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Did Jesus Exist?
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Studies and Research


Introduction

The historical figure of Jesus is of central importance to many religions, but especially Christianity and Islam, in which the historical details of Jesus’ life are essential.

Most scholars in the fields of biblical studies and history agree that Jesus was a Jewish teacher from Galilee who was regarded as a healer, was baptized by John the Baptist, was accused of sedition against the Roman Empire, and on the orders of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate was sentenced to death by crucifixion. A small minority argue that Jesus never existed as a historical figure, but merely as a metaphorical or mythical figure syncretized from various non-Abrahamic deities and heroes.

The four canonical Gospels and the writings of Paul of the New Testament are among the earliest known documents relating to Jesus' life. Many later texts provide valuable historical information as well.

Scholarly opinions on the historicity of the New Testament accounts are diverse. They range from the view that they are inerrant descriptions of the life of Jesus,[1] to the view that they provide no historical information about his life.[2]

Jesus in Christian Writings

Jesus is featured throughout the New Testament and other early Christian writings, as can be seen in such works as the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, the book of Acts, the writings of the early Church Fathers, and the New Testament apocrypha.

The most detailed sources of historical information about Jesus in the Bible are the four canonical Gospels: the Gospel of Matthew; the Gospel of Mark; the Gospel of Luke; and the Gospel of John. These Gospels are narrative accounts of the life of Jesus. They concentrate on his ministry, and conclude with his death and resurrection.

It must be asserted that the Gospel authors wrote with certain motivations and a view to a particular community and its needs. Furthermore, it is also certain the authors relied on various sources, including their own memories, the testimony of eyewitnesses, and as even the traditional analysis asserted, the later authors did not write in ignorance of some texts that preceded them, as is claimed explicitly by the author of Luke in his introduction: "I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning" (Luke 1:3). The epilogue to John identifies the source of the book as "the beloved disciple" whose "testimony we know to be true" (john 21:24). Referrals to early sources give more strength to claims favoring the authenticity of the gospels. Moreover, when two or more independent sources present similar or consistent account, it is at least certain that the tradition predates the sources - in our case the synoptic gospels. Possible source documents have been proposed: an Aramaic Matthew, a proto-Matthew, Q document and others, although none of these texts, if they were real, have been found.

Jesus is also the subject of the writings of Paul of Tarsus, who wrote letters to various churches and individuals from c. 48-68. Paul was not an eyewitness of Jesus' life, though he knew some of Jesus' disciples including Simon Peter, and claimed knowledge of Jesus through visions.

There are traditionally fourteen letters attributed to Paul, thirteen of which claim to be written by Paul, with one anonymous letter. Current scholarship is in a general consensus in considering at least seven of the letters to be written by Paul, with views varying concerning the remaining works. In his letters, Paul quoted Jesus several times,[3] and also offered details on the life of Jesus (Thes. 2:14-15, 4:15; Gal. 1:18–20; Cor. 2:8, 7:10-1, 9:5, 9:14; 11:23-26; 15:3-8; Phil. 2:5-11; Rom. 1:1-4).

Jesus is a large factor in New Testament apocrypha, works excluded from the canon as it developed because they were judged not to be inspired. These texts are almost entirely dated to the mid second century or later, though a few texts, such as the Didache, may be first century in origin.

Other early Christian sources outside the New Testament that also mention Jesus and the historical details of his life are early Church fathers, to name just the most significant and ancient, like Clement of Rome (c. 100) [4], Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107-110), [5], Justin Martyr, [6].

Perhaps the most significant Patristic sources are the early references of Papias and Quadratus, which both mention eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry and healings who were still alive in their own time (the late first century). Papias, in giving his sources for the information contained in his (largely lost) commentaries [7].

Jesus in Greco-Roman Sources

Of the non-Christian writings from that time that have been preserved, very few mention Jesus or Christianity, and for that matter few of their authors showed much interest in Judea or the Near East in general. Nonetheless, there are passages relevant to Jesus in the works of four major non-Christian writers of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries – Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger – as well as others. However, these are generally references to early Christians rather than a historical Jesus. Of the four, Josephus' writings, which document John the Baptist, James the Just, and possibly also Jesus, are of the most interest to scholars dealing with the historicity of Jesus.

