Reasonable Atheism (25): Why Jesus’ existence is beyond reasonable doubt

I provoked something of a spat at Stephen Law’s site by commenting on one thread that “To deny that [Jesus] was a solid historical figure is to my mind a certain indication that standards of rationality have been left behind.” (See subsequent posts, with comments from me, here, here, here etc)

In this post I want to unpack that comment and indicate why Jesus’ existence is beyond reasonable doubt. Click ‘full post’ for text (warning: 5500+ words)

Preliminary remarks
My first preliminary remark is simply to point out that the overwhelming consensus viewpoint of academic specialists in the relevant disciplines is that there was a historical Jesus. Indeed, according to the highly esteemed and respected historian E.P. Sanders, in his ‘The Historical Figure of Jesus’, “There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity.” Sanders goes on to list a sequence of facts which in his view are “almost beyond dispute”:

“Jesus was born c. 4 B.C.E., near the time of the death of Herod the Great; he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village; he was baptized by John the Baptist; he called disciples; he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities); he preached ‘the Kingdom of God’; about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover; he created a disturbance in the Temple area; he had a final meal with the disciples; he was arrested and interrogated by the Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest; he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate”.

My argument here is that if these details (and there are others) about Jesus’ life and ministry are ‘almost beyond dispute’ then the simple bare fact of Jesus having existed is beyond reasonable doubt.

Two further preliminary points. The first is that it is conceivable that there was no historical Jesus, that the figure of Jesus Christ was, for example a literary creation developed subsequent to, say, Paul having a vision of some sort. So the argument that I am going to be making here is not one for 100% certainty that Jesus existed. In the nature of the case that degree of certainty is not available and the desire or request for the degree of certainty is simply a sign that the nature of the question is not understood.

Secondly, accepting the historical existence of Jesus has no necessary theological consequence. His existence can be accepted as a fact by people of all different faiths and none – indeed his existence is so accepted. However, the converse most emphatically does have theological consequences. If it could be shown that Jesus did not exist then Christianity as it has been known for the last 2000 years collapses. It is impossible to claim that God became incarnate if the person claimed as an incarnate deity didn’t exist. This feature of the argument is, I believe, the best explanation for why some atheists attribute dubiety to Jesus’ existence – their motivation is to attack Christian faith, and showing that Jesus may not have existed would, if justifiable, be a nuclear device lobbed into the middle of a church – nothing would be left. Fortunately their doubt is neither justifiable nor reasonable, as I shall now attempt to show.

The relevant evidence concerning Jesus’ existence is textual. Whilst there are archaeological findings from later centuries testifying to the existence of the Christian church there is, to my knowledge, no direct archaeological evidence of the historical Jesus. This should not be too surprising. Archaeological evidence that identifies particular individuals tends to be restricted to those who exercised prominent leadership at the time; for example, one could reasonably expect to find coinage imprinted with the name of the Roman Emperor during whose reign such coinage was manufactured. The career of an itinerant Jewish healer was not one that would be likely to produce such evidence, so it is not an argument against Jesus’ existence to point out that there is no such evidence. (Though it is an argument to say that the evidence available is not as good as that for, say, one of the Roman Emperors. On historical grounds we can be more confident that there was someone named Julius Caesar than there was someone named Jesus of Nazareth. The issue is whether we can still be confident that there was someone called Jesus of Nazareth on the basis of such evidence that we do have).

Non-Christian evidence
Such evidence is primarily textual and produced by Christian communities, but not exclusively so. There are a handful of references in other ancient texts which offer some degree of corroboration for the evidence of the Christian texts. In Suetonius, Tacitus and Pliny there are references to controversies caused by Christian groups, but these don’t specifically reference Jesus as such (though Tacitus does make a reference to crucifixion). They offer evidence that there was a Christian group in Rome and elsewhere by the middle of the first century AD – which is an historical fact we will come back to – but they do not directly advance the case. The one reference that probably does is that of Josephus. In his ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ the contemporary historian Josephus (a Jew) has two references to Jesus, one long, one short. The short reference is to James the Just, “the brother of Jesus called the Christ” and that reference is largely undisputed. The more significant reference, however, is mostly seen as having been corrupted by later Christian scribes. In its existent form it reads:

