During the Christmas season we usually see various media channels releasing stories, articles, and documentaries on Jesus. And when the dust settles, they all make the same point: the real Jesus is a lot different than you think.
As some might recall, this same sort of thing happened last Christmas with Kurt Eichenwald’s Newsweek article, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” You can read my two part response here and here.
This Christmas it happened again with an article by Valerie Tarico, “Here are Five Reasons to Suspect Jesus Never Existed.” But she takes things even further than most other Christmas articles on Jesus. Rather than suggesting Jesus is different than we think, she is arguing that Jesus never existed at all.
I suppose that might put a damper on some people’s Christmas.
Before I respond to her five reasons below, it may be helpful to understand how unusual articles like this really are. The reason most Christmas articles simply want to rewrite the story of Jesus is because virtually all scholars agree–liberal and conservative alike–that there is little reason to doubt his existence.
Indeed, so convinced are scholars that Jesus certainly existed, that it is difficult to even find scholars who might argue otherwise. The most notable modern example is no doubt Richard Carrier and his book, The Historicity of Jesus.
And incredibly, even the consummate biblical critic, Bart Ehrman, has responded to Carrier in his book, Did Jesus Exist? I must say, it is an unusual experience reading Erhman when he is actually defending (to some degree) the historicity of the Gospel accounts!
So, can Tarico (a psychologist by training) overcome the vast scholarly consensus in favor of Jesus’ existence? Here are her five arguments:
1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.
Not surprisingly, Tarico begins with the fact that secular sources don’t talk about Jesus in the first century. But there are a number of problems with this line of reasoning:
(a) It is functionally an argument from silence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Secular historians would have little interest in a stir created by a backwater preacher from Galilee. This simply would not have been on their radar screen. Arguments from silence are widely regarded as fallacious precisely because we don’t always know why historians talk about some things and not others.
(b) Tarico conveniently rules out the numerous Christian sources that do tell us about Jesus (Gospels, epistles, Acts, etc.). She will claim, no doubt, that these sources cannot be trusted. But, ironically, these are precisely the sources that would have actually taken notice of a person like Jesus. Many of the New Testament authors would have actually been in Galilee and Judea and would have been able to record such things (more about this below).
(c) Tarico fails to mention the comments about Jesus in the writings of the first-century historian Josephus. Perhaps this is because Josephus is Jewish and therefore not “secular.” But this is hardly a convincing reason to omit his testimony. As a Jew, he would have had little sympathy to the burgeoning Christian movement.
2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.
Next Tarico appeals to the well-worn argument that since Paul, our earliest Christian writer, provides little biographical details of Jesus’ life, then Jesus must not have existed. This argument is problematic on a number of levels.
(a) First this argument misunderstands entirely what Paul’s letters were designed to do. They were epistles, not Gospels, and therefore not intended to recount the words and deeds of Jesus. Tarico is confused about the genre of early Christian writings and assumes they would all cover the same territory.
(b) Paul actually knows quite a bit of historical details about Jesus and these come out in various places in his letters. One key example is how he recounts (in detail) what Jesus did and said at the Last Supper (1 Corr 11:23-26).
(c) Paul would have known the immediate disciples of Jesus, such as Peter and John, and would have had access to many other people who lived during the time of Jesus. If Jesus never existed, are we to think that Peter and John just lied to Paul? Or are we to think that Paul just made up characters of Peter and James and the witnesses of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-8)? And if Jesus never existed, would not Paul have heard this from other people who were alive in the purported time of Jesus’ life? In the end, Paul’s life is nonsensical if Jesus didn’t really exist.
3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.
At this point, Tarico’s misunderstanding of the New Testament documents becomes even more apparent. She claims that “we know” that the Gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That is patently false.
John’s gospel, for instance, claims to be written by someone who is actually at the last Supper and an immediate disciple of Jesus (John 21:24). And the historical evidence for John as this person is very strong (the link between Irenaeus and Polycarp bears this out).
Another example that the Gospels contain “eyewitness” testimony comes from the Gospel of Mark. We have early, widespread, and uniform patristic testimony that this Gospel was written by Mark the disciple of Peter, and that the Gospel therefore contains Peter’s eyewitness accounts.
Tarico would have done well to familiarize herself with Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses which paints nearly the opposite picture she has presented in her article. If she had, she would realize that there is tremendous evidence that the Gospels are first-hand accounts of the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.
I suppose it was inevitable that the issue of supposed contradictions between the gospels would be raised. But, this argument simply doesn’t work:
(a) Declaring it doesn’t make it so. Notice that Tarico has just assumed there are contradictions without showing that there are contradictions. Yes, the Gospels offer different perspectives on the life of Jesus, but there is no reason to regard these as contradictory. A lot of these so-called contradictions evaporate upon closer inspection, especially when methods of ancient historiography are taken into account (which are quite different than modern ones).
(b) Even if the Gospels contradict each other, this doesn’t prove Jesus didn’t exist. There is a non sequitur in Tarico’s argument here. Even if some historical sources disagree at points, this doesn’t require a wholesale abandonment of the historical realities that stand behind them. Indeed, if we adopted Tarico’s standards here we would not be able to affirm hardly any historical events!
5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.
Again, this is a non sequitur in Tarico’s reasoning. Since scholars disagree about the details of Jesus’ life therefore he never existed? How does that follow? Jesus could really exist and scholars could also disagree about the specifics–the two are not mutually exclusive.
Also, what Tarico fail’s to understand is that the disagreement amongst scholars is not necessarily due to problematic sources. It may be due (and often is) to the fact that scholar refuse to accept the content of the sources we do have and instead insist on reconstructing Jesus for themselves.
Thus, the failure of scholars to agree about Jesus says more about modern historical methods (and the refusal of modern people to accept the Gospels as they are) than it does about whether Jesus actually existed.
In the end, Tarico has provided few reasons to think we should doubt the existence of Jesus. On the contrary, each of her suggested reasons, when explored more fully, reveal that we actually have very solid reasons to believe in the existence of Jesus.
In short, the scholarly consensus on this matter exists for a reason. Scholars may disagree about a great many things regarding Jesus. But his existence is not one of them.
Author: Rev. Dr. Mike Kruger