The Historicity of Jesus
[ref003]_The_Skeptical_Review_: 1995: Number Four:
The Historicity of Jesus
Did Robin Hood exist? Possibly, there was a person whose exploits
were exaggerated over time until the legendary character known
as Robin Hood emerged in English folklore, but few people would
claim that the Robin Hood in these legends was an actual historical
figure who possessed incredible archery skills and went about
rescuing Maid Marian and robbing the rich to give to the poor.
At best, then, Robin Hood was a quasi-historical person who became
the legendary hero of Sherwood Forest through exaggeration and
embellishment of his real life accomplishments.
The same is probably true of William Tell, King Arthur, and other
famous legendary characters. Through exaggeration and embellishment
over time, the lives of exceptional leaders were transformed into
the legendary figures we read about in folkloric literature. In
fairly recent times, we have seen the same process at work in
our own country. Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Jesse
James, Billy the Kid--these were frontier marshals, heroes, and
outlaws whose names are familiar to all of us, but their exploits
were so exaggerated and embellished by word of mouth, by 19th-century
dime novels, and then later by 20th-century movies that it would
be difficult, if not impossible, to determine the real historical
accomplishments of any of them. In this sense, it would be proper
to say that the Wyatt Earp and Jesse James of the dime novels
and movies were not real historical characters. Men by these names
once lived, but they were not the men portrayed in the many fictionalized
accounts of their lives. The real Wyatt Earp and Jesse James have
probably been lost to us in a hopeless maze of legendary embellishments.
The same is true of Jesus of Nazareth. A few scholars seriously
argue that no such person ever existed, and their arguments are
certainly thought provoking and deserving of consideration. Other
biblical scholars (many of them professing Christians) acknowledge
the existence of a man named Jesus but quite frankly admit that
the New Testament gospels greatly embellished his life and that
the actual achievements of the real Jesus were nothing like those
attributed to the Jesus of the gospels. The quasi-historical Jesus
may have been born to a woman named Mary, but certainly she was
not a virgin at the time.
This is the stuff that myths and legends are made of, and folklore
of the times was filled with tales of great men who had been born
to virgins. Even Christians consider those folk tales to be nothing
but quaint legends, so by what rule of logic do they insist on
making Jesus an exception to the general rule? They have no reasonable
answer to this question.
Likewise, the quasi-historical Jesus may have attracted a following,
but it isn't reasonable to believe that vast multitudes thronged
to him in the manner claimed for the New Testament Jesus. Mark
said that "a great multitude from Galilee... and from Jerusalem,
Idumea and beyond the Jordan, and... from Tyre and Sidon"
once followed him to the Sea of Galilee (3:7-8). So huge was the
multitude that Jesus told his disciples to keep a boat ready for
him to board, "lest [the multitude] crush him" (v:9).
Matthew claimed that "great multitudes followed [Jesus] from
Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the
Jordan" (4:25). In the verse before this, Matthew said that
"his fame went throughout all Syria" so that the people
there "brought to him all sick people who were afflicted
with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed,
epileptics, and paralytics."
All of this presumably happened, but no one in Syria, Idumea,
Tyre, or Sidon left any record of the mass hysteria that the Jesus
of the New Testament created. Only the New Testament gospels mention
the huge crowds that he attracted. As Rob Berry points out in
his article [ref004]The Fivefold Challenge
(p. 10, this edition), historical silence in some matters is quite
telling, and such is the case in the matter of public attention
that the Jesus of the New Testament presumably attracted. If these
gospel accounts are even reasonably close to being accurate, why
did no one in the regions from which the multitudes came ever
mention the crowds that thronged around Jesus? Why did no one
in the places where the crowds gathered (with the exception of
the biased gospel writers) mention these huge crowds? The answer
is that such multitudes probably never existed, because the quasi-historical
Jesus wasn't nearly so popular with his contemporaries as the
gospel writers allege for their Jesus.
The gospel writers claim that Jesus made a triumphal entry into
Jerusalem just before his crucifixion and that "a very great
multitude spread their clothes on the road" and "others
cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road"
(Matt. 21:7-8; Mark 11:8; Luke 19:36) and that multitudes went
before and after him shouting, "Hosanna to the son of David!"