“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” (Antiquities of the Jews xviii 3.3, tr: William Whiston (from Wikipedia))

The majority of scholars believe that, although we do not now have the text, there was a reference here to Jesus which has been amended subsequently. Geza Vermes has offered a possible unaltered text, which strips out the more obvious theologically-driven wording, and there is also a reference in an Arabic text to Josephus which gives very similar wording. Whilst this is not ideal, there is then some non-Christian evidence for the existence of Jesus as an historical person.

The Christian evidence
The vast majority of textual evidence for the existence of Jesus is that preserved by the Christian church. Once more, this is the situation that might reasonably be expected, as these are the people and communities with the most interest in preserving such information. Does this make the information necessarily compromised? No historical text is free of bias, and it is a mistake to imagine that a bias-free text exists. However, it does mean that the historian investigating these texts needs to be aware of the bias that the Christian community would bring to their production of these texts, and develop judgement and discrimination concerning the historicity of the events variously reported. This is, of course, the standard practice for all historical investigation.

The major historical texts are the four gospels, most especially Matthew, Mark and Luke which are collectively known as the ‘synoptic gospels’, as they share much in the way of narrative structure and language. John’s gospel stands alone and is significantly different in a number of ways from the synoptics. In addition to the gospels themselves, there are various other documents which are relevant: the epistles of Paul, Peter, James and John; Hebrews and the Apocalypse of John included in the canon of the New Testament, and also the various non-canonical letters and documents such as the works of Clement and Eusebius. There are thus a great many distinct textual sources that provide evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus; even when we consider the Pauline corpus as a single source, we are still into double figures: Paul, James, Mark, John, Matthew, Luke/Acts, “Q”, Peter, Hebrews, Jude, the writer of the Apocalypse, Clement and so on. There is much debate in the academic community over the proper dating of the various texts but in broad terms the earliest texts are Pauline letters, from the late 40’s AD, the gospels were written c.70AD – 100AD, with the apocalypse being possibly the latest document written at perhaps 110AD.

Now one objection that could be raised is that, as all these sources are Christian, they should all be considered as a single source. This would be unfair, not least because of the vigorous disagreements in the Christian churches that the documents record. Imagine that Socrates had four different pupils, each of whom was as prolific as Plato, and each of which recorded various teachings of Socrates, some of which overlapped, some of which was in conflict. The existence of these varied documents would in fact give us much greater confidence in being able to distinguish the historical Socrates from the Socrates-as-presented-by-Plato. In the same way, the number and quality of sources about Jesus – significantly better than for Socrates – provides great confidence that we can learn information about the historical Jesus, taking into account the varied biases which the different writers, especially the different gospel writers, bring to their accounts. We know, for example, that Luke was very interested in questions of social justice, and we can bear that in mind when we consider his birth narrative, where the Magnificat and Benedictus tie in to that agenda very strongly. We can, therefore, be more confident about the existence (and nature) of the historical Jesus because of the diversity of the accounts, not less.

Knowledge about the Gospels
The first thing to note about the gospels is that they are all written in Greek. This has important implications – Jesus spoke in Aramaic, so (with a few exceptions) we do not have any direct record of Jesus’ actual words, everything has gone through one translation already. Furthermore, the use of Greek indicates the Hellenistic context within which the gospels were composed, making it probable that the authors were educated people living in or around one of the Greek cities of the Eastern Mediterranean. Secondly, the gospels exhibit a common structure (which is why they can be called gospels in the first place): they all describe various events in Jesus’ life, particularly stories about healing, and include passages of Jesus’ teaching, often in parables; they all describe Jesus’ subsequent trial and crucifixion, and then conclude with an account of the resurrection; importantly, they are all anonymous. Finally, they are each concerned to show Jesus in a particular way, that, in the opening words of Mark’s gospel, ‘This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. In other words, they are primarily theological texts. They were composed by believing Christians in the early Church, and they cannot be understood apart from that context. To import modern historical standards into our assessment of these texts is anachronistic – they weren’t designed to be compared to modern works of historical scholarship. This is not to say that we cannot glean historically useful information from them, only that if we assess them purely on one criteria and find them wanting, we will mistake their character.

