In a recent post titled, Was Jesus a real person? – see what denialism looks like, Professor Larry Moran declares that as far as he knows, “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.” Moran is miffed that Dr. James F. Grath, who has a Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis, accused him (and Professor Jerry Coyne) of “denialism” for rejecting mainstream historical scholarship about Jesus and voicing skepticism about whether Jesus really existed. Moran complains: “Is it ‘denialism’ to think that the Biblical Jesus — the one who performed miracles and rose from the dead — didn’t exist because there’s no scientific or historical evidence that such a man ever lived?” When Dr. McGrath expressed his personal view that Jesus was a real historical figure even though there was no good evidence that he worked any miracles, Moran shot back: “The issue we’re interested in is whether the Jesus of the Bible actually existed… So you deny that the Biblical Jesus could have existed because miracles are nonsense but you aren’t a denialist. Right?”
What I mean when I say “Jesus existed”
Before I discuss the evidence for Jesus’ existence, I’d better be clear about what I mean when I say, “Jesus existed.” There are many atheists who accept this statement, even though they don’t believe that Jesus worked genuine miracles or rose from the dead. And although I am a Christian, I also believe that the question of whether Jesus existed can be settled prior to the question of whether He really worked miracles and rose from the dead. My view o this matter is hardly unusual: many historians and theologians distinguish between what they refer to as “the historical Jesus” and the Jesus that Christians believe in, or “the Christ of faith.”
However, Georgi Marinov, a commenter on Professor Moran’s blog, does not share this view. He objects that if we define the historical Jesus without reference to any miracles, then we are left with an empty husk of a man: “The problem with that Jesus is that he is so reduced in significance that he almost makes the whole historicity debate irrelevant and a giant waste of time.” And for his part, Larry Moran appears to share Marinov’s view, for he writes: “The ‘historical’ figure of Jesus certainly includes far more than just the fact that someone of that name may have been executed by the Romans about 2000 years ago.”
Marinov and Moran make a fair point here. So here’s what I mean when I say that Jesus existed:
(2) This individual named Jeshua, or Jesus of Nazareth, claimed to be the “Messiah” – a term which in Jeshua’s day meant not merely a king chosen by God, but someone who would restore Israel to glory and usher in a new, Messianic Age. Jews claiming to the the long-awaited Messiah were not exactly a dime a dozen: only 20 such individuals are known to history, and only three of these (including Jeshua himself) lived in the first century. That fact alone makes Jeshua a rather distinctive Jew, for his day. While Jeshua seems to have been rather vague about when the restoration of Israel would take place, it is quite clear that he accepted the designation of Messiah when questioned by the Jewish High Priest, and that he saw himself as a cosmic figure who would one day come in power and be publicly vindicated by God. Whether Jeshua saw himself as a political leader is a more controversial question: according to one report of his interrogation by the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate, Jeshua couched his Messianic claim in a very modest fashion, declaring that his kingdom was “not of this world.”
(3) Jeshua was also widely believed to be a miracle worker, and there were many reports of him having performed miraculous healings which no-one in Israel could remember having seen before. In particular, he was said to have cured people suffering from blindness, deafness, epilepsy and paralysis. Indeed, it was for precisely this reason that many of his Jewish contemporaries believed that he was the Messiah. Whether the healings that Jeshua performed were supernatural acts or merely the result of autosuggestion, large numbers of sick people got well after presenting themselves to Jeshua. The fact that Jeshua was accused of sorcery by his Jewish contemporaries lends further credence to the claim that some of the healings worked by him were fairly remarkable. While many historians view reports of Jeshua’s having worked “nature miracles” as later accretions which spread after his death, it is worth noting that all four Gospels attribute to Jeshua the miracle of feeding 5,000 men.
(4) In his preaching, Jeshua emphasized the importance of loving God “with all your mind and with all your strength” and of loving your neighbor “as yourself” – teachings deeply rooted in Judaism (see also here). But his conception of who qualifies as one’s neighbor was a very broad one: as he made clear, it included social outcasts such as lepers, tax collectors (who were widely hated), public sinners and prostitutes, as well as “outsiders” (such as Samaritans) whom observant Jews would not normally associate with. Jeshua also made it very clear that people who did not feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter strangers, visit the sick and comfort prisoners, would not inherit the Kingdom of God, but would go to Hell. He also opposed the pettifogging legalism espoused by some of his Pharisaic contemporaries, although he shared with the Pharisees a belief in the resurrection of the dead. Jeshua was not, however, an anti-clerical: he told his followers to obey the Pharisees, even as he condemned the hypocrisy of some of their leaders. Jeshua’s own standards for personal holiness appear to have been quite rigorous. He preached a purer interpretation of the Mosaic law, but did not view himself as abrogating or superseding it.
