This is the newest rage…and by people far less intelligent than Magellan. (FTR, I support Magellan, Galileo and Copernicus)
Just go onto any social media outlet and you’ll find people clanging the cymbals of disbelief. And not just disbelief in general (for which there may be justifiable cause) but disbelief in Jesus, his actual historical existence. Magellan disagreed for sound reason. Today, people disagree because they don’t WANT to agree…baseless disagreement and decisions abound.
Pseudo-intellectuals that want to sound smart and flex their post-modernism resound uniformly, “I Don’t believe in Jesus.”
Like this is the new popular belief that all the cool kid’s hold…cool kids who are not experts in history, Jesus or modes of belief…hell, people who hardly read a book or if they do its Richard Dawkins lite.
This very phrase was actually used in a recent conversation I had with someone that should know better.
After I spoke about my very historical trip to the Middle East and some of the reasons for going, out of nowhere this phrase comes flying in, as if from a resident twitter atheist, “I Don’t Believe in Jesus.”
I mean, what does that even mean? What are you expressing when you say that? Cause when I hear that, without any kind of qualification, I immediately ask myself, “which part of Jesus do you not believe in?”
And then things become drowned in the absurd. The illogical leap is made from the presumed, “I don’t believe in the Divinity of Jesus,” (which I understand and am willing to discuss) and quickly devolve into the “I don’t believe he EVEN EXISTED?”
In our collective attempt to sound enlightened or flex our autonomy from the strictures of the Bible belt, let’s not look stupid. We can be critical thinkers without being idiots.
Let’s be clear: those that deny that Jesus even existed are on shakier ground than those that believe all the dogma about Jesus ever contrived. There is simply no warrant for disbelief in the historical personage of Jesus other than the ideological preference for his non-existence (and thus not having to deal with his historicity…I digress).
Like anything else, if we hear others say it, and we tell it to ourselves, we can eventually believe the most ridiculous things…things like saying Jesus wasn’t even born. That he never walked the earth. And that all the people who heard stories and read stories of this figment of our imagination were equally duped into retelling them.
Now, we can debate the nature OF his birth. We can debate the PURPOSE of his life. We can discuss his ROLE in the historical plane of the 1st century. We can even debate his HUMANITY and its relation to God, but we cannot debate that he was born, had a purpose (we all do), had a role and he was a human that made sense of his life within the drama of God (if you don’t think about your life like that fine, but most 1st century Jews did…this part is called history for those of you wanting to make historical statements about Jesus not ever setting foot in history).
So how do we know? What are our sources?
First, there is the Bible. I know I know. The Bible. It’s a book ridden with fairy tales, myths and absurdities. I agree. It is. But so is your life and mine. Deal with it.
We cannot discount the Bible based on the logic that all literature therein is of a singular type. The Bible is NOT A BOOK. It is a compilation of many books. Think of it as an anthology. As such, it is comprised of many TYPES and KINDS of literature. Some of this literature is poetic. Some is mythological. Some is historical. Some is hyperbolic. Some is biographical. Some is personal, like letters. Some is apocalyptic, etc. Therefore, we cannot reduce the content of one type of writing in one part of the anthology because writing in other parts includes things like talking asses and floating ax heads, stories shaded as much by theological intent as by the event itself. This means that the literary character of Genesis 1-11 or parts of the loosely historical books can logically discount the content of the Gospels.
The Gospels are our primary source for information about Jesus especially that he existed. The literary type that is the Gospels was basically brand new in the 1st century but its closest of literary ken was Greco-Roman Biographies. These biographies included three elements usually: a birth narrative, a life with work and pivotal moments of significance and a narrative of death. Greek biographies were not synonymous with “lies” or “myths.” They addressed real historical people and attempted (with some literary freedom) to interpret that life for their audience. T
This literary genre was in no way synonymous with what we today know as fiction. Thus, the nature of the Gospels as writings indicate that the kernel with which they deal is real and historical and this not even mentioning the striking historical accuracy of geography and Jewish custom found in the Gospels. In addition, there is diversity of witness about Jesus in the Gospels, yet in this diversity is a singularity of a historical personality: Jesus of Nazareth.
Further, there is an entire field of research that deals with issues pertaining to the “historical Jesus” and scholars that participate in that endeavor range from fervent believers in his divinity to fervent detractors of anything about Jesus that has to do with “saving” the world.