It is now commonly accepted that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel to be composed. There are a number of reasons for this. To begin with, a comparison of the text of Mark compared with the text of Matthew shows that some 90% of the verses in Mark are repeated or echoed in Matthew; and similarly much of the material in Mark is also in Luke. This observation gives rise to what is known as the ‘synoptic problem’ – what is the relationship between these gospels? If we were teachers in a school, and pupils handed in work showing this degree of overlap then we would be confident that there had been some level of collaboration between the different authors. In the same way, contemporary scholars are convinced that there is some form of literary dependence between these gospels, that one gospel writer copied material from another. Which way did the dependency flow? The main arguments for saying that Mark came before the other two synoptic gospels are these:

  • Mark is the shortest gospel, and does not contain important material, eg the birth narratives, the Sermon on the Mount or descriptions of the resurrected Jesus;
  • Mark has much more of an ‘eye-witness’ feel, in the sense that there is more concern with incidental detail, (eg Mark 2.2-4);
  • if we imagine that one writer deliberately changed another’s wording, then it is more intelligible to think that Matthew changed Mark, in the interests of improving the Greek or simplicity and clarity;
  • an argument could be made for saying that Mark’s gospel is less theologically developed, although this argument is controversial; and finally
  • the order of events in Mark seems to be determinative for the other two, and not the other way round. In other words, Mark’s order of events is always followed by either Matthew or Luke, and it is never the case that Matthew and Luke agree on the ordering of an event against Mark.

This gives an indication of the way in which biblical scholarship tries to establish a perspective on the gospels, by examining internal evidence from the texts themselves, comparing it with external evidence (if any) and then coming to a conclusion. The question then arises, how did the gospels come to be written in the first place?

The first and most obvious point to be made is that the gospels were written after the events described within the text itself. Mark’s gospel is generally believed to have been composed between AD65 and AD75, the first gospel to be written, some forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Secondly, the gospels were the products of Christian communities, in other words those who viewed Jesus in the light of the resurrection. Following the first Easter, stories and beliefs about Jesus were circulated by the remaining disciples, and we have records of some of the most primitive statements of belief preserved within some of the texts of the New Testament itself. As a result of being the product of a Christian community, the gospels contain much material that was used by the communities, either liturgically in worship, or for teaching. The gospels therefore contain material that has passed through a process of adaptation. The author of Luke’s gospel explicitly states this as his intention – to review the various documents and sources and put together the best collection. What we have, therefore, in the gospel texts as we have them, is a collection of material that has been collected (redacted) into the form it has now, and one of the skills developed by the historical study of the gospels is learning to sift the accounts to try and distinguish between what the evangelist might have written themselves, and what they might have taken up from their sources. To put this process into a crude framework, we can say the following: the gospels as we now have them will show traces of three stages of development. The first is material that (ex hypothesi) could be traced back to Jesus himself; the second is material that was preserved and cultivated within the oral tradition; and the third is material that was added to the text by the author of the gospel, the evangelist, himself.

A number of criteria are employed to assess how reliable information contained in the Gospels is, and can help to determine, for example, at what stage of development certain elements of the gospels were formed. These are five common criteria:

  • multiple attestation – if something is said about Jesus which comes from a number of different sources (eg in Mark and in Paul) then it is more likely to be authentic;
  • dissimilarity, or uniqueness – if something is said about Jesus which is strikingly original in the context of first century Palestine, then it is quite likely to have come from Jesus himself;
  • coherence – if an aspect is either strikingly against the grain of the narrative, or against the purposes of the evangelist, then it is more likely to be authentic. Conversely, if it fits too easily with the purposes of the writer, particularly if it ‘demonstrates’ a particular doctrine, or evidence of a ‘Post-Easter’ faith, then we need to exercise caution;
  • Aramaic style – if an aspect can be shown to derive either from Aramaic language or customs then it is more likely to be authentic; finally
  • Enemy claims – if an aspect is included as part of a criticism of Jesus voiced by people hostile to him, and that material corresponds to other elements, then it is more likely to be authentic.

