Was Jesus a Real Person?

Was Jesus a Real Person? May 5, 2019

Cefalù_PantocratorWithout googling it, would you know what a CVDP is? Would you immediately know what the CMIP and AMIP are? They are, respectively, a tool for analyzing climatological models and the frameworks climatologists use to correlate, organize, and analyze massive amounts of oceanographic and atmospheric data in order to make sense of patterns in global climates. I had to look them up to know what they are, and I’m probably doing a poor job of defining them since I am not a professional in that field.

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Could you imagine being so self-assured that you’re an expert in everything that you would publicly deride trained professionals in that discipline for arriving at conclusions which are different from yours?

Once again without googling, would you be able to explain to me the difference between form criticism and source criticism? Would you know without asking what textual and redactional criticism seek to discover? These are tools of the historian of antiquity, particularly where oral traditions make up the bulk of the sources for the ancient texts still available to us today. Those who use these tools to analyze ancient texts and traditions spend years, decades even, applying them to their subject matter in order to try and figure out how these things came into being.

I would ask if you could imagine correcting professionals in the study of antiquity without having formally studied that field yourself, except I already know the answer. Many of you already have, and continue to do so in your social media spaces on an almost daily basis. And you do this while blissfully unaware that, without any of the relevant credentials, you are challenging formal disciplines wherein conclusions are corroborated by decades of controlled, peer-reviewed studies and/or excavations in a number of fields including archaeology, anthropology, sociology, and even radiology.

Because you have read a couple of books or watched some YouTube videos on the subject, you feel eminently qualified to declare not only that Jesus may not have existed, but that he did not and maybe even could not have existed. You are so certain of this that you stand ready to tell anyone and everyone about the conclusions you have reached.

I will argue in this post that you are out of your depths when you speak with such certainty, and that if you had formally studied the subjects you are discussing, you would at least temper your assertions with a little more epistemological humility even if you were to arrive at the same conclusions in the end. You would also know that you are contradicting the overwhelming consensus of an academic discipline made up of people from every point on the religious belief spectrum.

Which Jesus Are We Talking About?

Before I get further into this, I need to clarify something up front. In this post, I will NOT be arguing that a magical Jesus existed and performed miracles for which we have no remaining evidence save for the anecdotes preserved for us in the Bible and in church tradition. I am arguing instead that the most logical conclusion we could reach today about Jesus is that a guy by that name probably did live and preach and get himself killed for hanging out with insurrectionists. Let’s call him Regular Joe Jesus as opposed to Magic Jesus.

Carl Sagan famously said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” That’s true for the most part, but what about ordinary claims? Instead of claiming that a guy performed miracles and then died and came back to life again later to fly up into the sky (that’s Magic Jesus), what if someone merely claimed that a regular guy named Jesus bought into an apocalyptic ideology which landed him in so much trouble with a heavy-handed imperial government that they executed him for sedition? Would Regular Joe Jesus demand extraordinary evidence for us to believe that he existed? I would argue that he does not.

You must also realize that even ordinary evidence for the existence of a poor, itinerant preacher in a backwater district in ancient Rome would be extraordinarily rare. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Imagine if people decided 100 years from now that Chuck Norris never existed because, come on, nobody could really do the things they say he could do. I realize the analogy breaks down because we have video and photo evidence that he really exists, but what if we didn’t? What if he had lived two thousand years ago in a region the authorities cared so little about that they kept almost no records of any kind? If evidence were harder to come by, people would start saying the same thing about Chuck Norris as some are saying today about Jesus.

Take for example a theory put forth not too long ago by Joseph Atwill, a software entrepreneur with an undergraduate degree in computer science and no formal training in the study of antiquity: In an argument which was quickly ripped to shreds by both Robert M. Price and Richard Carrier (the only two living mythicists with advanced degrees in related subject matter), Atwill suggested that Roman aristocrats invented Jesus as a way of pacifying the Jews after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.. This makes little sense on so many levels I can scarcely believe how widely I’ve seen links promoting his theory shared by “skeptics” around the web.

