Sunday, December 7, 2008

Did Jesus Exist?

"Did Jesus exist?" It surprises me somewhat that this question still comes up. Even scholars hostile to Christianity, such as the Jesus Seminar, grant that Jesus actually existed as a historical person. The evidence for the historicity of Christ is simply overwhelming.

Rather, skeptics tend to focus on objections to what Jesus believed, the reliability of the New Testament record, etc. In other words, they object on philosophical, theological, and ideological grounds, not to the historical existence of Christ.

Nevertheless, particularly online the myth that Jesus was a myth continues to proliferate. See, for instance, an online discussion that spawned as a result of my recent radio appearance on Truth Talk Live. The discussion is centering primarily around whether or not Jesus ever existed. Feel free to join in.

In short, the best evidence for the historicity of Christ is contained in the New Testament, primarily the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Some of my favorite popular works on this topic include The Evidence for Jesus by R.T. France, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg, and a chapter in Scaling the Secular City by J.P. Moreland.

Why is it that skeptics reject the New Testament record to the historical Christ? They seem to immediately dismiss the documents as suspect and instead clamor for contemporary historical records of Christ outside the New Testament. How much of a difference would this make?

It seems to me, particularly as a former atheist, that the primary objections have to do with presuppositions that dismiss the supernatural. "God does not exist. Therefore, miracles are not possible. Consequently, the New Testament records must be false. Jesus never existed." And what of burden of proof? What proof must be made to argue against the historicity of Christ?

11 comments:

Brian said...

Yes, very interesting. This hard-core skepticism is tiring. Only yesterday on my blog I posted a debate between Fernandes and Price regarding the resurrection. Like clockwork I have to deal with a skeptical assault.

I haven't heard your talk yet, but will check it out and post it most likely.

Brian said...

By the way, you may check out my blog at www.apologetics315.com

Boris said...

The evidence for the historicity of Christ is simply non-existent. If there is real evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ what is it exactly? Claiming the Bible as evidence for stories that exist nowhere else is like trying to prove the existence of Batman by citing the eyewitness testimony of Robin the Boy Wonder.

As far as people objecting to the supposed teachings of Jesus, who does that? Most of these teachings are fairly well-known and belong to other popular religions and schools of thought as well.

It cannot be shown that the view that Jesus was a myth is itself a myth and calling it one is such a typical distortion of our language - an important tool in the arsenal of sophistry used by Christian apologists.

The reason skeptics reject the New Testament "record" or as "documents" is because they aren't records or documents, they are fictions. Stories that contain word for word dialog in them in a dramatic setting are NOT historical narratives, they are fictive narratives. There are no exceptions to this rule in ancient literature.

Stories of miracles are untrue. Miracles do not happen. Therefore, documents in which miraculous accounts are interwoven with reputed facts, are untrustworthy, for those who invented the miraculous element could easily have invented the part that was natural. The accounts of the virgin birth of Christ, of his feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes, of his walking on the water, of his raising the dead, of his cleansing the leprous, and of his own resurrection after his life had been destroyed, are as untrue as any stories that were ever told in this world. The miraculous element in the Gospels is proof that they were written by men, who did not know how to write history, or who were not particular as to the truth of what they wrote.

Mr. Velarde before we can accept your claim to have been an atheist we need to see or hear your definition of the word atheist. I have my doubts about you being an atheist accept in your first few years of life when all people are atheists.

Robert Velarde said...

Boris, welcome to the blog and thanks for the comments. For the sake of other readers, Boris was bumped from a discussion on another site that featured a comments section about a radio interview I did about C.S. Lewis. I invited Boris to post here.

You certainly take the "shotgun approach" in your post. The topic is, "Did Jesus Exist?" but you've also brought up a number of other issues, including questioning my claims to be a former atheist, the issue of miracles, the existence of God, and the reliability (or non-reliability) of the New Testament record.

Due to the nature blog discussions, I'd like to stick with the main topic at hand for now: Did Jesus exist?

To begin, why do you discount the four Gospels as evidence for the historicity of Christ? What sort of evidence would you accept as valid in relation to the historicity of Christ?

Anonymous said...

Robert,
You said: To begin, why do you discount the four Gospels as evidence for the historicity of Christ?

