@yahoo.com.

AdamH said...

Yes, historical studies are fraught with problems.

Using your criteria, I can see historians a hundred years from now, when the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the last eyewitnesses have passed away, casting doubt on the holocaust...to an even greater degree than they already do.

Tor Hershman said...

A YouTube mini-doc about the awfully horrible facts concening
“The Origin of Jesus Christ” Parts, I & II.



Badger3k said...

Adam H - the only difference is that we have actual documents that are from a variety of sources that date to the Holocaust. We have real eyewitness accounts from the same years, not some anonymous writing that took place 30+ years after the fact (at a time when literacy was extremely rare). Add in that our methods of information transmission and storage are superior, and are definitely more accurate (despite claims to the contrary, archaeology and anthropology have shown that in ancient times, the message mattered more than pesky details - historical accuracy was a later development), than what was commonplace in the 1st-3rd centuries CE, you can see that our records are far more accurate and complete than anything back then. The analogy falls flat.

Did there exist a figure that became mythologized into "Jesus" or "the Christ"? Possibly. That's the common one because it is an easier and simpler explanation, and one that is more palatable to people. From what I've read about some new discoveries, there may have existed legends of a "dying/rising" messiah-type figure (perhaps the same "Chrestos" linked above, I'm not sure).

Of course, if we keep the same standards for a historical human "Jesus" (I'm not so sure that that was his name or a title given him - I've read some interesting commentary on that, but it really is irrelevant), then we need to keep them for other figures. This goes way back to Herodotus, IIRC - there were humans behind the legends of Hercules & others. We even know the names of his parents (mother at least, not sure of an earthly father), and in some legends there were birth places given. Ehrman has some interesting ideas, but he is heavily invested in his own hypothesis and from several interviews he is really good at disregarding contrary evidence or ideas. I like him, but lost respect for him as a scholar because of that.

Ultimately, while I currently find more credence to a mythical Jesus (even though the hypothesis has far to go, and needs to explain some evidence), whether there was a human or not is irrelevant. What matters is how the mythology developed, and what its followers are doing in the present time. A two-thousand year old corpse matters naught.

Jon said...

John, here are the arguments I glean from your post in favor of historicity.

1-Early sources and creeds support historicity.

2-Traditions must be based on something. Why discount the independent sources that attest to a historical Jesus?

3-Jesus as described is very Jewish.

4-Cultic religious groups are started by a cult figure. Could have been Paul, but Paul attests to previously existing Christians. This makes Jesus more likely.

There is an important point to keep in mind regarding the first point. What does it mean to say that the creeds are "early." That only makes sense if we know approximately when Jesus lived and died. So it's only a relevant point if we assume historicity. What if we assume a-historicity? The creeds are not within a few years of Jesus death or anything like that. The timing of Jesus life was retrospectively chosen and the creeds may originate from a time close to the period that was chosen. But that doesn't help as far as reliability.

Also note that sing/song creeds usually reflect events that are regarded as being from far in the past. Normally you don't start getting poems and sing song creeds about people recently deceased. Anybody writing songs about Johnny Carson, Johnie Cochran, or Peter Jennings? Poems are usually about people who have had more time to have legends accrue.

On the second point, how much independence is going on here? Once again, Paul doesn't put Jesus in a historical setting. Mark is the earliest document that does, and many of the subsequent writings are clearly based on what he offers. Do we really know that the early church fathers are independent of Q/Mark?

On the third point, even if true it doesn't get you very far. Tom Sawyer may fit right in as a child of his time and place, but this doesn't make him historical.

One point regarding the founder. Have you seen "The God Who Wasn't There"? In that movie Fleming interviews the Mikklesons (founders of snopes.com). They point out that that many legends originate from a variety of independent sources which all somehow coalesce on a finalized version. There could be many other contributors other than Paul, Mark/Q, etc. If Jesus existed he may have also contributed, but that's not necessary.

I think the best reason to regard Jesus as a historical person is Paul's reference to James, the brother of the Lord in Galatians chapter 1. In my view other evidence from Paul weighs against the view that he regarded Jesus as a person that walked the earth. But I can see why a reasonable person would disagree.

District Supt. Harvey Burnett said...