But it gets even sketchier than that. I’ve seen friends on social media claim that the Christian faith wasn’t even thought up until the second, third, or even the fourth century C.E.. One of my friends confidently insists that the whole Christian religion was invented at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E.. Where she got that idea, I’m not exactly sure; but it indicates a failure to apply the same critical thinking skills for historical claims that so many “freethinkers” pride themselves on using for the claims of religion.

To show you how off-base these theories are, I want to list a handful of things we know which persuade most legitimate professionals in the study of antiquity to conclude that at least Regular Joe Jesus did exist, even if he didn’t do all the things the Bible claims that he did.

When Did This Religion Begin?

For starters, you should know that we currently possess fragments of copies of the New Testament which date to the early-to-mid 100s C.E., the earliest of which is a portion of Chapter 18 from John’s gospel, which almost all scholars agree was the last canonical gospel written. We also have a portion of Matthew’s gospel from around 150 C.E., and from the latter part of that century we have portions of five of Paul’s letters as well as Hebrews.

Considering that it takes time for oral tradition to spread, and even more time for it to become “scripture” copied and circulated around as wide an area as we have discovered, this easily pushes the origins of this faith back into the latter half of the first century C.E.. But we can go further back than that.

Writing toward the end of the first century C.E., Roman historian Tacitus recounts a story about the burning of Rome in which Emperor Nero, who was eager to renovate large portions of the city for his own purposes, blamed Christians for the arson for which many believed Nero himself was responsible. He needed a scapegoat, and the upstart spinoff of the Jewish religion suited his needs perfectly.

I’m not really interested in debating the legitimacy of his claims, nor of the stories of Christian persecution we hear which followed. What interests me more are the facts that 1) Tacitus accused the early church of being “misanthropes,” and 2) the general Roman public had any inkling who the Christians were at all by such an early date.

Tacitus claims that popular sentiment quickly turned against the Christians at the time of Rome’s burning (the summer of 64 C.E.) because they were already somewhat annoyed by the Church’s behavior. They had weird rituals in which they spoke of eating someone’s body and drinking his blood (eww), and their central figure frequently spoke about giving up your life for his sake and for the sake of spreading his message. They even romanticized execution, and they appear to have been quite convinced that the world was about to end at any minute, and they spoke as if that were a good thing.

I find it mildly amusing (and a confirmation of my own suspicions) to hear that early Christianity had earned for itself a reputation for “hating humanity.” Whether or not that’s fair is a separate discussion, although I can tell you for certain that the modern iterations of this faith heavily lean toward anti-humanism.

Read: “Anti-humanism: How Evangelicalism Taught Me the Art of Self-Loathing

But what’s most interesting about this to me is that this ancient Roman historian, who clearly wasn’t trying to improve our estimation of the Christian faith, knew who Christians were. This event he reported was only three decades after the time when we are told the Christian church began. That’s three short decades for spreading the Christian faith from the backwater regions of Judea all the way across the Mediterranean and into the capital city of the Roman Empire.

Never mind whether or not Jesus actually existed. We’ll get to that in a second. But can we first take a moment to appreciate the fact that the Christian faith was already around by the middle of the first century C.E., and was well-known enough to have developed a reputation (deserved or not) among the Roman public?

The people who claim Jesus was invented decades or even centuries later don’t know what they are talking about, and it irks me how quickly other “skeptics” accept these claims with enough certainty to entitle them to go around the world telling everyone how stupid they are for thinking Jesus ever existed at all.

For further corroboration that the Christian faith was already around by this time we have the testimony of Jewish historian Josephus, who also lived and wrote in the first century C.E.. Josephus placed Jesus during the administration of Pontius Pilate, and while scholars have disputed whether or not some of the phrases we find in the Testimonium Flavianum were original to the text, virtually all of them agree that it still constitutes another data point which puts the origins of the Christian faith around the time in which the Bible itself indicates that it began.

The Bible as a Source of History

And speaking of the Bible, I need to say a word here about its usefulness for the task at hand. Skeptics who don’t revere the Bible as a sacred text tend to take it completely off the table when discussing whether or not we have evidence for the existence of Jesus, whichever version they mean. In answering this question they want to consult only impartial sources, as if such things exist, but to the professional historian of antiquity the Bible is still an invaluable resource. A religious text with as many diverse influences as the New Testament falls well within their scope of consideration despite the many biases they know are there.

It would be different if we had more official records from that region and time period, but we don’t. Even Pilate, who was the top Roman official for the relevant period, left behind no documents, no declarations or policy decisions, and certainly no records of death warrants or legal judgments of any kind. What little we know of him we learn mostly from two Jewish historians, Philo and Josephus, plus archaeologists have also discovered a dedicatory inscription in a limestone block dedicating a building to the Emperor Tiberius during Pilate’s tenure as prefect (26-36 C.E.).

In other words, while skeptics make much ado about the lack of contemporary evidence for the existence of Jesus, the reality is that we lack contemporary evidence for pretty much everyone from that time and place, especially for people who didn’t hold any official government titles. The fact that we have any writings at all which attest to the existence of Jesus is significant in itself, no matter how many layers of embellishment we find therein.

The earliest writings which attest to the existence of Jesus come from the apostle Paul, a leather worker by day and preacher by night who by many accounts was the man most responsible for the shaping of the Christian faith that we’ve come to know today. We also can determine through form and source criticism that the oral traditions which later came to inform the writing of the gospels almost certainly originated independently of Paul’s influence and predates his ministry by several years.

At least in its most basic form, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus had matured into a credal form by the time Paul sat down to write (or else dictate) his first letter to the Corinthians some time in the mid-50s C.E.:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (emphasis mine)

While Paul cleverly added himself into this formula in an attempt to put himself on par with the people who actually knew Jesus, the language of passing along a received tradition tells scholars something important. It’s the same language he uses a few chapters earlier in describing the eucharistic meal he had been taught to observe:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 

Taken together with everything else we know, this indicates to us today that Paul didn’t invent these stories himself. They had been handed down to him by others, whether true or not, and this within a couple of decades from when the ceremonial words were supposed to have been first said. Now that doesn’t mean Paul didn’t significantly rework the Christian message into a tradition which his Judean forbears would scarcely recognize. It seems obvious to most scholars of the New Testament that Paul’s refashioning of the Christian story to accommodate a Gentile audience heavily influenced most subsequent expressions of this nascent movement, and it seems it even affected the later written form of the gospels themselves. But the oral tradition around which those stories were woven didn’t begin with him.

In fact, the sayings and parables attributed to Jesus are famously absent from Paul’s letters, which tells us two things: 1) He seemed either unfamiliar or unconcerned with a great deal of the oral tradition (much of which was probably still evolving during his ministry), and therefore 2) despite his influence in the development of early Christianity, Paul didn’t invent all of this himself. The criterion of dissimilarity actually counts for something. As time went on, Pauline Christianity conflicted with Judean Christianity on many occasions, prompting a conference over which the two opposing factions continued to disagree for years to come. In the end, it appears that Paulinian Christianity won out, and it was those New Testament writings which his communities produced which later came to dominate the established canon. But the point is that there were competing factions to begin with, and the Judean community was almost certainly the earlier one, predating Paul’s communities by several years.

But scholars see in the New Testament even more evidence of multiple attestation, which is crucial in historical-critical methods for determining the historicity of at least the ordinary claims about Jesus and his followers. One such example would be the handful of Aramaic phrases which made it into the otherwise entirely Greek gospel accounts, which would make no sense at all if these stories were invented much later by people living outside of Roman Palestine.