Boris says: First, the gospels flatly contradict each other and contain 'Jesus stories' copied from earlier legends and other cultures. They contain none of the elements of historical narratives of the day or any day, and all of the elements of fiction. No one knows who wrote the any of the Gospels, when they were written or where or for whom.

You said: What sort of evidence would you accept as valid in relation to the historicity of Christ?

Boris says: I would need to see some contemporary record of Jesus; some evidence for Nazareth existing in the 1st century; I would need to know what Jesus looked like and have an more complete history of his life. I would need words written by Jesus himself or at least words written by either his friends or his enemies. There are no artifacts that confirm his life and death and no contemporary witnesses. I would need those. There are plenty of tampered works of non-Christian writers to insert 'evidence' and testimony of early Christians who didn't believe in a human Jesus anyway. I would need good explanations for those things. Every purported evidence for the existence of Jesus turns out to be dubious or non-existent.

Brian said...

For some good reading about this, check out this link.

Robert Velarde said...

Brian, thanks for the links.

Thanks for the follow-up, Boris/Anonymous. You said, "the gospels flatly contradict each other." Please provide one of your best examples of a contradiction within or between Gospels. Yes, let's limit it to one, for now -- your best one if you please.

What sources were the "Jesus stories" copied from? Give one specific example.

You also said, "They [the Gospels] contain none of the elements of historical narratives of the day or any day ..." This is incorrect. They mention real people, real places, and real events, validated by archaeological evidence.

Regarding evidence for the authorship and dates of the Gospels, see Blomberg's _The Historical Reliability of the Gospels_.

On to the second portion of your response. The greatest evidence for Jesus existing in the 1st century is in the four Gospels. You claim to reject them at least in part due to contradictions. If the Gospels, in your assessment, did not "contradict" themselves, would you then believe Jesus existed? How does their alleged contradictory nature negate the existence of Jesus?

Why would you need to know what Jesus looked like before you could believe he existed? Do you know what Socrates looked like? Did Socrates exist or was he a fiction of Plato? Did Plato exist or was he a fiction of someone else?

Why would you need words "written by Jesus himself" as proof of his existence? Again, do you believe Socrates existed?

You also added, "or at least words written by either his friends or his enemies." The Gospels record words of his friends and his enemies.

What artifacts would you like to prove the historical Jesus? A monogrammed bath robe perhaps? Really, I'm interested in knowing what artifact(s) would convince you that Jesus did exist.

Boris said...

Robert,
You said: Thanks for the follow-up, Boris/Anonymous. You said, "the gospels flatly contradict each other." Please provide one of your best examples of a contradiction within or between Gospels. Yes, let's limit it to one, for now -- your best one if you please.

Boris says: What were Jesus last words exactly?

You said: What sources were the "Jesus stories" copied from? Give one specific example.

Boris says: Jewish mystery dramas about the Sun god Joshua.

You also said, "They [the Gospels] contain none of the elements of historical narratives of the day or any day ..." This is incorrect. They mention real people, real places, and real events, validated by archaeological evidence.

Boris says: So what? Almost all fiction mentions real people, real places, and real events, validated by archaeological evidence. But these things are just grist for the Bible’s story mill as they would be for any fiction writers.

You said: Regarding evidence for the authorship and dates of the Gospels, see Blomberg's _The Historical Reliability of the Gospels_.

Blomberg failed miserably to prove anything. His guesses are the same old wish thinking. There are no mentions of any of the gospels that we know of before 180 CE. If there are what are they and by whom were they made?

You said: On to the second portion of your response. The greatest evidence for Jesus existing in the 1st century is in the four Gospels. You claim to reject them at least in part due to contradictions. If the Gospels, in your assessment, did not "contradict" themselves, would you then believe Jesus existed? How does their alleged contradictory nature negate the existence of Jesus?

Boris says: What negates the gospels is that they are not written as historical narratives. What historical narratives contain word for word dialog between people especially when there are no witnesses in the story that could have related the story like with Nicodemus and Jesus for example? When we read dialog in a dramatic setting we are NOT reading history. We are reading fiction.

You said: Why would you need to know what Jesus looked like before you could believe he existed? Do you know what Socrates looked like? Did Socrates exist or was he a fiction of Plato? Did Plato exist or was he a fiction of someone else?

Boris says: Socrates was a fictional character. Plato put his own words on the lips of Socrates. We have an idea what Plato looked like, but not Socrates.

