Thursday, March 09, 2017

Did Jesus Really Exist? (or, Why You Shouldn't Trust Theology from News Outlets and TV Documentaries)

For the past few weeks, in conjunction with CNN's release of its new series on the life of Christ, a peculiar article has been floating around the main CNN webpage, with a link that reads "Scholars Argue If Jesus Existed." That title alone is enough to put almost all real scholars in serious peril of death from unstoppable bouts of astonished laughter. If you click the link, it leads to an article, originally published in 2012 (and unfortunately still as incoherent five years later), titled "Decoding Jesus: Separating Man from Myth." When you begin reading it, a thoughtful person would notice that the people making the case against Jesus' historical existence are not scholars at all, but "internet kooks" (in the words of an eminent agnostic scholar of the New Testament period, Bart Ehrman). In fact, it appears that the only ones in this article with any kind of serious historical training are the ones arguing, in terms of outright disbelief that anyone would seriously question this, that of course Jesus existed.

The reporter who filed this piece does the academic study of history a severe disservice by putting the claims of Jesus-deniers on an equal footing with those of serious scholars. My main concern here is not just to defend the evidence for Jesus' existence, which is pretty much the simplest historical analysis that can be done, but to cry foul against this defacement of rational historical thought. Anyone who knows anything about New Testament studies would immediately be struck by the fact that the scholars who are defending Jesus in this article are not even the evangelical and fundamentalist scholars one might expect. No, the defense of Jesus' historicity is coming from Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan, two scholars who often strike evangelicals as having an axe to grind with Christianity, who regularly nitpick at Christians' claims for the historicity and reliability of the Gospels' accounts--and they are the ones arguing, in the strongest possible terms, for Jesus' existence. That should say something about the state of this debate. The ones on the other side of the debate, for their part, appear to have no recognizable historical credentials.

Before I get to why the evidence for Jesus' existence is so overwhelmingly obvious as to make the whole question laughable, let me point out that this isn't CNN's failing alone. News outlets and TV documentaries often do a very good job in the limited fields of their expertise--political coverage and recent history, for instance--but seem largely unsure of who to talk to and how to judge the evidence when it comes to issues of debate in biblical scholarship and theology. I have yet to find an article from a major news magazine, or a documentary from a cable TV channel, which actually does justice to the field of biblical scholarship without wandering blithely into the sensational, the tangential, or the clearly false. Part of that is simply the nature of the medium--you gain more clicks and more viewers if you put together a piece about some sensational new claim regarding biblical history, however poorly substantiated it may be, than if you carefully and faithfully lay out the various pieces of evidence concerning the actual debates that go on among scholarly circles. More than once as a pastor, I've had to counsel people to stop watching fatuous TV documentaries about the Bible, and to actually pick up a book instead.

The CNN article outlines three reasons for disbelieving in the historical Jesus: (1) certain parallels that his story has with mythical stories from around the ancient Mediterranean, (2) a purported dearth of credible sources outside the Bible attesting to Jesus' existence, and (3) the bald statement that "the apostle Paul never referred to a historical Jesus." All of these claims are overstated in the extreme (and the last one, if you're at all familiar with the Bible, should have elicited a hearty guffaw at the sheer ignorance of the claim). 

Let's take them one by one. First, it is true that there are a very few stories from ancient mythology and mystery religions that have to do with apparent dying-and-rising hero figures, but these are not nearly as common as the article seems to imply. These stories are only vaguely reminiscent of the Jesus narrative, in the same way that Romeo and Juliet is reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. To make the claim that Jesus' story is false because of its vague reminiscence of these myths is rather like saying that the story of Trump's accession to the White House is clearly not a historical event, since it followed the same kind of ludicrous trajectory as the 2006 film Man of the Year, in which a media star who runs a wildly unconventional campaign wins the presidency. One might look at the two stories and say, "Well, the story of Trump's campaign seems very unlikely to have actually happened, and it does follow a familiar outline from Man of the Year, so we can thus determine that Trump's rise to the presidency never actually happened." Ah, but correlation is not causation, and especially not when the correlation is in the broadest possible terms. The "uncanny parallels" between the Jesus stories and these myths are, at best, the faintest sort of similarities. The only place I was able to find any source for the claim that leads off CNN's article, connecting Osiris-Dionysus with the crucified Jesus, just happened to be (astonishingly!) in the book published by the very same "internet kook" referenced in the article, a book that does not come from a reputable academic press and whose thesis has apparently not been taken up by any actual scholars since the time of its publication. The same author also claims the existence of ancient novels that contain stories of crucified heroes who nonetheless survive; but since he doesn't actually cite any sources, I have a difficult time drawing any conclusion other than that this may be wishful thinking on his part. Further, the myths about dying-and-rising gods, which are, again, not really that common, share the notable factor of being set in a mythical timescape, unlike the Jesus stories, which are presented in their sources as clear and immediate history. And there are certain elements of the Jesus story that are both strongly historically rooted and wildly different than almost anything else you can find in contemporary records or mythology, such as his ministry of healing (for more on this claim, read Craig Keener's massive exposition on the subject, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts). Finally, the great irony in all this is that it's being taken as evidence against the claims of Christ; but these shadowy parallels (none of which are news to Christians) used to be taken as clear indications of the sovereign mercy of God at work in all cultures to prepare them for Christ. If God prepared the people of Israel to receive their Savior through many signs and foreshadowings in their writings, wouldn't it make sense for God to also implant foreshadowings in the thought of other cultures as well, to prepare them too for the coming of their Savior? (For more on this idea, see Don Richardson's book, Eternity in Their Hearts, a compilation of similar "hints" of the Gospel that have been present in many cultures around the world, apparently in preparation for the advent of Christianity in their midst.)