Evan, Harry & Others,

Hey fellas, I've been indisposed as of late and that won't change until next week, but I wanteed to chime in on a few items,

The name Jesus or Yesu was not a popular second century or later construct. The name went back to yehoshua or Joshua. The reaosn being was the desire of the jew to disassociate themselves from the Jesus of Christianity. There were many Jesus's in 1st Century. Josephus mentions at least 8 if memory serves me right, but the Jesus of Christianity was highly distinguishable in every writing and refrence. Josephus was clear in his indications and scholars agree as to the historic person he was refrencing. Christ, or the title was often associates with his name for further clarification. So there was not as much of a confusion on the identity of the Jesus of history as it may seem.

Secondly, one of the commentors mentioned Paul. Just a quick note the Pharisaec thoughts of Paul SCREAM through his writings. The whole foundation of his concept of faith is OT from Hab. Paul could not have refrenced the OT more heavily than he did. So I find it very obtuse that anyone could read what he talked about and come to any other conclusion unless they were reading with and obvious philosophical and presuppositional bias.

In essence, like Habermas, I believe we can use minimal facts to confirm Jesus' historicity. Arguments against the historical figure remain uncompelling and largely use arguments from silence as proof while minimizing the proofs acroos the board that exist.

In essence, we can easily and readily eliminate any thoughts of Jesus being a second century construct by multiple attestation, the criteria of embarassment which helsp to confirm additional information exclusive to the time and further solidifies his first century reality.

In closing to make Jesus aan essene or Ebionite also is disingenious to history as there is no evidence in support of either notion and the evidence we do have clearly takes all arguments totally against such notions.


BTW: David, That bowl, if it is a refrence to the historical Jesus would be on parr with what we know the thoughts were about Jesus outside of his ministry core. Remember Herod wanted Jesus to do a "magic trick" for him when he was sent to him from Pilate. His core and disciples and apostles however identified his actions cleary as the work of the Lord and not magic. Additionally, in Acts 19, there were some "sourcers" called the "Son's of Sceva"(Left hand) that used Jesus name in their incantations and magic spells. I would expect there to be additional finds regarding this also.

eheffa said...

After personally reviewing this question in depth for the past year, I find the evidence for an historical Jesus to be surprisingly weak.

Earl Doherty's thesis as outlined in his book "the Jesus Puzzle" gives the Mythical Jesus hypothesis some decent traction & deserves a little more consideration than people are often willing to give. (See: http://www.jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/home.htm )

We have no trouble dismissing the obviously embellished apocryphal gospels, why would anyone give the canonical gospels more credence?


Logossfera said...

I think it doesn't matter if a person named Jesus existed or not 2000 years ago. When identifying a person we use all it's known properties.
The are thousands of people in Mexis named Jesus. Is it right to say "I believe in Jesus" and I mean a guy in Mexico? The name of the person is Jesus but that is not enough. What is enough to consider a person existed?
Can we say "I believe in the historical Prometheus" giving that there is a person who used fire beside taking a burning branch of a tree struck by lighting? Of course not. We know from the Bible enough properties of Jesus aproximate better the belief in its historical existence.
If the answer "Did the historical Jesus walked on water?" is "No" than the historical Jesus didn't exist. If we lower the bar enough we can say that we belive hundreds of historical Jesuses existed at the time of Jesus.

I think we should define more acurately what properties a person presented by a story must have in order to consider the person in the story was real. Otherwise "Constatine the Great" could be just any tall fellow named Constantine whos mother was called Helen. :)

zilch said...

logossfera- what you said. If a Jesus who walked on water and raised the dead did not exist, then the answer to the question: "Was Jesus an historical person" can only be, as they say here in Austria, "Jein" (that is, ja+nein, "yes-no"). That is, unless we come up with incontrovertible evidence that one particular Jesus (or Yeshua, or whatever) was the source of the legends, which seems unlikely at this remove.

Logossfera said...

@zilch what I'm saying is that in order to be able to say "X was a historical figure" you must meet some criteria.
For example if you say "Marcus Aurelius was a historical figure" you are talking about an emperor that ruled the Roman empire between A and B, and was a philosopher that wrote C and D, was maried to E, and had the children F, G and H.
Some of these properties are mandatory/important some are not. For example if you find a story about A Marcus Aurelius that meets all the criteria but the son H you can still say it refers to THAT Marcus Aurelius. But if you find a story about A Marcus Aurelius that wasn't emperor you conclude it doesn't talk about THAT Marcus Aurelius.
What are the essential criterias to say A Jesus is THAT Jesus? The name, birthlocation, parents name, companions names, teachings, the fact that it dyed on a cross, the fact that he walked on water?
What if there was a teacher that was nailed on a cross but his name was not Jesus? Is it enough to qualify it as THAT Jesus?

