An article in the Stanford Daily today caught my attention: Jesus Never Lived, Speaker Says.
My first thought was a bit carnal — how come our events don’t get the same coverage in the Daily? We almost certainly draw more people (as when Dr. Bill Craig lectured on the existence of God to a crowd of hundreds) and our views are certainly controversial (God exists, Jesus is God, sin is real, salvation is possible, etc).
My second thought was more focused: I should respond to this. I hear more and more students talking about the existence of Jesus as though there is some real controversy, so I shouldn’t let this pass without comment.
Now I wasn’t at the talk, so I don’t know exactly what the speaker said. All I know is what the article claims the speaker said. He could have been considerably more effective at making his point than the article seems to indicate. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a critique of the speaker so much as a reflection on the whole notion of Jesus being a make-believe person.
According to the article, there are two clues that Jesus never existed:
1) Paul didn’t talk about the details of Jesus’ life
2) The stories about Jesus sound pretty amazing.
So Paul didn’t talk about the details of Jesus’ life in his letters. I find this unsurprising given that I, an ordained Pentecostal missionary, rarely do so in my own letters. Even when writing letters devoted to theology I rarely talk about Jesus’ life the way that the speaker seemed to assume that Paul should have:
“Paul never discusses Jesus’ family, his deeds, where he went or where he came from,” Carrier said. “He never discusses any of his confrontations with the authorities, nor any disputes about what he taught. He says Jesus became flesh, was crucified and buried, but he never says when or where or positions these events in any historical context.”
I rarely bring up these details because they are assumed to be the background for the conversation, in much the same way that I rarely mention the details of George Bush’s life when discussing his politics. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in or am unaware of the fact that he has daughters — it just means that I don’t always consider them germane.
To insist that Paul should have mentioned such details as evidence that he believed Jesus was a real person seems quite arbitrary to me, especially given that he mentions Jesus by name 198 times with absolutely no indication that he’s referring to a made-up individual. No one would argue that I don’t believe in George Bush on such grounds, and so I don’t see why we should think that this is evidence that Paul didn’t believe in Jesus.
As to Jesus’ life sounding pretty amazing — ya think? That sort of seems to be the point. The claim that Jesus was God in human form almost requires that certain amazing events occur throughout his life. So I sort of scratch my head when the guest lecturer says:
“Jesus conforms so closely to the criterion of a mythic hero the probability that he was a mythic hero increases substantially,” he said. “There are 22 features that have been identified by scholars that are commonly shared by many mythic heroes. They can be ranked with a score according to how many features they have. Jesus clearly scores at least 19 out of 22.”
Jesus scores higher on this scale than almost all other heroes, including Hercules and Romulus, Carrier said. Only Oedipus scores higher.
“Jesus competes for second place only with Theseus and Moses,” he said. “Everyone who scores more than 11 on this scale is most likely mythical. No historical figures who accumulated some of these features by chance or legend, such as Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar, scores even as high as 11.”
Well of course he scores quite high. That’s like pointing out that NBA players are tall and athletic. How do you think they score all those points? Jesus being extraordinary is simply evidence that he was extraordinary. Whether he was extraordinary by not existing or extraordinary by being God is the question the guest speaker wished to address — but his argument does nothing to tip the balance.
Against these feeble arguments stands the scholarly consensus that there was actually a man named Jesus. Why is there such a consensus? Because in addition to the Bible, there is plenty of external evidence that Jesus lived. For example:
- Tacitus (55–117 A.D.): Annals 15.44 (search for Christians on the page)
- Suetonius (70–160 A.D.): Life of Claudius 25.4 (search for Chrestus)
- Josephus (37–100ish A.D.): Antiquities 18.3.3 (see also a critical version of the text) and Antiquities 20.9.1
There’s a very helpful (although incomplete) article summarizing these and other extrabiblical sources about Jesus which includes a discussion of the reliability of the Josephus text.
I think the reporter was wise to include this disclaimer the guest speaker offered:
Despite this evidence, Carrier was quick to point out that this is just a theory.
“We need to go out and interact with the community and see if it stands up to the evidence,” he said. “I’m not here declaring that this is absolutely true and it would be foolish to deny it. We’re not at that stage yet.
“The normal procedure is to assume that a person who is claimed to be historical is historical,” he continued, “unless there is a reason to doubt it. I believe this is an appropriate principle. For example, merely lacking evidence is not enough of an argument for someone not existing historically. You need actual evidence for them being mythified.”
I am still awaiting such evidence.