Did Jesus really exist? – My response to the strange claims of Maclean’s magazine
I’ve had a burden on my soul since Easter.
That was when—just days prior to the biggest Christian holiday of the year—Maclean’s Magazine published an article calling the existence of Jesus into question despite the fact that he’s the most historically documented figure in the history of the planet.
So Christmas seemed like the right time to respond.
The article largely quoted from religious studies professor Bart Ehrman—himself an agnostic, someone who feels they simply can’t know whether God exists—as he explores his findings about “memory research.”
I’m well acquainted with Maclean’s. I subscribed for a while. I’m also well acquainted with Bart Ehrman having read many of his books.
The soul-burden I felt was that the article was very misleading for reasons I’m about to explain. Not only that, but I wonder about the motives of Maclean’s. Why would they publish such a questionable article right when millions of Christians in Canada were about to celebrate their most beloved holy-day?
Do you think Maclean’s would have made similar claims about Mohammed, Islam’s prophet, right before Ramadan?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for honest inquiry and informed debate. In fact, I love it! Just ask the people at the church I pastor. But that isn’t what happened in Maclean’s magazine on Easter eve 2016.
Let’s look at the article.
In the article, which is authored by Brian Bethune, a main argument hinges on the role of human memory in the preservation of the Gospel stories before they were written down.
Ehrman claims that human memory is very unreliable. It’s likened to the game of “telephone” where one person whispers something into someone else’s ear. The message gets passed around the circle. When it gets back to the original secret-teller, the message has totally changed.
On the surface it seems to make sense to apply this line of thinking to the ancient transmission of sacred stories. But it doesn’t. And here’s why.
Research has been done about “recollective memory.” (Research that Ehrman fails to mention.) Shared by scholars like Richard Bauckham, what we find is that, contrary to Ehrman’s claims, the opposite can be true about memory–that it can be very reliable in certain situations, especially in the transmission of sacred stories.
When you don’t use a muscle it goes flabby. As the old expression goes, “Use it or lose it.” The same is true with our memory. In previous cultures, with lower literacy rates and fewer writing instruments at hand, memory was a robust muscle that could accomplish incredible feats. Today, we don’t really have need for a robust memory muscle. In a world of hand held devices, high literacy rates and cheap paper, why would we need to remember anything? Therefore, our memory muscles go limp.
But that’s not how it used to be. I’ve heard stories about the ancient world where boys committed an entire book of the Bible to memory in preparation for their Bar Mitzvah, word for word. Even today, if you set your mind to it, you can re-train your brain. In Toronto at a church I used to attend, a Bible study group memorized all of Mark’s Gospel, word for word.
Further, the stories themselves have certain characteristics that suggest they were specifically written to be preserved accurately by memory. (You can read more about that and “eyewitness memory” in Bauchkam’s scholarly work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.)
Written Records and Eyewitness Testimony
While it’s correct that we don’t physically have manuscripts of the Gospels immediately after the death of Jesus, that doesn’t mean records didn’t exist within a generation of his death and resurrection.
In fact, the texts themselves show that they were records of eyewitness testimony.
For example, the stories include specific details that were witnessed at the different events. To cite a few cases, in Mark 4:38 when Jesus was in the boat in the storm he is sleeping “on the cushion.” In John 21:11 Peter pulls ashore a catch of 153 fish—an exact number.
Today, those might seem like insignificant details. But according to world-class literary critic C.S. Lewis, it was not customary to include these kinds of details based on the literary conventions of the day. As Lewis said, “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this.” He then calls the Gospel stories “reportage”—i.e. stories people reported based on personal experience.
Further, the ancient equivalent of footnotes were included to substantiate statements and stories. For example, in Mark 15:21 we are told that Simon of Cyrene helped carry Jesus’ cross. It says he was “the father of Alexander and Rufus.” Why is that detail there? It’s because they were still alive when the first audience was listening to or reading Mark’s Gospel. Alexander and Rufus were known and could be consulted about the event.
