I hope this is the last article I ever have to write on the question of whether Jesus ever lived.
As Christmas approaches, there are bound to be media pieces raising doubts about some aspect of the Jesus story, and some might say he never lived at all. It has already started with the widely reported statistic from the UK suggesting that 40 per cent of England doesn’t believe Jesus was a real figure. The BBC broke the news with the headline “Jesus ‘not a real person’, many believe.”
Maybe the English were influenced by atheist intellectual Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion that a “serious” historical case can be made that Jesus never lived. He cites G.A. Wells as his sole example – who turns out to be a professor of German language. In later debates Dawkins publicly admitted (to his credit) that he exaggerated the scholarly possibilities and that there isn’t really any doubt among historians about the existence of Jesus. Even G.A. Wells recently came out with a book conceding he was probably wrong to argue in his earlier book that Jesus never lived.
Still, the popular sceptical confusion is real. Somehow the “sceptinet” is abuzz with claims of a “shift” in recent scholarship towards doubting the historicity of the figure at the heart of Christianity. That would be convenient for debunkers of Christianity, but unfortunately for them, it turns out to be complete rubbish.
There is the occasional serious book suggesting Jesus’ non-existence – probably four or five in the last century. But overwhelmingly – indeed, increasingly – secular scholars of the historical Jesus express confidence that the core gospel narrative about a Galilean preacher and healer who was crucified by Pontius Pilate and heralded as Messiah is beyond reasonable doubt. Secular experts, of course, question the particulars of the gospels. They treat them as entirely human works of the first century. Yet, there is an undeniable consensus that Jesus himself really did live and die in the 30s AD and that his first disciples really did announce him to the world as the risen Lord.
I have had a challenge going for several years now. I’ve tweeted it, Facebooked it, and last year I even published the challenge in an article for ABC’s The Drum. It goes like this: If someone can find even just one full professor of classics or ancient history or New Testament in any accredited university in the world who believes Jesus did not live, I will eat a page of my Bible.
People have provided names of professors of philosophy, English literature, German, psychology, and so on, but none from the directly relevant academic fields of classics, ancient history or New Testament.
My Bible is safe, at the moment. Perhaps one day such a professor will emerge. I will cut up Matthew chapter 1 – I’ve already planned it, you see – and eat it on some Vegemite toast. But that will be the exception that proves the rule. We will still be able to say that virtually no one at the top of the relevant fields thinks Jesus didn’t live!
But I recently thought of another way to prove this scholarly consensus. We can turn to the so-called “standard reference works” of the discipline of ancient history, those compendiums produced by the big academic publishing houses designed to represent the state-of-the-question on all things historical.
There are at least four such works that would be universally regarded as the most authoritative and relevant volumes in English-speaking secular academia. The first is the famous single-volume Oxford Classical Dictionary, which summarises scholarship on all things Greek and Roman in just a little over 1700 pages. The several-page entry on the origins of Christianity begins with an account of what may be known about Jesus. No doubt whatsoever is raised about the facts of his existence, reputation as a teacher and healer, and, of course, his crucifixion.
Next is the much larger Cambridge Ancient History in 14 volumes. Volume 10 covers the “Augustan Period”, right about when Jesus lived, and it has a sizeable chapter on the birth of Christianity. Again, the entry begins with the known facts of Jesus’ life and death, including his preaching of the kingdom of God, his fraternising with sinners, and so on. No hint of doubt is raised about this core of the Jesus story.
The third relevant standard work is also published by Cambridge University in the UK. It’s the Cambridge History of Judaism in four volumes. Volume 3 covers the “Early Roman Period”. Several chapters refer to Jesus in passing as a real figure of Jewish history. One chapter – 60 pages long – focuses entirely on Jesus. Written by two leading secular scholars, who have no qualms about dismissing certain elements of the New Testament, this lengthy chapter offers an excellent account of what experts think of the historical Jesus. His teaching, fame as a healer, openness to sinners, selection of “the twelve”, prophetic actions (like cleansing the temple), clashes with the elites, and, of course, his death on a cross: all of these are treated as beyond reasonable doubt. The authors don’t tackle the resurrection (unsurprisingly), but they do acknowledge, as a matter of historical fact, that the first disciples of Jesus “were absolutely convinced that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised and was Lord and numerous of them were certain that he had appeared to them.”
The fourth and final standard work comes from a different angle and is very revealing for anyone who imagines there are doubts about Jesus’ existence in mainstream secular scholarship. The monumental Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae is a recent four-volume compendium of all the known inscriptions in Palestine for the thousand-year period from Alexander the Great to Muhammad. An image of each inscription (when available) appears, followed by a scholarly analysis of its date, context, and content. Today’s hyper-sceptics may be surprised at item No. 15 of the known Jerusalem inscriptions: “Titulus on the cross of Jesus in three languages: Aramaic, Latin and Greek, ca. 30 AD”.
The four renditions of the Greek inscription from the gospels (which are slightly different from one another) appear, followed by a brief commentary on the Roman practice of placarding the reason for the punishment of a condemned person. The entry then states: “Therefore there is no reason to doubt the tradition that a titulus with the reason for his condemnation by Pilatus was affixed on Jesus’ cross.” Notice, this isn’t just suggesting there’s no reason to doubt Jesus’ existence and crucifixion – assumed to be certain – but rather it is saying there’s no reason to doubt the detail that an inscription describing Jesus’ crime appeared on his cross.
It is important to stress that none of these works is theological or even remotely religious. They are the standard secular reference works to which scholars themselves turn to check the state-of-the-question on any ancient historical detail. They all treat Jesus’ existence, etc., as doubtless.
So this Christmas, don’t let anyone tell you there is some doubt or debate in scholarship about whether Jesus even lived. There is not. The consensus regards his existence, fame as a teacher and healer, and crucifixion under Pontius Pilate as doubtless facts of ancient history. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Dr John Dickson is an author and historian, and a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity.