Sunday, September 23, 2007

Early Agreement About The Historical Jesus

The existence of Jesus wasn't an issue among the earliest Christians and their enemies. They agreed that Jesus had lived in Israel during roughly the closing years of the first century B.C. and the opening years of the first century A.D. The concept that Jesus didn't exist, or that the earliest Christians thought of Him as having lived in the more distant past or in a non-earthly realm, didn't arise until later in history.

As we see in the earliest New Testament documents and in material that can be dated even earlier (some creeds used by the New Testament authors, for example), the early church viewed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament expectation of an earthly, human Messiah. That Messiah was to have lived under and fulfilled the Jewish law and was to have had other earthly, human characteristics, such as descent from David. Apparent relatives of Jesus, including supposed members of His immediate family, are prominent in the church in its earliest years, as illustrated in the writings of Paul.

Put yourself in the place of one of Jesus' brothers, a son of James, or a grandchild of Jude, for example, who lived at a time when the church was transitioning from belief in a Jesus who never lived on earth to belief in a Jesus who did live on earth, recently, and was one of your close relatives. Such a change would have widespread implications and would be easily noticed. What if you had been a leader in a Pauline church that had recently been in contact with Paul, and you had taught for decades that Jesus was a non-earthly figure who lived a life radically different from what the gospels describe? Then you see a document (one of the gospels) circulating among the churches that presents a view of Jesus contradicting what Paul had told you and what you had taught for decades. Or put yourself in the place of a relative of Pilate or the Jewish religious leaders at the time when the early Christians were changing their view of Jesus so radically. What would you think of the claim that your relative, Pilate, had condemned God incarnate to death? How would you, as a Pharisee, for example, react to the claim that your recent predecessors were responsible for rejecting and putting to death the Messiah? What if you knew that the people making such assertions had argued for something radically different shortly beforehand? Would you not only not criticize the change, but even corroborate the Christian assertions about Jesus' birthplace, the means by which He died, the existence and emptiness of His tomb, etc.?

For these and many other reasons, the large majority of people, and nearly all scholars with relevant credentials, reject theories suggesting that Jesus didn't exist or that the earliest Christians thought that He had lived significantly earlier, for example. The agreement among the earliest Christians and their enemies regarding Jesus' existence in first century Israel is also the consensus of the modern world and modern scholarship.

In some recent posts, I've mentioned a book by Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, titled The Jesus Legend (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007). Though the book addresses more than the issue of whether Jesus existed, it does address that issue. Eddy and Boyd make many good points, far too many for me to discuss here, but I do want to quote some portions of their comments. For a more extensive treatment of the subject, in addition to reading the book by Eddy and Boyd, see J.P. Holding's web site and Chris Price's material on the subject (here and here). I'm not going to quote what Eddy and Boyd write about the non-Christian sources who are usually discussed in this context (Mara bar Serapion, Josephus, etc.). (Their material on Tacitus is particularly good.) Rather, I'm going to focus on some of their more general comments and some of the evidence they mention that isn't often discussed. The first few sentences are from the conclusion of their discussion of a passage in Justin Martyr that's sometimes misrepresented as evidence of early belief in Jesus' nonexistence:

Trypho [a non-Christian Jew Justin Martyr debated] is not arguing that Christians invented Jesus. Indeed, his argument is actually predicated on Jesus's historical existence, for he is arguing that Christians invented a false conception of Christ and applied it to Jesus. The fact that Trypho assumes Jesus existed throughout the remainder of his debate with Justin Martyr further confirms our interpretation.

Hence, we have no reason to think that Trypho, or anyone else in the first and second centuries, denied that Jesus existed. Given that Christianity had numerous enemies in the ancient world who wanted to expose it as a lie, the absence of this criticism is noteworthy, especially if Jesus was a fabricated figure, as Christ myth theorists contend. We are being asked to accept that the Jesus story was a fabricated myth, even though all the earliest opponents of this supposed myth presuppose it is not a fabrication in the very process of critiquing it....