The same thing occurs in 1 Corinthians 15: 6 when Paul says that Jesus appeared “to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.” (NRSV) It’s a way of saying, ‘If you don’t believe me, go ask the people who were there!’ And guess what, the movement grew. It would have been incredibly easy to stomp out if the eyewitness testimony (or lack thereof) fell through. But it didn’t. Why? Because the eyewitnesses shared what they saw.
Difficult Details That Lend Credibility to the Stories
Another compelling historical fact is that the stories themselves include difficult and challenging details that would have hurt the advance of Christianity, not help it. So the fact that they are included lends to their authenticity. Let me explain.
An important detail reported in the Gospels is that the women were the first ones at the tomb on Easter morning to seen the risen Jesus. It’s easy to read past this detail. But in the first century, a women’s testimony was not considered trustworthy enough to be admissible in court. Thankfully we’ve moved past that mentality. But why then, would that detail be included if it would have hurt the cause of Christianity rather than help it?
Because the followers of Jesus were primarily concerned with passing on the details of what actually happened. That trumped every other motive.
New Testament professor and scholar Robert Yarbrough highlights some key words in 1 John 1:1 that stress this point. I’ve included them here in bold italics so they’re easier to see:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched— this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. (NIV)
He says that these verbs parallel different kinds of witness attestation in ancient law. Yarbrough writes that the author “is not making conversation but virtually swearing a deposition.”
So it wasn’t just a tradition of memories (even if memory was more reliable then than it is now). Written documents were a very powerful part of early Christianity.
A further example of this influence comes through in the writings of Paul—writings like 1st Thessalonians and Galatians. They are very early records, written while many of Jesus’ personal apostles were still alive. Paul’s letters confirm the oral traditions and some of the basic teachings of the faith, including the Lordship of Jesus. (Contrary to popular films like The Da Vinci Code, these teachings were not made up later by the church. They were there from day one.)
The Consistency of Paul
Further in the article, Bethune calls other parts of the New Testament into serious question. Referring to the letters of Paul, which make up a large portion of the New Testament writings, he makes the claim that even though Paul mentions Jesus’ name or title over 300 times, he says nothing “about his ministry, his trial, his miracles, his sufferings.” The implication is that Paul is unaware or unconcerned with Jesus’ life.
This is simply false. In fact, the opposite is true.
Everything Paul writes flows from his understanding of Jesus’ life and the implications of his teachings. And yet, Bethune writes, they tell us “nothing about his ministry.” Paul’s own life of servanthood, teaching and providing for others is based on Jesus’ life (See 1 Corinthians 11:1, another one of the undisputed letters of Paul, where he says, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”) (NIV)
Bethune says that Paul writes nothing about Jesus’ suffering. Really? In Philippians 2, one of Paul’s most famous and powerful passages, he talks about Jesus dying on the cross! (Philippians 2:8). Suffering is a repeated and frequent theme.
Bethune quotes Ehrman and speculates that maybe Paul simply doesn’t care about what Jesus did before his resurrection. But when you look at what Paul did or didn’t write, it makes perfect sense. Why would Paul rehash so many of the stories?—Stories that were, I should add, already in wide circulation. Because that wasn’t his purpose. His purpose was to spread the message of Jesus to non-Jews, and to help people of various backgrounds work out the implications of Jesus’ teachings for their lives and churches. Mission accomplished. The church didn’t need another storyteller.
Lastly, the article raises the old argument that Jesus is perhaps based on a mythical Egyptian god—like Osiris—and is therefore not a historical, flesh-and-blood person.
When I read this I almost fell off my chair because in modern credible research, this view has almost universally gone out the window. As Mary Jo Sharp explains in her article “Is the Story of Jesus Borrowed from Pagan Myths?”, mythological literature is different in nature than the Gospel accounts; the supposed “parallels” are not parallels when actually compared to one another; and mythological literature assumes a different worldview than that of the Bible.
The Christ-as-myth theory sounds more like comedian Bill Maher on Jimmy Fallon than a scholarly opinion. And yet, Maclean’s included it.
