The Guardian published an article by Simon Gathercole about whether there was an historical Jesus. The article is depressingly terrible and it’s annoyed me for a full day.
We should start with who Gathercole is. He is an outstanding theologian who is pushing the development of several areas of inquiry about early Christianity. When we talk about wanting Richard Dawkins to engage with serious theology, we’re talking about people like Gathercole.
But that doesn’t mean Gathercole isn’t sometimes afflicted by bouts of sloppy thinking, as evidenced by the Guardian article.
Gathercole jumps straight into the question ‘Did Jesus exist?’ without really contemplating whether the question is properly formed. What does the question actually mean?
If we say, ‘Does Mark Fletcher exist?’ we are asking a complex question. We don’t mean ‘Is there something to which the name “Mark Fletcher” attaches?’ but ‘Is there a person who has the attributes which I uniquely distinguish Mark Fletcher from other people (including other people named “Mark Fletcher”)?’
We then have to work out which attributes we think uniquely distinguish Mark Fletcher from other people. Curiously, we might not accurately identify those attributes (or, worse, some of those attributes might be unknowable). When I get a call from a telemarketer, they sometimes ask: ‘Is that Mark Fletcher?’ I don’t respond — as I might — ‘Which Mark Fletcher?’ But they could reply ‘Mark Fletcher who lives at [address]’ or ‘Mark Fletcher, brother to Ian and John, uncle to Oliver, grandson to John and Evelyn, inheritor of the Will of Fire’ or ‘Mark Fletcher who was born from an egg on a mountaintop.’
When we ask ‘Did Jesus exist?’ we are a bit stuck. Was there a man with the name ‘Jesus’ who had a brother called ‘James’ and was the son of ‘Mary’? Given the frequency of their names, it would be more of a miracle if there weren’t.
Was there a man with the name Jesus who was born in Bethlehem and whose family fled to Egypt during the rule of Herod? Probably not. We are fairly convinced that St Matthew invented the story for literary purposes. Similarly: was there a man called Jesus who was on a boat and calmed a storm? Again, probably not but this time we’re fairly sure it’s St Mark who invented the story for literary purposes.
Was there a man called Jesus who was crucified by Pontius Pilate? There were probably dozens.
The only events which uniquely identify a Jesus for discussion are the miraculous ones: rising from the dead, being born a virgin birth, &c., &c. This presents a problem for atheists who outright deny the historical accuracy of those stories by virtue of their impossibility.
Even if you can somehow catch the moonbeam of defining which Jesus you’re talking about, the rest of Gathercole’s argument defies belief. The first Christian writings about Jesus were written 25 years after the alleged death by St Paul. But St Paul never met the historical Jesus (if there was such a character). The Gospels are written significantly later and, it seems, using unreliable collections of documents to do so. The problem is writ large in the four Gospels which made it into our Bible: the Gospels of St Mark, St Matthew, and St Luke are curiously similar (one might say they were ‘synoptic’), while the Gospel of St John tells an altogether different story about the kind of person Jesus was, aligning only for the supernatural bits.
Gathercole’s argument is that it is implausible to believe that over the space of half a century, these stories could be written about somebody who didn’t exist.
To this, I point only to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. On 4 December 2016, Edgar Welch went into a US restaurant armed with a rifle in order to liberate the underage children that were being trafficked by members of the Democratic Party. Welch believed that there was a child porn ring because John Podesta’s e-mails had been leaked by Wikileaks.
This wasn’t fifty years after the event. This was contemporaneously with the event. And this colossal dipshit believed the story so much that he was willing to commit a major crime in response.
But maybe this is just a feature of our dumb-dumb social media age where people believe all kinds of dumb shit. It turns out that the ancient world believed all kinds of crazy woo-woo all the time. Prester John was apparently a Christian King who lived way out in the orient and would definitely aid any army brave enough to take on the Arabs. It turns out he was completely fictional. After Emperor Nero committed suicide, it was widely believed that he’d somehow faked the whole thing and was planning to make a comeback. And then there’s old mate Herodotus who wrote that there’s a type of ant who can chase camels.
If you use the same quality evidence that Gathercole wants to use to establish the historicity of Jesus, then you’re going to accept the existence of all kinds of crazy crap in the ancient world.
Which moves us quickly to the most damning aspect of the historicity of Jesus: the lack of first hand accounts. It is frequently alleged that the evidence is better for the existence of Jesus than for the existence of Socrates. Neither left any written documents and both are known through the accounts of others. Except we do know people who knew Socrates first hand: Plato and Xenophon. We struggle more with Jesus.
St Mark, St Matthew, St Luke, and St John do not claim to be first hand accounts. The most awkward is St Luke who (at least in Acts of the Apostles) seems to be writing about people he knows. The problem is that he only knows a third-generation of Christians, and mostly through Paul (who, we recall, never met Jesus during His flesh-and-blood years).
We can therefore scrap the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and the Pauline Epistles (even if we accept them all as authentic… which we shouldn’t) as first hand accounts of Jesus’ historicity. Nobody knows who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews.
This leaves the Letter of James (but nobody’s certain who James is), the Petrine Epistles (which almost certainly weren’t written by Peter), the Johannine Epistles (which, again, are of disputed authorship), and the Letter of Jude (and nobody knows who wrote this).
The remaining text is the Book of Revelation, which is the crazy ranting of a person waiting for a ferry on Patmos.
How could anybody, with a straight face, claim that these dubious texts could amount to a serious first hand account of the existence of Jesus?
Part of the problem is that we are presented with a false dichotomy. Either believe that Jesus was real or believe that he was fabricated by a group of rebels. There’s a much better option: that Jesus was honestly believed to have existed but was cobbled together out of stories about a variety of messiah figures (like Prester John). The extent to which you attribute a particular event to a particular (or any) Jesus is then merely academic.