It’s impressive enough that Mark’s gospel reports phrases like “Talitha, koum!” in the story of raising Jairus’s daughter and “Ephphatha!” in the healing of deaf man. But we also learn from the same gospel that on the cross Jesus cried outEloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which is a quote from Psalm 22, but in Aramaic. This is particularly significant since the original audience of Mark’s gospel were Greek speakers whose only exposure to the Old Testament would have been the Greek Septuagint. It would have made little sense for a later Roman author to translate the quotation from Greek into Aramaic for an audience who didn’t even speak it.

There are many more details like this which signify that the sources of oral tradition informing the gospels were diverse and early. In fact, they often competed and disagreed with each other, which ironically strengthens the case that these stories weren’t invented significantly later than the events they purport to represent.

And no, none of this necessarily proves that Jesus existed, much less that he said or did any of the miraculous things the Christian faith claims that he did. But as far as ancient historiography goes, the number of things we have pointing to the existence of a man by this name is significantly strong for the place and time period under consideration.

Protesting Too Much

Modern skeptics are unimpressed with the available evidence for the existence of Jesus, but considering the circumstances it’s amazing that we have as much as we do. Using the tools of historical study, scholars can detect the seams in these narratives, the evolving layers of later embellishments feeding into the religious tradition we have today. What they find there is a comparatively significant number of early data points from a wide geographical area pointing to an individual around whom a great deal of legend later developed.

C.S. Lewis famously argued that the words and deeds of Jesus which we find in the New Testament leave us with only three ways to see him: as a liar, a lunatic, or as Lord. But as agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has said before, Lewis left out the most reasonable option of all: Legend. The earliest sources of tradition about Jesus suggest that he never claimed for himself the larger-than-life persona by which we know him today. That came later, after his followers had enough time to process his death and the end of their fervent hopes for deliverance from an oppressive foreign government.

Originally he was most likely a regular guy whose head was filled with apocalyptic expectations, and who angered the wrong people through his fanatical displays of prophetic iconoclasm. Mark’s gospel tells us that it was the moment Jesus threatened the income of the ruling class that finally sealed his fate, when he began driving out the people whose exploitative merchandising lined the pockets of the chief priests and rulers of Jerusalem. He picked a fight with “the one percent,” so to speak, and that was the moment they began plotting his execution.

None of the above claims are extraordinary in nature, nor would the evidence they require be extraordinary. They are ordinary claims, and yet the sheer number of pointers to the existence of this man are extraordinary in number for that time and place. Given the circumstances, the most natural conclusion we should reach is that a man by that name lived and died and later became the focus of a religion which grew up around him.

As someone who has spent a good bit of time formally studying Christian origins, it irks me to see my fellow atheists and agnostics so confidently declare that Jesus could not possibly have existed, or even that he probably didn’t. I think they protest too much, and I don’t think that’s a good look for a people who claim to have rationality on their side. It isn’t rational to make claims which go beyond what we know, and scholars who have devoted their lives to understanding the historical origins of this religion have learned an awful lot which these bold claims completely ignore.

Ironically, I have seen some of the same people chastising evangelical Christians for rejecting human responsibility for changes in our global climate patterns despite the overwhelming consensus of climatologists who tell us that our species has quite a bit to do with them. Evangelicals tend to seize upon a tiny handful of professionals in the field who disagree with the consensus for reasons which are most likely personal, and they do so because it suits their own particular way of thinking.

But that’s exactly what skeptics are doing with ancient history when they assert, contrary to the overwhelming consensus of scholars in that field, that Jesus never existed. They are seizing upon a perspective which almost no one with advanced degrees in the relevant fields would endorse, and in so doing they make the rest of us look like we are driven by motivations which are largely personal—precisely the charge which our religious friends and family level toward us with maddening regularity.

Occam’s razor suggests that the most preferable explanations for things are the ones predicated on the fewest tendentious assumptions possible. And given the data that we have available to us today, professionals in this field have concluded the most likely scenario is that Jesus probably did live and die in ancient Roman Palestine, and that the movement which later grew up around him developed the many competing layers of tradition which make up the family of religious traditions we now call the Christian faith.

That’s not really so difficult to accept, is it?

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.
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