Thursday, January 9, 2014

Did Jesus ever exist?

I suppose I've always assumed that there was a historical Jesus, if not a supernatural one. (The evidence isn't nearly good enough to accept the latter.)

I mean, I'd heard that some people think he was entirely fictional, but I wasn't sure if they could be taken seriously. You know how it is. Anyone can claim anything. But what did serious historians and bible scholars think?

Well, I was just listening to Robert M. Price on The Human Bible podcast (an older episode, from November, 2012) talking about Thomas L. Brodie's book, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

Brodie is not just a Catholic priest, author, and well-known bible scholar, but the director of the Dominican Bible Centre in Limerick, Ireland, and his book describes how he came to the conclusion that Jesus never really existed, but was always just a fictional character.

Oddly, Brodie still believes in the Christian God. According to the blurb at, "In a deeply personal coda, Brodie begins to develop a new vision of Jesus as an icon of God's presence in the world and in human history." Nice trick, that!

So I was even more surprised to learn that Robert M. Price agrees with him. (I shouldn't have been - and wouldn't have been, if I'd known more about his own books.) Price has doctorates in both theology and the New Testament, and he teaches philosophy and theology at the Johnnie Coleman Theological Seminary. I've been listening to his Human Bible podcasts, and they've been absolutely fascinating.

Now, I know that Bart D. Ehrman disagrees with both of them. I recently read his book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, and I'm currently reading Forged: Writing in the Name of God - Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. Both are riveting.

But he has another book, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, which argues for a historical Jesus. I haven't read that, or Brodie's book, so I really can't say, myself.

But, clearly, the Jesus myth idea has the backing of some serious, knowledgeable scholars. They're still a minority, apparently, and there are certainly serious, knowledgeable scholars on the other side, too. Well, when it comes to the events of two thousand years in the past, intelligent people can disagree.

Did a historical Jesus really exist? I have no idea. Apparently, I have some reading to do, though I'm really not expecting that to settle the matter, one way or the other.


VinnyJH57 said...

If there was a historical Jesus, it is likely that he was an obscure itinerant preacher who went unnoticed outside of a small group of illiterate peasant followers until such point when he annoyed the Roman authorities sufficiently to get himself crucified. In other words, he was not the kind of person who could be expected to leave a historical footprint.

If Jesus wasn't the kind of person who could be expected to leave a mark, analogous people couldn't have been expected to leave a mark either. Since historians must reason by analogy, it is very hard for me to see how they have enough to to work reach any degree of certainty concerning Jesus's historicity.

WCG said...

Yes, I agree about the lack of certainty, but historians can't be absolutely certain about much - especially when we're talking of events thousands of years ago. Historians are never going to be certain. (Of course, they still do valuable work, whether they're certain or not.)

I'm not sure about your other point, though, even if you're assuming all those miracle stories didn't actually happen. (Of course, I agree with that.) After all, the Romans had good reason to keep track of things in this part of their empire.

Note that Herod the Great had been an actual king. He was a vassal of Rome, but he ruled a separate kingdom. After his death, about 4 BCE, that ended. Rome took complete control - and the Jews had to start paying Roman taxes.

Many of them weren't pleased by the changes (there had been rebellion and riots after Herod's death, according to Wikipedia), and there was a lot of revolutionary sentiment among the locals. (That wasn't anything new, apparently, even before Herod's death.) This wasn't a province the Romans could safely ignore.

Then there was the religious angle. There were all sorts of Jewish factions, many of them armed and militant, and most hoping for a messiah who'd overthrow Roman control. After all, Yahweh had promised that land to them.

So I guess I would expect that someone in official circles would pay attention, especially once it got to the point of executing Jesus. And certainly the Catholic Church would have preserved anything that even hinted that Jesus had actually existed. (It wouldn't be like their treatment of competing ideas, which they usually destroyed, unless it was completely incompatible with their beliefs.)

So I guess I would expect a historical footprint, myself. We have abundant evidence that later Christians believed in Jesus, but very little to indicate that he actually existed, historically. (Well, I haven't read those books I mentioned above, so I guess I can't say.)

Thanks for the comment, Vinny.

VinnyJH57 said...

If Jesus drew anything like the attention he is portrayed as drawing in the gospels, I agree that we should have expected someone to take notice. That's why I figure he must have been a much more obscure figure if he existed. I consider his non-existence to be a possibility as well.

WCG said...

I see. Yes, I get your point. Thanks.

Steve Finnell said...


Apologetics Defined: the branch of theology concerned with the defense or proof of Christianity.

Do extra-Biblical historical books confirm that the accounts of Christianity found in the Bible are true? No, they do not, the exact opposite is true. The Bible proves that extra-Biblical historical accounts of Christianity are in fact true.

John 20:30-31 And Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciple, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (NKJV)

The signs and miracles of Jesus written about in extra-Biblical historical accounts do not prove that Jesus performed signs and miracles. To the contrary, the signs and miracles of Jesus written in the Bible confirm that the extra-Biblical accounts are true.

1 Corinthians 15:3-6 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. (NKJV)

Extra-Biblical historical accounts of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ do not prove the Bible to be true, however, the Bible confirms that the extra-Biblical accounts are true.

Faith comes from hearing the gospel . Romans 10:17 So then faith comes by hearing, hearing by the word of God. (NKJV)

Believing that the Bible is God's word and that the accounts of Christianity presented in the Bible are true are not proven by engaging in philosophical arguments nor by clever secular reasoning.


WCG said...

I don't know if this is an actual comment, Steve, or just an advertisement for your own blog. If it's the former, maybe you'll reply to this.

First, note that there are no "extra-Biblical historical accounts of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus." Even the accounts in the Bible aren't contemporary, and there's nothing outside the Bible that wasn't written long afterwards (evidence for what Christians might have believed, but certainly not that it was true).

As to your main point, however, you claim that "the Bible proves that extra-Biblical accounts... are true," but you don't back up that claim with anything.

How can the Bible prove anything at all? You don't even bother trying to support that. You just make a bald-faced claim. Well, why should anyone believe you? Why should we pay any attention to a completely unsupported claim like that?

I could claim I've got a dragon living in my basement. Is that unsupported claim enough for you to believe it? I hope not. It's the same thing here.

I could quote the Harry Potter books, too. Would that convince you that Hogwarts actually exists? Again, I hope not.

You see my point? You haven't said anything at all but what you believe. But do you believe it for any other reason than that you were raised to believe it, that you really, really want to believe it. You certainly haven't given anyone else reason to believe it.

WCG said...

Yeah, Steve Finnell's comment here was just spam. It wasn't even a comment to anything I'd said above. He just copied and pasted one of his own blog posts into the comment box here, apparently to drum up more readers for himself.

I went to his blog and posted my reply there, too. To his credit, he published it. (He approves all comments published there.) But he never replied to it. He never replied to any of my comments, on other posts, and he soon stopped letting them go through at all.

That's not my idea of a blog. I relish comments. I read all of them and almost always reply (unless it's not the kind of comment that needs a reply). What's the point of blogging if you never have to defend yourself?

But it's his blog. If he just wants a monologue, rather than a discussion, that's entirely up to him. I'll even leave his comment here. Usually, I delete spam (actually, Blogger usually does it for me), but I'll let this go. After all, I did take the time to reply to it. :)