Historical Jesus Part 5: Bibliography


Historical Jesus Part 4: Contradictions and Improbabilities

Finally, Onfray argues that the New Testament is full of contradictions and improbabilities. Onfray calls into question the differing details pertaining to the wooden tablet, or titulus, that was attached to Jesus at the crucifixion. Onfray provides two potential areas of conflict here. First is the differing understanding of how the titulus was attached: was it nailed to the wood of the cross above Christ’s head, as per the description in John or was it hung around his neck, as per Luke’s description? And second, what was the actual text that was written on the tablet? All four gospels record slightly different wording for the charge that was affixed to the front of the titulus. Onfray argues that contradictions like these are numerous in the New Testament, which calls into question the validity of the New Testament as a whole.

Further, Onfray asserts several improbabilities as well. Onfray is adamant that Jesus was never crucified. He argues, “at the time Jews were not crucified but stoned to death. […] The fact is that Rome could have cared less about this business of messiahs and prophecy. Crucifixion implied a challenge to the imperial power, which the crucified man never explicitly posed.” [Onfray, In Defense of Atheism, 128.]

Onfray is correct to highlight some inconsistencies between different Gospel accounts of the same story. However, this in itself does not make the stories invalid. If we look at the stories, there is a great deal of similarity. In fact, The Gospel of Peter [Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, 124-126.], which was not included in the final canon, affirms many of the points made in the passion story, out of which this current debate arises. Robert Funk of The Jesus Seminar suggests that many of the specific elements included in the passion narrative were in fact fictitious, included merely to “reinvent the scene.” John Crossan agrees, suggesting that the passion event itself may have been historically accurate, but Crossan stays close to The Jesus Seminar opinion that the details were a combination of fulfillment of scripture and narrative dressing to paint the scene. [Funk, The Acts of Jesus, 156.]

Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz suggest that the inscription mentioned in Luke 23:38 may have been a historical fact. They detail numerous sources that mention the placement of placards, or titulus, above crucified individuals detailing the reasons for their punishment. Theissen and Merz do mention though that this custom was not performed “so frequently that it could have been invented by any narrator as a natural element in an execution” [Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, 458.]. Theissen and Merz further argue that since Luke’s Gospel focused on the Jewish refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah, there was no motivation to invent the political title used in Luke 23:38 to further Luke’s argument against the Jewish elders. Theissen and Merz’ earlier proof of Roman labeling of the accusations, combined with a lack of motivation to make up this fact make it entirely likely that this may have been more than random filler to help make the story seem more real.

Ben Witherington III also defends the historical accuracy of the placard.[Witherington, New Testament History, 158.] Witherington argues the same case that Theissen and Merz present, offering that the similarities between the three Gospel accounts, combined with the understanding that other Roman crucifixions of the time used tabula, are sufficient to defend the historical credibility of the details presented in the Gospel texts. Witherington concludes that “All this material contains the telltale signs that a historian looks for to discern whether a story has historical plausibility. The story of Jesus’ demise has many such features.” [Witherington, New Testament History, 159.]

Additionally, using Powell’s “Criteria of Authenticity” [Powell, Jesus As A Figure In History, 46-50.], we can easily see that multiple attestation is present, the content is memorable in the repetitious title of “King of the Jews”, there is appropriate language and environment, an adequate explanation is provided for this particular detail and the story coheres with the surrounding historical understanding of similar circumstances. Thus, there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that the titulus did in fact exist, even though the specifics of the item are under scrutiny. These arguments easily counter Onfray’s opinion that contradictory stories should be discarded as false.

One final thought on Onfray’s argument that Jesus was never crucified: Onfray’s argument is perplexing as Onfray contradicts himself. On page 118, Onfray himself provides examples of Jewish prophets and other rebels who were beheaded and crucified. Thus, not only do Crossan, The Jesus Seminar, Theissen and Merz, and others agree that the crucifixion happened, but Onfray himself also suggested that crucifixion wasn’t that uncommon. Yet, he argued that Jesus was not crucified. This contradiction further weakens Onfray’s writing.

Onfray’s attempts to discredit Jesus are disappointing. He provides no new scholarship nor does he cite any existing scholarship to support his claims. His arguments are weak, they lack and in some cases misinterpret available historical evidence and his arguments sometimes contain contradictions of their own. Thus, Onfray fails to deliver a coherent, valuable and honest discussion pertaining to the validity of the historical Jesus.

Up next: “Bibliography


Historical Jesus Part 3: Politics of the New Testament Canon

Next, Onfray questions the validity of the process that went into creating what we know as the New Testament canon. Onfray asks, “Why were some texts left out.” He responds with the following: “Who put together the corpus and decided on the canon? The church, its councils, and its synods toward the end of the fourth century of our era.” [Onfray, In Defense of Atheism, 127.]

