The "Jesus Never Existed" Fable
Some argue that since no extra-biblical historian mentioned Jesus until 60 years after His crucifixion there is no good historical evidence to believe He ever existed. Is the 60 year gap at all significant? We must look at this from a historian's perspective. How many men of antiquity do we have historical records of their life written while they were still alive, or immediately following their death? Not many. Consider Alexander the Great. The two earliest biographies of his life were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than 400 years after his death, and yet no historian believes that he did not exist or that the biographies are legend. Why treat Jesus differently? Why do new standards of historical inquiry need to be adopted when it comes to Jesus?
We have to keep in mind that there was no media in the first century. There were no newspapers who reported on the daily life of Israelites in Palestine. There weren't historians on every corner as we have today. The historians that did exist typically concerned themselves with imperial issues (ascensions of kings and emperors, wars, expansions of kingdoms, etc.). The fact that we have so much information about Jesus (and so much early information at that) is absolutely astounding from a historian's perspective! This is especially the case seeing that Jesus was relatively insignificant during his day. He was a "blip" on the screen. As J.P. Holding noted:
Jesus was not considered to be historically significant by historians of his time. He did not address the Roman Senate, or write extensive Greek philosophical treatises; He never traveled outside of the regions of Palestine, and was not a member of any known political party. It is only because Christians later made Jesus a "celebrity" that He became known. Historian E. P. Sanders, comparing Jesus to Alexander the Great, notes that the latter "so greatly altered the political situation in a large part of the world that the main outline of his public life is very well known indeed. Jesus did not change the social, political and economic circumstances in Palestine,..the superiority of evidence for Jesus is seen when we ask what he thought.
Jesus was also executed as a criminal, providing him with the ultimate "marginality." He lived an offensive lifestyle and alienated many people. He associated with the despised and rejected: Tax collectors, prostitutes, and the band of fishermen He had as disciples. Finally, he was a poor, rural person in a land run by wealthy urbanites. The idea that Jesus had a "staggering influence" during his own life on earth is completely in error, which means that he could not have had "thousands of followers" to write authoritative biographies. In fact, three or four biographies would be the most we should expect - especially since 90 to 95 percent of all ancient persons were illiterate and unable to write such a work to begin with!1
The only reason Jesus came to have historical significance was because of the greatness of the movement He founded-a movement that spread in large numbers all the way to the heart of the Roman Empire. That is when ancient historians took notice.
There is no question that Christianity began, and spread rapidly in the first century. Whenever there is a dramatic shift in a culture historians must determine the historical influences that can account for that change. Historians agree that the only adequate historical explanation for the rise of the Jesus movement was the existence of a real man named Jesus. They even agree that His death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is one of the best attested historical facts of antiquity! They only debate on whether there is good historical evidence to think He rose from the dead. Many believe there is, because only such an event could explain the disciples' beliefs and behavior. For example, Cambridge professor, C.F.D. Moule, wrote "We have here a belief which literally nothing in terms of antecedent historical influences can account for apart from the resurrection itself." While he does not conclude that Jesus rose bodily from the grave, New Testament scholar, Gerd Ludeman, of Guttingen University in Germany (an atheist) wrote, "It is historically certain that Peter and the other disciples had experiences after Jesus' death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ." Jewish historian Paula Fredricksen said, "I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That's what they say, and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attests to their conviction that that's what they saw. I'm not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn't there. I don't know what they saw. But I do know as a historian that they must have seen something."2 Last but not least, N.T. Wright said
I simply cannot explain why Christianity began without it [a real historical resurrection of Christ]. I've already said there were many other messianic or would-be messianic movements around in the first century. Routinely they ended with the violent death of the founder. After that what happens? The followers either all get killed as well, or if there are any of them left they have a choice: they either quit the revolution, or they find themselves another messiah. We have examples of people doing both. If Jesus had died and stayed dead, they would either have given up the movement, or they would have found another messiah. Something extraordinary happened which convinced them that Jesus was the Messiah.3
Historians are not questioning the existence of Jesus because the methods of historical investigation they use to sort history from myth overwhelmingly support Jesus' historical existence.
The idea that Jesus did not exist is not reasonable because it is inadequate to explain the historical data. Referring to G.A. Wells' thesis that Jesus never existed, James G.D. Dunn wrote in The Evidence for Jesus:
The alternative thesis is that within thirty years there had evolved such a coherent and consistent complex of traditions about a non-existent figure such as we have in the sources of the Gospels is just too implausible. It involves too many complex and speculative hypotheses, in contrast to the much simpler explanation that there was a Jesus who said and did more or less what the first three Gospels attribute to him. The fact of Christianity's beginnings and the character of its earliest tradition is such that we could only deny the existence of Jesus by hypothesizing the existence of some other figure who was a sufficient cause of Christianity's beginnings - another figure who on careful reflection would probably come out very like Jesus!4
This idea that the Jesus story was fabricated whole-cloth is all the more unbelievable when you consider that the Christian message began in Jerusalem/Israel in AD 30 or 33, the very location and time Jesus was purported to have lived and died. Does it make sense to think that the disciples could get away with preaching about a man named Jesus to Jesus' neighbors and contemporaries if He never existed? It is preposterous to think that the people of Palestine would not have objected to the disciples' claims if they had not known of Jesus and the events surrounding His life. A fabricated story about a Jewish faith-healer who rose from dead in Israel might have worked had the message began in Rome some 1400 miles removed from the actual events, but not in Jerusalem. A fabricated story about a Jewish faith-healer who rose from the dead might have even worked in Jerusalem had the apostles' claimed the events transpired hundreds of years before their time. But it is unreasonable to think that a story about a Jewish faith-healer who rose from the dead in your back yard a few weeks ago could have taken root and flourished in Jerusalem/Israel had Jesus not existed, and the events surrounding Jesus' life had not been known by the disciples' contemporaries.
1. J.P. Holding, "Jesus, Shattering the Christ Myth: The Reliability of the Secular References to Jesus", available from http://www.tektonics.org/tekton_01_01_01.html; Internet; accessed 19 June 2003.
2. Quote from a personal interview aired as part of the ABC News special, The Search for Jesus, hosted by Peter Jennings and aired on June 26, 2000. Paula is a Catholic turned orthodox Jew, historian of ancient Christianity and Hellenistic Judaism, and Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University.
3. Quote from a personal interview aired as part of the ABC News special, The Search for Jesus, hosted by Peter Jennings and aired on June 26, 2000.
4. James Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Louisville: Westminster, 1985), 29, as quoted in J.P. Holding, "Jesus, Shattering the Christ Myth: The Reliability of the Secular References to Jesus", available from http://www.tektonics.org/tekton_01_01_01.html; Internet; accessed 19 June 2003.
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