What is significant is that no one in the ancient world seems to have flatly denied that Jesus performed miracles - let alone that he existed. Rather, they grant that he was a wonder-worker but offer a different manner of explanation for how he performed his feats. And this, it seems, is difficult to explain on the assumption that the Jesus story was nothing more than a recently created legend. If the Jesus story was in fact a recent legend, it seems the ancient critics could have, and most certainly would have, argued this point instead of wasting time offering counterexplanations for his miracles....

We now turn to the claim made by certain legendary-Jesus theorists - particularly those who argue for the more radical Christ myth theory - that Paul is virtually silent about, and largely uninterested in, the (supposed) Jesus of history. In this view, Paul's silence indicates that he did not view Jesus as a recent historical figure. Rather, these scholars argue that Paul viewed Jesus as a mythic deity who performed his saving work in the distant past and/or in the heavenly realm....

since the typical Christ myth thesis understands Paul's view of Jesus as patterned after the savior figures of the ancient mystery religions, this would require that knowledge of these mystery religions be both available and attractive to a first-century Jew - a Pharisee, no less (Phil. 3:5) - like Paul. As we have already suggested, however, neither of these claims is likely (chaps. 2-3). We have no solid evidence that mystery religions existed in the first century in the form proposed by Christ myth theorists. And we have very good evidence suggesting that, even if they had been in existence, first-century Jews would have viewed them with contempt....

From Paul's writings it is evident that he knew a significant amount of detail concerning the life of Jesus. He knew Jesus was born and raised as a Jew (Gal. 4:4) and that he was a descendant of Abraham and David (Gal. 3:6; Rom. 1:3). Paul knew Jesus had a brother named James (Gal. 1:19) and perhaps other brothers as well (1 Cor. 9:5). He knew by name a number of disciples who ministered with Jesus, and he knew that Jesus's disciple Peter was married (1 Cor. 9:5). Paul also knew that Jesus was betrayed (1 Cor. 11:23) and that he was executed by crucifixion (1 Cor. 1:17-18; Gal. 5:11; 6:12; Phil. 2:8; 3:18) with the help of certain Judean Jews (1 Thess. 2:14-15). Paul was aware that Jesus instituted a memorial meal the night before his death (1 Cor. 11:23-25), and that Jesus was buried after his death and was resurrected three days later, a fact he refers to frequently and places a great deal of weight on (Rom. 4:24-25; 1 Cor. 15:4-8; cf. Rom. 6:4-9; 8:11, 34; 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14; Gal. 1:1; 1 Thess. 4:14). As we have noted, in a first-century Jewish context, this affirmation inherently implies the resurrection of a physical body in a historical sense.

Moreover, Paul knew that Jesus's earthly life was characterized by meekness, gentleness, self-sacrificial love, and humble service (2 Cor. 10:1; Phil. 2:5-7). Paul's central passion was to know and be conformed to Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:8-10), and he consistently held up Jesus's life - and his own life as modeled on Jesus's life - as examples to be emulated (1 Cor. 11:1)....

How, for example, could Paul possibly have set conformity with Christ as the goal of his life, and how could he possibly have insisted that others do the same, if he knew and cared little, in concrete detail, about what it was he and other disciples were supposed to conform to? With Paul, as with all other first-century Hellenistic and Jewish models of character, the call to imitate the life of a person presupposed a significant shared body of knowledge about the life that person lived....

Moreover, only on the assumption that Paul and his congregations cared and knew about the life of the one they had devoted their own lives to can we explain the creation of the Gospels. The Gospels are, if not biographies per se, at least biographical in the sense that they "display a didactic concern to portray the character of their subject matter by recounting things he did and said." In other words, they are structured for teaching purposes. But how are we to explain the felt need to provide instruction from the life of Jesus in the church shortly after Paul's death if the extreme legendary-Jesus theorists are right in arguing there had been virtually no interest in, let alone a need for, such information before Paul's death? It seems much more reasonable to assume that from the start the earliest Christian communities felt a need to know about the historical person they had committed their lives to....