I want to explore one element of historical criticism in a little more detail as it will give a good idea of the sort of judgement used by historians. This is the material which is embarrassing to the early church and which therefore requires explanation if the stories were entirely made up. There are several examples of this – the crucifixion itself is one – but the one I’d like to explore is the story of Jesus’ own baptism by John the Baptist. This episode is referred to in each of the gospels and, if we accept the consensus chronology for the dating of the gospels then we can see a more and more intense desire to explain why this should have had to happen. For if Jesus was, as the church claimed, the Messiah sent by God, why would he require a baptism from John who was, by definition, inferior in the divine hierarchy? So in Mark’s gospel we have a simple description of Jesus being baptised, with theological colouring and the reference to the Holy Spirit. In Matthew we have the addition of a conversation between Jesus and John where John expresses bafflement at what he is doing, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”. Finally in John we have a heavily theologised text where John the Baptist declares Jesus to be ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’

Now the problem here, for those who allege that there was no historical Jesus, is to explain this material. There would be a consensus amongst the historians that the account of the baptism has gone through a process of adaptation, so that John’s account is carrying out a particular polemical purpose (eg against those antagonistic to the early church who were using Jesus’ baptism by John as an argument against Jesus being the Messiah). Yet a core part of this historical analysis and explanation of John’s purposes would precisely be that there was a general awareness and acceptance in the community of the time – both Christian and Jew – that Jesus had been baptised by John the Baptist. This constituted an ‘awkward fact’ which the Christian community had to overcome. Yet this awkward fact presupposes the existence of the historical Jesus. Those who allege that there was no historical Jesus, that he is, in effect, a literary creation, have to offer some sort of explanation as to why these various awkward facts are included, when they don’t have to be on their hypothesis. The conventional, simple and consensus account would say that they were included because everybody knew these facts to be true and undeniable – leading to embarrassment for the early church. Thus, this fact – that Jesus was baptised by John – is seen as being one of the most historically robust facts it is possible to know about Jesus.

It is on the basis of considerations like these that textual scholars debate the historical evidence, and come to the conclusions that they do. On that point, it is worth quoting something that Ed Sanders says: “New Testament scholars spent several decades – from about 1910 to about 1970 – saying that we know somewhere between very little and virtually nothing about the Historical Jesus. Excess leads to reaction, and in recent decades we have grown more confident… We know a lot about Jesus, vastly more than about John the Baptist, Theudas, Judas the Galilean, or any of the other figures whose names we have from approximately his time and place.”

The alternative hypothesis – literary creation
I mentioned above that those who deny, or doubt, the existence of the historical Jesus need to argue that the figure described in the gospels is a literary creation (or something even less tenable, eg an agglomeration of several literary creations). There are a great many problems with this hypothesis, not least the absence of any evidence for it. Now it is generally true that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but in this context it would be reasonable to expect such evidence. For example, we know that there was conflict and then schism between the early Christians and the wider Jewish community, leading to persecution and then the ostracism of the Christians from the synagogues. In this conflict an argument that there was no historical Jesus in the first place would have been an extremely strong one, and one that we would expect the wider Jewish community to deploy. We have evidence from the Talmud of the sorts of criticisms that were made against the Christians (which, of course, gives supplementary evidence that Jesus existed) but this argument was not made. The simplest explanation as to why this argument was not made is that – as with Jesus’ baptism by John – Jesus’ bare existence was a matter of common and agreed knowledge.

