Dr McGrath in a recycled youtube presentation Did Jesus Exist? argues that Jesus was a historical figure in these words:
The reason that the crucifixion persuades most historians that Jesus was a historical figure is that a crucified messiah was in essence a contradiction in terms. . . . It needs to be emphasized that we are talking about a dying and rising messiah. And the messianic expectations of Judaism around the time of early Christianity are well documented. And the whole notion of messiah is “anointed one” . . . . and this goes back to the practice of anointing kings and priests in ancient Israel. And in the case of Jesus the connection of the terminology of the term messiah with the claim to his having been descended from David shows they were thinking of a kingly figure. And nothing would have disqualified someone from seriously being considered possibly being the messiah as being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish people. That wasn’t what people expected from the messiah. And it makes very little sense to claim that the early Christians invented a figure completely from scratch and called him the messiah and said that he didn’t do the same things that the messiah was expected. Not only did he not conquer the Romans, he was executed by them. He did not institute and bring in the kingdom of god the way the people were expecting, and in fact Christians had to explain this in terms of Jesus returning to finish the task of what was expected of the messiah.
All of this makes much more sense if one says that there was a figure whom the early Christians believed was the messiah and that the early Christians were trying somehow to make sense of those things that don’t seem to fit that belief.
In other words, the argument for the historicity of Jesus is, “No-one would have made it up.” This is in effect an appeal to ignorance. If one cannot imagine (without really trying) why someone would make it up, it must be historical.
The argument as expressed is, however, quite implausible. Stop and think.
If people in the life-time of Jesus really did believe Jesus was the Messiah then the argument is making it clear exactly why they thought he was the Messiah. According to the argument it was because they believed he was going to conquer the Romans and bring in the Kingdom of God. So when instead he was executed by the Romans, according to the argument, he was thereby disqualified from being considered the Messiah. We can expect the same disillusionment to have set in among his erstwhile believers as one subsequently saw among followers of other hopeful liberators as they were crushed by the Romans as spoken of by Josephus.
It makes far more sense, therefore, that we are reading a fiction. The story is simply implausible as history. The only thing that makes it plausible as fiction is that the reader is expected to believe in the resurrection.
False dilemma and straw man
There is another fallacy in the argument, and that is of the false dilemma. No one argues that “the early Christians invented a figure completely from scratch.” That is not the alternative scenario at all in anyone’s books. Not only a false dilemma, but a straw man is tossed in there as well.
Leaving aside the appeal to ignorance
What we do have among various Second Temple Jews is a belief in an atoning death and resurrection of a beloved son, Isaac. We also have suggestions in the Book of Daniel that the figurative heavenly Son of Man can be interpreted as representing the martyred saints and their victorious successors. The same book even explicitly speaks of the death of another “messiah” figure, and this is consistent with other messianic figures throughout the Bible facing their deaths. (See the related articles below.)
David himself in the Psalms and even in narrative was viewed as a pious man of suffering devoted to God even when pursued by his enemies to the point of death, trusting in deliverance even from death. David had earlier called upon his fellows to mourn the violent death of his anointed (messianic) predecessor, Saul. The earliest gospel narratives to a significant extent depict Jesus as a personification of the lives and experiences of Christians themselves as they faced persecution, and Paul himself explicitly made this point — that Christians were called to share Christ’s own life and sufferings. So there was ample material to fuel the concept of a suffering messiah. It was a very Jewish idea as 4 Ezra was to make clear with its own account of the death of a messiah.
But more than any of this, it surely goes without saying that Jesus is depicted as a far greater than David or Solomon or the Temple. He did defeat a power far greater than Rome. He defeated demonic rulers of the world and death itself. The concept of winning by losing is as old as the human imagination and creative literature and religious myths of all ages.
The argument that says, “I can’t see any reason why anyone would make it up”, is entirely bereft of imagination informed by knowledge of human nature and our mythical imagination generally and of Jewish culture and Second Temple religious ideas specifically.
What is most instructive of all, however, is that such an argument would be made at all as an attempt to persuade others that Jesus was historical. It is like the arguments of Plato for the immortality of the Soul or the existence of Ideas. It is entirely theoretical. Surely if there were historical evidence one would simply point to the evidence.
The real world
Another error, I believe, in the argument is its assertion that “most historians” are “persuaded” Jesus existed on the basis of the argument presented. I doubt it. Firstly, “persuaded” implies that historians approached the question of Jesus’ historicity with an open mind and searching for verification from the get-go, and came across this argument or similar ones and “concluded” or “were persuaded” that Jesus was therefore historical. I suggest that that is not how most people, not even historians, not even biblical scholars, have come to write about Jesus as if he were historical. Jesus’ historicity is accepted as part and parcel of our cultural and educational socialization. It is as an afterthought that some stop to ask “how we know” he existed. They are obliged to concur with the only answers available.
- Did Jesus Exist On Youtube – Dismantling the evidence presented by James McGrath (vridar.org)
- The Dying Messiah (refrain) (vridar.org)
- What might a Davidic Messiah have looked like to early Christians? (vridar.org)
- Old Testament messiahs as the raw material for the New Testament Christ (vridar.org)
- Jewish Scriptures as inspiration for a slain messiah (vridar.org)
- An Old Testament messiah struck down by God (vridar.org)
- The myth of a general messianic expectation in Jesus’ time (vridar.org)
- “Minimalist” Thomas Thompson’s take on the Messiah Myth (vridar.org)
- Meaning of Anointed-Messiah-Christ in the time of Jesus (vridar.org)
- Does the notion of a crucified messiah need a historical Easter experience? (vridar.org)
- “Son of David” as an anachronism in the Gospels, Paul and Acts? (vridar.org)
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!