Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Was Jesus an historical figure?

Here's another debate I had on debate.org. The resolution for the debate was, "This house believes that Jesus Christ was a historical figure." This was one of my favourite debates on debate.org. Unfortunately, my opponent forfeited the last round. I'm pretty sure I would've won anyway, but I'd rather have won on the merits than because he forfeited.

You can read the whole debate at the link, but here is my opening:

Thanks to Steven_Hawking for accepting my challenge even though I didn't meet the criteria in your debate proposal.


No argument can get off the ground without mutually agreed upon premises, so I'm going to begin with some relatively uncontroversial assumptions in hopes that Con will not dispute them. We have limited space.

You might think the Bible is one source because it's usually bound under one cover, but it's actually a collection of writings from various authors, places, and times.

The earliest writings are from Paul, and there are seven authentic letters that date from c. 50 CE to 59 CE: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, & Philemon.[1] Mark was written c. 70 CE, Matthew and Luke in the 80's, and John in the 90's.[2]

Within these writings are earlier sources. Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source, but they share material not found in Mark, which scholars designate "Q." There is also material unique to Matthew and Luke designated 'M' and 'L' respectively.[3] Luke claims that by the time of his composition, many had already written an account of Jesus (Luke 1:1-2), so he apparently had several sources. There is also an Aramaic substratum in both Paul and the gospels, which is evidence of earlier sources of information.[4] In addition, there is evidence of oral traditions and early hymns about Jesus in Paul's letters, the gospels, and in Acts.[5]

I. The presumption of historicity

Apart from any good reason to think Jesus did not exist, we ought to presume he did. All of our earliest sources talk about Jesus as if he were a real person living in the recent past. There is nothing extraordinary about the existence of Jesus. He was one among many Jews in the first century who made lofty claims about himself, made people believe he could do miracles, gathered followers, and got himself killed. Josephus mentions several revolutionary type figures (some messiahs) who are only mentioned once, and scholars don't doubt their existence because there's no reason to.

II. Authority

Of the thousands of New Testament historians around the world, there is only one who doubts the existence of Jesus--Robert Price. There is also one ancient historian (Richard Carrier) who doubts the existence of Jesus. As far as I know, though, neither Carrier nor Price have published in academic journals on the non-existence of Jesus. They only raise their objections to the historical Jesus in popular literature that does not require peer review.

The consensus on the existence of Jesus is much stronger among NT historians than the consensus on evolution by random mutation and natural selection among biologists. There are many scientists in the field of biology who doubt evolution by random mutation and natural selection.[6]

Arguments from authority are not fallacious as long as the authority you cite is actually an expert on the subject, and as long there's a strong consensus among the experts on the point. In this case, what I mean by "expert" is a person who holds a PhD. in the field, is published in peer reviewed academic journals, and teaches (or has taught) in their field at the university or seminary level. I grant that it's possible for the experts to all be wrong, but if you're going to take a stand against the consensus of experts, you ought to have really good reasons.

III. Explanatory power

The existence of Jesus is the best explanation of the origin of Christianity. One would be hard pressed to find a more obvious, natural, simple, parsimonious explanation than the one that jumps out at us. It explains, in a straight forward way, why all of our sources point to Jesus as the originator of the movement, why there were people claiming to be his apostles, and why the movement was successful even though it originated in the city where it was claimed that he made a public scene and was publicly crucified.

IV. Crucifixion

Messianic hope resulted from the belief that God had promised that David's dynasty would last forever (2 Samuel 7:16) and the fact that David's dynasty ended during the Babylonian crisis in the 6th century BCE. The messianic king was supposed to be a fulfillment of that promise (Jeremiah 33:14-22). He would be a descendant of David, and his coming would be accompanied by a full return from exile that included the reunion of Judah and Israel (Ezekiel 37:21-23), national sovereignty, and an era of peace and prosperity free from the shackles of oppressors (Ezekiel 37:24-28).

Messianic expectation was especially intense from 6 CE to 70 CE because after the failure of Archeleus (son of king Herod) to govern Judea, Roman prefects were sent to govern.[7] While Herod had negotiated with Rome for religious liberties on behalf of the Jews, the Roman prefects continuously threatened those liberties.[8] The Jewish people yearned for a deliverer who would free them from Roman oppression and usher in all the promises God had made to Israel.[9] Their hopes were met with many failed messianic movements.[10]

If a group of people wanted to make up a story about a messiah, and get people to believe it, the last thing they would include in the story is that the messiah--the one to kick out the Romans and sit triumphantly on the throne of David--was defeated by the Romans. They didn't even claim Jesus was killed heroically in battle. Instead, he was killed in the most humiliating way a criminal can be killed--by public crucifixion.

The early Christians were well aware of how counter-intuitive a "crucified messiah" was. Paul said it was a "stumbling block" to Jews and "foolishness" to gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). Luke reports that the disciples were originally disillusioned (Luke 24:21). Besides that, no messianic movement in the first or second century survived the death of its leader.[11] The bar Kochba rebellion was fought over the belief that Simon bar Kosiba was the messiah, but nobody continued to believe in him after he died in failure. The number one reason Jews today reject Jesus as messiah is because he died without fulfilling all the promises.[12] The earliest Christians admitted that Jesus was crucified, but tried to redeem it by claiming it was for sins. Such a damage control operation would not have been necessary if Jesus had not be crucified.

The crucifixion of Jesus is a lucidly clear historical fact.[13] That entails that Jesus existed.

V. Personal acquaintance

Paul was personally acquainted with Jesus' brother, James (Galatians 1:18-19), so we have a first hand account of somebody who knew Jesus' brother. That entails that Jesus existed. Matthew and Mark also mention that Jesus had a brother named James (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3).

VI. Nazareth

The messiah was supposed to be from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). However, all four gospels--M (Matthew 2:23), L (Luke 2:39-40), Mark (Mark 1:9, 24), and John (John 1:45-46)--report that Jesus was from Nazareth. We know they were aware of the problem because Matthew and Luke both go to the trouble of explaining how Jesus was born in Bethlehem inspite of being Jesus of Nazareth, and John reports the opposition raised against Jesus on the basis that he was from Nazareth in Galile rather than from Bethlehem (John 1:46; 7:41-42, 52). If Jesus was made up, then the gospel writers were knowingly creating problems for themselves they could've easily avoided.


[1] L. Michael White, From Jesus to Christianity, 146

[2] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, 42-43

[3] Ibid., 44

[4] White, p. 122ff

[5] Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus, p. 143ff

[6] http://www.discovery.org…

[7] Werner Foerster, trans. Gordon E. Harris, From the Exile to Christ, 92

[8] Ibid. 84

[9] David Goldberg & John Rayner, The Jewish People, 75

[10] Foerster, 107-108

[11] N.T. Wrght, Jesus and the Victory of God, 110

[12] http://jew-with-a-view.blogspot.com…

[13] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (XIII-XXI), 792


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