For billions of people one of Jesus important characteristics was that he walked on water. To say "Well, there wasn't anyone walking on water but I think there was a guy named Jesus at that time" is irrelevant. Just like saying about Exodus: "It was an exodus but they weren't 600.000 men, it didn't happend at once, it didn't take 40 years, there was no Moses leader but it was definetely and exodus".

This reminds me of a joke during the communist era:
"Radio Erevan calls Stoyanovici's home.
- Is it true that the Communist Party has given you a brand new car for free?
- Yes it is. Except... is wasn't a car but a bycicle. And they didn't give it to me but they took it from me"

Bryan242 said...

For all practicality, a historical “cult leader” Jesus or a myth “Hercules” Jesus is moot.
My assessment of the New Testament is that of a few writers in a time of oppression from the laws and religions of the Romans, that took measures to undermine the system and took a rebel leader named Yeshua and made a new religion based on him to rival the already popular Greek Mythology beliefs and the popular Roman Mythologies of Mythra that were wide spread at the time, combining them to make their own (very well written mind you) super hero story to out do all the other followings at the time.

The visions that Paul had and Paul* and company wrote about, were in the same vein as Mohammed's Koran and John Smiths book of Mormon. So well and ingeniously done, mixing in miracles and folklore and old mythologies, done in a believable real life kind of style, that millions still believe in them, to this day.

Calum said...

We can prove that there was an Egyptian Spirit God, their Evercoming Son who was called IOSA, and very likely known to the ancients as far back as the 6th Dynasty. IOSA is the name still used for Jesus in Gaelic - refer Gaelic Gospel of Mark on line. The Greeks Hellenised most Egyptian names of towns and people when they invaded Egypt in the 4th century BCE. Iosa is one with HR (in Greek Horus) and the stories of Iosa/Hor are virtually the same as told in the gospels. The first two chapters of Luke can even be seen in scenes and glyphs in King Solomon's (SalimAmen/YmnHtp) Temple in Luxor.

Dave said...

>I just don’t see why we must discount the various independent writers of the New Testament itself on the historicity of Jesus."

Because none of them were eyewitnesses. And what do you mean by "independent," John. Do you mean they were not Christians?

>Why, for instance, should we not believe anything at all in the New Testament unless there is independent confirmation from outside sources?<

We shouldn't believe anything in the NT unless there IS independent confirmation. Otherwise, we might as well believe in the ressurection of Jesus, and the dead "saints" that the bibe claims walked the streets of Jerusalem after Jesus was resurrected, believe that Jesus is the son of God, that he walked on water and caused a heard of pigs to jump off a cliff into the ocean.

Do we have to wonder if pigs exist? Or water, or cliffs, all mentioned in the bible? No, we know such things exist.

But we have zero evidence that someone named Jesus existed, one who killed fig trees, made wine out of water, or even had a group of followers.

You, John, may believe Jesus was a historical person, but your belief is based on blind faith, rather than evidence.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Those claims of the bible which are unproven are not trustworthy. Those claims which would include the reality of a Jesus are thus not acceptable.

Might there have been a Jesus? Yes. But there is zero evidence of his existence, outside of the human mind. And therefore, while he might have existed, so might have pink elephants and unicorns.

John W. Loftus said...

Dave said...You, John, may believe Jesus was a historical person, but your belief is based on blind faith, rather than evidence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Don't piss me off with this load of crap. I'm sorry but it's sheer ignorance to say this since we're merely talking about whether a human prophetic figure is at the core of the Jesus cult who's name was Jesus. If you can't even see what the issue is then I have nothing more to say to you.

John W. Loftus said...

Listen to liberal Christian professor Dale Allison on the historical Jesus.

Dave said...


First you say, " I cannot be sure about this though, from a mere historical investigation of the evidence. I could be wrong. But that's what I think.

Fire away now, on both sides. I stand in the middle.<

Fine - I put forth my thoughts, and you complain I "piss you off with a load of crap."

