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Debate: Historicity of Jesus

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Did a historical Jesus ever really exist?

Background and Context of Debate:

The historicity of Jesus concerns the historical authenticity of Jesus of Nazareth. Scholars often draw a distinction between Jesus as reconstructed through historical methods and the Christ of faith as understood through theological tradition. The historical figure of Jesus is of central importance to many religions, but especially Christianity and Islam, in which the historical details of Jesus’ life are essential.

Most scholars in the fields of biblical studies and history agree that Jesus was a Jewish teacher from Galilee who was regarded as a healer, was baptized by John the Baptist, was accused of sedition against the Roman Empire, and on the orders of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate was sentenced to death by crucifixion. However, a very small minority argue that Jesus never existed as a historical figure, but was a purely symbolic or mythical figure syncretized from various non-Abrahamic deities and heroes.

The four canonical Gospels and the writings of Paul of the New Testament are among the earliest known documents relating to Jesus' life. Some scholars also hypothesize the existence of early texts such as the Signs Gospel and the Q document. There are arguments that the Gospel of Thomas is likewise an early text. Many later texts provide valuable historical information as well.

Scholarly opinions on the historicity of the New Testament accounts are diverse. At the extremes, they range from the view that they are inerrant descriptions of the life of Jesus, to the view that they provide no historical information about his life. As with all historical sources, scholars ask: to what extent did the authors' motivations shape the texts, what sources were available to them, how soon after the events described did they write, and whether or not these factors lead to inaccuracies such as exaggerations or inventions.

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Yes

The book of Luke provides tremendous historical accuracy, as does the other three gosplels. The city of Nazareth was clearly around at that time period. A record after the destruction of the city of Jerusalem was destroyed, which stated where priests from the temple were to go, shows that two priests were to go to Nazareth. This clearly shows that a well established temple must have existed. As well, Jewish temples found in the vicinity of Nazareth, and dating to the first century have been found. Under Jewish tradition, they must be placed outside the city, and this is just what has been found. The gospels are written clearly by people close to Jesus, hence the ability to say some otherwise private events. A fragment of John's gospel has been found in Egypt, and dates to the period of AD 106. This clearly shows that the gospel spread rapidly to this area. It also shows that the Gospel was well established enough by this time to warrant such a translation as that in Egypt. As for other records of Jesus, there are various ones outside of the gospels. There are the writings of Josephus, which are mostly accurate. there are the writings of Lucian, Tacitus, as well as the Babylonian Talmud. These all clearly talk about jesus, and would not have been included if they were deemed completely inaccurate. As for the writings of Josphus, most of what he said was accurate. He clearly mentions Jesus. There are some sections that were added later, but the essence is still retained, which is that Jesus indeed existed. Evidence also suggests that the gospels were written quite close to the time of Jesus' crusifixion. This evidence includes:

The book of Acts, a two part book, ends before Paul's execution in AD 67, and does not mention the destruction of Jerusalem. As Acts is clearly a two part book, Luke (which was written by the same author) must have been written earlier. As Luke borrows some aspects from Mark, Mark must have been written even earlier. This puts Mark in the early 60', a mere 30 years after the crusifixion of Jesus! This may seem like a wide percent of time, the accounts of Alexander the Great were written 400 years after his death! Yet they are considered historically accurate. So the accounts of Jesus would not have been too distorted.

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No

The only detailed information on Jesus of "Nazareth" (which does not appear on any historical record, despite being called a city in the Bible) comes from the four Gospels of the New Testament. These were written by anonymous authors, in the late first and early second centuries C.E., and show all the hallmarks of fiction. They are written from a third person omniscient viewpoint, not the first person one would expect of a first hand account. They give information on the thoughts of Jesus and his actions when alone, as well as the thoughts of at least one otherwise insignificant Roman guard. Furthermore they are not internally consistent, all but John borrowed extensively from their predecessor/s, almost as if they were meant to be revisions, not separate works. The next most reliable source is a Jewish historian named Josephus, who mentions Jesus twice. The first, in Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 3, reads:

  • "Now there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works - a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named after him, are not extinct at this day."

These are some very unusual claims coming from a Jew writing in 70 C.E., twenty years before the first Gospel. Josephus, who was extremely critical of all the other attempted Messiahs of the time, is absolutely reverent when it comes to Jesus. It seems unequivocally written by a Christian, which is quite convenient, since the only surviving copies come to us through medieval Christian, who were not above revisionism. Later in book 20, he says:

  • "Festus was now dead, and Albinus was put upon the road; so he [Ananus, the Jewish high priest] assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, him called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. And when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned...."

As previously stated, Josephus pretty much hated all Messiah claimants, and Jesus was m=not special in being called "christ." Aside from being an obvious forgery in that manner, it also makes no sense for him to include such an allusion; his Roman audience would have no clue what he was talking about.

For a more thorough debunking, visit Ebon Musings' excelent article Choking on the Camel.

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