Yet, what they all agree on is that Jesus did EXIST and the Gospels offer us clues to the more or less accurate details of the life of Jesus. The literature here is too dense to describe here in detail, but if you are so inclined a quick googleing of “historical Jesus” will bring up enough sources to remain occupied for a lifetime. There you will find the criteria for why parts of the gospels may be more or less historical, how that criteria is judged, and the implications of this research. I recommend, for a juxtaposed study, to begin with Dominic Cross and John Meier. They disagree on everything, but they both believe as historians that Jesus existed. One believes Jesus was resurrected; the other thinks he bodied decayed like all bodies but he lives on metaphorically in Christians…so you get the drift.
Secondly, we have the Apostle Paul. I know I know. He wrote the “Bible” so that makes his letters a bunch of lies and myths. Humor me for a minute. He didn’t write the Bible. He wrote letters that came to comprise large portions of the New Testament.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we have the earliest extant Christian reference to the last supper. Paul writes,
“ For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
This is important because Paul is writing about an event that presumably took place, historically, and the events of that night were passed on through oral tradition. The Gospels have not been written yet when Paul writes this. Paul says this in a letter. Paul’s Letters, while theological, were not fictitious rehearsals of history. We can debate Paul, his theology and anything else you want, but what cannot be debated is that Paul in a very personal letter to a real historical church mentions an event that was remembered to have happened with Jesus and his disciples even before that event was recorded in any Gospel. Oral history does not equal fiction. While this passage obviously carries some Christian dogma, the kernel of the event remains tucked inside.
This passage alone, and its authentically Pauline character, gives reason for most scholars to say that the Last Supper, along with Jesus’ Baptism and death, are THE three most historical moments in the life of Jesus that can be explored by the unbiased critical historian.
Secondly, we have extra-biblical sources that testify to his existence.
The most notable source is Josephus, a Jewish historian during the time of Jesus’ life that kept history for the Romans, traveled with their armies, and who never believed on Jesus or his teachings. Josephus writes this,
“About this time arose Jesus, a wise man. He drew to himself many; and when Pilate, on the indictment of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not cease to do so, and even to this day the race of Christians, who are named from him, has not died out.” (Antiquities 18.63-64)
This is a reconstructed passage that takes out agreed upon Christian interpolations of Josephus’ writings. In fact, there has been a lot of ink and keyboards spilled on scholarly opinion regarding Josephus’ statement about Jesus but the central idea that Jesus lived, was killed and had followers, is virtually agreed upon by all scholars as authentically Josephus.
Josephus has no reason to play into the make believe fantasies of Christians. He has no reason to reinforce the idea that Jesus lived. While his writings are not free of historical error, he is widely held as an authoritative voice in Roman history and his work, especially writings free of ideological content as the above. Josephus, at this point in his work, simply mentions “Jesus” as one who was also killed by the Roman empire at this time and that people who followed him are still called Christians.
That is history. That is an event of some kind. That is a real historical person whether you like it or not.
Josephus, however, is not the only extra-biblical source that confirms that Jesus existed. Roman historian and Senator, Tacitus, also mentions Jesus aka “Christ” in his writing.
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.” (Annals Book 15).
Tacitus was not alive during the time of Jesus (Born in 55AD) but he was also not known for perpetuating falsehoods. As a Roman historian and Senator he would have taken his work seriously and would have only recorded what he knew was of definitive importance and accurate. Tacitus’ mention of Jesus, or his posthumous personage “Christ”, demonstrates the existence of one Jesus and his followers.
I could continue to offer other Roman authorities or very early Christian sources that would also continue to provide these historical centralities: that Jesus was born, lived, was killed by the Roman Empire and continues to have followers. Time would fail me and this blog would bore you more than it has already.
We can say many things about Jesus. We can debate a lot about him. We can disagree on his nature or if Christianity is a total waste of time. But what cannot be debated is that Jesus was a real person. He lived. He existed. He taught people. And he was executed. Just because you don’t want to follow him doesn’t mean you should make yourself look foolish by denying his existence. The former can be a respectable choice; the latter, a childish outburst to deal with your daddy issues.
You don’t have to believe what the church says about him but church dogma and historical existence are two different things.
So when you say, “I don’t believe in Jesus, “ at least think about which Jesus you don’t believe in because the historical Jesus is one that you disbelieve at your own discretion and at the display of your own ignorance.