I Believe Jesus Was a Historical Person, Part 2

I believe there are some identifiable fables and mythic tales in the Bible, such as the Genesis creation accounts, the sons of God producing children from the daughters of men in Genesis 6, the Exodus, wilderness wanderings and Canaanite conquest in the Old Testament. In the New Testament there are some other identifiable fables and mythic tales, like the virgin birth story about Jesus, several miracle stories, the existence of Judas Iscariot, Joseph of Arimathea, and the resurrection story about Jesus. There are others. Given these things it becomes an important task to try to figure out if Jesus himself really existed.

I do not intend to revisit this question very often, because while it is an interesting one it’s not essential to debunking the Christian faith, nor are Christians likely to even consider the question unless they are first convinced that the other things I just mentioned are mythic tales. That’s why I focus on these other fables and myths. Getting them to recognize these things as myths is hard enough. Why focus on that which is harder when there is an easier route?

I’ll be excited to hear the conclusions that will come from next weekend's seminar on the Sources of the Jesus Tradition: An Inquiry, which includes participants Hector Avalos, Robert Price and Richard Carrier, all friends of mine

In any case let me once again delineate the problems for someone wishing to deny that a man named Jesus existed and further argue that he did. If you haven’t read my first foray into this field you must stop reading and begin reading what I have previously wrote about this issue right here. Again, stop reading and go there.

Let me elaborate in this post and further make my case.

That there are myths in the Bible doesn’t automatically lead to the conclusion that it is all mythic in nature. It may be, as I admit, but what reason is there for throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Let’s say Benny Hinn’s followers are called Hinnites and carry on after he dies. Does the mere fact that they claimed he did miracles, something we would call myths and fables since we don’t believe he actually did any miracles, automatically mean he didn’t exist? No.

Furthermore, what good reason can be given for demanding that there must be independent confirmation outside the NT before believing anything inside of its pages? That there is some need to do this I don’t doubt, given the nature of the stories, but why must we discount anything in the NT unless it is independently attested? What if there was no independent attestation to the existence of the Pharisees outside the NT? Why must we doubt they existed merely because of this? That’s one of my questions.

There are plenty of details in the NT that have been confirmed, most notably the historical setting of the gospels and the book of Acts. It hasn’t all been confirmed, of course, like the fabricated Roman census at the time of Jesus’ birth for instance, but much of it has. Sir William Ramsay has documented that the setting of the book of Acts, the places mentioned, the people who ruled, and other details are remarkably historical in his classic book, St. Paul, the Traveler and Roman Citizen, as has A.N. Sherwin-White, in his book, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. The setting of the Gospel of John has a remarkably historical setting as well, when it comes to its description of buildings, people groupings, and geographical landscape at the time, like Jacob’s well, the Samaritans, Solomon’s porch, the pool of Siloam, and so forth. According to Christian apologist Paul Barnett, “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the fourth evangelist was quite familiar with the topography and buildings of southern Palestine.” (p. 64).

Sure this isn’t enough, but it is something. It leads us to think the authors (or the sources they draw from) lived at that time, although it doesn’t prove this.

What would prove that Jesus existed? Nothing. Nothing in the historical past can be proved anyway. Almost anything can be denied in history even if it happened. So what can show us Jesus existed? 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.

In the first place, there is no testimony in the ancient world that denies he existed. There may be some significant silences about his existence, but arguing from these silences doesn’t show he never existed. They are merely silent about it. One cannot conclude from silence that the author didn’t know of a Jesus or an early Jesus sect. That’s an informal fallacy, especially when we have NT documents maintaining he did, including Paul who was the earliest writer of the NT.

What did Paul claim? He claimed he received what he knew about Jesus from revelation of course, which makes us suspect his knowledge, but he also claims he met with the early leaders in Jerusalem and that he had received information directly from them in I Corinthians 15:3-8. What he received from them he passed on to the Corinthians a few years earlier expressed in that creed. He also says he spent fifteen days with Peter three years after his conversion (Galatians 1:18-19), where one could conclude he first learned the creed he repeats to the Corinthians. Paul gives us several details about Jesus, depending on how we date his letters and whether we think he wrote them. Jesus descended from Abraham (Gal. 3:16); was the son of David (Romans 1:3); was born of a woman and lived under Jewish law (Gal. 4:4); had a brother named James (Gal. 1:19) and other brothers (I Cor. 9:5). Paul tells us Peter was married (I Cor. 9:5), and that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper (I Cor. 11:23-25); was betrayed (I Cor. 11;23); was killed by the Jews of Judea (I Thess. 2:14-15), and that he was buried and seen as resurrecting (I Cor. 15:4-8).

This is evidence that shouldn’t just be ignored simply because mythic elements to the life of Jesus were added in the telling of his story. Did Jesus think his last supper was his last one? I don’t know. It might be reasonably concluded that he did, since he would certainly know that people wanted him dead. In any case, such a story and the subsequent weekly practice of communion is evidence he ate the Passover meal at least one time with some men he called his disciples. It might even be thought Jesus did this on the night of his crucifixion, regardless of whether he predicted his death or not. Cultic leaders have been known to be paranoid and to think the authorities will kill them for their teachings, anyway. Some have called upon their followers to die with them, like David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, and Jim Jones.

I have proposed that the best explanation for the rise of the Jesus cult is that Jesus was an apocalyptic doomsday prophet who called for the end of the world. There have been a lot of charismatic doomsday prophets who have gathered a following. Such an explanation fits the facts of what we read in the NT itself and has been the dominant view of Jesus since the time of Albert Schweitzer, as I said. There are other alternative suggestions, but this one makes the most sense to me. That there are ancient pagan parallels to some of the elements in the life of Jesus is interesting to me. Certainly the life of Jesus as told by the early believers took on some of those characteristics. Whether they completely explain the rise of the Jesus cult is something I doubt. Again, I could be wrong since historical studies are fraught with problems like this. It just makes better sense to me personally, even if I might be shown wrong at a later date.

To read my next installment on this see Part 3.