Sunday, 26 July 2015

Did Jesus exist? 6. Do the gospels believe in a historical Jesus?

What are people challenging when they say that the gospels are not evidence that there was ever any such man as Jesus of Nazareth? They are challenging a depiction of Jesus with the following notable features:
  • This Jesus is a man of his time and place, a first century Israelite in his mission and ways, an observant Jew.
  • This Jesus was only really semi-public. He was elusive, often telling people not to mention anything special about him, often hitting the road and staying in the countryside to avoid the authorities. (See Mark’s gospel at 1:45, 3:7, 6:31-32, 6:45, 6:53, 7:24, 7:31, 8:10, 8:22, 9:30 and 33.[1])
  • He was someone that people had heard of for only three years, 30-33AD. He spent relatively few days in Jerusalem even then. 
  • He was never appointed to public office.
How does one begin to assess the historicity of a figure like this? We should start with someone who has done so before. The first person in history to say directly that he had investigated these things did not himself know Jesus personally. His work is now referred to as a gospel, but the writer didn't call it a 'gospel' himself. This is how he introduced his work:

"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us,  just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account"

Although he didn't call this a gospel, someone else after him called it The Gospel According To Luke. So we take the author's name to be Luke. There is no evidence to the contrary.

Sceptics sometimes say we know nothing about how any of the gospels came to be written. This obviously isn’t true because Luke first-hand as an author tells us how he came to write his. You might  have been expecting me to start this blog by claiming this or that gospel was written by an eyewitness. I’m not going to. I’m starting with this gospel that actually tells us up front that it is not by an eyewitness and says exactly how it came to be written. As a historian, I can say that that is a very good way to start. This is just what a historian needs – a document that is up front about how it was put together. Luke 1:1-3 tells us the following things.
Others had tried to write an account of Jesus, and these written accounts were handed to Luke by eyewitnesses. With these in his possession, Luke set about turning these into an ‘orderly’ account. See it in the  passage again, broken down like this:
  • "Many have undertaken to draw up an account
  • of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 
  •  just as they [such accounts] were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses
  • and servants of the word. With this in mind, since
  • I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning,
  • I too decided to
  • write an orderly account" (emphasis added)
Luke is telling us straight that he is a ‘secondary witness’ (as historians call it), taking the written accounts passed to him by eyewitnesses (who obviously were not dead yet) and combining them into one continuous account – he adds that he has himself ‘carefully investigated everything’.
Luke's three sources
Modern textual criticism has borne out that this is how Luke worked: because at least three different sources have been detected in Luke’s gospel by scholars.[1] They are – and each of these would be a separate scroll:
  • the gospel of Mark, which Luke has used but shortened;
  • some stories and sayings that are in common with Matthew’s gospel, which scholars call ‘Q’; and
  • parables that are found only in Luke, not in the other gospels.
So Luke has told the truth about how he has done this. There are probably more than three sources: for example, Luke’s first two chapters about Jesus’ birth read quite differently from the rest of the book, as if from a different source again. So Luke is not claiming to write something substantially new. He is claiming to be putting these sources into one account. We can’t assume he got his hands on these scrolls all at the same time, but possibly from time to time, until he started combining them.
Eyewitnesses and documents
Of course, we would all wish that Luke had put notes in his 'gospel' to say which bits are from which documents or which eyewitnesses, by name. He doesn’t tell us that. But he has been candid about his way of working, and that makes his work more credible.
What we have got from Luke already is that there are multiple eyewitnesses, multiple sources, reflected in his account. This makes his account of a historical Jesus more credible too. The more witnesses there are to someone’s existence, the more credible it is that that person existed. Behind Luke, there are at least three such documentary sources, as well as eyewitnesses, lending a good deal of credibility to Jesus' existence.
The fact that Luke says eyewitnesses are among his sources needs to be heard too. He is rather like a news reporter facing the camera and telling us what he has learned from his eyewitnesses, his investigations and from documents he has seen. And as he has done so, he has given us his own access to at least three documents about Jesus that are older than his own. And what is clear is that he absolutely believes that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person. If he did so, with him having done all that background work, then sceptics need a pretty good reason if they are to deny that he was right about Jesus existing.

[1] Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ, 9.

[1] Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ, 94-5.

Did Jesus Really Exist? 1. A little introduction

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?

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?

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