The Existence of Jesus

After tackling the criterion of embarrassment and its limited value in historical-Jesus research, it’s worth asking the question many of us won’t deign to consider. Did Jesus even exist? Once again, Mark Goodacre’s NT Pod (mp3 here) can get us jump-started. One of his crucial points is the early genesis of high Christology: “We should side with the mythicists to the extent that they’re pointing out something important, which is just how early and how striking some of the exalted language about Jesus is.” No one speaking about Jesus could do so without speaking of his resurrection and Lordship, says Mark, and some scholars even refer to the Big Bang of high Christology to correct those who see more of a gradual evolution. I’m a “Big Bang” proponent myself. But that exalted language wasn’t about a pagan-godlike reanimation, as mythicists often claim; it was about God making Jesus his son when he resurrected him; and there wouldn’t be a strict equation between Jesus and God until decades later, with gospel writer John.

In his recent book, Did Jesus Exist?, Bart Ehrman identifies what he considers to be two key data for Jesus’ existence: (1) Paul’s associations with Peter and James, particularly with the latter whom he refers to as “the brother of the Lord” (Gal 1:19), which point to reasonably secure eye-witness testimony; (2) a crucified messiah, which the early Christians would not have invented. The first point I take as self-evident (even Rick Sumner, who has moved from the historicist to the mythicist camp, admits that Gal 1:19 gives him moment’s pause), but the second brings us to the issue of what people are likely to invent, and under what circumstances. Permit me a short detour, if you will.

The field of biblical studies is full of NT-Wright clones who claim the biblical authors would never have invented things for lack of precedent. The fact is that human beings are perfectly capable of inventing wild and crazy ideas, and they do so all the time. Especially religionists. So for example, Wright’s repeated claim that the early Christians would never have claimed their messiah was resurrected before the end, unless in fact he was, is bogus. The disciples could have easily invented an empty tomb and/or resurrection legend, because apocalyptic movements always find imaginative ways of coping with dashed hopes in order to survive. Rude reality reinterprets expectations, and Jesus’ original prediction about the destruction of the temple was spiritualized in the gospel of John (Jn 2) for precisely this reason — in order to cope with failed hopes and broken dreams.

But here’s the problem, and why Wright, despite himself, is actually right in this case: the disciples’ dreams hadn’t been broken. In their minds, Jesus’ death wasn’t a mark of failure. The crucifixion demoralized them, to be sure, but was ultimately taken as part of the apocalyptic drama. The shame and scandal of the cross (on which see more below), became the whole point of their faith, an inverted badge of honor. And Jesus had braced them for tragedy: they were living in the end times, on the brink of the tribulation, and suffering/death had to precede the apocalypse. The crucifixion would have put them, as Dale Allison has said, “emotionally down but not theologically out”. They would have gone on expecting the apocalypse and the resurrection of the dead, at which point they would have been vindicated and raised with their savior. It’s not likely they would have resorted to a loony revisionist resurrection belief in this context. Since things were still going as expected, it would have taken an actual historical event (the empty tomb in conjunction with visions) to prompt the bizarre claim that Jesus had been resurrected before the end.

The point of my detour is to show that apologists like Wright can sometimes be right for the wrong reasons, just as others can be wrong for better reasons. Which returns us to Ehrman’s claim: that the early Christians would not have invented a crucified messiah. Is he playing fast and loose with logic (like an N.T. Wright) or fair ball (like a Dale Allison)? I think he’s pretty solid here. Granted that messianic expectations were fluid at this time — Jews expected messiahs to be kings or priests or prophets or even heavenly arch-angels — the anointed one was always mighty and honorable. Jesus was a low-life, and executed as a criminal, the shame and scandal of which was a lethal obstacle to Christianity’s success. In my view, it is exceedingly unlikely that anyone would have invented a messiah like this. He became, to be sure, an inverted badge of honor. Virtually the entire NT — especially Paul, James, I Peter, and the synoptics — reshapes the way honor is conventionally assigned, reversing values, the last being first, etc. The early Christians not only celebrated their scandal (as Mark Goodacre phrases it), they reveled in it. But this only underscores the point, as a human response to embracing the unembraceable. You don’t invent a shameful failure that so thoroughly damns your cause in advance; you take a real-life shameful failure and discard it — or glorify it the only way you can, through paradox and irony, and with enough zeal to match the animosity of your detractors and persecutors.