You said: Why would you need words "written by Jesus himself" as proof of his existence? Again, do you believe Socrates existed?

Boris says: I don’t believe that Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Jesus or the Apostle Paul ever existed. We have no evidence for the existence of any of these figures.

You said: You also added, "or at least words written by either his friends or his enemies." The Gospels record words of his friends and his enemies.

Boris says: The Gospels are too late in origin to have been written by any friends of someone in the early first century. Plus they are all written in un-translated Greek. When Jesus quotes Hebrew scripture to orthodox Jewish Pharisees he quotes the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew books and he leaves in all the mistranslations. Whoever wrote the gospels were people who had never been to Palestine for they knew nothing of the language, geography, customs or laws of the people. For example Jesus didn’t know that women had no rights of divorce in first century Palestine (Mark 10:12).

You said: What artifacts would you like to prove the historical Jesus? A monogrammed bath robe perhaps? Really, I'm interested in knowing what artifact(s) would convince you that Jesus did exist.

Boris says: The fact that things like the Fraud of Turin pass for evidence for many Christians proves that there really isn’t any kind of archaeological evidence for the existence of Jesus. Otherwise Christianity wouldn’t have to hang on to such an obvious fraud.

Robert Velarde said...

Boris says: What were Jesus last words exactly?

Please specify the "contradiction." Jesus no doubt said many things on the cross before dying and the different Gospels record different parts of what he said. Where is the contradiction?

Provide an excerpt from Jewish mystery dramas about the Sun god Joshua and parallel passage(s) in the Gospels.

In an earlier post you wrote that the Gospels "contain none of the elements of historical narratives of the day or any day." I provided evidence that they do in fact mention historical people, historical places, historical events, etc. Your response is: "So what?" Do you, then, agree that the Gospels provide historical information? They do, but now you are being duplicitous and dismissing my response.

How, specifically, did Blomberg fail "miserably" to prove anything? What would you like him to prove?

The Gospels do contain historical information. There were witnesses and some were still alive when Mark was written around 65 to 70 CE. The Gospels do not read like fiction. You are reading your current perceptions of fiction back into 1st century documents. If they are "fiction" how did the Christian church start?

"Socrates was a fictional character"? Really, Boris, now you have clearly placed yourself beyond the realm of reasonable historical discourse. And because there is some description of what Plato looked like he is real? Does that mean than in a couple of thousand years someone will think Jason Bourne is real because Ludlum described him in a series of novels? Your logic on this point is severely lacking.

You don't even believe Paul the Apostle existed? Now you're either just being inflammatory or you are placing yourself far beyond what even skeptical/hostile historians agree on: Paul was real, helped launch the Christian church, etc. Even the large majority of hostile skeptics accept that Paul wrote, for instance, 1 and 2 Corinthians around 55 CE or so (within 20+ years of the crucifixion).

The Gospels are not too late in origin to be written by people who knew Christ. That is your false presupposition about when the Gospels were written (all by 100 CE, Mark likely the earliest at 65 or 70 CE). 1 Corinthians in the 50s.

You did not answer my question about what sort of "artifact" you would accept as evidence. I will answer for you: you will accept no artifact or evidence for Christ because you are set in your mind and worldview that he did not exist.

Boris said...

Robert,
You said: Please specify the "contradiction." Jesus no doubt said many things on the cross before dying and the different Gospels record different parts of what he said. Where is the contradiction?

Boris says: Just answer the question. How about this one? Was Jesus crucified before or after the Passover meal was eaten?

You said: Provide an excerpt from Jewish mystery dramas about the Sun god Joshua and parallel passage(s) in the Gospels.

Boris says: I don’t have an excerpt or any references at hand unless there is something in the Talmud or the Mishna I’m forgetting about. But there aren’t any original ideas in the gospels. Stories about virgin births, wandering wonder workers, dying and resurrecting demigods and such were around long before the gospels.

You said: In an earlier post you wrote that the Gospels "contain none of the elements of historical narratives of the day or any day." I provided evidence that they do in fact mention historical people, historical places, historical events, etc. Your response is: "So what?" Do you, then, agree that the Gospels provide historical information? They do, but now you are being duplicitous and dismissing my response.