Onfray’s understanding of canon formation is poorly understood. The New Testament as we know it today was fairly complete by the end of the second century, which is one hundred years prior to the life of Constantine, who played a key role in organizing the first church councils and synods. And, the final works that were included in the New Testament were readily understood, in the first and second century, to be written by someone who could have been alive during the time of Jesus. Thus, the final canon was considered to be as accurate as possible.

The formal canonization of this already accepted package of writing came at the Council of Hippo in Africa in 393. The Synod of Cartage in 397 listed the New Testament books in the order that ours are in today. And, the final canon was reaffirmed in 419 at the Council of Carthage. The Gospels and Paul’s writings were never disputed. Some books were debated, but they were not debated based on political motivations. They were debated based on their Catholicity and value to the truth of the Church. This conflicts with Onfray’s version of events considerably. Why doubt Onfray’s version? With two councils and a synod separately documenting and validating the same list that had been used for quite some time, it makes it quite difficult to ignore this evidence. Councils and synods were convened for special purposes and their findings were documented quite meticulously. It would be quite difficult to forget these results, especially when considered against one another and against the multiple sources that exist to attest each individual council or synod. So, the overwhelming evidence dismisses Onfray’s claim in this regard.

Up next: “Contradictions and Improbabilities


Historical Jesus Part 2: Jesus as Fantasy

Next, Onfray likens Jesus to the numerous prophets and zealots of the time [Onfray, In Defense of Atheism, 118.], suggesting that later Christian writers expanded his role to include Messianic expectations. Onfray goes on to suggest that the Gospel writers attached to Jesus a great deal of supernatural elements that were commonly associated with venerable mythical figures of the time, including a virgin birth: “Plato too was born of a mother in the prime of life but endowed with an intact hymen.” [Onfray, In Defense of Atheism, 122.] Onfray infers from this that Jesus was a product of fantasy and not fact due to the numerous similarities to existing myth.

This argument is really a straw man type of argument. Logically, the argument doesn’t hold up. Onfray basically claims that since he can find similar stories that resonate with the Gospel story, that makes the Gospel story inauthentic. While the similarities are interesting, this is extremely weak logic that doesn’t prove anything.

I expected at least a partial acknowledgment of the possibility of the validity of the Christian texts, rather than the dismissal of the Christian writing because it mirrors ancient myths so closely. Yes, Onfray’s argument does imply that the similarities between Christianity and other ancient myths are too similar to be coincidence, but Onfray doesn’t give any credence to any opposing points of view. The coincidental (or not) similarities to other myths does not in itself invalidate the possible accuracy of the Christian story.

And, discounting the New Testament based on Onfray’s argument of similarity discounts all of the evidence in support of Christianity, including the eye witness accounts documented in the Gospels and in Acts, along with the commitment of the martyrs to follow the faith that they experienced personally even when threatened with death.

Up next: “Politics of the New Testament Canon


Historical Jesus Part 1: The Source Documents Are Forgeries

Onfray begins his critique of the historical Jesus by arguing that the documents that pronounce Jesus’ existence are forgeries. Onfray challenges, “Jesus’ existence has not been historically established.” [Onfray, In Defense of Atheism, 115.] Onfray further suggests, “Nothing of what remains can be trusted. The Christian archives are the result of ideological fabrication.” [Onfray, In Defense of Atheism, 117.] Even the historical documents of Flavius Josephus, Suetonius and Tacitus are, to Onfray, of questionable accuracy. Ultimately, Onfray charges that the winners throughout history have been guilty of manipulating historical records to suit their own needs.

It is important to note that the New Testament actually did not go through numerous revisions. In fact, many of the books of the New Testament were originally collected as letters that were sent to various Christian Churches. Revisions were not made to these letters over time. Archeological research and comparison of ancient documents has proven that the New Testament is extremely accurate when compared to fragments that date from the earliest sources. Thus, the Christian archives are not as unreliable as Onfray would have his reader believe.

As an example of the accuracy of the New Testament Gospels, consider the Dead Sea Scrolls [Ehrman, The New Testament – A Historical Introduction, 237-240.]. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain hundreds of documents that scholars estimate have been hidden away since the middle of the first century. These documents are over a thousand years older than the oldest copies of the Hebrew Scriptures that were previously available. Comparing these older documents showed that “for the most part, they did” [Ehrman, The New Testament – A Historical Introduction, 239.] match up with the newer documents that were previously available.

Similar comparisons have been done for the historical writing of Josephus, for the Gospels and for the rest of the canon as well. This means that there is little debate over the literal accuracy of the texts themselves. Thus, Onfray’s point about forged documents is really a red herring with no evidence to support his claim.

Next up: “Jesus as Fantasy