I don't think I characterized your position as anything more than incorrect, based on the evidence. As you said, "I think pure historical studies cannot prove whether Jesus actually existed or not.<

I agree with that statement - you made it - and when I do, you jump on me, in less than courteous terms, for stating my position.

I've just downloaded 2+ hours of the lecture you recommended. I'll listen to them this morning. If I respond here with my own considered thoughts, I hope they don't "piss you off" just because my thoughts aren't congruent with your own.

eheffa said...

John said: "Don't piss me off with this load of crap. I'm sorry but it's sheer ignorance to say this since we're merely talking about whether a human prophetic figure is at the core of the Jesus cult who's name was Jesus. If you can't even see what the issue is then I have nothing more to say to you."

John, I'm not sure why Dave's statement has you so upset but I do think the assumption that Jesus Christ of the Christian faith was necessarily a real flesh & blood person is perhaps the default assumption but it is merely an assumption and nothing more. I am troubled by what appears to be a purely emotional rather than a rational response to Dave's observations. Surely, if we are open-minded enough, we can ask the question: What evidence do we have for the historical existence of this "human prophetic figure"?

Apart from the evangelistic tracts we call the NT Gospels & the other Pre-Nicene (Apocryphal) Christian Gospels and apart from an obvious interpolation in Josephus' writings, we have no third party mention or references to this wonder-working, locally famous crowd generating prophet. Surely, Josephus or Philo with their attention to the most insignificant details of this time in Palestine, Judea & Jerusalem would have noticed this charismatic preacher proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Josephus mentions John the Baptist, a minor player by comparison, but fails to notice this would-be Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. After all, this Jesus performed healings, & miracles. He confronted & stirred up the established Jewish priestly leadership. He attracted crowds of followers & his fame was widespread throughout the region. He entered Jerusalem during the highest holy festival of the year & was greeted by crowds as the King of the Jews. He was subjected to a public trial before the Roman authorities, scourged & publicly executed in what would have been seen as a remarkable and scandalous process. His death was accompanied by severe Earthquakes, a darkening of the sky for hours longer than any eclipse could generate and the dead were ejected from their tombs to prowl the streets of Jerusalem. His body was discovered to be missing from the tomb & the local priesthood were alarmed enough to generate a story that the late prophet's followers stole the body rather than admit that he had risen from the dead. After initially going into hiding, his followers were then witness to the risen prophet's ascension into heaven & subsequently emboldened to preach the "good news" of his kingdom message. These Jesus followers then caused a great deal of controversy as they spread out from Jerusalem demonstrating signs & wonders as they proclaimed the coming of the New Covenant to all peoples.

OK. So perhaps the writers of the Gospels were prone to a little exaggeration & this Messiah was nothing more than some anonymous peasant carpenter with a few cynic-derived cliches to stimulate his followers. One would have to assume that he was otherwise so obscure, no one observing the public events of the time noticed him come & go. In this case, his historicity is of no significance apart from the trivial question of whether there existed some obscure nobody to inspire a few followers to exaggerate his importance. If on the other hand the Messiah figure worshipped as the founder of his Church was even half of what he is claimed to have been, he should have been noticed by someone - even if only by his opponents or enemies. Yet, we have nothing. There isn't even any good first century evidence for a Christian movement or sect comprised of Jesus followers until the Pliny the Younger reference so loved by our apologist friends. Where are these dynamic apostles of the Book of Acts, stirring up the country side?

This is a huge topic and worthy of careful scrutiny, but merely dismissing the Mythicist assertions with a wave of the hand & a refusal to engage the evidence for & against the question of Jesus' Historicity does a disservice to the pursuit of truth. There are scholars with good integrity making a good case for the mythicist position. (See Earl Doherty for example). Richard Carrier is currently preparing a book on this whole question. It should prove to be a good examination of the question. It is by no means just the grist for the nut-bar mills. This is a serious & worthwhile question & yet most of the detractors of their postition do little more than hurl epithets & engage in ad hominem attacks.

Perhaps the idea of a mythical Jesus behind the Christian movement is too radical for many to even consider, but it has to be refuted on the basis of evidence - not simply dismissed on the grounds of pure revulsion. This is not "crap". It is a viable hypothesis & in my opinion explains the evidence much better than the Historical Jesus assertion. This question may never be fully answered but until then I think we are obliged to consider the evidence carefully without derision.


John W. Loftus said...

