Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Did Jesus Exist?

Since Christmas is the time of year when numerous TV programs about Jesus--usually quite skeptical in nature--are aired, I thought I would re-post a critique I did on a video which argued that Jesus did not even exist.

The DVD, entitled The God who wasn’t there, was produced and narrated by some guy named Brian Flemming. Flemming attempted to make the case that the Jesus of the Gospels was a myth. The Jesus myth theory has been around since the days of Bruno Bauer (1809-1882) and has generally been dismissed as the nonsense it is. Since, however, the Jesus myth theory appears to be gaining popularity, and since The God who wasn’t there could be convincing to those who don’t know better, I thought Flemming’s arguments deserved a response. Flemming’s case can be summarized in seven points. Each point will be stated and answered below.

First, according to Flemming, the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel written and the other three were derived from Mark.

Most scholars would argue that the Gospel of John was written independently of the other Gospels, but otherwise, most scholars would agree with Flemming on this point.

Second, Flemming points out that the Gospel of Mark records the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, but according to Flemming, since Jesus couldn’t possibly have predicted the destruction of Jerusalem, the Gospels must have been written after AD 70. That means there is a 40 year gap between Jesus’ death in AD 33, and the Gospel of Mark in AD 70.

Flemming is right that most scholars think the Gospels were written between AD 70 and AD 100, and that these dates are largely based on the assumption that Jesus couldn’t possibly have predicted the fall of Jerusalem.

Contrary to Flemming, however, many critics today—even some of the more radical critics—are now starting to recognize that Jesus really did predict the fall of Jerusalem 40 years before it occurred! They have reluctantly come to this conclusion because the majority of New Testament scholars believe in a “Lost Gospel of Q” in which Jesus alludes to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple which occurred in AD 70.

What many critics don’t seem to realize, however, is that this undermines the primary reason for dating the Gospels after the fall of Jerusalem in the first place! There is actually much more evidence that Matthew, Mark and Luke were written before AD 70 than after. But if Matthew, Mark and Luke were written before AD 70, the case for the 40 year gap is destroyed along with the case for the mythical Jesus.

Even if there was a 40 year gap, however, that proves nothing. Ancient historians (and modern ones too) often write about events that occurred much longer than 40 years before their time, but scholars don’t automatically assume the events, therefore, never happened. For example, the vast majority of what we know about Alexander the Great was written about 400 years after he lived and is recorded in only one source! By contrast, what we know about Jesus comes from multiple sources written as early as 20 to 70 years after he lived.

Third, Flemming argues that all we know about this 40 year time gap comes from the letters of Paul, and that Paul did not think of Jesus as a real person who lived in the recent past. This is clear because Paul never mentions Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, John the Baptist, Jesus’ miracles, Pilate, Jerusalem, Jesus’ trials or anything Jesus ever said.

First, many scholars would disagree with the contention that Paul is our only source for this 40 year time gap. As mentioned above, some scholars believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke were written during this time. But aside from that, most scholars, including some of the most radical Jesus critics, believe that there was once a gospel about Jesus we now call Q that also would have been written during this 40 year period.

But the idea that Paul doesn’t know anything about the historical Jesus is simply wrong. Paul tells us that Jesus was a Jew, and that he had a brother named James who was still alive in Paul’s time (The existence of both Jesus and James is also confirmed by Josephus). Paul knows that Jesus had 12 disciples and he knows of some of them by name. He also knows that Peter was married. Paul knows that Jesus had a last supper with his disciples on the night of his death, that he was betrayed, and was executed by crucifixion. Paul also knows that Jesus’ apostles were centered in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death.

In other words, by pointing out the things in Jesus’ life that Paul doesn’t mention, Flemming concludes that Paul doesn’t know anything of a historical nature about Jesus’ life. Flemming’s conclusion is factually in error.

Fourth, Flemming argues that the only thing Paul knows about Jesus is that he died, rose, and ascended into heaven. Paul doesn’t place these events on earth but in the mythical realm just like the other savior gods of the time.

First, as seen above, the assertion that the only thing Paul knows about Jesus is that he died, rose, and ascended into heaven is factually in error.

Second, the theory that Jesus fits the pattern of ancient dying and rising savior gods is a view propagated by Sir James Frazer in his 1911 classic, The Golden Bough. Eddy and Boyd argue that since 1911 Frazer’s views have been thoroughly and almost universally discredited.

Third, the myths about Mithras, Osiris, Dionysus and others really don’t look anything like Jesus at all! The supposed parallels are arrived at by cherry-picking the stories for imagined similarities—and even then the imagined parallels are often quite a stretch. For example, Mithras was not born of a virgin, he was born out of solid rock (perhaps the rock was a virgin).

The “resurrection” of Osiris was not so much a resurrection as a reconstruction. His body was reassembled and rejuvenated after being dismembered. He never returned to this life, however, but remained in the underworld.

