Here is my response to the six point and 500 word Jesus Challenge issued by Ben Goren. I copy his specific challenge questions and respond in blue font beneath each one.
1. Start with a clear, concise, unambiguous definition of who Jesus was. Do the Gospels offer a good biography of him? Was he some random schmuck of a crazy street preacher whom nobody would even thought to have noticed? Was he a rebel commando, as I’ve even heard some argue?
The Jesus of the Canonical Gospels was literary tool functioning as a symbol of spiritual Israel and mouthpiece and demonstration for the different theological perspectives of the evangelists.
2. Offer positive evidence reliably dated to within a century or so of whenever you think Jesus lived that directly supports your position. Don’t merely cite evidence that doesn’t contradict it; if, for example, you were to claim that Jesus was a rebel commando, you’d have to find a source that explicitly says so.
The internal evidence of the Gospels (anachronisms, datable references and teachings that are best explained post 70, the literary relationships discernible among the Gospels, and the theological development evident across them) indicates they were composed after 70 CE. External evidence first evident in the second century is also consistent with this.
3. Ancient sources being what they are, there’s an overwhelming chance that the evidence you choose to support your theory will also contain significant elements that do not support it. Take a moment to reconcile this fact in a plausible manner. What criteria do you use to pick and choose?
The late testimony of the Gospels takes for granted that their narratives are historical. Yet the literary character of the Gospels is unlike any other ancient historical biographical or historiographical work. There is evidence that the earliest Gospel (upon which the others are based) was written in imitation of the Septuagint, including the topos of creating a theological narrative ostensibly set in a historical time and place. Just as Jews and Christians have believed elements in the accounts of the OT to be historical so early Fathers believed the Gospels to be historical.
4. There will be lots of other significant pieces of evidence that contradict your hypothetical Jesus. Even literalist Christians have the Apocrypha to contend with, and most everybody else is comfortable observing widespread self-contradiction merely within the New Testament itself. Offer a reasonable standard by which evidence that contradicts your own position may be dismissed, and apply it to an example or two.
The criterion of embarrassment (the evangelists would not have written about events that were embarrassing to the church) is generally used to dispute the above views, but by applying the normal standards of logical analysis to this and other criteria of authenticity the method has been found wanting by biblical scholars themselves. Events that appear to be embarrassing should be assessed by comparable events that were the fate of all saints in the OT. So the sufferings and death of a man of God (e.g. crucifixion) is a well-known trope that identifies a true man of God, not an embarrassment. Passages in Paul’s letters that appear to indicate a historical Jesus need to be tested the way hypotheses are normally tested: if those interpretations are correct then what else would we expect to find in the evidence?; which hypothesis meet all such expectations? If Paul’s apparent claim to have met James the Brother of the Lord leads to difficulties in understanding why this James was never so identified in any other documents (e.g. Acts) or was always considered hostile to Jesus (e.g. the Gospels) we need to find the best hypothesis (not ad hoc rationalizations) that explains all such data.
5. Take at least a moment to explain how Jesus could have gone completely unnoticed by all contemporary writers (especially those of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Pliny the Elder, and the various Roman Satirists) yet is described in the New Testament as an otherworldly larger-than-life divine figure who was spectacularly publicly active throughout the region.
The NT epistles in fact indicate Jesus was unknown or unrecognized before 70. Later evidence is when we first hear of such a spectacularly public figure. This portrayal can be identified as an elaboration of OT narratives (e.g. Moses leading Israel). After 70 it would not have been a problem for verisimilitude to have set narrative events in the early 30s, especially among diffuse audiences throughout the Mediterranean. Even today false histories that supposedly happened within our generation are known to gain traction and believers.
6. Last, as validation, demonstrate your methods reliable by applying them to other well-known examples from history. For example, compare and contrast another historical figure with an ahistorical figure using your standards.
The same criteria — genre, testing hypotheses by asking what expectations each raises for other evidence, independent verification, the nature of oral and written transmission, and literary analysis — establish the historicity of other historical figures such as Tiro (Cicero’s slave), leave open to question other figures such as Honi the Circle Drawer, and dispute the historicity of persons such as Abraham and Moses.
(I admit I cheated a little in #6 by pointing to cases that I have in the past demonstrated how the methods establish historicity or raise doubts.)
None of this “disproves” that there was a historical Jesus. But it does render any such historical person irrelevant to the formation of Christianity until further evidence or research tells us otherwise.
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