Dawkins Part 5: The Historical Jesus


“Where is God in our world?” is the question that atheists often ask. To many, God does appear to be absent. Miracles don’t happen to the poor, to the oppressed, to those that lose children or loved ones. God does appear to be missing from the lives of those that are down and out.

But wait… haven’t you read the Bible? The Old Testament is full of stories of God interacting with people in the world. Religious opposition challenges that this is simply myth that has been preserved for thousands of years.

What about the New Testament? Didn’t God come to earth in human form? He certainly did. He came in the form of his son, Jesus. Much debate has been conducted over the actual substance of Jesus: was he God, was he man, was he a combination of the two? I’ll save that debate for another day. But for now, let’s focus on the historical record of Jesus walking among us.

The Historical Jesus provides us with a temporal link to God. This is one of many links to God. Some claim that they experience God on a daily basis. I’d like to think that I spend time with God daily, but I have no empirical evidence with which to prove it to my doubting friends. Thus… today’s post: proof of God walking among us. And to provide my answer, I’m going to borrow heavily from some writing that I posted on Feb 24 2007 entitled, “What is an evangelical – III“.

The 20th and 21st Centuries have seen an unparalleled interest in the truth claims of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Numerous academics, skeptics and religious challengers have been attempting to subvert the historical validity of the New Testament. The most recent scholarship has not only further confirmed the accuracy of the New Testament texts, but it has also uncovered additional documentation to support the existence of Jesus Christ in the first century.

Mark Allen Powell, in his book “Jesus as a Figure in History“, provides a great summary of the standard criteria used in religious studies research to comment on authenticity. Powell provides six criteria. They are:

  1. Multiple Attestation – are the same ideas found in multiple sources?
  2. Dissimilarity – an idea is more likely to be authentic if it is different from the typical perspectives of the period in question. In this case, perspectives that differed from typical Judaic thought would be considered more likely to come from Jesus.
  3. Memorable Form – memorable phrases, stories or sayings would be more likely to be authentic. It is assumed that stories pertaining to Jesus were first transmitted in oral form, it is more likely that proverbs, beatitudes and stories in memorable forms would be more likely to be accurately remembered, shared and passed on.
  4. Language and Environment – Does the language and environment fit the historical period in question? If so, this supports the authenticity of the claim.
  5. Explanation – Does the story or quote in question further support the claims made about the person, place or thing in question.
  6. Coherence – Does the story under scrutiny fit with the rest of the factual information known about the topic at hand? If so, this lends additional credence to the argument in question.

There is plenty of writing out there to support all six of these categories. There are multiple sources that point to the validity of the Jesus of history, both before and after his resurrection. There are numerous sources that date back to the same century as Christ’s life. And, these sources come from numerous different perspectives. This multiple attestation shows the abundance of early documentation in support of the claim that Jesus is the Messiah. The criteria of dissimilarity fits, as Jesus’ message definitely went against the grain of the Jewish leaders of the day. We need look no further than the Sermon on the Mount to see the criteria of memorable form at play. The language, environment and explanations for the stories of Jesus all seem to fit together quite well. And, there is a coherence to the stories of Jesus that suggests a valid historical foundation as well.

Further, let’s consider some additional factors at play here. Asking the question, “Can we trust the text of the Bible?”, I suggest the following: Why not? Christianity was built upon Judaism, which maintained an enormous oral tradition for a thousand years. They had the skills to maintain the accuracy of their traditions and they knew how to preserve their scripture.

And to answer those that ask, “But what about the conflicting accounts in the gospels? (The Gospels are the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John)”, I offer the following: The Gospels are not a transcript, but they are an account that eye witnesses wrote down as witnesses. Each gospel will obviously have a perspective to them. Does this make them inaccurate? No, it just means that they were viewed through a certain lens. And really… what historical reports are not presented through a lens?

And finally, people suggest that the New Testament didn’t contain the earliest sources or that the church mixed and matched scripture in order to meet their own “agenda”. Nothing could be farther from the truth here. As religious scholars agree, the canon that we recognize today as the New Testament was complete and circulating together as a “package” by the end of the first century. This was quite early in the history of the church.

Further, the additional “questionable texts” like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas had two problems that kept them from inclusion in the New Testament:

  1. These books were written much later, dating anywhere from the mid-second century for some of these books to others that dated into the third century. These were much later writings than the texts that are included in the New Testament.
  2. The content and structure didn’t match with the other books in the New Testament. Many of these texts that were not included have a style that marks them as Gnostic texts, which were much different theologically than the New Testament that we know. This makes them markedly different from the early texts, which, because of their much earlier dating, are considered to be much more accurate and theologically agreeable to the intentions of Jesus and the early church.

