“I don’t think there’s any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus…. We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.” —Bart Ehrman
In Part 4 of this series, I promised that in this concluding instalment, I would provide quotes from historians and biblical scholars who are recognised as authorities in their field, who are not themselves Christians or believers in Jesus’ divinity, yet who decidedly affirm that Jesus was a real, historical person. I’ve chosen a sampling of five such quotations (plus the one from Bart Ehrman, above), noting the authority’s position and beliefs:
- “This view [that Jesus didn’t exist] is demonstrably false. It is fuelled by a regrettable form of atheist prejudice, which holds all the main primary sources, and Christian people, in contempt. …. Most of its proponents are also extraordinarily incompetent.”—Maurice Casey, Nottingham University (Agnostic)
- “[I]f we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. ….. In recent years, ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus’ or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.”—Michael Grant, eminent historian of the Roman Empire (Non-Christian)
- “I think that the New Testament does provide prima facie evidence for the historicity of Jesus. It is clear, then, that if we are going to apply to the New Testament the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we should not require independent confirmation of the New Testament’s claim that Jesus existed.”—Jeffery Jay Lowder, writing on the Secular Web (Atheist)
- “[In answer to the question, did Jesus exist?] I would say it is much more likely that he did than he didn’t. To believe that he had been imagined or invented is a much harder task than to rely on the available evidence, which is obviously not as clear-cut as one would like, but is sufficiently good to say that somebody by the name of Jesus existed around the time when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea in the first century AD.”—Geza Vermes, Oxford University (Jewish)
- “[The Gospels] are historical works, in intention, because they aim to give the true actions and sayings of a historical person during phases of his biography; they are distinct from historical romance, because their authors believe they are telling the truth.”—Robin Lane Fox, Oxford University (atheist)
From the above quotations, all from non-Christians, all from eminent historians, we can see that the notion that Jesus didn’t exist is one with very little credibility behind it. While, obviously, these secular historians do not believe the theological teachings of the Gospels, the best of current biblical scholarship treats the Gospels not as myths or romances, but as historical biographies about a historical figure. Those who deny that Jesus existed often belittle the Gospels as being biased theological texts, and biblical scholars as being biased about the texts—but it is evident that the mythicists are just as biased, if not more so, the other way. And it certainly cannot be maintained that the atheists, agnostics, etc. above cited are somehow biased in favour of Jesus having truly existed.
When it comes right down to it, the alternatives proposed by the mythicists make no sense. The early Christians weren’t proclaiming a new religion that would make them liked, or powerful, or wealthy. For the first 3 centuries, as often as not, being a Christian (especially one in leadership in the Church) was a death-sentence. If there was no Jesus, why did eleven of the Twelve Apostles willingly suffer execution (and the twelfth, torture and exile) for cobbled-together stories from various pagan religions amalgamated and given a pseudo-Jewish veneer? Why make such bold assertions and live in such abject defiance of the beliefs and culture of the Roman Empire that it branded them traitors and insurgents for not pinching a dash of incense to the Emperor?
I began this article with quotations from non-Christian historians, each of whom have their own theories about who the historical Jesus was. To conclude, I’ll leave you with G. K. Chesterton’s appraisal of all the various interpretations of the historical Jesus, from his book, The Everlasting Man:
I maintain therefore that a man reading the New Testament frankly and freshly would not get the impression of what is now often meant by a human Christ. The merely human Christ is a made-up figure, a piece of artificial selection, like the merely evolutionary man. Moreover there have been too many of these human Christs found in the same story, just as there have been too many keys to mythology found in the same stories. Three or four separate schools of rationalism have worked over the ground and produced three or four equally rational explanations of his life. The first rational explanation of his life was that he never lived. And this in turn gave an opportunity for three or four different explanations, as that he was a sun-myth or a corn-myth, or any other kind of myth that is also a monomania. Then the idea that he was a divine being who did not exist gave place to the idea that he was a human being who did exist. In my youth it was the fashion to say that he was merely an ethical teacher in the manner of the Essenes, who had apparently nothing very much to say that Hillel or a hundred other Jews might not have said; as that it is a kindly thing to be kind and an assistance to purification to be pure. Then somebody said he was a madman with a Messianic delusion. Then others said he was indeed an original teacher because he cared about nothing but Socialism; or (as others said) about nothing but Pacifism. Then a more grimly scientific character appeared who said that Jesus would never have been heard of at all except for his prophecies of the end of the world. He was important merely as a Millenarian like Dr. Cumming; and created a provincial scare by announcing the exact date of the crack of doom. Among other variants on the same theme was the theory that he was a spiritual healer and nothing else; a view implied by Christian Science, which has really to expound a Christianity without the Crucifixion in order to explain the curing of Peter’s wife’s mother or the daughter of a centurion. There is another theory that concentrates entirely on the business of diabolism and what it would call the contemporary superstition about demoniacs, as if Christ, like a young deacon taking his first orders, had got as far as exorcism and never got any further. Now, each of these explanations in itself seems to me singularly inadequate; but taken together they do suggest something of the very mystery which they miss. There must surely have been something not only mysterious but many-sided about Christ if so many smaller Christs can be carved out of him. If the Christian Scientist is satisfied with him as a spiritual healer and the Christian Socialist is satisfied with him as a social reformer, so satisfied that they do not even expect him to be anything else, it looks as if he really covered rather more ground than they could be expected to expect. And it does seem to suggest that there might be more than they fancy in these other mysterious attributes of casting out devils or prophesying doom.
Read the other posts of the series Was Jesus Real:
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