2010-07-07

Arguments for the Historical Existence of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

The following are the arguments for the historicity of Jesus. I have taken them from Dr James McGrath’s various comments to posts on this blog, and they are essentially direct quotations of his words. I want to be clear that none of my engagements with the methodology of historical Jesus scholars misrepresents any of the following arguments.

It should also be understood that simply critiquing each of the following does not establish a case for mythicism. My critiques of the methodology of NT historians do not do that. Whenever I have addressed this point I have always insisted that the critiques mean that additional evidence needs to be introduced to decide either way for the historicity or nonhistoricity of Jesus.

Each of the following has been responded to, in many cases more than once. And McGrath is quite right when he says that merely picking weaknesses in an argument does not prove an alternative case.

My own arguments recently have not been mythicist arguments. They have not been critiques of any of the following. (As I said, each of the following has been addressed amply elsewhere.)

What my arguments have been are a critique of the assumptions and methods of NT historians. They are most comprehensively outlined here.

My view is that an historical enquiry into Christian origins must first address methodology. I have exposed the current methods of NT historians as fallacious and inconsistent with standard historical methods in nonbiblical subjects. I suspect that once this is recognized, it is but a small step to seeing existing sources in new perspectives, and the whole historical/mythical Jesus discussion takes a very different turn from the way it has gone in mainstream biblical scholarly circles till now.

Unlikelihood of inventing a crucified Messiah

The unlikelihood that any Jews would invent a crucified Messiah and seek to persuade other to believe in him remains an important piece of evidence.

And so long as a “historicist” paradigm makes sense of most or all of the available data, admittedly with many puzzles and uncertainties, it is unclear why anyone should even consider mythicism seriously, which has the early Christians inventing a crucified Messiah and then trying to persuade their fellow Jews why that isn’t an oxymoron.

Paul’s references to having met people who knew Jesus

Paul’s references to having met people who knew Jesus — his brother James and disciple Peter.

As soon as I mention to a mythicist Paul meeting Jesus’ brother, I get insistence that such passages do not mean what they seem to mean.

Prophecies are used to explain, not invent, history

What we see in a range of Jewish literature is an attempt to interpret one’s experience by finding “prophecies” however much of a stretch it was to relate them to one’s own experience, rather than rewriting of history based on what was understood to have been predicted.

A priori acceptance of existing narratives

The existence of a story doesn’t prove anything, but the fact that a story is told but cannot be confirmed with more concrete evidence doesn’t lead automatically to the story’s dismissal by historians. The situation will be less certain than if there were other types of confirming evidence, to be sure, but uncertainty is part and parcel of the historical enterprise. But to suggest that written texts can always be discounted seems bizarre.

Criterion of embarrassment

First, we have details that are unlikely to have been invented — again, not impossible but unlikely. Jesus’ rejection by the Jewish leadership; Peter’s denial of him; Jesus’ prediction that his twelve apostles would sit on 12 thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (even though one later betrayed him); Jesus’ prayer that he wouldn’t have to undergo suffering (why invent a Jesus who dies to save humanity and then invent such a prayer); and so on. The presence of such material is most easily explained as data that simply happened and thus had to be dealt with.

Hostile sources

Next we can mention hostile sources. Josephus mentions James brother of Jesus called Christ. Tacitus’ hostile reference.

Other passages

Not quoted from McGrath, but summaries of what he has said elsewhere:

Jesus was descended from David, born of a woman.

Earliest stories are not of a divinity but of a man.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Arguments for the Historical Existence of Jesus”

  1. Just a faint tinge of ethnocentrism going on in the apologists mind set.

    I live on the river Murray in Australia and the local indigenous people have stories about their ancestral spirit-hero Ngurunderi whose actions created the landscape in which we all live.

    Strangely enough there are several elements in just one of the stories about Ngurunderi that, if one accepts the criteria espoused in the post above, render it as probably historically true.
    For example:
    ” A priori acceptance of existing narratives” means that I cannot dismiss out of hand the story that when Ngurunderi threw a spear at Pondi the giant Murray Cod and missed, he in the process created a long island whilst Pondi’s tail created meanders in the river.
    Sounds reasonable.

    “Criterion of embarrassment” suggests that I ought to believe that Ngurunderi was really truly angry because his 2 wives had escaped from him and were laughing and mocking his futile attempts to recapture them.
    How embarassing! What sort of manly spirit hero is this that cannot control his wives?
    Must be true.

    “Prophecies are used to explain, not invent, history”
    In another story Ngurundiri is warned by another spirit that he will be changed beyond recognition if he ventures into forbidden territory.
    He ignores the prophetic warning and gets changed into a star in the Milky Way.
    He is still up there today, I’ve seen him.

    Must be true.
    Who would make that up?

    Interestingly one of the stories explains how Kangaroo island was separated from the mainland by Ngurunderi, he called for the waters to rise you see.
    Now this happened, as modern geologists can tell you, about 4-6000 years ago [the locals have been here a very long time] so the story is authenticated by objective scientific knowledge.

    Which is more than a lot of other religious stories can claim.

    1. I once read of an aboriginal legend that spoke of hitting a rock with a stick so that water gushed out to relieve a land from drought. I was a devout Christian then, and wondered at the time how it was that the Australian aboriginals came to hear of what Moses did in the wilderness and come to adapt the story for their own context. 🙁

      1. You’ve come a long way Neil, travelling a hard road. [I hope that doesn’t sound condescending].

        I live on top of a cliff that looks down onto an ex-lagoon with an island between it and the Murray.
        On that island, which I [and some others] ‘own’ in a white fella sense, there are human bodies that have been there for up to 12,000 years.
        I have seen them and touched them [observing proper protocol], courtesy of an indigenous archeologist.
        They are on a heritage register and are regularly exposed by shifting sands.
        It gives you a weird sense of history and continuity to stand on the top of the cliff and know you are treading where the ancestors of the locals, people I talk to, have trodden for many many millenia, many more than any mere Judeo-Christian myth.
        Just around the corner from me is Ngaut-ngaut conservation reserve, the site of Australia’s oldest archeological dig having found artifacts, including petroglyphs at least 7,000 years old.

        In the real context of history and human culture christianity is a mere blip.

        Oh and one more little weird factoid.
        I’m a birdwatcher and recent DNA studies have revealed that the crow/raven [Corvus] family is endemic to Australia. That is, the family started here and dispersed world wide later.
        Check out Genesis 8.7.

      2. Wow! So Noah’s ark came to rest on the top of Uluru/Ayers Rock?? 😉

        What becomes increasingly obvious discussing the issue with Jesus historicists is, as I think you kind of indirectly suggest, their lack of humility in assuming that some great Jesus has to be a default explanation for “history”. Living in Asia temporarily also has the benefit of opening one’s realization that Christianity and Islam are just “other religions” — nothing more special than any other religion, apart from maybe a heightened arrogance over their self perception of superiority.

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