Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

The existence of Jesus
August 17, 2016, 2:21 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Every so often one comes upon the claim (I did so recently) that “Jesus never existed.” No reputable historian of the first century takes this seriously, but because such a claim can be made and believed by even intelligent people who are not historians, I outline just a little of the evidence that refutes it.

The earliest first-century reference to Jesus is found in the letters of Paul of Tarsus. No-one, I think, doubts the existence of Paul (he is even in some quarters credited with the invention of Christianity), or suggests that the letters (most of them at least) are forgeries. They date from the fifties of the first century, and are addressed to various communities that Paul had either visited (Corinth, Galatia) or intended to visit (Rome).

It is clear that for some years prior to the letters Paul had been travelling around Asia Minor and Greece teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah (“Christos”). In so doing he had not surprisingly incurred the hostility of both Jewish and Roman authorities. It is absolutely clear from the letters that Paul himself believed that Jesus had lived and had been executed in Jerusalem by the Romans some twenty to thirty years earlier. He also tells his readers that, to his shame, at an earlier stage of his career he himself had persecuted those who made the same claim that he now accepted. This period of his life must be dated to the thirties of the century. This is therefore evidence that by that time, only a few years after the supposed execution of Jesus, there was already a group of people in and around Jerusalem who believed Jesus to be the Messiah, and who attracted unfavourable attention from the authorities. Elsewhere, Paul gives the names of some of the leaders of this movement, Peter and James. No-one, I think, claims that they did not exist.

It is totally incredible that, in the context of first-century Judaism, a Messianic claimant could be put forward who simply did not exist. Claims regarding his supposed resurrection were countered by accusations that the disciples had stolen the body, not by saying that of course there was no body, because no such person had existed. This (on the evidence of Paul’s letters) must have been within a few years of the events in question. If Jesus never existed, we have to believe that, quite spontaneously, there arose a movement of people who claimed to have known him personally (though presumably outside the movement no-one could even remember him) and that he had been so notorious that the Romans had executed him as a Messianic claimant (though, again, no-one else could recall this), all within a year or two of it supposedly having happened.

Of course, apart from Paul’s letters, but only a little later, we also have the accounts of Jesus’ life we call the Gospels. Though there is clearly some interdependence, they each have their own special features, complementary but not contradictory to one another, which suggests that they reflect real events. One author (Luke) stresses his efforts to establish the historical facts; and he continues his narrative of Jesus with an account (admittedly schematic) of the early years following, including an outline of Paul’s career that seems independent of the letters we have.

In any other context, such literary evidence would be regarded by historians as more than sufficient to establish the main facts. It is backed up by what we know from secular sources about the rise of the Christian movement within the Roman Empire. Given the shortness of the time-scale involved, and the unpopularity of the movement with religious and political authorities, it seems incredible that it should flourish when the obvious and then easily-established riposte might be made, “But Jesus never existed.”


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