Did Jesus actually exist?
So much for the historicity--or more accurately, the nonhistoricity--of the Pentateuch. Gradually, it seems (as we read on and the years run by), the world of the Hebrew Bible becomes less mythical and more historical. But when does it do so? It is a startling fact that no real evidence has emerged for the existence of David and Solomon. To be sure, there is one doubtful inscription supposedly pertaining to the former, but the interpretation of the name David is disputed. Where are the commemorative steles and other monuments we would expect to find as evidence for a great Middle Eastern empire, as Solomon’s was reputed to be? What became of the polity’s archives? It is becoming increasingly evident that if David and Solomon ruled over anything it was a small chieftainship, too minor to merit notice in the annals of the great kingdoms of the Middle East.
As I pointed out in a previous posting, archaeology, that white knight which was expected to “prove the Bible right,” has had no such effect. Rather, the opposite is the case.
There is abundant room for doubt. Why though should the Hebrew Bible be the exclusive target of this well-merited skepticism?
The idea that Jesus never existed as a historical figure goes back more than 200 years. To the best of our knowledge, the first writer to argue this was the French savant Charles François Dupuis (1742-1809). Trained as a lawyer, Dupuis developed a passion for astronomy. This interest informs his magnum opus "Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle," which appeared in 12 volumes in 1795. In this vast work, the French scholar advocated the unity of the astronomical and religious myths of all nations, reflecting the Enlightenment’s confidence in the universality of human nature. Chapter nine is entitled “An explanation of the fable in which the Sun is worshipped under the name of Christ.”
Late in life, the American founder John Adams obtained a full set of Dupuis work, and was convinced of the nonhistoricity of Jesus by reading it (a fact not mentioned, I believe, in the recent television series on Adams). In this way, Adams was “one up” on his correspondent Thomas Jefferson, who still believed in the real existence of Jesus as a wise teacher of moral truths.
Dupuis’s rejection of the historicity of Jesus was spread by the more popular work of his contemporary Constantin François Volney (1757-1820), entitled "Les Ruines."
On a different basis, these doubts resurfaced in the work of the German theologian and philosopher Bruno Bauer (1809-1882). Starting in 1840, he began a series of controversial works arguing that Jesus was a myth, a second-century fusion of Jewish, Greek, and Roman theology. Bauer’s arguments were based on his deconstructive analysis of the text of Mark, generally recognized as the earliest of the gospels. In turn these arguments were taken up by the Dutch radical theologians, who denied the authenticity of the Pauline epistles. Most of these scholars retained the idea that there was an authentic core, however, exiguous, that could be retrieved about the historical Jesus. A few, such as Systra Hoekstra, Allard Pierson, and Samuel Adrian Naber went further, denying that the gospels contained any authentic information. In their view we possessed no reliable information that would affirm the actual existence of Jesus.
From time to time these questionings of the historicity of Jesus have surfaced again, most recently and notably in The Jesus Project, an outgrowth of the earlier Jesus Seminar. The following remarks, descriptive of the current project, rely on the account of R. Joseph Hoffmann, who is chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion
The Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk of the University of Montana, was a serious effort, caricatured for all the wrong reasons—its voting method (marbles), the grandstanding of some of its members, the public style of its meetings, even its openly defiant stance regarding the claims of miracles in the Gospels—including the resurrection of Jesus. Except for the use of the marbles, none of this was new. By contrast the deployment of additional sources, such as Gnostic and apocryphal gospels, to create a fuller picture of the Jesus-tradition and the focus on context as though it provided content were innovative. Yet the Jesus who emerged from these scholarly travails was very much diminished, so much so that few could muster any enthusiasm for the result.
By the end of their most visible period in 2000, the Seminar members had pared the sayings of Jesus down to 18 percent of those ascribed to him in the New Testament. From this minimalist kit they pictured him as a wandering teacher of “wisdom” who preached in riddles and parables about a God of love who preferred sinners to the wealthy, comfortable, and wise of the world. Gone, by and large, was the eschatological prophet who preached the end of the world and never expected to found a church—much less a seminar—in his name.
What the Seminar had tacitly affirmed without acknowledging the corollary is that over 80 percent of “Jesus” had been fictionalized by the Gospel writers. That is to say that, if we are to judge a man’s life by his sayings, the greater portion of the literary artifacts known as the Gospels is fictional. If we are to judge by actions, then what actions survived historical criticism? Not the virgin birth, or the Transfiguration, or the healing of the sick, or the purely magical feats such as Cana, or the multiplication of loaves and fishes. The Resurrection had quietly been sent to the attic by theologians in the nineteenth century. The deeds—except, perhaps, the attack on the Temple (Mark 11:15–19)—had preceded the words to the dustbin years before, yet some scholars continued to insisted that the historical figure remained untouched. Only faith could explain this invulnerability to harm.