Which leads to the wider points about credibility. For this story to be a literary creation we need to develop some sort of explanation as to why the people who were alive during the events being described would not simply disconfirm it by their testimony. After all, we are talking about this textual evidence being composed, in the case of the gospels, within living memory of what is being described and, in the case of the Pauline letters, within twenty or so years of the events described. The alternative hypothesis also needs to explain, in addition to the details of the stories that we now have, and the references in Paul and so on, the existence of Christian communities themselves. Given the reference in Tacitus, in addition to the testimony of the texts themselves, especially the Pauline letters, we have very good reason to believe that there were communities of Jews in various parts of the Roman Empire, talking about a crucified victim-redeemer, in the latter part of the first half of the first century AD. The alternative hypothesis needs to offer some sort of explanation as to how this could come about, within a decade or so after the events described in the texts, when crucifixion was seen as shameful and evidence of being cursed by God, when there were lots of contemporary witnesses alive to disconfirm the story, and when there is a wealth of supplementary evidence confirming the outline of the story itself. In this context, when the explanation accepted by the academic community fits all the known facts, gives a coherent explanation for them and how they fit together – and when the alternative hypothesis does no such thing – it goes beyond gullibility to accept the alternative hypothesis; it represents, rather, an abandonment of rational judgement. To account for all the details that are known about the communities, the texts, and the wider historical context, the advocate of the alternative hypothesis has to offer up such a sequence of historical improbabilities that belief in miracles seems straightforward by comparison. Which leads to the final issue.

Problem of miraculous invalidity
The truth is that any proposition can be doubted – such doubt takes no intellectual effort and can be adopted simply as an intellectual pose. Rational doubt, however, requires grounds for doubt, as Wittgenstein shows in On Certainty. The historical grounds for doubt are untenable, but there are wider philosophical grounds for doubt that might be adopted. One such is what I call the argument from miraculous invalidity, which runs as follows (taken from Stephen Law ):

1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there’s excellent reason to be skeptical about the claims.

2. There is not extraordinary evidence for any of the divine/miraculous stuff in the NT documents.

3. Therefore (from 1 and 2), there’s excellent reason to be skeptical about those extraordinary claims.

4. Where testimony/documents combine both mundane and extraordinary claims, and there’s excellent reason to be skeptical about the extraordinary claims, then there’s pretty good reason to be skeptical even about the mundane claims, at least until we possess some pretty good independent evidence of their truth (as illustrated by the Bert case*).

5. The NT docs combine extraordinary and mundane claims about Jesus.

6. There’s no pretty good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)

7. Therefore (from 3, 4, 5, and 6), there’s pretty good reason to be skeptical about whether Jesus existed.

* The Bert case: if my friends say a stranger called Bert visited them last night, I’ll rightly take their word for it. But if they say Bert did amazing miracles in their front room before leaving – turning the sofa into a donkey, dying and then coming back to life, etc. – well then their claim that these things happened is now no longer nearly good enough evidence even for the claim that any such person as Bert exists, let alone that he did any of the things they claim.

Propositions 1,2,3 and 5 are uncontentious (and I’m arguing here that proposition 6 is straightforwardly false) but the weight comes with proposition 4, which deserves a more detailed response, on three grounds – that the judgement involves anachronisms, that it is historically jejune, and that the analogy breaks down.

The argument is anachronistic in the sense that what are now seen as extraordinary (miracles understood as a violation of physical law) were not seen as extraordinary in the same way at the time. For a text from this context to refer to miracles is simply an authentic expression of the culture of the time. Miracles were part and parcel of the culture of the Ancient Near East and, not only that, but the following two things are true: i) Jesus’ opponents were also credited with ‘miraculous’ powers (eg the Pharisees) and ii) you could be understood as a divinely inspired prophet without having miraculous powers (eg John the Baptist). So there is no need to invent stories out of whole cloth in order to establish a divine imprimatur on a teaching ministry.

What is not in dispute, from an historical point of view, is that there has been some literary embellishment involved in the telling of the stories about Jesus, and that this creation enhances the theological significance of Jesus. Yet there is quite a large step between exaggerating a claim about someone and inventing the entire story about that someone in the first place (for reasons outlined above).