Okay, So Where Are We?
At this point, I commend you. This blog isn’t a light read!
But my soul-burden continues. So let me share a few more thoughts that I hope will bear fruit for those who follow Jesus, those who don’t, and those who are just curious.
1. Biblical books are among the most widely preserved historical documents in the entire world and Jesus is the most widely attested historical figure
To put it in perspective, Tacitus’ Histories and Annals were written about 100 years after Jesus. Today, only two ancient copies exist. The Magna Carta, the foundational document for modern British law, is about 800 years old. Today, only four ancient copies exist.
But when it comes to the New Testament, there are 838 manuscripts and fragments from the first thousand years. Compared to anything else in the ancient world, this towers over other ancient documents. Plus, when you continue to travel through time, the amount of manuscripts snowballs to 14,000.
And even if all of our current manuscripts magically disappeared, we’d still have the New Testament. Why? Because the church fathers—church leaders in the first few centuries immediately after the time of Jesus—quoted the New Testament extensively in their writings. In fact, they did this so often that we could reconstruct the entire New Testament (with the exception of about 20 verses) based on what they wrote!
When you put all this together, what we have is a near-miracle of preservation. As lawyer and theologian John Warwick Montgomery puts it, “no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.”
2. The Bible isn’t the only ancient book to offer evidence about Jesus
Several non-Christian sources also talk about Jesus. These are significant because they have nothing to gain from telling us about him. Therefore, they are important evidence that add credibility to his historicity. Not only do they confirm his existence, but they confirm major details of his life that we read in the Bible.
The most famous is Josephus. In the 90’s (as in the original 90’s, not the 1990’s), in his history of the Jewish people, he wrote:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one ought to call him a man]. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people who accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. [He was the Christ.] When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. [On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.] And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.” (Feldman translation).
Later, we read about James “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ.”
A few things should be noted.
In the passage above, some parts are in square brackets. That’s because some scholars have argued, including Ehrman, that those statements were later additions to the original passage, perhaps by people who wanted to strengthen the claims of Christianity.
But even if you agree with that idea and take out the bracketed parts, Josephus’s influential non-biblical historical record confirms some key data: Jesus was a rabbi (“wise man”) who did miracles, was said to be the Christ (a word that means “Messiah,” God’s chosen ambassador), was executed by Pilate, had a brother named James, and had a following (“the tribe of Christians”) who were still around when Josephus was writing in the 90’s.
All of this supports what the Bible says.
Next, there’s Tacitus. It’s more non-Christian historical evidence about Jesus. Here’s the background.
In the year 64 a fire broke out in Rome. Nero, the Roman Emperor at the time, was being accused of starting it himself. So he blamed Christians to get out from behind the public scrutiny. What you’re about to read is what was recorded by the historian Tacitus in light of these events. When you read it, remember that Tacitus was not a Christian. Plus, the text appears to be uncorrupted by external and later editors:
“Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians.
“Christ, the founder of the name, had undergone death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of procurator Pontius Pilate, and a pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.
“First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race.” (Jackson translation)
It goes on to explain their arrest and how many were “covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.”
Paul Barnett, an associate in ancient history, summarizes what we learn from Tacitus’ record:
That Christians in Rome were scapegoats for Nero and that there were vast numbers arrested, not for arson but for “hatred of the human race.” Barnett suggests this is a reference to the Christian allegiance to God alone and not the Roman Emperor (which would have been interpreted in a very poor light). It also shows us that there was some sympathy toward Christians; that many were crucified and set aflame with tar; and that the name “Christian” came from Christ, whose movement continued after his death under Tiberius and spread throughout Rome. It also appears that Tacitus confirms the “breakout” of the faith that we learn about in the early chapters of the book of Acts in the Bible.
Jesus is historically confirmed not only in the Bible, but in the official records of the Roman Empire which had nothing to gain from preserving his memory and record.
3. Transformed Lives
To me, one of the biggest factors which supports the historical existence of Jesus is his enduring impact. Although we can’t count it as evidence in the usual sense, I still find it powerful and compelling.
