Friday, February 20, 2015

Some Neglected Arguments For Jesus' Historicity

What's below is a response I recently wrote to an email that brought up the issue of Jesus' existence. It's a summarizing response written quickly, so I can expand upon what I wrote if anybody wants me to.

For those not familiar with mythicism, it's sometimes suggested that Jesus didn't exist or that the earliest Christians were referring to a Jesus who existed in a non-earthly realm, for example. I'm responding to such views in general, so the degree to which my comments are applicable will vary from case to case. I'm focusing on some arguments for Jesus' historicity that are less common. I'm not denying the validity of more popular arguments. Rather, I'm supplementing them:

Here are some of the points I would make about mythicism in general, among many other points that could be made:

- We have good evidence for the Shroud of Turin's authenticity, which gives us something like photographic evidence for Jesus' existence and resurrection. See my posts on the subject in the Triablogue archives.

- Old Testament Messianic expectations suggest a historical Jesus. The Messiah was expected to live on earth, come from an earthly descendant of David, etc. Thus, passages in Paul and other early sources that apply a term like "Messiah" to Jesus or refer to Messianic prophecy fulfillment in Jesus' life, for example, are thereby providing evidence for an earthly, historical figure. In a sense, we shouldn't start our consideration of the evidence for Jesus' existence with the New Testament. We should start with the Old Testament and other pre-Christian sources.

- There's no way to get around the earliness of the gospels. In all likelihood, at least a couple of the gospels were circulating while Paul was still alive. See, for example, my article on the earliness of Luke, and note that my argument stands even if Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy is denied:

And the high view of the gospels found in 1 Timothy and other early Pauline sources, including Pauline churches, is best explained as something that's continuous with Paul's holding a high view of the gospel material. Continuity is more likely than discontinuity.

- Though individual non-Christian sources like Josephus and Tacitus are important, we should start with non-Christian sources in general. Tertullian, for example, comments on how non-Christians in general acknowledge Jesus' historical existence (e.g., Apology, 21). Similarly, Trypho, Celsus, Celsus' Jewish source(s), and other non-Christian sources accept Jesus' historicity. Before getting to an individual like Josephus, ask yourself what the best explanation is for the acceptance of Jesus' existence among non-Christians in general. Why is Jesus' non-existence of so little concern that men like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen don't even address the view?

- The historical record of antiquity isn't all that's relevant to the issue of the historicity of Jesus. Modern prophecy fulfillment suggests a historical Jesus, such as the ongoing fulfillment of the opening of the Suffering Servant prophecy (Isaiah 52:13-5). The most natural reading of the Old Testament prophecies is that they're anticipating earthly, historical fulfillment, and we're seeing that sort of fulfillment in history, including in our generation. It follows that the earlier stages of fulfillment, like the opening verses of Isaiah 53, were likewise earthly and historical. Similarly, modern Christian miracles like those documented by Craig Keener and others (again, see the Triablogue archives for more on the subject) occur primarily among groups affirming Jesus' historicity and people doing or receiving those miracles in the name of Jesus as he's traditionally been understood. The sort of miraculous power we see performed in the name of a historical Jesus provides some evidence for his historicity.

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