Bearing False Witness for Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Last month a National Church Life Survey found that only 49% of Australians believe that “Jesus was a real person who actually lived”. From NCLS Research: Is Jesus Real to Australians?

That finding (although the sample size surveyed was small — 1286) was too depressing for one somewhat prominent Christian scholar in Australia who dashed off in time for Christmas the following response: Most Australians may doubt that Jesus existed, but historians don’t

A new survey has found that less than half of all Australians believe Jesus was a real historical person. This is bad news for Christianity, especially at Christmas, but it is also bad news for historical literacy.

. . . .

This is, obviously, terrible news for Christianity in Australia. One of the unique selling points of the Christian faith — in the minds of believers — is that it centres on real events that occurred in time and space. Christianity is not based on someone’s solitary dream or private vision. It isn’t merely a divine dictation in a holy book that has to be believed with blind faith. Jesus was a real person, “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, the fifth governor of Judea, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it. It seems many Australians really don’t agree.

But, frankly, this new survey is also bad news for historical literacy. This reported majority view is not shared by the overwhelming consensus of university historians specialising in the Roman and Jewish worlds of the first century. If Jesus is a “mythical or fictional character”, that news has not yet reached the standard compendiums of secular historical scholarship.

Take the famous single-volume Oxford Classical Dictionary. Every classicist has it on their bookshelf. It summarises scholarship on all things Greek and Roman in just over 1,700 pages. There is a multiple page entry on the origins of Christianity that begins with an assessment of what may be reliably known about Jesus of Nazareth. Readers will discover that no doubts at all are raised about the basic facts of Jesus’s life and death.

(John Dickson, 21st Dec 2021. Bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations. Link to OCD is original to John Dickson’s article.)

That sounds overwhelming, right? Who can be left to doubt? Who dares to step out of line from what is found in “the famous single-volume” toolkit of “every classicist”?

Let’s follow John Dickson’s advice and actually “take” that 4th edition of the OCD and read it for ourselves. Here is the relevant section of the article of which he speaks. All punctuation except for the bolded highlighting is original to the text quoted:

Christianity Christianity began as a Jewish sect and evolved at a time when both Jews and Christians were affected by later Hellenism (see HELLENISM, HELLENIZATION). Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, some Jews found Hellenistic culture congenial, while others adhered to traditional and exclusive religious values. When Judaea came under direct Roman control soon after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, cultural and religious controversies were further exacerbated by the ineptitude of some Roman governors. Jesus therefore, and his followers, lived in a divided province.

The ‘historical Jesus’ is known through the four Gospels, which are as sources problematic. Written not in Aramaic but in Greek, the four ‘Lives’ of Jesus were written some time after his death (and, in the view of his followers, resurrection) and represent the divergent preoccupations and agendas of their authors. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke (to give their probable chronological order) differ from John in such matters as the geographical scope of Jesus’ ministry, which John expands from Galilee to include Judaea and Samaria as well; John also is more influenced by Greek philosophical thought. Through them, we can see Jesus as a rabbi and teacher, whose followers included socially marginal women (e.g. Mary Magdalen) as well as men, as a worker of miracles, as a political rebel, or as a prophet, who foresaw the imminent ending of the world, and the promised Jewish Messiah.

(OCD article by Gillian Clark, University of Bristol with Jill Harries, University of St Andrews, p. 312)

If one were inclined to be mischievous one might follow up the above by reading the entry for Heracles in the same OCD and noting that the description for him, another ancient figure who also became a god, is likewise described matter-of-factly as a real person and no less a mix of historical and mythical than Jesus. The difference is that with Heracles there are no cautious caveats about the problematic nature of the sources upon which our knowledge of Heracles is derived:

Heracles, the greatest of Greek heroes. His name is that of a mortal (compare Diocles), and has been interpreted as ‘Glorious through Hera” (Burkert 210, Chantraine 416, Kretschmer 121-9 (see bibliog. below)). In this case, the bearer is taken as being—or so his parents would hope—within the protection of the goddess. This is at odds with the predominant tradition (see below), wherein Heracles was harassed rather than protected by the goddess: perhaps the hostility was against worshippers of Heracles who rejected allegiance to the worshippers of Hera on whom the hero depended. This could have happened when Argos had established control over the Heraion and Tiryns (possibly reflected in an apparent falling-off of settlement at Tiryns late in the 9th cent, BC: Foley 40-2) Some of the inhabitants of Tiryns might have emigrated to Thebes, taking their hero with him. Traditionally Heracles’ mother and her husband (Alcmene and Amphitryon) were obliged to move from Tiryns to Thebes, where Heracles was conceived and born (LIMC 1/1. 735). However, there is no agreement over the etymology of the name, an alternative version deriving its first element from ‘Hero’ (see Stafford (bibliog.) and HERO-CULT).

Heracles shared the characteristics of, on the one hand, a hero (both cultic and epic), on the other, a god. As a hero, he was mortal, and like many other heroes, born to a human mother and a god (Alcmene and Zeus; Amphitryon was father of Iphicles, Heracles’ twin: the bare bones of the story already in Homer, Il. 14. 323—4). Legends arose early of his epic feats, and they were added to constantly throughout antiquity. These stories may have played a part in the transformation of Heracles from hero (i.e. a deity of mortal origin, who, after death, exercised power over a limited geographical area, his influence residing in his mortal remains) to god (a deity, immortal, whose power is not limited geographically) See HERO-CULT.

Outside the cycle of the Labours (see below), the chief events of Heracles’ life were as follows: . . .

(OCD, article Heracles, p. 663)

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