A similar point is made in yet another hot-off-the-press book by John Dominic Crossan. Readers of this blog know that I enjoy making fun of Crossan, and truthfully, a lot of what he writes in The Power of Parable is dross. But like Ehrman, he identifies two points in support of Jesus as an historical figure. The first is a different one: (1) the agreement between non-Christian writers Josephus and Tacitus that Jesus existed, even allowing for some Christian interpolation in the Josephus passage. The second is like Ehrman’s second point, though applied more generally: (2) that the early Christians would have not so repeatedly shot themselves in the ass, or as Crossan puts it, “if you are inventing a non-historical figure, why invent one you cannot live with, but must steadily and terminally change into its opposite?” (p 251). Crossan uses some bad examples in support of the second point, not least his silly insistence that Jesus was non-apocalyptic who had to be changed into an apocalyptic.

But he is on to something, and this relates to the controversial criterion of embarrassment discussed recently on my and Mark Goodacre’s blogs. I don’t want this to deteriorate into semantic debates. Whether traditions about Jesus were (on rare occasion) embarrassing, or (more often) just “against the grain”, or whatever, the point is that the cumulative effect of these traditions weighs heavily against the idea of wholesale invention. People invent wild ideas, yes, but not so that they’re so repeatedly self-defeating. When your sinless savior is being baptized, when he’s wrong about the apocalypse, when he heals using magician-like techniques, when his filthy brown ass (Mk 11) calls for a corrective white battle horse (Rev 19), or when his mustard shrub demands alignment with the cedar of Lebanon — and the list goes on and on — it’s being unreasonably skeptical to think the original figure behind all this sanitization was invented. The early Christians could have been theological masochists, I suppose, but I rather doubt it.

I agree with Mark Goodacre that mythicists are more worthy of attention than normally granted. They keep the rest of us honest. And I have gone on record plenty of times as lending more sympathy to the mythicist position than the minimalist one based on the underlying assumptions of each (see Millenialism or Myth?). Mythicists recognize an early explosion of fantasy that cannot be reasonably denied. But to conclude that such fantasy didn’t enmesh an historical figure is also unreasonable, given everything covered above — Paul’s off-hand allusions to Jesus’ family, non-Christian reports of Jesus, and above all else the internal tensions within the NT traditions themselves.


8 thoughts on “The Existence of Jesus

  1. Where in the text of Mk 11 does it say that Jesus' ass was brown and filthy? I always imagined my Savior as a white western gentleman whose a-hole was pure because he didn't need to poo.

  2. Hah-hah, that's pretty good. Jesus probably would have felt divine had he been exempted from the need to shit. What with all those communal sponges, or in his case more likely pebbles and grass, I'm surprised that wiping oneself didn't constitute the gravest impurity offense of all.

  3. “The fact is that human beings are perfectly capable of inventing wild and crazy ideas, and they do so all the time. Especially religionists.”

    Not only that — they are perfectly capable of rationalizing and historicizing wild and crazy ideas. The Argument From Personal Incredulity has been in the Christian apologist's toolkit since the days of Tertullian, i.e. it is almost as old as the religion itself. All you need to do is study the origins of Mormonism to understand how a religion can start from nothing. No actual Jesus or Angel Moroni is required, just credulous people dissatisfied with existing religions, and imaginative, charismatic preachers to reinforce their position in the face of opposition.

  4. What off-hand references did Paul make to Jesus' family? Do we know that the phrase “the Lord's brother” (e.g., in Gal. 1:19) is original and not a subsequent interpolation?

    Does Paul ever mention having paid visits, either on his own or through other Christians, to Mary? Does he mention anything she said?

    What, if any, non-Christian sources confirm the existence of Paul?

  5. BTW, given that the OT contains books about women (Ruth and Esther), why does the NT lack a Gospel of Mary? Wouldn't her recollections and thoughts have been important to the cause of spreading Christianity?

  6. Not only that — they are perfectly capable of rationalizing and historicizing wild and crazy ideas.

    True, just as they are perfectly capable of taking historical events and running wild with them. All things considered, I think the latter is the strong likelihood here.

  7. Do we know that the phrase “the Lord's brother” (e.g., in Gal. 1:19) is original and not a subsequent interpolation?

    We never know anything for sure, but I see no compelling reason to resort to an interpolation theory for Gal 1:19.

  8. Given that the OT contains books about women (Ruth and Esther), why does the NT lack a Gospel of Mary? Wouldn't her recollections and thoughts have been important to the cause of spreading Christianity?

    I'm not sure I understand the question. The historical Mary was probably not on the best terms with her son if the gospel tensions over biological kin are any indication. She was only used mythologically in Mt and Lk, probably as a way of translating Jesus' questionable heritage into something honorable. And if he was illegitimate, then Matthew's use of women who faced scandalous charges (Ruth, Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba) in his genealogy makes sense: he was trying to excuse Mary by the implied analogies.

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