In his several posts on the subject, Stephen Law’s primary argument for skepticism about Jesus’ existence is that the inclusion of so many miraculous events in the Gospels should lend doubt even to the mundane details given. This is, in fact, a valid objection to which could be added the important point that the gospels do show some evidence of embellishment and fabrication. He is correct that we cannot uncritically accept these texts as straightforward historical accounts. But neither can the simple fact that they include miracles automatically disqualify them as fabrications. Even if we reject all the miracle stories as too poorly attested to be believed, there are, in fact, many other aspects of the Jesus tradition which make it almost certain that it derives from a genuine historical core.
In my last post on the historical plausibility of Jesus’ existence, I noted that, even in the absence of any other evidence, the claim that he was crucified is itself very good evidence for his existence. In short, the argument runs as follows: 1. We know from independent sources that a number of messianic claimants were killed by the Romans in 1st C. Palestine; 2. We know from independent sources that crucifixion was seen as an extremely shameful death, more likely to be covered up than made up; and yet 3. We know that the early Christians were emphatic that Jesus had been crucified. Quite apart from any dubious reconstruction of motives, it is much more probable that the Christians really did believe their leader had died in this way than that they created the story from scratch. It was simply too big a liability to have been invented (indeed, it opened them up to insistent ridicule from both Jews and Greeks, leading some later Christian heretics to claim that Judas was actually tricked into dying in his place).
Thus, the crucifixion rightly stands as the most important point in any case for the historicity of Jesus, but it is by no means the only reason to believe he existed. I would now like to lay out a few of the other important evidential points which, all combined, not only make Jesus’ historical existence almost certain but also lend a level of support to the broad-scale reliability of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Here I am building on Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd’s 2007 book The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition:
External Evidence: As has widely been recognized, the external evidence for Jesus’ existence is far from overwhelming. If we lacked the New Testament, we truly would have little reason for confidence in Jesus’ existence. None of the extant sources provide unquestionable evidence, but several of them are important. For instance, the Gospel of Thomas seems to include some early traditions about Jesus that are independent of the canonical Gospels. Since it is a collection of sayings rather than a narrative, it obviously provides no evidence of the activities of Jesus, but it does offer a measure of confirmation for his existence, and since it includes no miracles, Stephen’s objection on that point can be dismissed.
Among non-Christian sources, things are more dubious. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews twice mentions Jesus, but both cases have been widely dismissed as later Christian interpolations. There are strong arguments both ways, so any conclusion must be tentative, but in my view, the reference to James, “the brother of Jesus, who is called Christ” (20.9.1) seems very slightly more likely to be original than an interpolation for a variety of reasons. In contrast, the fuller description of Jesus (18.3.3) has clearly been tampered with, but there are good reasons to think this tampering represents secondary attempts to Christianize an already existing reference. For instance, the distinctly Christian elements (“if it be lawful to call him a man,” “He was the Christ,” “for he appeared to them alive again the third day”) all interrupt the flow of the passage. When these are removed, the resulting text is as follows:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
This reconstructed text boasts a number of elements which are unlikely to have been invented by Christians (such as the claim that the Jewish leaders who accused Jesus were “men of the highest standing among us” and the reference to Christians as a “tribe”). It also finds support in the modern discovery of a 10th C. Arabic translation of this text (first published in 1971) in which the three clear Christian interpolations are all absent or altered, confirming their secondary nature. Admittedly, the case is not certain, but Josephus does at least provide potential confirmation of Jesus’ existence and crucifixion.
Outside of Josephus, matters are even less clear. Though we have a variety of later non-Christian references to Christ, it is unlikely that any of them provide genuine independent evidence of his existence. Still, it should be noted that the later critics—like Taticus (an early 2nd C. Roman historian), Celsus (who wrote an attack on Christianity in the late 2nd C.), and several references in the Jewish Talmud—all denigrate Jesus (and his followers) rather than dismissing his existence outright. Since ancient philosophers and historians did occasionally question the existence of various mythic figures (such as the Homeric heroes), it is reasonable to think that if these critics knew of any reason to doubt his existence, they would have mentioned it. This is, admittedly, an argument from silence, but the fact that such was never claimed is at least noteworthy, though by no means conclusive.
Again, if such references were all we had, Jesus’ existence would rightly be in serious doubt. Though these might provide a measure of confirmation, it is the New Testament itself which must provide the most important evidence for an historical Jesus, and it does in fact deliver. Of the many issues that could be raised here, we will focus on just three aspects of the Synoptic Gospels (particularly Mark, widely recognized as the earliest), in increasing order of importance: 1. The inclusion of various incidental details which point to early Palestinian tradition; 2. The omission of any retrojection of various issues of central importance to 1st C. Christianity; and 3. The inclusion of embarrassing details about Jesus’ life.
1. Inclusion of Incidental Details: The gospels include a number of details about early 1st C. Palestine (including knowledge of geography, customs, and figures) that do not appear to be “ideologically motivated,” and can point to an historical core to the story. This evidence is, admittedly, the least secure of those we will discuss, as a knowledgeable author could perhaps have added such details even if writing fiction, but at the least, they help establish the knowledgeability of the Gospel writers (or the traditions they are based on) and point to the early, and very Jewish, nature of the tradition as it has come down to us.