In January 2007, at the University of California, Davis, the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) asked the question that had been looking for a serious answer for over two hundred years: Did Jesus exist? The CSER fellows, invited guests, present and former members of the Jesus Seminar, and a wide variety of interested and engaged attendees avidly attended to three days of lectures and discussions on the subject—appropriately—“Scripture and Skepticism.” The Jesus Project, as CSER has named the new effort, claims to be the first methodologically agnostic approach to the question of Jesus’ historical existence.
Seminar members think the history and culture of the times provide many significant clues about the character of figures similar to Jesus. They reject the mixing of theological motives and historical inquiry as impermissible. They hold that previous attempts to rule the question out of court constitute vestiges of a time when the Church controlled the boundaries of permissible inquiry into its sacred books. More directly, they regard the question of the historical Jesus as a testable hypothesis, and are committed to no prior conclusions about the outcome of our inquiry.
The Jesus Project will run for five years, with its first session scheduled for December 2007. It will meet twice a year, and, like its predecessor, the Jesus Seminar, it will hold open meetings. Unlike the Seminar, the Project members will not vote with marbles, and will not expand membership indefinitely: the Project will be limited to fifty scholars with credentials in biblical studies as well as in the crucial cognate disciplines of ancient history, mythography, archaeology, classical studies, anthropology, and social history.
At the end of its term, the Jesus Project will publish its findings. It is to be hoped that those findings will not be construed as sensational or alarming; like all good history, the project seeks a probable reconstruction of the events that explain the beginning of Christianity—a man named Jesus from the province of Galilee whose life served as the basis for the beginning of a movement, or (alternatively) a sequence of events that led to the Jesus story being propagated throughout the Mediterranean. Both conclusions deserve serious consideration, but as we live in the real world—of real causes and outcomes—only one can be true.
With the loss of over 80% of his body weight, the Jesus of the earlier endeavor, the Jesus Seminar, is a very thin man indeed--but he hasn’t yet blown away. One who thinks otherwise is Robert M. Price in his “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?” (Prometheus Books, 2003). An alumnus of the Jesus Seminar, Mr. Price is now a member of the new Jesus Project.
The author has sought to collect and analyze all the relevant information about Jesus--his birth, childhood, baptism, miracles, sayings, and so forth--primarily using the New Testament as we have it, but also employing some Gnostic source material. Unlike some of his predecessors, who have not benefited from seminary training, Price’s analysis is thoroughly grounded in the texts, and for this “warp-and-woof” approach he is to be commended. He has analyzed this data to understand what we know for certain about Jesus. Price concludes that this amounts to very little, if anything.
The writer utilizes three main critical criteria. The first is “whenever we can compare a more and a less extravagant version of the same claim or story, the more modest has the greater claim to authenticity.” He gives the example of walking on water. In Mark only Jesus walks on water. In this the evangelist is followed by John. Yet Matthew adds Peter to the aqueous adventure. Since we know that Mark is the earliest of the surviving gospels, it seems likely that his version (followed by John’s) is correct; while Matthew’s is an embellishment. So far, so good. However, there may be other reasons for simplicity. Many medieval commentators thought that Mark was not the earliest gospel but the latest; that is, it was a kind of abridgment. On this account, for the reasons of brevity he may have preferred the short (Johannine) version to the Matthaean one.
Yet there is another reason for omissions which goes to the heart of the matter. In looking back over a past occurrence, such as the Stonewall Rebellion for example, some observers like to assert that “X was not there,” even though he almost certainly was. The reason is personal dislike, or a disapproval of the tendency that X belonged to. Thus someone who held that Peter was getting too much power in the nascent church organization may have wanted to “cut him down to size” in this manner. In this particular instance I am inclined to accept Price’s reconstruction. But the methodological principle he adduces is not necessarily one that is universally valid.
From his work in the Jesus Seminar Price takes over the criterion of dissimilarity. That is, if Jesus says or does something that is unique to him (as far as we can tell), then it is likely to be authentic. If not, not. Is it really plausible, though, that the “real Jesus” was constantly innovating 24/7? In the course of my graduate education I have heard a number of dazzlingly brilliant lectures. There was not one, however, who did not occasionally utter some platitude, such as “silence is golden” or “the last mile’s the hardest.” The reason for this is not simple laziness. If one wants to attract a following, as Jesus is represented as wishing, one has to begin by building on what people know--or think they know. Someone who was original all the time might be a forerunner of André Breton and the Surrealists--but he could not lay the foundations for the religion that is currently the most numerous on the planet.
