Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Historical Existence Of Jesus (Part 1)

Today's post features two questions, followed by Antonio's responses to them.

Question 1: For the general public, including Christians, belief in the historical existence of Jesus is more a matter of faith than a certainty. What would you say to those who are hesistant about Jesus’ historical existence to show them that Jesus could have actually existed? And what arguments exist to continue doubting or denying his historical existence?

AP: This question has been asked many times throughout my life and I answered in the book Ciudadano Jesús, published by Editorial Atanor. I have also published a book entitled ¿Existió Jesús realmente? (Madrid: Editorial Raíces, 2009; 350 pp. ISBN 978-84-86115-64-7) that deals with this topic.

Most researchers today affirm the actual existence of Jesus. He existed because the set of "evidences" or "arguments" in favor of his existence far outweigh the contrary. But the existence of a historical figure is one thing. How he was interpreted or how people’s understanding of him, his sayings, and his death is a totally different story. There can be many changes to who he actually was and who people came to say/think he was.

Question 2: In your opinion, what are the most compelling evidences in favor of the historical existence of Jesus?

AP: The main argument is simple: It is more rational and easier to explain the existence of Christianity with all of its effects by admitting the historical existence of the person who was named the founder of the movement.

Indeed, to argue that Jesus was a pure literary myth and at the same time was the creator of that myth, the cause for or the initiator of a movement of such great magnitude as the Christian movement, is a puzzle for a historian of antiquity It’s almost impossible to explain this process with historical probability. Ancient sources that we have, outside the Gospels, that discuss Jesus are virtually zilch, and the ones taht we do are very controversial. They prove the existence of Christianity more than they prove the historical existence of Jesus himself. Two very important ones are:
A) Tacitus, Annales 15.44.3 (around A.D. 115) says: 
"To put an end to the rumors [i.e., that Nero had burned Rome], Nero identified a certain group of men, hated for their vices by the people, who were called Christians, as culprits and punished them with utmost cruelty. (Christ, from whom the name has its origin, suffered the death penalty during the reign of Tiberius, sentenced by the procurator Pontius Pilate). The deadly superstition was contained for some time, but it sprouted up again, not only in Judea, the land of the evil, but in the capital (Rome), where all the horrible and shameful things in the world converge and become popular."
Personally, I think the phrases marked with parentheses are glosses or additions, because they interrupt the flow of discourse that Tacitus writes. If they are removed, the text flows better.
B) Flavius Josephus (Antiquitates Judaicae 20.20) mentions the murder of James, “the brother of Jesus, the one who is called Christ.”
Antiquitates 18.63, which came to be called the "Testimonium Flavianum," is about the existence and an estimation of the person of Jesus. After eliminating the interpolations of Christian scribes, Josephus says:
"During this time [i.e., the time of Poncio Pilato: A.D. 26-36) lived Jesus, a wise man, who did many amazing things. He drew to his cause many Jews and Greks. Pilate, after hearing the prosecution from men of the highest positions among us, condemned him to be crucified. The Christian sect, named after him, has not disappeared to this day."
It is true that the first testimony about Jesus dates at the end of the first century and is widely disputed. I’m referring to the passage just quoted by the Jewish historian Josephus, writing in Rome around the year 95, in his discourse The Antiquities of the Jews, which speaks of Jesus.

The text is debated because it has been manipulated by Christian scribes. Here we have transcribed what scholars believe actually came from the pen of Josephus. But the full text we have transmitted to us today has certainly been manipulated. It says, in effect, that Jesus was a wise man, who was the messiah, who had been raised from the dead, and that he was almost divine. Things like that are questionable as originating from someone like Josephus, a strict Jew.

However, if the additions of Christian scribes are removed, it is a very short text, which describes Jesus in a list of characters who did much damage to the Jewish people with their lives and doctrines (they promised the kingdom of God would prevail against the rule of the Romans), and increased the hatred of the Jews against the Empire and the catastrophic war against Rome from A.D. 66-70.

It is unlikely that Josephus would list a person who had not actually existed within this list of people who had been harmful to the Jewish people by dedicating themselves to war and ranting on about their hopes for change.

For some researchers, nothing or almost nothing can be known about Jesus from the Gospels. Why? Because the Gospels are the propaganda of one faith. One believing historian, Günther Bornkamm, in his work Jesús de Nazaret (5th ed.; Salamanca: Sígueme, 1996) says this:
"No poseemos ni una sola ‘sentencia’ ni un solo relato sobre Jesús –aunque puedan ser indiscutiblemente auténticos—, que no contenga al mismo tiempo la confesión de fe de la comunidad creyente, o que al menos no la implique. Esto hace difícil o incluso lleva al fracaso la búsqueda de los hechos brutos de la historia" (p. 15).
However, that’s all we have in reference to the death of Jesus. Only through using the tools of historical criticism can one get something from them.

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