Why there's no real doubt about the existence of Jesus
Next time you come across an article in the mainstream media questioning some aspect of Jesus’ life (probably around Christmas), it is worth pausing to remind yourself that what we read in a modern opinion piece is not necessarily the judgement of experts. By John Dickson
On 18 December a few years ago, friends and colleagues alerted me to an article in the mainstream press suggesting that the history of Jesus was entirely dubious. You can almost set your clock by it—Christmas is upon us, I thought. But this was different. Social media was alight with shares and retweets, because this piece appeared in the venerable Washington Post, and seemed to go further than the usual polite debunking of this or that element of the Nativity story. The author concluded triumphantly in the final line, “In sum, there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence – if not to think it outright improbable."
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the author of the article had been a recent student of mine in the course I teach on “Historical Jesus to Written Gospels” for the University of Sydney! This young man had sat through lectures outlining the sources used by scholars, the latest historical methods, and the broad conclusions of the scholarly consensus in this large field of study. It turns out this student was an active ex-Christian atheist doing a PhD in another department of the university (Religious Studies) critiquing the well-known Christian author and scholar William Lane Craig. Around the same time, he self-published a book titled There Was No Jesus, There is No God.
Given the student’s obvious commitment to a cause, I didn’t feel too bad that I had failed to convey to him just how idiosyncratic it is in secular scholarship to propose the non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth. He was defending a position known as Mythicism, a relatively new theory found—with one or two exceptions—only among atheist groups on the Internet. As for the tenability of this theory, if anyone dips into the thousands of monographs and journal articles on the topic of the historical Jesus, they will quickly discover just what is the mainstream and what is the fringe of the fringe (hint: it’s not mainstream).
My former student, with a wave of his hand, dismissed the "atrocious methods" of historians of Jesus. No offence taken! There were various other disheartening moves in this Christmas article, which I outlined in a reply for the national broadcaster.
Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion
But my main point is not the historical particulars—but the observation that scepticism can sometimes be as impervious to evidence as the religious dogmatism it aims to undermine. They are often just the mirror-image of each other.
Another example of an ‘outlier’ claim doing some heavy-lifting for the sceptical cause is found in the immensely popular work by Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion has sold over 3 million copies and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. By any measure, it is an important book. I was pleased to meet Professor Dawkins at New College high table while on sabbatical in Oxford recently; he was such a gentleman to me. In hindsight, I am a little embarrassed about some of the criticisms I have levelled against his work in other publications over the years.
Still, there is one section of The God Delusion that demonstrates how odd popular debates about religion can be. In stressing the point that no evidence for God can be found in sacred writings, Dawkins quips that, “The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.” I will happily interpret such a statement as a rhetorical flourish, not one intended as a statement of fact. However, this cheeky aside appears hot on the heels of a statement that does present itself as a description of contemporary scholarship. “It is even possible,” Dawkins remarks, “to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all, as has been made by, among others, Professor G. A. Wells of the University of London in a number of books, including Did Jesus Exist? To his credit, Dawkins acknowledges there isn’t wide support for the case that Jesus never existed, but he nonetheless assures us it is a serious historical case. And he cites a full professor from a highly respected university to bring home the point.
G. A. Wells was Professor of German at London University (he passed away in 2017). He did write a popular book back in 1975 arguing Jesus never lived, but he never pretended he had taught, or even formally studied, any of the relevant fields, whether Classics, Ancient History, New Testament, Jewish Studies, or even Theology. He was an expert in the language and literature of modern Germany. It must be asked: Why would someone as educated as Richard Dawkins make such a controversial point by citing an expert from an irrelevant field? I cannot imagine he would let me get away with citing a Professor of German as evidence that “it is possible to mount a serious scientific case that biological evolution is a fiction.” As I understand it, these things have been brought to Professor Dawkins’ attention in public debate, and I am told he concedes that this part of the book maybe went too far. But readers of the 2016 “10th Anniversary Edition” of The God Delusion will still find the claims there unchanged.
"I'll eat my a page of my Bible"
In what might turn out to be a rush of blood to the head, a few years ago I was so confident that Jesus’ existence is beyond reasonable doubt that I published a challenge on the ABC (Australia’s public broadcaster): if anyone can find just one full professor of Ancient History, Classics, or New Testament in any real university anywhere in the world who argues that Jesus never lived, I will eat a page out of my Bible.