Flavius Josephus (c. 37–c. 100), a Jew and Roman citizen who worked under the patronage of the Flavians, wrote the Antiquities of the Jews in 93. In it, Jesus is mentioned twice. In the second very brief mentioning, Josephus calls James, "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ".[8] This is considered by the majority of scholars to be authentic,[9] though a few have raised doubts.[10]

More notably, is the Testimonium Flavianum, it is written:

    About this time came Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it is appropriate to call him a man. For he was a performer of paradoxical feats, a teacher of people who accept the unusual with pleasure, and he won over many of the Jews and also many Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon the accusation of the first men amongst us, condemned him to be crucified, those who had formerly loved him did not cease [to follow him], for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, as the divine prophets foretold, along with a myriad of other marvellous things concerning him. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.[11]

Concerns have been raised about the authenticity of the passage, at least in part, and it is widely held by scholars that part of the passage is an interpolation by a later scribe.

Learn More about Josephus' Account of Jesus

Tacitus (c. 56–c. 117), writing c. 116, included in his Annals a mention of Christianity and Christ in describing Nero's persecution of Christians following the Great Fire of Rome c. 64 (Annals 15.44 ).

It was likely an authentic imperial record, and it has been controversially speculated that this may even have been one of Pilate's reports to the emperor.[12]

Pliny the Younger, the provincial governor of Pontus and Bithynia, wrote to Emperor Trajan c. 112 concerning how to deal with Christians, who refused to worship the emperor, and instead worshiped "Christus". He condemned Christians as easily-led fools. The name "Jesus" is not used (Letters 10.96–97 ).

There is an obscure reference to a Jewish leader called "Chrestus" in Suetonius.

Jesus in Jewish Records

The Talmud Sanhedrin 43a, which dates to the earliest period of composition (Tannaitic period) contains the following:

    On the eve of the Passover, Yeshu was hanged. Forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried: "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.[13]

Many Jews and Christians have traditionally assumed that the term Yeshu in the Talmud refers to Jesus since the standard Hebrew name for Jesus has been Yeshu.

Learn More about the Identification of Yeshu with Jesus in the Talmud

But Did Jesus Exist?

As with all historical sources, scholars ask: to what extent did the authors' motivations shape the texts, what sources were available to them, how soon after the events described did they write, and whether or not these factors lead to inaccuracies such as exaggerations or inventions.

Historians have developed a number of methods to critically analyze historical sources:

Criterion of dissimilarity. (More narrowly, the criterion of embarrassment.) Statements contrary or dissimilar to the author's agenda are likely to be more reliable. For example, a Christian source would be unlikely to claim that Jesus was from Nazareth (rather than from Bethlehem), unless his family was actually from Nazareth, as this was a cause of embarrassment.

Criterion of multiple attestation. When two or more independent sources present similar or consistent account, it is at least certain that the tradition predates the sources (the synoptic gospels).

Contextual and linguistic criteria. A source is more credible when the tradition makes sense in the context of what historians know about the cultural background. There are some interesting conclusions that can be drawn from linguistic analysis of the gospels. For example, if a dialogue only works in Greek (the language of its written source - like the gospels), it is quite likely the author's translation is reporting something at least slightly different from the original.

Author's Agenda. When material serves the perceived purposes of the author or redactor, it is suspect. For example, various sections of the gospels, such as the Massacre of the Innocents, portray Jesus' life as fulfilling prophecy, and in the view of many scholars, reflect the agenda of the gospel authors rather than historical events.

Based on this criteria and other considerations Most historians consider the accounts of Jesus' life to be historically authentic.

Scholars like Sanders [14], Geza Vermes [15], John P. Meier [16], David Flusser [17], James H. Charlesworth [18], Raymond E. Brown [19], Paula Fredriksen [20] and John Dominic Crossan [21] argue that, although many readers are accustomed to thinking of Jesus solely as a theological figure whose existence is a matter only of religious debate, the four canonical Gospel accounts are based on source documents written within decades of Jesus' lifetime, and therefore provide a basis for the study of the "historical" Jesus. These historians also draw on other historical sources and archaeological evidence to reconstruct the life of Jesus in his historical and cultural context.

Jesus as a Myth

A few scholars have questioned the existence of Jesus as an actual historical figure. The views of scholars who entirely reject Jesus' historicity are summarized in the chapter on Jesus in Will Durant's Caesar and Christ; it is based on: a suggested lack of eyewitness, a lack of direct archaeological evidence, the failure of certain ancient works to mention Jesus, and alleged similarities between early Christianity and contemporary mythology [22].

Perhaps the most prolific of these scholars disputing the historical existence of Jesus is George Albert Wells [23]. In more recent times, it has been advocated by Earl Doherty [24] and Robert M. Price [25].

