Monday, January 09, 2006

Did Jesus Exist? - One More (Last) Time

I recently received the following comment on a recent posting where I fisked an article describing the claims of one Signor Luigi Cascioli that Jesus never existed and that the Church needed to prove otherwise or cease its claims.

There is not a single "Contemporary writer" that wrote a single word about any alleged Jesus.
Nor did the Fable himself ever write a single word.
not ONE single sentence written about this alleged deity until at least 50 years after the alleged death.
The silence is deafening.
It is also quite telling.

I can’t address the commentator directly, as he chose to leave no contact information, so I will reply to Mr. “Nunyabiz” directly.

  1. As I stated in the original article, it is a bit unfair to demand contemporaneous, extrabiblical evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth for several reasons. Firstly, given the claims about Jesus’s ministry, it would be rather unusual for a Judaean carpenter and street preacher to be the object of literary endeavor during his lifetime. Jesus had a reputation as a wonder-worker, but wonder-workers were not unknown in antiquity. One more in a backwater of the Empire would hardly be a matter of notice for the literati. Secondly, all those writings by, or purported to be by eyewitnesses of Jesus’s life that can be dated with any reliability to the first century have been included in the New Testament. The Gnostic manuscripts, with the possible but unlikely exception of the Gospel of Thomas, are generally agreed to be second century or later documents. The earliest patristic documents are by the post-apostolic generation. To require extrabiblical references therefore establishes an impossible standard. It is as if all the eyewitness information on Julius Caesar had been collected into a single volume, and we were now required to demonstrate the existence of Caesar by providing eyewitness evidence outside that volume. The contest is rigged.

  2. Regarding the fact that Jesus never wrote a single word: why would anyone expect that he would have done so? The gospels portray Him as literate, which would not have been exceptional among the Jews, but no one ever claimed He wrote anything, except a few words in the dust of the ground (John 8:8). For that matter, the real significance of Jesus only became apparent after His death and resurrection – the events that made His life worth recording. During his lifetime, the best that might be hoped for is that somebody took a few sermon notes on the back of a potsherd.

  3. Most of the other historical characters of antiquity have left no writings behind. If that is a standard for existence, the history books are going to get a whole lot thinner.

  4. The claim that there are no documents about Jesus until 50 or more years after His death is simply false. In order to avoid liberal versus conservative cat fights about the authorship of the Pauline epistles, let’s just go with the ones that dang near everybody agrees he wrote. Everybody of significance agrees Paul wrote Galatians; Galatians is dated to either 49 or 55 A.D. Pilate was Procurator of Judea from about 26 to 37 AD; the crucifixion is generally dated between 30 and 33 A.D. Therefore the time gap between the crucifixion and the Epistle to the Galatians is 16 to 25 years – i.e. less than one generation. First and Second Corinthians were written about the same time as Galatians: 55 and 56 A.D.

  5. The dating of the gospels is a bit more controversial, with a wide range of dates proposed. Hardly any authorities, however, still accept the 19th century notion that the gospels are second century documents. Mainline scholarship today dates Mark to 65-70, Matthew and Luke to the 80’s, and John to the 90’s. A significant minority, however, is increasingly stating the case that there is no reason to date any of the gospels later than A.D. 70 (See Robinson, J. A. T. Redating the New Testament, SCM Press, London, 1976). The latter party is definitely, as stated, a minority, but in either case, the old dating for the gospels is no longer taken seriously. If one accepts the notion that the extant synoptics are based on earlier documents, the time gap between crucifixion and the publication of details of Jesus’s life decreases even further.

None of these are actually arguments in favor of Christ’s existence; those can be found in plenty elsewhere by people far more capable than I. If you’re interested, I would suggest starting with The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, then tracking down the works of the people he references. Or, for that matter, just go talk to a priest. My only purpose here is simply to give a few reasons why most of us don’t bother taking your arguments seriously.

I also repeat my earlier comment. Signor Cascioli claims that the mythical Jesus is based on a later, historical individual named John of Gamala. I have not seen any reference to John of Gamala, contemporaneous or not, extrabiblical or not, outside of a 19th century novel on the fall of Jerusalem (G. A. Henty, For the Temple, Lost Classics Books, Fort Collins, CO, 2001). Henty specifically states that John of Gamala, unlike many of his other characters, is not derived from any historical information of Josephus. I must therefore ask you to please prove the actual existence of a person named “John of Gamala,” using your own standards.