Did Jesus Exist? What the Evidence Reveals

By Callahan, Tim | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Did Jesus Exist? What the Evidence Reveals


Callahan, Tim, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


IN RECENT YEARS, THERE HAS BEEN INCREASING attention given to the theory that Jesus never existed but was, rather, a mythical construct. Often such arguments are tinged with ideological bias, sometimes abetted by erroneous claims, such as those made by Dorothy Murdock (a.k.a. Acharya S) that other dying and rising gods had 12 disciples and were crucified. This is often matched by evangelical Christian apologists, who assert--again erroneously--that Jesus is better attested to than such historical figures as Alexander the Great or any of the Caesars. In fact, they argue, since the manuscripts referring to these persons--such as Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars--are only known from copies dating from no earlier than the Middle Ages and, since there are preserved copies of the various gospels that date from late Roman times, Jesus is actually better attested to than either Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. So, they argue, if you accept the existence and record of the lives of Alexander and the various Roman emperors, you must accept the historicity of Jesus and the record of his life as recorded in the gospels. They also make claims such as, "No serious scholar doubts that Jesus existed." For example, the renowned biblical scholar (and nonbeliever) Bart Ehrman also makes such a claim in his most recent book, Did Jesus Exist? Once one argues, "No serious scholar doubts that Jesus existed;' then, by implication, anyone expressing such a doubt can be summarily dismissed as a not being a serious scholar.

Claims of Evangelical Christian Apologists

Consider what evangelical apologist Gary Habermas says about 12 historical facts he asserts that "most critical scholars believe" (www3.telus.net/trbrooks/garyhabermas.htm):

1. Jesus died by crucifixion.

2. Jesus was buried.

3. Jesus' death caused his disciples to despair and lose hope.

4. Jesus' tomb was empty.

5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.

6. The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers because of these experiences.

7. The resurrection was the central message of Jesus' life.

8. The disciples preached the message of Jesus' resurrection in Jerusalem.

9. The church was born and grew.

10. Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.

11. James (the brother of Jesus and the family skeptic) was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus.

12. Paul (also a skeptic) was converted to the faith.

I have no quarrel with items #1-3. As for item #4, the empty tomb, I'm quite sure any honest scholar would point out that, owing to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in CE 70, it is impossible to locate this tomb, even assuming it survived this destruction and that of CE 136 at the end of the Bar Kochba revolt. Furthermore, it is quite possible that the claim made in the gospels that Jesus was laid in the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is false. As one convicted of sedition and put to death by the Romans, Jesus may well have suffered a further, postmortem indignity, in that the Romans might have dumped his body either in a common grave or even in a trash heap, covering it with lime in the process.

For items #5-10, if one were to go to India today I have no doubt one will find followers of this or that guru who claim miracles in his name and/or claim to have seen their late teacher in the flesh or attest to the guru raising the dead. Consider the story of Sai Baba (1926-2011) raising Walter Cowan from the dead, which includes supernatural knowledge and bilocation (being in two places at the same time, a claim often made for Roman Catholic saints), along with raising the dead. You can read this tale at www.saibabaofindia.com/hislop_sai.htm. I strongly doubt that any evangelical Christians would give credence to such appearances. …

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