It is important to note that Paul always assumed that the faith he came to embrace and preach was the same faith he had earlier sought to destroy (Gal. 1:23; see also 1 Cor. 15:11). This means that Paul did not create the Christian faith he preached; to a significant extent, at least, he inherited it....

Again, we are not denying that Paul believed he received revelations directly from the risen Jesus. But nowhere does he suggest that his knowledge of Jesus is limited to these personal revelations. And he everywhere reflects the conviction that the revelations he received were consistent with the teachings the Christian churches had been passing on from the beginning....

Following Seyoon Kim, we will break down possible instances of Jesus tradition in Paul into two broad categories: (1) certain/probable references, and (2) possible echoes. While assessments of the matter vary significantly, under Kim's analysis there are over twenty-five instances where "Paul certainly or probably makes reference or allusion to a saying of Jesus," and "over forty possible echoes of a saying of Jesus."...

[In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26] The timing (Passover), the Old Testament allusion ("new covenant"; e.g. Jer. 31:31-34), the language ("remembrance" = covenant sign), and even the blood metaphor itself all make sense within a Jewish covenental matrix....

The vast majority of scholars grant that the author of the Gospel of Luke is also the author of the book of Acts. Indeed, the two works are generally understood as two volumes of one work. Yet, in the second volume, Luke chooses to make little use of the Jesus tradition that he obviously is so familiar with (as witnessed by the content of his first volume). As W.A. Strange observes, Luke fails "to provide any substantial teaching from Jesus which would assist the church in solving the problems that he describes in Acts....When the church in Acts faces some perplexity, it does not base its decisions on the teaching of Jesus."

We shall discuss how this curious phenomenon might be explained shortly. But however we explain it, we clearly cannot suggest that the lack of references to the Jesus tradition in Acts in any way reflects an ignorance of, or lack of interest in, that tradition on the part of the author....

The same principle, we suggest, must be applied to Paul. However we explain the scarcity of explicit citations of the Jesus tradition in Paul, we have no reason to follow those legendary-Jesus theorists who suppose it was because he was unaware of, or unconcerned about, Jesus's teaching....

Similarly, Kim notes that John's epistles and the book of Revelation contain few references to traditions found in the Gospel of John. Hence, he concludes, "The scarcity of Paul's explicit reference to Jesus-tradition can hardly mean his lack of knowledge of or interest in it" (pp. 170, 178, 201, 205, 209-211, 215-218, 220, 229, n. 74 on p. 229)


  1. "They agreed that Jesus had lived in Israel during roughly the closing years of the first century B.C. and the opening years of the first century A.D."

    Where does Paul place Jesus in this time period?

  2. Quertmo said:

    "Where does Paul place Jesus in this time period?"

    Since your question might be based on a misconception, I want to address that potential misconception before answering. When I referred to agreement among Christians and non-Christians regarding the timing of Jesus' life, I wasn't suggesting that all Christian and non-Christian sources commented on the subject. Rather, I was referring to agreement among the sources who do comment on it. Paul wouldn't have to have commented on the timing of Jesus' life in order for us to conclude that he viewed Jesus as having lived on earth, that his comments on the subject are consistent with that life having occurred in the early first century A.D., etc.

