A Response to “5 good reasons to think Jesus never existed”

A friend of mine who isn’t a Christian recently shared on Facebook a Salon.com article entitled “5 good reasons to think Jesus never existed.” As one might expect, that touched off a flurry of comments from people on all sides of the issue. The article itself isn’t new, and the ideas behind it are even less so. The author is an “Alternet” staff writer with no disclosed expertise and a long track record of similar screeds against religion. The limitations of social media don’t contribute to level-headed, constructive dialogue on topics like this (or on much else), so I usually avoid the fray.

This time, though , I couldn’t help commenting to my friend–who shared the post as part of his honest search for understanding–that I found the arguments in it to be weak, which was an understatement. That quickly put me in a position of needing to explain myself.

As it happened, on that very day, Dr. Gary Habermas released a free e-book called “Evidence for the Historical Jesus.” Habermas is one of the leading scholars on the subject, so even his free book provides more thorough and informed answers than I could easily muster, and I shared the link. Nevertheless, social media debates too often devolve into “here, look at all these links I found” rather than an exchange of reasoned ideas. Christian faith is not afraid of reason, including on the subject of the historical Jesus. Paul told the church to “test everything and hold on to what is good,” and freely admitted that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (This is true of the entire Bible; in Isaiah 1:18, for example, God says “Come, let us reason together.”)

So, without writing a dissertation on each of the article’s five “reasons,” here are the brief responses I gave:

1) No 1st-century writings from non-Jewish sources. First, I doubt this is accurate. But second, so what? Should we disregard all of the gospel sources just because they believe what they wrote about Jesus? Do we disregard Josephus because he’s Jewish, even though he wasn’t a Christian? There are also Tacitus or Suetonius, two other first-century Roman historians who mention Jesus. And who would expect there to be volumes of text written by disinterested scholars immediately after the death of an itinerant rabbi whose ministry only lasted three years and who never left the borders of one colony on the far-flung reaches of the Roman Empire? Those who were there reported what they experienced, but who else would know or care until the word got out? To those who didn’t believe what he taught (including those who killed him), Jesus was just another in a long line of malcontents stirring up trouble.

2) Paul’s silence on Jesus’ biography. If you break down these points, they just don’t hold up.

  • “Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles.” A 21st-century reader’s perspective on what Paul “seems” to know is a weak starting point for an argument. Jesus revealed himself to Paul after his resurrection. Paul then spent 3 years studying before spending the rest of his life as a missionary. Paul’s primary focus was the redemptive power of Christ’s death and resurrection–the greatest miracle of all–not the interesting circumstances of his birth. And let’s say he hadn’t yet heard about the virgin birth. So what?
  • “Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority.” Really? When and how? Paul’s letters talk about very little other than Jesus’ authority. He says his only purpose in life is to talk about “Christ and him crucified.” 
  • “Paul never says that Jesus had disciples.” Again, I very much doubt this is true, but so what? He  talks quite a bit about Peter, James, and the other “apostles,” and even calls them “pillars of the church.” (Remember that, by this point in time, these men had grown from “disciples” following a rabbi around the countryside into Spirit-filled “apostles” boldly testifying to the resurrection they had witnessed first-hand.) Hard to discern what the author’s point is here. What she’s really arguing is that Paul didn’t use 21st-century Christian jargon, which hardly seems to support her argument.
  • “He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels.” Ok; name one. This isn’t an argument.
  • “Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!” False. He (rightly) challenges them in one instance on a matter of church administration, and in the process shed light on how Christian community ought to operate. Otherwise they are on the same page. Peter even refers to Paul’s writings as “scripture.”

3) The NT stories don’t claim to be first-hand. I think this is accurate as to Matthew and Mark. So what? The author goes on to make some unsupported insinuation about book-naming practices, but I’m unsure how this amounts to a “good reason to believe” the books aren’t true. But then there’s Luke and Acts, written by the same author, who begins each book by assuring the reader that he thoroughly researched what he wrote. Then there’s John, which very much seems to have been written by the apostle himself and conveys that its purpose is to convince readers that the things recounted therein happened. (Same for Revelation, though much of it is a vision and thus figurative.) Every other book of the NT is a letter written in the first person. And in one of Peter’s letters, he specifically explains that he and the other apostles “did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

And while we’re on the subject of first-hand knowledge, that leads to what I think is one of the best arguments *for* the NT’s accuracy. The 11 apostles all claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus. They knew for sure whether or not they were telling the truth. And all they had to do to avoid being persecuted for preaching that message to a hostile audience was to recant. But history records that 10 of the 11 were martyred for their message, while the 11th died in exile. 

4) The gospels contradict each other. A familiar, if overly broad, assertion. Let’s just say I disagree–when the text is read in context and with intellectual honesty. If one wants to challenge a specific passage, then let’s discuss that. But for purposes of this article, let’s even consider what would happen if there were difficulties in particular passages. How is that a “good reason to believe Jesus never even existed”?  It isn’t, and the author doesn’t even try to explain why it is.

5) Scholars have different ideas about Jesus. What don’t scholars have different ideas about? How is this evidence of anything? In “Reason #1,” the author dismissed early scholars as unreliable because they were Christians. (Which I dispute; why is my opinion about a book unreliable because I believe the book to be true?) By that logic, though, should we not also dismiss her, and modern critical scholars, because they begin from a position of disbelief? A lot of people over a lot of years have come up with a lot of ways to explain away Jesus, precisely so that they don’t have to come to grips with his claim to be the path to God–including, it seems to me, the author of this Salon article. That’s their right, but it isn’t a reason to disbelieve what history and scripture tell us about Jesus.

Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to whip up listicles of half-baked arguments with click-bait headlines to circulate in social media than it is to sit down together and honestly explore important questions. Whether you’re a believer or not, you owe it to yourself not to take Salon articles (or my blog posts) at face value on issues of eternal significance. Recognize biases, do your own research, and think for yourself.