The response on social media was fun, as various sceptical friends (and not so much friends) set out to make me eat holy scripture. As the hours and days passed, a volley of names was offered: professors of psychology, English literature, philosophy, folklore (I kid you not), and, yes, of German language. But not one professor from any of the relevant fields. ]
Though there is an atheist group here in Australia determined to meet the challenge, my Bible, years later, remains uneaten.
A simple short cut for non-specialists to prove the basic facts of Jesus's existence
Whether or not there is a relevant professor out there who denies Jesus ever lived, there is a simple shortcut for non-specialists to confirm that there is, indeed, a consensus among contemporary secular scholars that the broad outline of Jesus’ life is historically sound. This does not ‘prove’ that Jesus existed, but it does demonstrate that professional scholarship—even outside religious institutions—considers there to be no real doubt about his existence.
Anyone with access to a serious public (or university) library can easily consult the ‘standard reference works’ in the disciplines of ancient history and classics. The big academic publishing houses produce compendiums designed to describe the state-of-the-question on all things historical. There are at least five such works that would be regarded as the authoritative and relevant volumes in English-speaking secular academia.
The first is the famous single-volume Oxford Classical Dictionary (published by Oxford University Press) which summarises scholarship on all things Greek and Roman in just a little over 1700 pages. The several page entry on the origins of Christianity begins with an account of what may be reliably known about Jesus of Nazareth. Readers will discover that no doubts are raised about the basic facts that this teacher-healer really lived and really did die by crucifixion.
Next is the much larger Cambridge Ancient History in 14 volumes (Cambridge University Press). Volume 10 covers the ‘Augustan Period’, right about when Tiberius, Livia, Pliny the Elder, and Jesus all lived. It has a sizeable chapter on the birth of Christianity. The entry begins with a couple of pages outlining what is known of Jesus’ life and death, including his preaching of the kingdom of God, his fraternizing with sinners, and so on. No doubts are raised about this core of the Jesus-story.
In the monumental Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae (from Germany’s 260 year old publishing house De Gruyter), a recent six-volume compendium of all the known inscriptions in Judaea/Palestine for the thousand year period from Alexander the Great to Muhammad. Some might be surprised to read entry 15 of the Jerusalem inscriptions: “Titulus on the cross of Jesus in three languages: Aramaic, Latin and Greek, ca. 30 AD”. One can see for oneself that not only does this mean there’s no reason to doubt Jesus’ crucifixion, it also means there’s no reason to doubt, an inscription of his crime appeared on his cross.
The final relevant works to consult on the history of Jesus would be the Cambridge History of Judaism in four volumes, and Brill’s New Pauly: Encyclopaedia of the Ancient World. Neither have any interest in propping up the Christian faith, and yet neither express any doubt as to the basic themes of Jesus’ life, teaching and crucifixion.
None of these five works is theological, or even remotely religious. They are the standard secular reference works to which scholars themselves turn to double-check certain details and to get a quick summary of the state-of-the-question for just about any ancient topic you can imagine. Each volume treats the existence of Jesus the teacher, healer, and martyr as doubtless.
This is, of course, nothing more than an ‘argument from authority’. It is not direct evidence for Jesus himself. Rather, it is proof that the relevant experts are convinced by the evidence that exists. And, in any case, arguments from authority are far from bogus. They are used all the time in courts of law—the judgement of an ‘expert witness’ is considered evidence. And we all rely on authorities for many of the things we ‘know’ about the world. If I don’t happen to be a particle physicist, for example, I have to rely on experts for pretty much everything I know about the atom. If I discover that a consensus of particle physicists agrees that the Higgs boson exists and has a mass of approximately 125 GeV/c2, I am probably justified in accepting that consensus as a shortcut to my limited knowledge of particle physics. It is no different with field of History.
So next time you come across an article in the mainstream media questioning some aspect of Jesus’ life (probably around Christmas), it is worth pausing to remind yourself that what we read in a modern opinion piece is not necessarily the judgement of experts.
And if it is an expert, let me know: I’ve got my Bible ready.
Dr John Dickson is a renowned writer, speaker, historian and media presenter and is currently a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, and is a Visiting Academic of the Faculty of Classics at Oxford University.
In his latest book, Is Jesus History? John draws on his experiences as a historian and a Christian. He explores the battle of “fact” and “fiction” with regards to the origins of Christianity and unpacks how the field of history works.
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