While there is modern discourse about the dating and ordering of the New Testament in the early church, there is little disagreement over the relative accuracy of the claims that I’ve summarized above. Thus, the documentation itself is relatively solid from a date perspective.

The one final question is, “Yeah, but what about outsiders? Did anyone outside of the church validate the claims of Christianity, or did they all have a vested interest in furthering the Gospel of Jesus?” Luckily, there is some external evidence to support the claims that Jesus was stirring things up in the early church. The external documentation doesn’t go to the same depths as the Gospels do to proclaim the good news, but they do validate that a person named Jesus was on the tongues of the early Christians and that Jesus provided a motivation to spread the Gospel message across the Roman Empire and beyond. Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, mentioned Jesus. Josephus provides one of the few historical accounts of this period of history and his writing about Jesus provides at least a partial validation about the existence and influence of the man named Jesus.

While Josephus does not delve into the theological claims of the New Testament, he does place Jesus in the early first century and he does mention that he had followers.

There is plenty of scholarly research to support these claims, but for the sake of expediency and adequateness, I’ll refer you to a wikipedia entry on the Historical Jesus that provides the main points for the time being. The wikipedia entry also provides some additional links for further study. And, if you are interested in reading further, check out the following great resources that I’ve referenced in the past:

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3 comments on “Dawkins Part 5: The Historical Jesus
  1. Glad to see someone who isn’t trying to “debunk” God (think about how ridiculous that is for a moment…) Keep up the good work.

  2. Jim Pierce says:

    Thank you for this series of articles! It has been very good reading. I was an atheist for 18 years. If interested you can read my story: http://jpierce.wordpress.com/2007/09/04/the-far-reaching-hand-of-the-lord/

    I thank God for his saving grace dail!

    Jim

  3. Robert says:

    Greetings, I would like to make a few comments if I may.

    You wrote, The most recent scholarship has not only further confirmed the accuracy of the New Testament texts, but it has also uncovered additional documentation to support the existence of Jesus Christ in the first century.

    The book you imply as “most recent scholarship” is Jesus as a Figure in History. which was published in 1998. This constitutes “most recent scholarship”?

    In truth, recent scholarship has vastly undermined the accuracy of the NT texts, and even of Jesus’s historicity. Books by Robert M. Price are especially compelling.

    You wrote, There are multiple sources that point to the validity of the Jesus of history, both before and after his resurrection.

    I would be curious to know of any sources to the validity of the Jesus of history before his alleged resurrection.

    You wrote, “Can we trust the text of the Bible?”, I suggest the following: Why not? Christianity was built upon Judaism, which maintained an enormous oral tradition for a thousand years. They had the skills to maintain the accuracy of their traditions and they knew how to preserve their scripture.

    Why not? Because sciences like archeology and geology have essentially refuted major elements of the Bible, like the exodus and a global flood. Ability to preserve scripture doesn’t mean what’s been preserved was accurate.

    You wrote, “But what about the conflicting accounts in the gospels?… I offer the following: The Gospels are not a transcript, but they are an account that eye witnesses wrote down as witnesses.

    This claim is untrue. The Gospels are certainly NOT an eyewitness account, and are not even written as such.

    You wrote, Each gospel will obviously have a perspective to them. Does this make them inaccurate? No, it just means that they were viewed through a certain lens.

    The “perspective” does no good in attempting to reconcile the conflicting claims of Jesus’s lineage or the date of his birth, to give just a couple examples.

    You wrote, As religious scholars agree, the canon that we recognize today as the New Testament was complete and circulating together as a “package” by the end of the first century.

    Perhaps religious scholars agree, but historical scholars would laugh at this assertion.

    You wrote, And finally, people suggest that the New Testament didn’t contain the earliest sources or that the church mixed and matched scripture in order to meet their own “agenda”. Nothing could be farther from the truth here.

    Scholars cannot pinpoint firm or exact dates when the early Christian writings were made; instead, they posit a range of dates.

    It is not true that texts were excluded because they were “late”. Many writings were not included, even though they’re dated around the same time as the canonical texts.

    You wrote, The content and structure didn’t match with the other books in the New Testament.

    The Gospel of John does not match the other Gospels, but was included anyway, so obviously this criterion was not used either.

    You wrote, Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, mentioned Jesus. You failed to note that many consider these mentions to be interpolations by later Christians, in whole or in part.

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