Dave said...You, John, may believe Jesus was a historical person, but your belief is based on blind faith, rather than evidence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Now wait a minute. The above statement is what I object to. I consider it ridiculous to say I have blind faith when in this post I gave reasons for thinking as I do. There must have been a founder to the movement. Paul was not that founder. An apocalyptic prophet is a reaonable answer and his name was probably Jesus. This is NOT an extraordinary claim! Such ignorance riles me. I might be wrong but I do not have blind faith about this. Such an accusation is sheer idiocy. Skeptics have become far to gullible on this question in my opinion, now even to suggest that to argue as I do is blind faith. I don't tolerate such things. This may be an emotional reaction to a completely unfounded accusation, but it is completely unfounded. Perhaps Dave ought to re-read my reasons and then apologize. If giving reasons is blind faith then I don't know what blind faith is.

John W. Loftus said...

Oh, and another thing. The way mythicists argue reminds me of how Holocaust deniers argue. Read Michael Shermer's book Why people Believe Weird Things on that topic and you may see what I mean. I'll probably post something on it sometime soon.

Listen, I am not stupid, I do not operate on blind faith. Treat me as if I do and I just might show you a thing or two. The problem is that I have bigger fish to fry than get into this debate too deeply. Why would you want to distract my studies into a discussion that Christians reject out of hand when there are more important issues to deal?

eheffa said...

As a footnote.

It's interesting to see that this question of the historicity of Jesus has prompted a sort of sequel to the Jesus Seminar...

Participants are to include Robert M Price, Hector Avalos, Gerd Ludeman among others.

I would seem that this question is quite topical & of interest to many scholars.

See: http://7thspace.com/headlines/297953/inaugural_meeting_of_the_jesus_project_to_take_place_in_amherst_new_york.html

or Here:

(Thanks to Toto on FRDB -
http://www.freeratio.org/vbb/index.php )


david said...

Haha I love Robert Price, he's such an eccentric personality. One time on the Infidel Guy he called the Jesus Seminar "a bunch of fundamentalists." Now thats skeptical when you think Crossan and Borg are fundies. :-)

Dave said...

John, I apologize for offending you. It wasn't my intention, but it came across the way. Saying you operate on "blind faith" was insensitive. I only meant to put forward my position, as you did yours, but I chose words that were intemperate.

Saying I exhibit "sheer idiocy" makes it a bit difficult to apologize - but I've done so. Calling me ignorant makes it a bit difficult to apologize. But I have done so.

By the way, I'm Jewish on my dad's side (and was baptized a Catholic at birth), I own - and I've read - the book by Michael Shermer you mention, I've been trained as a historian, and I'm fairly confident what I think about the putative historical Jesus does not match up with the way Holocaust deniers think.

John W. Loftus said...

Dave, apology accepted and I wish to apologize to you for what I said. The "blind faith" comment was just too much for me to bear so I lashed out. Sorry for that.

In regards to Michael Shermer's book I may have spoken to rashly, but here's what I meant. In his chapter on the Holocaust he said the same thing I did when it came to the historicity of Jesus in a new post I just made on this topic. I said this: "No single piece of evidence can do this, since no single piece of evidence ever led people to believe he did in the first place. It's the convergence of evidence that leads people to think he existed." That line of argument is straight out of Shermer's book when dealing with Holocaust deniers since they single out one piece of evidence after another to show that no single one of them proves the Holocaust happened. THAT's what I meant.


Dave said...


Apology excepted. I still disagree with your conclusion in the first post here. And I see no convergence of evidence for a historical Jesus; I see the opposite.

Having gone too far, though, with my prior comments, I will, unless prompted, retire from this field, glad in the knowledge that we're not angry with each other.

Hambydammit said...

John, I have written a lengthy reply to your blog on my own blog. I would be pleased to hear your thoughts on it.


Roland Tignor said...

I just stumbled upon this blog post and I disagree.
To John:
John, you said this, "And even though Paul never met Jesus and only had a vision of him on the Damascus Road".
Paul did see Jesus and he mentions it in 1Cor 15:8, "And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time."
Dr. Gary Habermas is the world's leading authority on Jesus and he proves that He existed and resurrected from the dead. Paul (as Saul) was alive when Jesus was walking on the earth.


Anders Branderud said...

"Historical Jesus"?!?

Just using this contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes your Christian-blinkered agenda--dependent upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.

Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: www.netzarim.co.il (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").

Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?