Messiah vs. Myth: Did Jesus Exist? A Response to Tom Verenna

Messiah vs. Myth: Did Jesus Exist? A Response to Tom Verenna October 26, 2008

I’ve begun a “bloggersation” with Tom Verenna, on the subject of the existence of Jesus. I hope that in future posts, Tom will call me James. Otherwise, I’ll come back and edit this post and call him something more than simply “Tom”! 🙂

In his reply to an earlier post of mine to which I pointed him, to get the conversation started, he objects to my appeal to authority (pointing to the consensus of most historians) and to my pointing out that a particular viewpoint (namely that Jesus did not exist) tends to be characteristic of atheists whose area of expertise is not in the historical study of Jesus, or of early Christianity, or of first century Judaism or some comparably relevant discipline. In response to these points, I will simply state that one has to begin somewhere, and it cannot be expected that in a blog post one will not assume either what others have researched, or what one has said elsewhere on one’s blog or in print. I certainly have no objection to investigating something that is a consensus opinion – I’ve done it myself, and that is how knowledge increases! But at present, I do not feel the need to re-examine the consensus that Jesus in fact existed, and here is why.

I said in the post to which I pointed Tom that the crucifixion provides strong evidence for the existence of Jesus, since being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish nation would have been considered by most to mean automatic disqualification as a candidate for being the Messiah. I stand by that argument, and in response to Tom’s points in his post, I’ll elaborate further.

First, I consider the appeal to Isaiah 52-53 to be rather ironic. While Christians down the ages have pointed to this passage as a prophecy about Jesus, critical scholarship on Isaiah has highlighted that the servant in Deutero-Isaiah is explicitly said to be Israel (Isaiah 44:1), while critical scholarship on the New Testament has highlighted the paucity of evidence for early Christians appealing to this part of Isaiah as a prophecy of the crucifixion. It is, at best, a passage that could be viewed as a prophecy with the benefit of hindsight, but scarcely seems to provide a sufficient basis for someone inventing a crucified Messiah. The only Messiah in Deutero-Isaiah is Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1). It may be, as Tom suggests, that the story allowed the Gospel authors to create a passion narrative in the absence of historical witnesses. But that does not negate the argument already presented for there having been a real individual who was crucified about whom the later Gospel author created their (at least partly fictional) stories.

I also wish to make one further point before going to sleep. It seems hard to make sense of the stories about Jesus simply as the work of writers of fiction. This is not to say that there is not indeed fiction in them. But I am persuaded that in those cases it is “historical fiction”, the creation of stories about an actual figure who existed, set in the time in which that person existed (although often inevitably featuring anachronisms reflecting the author’s own time and perspective). Be that as it may, it is unclear what the aim of such an author would be. Is it simply to tell a story of a failed Messiah? The beginning of the Gospel of Mark seems to exclude that option, since it speaks of “good news about Jesus the Messiah”, even as Jesus himself throughout the book tells people not to speak publicly about him as Messiah. The notion of an “anointed one” is firmly rooted in the Jewish hopes for a restoration of the kingship and priesthood. Jesus as depicted in the Gospels does not fulfill what most Jews hoped for from such figures. The question that remains is why someone would invent a story from scratch about a figure, claim that this individual is the Messiah and that the story is good news, and then present the individual as failing to fulfill the expectations of such an anointed one.

It may be that all that needs to happen is for Tom or someone else to present the case to me that has persuaded them, and I will be won over to the logic of that position. In the mean time, I remain persuaded that the Gospels reflect the attempt to make sense of how a real figure Jesus, who had been crucified by the Romans, could still be the Messiah in spite of this fact. This seems to me to make better sense of what they contain, rather than the proposed alternative, which seems to envisage the Gospels inventing a Messiah from scratch who then requires a whole lot of explanation and commentary to justify the claim. Would it not have been much simpler to invent a Messiah who did do the things that were expected of him? Or to simply write a vague work about a human being yet to come, as is done in the Similitudes of Enoch, and then one could identify anyone who lived up to the role as being the fulfillment of what was predicted?

I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things related to the Bible over the years, and there is no reason in principle why I couldn’t change my mind about this. But so far I remain unpersuaded by the evidence and arguments made for the figure of Jesus being a pure invention. And once again, to be clear, this is not to claim that there were not stories invented about Jesus. Clearly there were – outside the canon, I think everyone would agree, even while some would dispute there being such within the New Testament. But the stories were invented about a historical figure, rather than the figure himself having been invented.

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