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Did Jesus Exist?

June 13, 2013

There are 3 main reasons for regarding Jesus of Nazareth as a historical rather than mythological figure.

First, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentions him.

The account at Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3 is too favorable to Jesus to have been written in its present form by Josephus, who was not a Christian. On the other hand, Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1 says, “But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus [Roman governor] was now dead, and Albinus [Festus’ successor] was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.” There is nothing in this passage which a non-Christian could not write. Therefore, there is no reason to doubt it.

Second, St. Paul indicates that Jesus’ brothers were living at the time of writing (1 Corinthians 9:5), and that he had met one of them (Galatians 1:19) This is hard to explain if Jesus himself were a myth.

Third, other Christian writings, especially the 4 Gospels, contain 5 details unlikely to have been fabricated by Christians, since they conflict with Christian interests.
1. Jesus was Jewish. St. Paul devotes 3 chapters (Romans 9-11) to the problem that most Jews do not accept Jesus as Messiah. John 1:11 says, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” Here again is the embarrassment that Jesus’ own nation rejected him. Thus it is unlikely that Jesus’ Jewish birth is a fiction.
2. Jesus grew up in Galilee. 3 times in the Gospel of John (1:46, 7:41f, 52) Jesus’ Galilean upbringing is used to question his Messianic office. The implausibility of the infancy narratives in Matthew 1:1-2:23, and in Luke 1:26-56, 2:1-39, 3:23-38 also suggest that Jesus’ was born in Galilee. For example, Matthew nowhere suggests that Joseph and Mary did not live in Bethlehem (1:18-2:23) prior to Mary’s pregnancy, but Luke makes clear that they lived in Nazareth. (1:26, 2:4) The tradition of the census of Augustus does not square with other historical sources, and it is incredible that the Romans would expect everyone to return to their ancestral homes.
3. Jesus was baptized by John, who baptized for forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3) But Jesus was sinless according to Christians. (2 Corinthians 5:2) The evangelists’ embarrassment with this is shown by the fact that Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:21 comes after John is imprisoned (3:21, hinting that Jesus was not baptized by John?). Likwise, when Jesus asks John for baptism in Matthew 3:13, John first refuses and says that John needs to be baptized by Jesus. (3:14) Although Jesus comes to John on the Jordan river in the gospel of John 1:29,35, Jesus is never baptized. Matthew, Luke, and John’s embarrassment at Jesus’ baptism makes it unlikely that Jesus’ baptism is a fiction.
4. Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God in parables. Outside of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, neither the Kingdom of God nor parables is mentioned much in the New Testament. That this tradition is not found much in Paul, the Johannine books, or the rest of the New Testament suggests that it comes from Jesus himself rather than the church.
5. Jesus was crucified by the Romans. Paul calls this a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. (1 Corinthians 1:23) The development of the passion narrative shows a tendency to shift blame from the Romans to the Jews. In Mark 15:1-15 Pilate wishes to free Jesus but acquiesces to the Jews. In Luke 23:7-15 Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, the ruler of Galilee, who sends him back to Pilate, which Pilate interprets as an acquittal. In Matthew 27:19 Pilate’s wife urges that Jesus be freed, Pilate fears a riot and washes his hands of Jesus’ innocent blood, which the crowd calls down on itself. In John 19:15 Pilate asks whether he should crucify Jesus, the King of the Jews. The chief priests answer, “We have no king but Caesar.” It is historically implausible, first,that a Roman governor would try to release a man called “king” without imperial authorization, and second, that the Jewish priests would say that Caesar, rather than God, is their king. The way in which the unwillingness of Pilate and the insistence of the Jews grew from the oldest to the newest gospel shows the discomfort of Christians with the fact that the Romans imposed on Jesus their worst punishment. Therefore, the Christians did not invent the story.

The conclusion to which we are driven is that Christians did not invent that Jesus was Jewish, grew up in Galilee, was baptized by John, taught about the Kingdom of God in parables, and was crucified by the Romans. These traditions, which the Christians did not invent, pose the question from where they did come. The most reasonable answer is that they are historical facts about a real person. Add to this the mention of Jesus by Josephus and Paul’s mention of Jesus’ brothers, and it is likely that Jesus was real person who was crucified by Pontius Pilate around 30 A.D.

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