Such vast multitudes as these welcomed Jesus into the city and
then just a short time later crowds were screaming for Pilate
to crucify him. Who can believe it? There may have been a quasi-historical
Jesus who was crucified during Pilate's administration, but it
is unreasonable to believe that this Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem
so enthusiastically by huge crowds only to have mobs demanding
his crucifixion just a few days later. In this sense, we can assume
that the Jesus of the gospels never existed.
If there was a quasi-historical Jesus who was crucified by the
Romans, certainly his execution did not occur as recorded in the
New Testament. All three synoptic gospels claim that while Jesus
was on the cross, darkness fell "over all the land"
from the sixth hour until the ninth hour (Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33;
Luke 23:44). In all three accounts of this event, the word land
has been translated from the Greek word ge, which can mean "earth,"
so it is quite possible that all three gospel writers intended
to say that the three hours of darkness covered the whole earth.
In fact, the KJV even translates the word as earth in Luke's version:
"(T)here was darkness over all the earth."
Whether the synoptic writers intended to say that darkness covered
the whole earth for three hours is really immaterial, because
their language is such that they obviously didn't mean that this
was only a phenomenon that was localized to the city of Jerusalem.
They claimed that darkness covered "all the land" for
a period of three hours, beginning at midday, so this would have
been at least a regional event that would have been noticed and
mentioned in the contemporary records of other nations. Who can
seriously imagine a three-hour period of darkness happening in
midday without references to it being recorded in Egypt, Greece,
Syria, Arabia, Persia, and the other nations that would have experienced
it? Even if it were merely a regional darkness, we can reasonably
expect that other writers of the time would have referred to it.
The fact that no such records exist is reason to believe that
this midday darkness was simply another part of the legends and
myths that evolved as Christianity grew.
We can say the same about Matthew's reference to the "many
saints" who were resurrected after an earthquake opened their
tombs at the moment of Jesus's death and who later went into the
city and appeared unto "many" (27:52-53). Such an event
as this would have attracted far more attention than the resurrection
of Jesus, because its results would have been witnessed by far
more people, but no one else besides Matthew (not even Mark or
Luke) mentioned this remarkable event. Rationality, then, requires
us to interpret this story as just another legend that developed
along with Christianity. A quasi-historical Jesus may have been
crucified, but certainly his death was not accompanied by a mass
resurrection. Such an event simply would not have passed unnoticed
by historians of the time.
Bible fundamentalists, of course, will contend that these are
all arguments from silence, but sometimes silence can scream to
those whose minds have not been numbed by religious indoctrination.
Since Rob Berry discusses this point quite well in his article
(p. 10), there is no need to comment further on it. Suffice it
to say that there are many good reasons to assume that the Jesus
of the gospels never existed.
Some will also dismiss these points as just the rantings of a
cynical atheist, but the average churchgoer doesn't realize that
radical revision is taking place in modern Christian thought.
Many seminaries teach their students some of the same things that
we publish in _The_Skeptical_Review_, so it isn't at
all uncommon to find Christian scholars who agree that the real
Jesus was very different from the fictionalized Jesus of the gospels.
After its March meeting in Santa Rosa, California, the Jesus Seminar,
a group of Christian scholars dedicated to identifying the real
historical Jesus, announced their belief that the "story
of the historical Jesus ended with his death on the cross and
the decay of his body." The group concluded that "whatever
Jesus' followers experienced after the crucifixion, it happened
in their hearts and minds, not as a matter of history." Speaking
for the group, Stephen J. Patterson, an associate professor of
New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, said,
"`God raised Jesus from the dead' is a statement of faith,
not historic fact."
These quotations have been taken from an article from Religion
News Service that was published in various newspapers last March,
so their accuracy can easily be verified. That they represent
conclusions reached by conscientious Christian scholars rather
than atheists and skeptics indicates the transition that is presently
occurring in Christian thought. The average church member who
doubts the major points in this article has simply not kept up
with the latest scholarship.
FREE SUBSCRIPTION: A free one-year subscription to _The_Skeptical_
Review_ can be obtained by emailing [ref005]Jftill@aol.com or by writing to P.O. Box
717, Canton, IL 61520-0717.
File contributed by [ref006]Farrell Till; page
maintained by the [ref007]Internet Infidels.
[ref011]Copyright © 1995 [ref012]Internet Infidels.
HTML Reproduction Rights Reserved.