Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Jesus' Existence: Some General Principles

I imagine that most readers have heard by now about the Italian judge who ordered a priest to present an argument for the existence of Jesus. Though historians acknowledge Jesus' existence, the claim that He didn't exist is popular in some places, such as in some online circles.

Since the evidence for Jesus' existence is so extensive, this is a subject that can be discussed at much length, and some people have provided that sort of lengthy treatment, such as J.P. Holding. What I want to do here is give a brief outline, touching on a few of the general considerations we should keep in mind.

We ought to recognize at the start that Jesus is mentioned by a lot of ancient sources, and that there are fewer sources for other figures whose existence the Jesus deniers generally accept. Where does Josephus mention Paul? Where does Tacitus mention John the Baptist? When a source doesn't mention a historical figure, or mentions him only briefly, there's a variety of possible explanations for such a treatment of that figure. Even a highly significant historical figure might be ignored or only discussed briefly by a source because of that source's low view of that figure's race or religion, for example. It's also possible that a source isn't confident about what to make of a particular historical figure, such as a figure like Jesus who is reported to have performed miracles, so the source chooses to remain silent because of that uncertainty. There are a lot of factors involved in making these judgments. It isn't a matter of every historical figure's being mentioned in proportion to his historical significance.

One of the most significant problems with the concept of Jesus' non-existence is the chronology of the extant sources. Even those who deny Jesus' existence acknowledge that there are sources in the early second century, for example, who refer to Him as a historical figure. And they often argue that the earliest Christian leaders, such as Paul, didn't believe in a historical Jesus. Do the math. Would contemporaries of Jesus still be alive in the early second century? Yes, a small number would be. Quadratus, writing in the early second century, even refers to some people who lived down to his time who had personally been healed or raised from the dead by Jesus (Eusebius, Church History, 4:3). Would contemporaries of Paul still be alive in the early second century? Yes. Do the early Christians or their enemies show any knowledge of an argument against Jesus' existence? No. It's unlikely that somebody like Tacitus would uncritically accept whatever he heard from Christian sources. If Jesus didn't exist, there surely would be at least some non-Christians who would be saying so, and Tacitus probably would have heard from them.

Much more could be said, but I'll close with a couple of quotes from some scholars who put this issue in its proper perspective:

"Without immediate political repercussions, it is not surprising that the earliest Jesus movement does not spring quickly into the purview of Rome’s historians; even Herod the Great finds little space in Dio Cassius (49.22.6; 54.9.3). Josephus happily compares Herodotus’s neglect of Judea (Apion 1.60-65) with his neglect of Rome (Apion 1.66)." (Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 64, n. 205)

"New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, who served as an editor for and contributor to a large scholarly work on the Gospels, provides four reasons why more was not written on Jesus in his time: 'the humble beginnings of Christianity, the remote location of Palestine on the eastern frontiers of the Roman empire, the small percentage of the works of ancient Graeco-Roman historians which have survived, and the lack of attention paid by those which are extant to Jewish figures in general.'...What we have concerning Jesus actually is impressive....let's take a look at Julius Caesar, one of Rome's most prominent figures....Only five sources report his military conquests....If Julius Caesar really made a profound impact on Roman society, why didn't more writers of antiquity mention his great military accomplishments? No one questions whether Julius did make a tremendous impact on the Roman Empire....Tiberius Caesar was the Roman emperor at the time of Jesus' ministry and execution. Tiberius is mentioned by ten sources within 150 years of his death: Tacitus, Suetonius, Velleius Paterculus, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Seneca, Valerius Maximus, Josephus, and Luke. Compare that to Jesus' forty-two total sources in the same length of time. That's more than four times the number of total sources who mention the Roman emperor during roughly the same period. If we only considered the number of secular non-Christian sources who mention Jesus and Tiberius within 150 years of their lives, we arrive at a tie of nine each." (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], pp. 127-128)