Evidence Considered: Did Jesus Really Exist?

This is an excerpt from Evidence Considered: A Response to Evidence for God (available here)

Evidence for God is a book edited by William Dembski and Michael Licona that presents fifty arguments for faith from the Bible, history, philosophy, and science. In this excerpt, I respond to the twenty-seventh chapter by Paul L. Maier entitled: “Did Jesus Really Exist?” This is one of the chapters in the section of the book on the question of Jesus. The endnotes have been removed, and where possible replaced with hyperlinks.

The book now turns to the question of Jesus, switching from deism all the way to Christianity, or at least some subset of it. From my perspective, a close examination of the specific, historical claims made by religions presents a far greater existential challenge to them than the scientific discussion does. I am not interested in sophistry: I just want to know what is true; what can we realistically know. As such, I will respond chapter by chapter to each of the fifteen essays in this section on the Question of Jesus and the nine essays in the next which considers the question of the Bible. We begin by considering Paul L. Maier’s essay entitled: “Did Jesus Really Exist?”

Evidence for God is going to build the case for the resurrection of Christ step-by-step over the next few chapters, culminating in Chapter 35. As such, each chapter does not necessarily contain evidence for God on its own, but I will consider the claims and evidence each provides nonetheless. Maier starts with the claim that Jesus was an actual historical figure. He presents evidence from the Bible, from Christian writing, from Jewish writing such as Josephus, and secular writing such as Tacitus. He comments that:

Skeptics should focus instead on whether or not Jesus was more than a man. That, at least, could evoke a reasonable debate among reasonable inquirers rather than a pointless discussion with sensationalists who struggle to reject the obvious.

Response

This essay does not present evidence for God. I could quibble with some of the evidence he presents. For example, the “many messianic predictions in the Old Testament” are not exactly impressive since the New Testament authors are all too aware of them as they write their stories, often stating baldly that something “took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet.” There is no evidence that Herod the Great (who died in 4 BCE anyway) tried to terminate the young Jesus (more on this shortly). But I do accept that Jesus was an historical figure, so I am happy to concede this point and will discuss this more below.

I should comment that Maier’s statement that there could be “a reasonable debate” as to “whether or not Jesus was more than a man” concedes more than he might expect. The notion that Jesus is God is an extraordinary claim, and as such needs unassailable evidence. If the point is still up for debate, then the rational position is to assume it is not true until the case is made. So this simple concession, in fact, is an excellent exemplar of the atheist position, at least as it pertains to Christianity. The atheist position also incorporates the view that other religions present equally unconvincing evidence, with which most Christians would agree.

There are ample reasons to accept that Jesus of Nazareth existed. To me, the biggest reason is the sheer weakness of the link between him and the rest of the Bible. If the story were going to be invented from scratch, Jesus would not have come from Nazareth, as it is inconvenient for the early Christian writers. This is a simple point, but let me first set a little context.

Paul, writing first, is remarkably short on biographical details: he makes no mention of Nazareth, Jesus’s parables, Jesus’s miracles, healings or casting out of demons, any of his Galilean ministry, the passion in Jerusalem, Calvary, Bethlehem, Galilee, the transfiguration, the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the temple, the interrogation by the Sanhedrin, the conflict with the authorities, the garden of Gethsemane, the thieves crucified with Jesus, the weeping women, the time or place of the crucifixion, Judas and his betrayal, Pilate, the trial, his rejection in favor of Barabbas, or the tomb.

The first of the gospels to be written was Mark. Much can be said on the gospels, but of relevance to us now is that Jesus came from Nazareth, though, according to Old Testament prophecy, was meant to come from Bethlehem. Early Christians would surely wonder about this, and neither Paul nor the writer of Mark resolved the issue. The writers of Matthew and Luke, writing independently from each other (though with a copy of Mark in front of them), decided to set the record straight.

I should also note that these gospels may be a genuine attempt to record stories circulating at the time. Luke certainly set out to do so, though Matthew seems a little looser with his facts. In any event, it is possible for legends to grow through the gradual reification of speculation. In other words, a listener of something speculative firms it up a little before passing it on. It is hard to tell. But, with the above context, the facts of the Nazareth-Bethlehem link can now be set down in a very straightforward way.

Matthew has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem in their own house. There is no mention of inns, innkeepers, stables or mangers. The wise men see in the stars (astrologically) that a king is to be born and head out to find him (there is no other reference to this star in or out of the Bible). Then a star leads them, ultimately positioning itself directly over the house. Despite this, Herod is not able to find Jesus himself, so he decides to kill all the young boys in the slaughter of the innocents. There is no external evidence for this, though Josephus, for example, kept close track of Herod’s various atrocities. The family flees to Egypt (not a trivial journey), but that supposedly ties in with Hosea 11:1. After Herod dies, they come back, but decide not to go back to their home, choosing rather to go to Nazareth, which Matthew claims is also prophesied although the word Nazareth does not, in fact, appear in the Old Testament, and there is no extant prophecy of the sort. No other source corroborates any of this, not even the rest of the Bible.

Luke, meanwhile, has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth and tells us that they were made to go to Bethlehem by a census. There is no evidence of this census: Quirinius had one in 6 CE, but Luke says that it occurred during the reign of Herod the Great who died in 4 BCE, ten years earlier. Also, Romans, ever pragmatic, did not expect people to travel to a different city, especially not one related to their ancient Jewish ancestry. They counted them where they lived. The idea is not credible and is uncorroborated. Anyway, the family heads to Bethlehem and lays Jesus in a manger, where shepherds visit him. Then they head peacefully back to their home in Nazareth, via Jerusalem, which Luke believes is of central theological importance (he changes Mark’s resurrection location from Galilee to Jerusalem, for example). There is no mention of wise men or any kind of slaughter.

So Matthew changes their home from Bethlehem to Nazareth with an uncorroborated slaughter of the innocent and an improbable detour to Egypt. Again there are theological motivations for this, as Matthew was trying to establish Jesus as the new Moses. Luke tells us that this Nazarene family just happened to have Jesus in Bethlehem because they were briefly visiting there thanks to an uncorroborated census. This establishes that there likely was an historical Jesus of Nazareth because if he were invented from scratch, they would presumably just have had him come from Bethlehem. But the cost is the credibility of both authors. Neither story is plausible, and the two accounts are irreconcilable.

Could the birth narratives be cobbled together somehow? I cannot see how at least not with any integrity. But the more important question is why. Why would you try? Why would you invent hypothetical scenarios to attempt to resolve the dissonance? The only reason I can think of to try would be if you knew that the Bible was the word of God already, which in turn would presuppose that God existed in the first place. I accept that Jesus of Nazareth was an historical character. But it seems that if the Old Testament said something that might apply to the Messiah, then for the early Christian writers that thing must have happened to Jesus, whether or not it did. The example of his birth narrative is just the first of many that we will discuss as this book goes on.

But this is far more than I am trying to establish here. I am merely arguing that I am unpersuaded by the evidence for God in each of these chapters, and the existence of a man called Jesus leaves me unconvinced of the existence of God.

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