Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Did Jesus Actually Exist?

I recently came across a shocking poll. The study found that only 57% of adults in the UK age 18-34 agree with this statement: “Jesus was a real person who actually lived.” However, if you go to Oxford, Cambridge, or any of the other fine universities in the UK, you will be hard pressed to find any ancient historian, classicist, or biblical scholar who would not immediately affirm this statement. (In his seminal work on the historical Jesus, James Dunn [Durham] stated that such a scholar appears somewhere in the world “about once every generation” [Jesus Remembered, 142].)

Regardless of one’s views on religion, this is a fascinating social phenomenon: nearly half of the population holds a view which is almost unanimously scorned by the academy. As I reflect on this phenomenon, the only true parallel I can think of is the popularity of so-called “young earth creationism” among American evangelicals. In a survey of 1,000 American pastors, only 34% strongly disagreed with the following statement: “I believe the Earth is approximately 6,000 years old.” Of course, if you travel to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, you will find no biologist, geologist, or astronomer who holds such a view. 

Note further that both young earth creationists and Jesus deniers share two important similarities. 

1) Both dismiss the consensus of the academy as the product of a widespread bias which renders scholars uncritical of traditional views.

The young earth creationists insist that mainstream scientists are simply blinded by their naturalistic presuppositions. Likewise, the Jesus deniers insist that biblical scholars are blinded by their Christian convictions. 

Of course, such an argument from the young earth creationists fails to account for the many biologists, geologists, and astronomers who are devout Christians and yet still insist that the Earth has been around for much longer than 6,000 years. Likewise, such an argument from the Jesus deniers fails to account for the many biblical scholars who are atheists or agnostics and yet still insist that Jesus existed.

2) Both evaluate contradictory evidence against the standard of certainty while evaluating their own reconstructions against the standard of possibility.

When presented with the overwhelming evidence that the Earth is quite old, young earth creationists reply that it is possible that such evidence is currently misunderstood or misinterpreted. Likewise, when presented with the overwhelming evidence that Jesus existed, Jesus deniers reply that it is possible that such evidence is the result of a vast conspiracy.

Of course, nothing can be proven with absolute certainty – not even the existence of the screen at which you are currently staring. (As philosophers are fond of reminding us, it is technically possible that you are nothing more than a “brain in a vat,” rather like The Matrix.) Neither scientists nor historians are seeking certainty in this impossible sense. Rather, they are asking the following question: “What is the most plausible explanation for the data we currently possess?"

The reason for the consensus in the academy concerning the age of the Earth is quite simple: the best explanation for the data we possess is that the Earth is quite old. Likewise, the reason for the consensus in the academy concerning the existence of Jesus is quite simple: the best explanation for the data we possess is that Jesus existed. As Dunn notes concerning 1 Cor 15:3, Gal 1:18-20, 1 Cor 9:5, and Antiquities 20.200, “It is a work of some desperation which denies the obvious deduction from these references, that there was a man called Jesus whose brothers were well known in the 30s to 60s” (Jesus Remembered, 142-43).

Author's Note:

As several readers have pointed out, the young earth creationists (YECs) have a far more rational position than the Jesus deniers because, despite the two similarities outlined above, the YECs have positive evidence for their thesis: the Genesis narrative. Now of course Christians may argue that the YECs have misinterpreted this evidence, and atheists may argue that this evidence is worthless. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the YECs are at least dealing with evidence. On the other hand, as far as I can tell, the Jesus deniers have absolutely no positive evidence for their thesis. Their entire argument consists in attempting to demonstrate that the evidence against their thesis is not persuasive.

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