In the Gospels, Jesus’ followers are often portrayed as missing the mark. There we read about Peter denying Jesus, and John and James having misplaced motives. They never seem to get it.
But after the resurrection everything changes. As author Tim Keller puts it, “How do you account for the hundreds of eyewitnesses to the resurrection who lived on for decades and publicly maintained their testimony, eventually giving their lives for their belief?”
Well, critics argue, it was to their advantage to make up stories to further the faith of their founder. But that argument simply doesn’t hold. Why not? Because they’re lives were often made more difficult (not less) and cut short because of those same beliefs.
All of the disciples had a total turnaround after the resurrection. They became lions of courage. In fact, many of them were martyred (killed for their faith). As Anglican writer John Stott observed, “Hypocrites and martyrs are not made of the same stuff.”
Then consider the Christians living in Rome when Nero was Emperor. They were arrested and burned publicly with tar. They could have recanted—but didn’t.
Another figure from history is Pliny the Younger who governed Bythynia in the early 2nd century. He led trials of Christians (as evidenced in his Letter #96) and had them put to death if they didn’t renounce Christ. Many of them didn’t. And he even gave each of them three chances to renounce or face death!
And you think that faith is tough when your alarm goes off at 8am on Sunday morning!
And what about the Jews? Jews in the first century adhered to a strict monotheism—worshipping and serving the one God of Israel with an intense loyalty rooted in an ancient tradition. How is it that hundreds of them started worshiping Jesus as Lord virtually overnight?
I’ll tell you how: They saw him alive again.
Today, that legacy continues. 2.3 billion people somehow identify as Christians. Globally, it’s a very diverse tradition, and different segments have different emphases. We’re far from perfect. We can get sucked into the greed and brokenness of the world, and sometimes fall victim to hypocrisy.
But, with God’s help, people of faith have advanced good on this planet in epic proportions. They have advocated for schools and education, set up orphanages, fought slavery, pioneered hospitals, protected the environment, and fed and clothed the hungry and poor without end.
I’m reminded of something Christian musician Bono from the rock bank U2 said in an interview with Michka Assayas. Assayas challenged Bono’s faith and wondered if Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God weren’t a little “far-fetched.”
Bono went on to explain the uniqueness of Christ, that’s he’s more than just a great teacher or prophet. He is “God incarnate,” Bono explained. “So what you’re left with is either Christ was who He said He was—the Messiah—or a complete nutcase. I mean, we’re talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson… I’m not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me that’s far-fetched…”
4. A rising tide of hostility?
Personally, I think the Maclean’s article masks a rising tide of hostility toward Christianity, Christians and Christ. It’s a hostility that is frustrated with the fact that Jesus, his followers, and his vision for the world have credibility, won’t go away, and will no longer simply prop up the values of Western society.
In the 1700’s the French philosopher Voltaire famously said, “Another century and there will not be a Bible on earth!” But that hasn’t happened. 100 million copies of the Bible are sold every single year.
Some have felt that if only people became more educated or cultured or scientific, then Christianity and the claims of Christ would vanish. But again, what we find is that many of the most educated, cultured and scientific people are strident Christians.
The Growth of Christianity
Plus, Jesus’ movement—called the church—is growing. Despite the fact that some nominal (= in name only), mainline or liberal traditions are rapidly closing churches, many healthy biblical churches are growing, even in secular North America. (Click here to read a Toronto Star article about this, and here to read one from the Globe and Mail.)
In other parts of the world, the movement Jesus began also continues to expand. According to historian Mark Noll, more Christians were in church in China last week than in all of “Christian Europe,” and more were in church in EACH of the countries of Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa than there were Anglicans and Episcopalians in church in all of Britain and the U.S.A. combined.
Exploring research on religion in general, the Washington Post reported in 2015 that “the world is expected to become more religious—not less.”
Change and Trust
So why do I mention this?