Dionysus was born when his mother was impregnated by Zeus who disguised himself as a lightening bolt (the old lightening bolt trick)! When Dionysus’ mother was burned up by Zeus, Zeus rescued his unborn son by sewing him into his (Zeus’s) thigh. Dionysus was then born out of the thigh of Zeus.

Augustus’ “virgin birth” occurred when his father’s wife was said to have slept overnight in a pagan temple during which time a snake crawled up inside of her and impregnated her! The idea that pious Jewish Christians would borrow from such bizarre pagan stories to fabricate a story about the birth of their Jewish Messiah, strikes even many of the critics as absurd.

Fourth, pagan myths would likely have been disgusting to a former Pharisee like Paul so the idea that Paul’s whole life changed dramatically and he started borrowing from non-Jewish or pagan myths to create some kind of mythical Jesus, and then was willing to suffer numerous beatings, imprisonment and even stoning for the myths he knew were fictional—is harder to believe than the message Paul preached!

Fifth, Flemming didn’t bother to tell his audience that much of the evidence for the supposed parallels comes from a hundred to three hundred years after the time of Jesus! If there are parallels at all it may be because pagan authors are borrowing from Christianity!

Finally, far from writing in the “mythical realm” Paul argues that if Jesus did not really rise from the dead, his whole ministry was in vain. That hardly sounds like someone who is basing his ministry on a myth.

Fifth, Flemming argues that since allegorical literature was extremely common back then, and since the story of Jesus fits the pattern of ancient mythical heroes, it is clear that the Gospels take Paul’s myth and make it appear historical, just like many stories on the internet which start out as fiction and are eventually believed as actual, historical events.

First, just because allegorical literature was common back then says nothing about the genre of the Gospels since biographies and histories were also common.

Second, Flemming lists 22 supposed characteristics of the “hero tradition” and argues that Jesus has 19 of the characteristics while Romulus and Hercules only have 17 and, Zeus only has 15. A closer look at these characteristics, however, will show that the whole thing is artificially contrived. When the actual similarities are counted, Jesus doesn’t even make the list (see the footnote).

But on the other hand, even if the Gospel writers had conformed their stories to some accepted “hero pattern” that would not necessarily mean the stories were unhistorical. For example,
some have shown that Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Napoleon also fit the ancient “hero pattern.” In fact, Abraham Lincoln fits the hero pattern better than Oedipus, who is at the top of the list!

Third, the historical reliability of the Gospels has been confirmed over and over again. Most recently, Eddy and Boyd (The Jesus Legend)apply to the Gospels “six broad diagnostic questions historians routinely ask of ancient documents in order to assess their historical reliability. They convincingly demonstrate that the Gospels pass every test.

Finally, Barbara and David Mikkelson (from Snopes.com) were interviewed in the DVD to show that fictional stories can become believed as actual history. That’s true, but no one dismisses Herodotus, Josephus, or Tacitus on that account. We should remember that few of those who spread internet rumors would be willing risk their life for their rumors. Everything we know about early Christians supports the fact that they were so convinced that what they believed about Jesus was true, they were willing to face beating, imprisonment, torture, and even death. Besides, as seen above, the broad historical reliability of the Gospels has been verified over and over again.

Sixth, since there were ancient Jews and Jewish Christians who thought Jesus had been killed a century earlier under Alexander Jannaeus or Herod, this diversity of opinion about Jesus supports the idea that Jesus of the Gospels was a myth based on earlier stories that circulated before the time Jesus was supposed to have existed.

First, the idea that early Christians had significant disagreements about when Jesus lived is simply not true. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, First Timothy (all first century AD), and even early church fathers like Ignatius (d. AD 98/117), Justin Martyr (AD 100-165), Tertullian, (AD 160-220) and Irenaeus (Fl 175-195) all agree that Jesus was executed during the reign of Pontius Pilate who ruled Judea from AD 26-36. That Jesus was executed during the reign of Pontius Pilate is also confirmed by non-Christian historians like Josephus and Tacitus.

On the DVD Price doesn’t say where he gets the idea that Jesus lived during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC), but in his book, Deconstructing Jesus, he says that this fact is attested in both the Talmud and in the “Toledoth Jeschu.” Price doesn’t bother to mention that the Talmud and “Toledoth Jeschu” weren’t compiled until the fifth century AD or later.

So essentially, Price is throwing out the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, First Timothy, Ignatius, Josephus and Tacitus—all less than 100 years after Jesus death—in favor of two documents written 400 or more years after Jesus’ death! Some might say that something other than objective scholarship is going on here.

Conclusion

Not only does the Jesus myth theory fail miserably, the evidence for Jesus’ existence is so strong that it appears that those who promote it are engaging in something other than objective scholarship. In fact, I would put them in the same general category as those who deny the holocaust.

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