Matters of History

The claim that Jesus of Nazareth did not even exist has virtually no currency in contemporary scholarship. John Dickson explains more in this excerpt from his recently published book, “Is Jesus History?”

This is an excerpt from “Is Jesus History?” by John Dickson, Published by The Good Book Company, 2020, and used by kind permission.

Christianity has a problem.

Only one, you might ask?

Unlike other religions, Christianity gambles its plausibility on supposed historical events. Christians don’t just say other-worldly things like, “God loves you,” “We all need forgiveness,” and “Heaven is open to all.” None of that sort of thing is the least bit confirmable, or falsifiable. We may mock such spiritual claims, but we cannot disconfirm them with counterevidence.

But that’s not really how Christians talk. Listen closely, and you’ll often hear them say things like “Jesus lived in the Galilean village of Nazareth,” or “He had a wide reputation as a healer,” or “He caused a scandal in the temple of Jerusalem around AD 30,” or “He suffered execution under a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate,” or even “His tomb outside the city wall was found empty a few days after his crucifixion, and his disciples saw him alive.”

Statements like these are not completely immune from historical scrutiny. They touch times and places we know quite a bit about. They intersect with other figures (like Pilate) about whom we have reasonably good information. The alleged events all take place in a cultural and political melting pot—Roman Galilee and Judaea—for which we have thousands of archaeological remains and hundreds of thousands of words of ancient inscriptions and written records.

When people proclaim an intangible thing like “the universal love of God,” they are safe from scrutiny. But as soon as they say that their guy was crucified by the fifth governor of Judaea, they are stepping onto public turf—and someone is bound to want to challenge the claim. And challenge they do!

ATTACKING THE CLAIMS

For a few years now some of the best-selling books have been full-scale attacks of Christian claims by the world’s most brilliant atheists: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Michel Onfray, Lawrence Krauss, and so on. Hitchens, who sadly died a few years ago, speaks of the “highly questionable existence of Jesus” and the “huge amount of fabrication” in the stories written about him in the Gospels, the biographies of Jesus now found in the New Testament, the second part of the Christian Bible. He goes on:

Either the Gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps an immoral one at that. Well, it can be stated with certainty, and on their own evidence, that the Gospels are most certainly not literal truth. That means that many of the “sayings” and teachings of Jesus are hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay, which helps explain their garbled and contradictory nature.1

It’s very strong stuff, and many similar-sounding statements can be found throughout the popular atheist literature of the last decade or two. And it is such good writing—at least Hitchens’ prose is fabulous—that it is easy to get swept up into thinking that these public naysayers must have a strong body of expert opinion behind them.

FALSE IMPRESSIONS

The impression these writers leave us, whether intended or not, is that specialists in the field of history also talk of the “highly questionable existence of Jesus” or the “huge amount of fabrication” in the Gospels. But this impression is dramatically false. Anyone who dips into the academic literature about the figure of Jesus will quickly discover that trained scholars, regardless of their religious or irreligious conviction, reckon we know quite a bit about the influential teacher from Nazareth.

An entire industry of “double-checking” the claims about Jesus of Nazareth has developed over the last 250 years. The study of the “Historical Jesus” is a vast secular discipline today, found in major universities all around the world, including the two with which I have been most closely associated—Macquarie University and Sydney University in Australia.

While there are certainly plenty of active Christians involved in this sub-discipline of Ancient History, there are also a great many half-Christians, ex-Christians, Jewish scholars (lots of Jewish scholars) as well as self-confessed agnostics and atheists. This makes it very difficult for anyone writing and working in this field to get away with publishing theology under the guise of history, or privileging the biblical documents over non-biblical ones, or pretending we can “prove” most of what the New Testament says about Jesus.

The process of peer review, where scholars publish their work in professional journals only after being double-checked by two or more independent (and anonymous) scholars of rank, might not be foolproof but it certainly filters out any works of propaganda. It also reduces the risk of fraudulent claims, and it keeps scholars constantly mindful of the rules of the History game.

VESTED INTERESTS

At the same time, out of the universities and on the street this topic is filled with such emotion and vested interests that some folks won’t accept any claim that points even vaguely in the direction of the history of Jesus. The other day I posted on social media a famous statement about Jesus from the great Albert Einstein, and it triggered quite a reaction from my skeptical friends and followers.

The great physicist was interviewed in 1929 by the journalist George Viereck and, among many other things, he was asked about some religious matters. It is well known that Einstein despised “revealed religion” as infantile; he did not even like the idea of a personal God. His religious outlook was little more than a vague hunch that behind the laws of nature there must be some “infinitely superior spirit and reasoning power.” Fair enough.

But the thing that annoyed my atheist friends was Einstein’s admiration for the historical figure (yes, historical figure) found in the New Testament Gospels. Here’s a portion of the interview:

Viereck: “To what extent are you influenced by Christianity?”