Finally, Price offers parallels with other stories, especially those from classical antiquity. He cites Pythagoras, Plato, Alexander, and Apollonius of Tyana (among others) as individuals who are thought to have come into the world through some miraculous birth. The themes of the incarnation and nativity may indeed have been embellished by the Christian writers with such detail--but so what?
The Jeffersonian concept of Jesus as a wise, but fallible teacher--a rabbi in the sense common in his time--but not a supernatural being may still be maintained. Indeed this view, rather than the orthodox doctrine that the founder of Christianity was a member of some nonexistent “Holy Trinity” strikes me as the most plausible solution.
Continuing in the comparative vein, the story of Jesus counting 153 fishes and how this was part of the Pythagorean legend is a little known fact, and a good example of how Price uses this approach to deconstruct many of the New Testament's assertions regarding the life of Jesus. Still, there are times where Mr. Price seems to be stretching to find matching similarities. Indeed, there are limitations to this method. As a French scholar said in a different context: Comparaison n’est pas raison.
It is hard to suppress the suspicion that Price has adopted a kind of kitchen-sink approach, throwing in anything that occurs to him. Thus he says that Jesus cannot have entered any synagogue in Galilee, because archaeologists have not found them there in this period. There are indeed many spectacular finds in Middle Eastern synagogue architecture during the Roman period, but it is clear that the record remains incomplete. For example, not a single synagogue has been excavated in Mesopotamia (Iraq); yet we know from the Babylonian Talmud that this country was a particularly flourishing center of Jewish life and scholarship during the period. On these grounds, an argument from silence (no known synagogues), are we to conclude that the Babylonian Talmud is a falsification?
Some sources that Price throws into the pot are dubious at best. For example, he cites a British occultist, G. R. S. Mead, writing a hundred years ago, as a source for the improbable claim that Jesus actually lived around 100 B.C.
There is one final consideration, to my mind the most significant of all. By modern standards, few figures from Greco-Roman antiquity are well documented. For most ancient philosophers, for example, we have (to all intents and purposes) only the data recorded by Diogenes Laertius. Yet few doubt that Heraclitus or Democritus actually lived. In her book "Lives of the Greek Poets," Mary Lefkowitz points out that "virtually all the material in the lives is fiction."
Yet we do not say that most of the ancient Greek philosophers and poets never existed. The information we have on them is exiguous at best. That being so, why is the historicity of these figures not challenged? The reason is that there no motive for such doubt, even thought they are less well attested than Jesus.
Doubt is deployed as a weapon. An example demonstrates this rule. The Greek archaic poet Sappho has become an icon for modern feminists--a sort of Sappho Christa. Perhaps for this reason, some scholars have begun to doubt whether she existed.
The problem with sorting out the facts, however uncertain they may be, concerning the life of Jesus stems from the situation that we have too many sources, not too few. In addition to the four canonical gospels, the texts of at least 16 others are known. There is other data in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, not to mention such early writers as Marcion, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus of Lyon. The situation is closer to that of Socrates and Alexander, well attested but with numerous contradictions, than it is to that of Heraclitus and Anacreon. I am inclined to think that the position that Jesus did not exist is ideological. It is based on special pleading--a one-sided presentation of the evidence that highlights every contradiction and dubious assertion, refusing to countenance any other evidence.
It is useful to recall the legal principle of neutrality of result. For example, legislation barring excessively high rates of interest should not be crafted so that the prohibition applies to some banks but not to others. Of course, there are disputed cases. Some would argue, I think correctly, that marriage should not be construed so as only to apply to opposite-sex instances ("traditional marriage"), but should cover same-sex ones as well. Others may disagree.
Still, it is a good plan to follow the principle of neutrality of outcomes. However, that principle is being conspicuously ignored by the Jesus-didn't-exist party, because they decline to apply the principle to analogous cases. Take, for example, the case of Jesus' contemporary, Rabbi Hillel, after whom many Jewish student groups are named. He looks like a good candidate for erasure, because the evidence for his existence is considerably more skimpy than that for Jesus. But I know of no detailed argument for the nonhistoricity of Hillel. Nor is one needed.
When all is said and done, Jesus probably did actually exist--not the divine Jesus of the fictitious “Holy Trinity,” but the relatively modest teacher admired by Thomas Jefferson. One must remember than in this remote era probabilities are all that one can ever speek of.