“How do we know Jesus was a real person?” This is the question asked by my seven year old son recently. Not “How do we know Jesus is the Son of God?” or “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” or similar questions that adults have on their faith. No, the question was much more basic: “How do we know Jesus was a real person?”
I have no idea of how he came up with the question. At one level it sounds absurd, especially when no one challenges the existence of near contemporaries such as Julius Caesar or Octavian, both prominent figures to be sure, but neither of whom had the historical impact of Jesus of Nazareth.
In light of that recent conversation, I was intrigued by a recent column in the Washington Post (by a religious studies professor at a prominent university no less) that not only asked this question but answered it in the negative. As stated by David Gibson of Religion News Service:
“There are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence — if not to think it outright improbable,” Raphael Lataster, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Sydney, wrote in a column published Friday (Dec. 19) in The Washington Post.
Lataster is the author of “There Was No Jesus, There Is No God,” one of a growing number of books and blog posts by Jesus “mythicists” who question the very existence of the man from Galilee.
Once I shook my head at the sorry state of today’s academia and lack of critical thinking (ironically often by people who claim to be more rational than believers), I had to laugh out loud at the absurdity on the proposition. While reasonable people can disagree on the theology of the Incarnation or the historicity of events such as the Virgin Birth, the Wise Men or the Resurrection, it is downright funny that someone could argue with a straight face the most influential person in the history of the world did not exist. I know God has a wicked sense of humor, but that would be a real mindbender 🙂
I then proceeded to read the rest of the article by Gibson, one of the best journalists in the coverage of religion. Gibson outlines the phenomena of the “mythicists” and their “arguments”. Gibson goes on to survey legitimate scholarship in this area:
Purdue University scholar Lawrence Mykytiuk, for example, has a lengthy feature story in the January/February 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review that examines the extra-biblical sources — contemporary writers outside the New Testament — who attest to the existence of Jesus.
“As far as we know, no ancient person ever seriously argued that Jesus did not exist,” Mykytiuk writes, and he cites pagan and Jewish writers of the time who did affirm Jesus’ existence.
University of North Carolina’s Bart Ehrman, a leading New Testament scholar — and an evangelical-turned-agnostic who has no Christian ax to grind — grew so exasperated by the Jesus-hoax arguments that he wrote a detailed refutation in his 2012 book called “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.”
Believers and skeptics can argue with each other, and among themselves, about exactly who Jesus was and what he meant, Ehrman said in an interview. But arguing that Jesus did not exist “is such a ridiculous proposition.”
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But to Ehrman, the most convincing argument that Jesus was a real person is that it would have made no sense to invent a crucified messiah because that is the opposite of what everyone was expecting at the time. In other words, it wasn’t a good sales pitch.
Besides, if Jesus was the product of a conspiracy, one would think that the conspirators would have gotten their stories straight and not have left lots of conflicting details.
Moreover, Ehrman said — contrary to the claims of the mythicists — there is no analogy in the pagan world of the time to a human being who was killed and rose from the dead and then exalted as a divine being.
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“I think the people who are taking [the position that Jesus was not a historical person] are really shooting themselves in the foot,” Ehrman said. “If what they want to do is to counter Christianity, then they really ought to do it on some intellectually solid basis rather than arguing something that’s downright silly.”