I don’t want to be a Scrooge, but then again it wasn’t I who decided to put up the post below at The Big Think—not an appropriate name any longer—just before Christmas. Read and weep, and then decide if you want me to send you a reader’s essay about why this article is bogus. The Big Think author, Paul Ratner, is a writer and filmmaker:
I’m not going to dissect Ratner’s “evidence” for a historical Jesus in detail (Ratner says he’s not dealing with the divine Jesus, though, as you’ll see, he is to some extent). There are three lines of what Ratner considers “evidence for Jesus”, and the last is so gnarly that even Ratner doesn’t believe it.
1.) There were writings about Jesus not that long after his supposed death. Ratner quotes the Apostle Paul, who never met Jesus and didn’t even tell stories about the historical Jesus in his letters. As Peter Nothnagle shows below, Paul conceived of a non-earthly, celestial Jesus. The other writings about Jesus are derivative, as with Pliny and Tacitus, as well as Josephus, whose quotes about Jesus may have been later interpolations. It remains the case that the entirety of evidence for a historical Jesus comes from the Bible and assertions about its timeframe, and that gave rise to people writing about Jesus from decades to centuries after he supposedly died. There is no convincing contemporary evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus—or at least evidence that would convince me.
Yet I am willing to be convinced, because I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Even if there was a person on whom Jesus was based, that doesn’t show that the person was a divine, miracle-working Son of God. I think I’m just being skeptical, and feel that those scholars who are nearly certain that there was a historical Jesus are guilty of confirming what they want to believe. But of course others will feel differently: this is about how much evidence it takes to convince someone, and that will differ among people.
2.)There were eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life by people who would have been alive during his time. Paul is the main one, but he never met Jesus, and the notion that he met Jesus’s apostles is doubtful at best (see the essay I tout below). And that’s pretty much it. Ratner then adds superfluous and unconvincing evidence that doesn’t even fall into this category. It’s unbelievable, so I’ll show it to you:
The accounts of the witnesses also correspond quite well to what other sources of information tell us about the life in the Palestine of the first century. For example, having large crowds coming to a healer like Jesus is confirmed through archaeology, which tells us that residents of the area had to contend with diseases like leprosy and tuberculosis. A study of burials in Roman Palestine by archaeologist Byron McCane revealed that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the graves they looked at had remains of children and adolescents. McCane underscored the prevalence of childhood mortality at the time, explaining that “during Jesus’ time, getting past 15 was apparently the trick.”
Of course, just having the details of the environment right doesn’t prove that Jesus Christ existed. Dr. Gathercole, thinks it just wouldn’t make sense for the writers of the time to create such an elaborate character, stating: “It is also difficult to imagine why Christian writers would invent such a thoroughly Jewish saviour figure in a time and place – under the aegis of the Roman empire – where there was strong suspicion of Judaism.”
This sentiment is supported by Byron McCane, an archaeologist and history professor at Florida Atlantic University who said in an interview with National Geographic that he “can think of no other example who fits into their time and place so well but people say doesn’t exist.” In other words, it would be rather unprecedented for such a person to be made up.
This is how deep Jesus “scholars” have to dig to buttress his existence: the Bible says Jesus was a healer, and lots of people were sick during his time. Got it? That’s really strong evidence! And then there’s the old trope that the story is so unbelievable that it must be believed: in this case, “why would Christian writers invent a thoroughly Jewish saviour figure” and so on. That’s the argument for Jesus from ignorance, but of course there were no Christians before Jesus. It’s along the lines of “the women found Jesus’s body, and nobody would believe women back then, so it must have been true.”
3.) The argument from relics. This is so stupid that Ratner doesn’t buy it, and Ratner winds up saying, “Well, Jesus must have been a real person because scholars of that era said so.” Have a gander:
There have been a number of relics associated with Jesus, but none have been proven to be undoubtedly authentic. These include the infamous Shroud of Turin, supposedly the negative image of a man who was allegedly Jesus Christ. Some claim it to be Jesus’s shroud after the crucifixion. The science on the dating and origins the Shroud is very much being debatedand doesn’t generally support the claims.
Another famous relic of dubious authenticity is The True Cross. There are hundreds of fragments of wood claimed by various people throughout history as being from the cross used in the Crucifixion of Jesus. Many of these fragments are dispersed in various European Churches despite little confirmation they are real.
Other Crucifixion-related purported relics include the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus, the nails used in the cross, or the Veil of Veronica – supposedly used to wipe the sweat from Jesus’s brow when he was carrying the cross.
Why is this even given as a “piece of historical evidence”? Even Ratner says that “none have been proven to be undoubtedly authentic”. Let’s fix that: “There is no reason to believe that ANY of these are authentic.” Note, too, that this is not evidence for a historical Jesus, but for a divine Jesus, which Ratner says he’s not presenting.
Finally, Ratner’s Big Punt.
Based on the evidence we have, can anyone with certainly say Jesus really existed about 2,000 years ago? While incontrovertible proof may be impossible to come by, those who study the period believe there was someone named Jesus Christ living in the area and time period that we generally agree on, said archaeologist Eric Meyers, emeritus professor in Judaic studies at Duke University.
THE PALLIATIVE TO THIS NONSENSE: As a special Christmas gift to my readers, I’m offering an article by reader Peter Nothnagle, who has made a hobby out of studying “historical Jesus scholarship.” Peter has produced a 21-page document, “Jesus: Fact or Fiction?”, derived from a talk he gave in 2016 to the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Iowa City City Secular Humanists and Secular Students of Iowa. It’s a learned but very clearly (and humorously) written document that concludes that there’s no convincing evidence for even a historical Jesus. I’ll just excerpt a bit from the end, and then offer you his piece:
So what have I learned in my efforts to uncover the historical Jesus? I’ll be blunt. The whole, vast edifice that is Christianity looks like it was built on a foundation of myth and fiction. That doesn’t mean that it’s all false, but here’s the important bit: it does mean that there is no good reason to believe that any of it is true. Believe it, if you like, on faith, but know that all the evidence that supports it is weak, contradictory, or fraudulent.
Before I wrap up I’d like to say one thing to the critics of the Christ-myth theory. I am not taking an extreme position. It’s not like there are people on one end of a spectrum who claim that “Jesus is the son of God”, and I’m at the opposite extreme when I say that there was no such person. Christ-mythicism is a position of neutrality. I am equally unconvinced of the Jesus of Paul, the Jesus of Mark, of Matthew, of John; I’m not prepared to say that Jesus was a rebel leader, nor would I say Jesus was invented by the Romans to pacify the Jews, nor that he was a wandering faith healer whose followers exaggerated his accomplishments. Maybe some of those Jesuses are more plausible than others, but I don’t think there’s enough evidence to conclude that any of them was real, or even likely. Like most mythicists, I am simply trying to find an answer to an important question, and I would be absolutely delighted if any good new evidence for Jesus should come to light – and who knows, maybe that will happen some day. But today a Christ-mythicist like me is not some crank, a Christ-mythicist is just someone who has looked at everything put forth by believers, historians, archaeologists, and folklorists, and concluded that the Jesus venerated by Christians is far more likely to be a literary creation than a historical person.
This discovery hasn’t destroyed my faith, because I didn’t have any to begin with, but even as an atheist it still leads me to a sobering conclusion: that there is really no limit to humans’ capacity to deceive ourselves.
If you want me to send you Peter’s piece, email me and ask at my well known address. But please don’t ask unless you intend to read it (remember, it’s 21 1.5-spaced pages long), as it takes time to send it out. But it is very good.
And have a happy Xmas—with “X” representing a mythological character.