There is no Historical Jesus
A stone tablet from Jordan is in the news, because by some interpretations it seems to show that the idea of a Jewish Messiah rising from the dead after three days preceded Jesus and the resurrection. Most experts agree the tablet is a genuine article from the time just before Jesus, but the ink is smudged (yes, sometimes people wrote on stone) so it’s not entirely clear if scholars are reading it right. Still, if it does say what some think it says, it’s one more nail in the coffin of the idea of a historical Jesus.
How’s that? Well, there is no historical Jesus. No contemporary writer mentions him, no contemporary records corroborate anything about his life or story. The earliest record we have of his life is the gospels, and they date from decades after his death. And even medieval scholars pointed out that not only is there a lack of historical evidence, even worse, pretty much everything Jesus said and did can be found in earlier writings ascribed to earlier prophets. Well, this lack of historical evidence rankles Christian scholars to no end, they need an answer to critics who ask “prove Jesus even existed in the first place.” Since there is no real evidence, they have fallen back on cataloguing the unique events in Jesus’ life and ministry to prove he existed. The resurrection after three days was one of the strongest points of this argument, and if this tablet proves genuine, it’s more indication that Jesus may have been more myth than man.
Will this change anyone’s mind one way or the other about Jesus? Probably not. I just find it interesting that arguably the most influential person in world history may not have actually existed at all. I mean, a lot of people have put a great deal of faith in the idea that Jesus really existed and his ministry really transpired more or less as the gospels state. Never underestimate the cleverness of people defending their faith though. The early church handled the problem of earlier prophets who apparently said and did the same things as Jesus by claiming that since Satan knew Jesus was coming, he sent earlier impostors to muddy the record and dilute the faith. The logical response to this argument is “You’ve got to be joking, you’re invoking a mythical supernatural being to prove Jesus was real?!” The Church’s response to that was the Inquisition, which is one way to end an argument I suppose.
Now some clever readers may be saying “but, but, what about Josephus!” He was a contemporary Jewish historian, he clearly mentions Jesus! Well, yes, Josephus’ works do seem to mention Jesus twice, particularly the Testimonium Flavianum:
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
That seems pretty cut and dry, what’s the problem? The problem is that no one can find any evidence that this was written before the third century. And the fact that there is no mention of the Testimonium Flavianum in first and second century works regarding the early history of Christianity is highly suspect. The Testimonium Flavianum also states that many Jews joined his faith, which simply isn’t true, and one would expect a contemporary Jewish historian (Josephus was a historian) would know that. The idea that many Jews flocked to Christianity was a common early Christian belief, which strongly argues that the paragraph was written by a third century Christian forger and inserted into the works of Josephus to bolster the faith. Granted there are still some scholars claiming that the Testimonium is real, and honest debate on the subject continues. Most scholars, and me, remained unconvinced.
Does the debate about the authenticity of Jesus really mean much? Nope. I just find it a fascinating little window into the mysteries of human thinking. I mean, we are debating about whether a person really existed in the flesh and blood in order to prove that a supernatural being exists. Uh huh. In any case, what does it matter. Mythical or real, the story of Jesus has been one of the most influential stories in history. Hell, he even has a few followers to this day.
God Bless everyone!
(The above image of a bust of Josephus is public domain under US copyright law as it was taken from a book published in 1888. Is it really a likeness of Josephus? Who knows, though apparently it is a good representation of how typical Jews of the era looked like. And I’m referring to his hair style, not his nose. Apparently the idea that Jesus had long flowing locks of hair is also a myth. Is nothing sacred? And lastly, my comment about the Inquisition above was not meant to be taken literally.)