    But Paul does make some comments that suggest a lifetime in the early first century. He refers to Jesus as a contemporary of Pontius Pilate (1 Timothy 6:13). As Eddy and Boyd mention above, he refers to siblings of Jesus as still living. He refers to Jesus as having risen on the third day, then refers to witnesses of the resurrected Christ as still living (1 Corinthians 15:3-11). The most natural conclusion after reading such comments is that Jesus' death occurred recently enough for contemporaries of that death to still be alive. Assuming some sort of lengthy passing of time between the resurrection and the resurrection appearances would be a less natural reading of the text. Paul often refers to Jesus' life as having fulfilled prophecy and having brought in a new era of history in which he and his contemporaries are living, and he refers to how he's an apostle of the gospel that resulted from that life (Romans 1:1-5, 3:21-22, 16:25-26, 1 Corinthians 10:11, Galatians 1:16, Colossians 1:21-26). Again, the more natural reading of such comments is to see Jesus' life as something that occurred recently. Why should we think that Paul viewed Jesus' life as something that occurred long ago, followed by a large period of time that passed without proclamation, after which the apostles were called to proclaim that life? The combination between Jewish responsibility for Jesus' death (1 Thessalonians 2:15) and a common Roman means of execution under "the rulers of this age" (1 Corinthians 2:8) is consistent with a setting in the first century A.D., and it's consistent with what the gospels describe. Associates of Paul place Jesus in the first century (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, etc.), and the early Pauline churches accepted the gospels and other documents that referred to Jesus as having lived in the first century (see, for example, the relevant portions of Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997]). Remember, as Eddy and Boyd mention above, Paul repeatedly refers to how he's preaching the same gospel and the same Christ as the other apostles were preaching. If Paul believed in a Jesus radically different from the Jesus of the gospels, Acts, etc., then not only should the early Pauline churches have opposed documents like the gospels, but so should the early churches that had been taught by Peter, John, James, etc. But the gospels were universally accepted by the apostolic churches. One of the gospels, Luke's, was even widely referred to as Paul's gospel, and the early Christians didn't perceive any sort of departure from Pauline teaching on the part of Luke:

    "Luke was inseparable from Paul, and his fellow-labourer in the Gospel" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:14:1)

    "that Gospel of Luke which we are defending with all our might has stood its ground from its very first publication...Luke's narrative also they [the apostolic churches] usually attribute to Paul. It is permissible for the works which disciples published to be regarded as belonging to their masters." (Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4:5)

  3. Allow me to add an analogy to Jason's excellent response to Quertmo. If I said that Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered close to the same time that John F. Kennedy was, does this not in fact place King as being killed at some point in the 1960s? In other words, even if I never say, "King was assassinated in 1968" you could still infer the general timeframe, if you know when other historical events occured.

    Jason gave you some of the historical events that Paul links already, so I won't repeat them. I'm only pointing out that sometimes it helps if you imagine a contemporary situation. King works as a good example since it's been 40 years since his death; Paul's writings were widely distributed well before 40 years had passed from Jesus's death and resurrection.

    Since I don't know if Quertmo is a skeptic personally or just wanted clarification on that one point, I'll continue now without referring to him. So, for the skeptics:

    We can use Kennedy's assassination as an analogy too, since there are so many people who have invented so many conspiracy theories about Kennedy's death. Every time a conspriacy theory comes out, there's a response to them. These theories don't exist in a vacuum; they are disputed by others who were alive at the time, and who are still alive today. If someone were to invent a Kennedy resurrection today, how would that be received? Ask yourself this seriously. Then ask yourself what you would say in response to those people.

    Finally, ask yourself why the Pharisees, Romans, and other non-believers did NOT use these same arguments if, in fact, Jesus's resurrection was invented out of the blue a century after his supposed death.

    Then, if you really want a challenge, suppose someone were to say, "At the same time that Kennedy was assassinated, another individual was executed by the state. This individual was named Larry, and his followers are Larists. They worship him because Larry rose from the dead after being executed." There, we have invented wholecloth an individual from that time period.

    Ask yourself seriously how many people would accept the reality of Larry. Ask yourself what arguments you would use to argue against the existence of Larry.

    Then ask yourself why those who argued against Christians didn't use these same arguments against Christians.

  4. Do either of you have anything stronger than what you've presented so far? Or, is this the best you got?

  5. Does quertmo have anything stronger than what he's presented so far? Or, is this the best he's got?

  6. Quertmo said:

    "Do either of you have anything stronger than what you've presented so far? Or, is this the best you got?"

    We don't need to present anything better if you can't refute what we've already presented. And given how you've responded, it does seem that you aren't aware of any way to refute what we've said. But at least your response informs us of your dishonesty. Your response doesn't accomplish much more than that, but at least it accomplishes something.

  7. Jason: "We don't need to present anything better if you can't refute what we've already presented."

    No one said you "need" to do anything. I simply asked if you have anything stronger than what you've presented so far. It's either yes or no.