Einstein: “As a child, I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

Viereck: “You accept the historical existence of Jesus?”

Einstein: “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. How different, for instance, is the impression which we receive from an account of legendary heroes of antiquity like Theseus. Theseus and other heroes of his type lack the authentic vitality of Jesus.”2

Einstein’s admiration for Jesus, and his confidence that Jesus was a historical figure, offer a nice contrast to the more recent dogmatism of the best-selling atheists, which is perhaps why my skeptical social-media friends were so resistant to accepting that the great physicist could ever have stated such glowing words about the founder of Christianity.

I literally had folks suggesting Viereck’s interview itself was a fraud, even though—as I pointed out—it was published in one of twentieth-century America’s most widely read magazines.

I had to dig it out of the archives and post screenshots of the relevant pages of the interview before some would believe that Einstein said such a thing. Even then, I’m not sure other folk would accept it. Such is the power of preference to shape what we believe!

COMMITMENT TO A CAUSE

In fact, on December 18 a few years ago, friends and colleagues alerted me to an article in the mainstream press suggesting that the history of Jesus was entirely dubious. You can almost set your clock by it—Christmas is upon us, I thought.

But this was different. Social media was alight with shares and retweets, because this piece appeared in the venerable Washington Post, and seemed to go further than the usual polite debunking of this or that element of the Nativity story. The author concluded triumphantly in the final line, “In sum, there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence—if not to think it outright improbable.”3

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the author of the article had been a recent student of mine in the course I teach on “Historical Jesus to Written Gospels” for the University of Sydney. This young man had sat through lectures outlining the sources used by scholars, the latest historical methods, and the broad conclusions of the scholarly consensus in this large field of study.

It turns out this student was an active ex-Christian atheist doing a PhD in another department of the university (Religious Studies) critiquing the well-known Christian author and scholar William Lane Craig. Around the same time, he self-published a book entitled There Was No Jesus, There is No God.

Given the student’s clear commitment to a cause, I didn’t feel too bad that I had failed to convince him just how idiosyncratic it is in secular scholarship to propose the non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth. He was like an anti-vaxxer or flat-earther disdaining mainstream science. With a wave of his hand he dismissed what he called the “atrocious methods” of historians of Jesus. No offense taken. I was glad to have the opportunity to offer a reply to my student’s claims.4 But my main point here is not the historical particulars—I explore that later in my book. I want to make the observation that skepticism can sometimes be as dogmatic as fundamentalism. They can be the mirror-image of each other.

ISSUING THE CHALLENGE

In what might turn out to be a rush of blood to the head, a few years ago I was so confident that Jesus’s existence is regarded as beyond reasonable doubt in contemporary secular scholarship that I published a challenge on the ABC (Australia’s public broadcaster): if anyone can find just one full professor of Ancient History, Classics, or New Testament in any real university anywhere in the world who argues that Jesus never lived, I will eat a page out of my Bible.5

The response on social media was fun, as various skeptical friends (and some who were not-so-much friends) set out to make me eat Holy Scripture. As the hours and days passed, a volley of names was offered: professors of psychology, English literature, philosophy, folklore (I kid you not), and German language. But not one professor from any of the relevant fields. My Bible was safe.

I have since inadvertently discovered that there is an atheist group here in Australia determined to meet the challenge. And when they find a relevant professor who denies the historical existence of Jesus, the intention is apparently to barge into my office with a camera and make me eat a page of my Bible for the online public to enjoy live.

A SHORTCUT TO THE SCHOLARLY CONSENSUS

Whether or not there is a relevant professor out there who denies Jesus ever lived, there is a simple shortcut for non-specialists to confirm that there is, indeed, a consensus among contemporary secular scholars that the broad outline of Jesus’s life is historically sound. This does not “prove” that Jesus existed, but it does demonstrate that professional scholarship—even outside religious institutions—considers there to be no real doubt about his existence.

Anyone with access to a serious public or university library can easily consult the standard reference works in the disciplines of ancient history and classics. The big academic publishing houses produce compendiums designed to describe the state-of-the-question on all things historical. There are at least five such works that would be regarded as the authoritative and relevant volumes in English-speaking secular academia.

FIVE EXAMPLES OF CONSENSUS

The first is the famous single-volume Oxford Classical Dictionary (published by Oxford University Press), which summarizes scholarship on all things Greek and Roman in just a little over 1700 pages. The several-page entry on the origins of Christianity begins with an assessment of what may be reliably known about Jesus of Nazareth. Readers will discover that no doubts are raised about the basic facts that this teacher-healer really lived and really did die by crucifixion.

Next is the much larger Cambridge Ancient History in fourteen volumes (published, of course, by Cambridge University Press). Volume 10 covers the “Augustan Period,” right about when Tiberius, Livia, Pliny the Elder, and Jesus all lived. It has a sizeable chapter on the birth of Christianity. The entry begins with a couple of pages outlining what is known of Jesus’s life and death, including his preaching of the kingdom of God, his fraternizing with sinners, and so on. No doubts are raised about the authenticity of these core elements of the Jesus-story.

