There is one thing to say to start with - obvious when you think about it. How often in your life have you heard about a human being who is supposed to have existed only to find that he didn’t? Rarely or never, is your likely answer. If I review the history of players of my favourite football club, I know I am not going to find any fictional ones listed, and likewise if I review an academic list of Roman Emperors – no fictional ones there either. The same goes for doing your family tree, and any number of similar exercises. You generally don’t find that historical persons who are meant to have existed actually are fictional.
How will we begin to answer that? How close can we get to really knowing anything about it? Are there any first-hand eyewitness reports, and do they even begin to get close to knowing? The answer is, closer than you might think. This is a data-gathering exercise that gets us further than many people might think possible. Behind the claims and conclusions, what is the data and evidence? There is quite a trail. The question in effect is this: is the trail of evidence pointing back to Jesus better explained by his existence or non-existence? There are a lot of different sets of evidence to consider, but you have to start somewhere. Let's start somewhere you may not be expecting.
We start with witness evidence, with what historians call primary and secondary witnesses: not first of all of Jesus but of the decade in which Christianity was born.
An eyewitness: but whom did he witness?
Our first undisputed first-hand eyewitness from the period (who met Jesus' disciples, not the pre-resurrection Jesus) actually gets us directly back to the crucial decade in which Jesus was supposed to have gone public with his mission in Judea and died. That decade is the 30s of the first century.
The funny thing is that so many people don’t even notice the fact that we have an eyewitness of the decade.
Through his own words, the eyewitness indicates to us that he was independent when he came to the subject to Jesus. He was sceptical of the claims of followers of Jesus, if not downright hostile to them, at first. This makes him particularly valuable to historians - he had been on the opposing side. He tells us that he first thought as a non-follower about Jesus. He tells us that he met followers of Jesus. Information the witness gives us pinpoints this to the 30s of the first century, and it indicates the witness was a contemporary of when Jesus is supposed to have been alive.
Contemporary? Independent? Yes. The eyewitness says he was hostile to the followers of Jesus because of their attitude to Israelite life and religion. Then the witness changed sides, he tells us, although it seems tensions persisted between him and some of the people he had formerly opposed. About twenty years later, he wrote down about the people he met in the 30s, the followers of Jesus. He also names Jesus effectively as a contemporary of his younger days, and wrote a few things about him: he understood that Jesus was an Israelite who was descended from the family of King David; that Jesus was born into a family of observant Jews; that he had a brother named James and other brothers who had wives; that Jesus spent time in the land of the Judeans, the homeland of the Jews, and that this is where he died; that his death was by Roman crucifixion; and that his body was buried.
This witness doesn’t claim to have seen Jesus walking around Galilee or anything like that. What he crucially indicates is that he is an eyewitness of those people in the 30s whose religion had something to do with this Jesus figure. The people he saw and spoke with are in themselves important evidence, as we shall see.
This important eyewitness, with his first-hand account of life in the 30s, is known as Paul. He wrote about his experiences in his own words in personal letters which we have to this day, and historians agree on a good deal here, including non-Christian historians. He left behind several letters that secular scholars agree are authentic, personal correspondence written by Paul. (These agreed letters go by the names of Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon. They are named after the peoples they were sent to.) This is valuable. It is like finding a diary.
But what about the gospels?
Since this is also going to be about Jesus, you might have thought I would have started with what is in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John being the biblical ones). But that would be jumping the gun. The gospels got written down in the form we know after Paul. (Mark's gospel was written first in the view of most scholars, usually thought to be written a little before or after 70AD, but that's for another blog.) First, it’s important that we make our judgment call about whether there is actually anything worth investigating, whether there is a real historical thing that the gospels might help us to understand. So we don't start with the gospels, we start with Paul.
What Paul saw and heard
So, in this little series of blogs, our first eyewitness of the 30s is Paul. But our focus is on those people he met. The point is that we can get closer to information about Jesus by learning about them, those poor persecuted souls whom Paul harmed in the 30s and wrote about in the 50s. These religious people were there first when it comes to knowing about Jesus - Paul's first-hand eyewitness makes that conclusion absolutely clear. They took notice of Jesus before Paul did - so who were they?
As the earliest first-hand eye-witness of the Jesus-movement - Paul is what historians call a 'primary source' (that is, an eyewitness writing while the events are still clear in his mind). He is a primary source for discovering the early Jesus-movement (whereas for what he knows about Jesus, Paul is what historians call a 'secondary source' or 'secondary witness').
Why this matters
Sceptics must deal with the fact that there was some Jesus-related religion in the 30s of the first century, a religion that did not come from Paul but rather was opposed by Paul, and that was already there before Paul cared. What did they believe about Jesus? How does this data help us to know anything about a historical Jesus?
Our eyewitness Paul met them and tells us about them firsthand. These people get us closer to the historical Jesus. But to get the picture about them, I also need to gather the data of Paul’s information about the life story of Jesus.
The gap closes
Here's the thing. You might have imagined that our knowledge of Jesus is based on stories that first appear many decades after Jesus was supposed to have been a public figure, or even centuries after. This eyewitness evidence takes us in a different direction. It closes that gap with first-hand historical data right down to a handful of years in the 30s. Between the supposed Jesus of the 30s and these Jesus-followers of the 30s, there is not much of a gap in time.
The challenge for sceptics is to account for how these people in the 30s had their ideas about Jesus.
It is hard to come up with a simpler explanation than that these Jesus-people in Judea in the 30s had known a historical Jesus in Judea in the 30s: the evidence for this will be presented. Occam's razor favours the simplest explanation for the religion of these people.
Now, to be fair, I want you to be sure that I am writing what a sceptical historian can safely write. I’m going to stick to the best information that a sceptic can rely on.
I’m not writing as a believer this time – although I declare myself one – but I’m doing this for those who are not believers. Even with Paul, I’m erring on the safe side for you, readers. So I’m ignoring letters which bear his name but which some historians suspect as not being by Paul at all. So I’m relying only on a few letters that were without doubt written by Paul – ones which historians of all sides can agree really were written by Paul. That’s fair, isn’t it?
Here's the thing. To be a real investigator here, we have to mentally divorce Paul's letters from the Bible. When he wrote them in the 50s, he had no idea that someone else would put them in the Bible, and as such a reasonable sceptic can't irrationally dismiss a document just because someone later put it in a collection! The only reasonable starting place for an investigator is to work out what the letters really meant in the days they were written. In those days, the only Bible was what Christians call the Old Testament. And Paul's letters weren't part of it.
Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive?
Did Jesus Exist? 2b. Were ancient authors silent about Jesus' existence?
Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?
Did Jesus Exist? 2d. What about these authors then, Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny?
Extra: Did Josephus mention Jesus and was that quoted by Origen?
Extra: What did Tacitus really say about Christ and Christians?
Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus?
Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus?
Did Jesus Exist? 3c. Did Peter and Paul talk about Jesus?
So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)
Did Jesus Exist? 4a. So then: what about the people who were interested in Jesus before Paul was?
Did Jesus Exist? 4b. What did people know about the life story of Jesus before Paul came on the scene?
Did Jesus Exist? 5. Did Paul invent Jesus?
Did Jesus exist? 6. Do the gospels believe in a historical Jesus?