Did Historical Jesus Really Exist?

On December 18th, the WaPo published an article challenging the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus by Raphael Lataster, a historian who claims Jesus didn't exist. It seems an interesting topic for discussion.

Lataster's main claims about the historical documents are:

The first problem we encounter when trying to discover more about the Historical Jesus is the lack of early sources. The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith. These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them. The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources – which they also fail to identify. Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.
The methods traditionally used to tease out rare nuggets of truth from the Gospels are dubious. The criterion of embarrassment says that if a section would be embarrassing for the author, it is more likely authentic. Unfortunately, given the diverse nature of Christianity and Judaism back then (things have not changed all that much), and the anonymity of the authors, it is impossible to determine what truly would be embarrassing or counter-intuitive, let alone if that might not serve some evangelistic purpose. 
The criterion of Aramaic context is similarly unhelpful. Jesus and his closest followers were surely not the only Aramaic-speakers in first-century Judea. The criterion of multiple independent attestation can also hardly be used properly here, given that the sources clearly are not independent. 
Paul’s Epistles, written earlier than the Gospels, give us no reason to dogmatically declare Jesus must have existed. Avoiding Jesus’ earthly events and teachings, even when the latter could have bolstered his own claims, Paul only describes his “Heavenly Jesus.” Even when discussing what appear to be the resurrection and the last supper, his only stated sources are his direct revelations from the Lord, and his indirect revelations from the Old Testament. In fact, Paul actually rules out human sources (see Galatians 1:11-12). 
Also important are the sources we don’t have. There are no existing eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus. All we have are later descriptions of Jesus’ life events by non-eyewitnesses, most of whom are obviously biased. Little can be gleaned from the few non-Biblical and non-Christian sources, with only Roman scholar Josephus and historian Tacitus having any reasonable claim to be writing about Jesus within 100 years of his life. And even those sparse accounts are shrouded in controversy, with disagreements over what parts have obviously been changed by Christian scribes (the manuscripts were preserved by Christians), the fact that both these authors were born after Jesus died (they would thus have probably received this information from Christians), and the oddity that centuries go by before Christian apologists start referencing them.

He has some other things to say, and a number of links within the above text as well to other authors, but that's the gist of it. This is a new argument to me, though I've heard rumblings of it before. I've heard Christian apologists make the opposite claim that, while clearly the miracles and any supernatural parts can be disbelieved, that the case that Jesus was a historical figure is clear for all to see. I actually haven't looked that much into it, though. Any have any good sources on this? Any thoughts about it?


Dad29 said...

Without looking all of this up........as I recall, both Matthew and Mark's Gospels are dated before 40AD, with Matthew decidedly first. It is claimed with good evidence that Peter narrated to Matthwe...

Further, other historical data support the 'historicity' of Christ; some of that data is from Hebrew (Josephus)historians, other from Greek? or Roman? historians.

Finally, "50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong." Unlike other historical hoaxes, which usually faded away after 50 or 100 years, this one hasn't. And it has survived despite having some pretty awful people being in charge of the Church, too. That has to count for something....

james said...

I take it that he thinks a purely fictional character somehow persuaded people like Paul to spend and risk their lives teaching about him.

Christopher B said...

Dad29 - my initial thought was this guy is buying into the at least debatable assumption that the Gospels weren't written until a century or more after Christ, as you did.

Grim said...

For what it's worth, the author's own former professor is publicly embarrassed by his student's assertions.

Dad29 said...

the Gospels weren't written until a century or more after Christ, as you did.

To be clear: I believe--as does scholarship as a whole--that ALL the Gospels were written before 100 AD, with John's being the last.

MikeD said...

The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources – which they also fail to identify.


By this standard, there has been little to no history of antiquity that can be trusted! Herodotus himself (the "Father of History") never lays out his qualifications nor shows any criticisms of his foundational sources... nor indeed does he always identify them. No wonder this guy's professor is embarrassed by him!

Tom said...

There are no existing eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus.

I've always taken Matthew, Mark, and John to be eyewitness testimony, myself, though the authors don't identify themselves or say as much. Luke does claim to have interviewed witnesses, though, I believe.

Something Lataster doesn't do is compare with another historical figure from that period. For example, what kind of evidence do we have for other figures from that day?

It is amusing that his own professor said Lataster's article wouldn't get a passing grade. More than anything, Lataster's thesis strikes me as much a publicity stunt as anything.

My hesitation in addressing this is that I just don't know how to evaluate documents from that period and place. What was normal? What is considered acceptable?

Dad29 said...

a publicity stunt

Timing is right. Next big publicity stunt time will be Easter.

Grim said...

So, the standards for historiography don't emerge until the 19th century. Before that, there are no certain standards. As Mike mentions, Herodotus included a great deal of what looks like legend in his history -- and he is widely considered the first historian.

Then there is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an attempt to record the most important events of a given year. It's a pretty sober document, scribed by monks in a wealthy land. So in the year 793, we read:

"This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter. Siga died on the eighth day before the calends of March."

Now the Lindisfarne raid almost certainly happened exactly as described, and I'll bet that Siga really died on the day mentioned. Was the famine real? Maybe, although its extent can't be easily estimated from this source alone.

What about the fiery dragons? We've got just as good a warrant for them as we have for the rest of it. But, to paraphrase Chesterton, we also have a doctrine against dragons.

douglas said...

" these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament."

Gonna go out on a limb here and suggest the Northern Lights dipping down low that year.

Or dragons. Could be either.

Elise said...

Perhaps these sources will be helpful:

In The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, the chapter “You Can’t Take the Bible Literally” contains a number of footnotes that reference works on the age, provenance, and reliability of the Gospels. (Your local library probably has Keller’s book. If not, try the Patheos post in the next paragraph.)

The Patheos post “Christopher Hitchens: My Response to god is not Great” contains a number of references relating to the historical accuracy of the Gospels, some of them duplicates of those in Keller’s book. (This is referenced in The Irrational Atheist, in which the author makes the claim that “[t]he textual case for the historical Jesus is orders of magnitude stronger than the one for the historical Alexander the Great…” I have no idea is that’s accurate - don’t know enough about Alexander, for one thing - but it’s a great line.)

The chapter in the Keller book is 10 years old and the Patheos post is between 7 and 11 years old; both are responsive to particular challenges prominent at those times (The Da Vinci Code and the Hitchens book, respectively). My impression is that this field of study changes rapidly. So it’s worth noting that the cover story of the December 2017 issue of National Geographic is “The Real Jesus: What Archaeology Reveals About His Life.” I have not read the entire article but early on it quotes three scholars (an archaeologist/professor in Judaic studies; an archaeologist/history professor; and a former priest/co-chair of the Jesus Seminar) who all express variations on the idea that “[no] mainstream scholar doubts the historicity of Jesus.”

As for Lataster’s piece, I think it’s worth noting that, according to his former professor, Lataster is not an historian but rather a student of religious philosophy. I’m not sure what it is that drives the New Atheists to not merely write authoritatively about fields other than their own but also to fail to do the most basic research in those fields.

Tom said...

Thanks, Elise. That's very helpful.