The third relevant standard work is also published by Cambridge University in the UK. It’s the Cambridge His- tory of Judaism in four volumes. Volume 3 covers the “Early Roman Period.” Several different chapters refer to Jesus in passing as a interesting figure of Jewish history. One chapter—sixty pages in length—focuses entirely on Jesus and is written by two leading scholars, neither of whom has any qualms dismissing bits of the New Testament record when they think the evidence is against it. The chapter offers a first-rate account of what experts currently think of the historical Jesus. His teaching, fame as a healer, openness to sinners, selection of “the twelve” (apostles), prophetic actions (like cleansing the temple), clashes with elites, and, of course, his death on a cross are all are treated as beyond reasonable doubt. The authors do not tackle the resurrection (unsurprisingly), but they do acknowledge, as a matter of historical fact, that the first disciples of Jesus “…were absolutely convinced that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised and was Lord and that numerous of them were certain that he had appeared to them.”

Purchase the Book

Is Jesus History?

In this timely book, historian Dr. Dickson unpacks how the field of history works, giving readers the tools to evaluate for themselves about historical figures like Pontius Pilot and Jesus Christ.

INSCRIPTIONS

The fourth standard work comes from a different angle entirely, and is very revealing for anyone who imagines there are doubts about Jesus’s existence in mainstream secular scholarship. The monumental Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/ Palaestinae (from Germany’s 260-year-old publishing house De Gruyter) is a recent six-volume compendium of all the known inscriptions in Judaea/Palestine for the thousand-year period from Alexander the Great to Muhammad. An image of each inscription (when available) appears, followed by an analysis of its date, context, and content.

Some might be surprised to read entry 15 of the Jerusalem inscriptions: “Titulus on the cross of Jesus in three languages: Aramaic, Latin and Greek, ca. 30 AD.” The four renditions of the inscription from the Gospels appear (basically, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”), followed by a brief commentary on the Roman practice of placarding the reason for the punishment of a condemned person. The entry then states: “Therefore there is no reason to doubt the tradition that a titulus with the reason for his condemnation by Pilatus was affixed on Jesus’ cross.”

The point for my purposes isn’t just that this volume affirms the tiny detail of the sign above Jesus’s cross—that is probably of minor interest to most readers. The point is that this peerless historical compendium of ancient inscriptions takes it as an absolute given that the Jewish figure Jesus existed, that he caused a scandal of some kind, and that he ended up on a Roman cross.

The fifth and final example is Brill’s New Pauly: Encyclopaedia of the Ancient World (published by Brill Academic). It is a classic German-language compendium of Ancient History, now translated into English in twenty volumes. You can buy your own set for just €5.795.00 (a little over £5,000 or $6,600). Of course it has an entry on the historical Jesus, reaching 5,239 words (I didn’t count; each entry tells you exactly how many words it contains).

It is skeptical about a lot of things in the Gospels. It has no interest in propping up the Christian Faith. But nor does it express even the slightest doubt about Jesus’s existence, the basic themes of his teaching, his reputation as a healer, and his crucifixion.

BEYOND DOUBT

None of these five works is theological, or even remotely religious. They are the standard secular reference works to which scholars themselves turn to double-check certain details, and to get a quick summary of the state-of-the-question for just about any ancient topic you can imagine. Each volume treats the existence of Jesus the teacher, healer, and martyr as beyond doubt.

I recognize that this article amounts to what philosophers call an argument from authority—but arguments from authority are far from bogus. They are used all the time in courts of law—where the judgment of an “expert witness” is considered evidence. And we all rely on authorities for many of the things we know about the world. If, for example, I am not a particle physicist, I will have to rely on experts for pretty much everything I know about the atom. When I learn that a consensus of particle physicists agrees that the Higgs Boson exists and has a mass of approximately 125 GeV/c2, I am justified in accepting this consensus as a shortcut to reliable knowledge on the topic.

It is no different with matters of history. The fact that there is an obvious consensus of scholarship that places Jesus’s existence beyond doubt must count for something; not everything, but something.

IN A NUTSHELL

The claim that Jesus of Nazareth did not even exist has virtually no currency in contemporary scholarship. All the standard (secular) compendiums of ancient history judge the core of the story—that a popular Galilean teacher and reputed healer named Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem by order of Pontius Pilate—to be beyond reasonable doubt.

Lastly, a brief summary of the life of Jesus in a speech by the apostle Peter recorded in the book of Acts is instructive. Peter said,

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10: 36-43)

John Dickson, PhD, is Distinguished Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Public Christianity at Ridley College, Melbourne, and an adjunct speaker with RZIM. This article is a part of Just Thinking magazine issue 28.2. Click here to download the PDF.


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