Friday, September 5, 2014

Breaking News: Jesus Did Not Exist (Part I)

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, by Heinrich Hofmann, 1889. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Apparently, Jesus never existed... ... or at least that’s what Huffington Post blogger Chris Sosa claims. This is interesting to me, because even as an atheist, I took the historical existence of the man called Jesus of Nazareth as a foregone conclusion. In fact, here is an excerpt from the introduction to Wikipedia’s “Historicity of Jesus” article (copied on 9/4/2014):

“The majority viewpoint among scholars is that Jesus existed, but scholars differ about the beliefs and teachings of Jesus as well as the accuracy of the parts of his life that have been recorded in the Gospels. Scholars who believe that Jesus existed differ on the historicity of specific episodes described in the Biblical accounts, but most scholars agree that Jesus was a Galilean Jew who was born between 7-4BC and died 30–36 AD, that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, that he was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate and that he lived in Galilee and Judea and did not preach or study elsewhere. The theory that Jesus never existed at all has very little scholarly support.

What I find even more interesting is that Mr. Sosa chose not to attack Jesus’ divinity, which may be easier fodder for an atheist than Jesus’ mere existence. At any rate, for the sake of some who may actually believe his arguments, and as an exercise in apologetics, I would like to spend a little time analyzing the article.

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Sosa first tries to dismiss the teaching of Jesus by implying that (1) they originate only from Him (yes, my use of capitalization betrays my bias), and (2) their application in moral discussions is a recent development. However, Jesus and His followers made it very clear that the Gospel is really just an extension of the Mosaic Law, found in the Old Testament. Jesus said:

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment...” (Matthew 5:21-22).

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40).

And His moral teachings are the basis for our own laws, as evidenced by the writings of our nation’s founding fathers. See William Federer’s “America’s God and Country” for details. In fact, until the last 50 years, there wasn’t really much of a need to invoke Christian morality, because the vast majority of Americans already subscribed to it, even if they weren’t Christian.

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I assume this is Sosa’s disclaimer that he could be wrong, and that Jesus actually existed? I’m not really sure what he’s trying to say here. Is the difference between a Jesus and the Jesus rooted in the number of followers He garnered?

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This is a thesis paragraph of sorts. While subsequent paragraphs will be discussed in greater detail below, I wish to address the generalizations that Sosa makes here. He claims that the four Gospels and Paul’s letter’s (others wrote letters, too, so are they included in this generic statement?) depict contradicting portraits of Jesus. But the only contradictions provided regard relatively minor details surrounding His birth, death, and resurrection. None of the New Testament books disagree about the most basic facts: that Jesus was born of a virgin, was crucified and died, that He physically rose from the dead, and that He ascended back into Heaven. His recorded teachings also contain no contradictions worthy of Mr. Sosa’s explicit mention.

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The Gospels of Luke and Matthew clearly disagree about key events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Timing issues aside, the two don’t directly contradict one another. Luke records the taxing and the manger scene, but omits any references to the famous Wise Men, Herod’s infamous slaying of children, or the young family’s flight to Egypt. Matthew, on the other hand, recounts the latter three, but does not mention the taxing, the manger scene, or even the Star of Bethlehem. Interesting how popular culture mashed all these elements together, into one seemingly cohesive account.

Reading the Wikipedia article on Quirinius (Cyrenius), I concede that the timing of Herod’s reign and Cyrenius’ taxing appear incompatible, but I think this is the only valid point Mr. Sosa manages to make; hardly a smoking gun for the non-existence of history’s arguably most influential person.
While the Gospels of Mark and John begin at the start of Jesus’ ministry, Luke and Matthew both agree on the essentials of Jesus’ birth, many of which were prophesied in the Old Testament: born in Bethlehem, to a virgin named Mary, who was married to Joseph, both of whom were of the tribe of Judah and descendants of King David.

By the way, there are plenty of historical figures whose exact birthdates (or birth-years, even) are unknown. The ancient world wasn’t nearly as into record-keeping as we are today. Unless you were born into a ruling family, your existence typically went undocumented and unnoticed. Jesus was born the son of a Jewish carpenter, shunned political office and fame, and had followers who were zealously persecuted both by the Jews and the occupying Romans. It’s no wonder that there are few records of Him, outside of the Bible, during the first couple centuries AD (in case you were wondering, AD is short for Anno Domini, which is Latin for Year of Our Lord).

To be concluded...

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