Now, for the second claim: that no credible sources outside the Bible refer to Jesus as a historical character. This is untrue on the face of it, and the remarkable thing is that even the person making the claim knows it's untrue: in the CNN article, he tries to brush away the two clearest claims: Josephus and Tacitus, both of whom refer directly to Christ. It notes that Josephus' reference to Christ may have been tampered with by later Christians; that's a plausible claim, but "tampered with" is not the same as "invented." Josephus' original passage may not have included the claim that Jesus was the Christ (although that's the way it reads in all available manuscripts), but scholars are in almost complete agreement that the original text did, in fact, mention Jesus as a historical character, and that later Christians just augmented Josephus' observation. In any case, the CNN article tries to construe both Josephus and Tacitus as non-credible sources "because they both thought Hercules was a true figure." Again, if you know anything at all about the way historical study operates, this should leap off the page to you as a very amusing, and baldly ignorant, fallacy. In one case (Hercules), these two historians are writing about someone who, if he lived, was more than a thousand years before their time; in the other case (Jesus), they're writing about someone who lived within a generation or two of their own time. Let's put the article's case in modern terms and see how it holds up: "We have two historians, considered among the most reputable of their day, who are claiming that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a real person. But they also claim that the wizard Merlin was a real person, so they can't be trusted to know anything about the truth or falsity of Roosevelt's existence." The fallacy should be obvious. There is a clearly higher degree of probability that Josephus and Tacitus would have had access to credible information about the existence of Jesus than they did about Hercules, simply because of historical distance. Add to that the fact that there are other authorities who attest, if not to Christ himself, at least to the clear fact that the first generations of Christians believed him to be a historical person (Pliny, for example). Of the intellectual critics of Christianity in the Roman world, not even one tried to make the case that Jesus was a figment of his followers' imagination, and that's for a very simple reason: everybody knew that he was a historical figure, and there was absolutely no grounds for doubting it.

Beyond the sheer absurdity of the argument against Josephus and Tacitus, we also have to object to the way that claim #2 is phrased--"no credible sources outside the Bible." One must ask, "Why not consider whether the Bible itself might be a credible historical source?" That is, after all, the question on which the whole field of New Testament scholarship proceeds. The truth is, the Bible isn't simply a single book; it's a library of ancient documents. The New Testament contains twenty-seven separate books, written by at least nine different authors, and nearly all most likely hailing from within the first century AD itself. The fact that all of these various accounts tell the same story, based on the same person, is very strong evidence of it being a historical reality, especially when one compares it to the paucity of documentary evidence for most of the official secular history of the ancient world. We have four independent accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, apparently based on eyewitness testimony, as well as complementary references to the event from epistles composed even earlier than the Gospels; whereas for most of the events in the lives of the first-century Caesars we have only two accounts that fall even remotely within the same time-frame (Tacitus and Suetonius), though both are in fact composed longer after most of the events they mention than the Gospels are after the resurrection, and both show clear political biases that color their stories in particular ways. The Gospels themselves have often been shown in respectable academic circles as deserving close examination as historical texts (i.e., the assumption in the scholarly world is not that they should be immediately disqualified because of the texts' religious interest in the events they portray). Even the Gospel of John, usually rated as the most historically suspect of the Gospel accounts, was persuasively attributed to an eyewitness author by no less an authority than the great historian of the classical world (and avowed atheist) Robin Lane Fox. (For more on this subject, see Craig Blomberg's The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.)

