Was the ‘Jesus’ of the New Testament a historical person?

By | July 26, 2010

Did the ‘Jesus’ described in the New Testament really exist as a flesh-and-blood person, walking the hills of Galilee, teaching, preaching, healing, and working miracles in Palestine?

I don’t think so.

Here is a summary of my reasons, gotten from a study of a variety of popular and scholarly writings on the subject. Of course, there’s much more to be said.

1) References in the New Testament were written long after the events described and are very problematic. In many instances they’re not consistent with each other and not consistent with known historical facts. For example, the ‘Jesus’ of the Synoptics is very different from ‘Jesus’ of the fourth Gospel (John) and from the ‘Jesus’ of Pauline writings. There is much evidence to suggest the various accounts of ‘Jesus’ were written to serve doctrinal purposes, not as historical accounts of an actual person.

2) References in Jewish writings of the time and those referring to the time of ‘Jesus’ are sketchy and very inconclusive, and do not even make a clear connection to the Jesus of the Gospels. The oldest surviving documents of the time —the Dead Sea Scrolls— do not even mention ‘Jesus’ or any of the episodes described in the Gospels.

3) There are virtually no independent, secular references to the man Jesus, certainly none which can be used as clear evidence that he did exist. References in the writings of Josephus are problematic, probably later interpolations. Those by Tacitus are even more doubtful. The best one can do is point out that other figures in the Jesus stories appear to be historical individuals; e.g. John the Baptist, Pontius Pilate, and maybe Peter and James the Righteous (the brother?).

4) Many aspects of the Jesus story are clearly the stuff of myth and legend, e.g. Paul’s version of the Christ who died to redeem mankind; and the ‘Jesus’ of the fourth Gospel (John) where he is identified with the spiritual Logos, a Greek concept.

5) Therefore, most probably the composite ‘Jesus’ of the synoptic Gospels, of the Gospel John and of Paul’s writings did not really exist. The ‘Jesus’ of the New Testament is more likely the product of developing Christian doctrine of the late 1st and 2nd centuries.

Corollary: If there is a historical basis for the figure of ‘Jesus,’ he is likely a Jewish preacher-teacher-healer who existed in the early decades of the first century, lived in the areas of Galilee and Jerusalem, attracted a following and enough attention to get himself executed by the authorities, likely, the Roman authorities, with the likely complicity of the Jewish Temple authorities).
(Call him “Yeshua.”)
[There are many theories and legends as to who this individual really was and what he actually did and taught.]

Reflections on the problem:

Suppose we have this situation: All significant references to someone known as “Q” are consistent with each other and consistent with contemporary, known facts. Unless we have reason for thinking otherwise, the reasonable hypothesis is that these various references point to the same individual “Q”; this ‘working hypothesis’ will be stronger when there are living people who knew and interacted with Q. Generally in such cases it is plausible (sometimes easy) to separate facts about Q from fiction/myth/legends/exaggerations/etc. about Q.

None of this applies to the ‘Jesus’ of the New Testament.

But these things apply to most, unproblematic figures from the past, even the distant past. We have no reason for doubting that Abe Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson existed, although in each case much fiction and myth can confuse the issue. We know that JFK existed, as did Martin Luther King, and Ronald Reagan, although they’re no longer around. Many people are still with us who knew them personally and interacted with them. No problem as to existence and identity here. Even in the case of the ancient figures, such as Plato, Aristotle, Euripides, or medieval figures like Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Martine Luther, or later figures like Baruch Spinoza, Leonardo DeVinci, and Galileo — we don’t have any reason for doubting that they existed and did —more or less— what they’re credited with (or blamed for) doing.

The case of Socrates presents interesting questions, in some ways comparable to questions regarding Jesus, but in significant ways very different. Likely there aren’t any credible reasons for questioning the existence of an individual known as Socrates, even if it is true that he did not leave any written works. Generally, we can agree that Socrates is a historical figure who existed in ancient Athens; but we’re mostly limited to the writings of others, primarily, Plato (also Xenophon and Aristophanes) for specific information about the man. These writers lived during the lifetime of Socrates (contrary to the writers who first inform us about the man, Jesus) and their writings were read by people who had independent knowledge of Socrates; so Plato could not take too many liberties with his characterization of Socrates. Therefore, we can rely on the descriptions given by Plato, Xenophon, and even Aristophanes’ satire, as fairly good guides to the character and tendencies of Socrates. Furthermore, there is nothing that suggests a legendary, supernatural figure in all this, contrary to some of what we find with regard to Jesus.

We are presented with problems of identity and existential status when the referenced figure existed long before the direct memory and experience of anyone still living; and when the references to this figure are problematic: e.g., inconsistent with each other, inconsistent with known historical facts, laden with the stuff of myth and legend, and devoid of a significant body of unproblematic references. In such cases, it is virtually impossible to separate fact from fiction; and virtually impossible to expose the historical, factual individual “J”. We have no way of establishing, for a neutral, objective observer, that multiple references to “J” are really pointing to the same individual. We have no clear grounds for denying that most references to “J” are references to a fictional, mythical figure.

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