The teachings and claims of Jesus will not go away, nor can they be ignored. They have integrity and power. And that upsets a lot of people. It means that who God is and what he envisions for human life has real and transforming implications. It’s a matter of change—and we generally don’t like change—and of trust. Do we trust in God’s vision for each of our lives and the world, or would we simply prefer our own?
And I don’t just say this for people who aren’t followers of Jesus. I say this to myself as well. Faith is a continual process of transformation. It’s a joy, love and purpose which is always stretching us out of our comfort zones and toward the kingdom of God. Followers of Jesus don’t get an exemption from the transformation spectrum simply because they say the right things.
That said, one of the methods of resistance is to continually undermine Jesus and marginalize those who follow him.
Christians in North American don’t know much about persecution. But that’s not the case in other parts of the world. According to the World Evangelical Alliance, over 100 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their religious beliefs. According to former British Prime Minister David Cameron, Christians are the “most persecuted group in the world today.”
Vatican reporter John Allen paints a broader picture of the difficulties many Christians face, not only because of what they believe, but because of the conditions they live in: “The truth is two thirds of the 2.3 billion Christians in the world today live… in dangerous neighbourhoods. They are often poor. They often belong to ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities. And they are often at risk.”
Is a time of increased hardship coming to Christians in North America?
It’s hard to say. My guess is somewhere between maybe and yes.
It’s polite at first. We read pleasant, one-sided articles that quote educated scholars, wonder why we’re told to exclude church volunteer experience from our resume if we want the job, and feel pressure to not talk publicly about what the Bible says—especially if it doesn’t prop up the prevailing cultural values.
But it grows and seems to receive broader public support with each passing year.
So, Did Jesus Really Exist?
In this blog, I certainly haven’t said everything. I haven’t talked about how we come to “know something” (a field called epistemology), or the role of God’s Spirit in the inspiration of the Bible, or even some of the amazing findings in modern archaeology which have helped us better understand history and which confirm many details in the New Testament stories.
I also haven’t delved into many of the bigger questions for people of faith. For those of us who are already confident about the reliability of the Gospels, our focus isn’t on whether or not Jesus lived, but on the fact that he continues to be alive.
Instead, I’ve focused on the Maclean’s article and some of its implications and oversights. As I’ve tried to express, I feel they published a one-sided article that not only failed to represent a wider breadth of scholarly opinion, but that failed to respect the diversity of Canada’s many cultural and religious traditions–a respect that I think would have quickly been extended to other faith traditions.
And they did it during the holiest season of the Christian year.
Let me summarize my arguments:
- Contrary to the Maclean’s article, what we know about ancient memory can actually support the credibility of the Gospel stories rather than call them into question.
- The stories of Jesus weren’t just based on memory (which was better then than it is now); they were eyewitness testimony that were also written down soon after they were experienced.
- The stories themselves lend to their reliability because of how they were recorded; because they referenced living witnesses who could corroborate details in the early days of the movement; and because they included details that would have hurt the advance of Christianity instead of help it.
- Contrary to the Maclean’s article, the apostle Paul shows knowledge of Jesus’ life which is reflected in his own life and writings.
- Contrary to the suggestion in the article, the Christ-as-myth argument has no real credibility.
- Biblical books are among the most widely preserved historical documents in the entire world and Jesus is the most widely attested historical figure.
- Various non-biblical historical sources, whose authors were indifferent or hostile to Christianity (Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger), support the historicity of Jesus.
- The transformation of Jesus’ disciples—and millions since—lends authenticity to the movement (I call this the ‘You don’t die for a lie’ argument).
- As the church grows globally, we may be witnessing a new era of rising hostility toward Christ and Christians in North America and Europe, especially as biblical teachings come increasingly into conflict with wider cultural values.
In light of all this, did Jesus really exist?
Even if you don’t agree with what he said, to claim otherwise in the face of the evidence is simply too big a leap of faith.
- To read about the upcoming Sunday series at Westminster called “Peachy – How to have confident convictions and lead with love when others think your faith makes you foolish or fanatical” go here.