On to the third claim: that Paul never refers to a historical Jesus. The background to this ridiculous claim is that, throughout the 20th century, several groups of Bible scholars put a lot of thought into a division between "the Jesus of history" and "the Christ of faith." Paul, who encounters Jesus only after the Easter event, might be seen as referring everything to "the Christ of faith"--that is, only to the present reality of a risen and glorified savior, with no dependence upon the historical narrative of Jesus of Nazareth. The only trouble with this picture is that it's not a distinction that Paul himself makes. Even a casual reader of the New Testament can see with blazing clarity that Paul obviously knows about and believes in the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth. He references events in the historical life of Jesus: primarily the Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection, but not only those--in Galatians 4:4 he also references Jesus' birth in a clearly historical sense, and he further notes that Jesus is a descendant of David (Rom. 1:3) and had brothers (1 Cor. 9:5), each of which is hard to pull off if you're not a real historical person. And he appears intimately acquainted with the historical sayings of Jesus (1 Cor. 7:10-11; 11:23-26; 1 Tim. 5:18), and in Acts is even attributed as quoting a Jesus-saying that is unrecorded in the Gospels (Acts 20:35, "It is more blessed to give than to receive.") All that to say, the advocate for Jesus' nonexistence in the CNN article might be able to use the phraseology of New Testament scholarship, but in trying to use it to add weight to his argument, he does nothing but come off as ridiculous.

The truth is, there are almost no scholars who argue about whether Jesus was a real person or not. The actual debates that do go on are far more interesting. Broadly speaking, the questions revolve around how much historical authenticity is present in the Gospels' portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. There is a broad swath of scholars that hold that the Gospels are, in fact, very accurate, and outstanding examples of first-century historiography. In point of fact, it is such a difficult task to poke any significant holes in the historical reliability of the Gospels that many Christian denominations, despite having to face up to more than a century's worth of skeptical scholarship on the subject, are still able to claim the Gospels as not only historically trustworthy but "inerrant." Some of the Christian scholars who hold this view have standing within the highest circles of academic New Testament scholarship. And even if there are quite a few scholars who may not go so far as "inerrancy," there are still a lot who are nonetheless convinced--for reasons of textual criticism, historical analysis, and archaeological research--that the Gospels are trustworthy accounts about a real person. Usually, these scholars are also believing Christians. But that's not necessarily an indication of bias; it simply follows quite naturally that if one sees good cause to believe the history of the Gospels, one will probably be a Christian, in the same way that if you have good cause to believe that you've had a child, you'll probably call yourself a parent. Belief can follow the evidence; it does not necessarily precede and color the evidence. (In fact, one of the most prominent New Testament scholars of our generation, Craig Keener, is a Christian who came to faith as a result of the evidence for it). There are, of course, also agnostic scholars of the Bible, who are dubious of some of the Gospels' historical claims--these, like Ehrman and Crossan, disavow the miraculous elements as being beyond the purview of historical assessment, and tend to think that the early Christians plumped up the picture of the historical Jesus with later reflections; in essence, they accuse the Gospel-writers of editing and expanding the actual history of Jesus to include later elements of their post-Easter faith. Such claims are interesting and worth investigating; however, the method that these scholars have for discerning which parts of the Gospels are authentic and which are expansions appears to be pretty arbitrary, guided by an unnervingly subjective process of discernment. In any case, the point being made here is that not even they, who are usually the antagonists of the traditional Christian position in New Testament scholarship--not even they come close to suggesting that Jesus was anything less than a real, historical figure. There are sayings of Jesus in the Gospels that are so unique, so startling, and so hard to swallow (even for the early Christian community) that it's almost impossible to imagine that someone could have fabricated them. It's also almost impossible to imagine the Christian movement developing in the mid-first century, with all its dynamism and vigor, while being based on a fable that its founders knew was a fabrication. Such a scheme just doesn't bear the weight of serious historical assessment.

If you want to see more on this particular controversy, take the time to read Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?, or pick up The Historical Jesus: Five Views, where several scholarly positions are laid out--there's even a chapter put in by a Jesus-denier, to which the other scholars react with a polite sort of bemusement. If you want more in-depth analysis of the historical questions behind the text of the New Testament, then take the challenge to dive into some of the great works of biblical scholarship being put out today--I would give the highest recommendation to any of the works of James D. G. Dunn or N. T. Wright, both of whom are scholars of the highest order.