Field of Science

Did Jesus Christ really exist?

Exceptionally, I include here a long quote from an article in eSkeptic, The Greatest Story Ever Garbled. It is a rebuttal of Zeitgeist, a conspiracy movie of which part one is about the historical reality of Jesus. Never mind the movie, though. Here, Tim Callahan explains - in a factual and detached manner - what the evidence says about whether Jesus of Nazareth was a real person or one of fiction.
        Was there a real Jesus? While the historical evidence is meager, it does exist. In his Antiquities of the Jews, book 20, chapter 9, item 1, referring to the execution of James, Josephus refers to him as the brother of “Jesus, who was called the Christ.” It is quite plain that Josephus didn’t see Jesus as the Christ (Christos, the Greek word meaning “anointed”), he merely recorded that James’ brother was the Jesus who had been called or was alleged to be the Christ.
        Beyond this scrap, valuable though it is, we can imply the existence of a historical Jesus from the criteria of embarrassment and difficulty. The criterion of embarrassment says that people do not make up embarrassing details about someone they wish to revere. So, if they say such things about the person, they are probably true. Now let’s apply this to what the Roman historian Tacitus had to say about Jesus early in the second century. Concerning rumors that had spread that Nero had deliberately set fire to the city of Rome, Tacitus says (The Annals of Imperial Rome, Book 1, Chapter 15):
To suppress this rumor, Nero fabricated scapegoats — and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capitol.
        That Tacitus is obviously a hostile witness makes it much more likely that he accepted Jesus as a real person. Had he reason to suspect he was nothing more than a fabrication, Tacitus would certainly have said so. That author’s claim that Jesus had been executed by Pontius Pilate could only have come from one of two possible sources: Either Tacitus knew this to be true from extant imperial records or he was repeating what Christians themselves had said of Jesus. Were Jesus a mythical character they had invented, they certainly wouldn’t have gone out of their way to invent his being a criminal who had been executed.
        In like manner, people do not go out of their way to invent difficulties for a character they have invented. It is clear from the Nativity narratives of the gospels of Matthew and Luke that they were faced with having to explain why Jesus grew up in Galilee if he was born in Bethlehem. Both gospels had to invent rather convoluted means to get Jesus born in Bethlehem in accordance with the messianic prophecy in Micah 5:2, then get him moved to Nazareth. Clearly they were stuck with a real person known to have come from Galilee, when he should have come from Bethlehem. Had they been making Jesus up out of whole cloth, they would simply have said he came from Bethlehem: end of story, no complications. So the evidence for Jesus as a real, historical personage, though meager, is solid.

1 comment:

  1. If you're interested, there are scholars that argue against all of the above claims. I'd recommend Bart D. Ehrman and Robert M. Price, but there are also other good scholars on this topic.

    As an example, the criteria of embarassment isn't always relevant and certainly the only possibility one should consider. Seemingly embarassing details may have been included for reasons such as that they were in other popular versions of the story or it had long been part of tradition.

    Also, it's not always clear what was original in certain writings. Redaction was extremely common and so some "evidence" was added later to the older texts. It takes detailed textual analysis and comparison with other texts to determine word by word what might've been original, and even then one can only speak in probabilities.

    One can spend one's whole life studying the arguments about all of this. One thing is certain is that their is no scholarly consensus. The evidence is so meager that it's hard to come to a clear conclusion. That in itself brings to doubt any certainty about the historicity of Christ even though it doesn't disprove such. We simply are forced to accept how little we know and how little we'll ever know about this subject.

    I have no desire to argue about it, but I was just offering that many other perspectives exist. I personally have no opinion about the matter beyond pointing out its complexity.


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