The Historicity of Jesus
By Farell Till
(The Skeptical Review)
Did Robin Hood exist? Possibly, there was a person whose exploits were exaggerated over time until the legendary character known as Robin Hood emerged in English folklore, but few people would claim that the Robin Hood in these legends was an actual historical figure who possessed incredible archery skills and went about rescuing Maid Marian and robbing the rich to give to the poor. At best, then, Robin Hood was a quasi-historical person who became the legendary hero of Sherwood Forest through exaggeration and embellishment of his real life accomplishments.
The same is probably true of William Tell, King Arthur, and other famous legendary characters. Through exaggeration and embellishment over time, the lives of exceptional leaders were transformed into the legendary figures we read about in folkloric literature. In fairly recent times, we have seen the same process at work in our own country. Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Jesse James, Billy the Kid--these were frontier marshals, heroes, and outlaws whose names are familiar to all of us, but their exploits were so exaggerated and embellished by word of mouth, by 19th-century dime novels, and then later by 20th-century movies that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine the real historical accomplishments of any of them. In this sense, it would be proper to say that the Wyatt Earp and Jesse James of the dime novels and movies were not real historical characters. Men by these names once lived, but they were not the men portrayed in the many fictionalized accounts of their lives. The real Wyatt Earp and Jesse James have probably been lost to us in a hopeless maze of legendary embellishments.
The same is true of Jesus of Nazareth. A few scholars seriously argue that no such person ever existed, and their arguments are certainly thought provoking and deserving of consideration. Other biblical scholars (many of them professing Christians) acknowledge the existence of a man named Jesus but quite frankly admit that the New Testament gospels greatly embellished his life and that the actual achievements of the real Jesus were nothing like those attributed to the Jesus of the gospels. The quasi-historical Jesus may have been born to a woman named Mary, but certainly she was not a virgin at the time.
This is the stuff that myths and legends are made of, and folklore of the times was filled with tales of great men who had been born to virgins. Even Christians consider those folk tales to be nothing but quaint legends, so by what rule of logic do they insist on making Jesus an exception to the general rule? They have no reasonable answer to this question.
Likewise, the quasi-historical Jesus may have attracted a following, but it isn't reasonable to believe that vast multitudes thronged to him in the manner claimed for the New Testament Jesus. Mark said that "a great multitude from Galilee... and from Jerusalem, Idumea and beyond the Jordan, and... from Tyre and Sidon" once followed him to the Sea of Galilee (3:7-8). So huge was the multitude that Jesus told his disciples to keep a boat ready for him to board, "lest [the multitude] crush him" (v:9). Matthew claimed that "great multitudes followed [Jesus] from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan" (4:25). In the verse before this, Matthew said that "his fame went throughout all Syria" so that the people there "brought to him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics."
All of this presumably happened, but no one in Syria, Idumea, Tyre, or Sidon left any record of the mass hysteria that the Jesus of the New Testament created. Only the New Testament gospels mention the huge crowds that he attracted. As Rob Berry points out in his article The Fivefold Challenge (p. 10, this edition), historical silence in some matters is quite telling, and such is the case in the matter of public attention that the Jesus of the New Testament presumably attracted. If these gospel accounts are even reasonably close to being accurate, why did no one in the regions from which the multitudes came ever mention the crowds that thronged around Jesus? Why did no one in the places where the crowds gathered (with the exception of the biased gospel writers) mention these huge crowds? The answer is that such multitudes probably never existed, because the quasi-historical Jesus wasn't nearly so popular with his contemporaries as the gospel writers allege for their Jesus.
The gospel writers claim that Jesus made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem just before his crucifixion and that "a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road" and "others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road" (Matt. 21:7-8; Mark 11:8; Luke 19:36) and that multitudes went before and after him shouting, "Hosanna to the son of David!" Such vast multitudes as these welcomed Jesus into the city and then just a short time later crowds were screaming for Pilate to crucify him. Who can believe it? There may have been a quasi-historical Jesus who was crucified during Pilate's administration, but it is unreasonable to believe that this Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem so enthusiastically by huge crowds only to have mobs demanding his crucifixion just a few days later. In this sense, we can assume that the Jesus of the gospels never existed.
If there was a quasi-historical Jesus who was crucified by the Romans, certainly his execution did not occur as recorded in the New Testament. All three synoptic gospels claim that while Jesus was on the cross, darkness fell "over all the land" from the sixth hour until the ninth hour (Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). In all three accounts of this event, the word land has been translated from the Greek word ge, which can mean "earth," so it is quite possible that all three gospel writers intended to say that the three hours of darkness covered the whole earth. In fact, the KJV even translates the word as earth in Luke's version: "(T)here was darkness over all the earth."
Whether the synoptic writers intended to say that darkness covered the whole earth for three hours is really immaterial, because their language is such that they obviously didn't mean that this was only a phenomenon that was localized to the city of Jerusalem. They claimed that darkness covered "all the land" for a period of three hours, beginning at midday, so this would have been at least a regional event that would have been noticed and mentioned in the contemporary records of other nations. Who can seriously imagine a three-hour period of darkness happening in midday without references to it being recorded in Egypt, Greece, Syria, Arabia, Persia, and the other nations that would have experienced it? Even if it were merely a regional darkness, we can reasonably expect that other writers of the time would have referred to it. The fact that no such records exist is reason to believe that this midday darkness was simply another part of the legends and myths that evolved as Christianity grew.
We can say the same about Matthew's reference to the "many saints" who were resurrected after an earthquake opened their tombs at the moment of Jesus's death and who later went into the city and appeared unto "many" (27:52-53). Such an event as this would have attracted far more attention than the resurrection of Jesus, because its results would have been witnessed by far more people, but no one else besides Matthew (not even Mark or Luke) mentioned this remarkable event. Rationality, then, requires us to interpret this story as just another legend that developed along with Christianity. A quasi-historical Jesus may have been crucified, but certainly his death was not accompanied by a mass resurrection. Such an event simply would not have passed unnoticed by historians of the time.
Bible fundamentalists, of course, will contend that these are all arguments from silence, but sometimes silence can scream to those whose minds have not been numbed by religious indoctrination. Since Rob Berry discusses this point quite well in his article (p. 10), there is no need to comment further on it. Suffice it to say that there are many good reasons to assume that the Jesus of the gospels never existed.
Some will also dismiss these points as just the rantings of a cynical atheist, but the average churchgoer doesn't realize that radical revision is taking place in modern Christian thought. Many seminaries teach their students some of the same things that we publish in The Skeptical Review, so it isn't at all uncommon to find Christian scholars who agree that the real Jesus was very different from the fictionalized Jesus of the gospels. After its March meeting in Santa Rosa, California, the Jesus Seminar, a group of Christian scholars dedicated to identifying the real historical Jesus, announced their belief that the "story of the historical Jesus ended with his death on the cross and the decay of his body." The group concluded that "whatever Jesus' followers experienced after the crucifixion, it happened in their hearts and minds, not as a matter of history." Speaking for the group, Stephen J. Patterson, an associate professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, said, "`God raised Jesus from the dead' is a statement of faith, not historic fact."
These quotations have been taken from an article from Religion News Service that was published in various newspapers last March, so their accuracy can easily be verified. That they represent conclusions reached by conscientious Christian scholars rather than atheists and skeptics indicates the transition that is presently occurring in Christian thought. The average church member who doubts the major points in this article has simply not kept up with the latest scholarship.
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