The mythological view generally explains the emergence of Christianity, not as a result of any teachings of Jesus, since they reject his existence, but instead as a syncretism of various mystery religions, essentially building a mystery religion on the foundation of a Judaic tradition via the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies, and including the idealizing and metaphorically exalting a Jewish leader into a Son of God. Adherents of this view point to certain similarities between Christianity and these ancient religious movements in support of their position.

In their work The Jesus Mysteries, Timothy Freke [26] and Peter Gandy [26] argued that Jesus did not exist as a historical figure but was in fact one of the forms of Osiris-Dionysus. The book's use as cover art of an image of Orpheus crucified, an amulet which is probably a forgery, has caused critics to accuse them of deceptive methods [27]. Dennis R. MacDonald [28] argued that the Gospel of Mark and parts of Acts may have been written by an ancient author practising the common Greek form of mimesis upon the works of Homer, as he argued there are parallels to Jesus and Odysseus. Earl Doherty further argued that "the words of the first century writers never speak of Jesus' arrival or life on earth. Rather, they speak of his revelation, of his manifestation by God." [29]

There are various difficulties with this position that have caused historians and Biblical scholars to reject the view. For one example, there is no known case of a mythical deity in the mystery religions with clear and early evidence that a resurrection was taught prior to the late second century AD.[30] Michael Grant wrote:

    Judaism was a milieu to which doctrines of the deaths and rebirths of mythical gods seemed so entirely foreign that the emergence of such a fabrication from its midst is very hard to credit. [31]

Other adherents of the "mythological school" do not absolutely deny Jesus' existence, but contend that the miraculous aspects of the Gospel accounts are metaphorical and that Jesus' life story has been so heavily manipulated to fit Messianic prophecy as to render his actual existence irrelevant and indiscernible and that the surviving documents are of almost no value concerning the historical Jesus. Some of the most well-known early adherents of the mythological school include Voltaire, Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky,[32] David Strauss (1808–74), and Paul-Louis Couchoud (1879–1959).

References

  1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), pages 90-91.
  2. Howard M. Teeple (March 1970). "The Oral Tradition That Never Existed". Journal of Biblical Literature 89 (1): 56-68.
  3. Society of Biblical Studies, The Harper Collins NRSV Study Bible, San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1989, 2141, see Rom 14:14; 1 Cor 7:10; 9:14.
  4. Clement, Corinthians 42
  5. Ignatius, Trallians 9, Smyrneans 1, 3
  6. Justin, First Apology 30, 32, 34-35, 47-48, 50; Dialogue with Trypho 12, 77, 97, 107-108, &c.
  7. translation by Richard Bauckham in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 15-16.
  8. Josephus Antiquities 20:9.1.
  9. Louis H. Feldman, "Josephus" Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3, pp. 990–91.
  10. Testimonium Flavianum. EarlyChristanWritings.com. Retrieved on 2006-10-07.
  11. Josephus Antiquities 18.3.3
  12. F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) p. 23.
  13. The Babylonian Talmud, translated I. Epstein (London: Soncio, 1935), vol. 3, Sanhedrin 43a, p. 281.
  14. Sanders E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus 1993 Penguin Books Ltd.
  15. Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1973.
  16. John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew, Anchor Bible Reference Library, 1991.
  17. David Flusser, Jesus, second ed. augmented, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1998.
  18. James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism (Garden City: Doubleday, 1988)
  19. Brown, Raymond E. (1997) An Introduction to the New Testament. Doubleday
  20. Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999
  21. John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, HarperCollins, 1991.
  22. Durant, Will (1944). Caesar and Christ, Simon & Schuster, pp. 553-7.
  23. Wells, George A. (1998). The Jesus Myth.
  24. Doherty, Earl (1999). The Jesus Puzzle. Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? : Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus.
  25. Price, Robert M. (2000). Deconstructing Jesus. Prometheus Books
  26. Freke, Timothy & Gandy, Peter. The Jesus Mysteries - was the original Jesus a pagan god?
  27. W. C. K. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion: A Study of the Orphic Movement, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1952), p. 278.
  28. The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark - A review of Dennis R. MacDonald's book by Richard Carrier.
  29. Doherty, Earl (1999). The Jesus Puzzle. Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? : Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus.
  30. G. R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus (College Press 1996) pp. 34; Metzeger, Historical and Literary pp. 11, 20-22.
  31. M. Grant, Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels p.199
  32. Kautsky's 1908 work Foundations of Christianity.

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