An interesting thread opened up on the JREF forums when a devout believer who calls himself 154 started a thread entitled “Why do you hate Jesus?”. Many folks politely pointed out several issues that the poster needed to seriously consider and also explained that the JREF skeptics were not secret believers who hated Jesus (which is what his question implied), but rather had given the topic much examination and had come to a conclusion not to his liking. Alas, 154 had no interest in a real open debate, whenever snookered, he would revert to simply quoting bible verses and highlighted the supposed words of Jesus in big bold red letters. He might of course have considered it real debate, but bible spam is not in any normal universe a debate.
It did however all bring up a couple of points that I felt might be appropriate to blog about. I don’t intend to give a long detailed analysis, that would take a complete book, but will instead examine a couple of popular myths.
First up, are the gospels a contemporary account of what happened?
I’ll strive to avoid my own personal opinion and will simply aim for facts and also the consensus arrived at by scholars who have extensively examined this. So, what is the oldest gospel fragment we have? The earliest fragment of the New Testament is the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, a piece of the Gospel of John. Dating it is very challenging, the best that can be done is to suggest sometime between 117 CE and 138 CE on the basis of the script used. Now, what this means is that there is no physical evidence for anything earlier, so we are left with are the opinions of scholars who spend a lifetime studying such matters. The oldest date they can come up with is 60 CE for Mark. There is consensus that this was the first gospel, however since it contains mistakes concerning Galilean geography and customs the author was clearly not a native to the area. If you would like to do more research on the technical details, start here.
So, if 60 CE is the oldest possible date, then that means that a lot of time passed between the events and their documentation. The gospels are not a contemporary account. Do you remember what you did last Tuesday? I don’t, but what about what you did on a Tuesday about 30 years ago? Thats the period of time we are talking about here and thats the degree of accuracy we a are being asked to depend upon.
OK, lets ask one further question, are the gospels accurate reliable historical accounts of what happened? There is much evidence to suggest that they are not. Let me give you a simple but very dramatic example, if you look at the gospel of Matthew Ch27 v51-53 it reads as follows:51And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; 52And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, 53And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
In the above text, some very dramatic and notable events are described. We not only have an earthquake, but we are also told that a whole host of individuals rose from the dead and went walkabout. So, apart from Matthew who else describes all this? Nobody, not one mention is found anywhere else. None of the contemporary Jewish chroniclers deemed it worth mentioning. An earthquake is very dramatic, as is the dead rising, so that fact that no other reference is found very strongly points to the conclusion that it is fiction and not factual.
What about Jesus himself. the gospels tell us how he went about healing the sick, raising the dead, and causing the blind to see. Once again, outside the gospels, there is not one single credible contemporary reference. The events described should have been front page news, but apparently nobody noticed.
There is a famous reference to Jesus in the writings of Josephus, but I find that has a few issues. First he was not a contemporary, Josephus was not even born until 37 CE, and secondly the reference is considered by many to be a fake and believed to have been inserted at a far later date into the text. Many early Christian writers who were familiar with his works do not appear to know about this reference at all. It can be argued that the original text did refer to a wise man, but without the mention of all the miracles.
Often you find that other non-Christian writers are mentioned such as Pliny the Younger, but he was born in 61 CE and so the gospel of Mark is older than him. Also you have Tacitus, but once again not born until 56 CE. So neither of these famous writers are witnesses to the actual events.
There are some who assert that Jesus never existed and is a complete myth. I don’t find that credible either. The most credible view is that there was in all probability a historical individual who did gather a small following and was then executed. Then after his death, the idea went viral and rapidly spread and evolved and was enhanced with stories of miracles and divinity being later additions. Belief is an amazingly powerful psychological mechanism, there are numerous modern examples such as the Mormon belief as triggered by Joseph Smith. That specific modern example where we still have access to the facts allows us to see how ordinary humans can drum up a following and convince successive generations that something supernatural happened.