By way of comparison, if there was an ancient text that referred to the movement of the moon and the sun in Ptolemaic terms (ie geocentrically) would that make the text _necessarily_ invalid? No, because that is the language and understanding in use at the time. It would, in fact, be strong evidence for the fabrication of the text if there was a heliocentric reference (other things being equal). Similarly, the fact that the writers of the gospels describe events occurring in a certain fashion is primarily testimony about how they understood those events. It does not preclude an alternative explanation of the events being offered, eg one that diminishes the theological significance, one that ‘rationalises’ the miraculous.

Building on that, my second point is that the perceived invalidity of parts of the text is insufficient to doubt the entirety of the texts to such an extent that they are seen as a creation in toto. I would accept that, other things being equal, the incorporation into a story of unbelievable elements would undermine the credibility of the story as a whole. Here, though, other things are not equal, for there are elements of the story (eg Jesus’ baptism) which we have very good reason for considering authentic. For the alternative hypothesis to be true, these wider elements, including the major parts of the stories relating to the last week of Jesus’ life, must also be created. Which is more plausible: that a man existed, did the sorts of publicly observable things described, and whose followers slowly developed his story over time leading to the mix of the historically credible and incredible that we have – or, that this story was created out of whole cloth, with all the credibility problems discussed above still included?

Which brings us to the Bert case. I would pick out the following elements:
– the story takes place in the present day;
– the testimony is from a limited number of ‘friends’;
– the testimony involves something which is considered impossible (ie against the laws of physics) by both friends and listener.

In contrast to this, the stories about Jesus take place in an extremely different culture; the testimony is from a large and diverse number of people; and it does not involve something which is considered impossible in the same way by both friends and listener. The analogy has been constructed so as to maximise the tension between what is conventionally believed today and what is being claimed, yet, for these reasons, the tensions are very much less. In other words, in the context of the time, the ‘miraculous’ claims are very much less extraordinary than they would be today.

However, it is worth emphasising that the stories about Jesus do involve some claims that would have been understood as mind-bogglingly extraordinary at the time – foremost amongst them being the claim that someone who had been crucified could be seen as approved of by God. This was not simply anti-intuitive at the time, it was something that went against the clear sense of Scripture, as Deuteronomy describes anyone hung from a tree as cursed by God. Again, as with the example of Jesus’ baptism, this is an ‘awkward fact’ and it is not at all likely that an invented story about a Jewish Messiah would have been constructed in this way.

Conclusion: “beyond reasonable doubt” and sanity
What I would like to emphasise in conclusion is that the notion that there was no historical Jesus, even if couched in terms of ‘neutral doubt’, is an extreme position to hold. It is a position which doesn’t simply doubt that the gospels are wholly reliable; it doesn’t just doubt that the miracles happened; it doesn’t just treat the gospels as theological propaganda – it is a position which, without evidence, alleges an astonishingly creative conspiracy with powers that border on the miraculous. The conventional explanation for all the various facts and evidence, which explains what we know in a straightforward fashion, is that there was an historical Jesus, the outlines of whose life we are in a position to know a reasonable amount about. Various elements within this story are more or less open to doubt – that is, indeed, what the scholarly community in this area spend their time arguing about – but the bare existence of an historical Jesus is beyond all reasonable doubt.

To posit that the story has no basis whatsoever in historical fact is placing oneself outside of the academic community which studies this area. Of course, it is not absolutely certain that the academic community is correct – one hundred thousand lemmings might be wrong – but what it does mean is that the person arguing for doubt about an historical Jesus has to work extremely hard to show that their position is not, eg, being pursued for reasons other than simple concern for historical accuracy. The burden of proof lies upon those who would allege doubt about what the historians of all faiths and none would consider to be a comparatively well attested group of facts. Where such proof is not forthcoming, eg an alternative explanation which gives some sort of explanation for at least the majority of the undisputed facts (eg Tacitus’ references), then it is reasonable to conclude that the sceptical viewpoint is not being advanced on rational grounds.

I continue to believe that that, to use my words which sparked this conversation off, “To deny that [Jesus] was a solid historical figure is … a certain indication that standards of rationality have been left behind.”