Continuing my discussion of common arguments used against christians.
This post: arguments that seek to undermine faith in Jesus by arguing that the gospels aren’t reliable as history, or that we can know little factual about Jesus, or that Jesus could not have been divine.
There is no contemporary evidence for Jesus
If Jesus was such an important figure as christians claim, and if he did all those miracles, wouldn’t you expect him to be mentioned in the many histories and other writings of the time? But none of them mention him, so either he didn’t exist or he didn’t do any miracles.
Historians tell us that this argument doesn’t show a good understanding of the times.
- There is little or no contemporary evidence for Hannibal and several other major figures of the time – only a small proportion of all relevant documents survive today.
- Most Roman historians were interested in imperial events, not a Jewish prophet in the backblocks of the empire. They mostly don’t mention other Jewish figures who would have been more notable to them. Nevertheless, Tacitus, writing about 80 years later, does mention Jesus.
- Jewish historian Josephus mentions Jesus twice, and although the text of one passage has been corrupted by a christian interpolation, scholars generally believe we can see a clear and useful reference to Jesus in both passages.
- The gospels are separate, and mostly independent, writings that historians regard as valuable historical documents. They give good information about Jesus, even if one doesn’t accept their portrayal of him as divine.
Prof Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina: “We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.”
So in fact we have better evidence for Jesus than many other ancient figures, and pretty much what we’d expect to have. The argument is simply not based on a fair reading of history.
Paul knew nothing about Jesus
The earliest documents in the New Testament are Paul’s letters, the gospels came later. Yet Paul seems unaware of anything about Jesus’ life, and only writes about a heavenly Jesus. This shows that the story of Jesus began as a spiritual story and the historical details were invented later.
It is true that Paul doesn’t provide many biographical details of Jesus’ life and times, but it isn’t true that he provides none. About 20 facts about Jesus’ life can be found in Paul’s letters, including he was a descendent of King David; he had a brother James and a disciple Peter (both of whom Paul had met); he taught against divorce; he was betrayed on the night he shared a meal we now call the Last Supper; and he died by crucifixion.
The claim is therefore much over-stated, so the argument is ineffective. But why did Paul make so few references to Jesus’ life? It seems reasonable to guess that Paul was writing letters to people who already knew the stories which had been passed around orally – this is supported by the fact that later letters don’t say that much about Jesus’ life either.
Jesus was a legend copied from pagan gods
There are many mystery religions in the ancient world, and there are many parallels between their gods (often called dying and rising gods) and Jesus. Perhaps the most argued parallel is with the Egyptian god Osiris (Dionysus to the Greeks). Christianity originated as a Jewish mystery religion, except much later some of his followers invented a historical story about him.
These ideas are to my knowledge supported by only one recognised scholar (Robert Price), and some enthusiastic amateurs.
The problem with this theory is that, according to almost all expert scholars, it is not based on facts. The supposed parallels fall into on of the other categories:
- The god may have died, but he didn’t rise again. Prof Bart Ehrman says of Hercules and Osiris: “there’s nothing about them dying and rising again.” TD Mettinger, Lund University (Sweden), who made a detailed study of the matter: “there were no ideas of resurrection connected with Dumuzi / Tammuz” Jonathan Z. Smith in The Encyclopedia of Religion: “There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity.”
- Other aspects of the supposed parallels are not factual either. For example, Osiris/Dionysus was not born of a virgin as claimed.
- Some of the supposed parallels are irrelevant. For example, Osiris/Dionyus was born on December 25th, but the Bible says nothing of this and few suppose that was when Jesus was born.
- In some cases, the legends originated after christianity, and so the copying went the other way. Wikipedia: “The mysteries of Mithras were not practiced until the 1st century AD. The unique underground temples or Mithraea appear suddenly in the archaeology in the last quarter of the first century AD.” TD Mettinger: “The references to a resurrection of Adonis have been dated mainly to the Christian Era”
- Some of the supposed parallels come from mystery religions about which we have insufficient information to draw any parallels. Prof Bart Ehrman: “we know very little about mystery religions – the whole point of mystery religions is that they’re secret! So I think it’s crazy to build on ignorance in order to make a claim like this”. JZ Smith: “[The idea of dying and rising gods is] largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.”
- There is no evidence of pagan mystery religions having any influence in Jewish thinking. Prof Martin Hengel: “Hellenistic mystery religions … could gain virtually no influence [in Jewish Palestine]”
- The stories were generally known to be legends and not history at the time, whereas there is good historical evidence for Jesus. Plutarch (46-120 CE) warns his readers against taking the Egyptian stories literally.
The conclusion of the experts is almost unanimous:
TND Mettinger: “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world.”
Bart Ehrman: “We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum in their propagandised versions.”
The common element in these three arguments is that they are all contrary to the conclusions of most scholars. They seem to depend on misunderstandings of historical realities and the use of unhistorical assumptions and criteria. We christians can confidently stand against these arguments by simply pointing to the scholars.
Next post: Has the New Testament been changed?
Read the whole series
This post is part of a series on Training disciples to stand. Check out all the topics here.