To name just one class of evidence here, note that despite the fact that our Gospels were written in Greek (and are widely claimed by Jesus-deniers to be thoroughly Hellenized), they include a number of Aramaisms which point to much older Jewish traditions. Examples from Mark include Jesus’ use of Abba, meaning “father” (14:36); talitha koum, meaning “little girl, get up!” (5:41); Ephphatha, meaning “Be opened!” (7:34); Rabbi , meaning “teacher” (9:5); and especially Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, meaning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (15:34). The fact that all of these (except Rabbi) are glossed into Greek points to their being holdovers from an older tradition. Additionally, the last of these also fulfills the criterion of embarrassment (see below), as it runs counter to the usual depiction of Jewish martyrs as unperturbed and confident of their salvation (cf. Acts 7 and the 1st C. text 4 Maccabees), and is thus omitted from Luke and John.
That such Aramaisms were not simply added to give the account an artificial sense of antiquity is evident from the fact that the tradition itself shows a tendency to remove rather than add them (thus Matthew and Luke eliminate most of these). This, by itself, does not prove that the tradition goes back to Jesus, only that it goes back to the earliest Christians who spoke Aramaic, but it does lend considerable doubt to the notion that Jesus was fabricated to correspond to the Greco-Roman redeemer myths. If there are parallels to such non-Jewish myths (they are never explicitly invoked in the New Testament), such is more likely to be a secondary layer of interpretation of an older Jewish Jesus tradition than its original source.
2. Omission of Relevant Issues: A more important point is the omission from the Gospels of a number of items that we might have expected them to include if they were pure fabrications. The tradition does show some tendency towards reading later issues back into the life of Jesus (e.g. the anachronistic mentions of expulsion from the synagogue in John 9:22; 12:42 and 16:2), but it is surprising how many of the topics that were highly controversial in the first century church (as indicated by the New Testament epistles) go unmentioned in the Gospels. For instance, given that Jesus was incessantly referred to as the Christ by the early Church (the NT Epistles are full of references), it is remarkable that the Gospels present Jesus as downplaying this title. Such is extremely difficult to imagine being a fabrication.
Alternatively, other vital issues are entirely ignored by Jesus, such as the necessity or unimportance of Gentiles being circumcised in order to become Christians (an issue which divided Paul from the Jerusalem church, including Peter, James and John). In fact, the Gospels evidence a remarkable lack of interest in matters relevant to Diaspora Judaism, despite the fact that they almost certainly reached their final form in the Diaspora after the fall of Jerusalem. They are simply dominated by Palestinian concerns, which is extremely difficult to square with claims that the tradition is entirely fabricated. This provides strong evidence of the relatively conservative nature of the Synoptic Gospels and suggests that they contain at least some genuinely historical information about an early 1st C. teacher.
3. Inclusion of Embarrassing Details: The most compelling evidence for an historical Jesus, however, is the inclusion of so many “embarrassing” details in the Jesus tradition. Though the crucifixion itself stands at the head of this group (and its importance must not be underestimated), the canonical Gospels are full of details that are unlikely to have been invented. By tracing the Jesus’ tradition across the various gospels (canonical and non-canonical), we can clearly see that the later texts do tend to soften or omit these items, proving that their embarrassing nature was evident to the early Christians themselves, and thus their fabrication is unlikely. The following is only a partial list, drawing exclusively from Mark, but should establish just how widespread this phenomenon is:
Mark admits that Jesus’ own family questioned his sanity, while others accused him of demon-possession (3:20-30); Jesus was rejected by the people of his hometown and could not perform many miracles there (6:1-5); he sometimes seemed to rely on folk medical techniques, which were not always immediately successful (e.g 7:31-37, 8:22-25); he associated with people of ill-repute (e.g. 2:14-17) and seemed to disregard a number of Jewish laws, customs and cleanliness codes (e.g. 2:23-27); he spoke and acted in culturally “shameful” ways (e.g. 3:31-35); he cursed a fig tree for lacking fruit even though it was not the correct season for figs (11:13-14); the disciples—including the leaders of the early church—are frequently presented in an unfavorable light, often seeming dim-witted, obstinate and cowardly (e.g. 10:35-45; 14:37-40; 14:50); indeed Jesus was betrayed by an inner-circle disciple (14:43-46), while Peter himself is called “Satan” (8:32-33) and denies any association with Jesus at the crucial moment (14:66-72); and the empty tomb itself was discovered by women (16:1-8).
Some of these are easier to explain away than others (e.g. Jesus’ disregard of purity regulations could well be an interpolation reflecting later Christian practice), but others are virtually impossible to imagine as fabrications (e.g. that Jesus’ own family “went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’” [3:21]; a detail omitted from all the later gospels). In most of these cases, the tradition after Mark indicates a strong tendency to downplay or omit such details (an exception is the betrayal by Judas, which was subsequently played up), verifying their embarrassing nature. Taken together, the inclusion of such material strongly suggest an historical core to the Jesus tradition as preserved in Mark, not only making Jesus existence almost certain, but even providing a measure of confirmation for the reliability of the Synoptic Gospels as a whole.
Conclusion: Though individually the above arguments (which are by no means exhaustive) might be questioned, their combined force is considerable. They do not, of course, prove the New Testament accounts “inerrant” (nor do I believe that they are), but they do make the plausibility of a purely fictional Jesus extremely unlikely. Yet as they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and ultimately the near unanimity of New Testament scholars (from conservative to liberal) about the basic details of Jesus’ life—that he was an itinerant preacher who was crucified in the first third of the 1st C.—is not based on such arguments so much as the basic usefulness of the assumption. The alternatives offer no where near as much explanatory power, and depend on far too much speculation and skepticism. In contrast, the rise and shape of early Christianity and the New Testament simply make the most sense when viewed as a reaction to an historical Jesus. In every way, the early church evidences its profound debt to the unique personality, distinctive teaching, shameful death, and (purported) resurrection of Jesus.