    Jason: "And given how you've responded, it does seem that you aren't aware of any way to refute what we've said."

    You speak out of ignorance here. How do you know what I'm not aware of based on a couple questions?

    Jason: "But at least your response informs us of your dishonesty."

    How does asking a couple questions make me dishonest?

    Apparently you find my questions threatening. That tells me the answer to my question.

  8. another one bites the dust....

    so long quertmo

  9. No one said you 'need' to do anything. I simply asked if you have anything stronger than what you've presented so far. It's either yes or no."

    No, it's not either yes or no, because it's a trick question. It smuggles into the question the tendentious assumption that Jason's argument is weak. Unless and until you explain how his argument is weak, why should he provide you with a "stronger" argument? That pejorative characterization assumes what you need to prove. Jason only needs to provide a stronger argument on the assumption that his original argument is weak.

    "Apparently you find my questions threatening. That tells me the answer to my question."

    The problem is not that your question is "threatening"; the problem, rather, is that your question begs the question.

    Do you have anything stronger than a question-begging question? Or, is that the best you've got?

    And the fact that you're now looking for an excuse to bug out only goes to show that you're the guy who feels threatened by this exchange. You couldn't be more transparent if you were made of cellophane.

  10. Steve: "you question begs the question.

    "Does you have anything stronger than a question-begging question? Or, is that the best you've got?"

    Ask a simple question, and get loads of attitude in response. Nice.

    If Steve speaks for Jason, then I can only suppose that Jason hasn't anything stronger than what he has presented. Indeed, he's been asked if he has anything stronger than what he has so far provided, and he's offered nothing more. So I have my answer.

    Thanks, Steve.

  11. quertmo,

    I think I speak for all of the Triabloguers when I say that when you say, "Is that the best you've got?" is normatively stated in American culture in an arrogant manner.

    Try saying that phrase in any other forum online and people will not exactly have a positive disposition toward you.

  12. Quertmo said:

    "Indeed, he's been asked if he has anything stronger than what he has so far provided, and he's offered nothing more. So I have my answer."

    Peter, Steve, and I have asked you questions in our responses to you, and you haven't even attempted to answer most of those questions. If you aren't going to answer our questions, why should we answer yours? Peter and I addressed the question you asked in your first post in this thread, and you responded by ignoring the questions we asked you. Instead of answering our questions and attempting to refute our response to your initial question, you asked a second question. And your second question ("is this the best you got") is a question people commonly ask when they're being evasive.

    I shouldn't have to explain this to you, but, no, my initial response to you didn't represent "the best" that I have. I was writing a response to an anonymous poster whose beliefs and intentions were highly unclear. Why should I have made the effort to present "the best" that I have? Some of the subjects involved in my response to you (the Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy, the acceptance of the gospels by the early Pauline churches, etc.) could be discussed in much more depth. If you search the archives of this blog, you'll find many posts on such subjects and many references to articles, books, etc. that address them. My response to you didn't have to be the exhaustive "best" that it could be in order to be sufficient. And, as I said before, I doubt that you would be so evasive in your responses if what I had written wasn't sufficient.

  13. "Ask a simple question, and get loads of attitude in response. Nice."

    Awww, how heartbreaking

  14. Guys, give quertmo a break. I happen to know that he's an ex-boxer. He's punch drunk from all the hits to the head he received. When he asked "is that the best you got" he was confused about where he was. He thought he was back in the ring where he kept saying, "Is that the best you got" after every hit.

    I once heard him talking to kids at the Y, trying to tell them about nicknames. He said, "As a boxa, you gotta have a nih, a nih, does anyone have a nickel?" And he talked about how hard you have to train every day, "Kids, you got to train, train, train, take the train to downtown." It was all rather quite sad, actually. Let's cut him a break.

    So, having cleared the air, we can now ask quertmo if he has an answer to either Jason's post or Jason's answer in the combox? What is his take on Jason's answer? How would he respond? Perhaps if it's in a substantive way, he can get "the best" Jason's got.