Despite what New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman calls a “cottage industry” promoting the claim that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, the existence of a guy by that name in first century Palestine who was crucified by the Romans remains a matter of historical consensus among ancient historians and philologists.
That is a fact. The consensus remains, because no evidence has surfaced to make the academy question the existence of Jesus any more than the many other minor figures of ancient history, despite the fact that like many of those other figures of history, Jesus’ biographers ascribed to him quasi-divine status and asserted that he performed a host of miracles.
Why does the mention of miracles and divine intervention fail to give us pause with respect to Jesus? Because the existence of the supernatural is taken for granted in antiquity, so source material lacking any mention of it at all is in fact quite scarce.
True, there are a few famous skeptics among the ancients, like the Greek elegist Xenophanes (sixth century BCE), the Latin poet Lucretius (first century BCE), and the Greek satirist Lucian (second century CE), but they are far from the majority, even among the educated elite who give us the written material from that epoch. Even outside of written sources, the art, architecture, and archaeology of the ancients (especially the sheer number of defixiones, or magical curse tablets) point to a world in which the supernatural was an everyday part of life.
So when people like biologist Jerry Coyne (whom I have admired for many years since an e-mail exchange we had about one of Arkansas’ pitiful attempts at banning evolution when I was a newspaper editor), or biochemist Larry Moran in a recent blog, assert that Jesus must not have existed because his biographers include supernatural and divine elements in his history, it makes me and many other scholars of antiquity quite confused.
The motivation to do so is obvious. Coyne, Moran, and most other skeptics out there are avowed atheists, and as such they disbelieve in the supernatural, including a supernatural deity. I happen to agree with them on this: though they seem unaware of it, a growing body of liberal Protestants has for decades moved away from a supernaturally theistic understanding of God, toward a more pantheistic understanding. But that’s an entry for another day.
What movement atheists do is take this one step further. Because the supernatural is of course bunk, according to them, and because traditional Christianity is therefore wrongly predicated, Jesus himself must never have existed.
Take a minute to recover from that amazingly slippery slope.
That a guy named Jesus of Nazareth existed and was crucified is a matter of overwhelming consensus among ancient historians. But pay attention to what I just wrote: that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was crucified – that is what enjoys historical consensus. That, aside from the likelihood that he preached an apocalyptic message in Roman-occupied Palestine, is pretty much where historical consensus begins and ends.
As New Testament professor James McGrath pointed out recently, skeptics like Coyne and Moran, while diligently (and admirably) defending scientific consensus against deniers of evolution and climate change, nonetheless express denial themselves about the historical consensus of the very same academy regarding the existence of Jesus, and do so using sleight-of-hand. Moran, in both online comments and again in a recent blog post, elides historical evidence for a guy named Jesus with historical evidence for all the gospel writers’ claims, which is something few if any credible scholars do.
I’m still convinced that the judgement of scholars that “Jesus was a real man” comes not from evidence, but from their conviction that the Bible simply couldn’t be untruthful about that issue.
Note first how similarly this sounds to a creationist’s apologetic regarding the scholarly consensus about evolution – there must be some sinister reason why scholars agree on something so wrong. But note also how historically absurd it is. Is Coyne aware of the history of Biblical studies at all? Going back to Erasmus and picking up steam especially in the 19th century, scholars of the Bible were in fact the first ones to note the historically implausible aspects of the Bible, using both philology (close study of the language) and outside historical sources. This is at the heart of the historical-critical approach, which has dominated Biblical studies until most recently. To suggest that scholars are afraid to confront the notion that the Bible couldn’t be “untruthful” betrays a general ignorance about how scholars of the Bible have treated the text for almost two centuries now.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with what Jerry says. As far as I know the evidence that Jesus actually existed is not strong and, even more importantly, there’s no independent evidence that he rose from the dead or performed miracles.
Of course there’s no evidence that he rose from the dead or performed miracles. Those are largely doctrinal and theological claims, not historical ones, and again, not part of the historical consensus regarding the existence of Jesus. But note how Moran finds it seemingly impossible to tease apart historical claims from supernatural ones, eliding them together as though we’re still having the same conversation.
There are plenty of aspects of traditional Christianity one can take issue with. I take issue with a lot of it myself. And one needn’t devolve into conspiratorial denialism to take issue with the supernatural claims made about Christianity. Again, Biblical sholars were among the first to do so.
But nothing so far has convinced me, or virtually anyone else with advanced degrees in history or philology, that there is a substantial reason to doubt the fact that some guy named Jesus (a common name) existed in Palestine in the first century and was crucified (a fate that befell hundreds of Jews in this era). Whatever supernatural claims were added to Jesus’ life and why – those are interesting questions! But hardly reason alone to doubt the existence of this highly probably individual.
About Don M. Burrows
Don M. Burrows is a former journalist and current college preparatory school teacher. Don holds a Ph.D. in Classical Studies with a Ph.D. minor in New Testament. A former Christian fundamentalist, Don is now a member of the United Church of Christ and can be found routinely advocating that the Bible cannot be read or explored without appreciating its ancient, historical context. Don lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three young children. Don blogs at Nota Bene and can also be found on Facebook.