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.