Friday, December 13, 2019

Did Jesus Actually Exist?

Door, in Jerusalem

Today I heard someone in our Monroe community make the claim that there's no evidence that the Jesus of the four gospels actually existed, and that the "Jesus" presented there is a myth. I think that view is false.

Perhaps the best explanation of and refutation of "the legendary Jesus theory" is Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus. While the whole book needs to be read, here's a summary of reasons why the synoptic Jesus tradition can be considered reliable.

  1. "The general religious environment of first-century Jewish Palestine would not have provided a natural environment for birthing a legend/myth centered around a recent, Torah-trumping, cruciform-messianic God-man." (452)
  2. Core "countercultural and embarrassing features of the Jesus story provide further evidence against the Synoptic portrait(s) being significantly legendary." (Ib.)
  3. "The claims that Jesus's identity was inextricably bound up with that of Yahweh-God and that he should receive worship, the notion of a crucified messiah, the concept of an individual resurrection, the dullness of the disciples, the unsavory crowd Jesus attracted, and a number of other embarrassing aspects of the Jesus tradition are difficult to explain on the assumption that this story is substantially legendary." (Ib.)
  4. "The fact that this story originated and was accepted while Jesus's mother, brothers, and original disciples (to say nothing of Jesus's opponents) were still alive renders the legendary explanation all he more plausible. In our view, it is hard to understand how this story came about in this environment, in such a short span of time, unless it is substantilly rooted in history." (Ib. See also Richard Bauckham's excellent Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.)
  5. "Attempts to argue against the historicity of the Jesus tradition on the basis of the alleged silence of Paul or ancient secular writers have not been forceful." (Ib.)
  6. "Much of what we have learned about oral traditions in orally dominant cultures over the last several decades gives us compelling reasons to accept the earliest traditions about Jesus as having been transmitted in a historically reliable fashion." (Ib.)
  7. "The Synoptics themselves give us plausible grounds for accepting that the basic portrait(s) of Jesus they communicate is substantially rooted in history. Yes they are "biased," but no more so than many other ancient or modern historical writers whom we typically trust." (Ib., 453)

Eddy and Boyd conclude: "Where does all this leave us? We suggest that these lines of evidence, viewed from the standpoint of an "open" historical-critical method, provide reasonable grounds for the conviction that the portrait(s) of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels substantially is rooted in history. At the very least, this probability is greater than the probability of any competing hypothesis, which leads us, at minimum, to the conclusion that the a posteriori burden of proof should be born by those who claim the Synoptic Gospels are unreliable vis-a-vis their essential representations of Jesus." (Ib.)

That's a lot of quoting. It's Eddy and Boyd's summary of their book. Read the whole thing to see these bullet points reasoned for and filled out.

(On the historicity of the four gospels, see Craig Keener's new book, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels.)