I like people who cite my work (for the right reasons, that is). People like Joel Watts over at The Church of Jesus Christ.
Joel links to my material on the well and truly debunked copy cat theories surrounding the origin of Christianity. According to those theories, Christianity is founded on myth, and the person that Christians refer to as Jesus of Nazareth is a fictional re-writing of any one of – or perhaps a mixture of – saviour hero figures from various other ancient religions. I’ve commented at length on such creative revisionism before and may do so again, but won’t be doing so today.
What prompted me to blog today was the very first comment that appeared on Joel’s blog entry, made by one Robert Wilson.
There’s no such thing as an “historical Jesus”, since there are no non-Biblical records supporting the existence of the Jesus character.
Thanks to the internet, a number of people believe this. They don’t necessarily believe it because they’ve looked in the direction that any of the relevant evidence might lay, although some of them may, in all fairness, have looked at someone’s presentation of the evidence (that is, the alleged evidence that there are no non-biblical records supporting the existence of the Jesus character. Among ancient historians, the thesis that there literally was no historical Jesus on which the early Christian movement was based is like belief in a flat earth. It’s silly, not taken seriously, and there’s really no need to so much as acknowledge the fact that such a theory even exists. But the internet is another story. In order to get online, nothing has to pass peer review. There are no expertise-based prerequisites to post something at a blog (and yes, that applies to my blog as much as to any other). Stories – the wilder, the more damning of people with whom you disagree, and the more scandalous the better – spread online. This story is one of them, leaping like a virus from one message board to another, from one blog to the next. There is no evidence, we are told, none of any sort – and certainly not from ancient historical records – that there even existed a first century person who we now refer to as Jesus of Nazareth. And by “historical,” we naturally mean “outside of the Bible.” Of course.
The claim is so clearly false that it’s not just incorrect. It is truly weird. People who (it seems to me) are otherwise fairly normal (if a bit eccentric) and of at least normal intelligence seem to be effortlessly persuaded of tall tales that are just laughable. It’s a symptom of the powerful need to believe. But enough about my own bemusement. This blog post is here just to register my surprise that there’s anyone at all who takes claims like this seriously, and also to offer a couple of thoughts for those who either haven’t seen the claim discussed before, or who have, but just haven’t seen a response to the claim. I have two basic things to say, concerning two things: Firstly the methodology that is employed when trying to substantiate the claim, and then secondly the factual dependability of the claim.
First, the methodology. Suppose that someone claimed “there’s no evidence – none at all – from early America that there even was a George Washington who crossed the river Delaware in the eighteenth century.” Apart from being mildly amused that anyone would say this, suppose that you decided to rebut the claim. Imagine that you responded by giving this person five written accounts of people who claimed to have been there at the time. They actually witnessed the crossing. They report seeing Washington on one side of the river, getting into the boat, the boat moving out across the river, and then the boat reaching the other side and Washington getting out of the boat.
That should count as pretty substantial evidence, right? But the denier is not moved. “I reject all of this evidence from the outset,” he says. “You see, these people are believers in Washington’s Delaware crossing. Given that they belong to the group of those who believe this story, you can’t include this in the evidence. Their belief makes them biased.” Would you find that acceptable? Would any historian find this acceptable? Now consider what is actually going on when someone says that there’s no historical evidence for the life of Jesus “outside the Bible.” Why outside the Bible? Because the claims in the Bible are… what, biased? And what makes them biased? They are accounts compiled and written by Christians. And why does that make them biased? Because they believe this Jesus stuff, so their perspective is skewed. The first century writings that affirm the familiar Christian portrait of this first century Jew were gathered together and called the New Testament, which means that to require that in order to be deemed reliable, historical evidence must be outside of the New Testament is unacceptably partisan. It’s like demanding a trial in which the prosecution is allowed to speak but the defence is not. So there’s a fairly obvious flaw in the methodology right from the outset.
As for the factual inaccuracy of the claim about the silence of ancient sources, there are two options: 1) Hire me to write full time, or 2) wait until next time, when I’ll look at some of these sources that, we are told, don’t exist.