Boris says: That the Gospels contain no elements of historical narratives means they contain no elements of history writing even the way it was done in the past by such people as Herodotus. Again, stories with word for word dialog in them are NOT historical narratives they are fictive narratives. There aren’t any exceptions to this rule. What you want to do is set up different rules for literary criticism by claiming the Bible is divine so it is above criticism. Then tales of the supernatural supposedly should be blindly accepted. So what you are doing is presenting one absurdity and justifying it with yet another. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

You said: How, specifically, did Blomberg fail "miserably" to prove anything? What would you like him to prove?

Boris says: I don’t know? What do you think he proved?

You said: The Gospels do contain historical information. There were witnesses and some were still alive when Mark was written around 65 to 70 CE. The Gospels do not read like fiction. You are reading your current perceptions of fiction back into 1st century documents. If they are "fiction" how did the Christian church start?

Boris says: The gospels contain a lot of bad historical information, the killing of the innocent infants by Herod for example. A catastrophic event like that could not have gone completely unnoticed by every historian of the day. Neither would the emptying of the graves and the appearance of the dead to their friends and relatives. There is no record of the census described in Luke. I think your perceptions of fiction are highly suspect and would be in any age.

You said: "Socrates was a fictional character"? Really, Boris, now you have clearly placed yourself beyond the realm of reasonable historical discourse. And because there is some description of what Plato looked like he is real? Does that mean than in a couple of thousand years someone will think Jason Bourne is real because Ludlum described him in a series of novels? Your logic on this point is severely lacking.

Boris says: Who came up with the stories about Atlantis if not Plato? I’m certainly not alone in thinking Socrates was a fictional mouthpiece for Plato. Many scholars take that view including several professors I had at a Christian college. Trying to discredit my statements with an empty attack on my character or claiming no one else agrees with them is a ploy I’m quite used to coming from fundamentalist Christians.

You said: You don't even believe Paul the Apostle existed? Now you're either just being inflammatory or you are placing yourself far beyond what even skeptical/hostile historians agree on: Paul was real, helped launch the Christian church, etc. Even the large majority of hostile skeptics accept that Paul wrote, for instance, 1 and 2 Corinthians around 55 CE or so (within 20+ years of the crucifixion).

Boris says: I am certainly not alone in thinking Paul, especially the character in the Book of Acts which reads like a fantasy novel, was an invention OF the church, not someone who launched it. Who launched the Dionysus cults or the cult of Attis? No such figures existed did they? Religions evolve from other religions, as do the stories about their supposed founders.

You said: The Gospels are not too late in origin to be written by people who knew Christ. That is your false presupposition about when the Gospels were written (all by 100 CE, Mark likely the earliest at 65 or 70 CE). 1 Corinthians in the 50s.

Boris says: And your evidence for this is….?

You said: You did not answer my question about what sort of "artifact" you would accept as evidence. I will answer for you: you will accept no artifact or evidence for Christ because you are set in your mind and worldview that he did not exist.

Boris says: I admit I’ve never believed any of the stories about Jesus, even as a child. But my relatives were Jewish so that’s the case with the Jews you know? I mean the stories are in Greek. How does a group of people follow a star to a particular house? The stories in the New Testament are absurd and I think the authors meant them to be so people wouldn’t take them literally. “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” – John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus?

Robert Velarde said...

"Just answer the question." What question? You have not clearly delineated the alleged contradiction. My guess is that your claim is that the Gospels record various sayings as the dying words of Christ. But the sayings are not contradictory. Some Gospel writers chose to record some parts of what was said, while others recorded other parts. This is not a contradiction. Does that answer the question?

You claim at least portions of the story of Jesus are stolen from earlier myths and legends, yet you write, "I don't have an excerpt ..."

"There aren't any original ideas in the gospels." What specifically is borrowed? The dying god? The rising god?

The Gospel writers are not Herodotus. This does not mean the Gospels do not contain historical information. To say the Gospels are "fictive narratives" is your opinion -- a highly minority opinion, I might add. I have not "set up different rules for literary criticism" for the Bible as divine. I haven't even argued that. But if you want to play that game, you are setting up different rules for the Bible as a historical record.

Nowhere did I "attack" your character. My point was that you are far beyond the realm of reasonable when it comes to your dismissing Socrates and Paul as historical figures.

"And your evidence for this is ..." See Blomberg, France, Habermas, Moreland, others (even skeptical scholars who grant the reality of Christ as a historical figure).

I really don't see this discussion as being productive. You reject any evidence or reasoning offered.