Did Christ Exist? April 14, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
Beach should start this piece with a disclaimer: he is not a Christian – ‘not that there is anything wrong with that’ – and is unlikely to ever become one. And with this bit of initial hand-wringing out of the way on to today’s question, provoked by some recent internet articles, did Jesus exist?
Well, here there are about forty sources from the apocrypha to the gospels, from Suetonius to an extraordinarily confusing passage in Josephus. Each deserve a long academic article and some tell us important things about our perceptions of the founder of Christianity. But another thing that almost all these sources have in common is that they are late: even the Gospel of Mark was written a long generation after Christ’s supposed death, ‘c.70’ to use the formulation of New Testament scholars. However, one source cannot be described as ‘late’, namely the bundle of Paul’s letters that have made it through into the New Testament, texts that long predate the Gospels and as such are, in some senses, more valuable.
Before we get onto Paul’s letter though let’s define what we mean by Christ’s ‘historical existence’. This does not mean that Christ did everything that was claimed for him in the Gospel accounts: God forbid! It does not even – to take a very extreme position – mean that Christ did anything that was claimed for him in the Gospel accounts. What it does mean is that lurking behind the stories we can see the limbs or perhaps the shadows of the limbs of a real man.
Paul’s letters are the proof that such a man existed whether or not the reader agrees with what Paul did to Jesus: Paul certainly wouldn’t be Beach’s first choice as an official biographer. And Paul was writing from the 50s-60s that much closer to Christ’s death than anyone else. What may have been his first letter, I Thessalonians, had likely been written by 52. If we accept the normal wide margin for Christ’s death of 30-36 then this means that Paul was writing his letter a mere sixteen to twenty-two years after Christ’s death. Paul may even have witnessed the crucifixion: memories of the attempts by A.N.Wilson to put Paul in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before the trial. He certainly came across those that had done so.
Perhaps most exciting is that verse in I Corinthians where Paul writes: ‘I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say’.
Meditate on this passage for a moment. I Corinthians was probably written in the middle of the 50s, let’s say c. 55, nineteen to twenty-five years after the crucifixion.
This is the verse where we come closest to Christ the man. Paul’s key words are ‘as it was told to me’. This looks very much like, to use a later term, a declaration of faith taught to Paul sometime after his conversion in the mid-late 30s. Here then we have a text written in the 50s but one that contains, like a fly in aspic, an earlier text, one that dates back to the 40s or perhaps the 30s, one that was possibly circulating already in the decade after Christ’s death.
Beach as a non-Christian has to believe that this is all myth making, of course. But it would be nothing less than bad manners towards respectable sources to claim that this myth making was a ‘later sediment’. Myth was already being blown like the sand of dreams on Christ in the year immediately after his death. And if anyone ever tells you that Christ didn’t exist throw the Pauline Epistles at them.
Any other thoughts on the historic Christ: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
15 April 2012: SY writes in with this link to a controversial argument about this controversial passage alleging that it is a later interpolation. Phil P comes close to this as well: While I am not a Christian either, I tend to treat Jesus much like the Buddha: as someone who had a great awakening. That having been said, Your quote from Paul troubles me in that he says, “He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say’. What scriptures could he be referring to in 50 CE? A messiah is foretold in Hebrew scriptures but not the resurrection. Is this a translation error? Something added in by the church later?’ The great Ashley Pond writes in with more general thoughts: I haven’t seen the God Movie but keep meaning to: I have read all the original drafts and excerpts of The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible and the Historical Jesus and know the author (the way I “know” you): (academically really sound with deeply detailed citations and sources; embarrasses me for how lazy my “scholarship” is). I of course have my own opinions on the Hebrew! Huge tracts of both story outline and even verbatim text attributed to and about THE CHRIST are anything from Babylonian to Egyptian—a laundry list of paganism’s perpetual and uncomfortable grafting onto theunderstand, not a single document of any variety supporting Jesus of Nazareth’s literal existence outside the gospels which, as I’m sure you know, don’t bear up well historically under disinterested scrutiny.’ And finally KMH A problem with the scholarly approach is that it is so difficult to empathetically enter in to epochs existing thousands of years in the past. The attitude toward written documents and the ease of their creation has changed substantially with advancing technology, so the likelihood of deliberate or inadvertent written falsehoods can be difficult to assess by modern standards. We know that the 20th century’s propensity for deliberately false statements and documents is without parallel in recorded history. This, unfortunately, affects the attitude toward any and all historical writings. In considering whether Christ actually existed, we need to determine whether any religious figure qualifies for existence according to the standard applied. If Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, or even Muhammad, etc., are accepted as actually existing, it can strengthen the implicit case for Christ. Of course, I believe there is no doubt that Muhammad existed, so there is some additional documentary evidence from the Koran concerning Christ’s existence, besides Christian documents. From my point of view, the important question isn’t whether Christ existed, but whether he really is who he said he is. This will be where the battle rages as false christs, false prophets, and anti-christs gain more and more of the public’s attention.’ Thanks Ashley, KMH, Phil and SY!
30/04/2012: Greg writes in: ‘I just thought I would throw out some suggested reading on the existence of Christ. I’m sure you have heard of N T Wright. His series on Christian Origins and the Question of God series is massive and stimulating. Maybe some of your readers would like to check them out. N T Wright is a Christian Anglican Bishop of course, but his examinations especially in the first book (The New Testament and the People of God) of the various approaches to the early Christian sources and Roman Palestine are fascinating for anyone. Lots of great philosophy of history in there. As well as an interesting case for the resurrection based on readings of the ghost mythology of Romans and Jews.’ Thanks Greg!