(5) Finally, Jeshua was also believed by his followers to have risen from the dead, a short time after he was put to death by crucifixion. Some of his followers were subsequently put to death (by King Herod, by the Jewish Sanhedrin, by one High Priest acting in a very irregular fashion, and by the Romans under Nero) for their faith in Jeshua and for their insistence that they had seen him alive again, after his death, and that he would one day return in glory.
The foregoing description, far from being vacuous, makes some fairly substantive assertions about the historical Jesus: that he healed large numbers of people of various diseases in a way that impressed his contemporaries, that he claimed to be the Messiah – something which very few of his Jewish contemporaries did – and that he scandalized his contemporaries with his teachings. It also makes some assertions about what his followers believed about him – that the healings he worked were supernatural signs, that he had supernatural powers over nature (more questionable, on historical grounds), and that he rose from the dead and publicly manifested himself to certain people. A historian can make the determination, based on the documentary evidence, that such an individual actually existed, without committing themselves to the belief that Jesus was a supernatural being, or that he worked supernatural signs. The question of whether Jesus actually worked miracles and rose from the dead is thus a secondary one, from a historian’s standpoint. However, the question of whether he was believed by some of his contemporaries to have done these things can be answered decisively in the affirmative.
“But where,” it will be asked, “is the evidence that such an individual existed?” I would refer these readers to an article by amateur historian Tim O’Neill, who describes himself as a “Wry, dry, rather sarcastic, eccentric, occasionally arrogant Irish-Australian atheist bastard.” His online article, Did Jesus Exist? The Jesus Myth Theory, Again is well worth reading, as are his two previous articles, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald and The Jesus Myth Theory: A Response to David Fitzgerald. I defy anyone to peruse the evidence O’Neill presents and come away a skeptic about Jesus’ existence. And for anyone who may be inclined to take skeptical arguments seriously, The Daily Beast article, So-Called ‘Biblical Scholar’ Says Jesus A Made-Up Myth, by Candida Moss and Joel Baden, provides an excellent debunking of skeptical arguments. The authors write:
Let’s get one thing straight: There is nigh universal consensus among biblical scholars — the authentic ones, anyway — that Jesus was, in fact, a real guy.
Alternatively, for those wanting to read a more concise statement of the key evidence for Jesus’s existence, I might recommend my October 2014 post, Now Jerry Coyne doubts the historical existence of Jesus Christ, which summarizes the evidence neatly. I might mention that the Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 A.D.) is acknowledged even by atheist Paul Tobin (author of The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible and the Historical Jesus) to have been an eyewitness to the martyrdom of James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Messiah,” by stoning, as a young man of 25 or 26. Atheist amateur historian Tim O’Neill supplies us with the background to the story:
In 62 AD, the 26 year old Josephus was in Jerusalem, having recently returned from an embassy to Rome. He was a young member of the aristocratic priestly elite which ruled Jerusalem and were effectively rulers of Judea, though with close Roman oversight and only with the backing of the Roman procurator in Caesarea. But in this year the procurator Porcius Festus died while in office and his replacement, Lucceius Albinus, was still on his way to Judea from Rome. This left the High Priest, Hanan ben Hanan (usually called Ananus), with a freer rein that usual. Ananus executed some Jews without Roman permission and, when this was brought to the attention of the Romans, Ananus was deposed.
This was a momentous event and one that the young Josephus, as a member of the same elite as the High Priest, would have remembered well. But what is significant is what he says in passing about the executions that that triggered the deposition of the High Priest…
And now, here’s how Josephus describes the martyrdom of James, “the brother of Jesus,” in his Antiquities, XX.9.1:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so (the High Priest) assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Messiah, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
That sounds pretty convincing to me.
In short: even if Professor Larry Moran thinks that the miracles attributed to Jesus are no more genuine than those worked by, say, Kathryn Kuhlman, there can be no reasonable doubt that Jesus actually existed, and that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate for claiming to be the Messiah, making him a trouble-maker in the eyes of the Romans, and also a thorn in the side of some of the Jewish leaders. And regardless of whether one believes Jesus rose from the dead or not, historians can certainly conclude, after carefully sifting the evidence, that some of his contemporaries believed he had risen from the dead, and that St. Paul’s account of the resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15 is a historically authentic one, which goes back to within 25 years of Jesus’ death. If Professor Larry Moran refuses to admit these facts, after studying the evidence, then yes, he is a “Jesus denialist.”
What do readers think?
POSTSCRIPT: In a comment below, Professor Moran writes:
I think there’s convincing evidence that a man named “Jesus” (or the local language equivalent) existed in the first century A.D. I think there’s evidence that he was executed by unknown means. I think there’s good evidence that he had a following while he was still alive.
That’s a small step in the right direction, although I note in passing that Professor Moran remains agnostic about the crucifixion of Jesus.