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I am an avid follower of your blog and wholeheartedly agree with your views on God, the Bible, and Evangelical Christianity. I am interested in your belief as to whether Jesus was a real individual or mythical. I have read both Bart Ehrman’s book, “Did Jesus Exist” and Richard Carrier’s book “On The Historicity Of Jesus,” where they promote and support opposing views. I myself find Carrier’s arguments more compelling mainly due to Paul’s letters not mentioning an earthly Jesus, nor using details and teachings from his life to support his points when doing so would have been easier than describing his communications through visions with a celestial Jesus. It seems to me that the Gospel story would have been discussed had it existed during Paul’s time. Also, there is no secular evidence for an historical Jesus. While the Gospels could be mythicized stories of a real person, I just cannot believe that Paul’s Jesus or any biblical Jesus actually lived.
What do you believe and why?
It is increasingly popular in atheist circles to deny the existence of Jesus. More than a few atheist readers have asked me if I also take such a view. I understand that it would make things a lot easier if Jesus was just a mythical being and the stories told about him are works of fiction. No Jesus, no need to think about the Christian God, Jesus, and the teachings of the Bible.
That said, I am of the opinion that Jesus was a real flesh and blood person who lived and died in Palestine almost 2,000 years ago. The Christian gospels do contain historical data, and from that data I have concluded that there was a Jesus who walked the shore of Galilee and hills of Judea centuries ago. One need not believe the miracles attributed to Jesus to be true, to believe Jesus was a real person. One can believe that Jesus lived and died without accepting the irrational notion that he resurrected from the dead three days after his death. As a lifelong reader of the Bible and student of Christianity, I can separate the historical narrative from the fanciful. Saying this has led some atheists to attack me, saying that I am a closet Christian or that I secretly desire to be a follower of Jesus. Such claims are absurd, but some atheists simply can’t accept that two people can look at the evidence for the historicity of Jesus and come to different conclusions. Based on the available evidence, I have no reason to believe that Jesus was not a historical person.
Peter raises the question of the Apostle Paul not talking about Jesus’ history. Is it true that Paul doesn’t mention Jesus? Dr. Bart Ehrman writes:
It is significant that Paul converted to be a follower of Jesus after being a persecutor of the Christian church. Paul himself is quite straightforward about that, and more than a little ashamed of it (which is one of the reasons we can trust he’s not making it up). That is also the emphatic claim of the book of Acts written after his life. Paul persecuted the church before he joined it.
That would mean that he must have been persecuting the Christians by around 32 CE, just two years after Jesus died. And that means that he knew about Christians, and their claims about Jesus, already at that extremely early point. We don’t have to wait for Mark in 70 CE for evidence that Christians were talking about Jesus. We have clear and certain evidence they were doing so in the early 30s. What they were saying about Jesus was highly offensive to Paul. And so he persecuted them.
In a later post I’ll be talking about what they were saying about Jesus that Paul found offensive. Here I simply want to stress that Paul knew about a historical Jesus already by 32 CE. And what did Paul know about him? For some reason (strange, as I suggested earlier), mythicists often claim that Paul doesn’t tell us anything about the historical Jesus. That simply is not true. At all. Here are the things tells us:
- Jesus had a real, human birth to a real human mother (Galatians 4:4)
- He was born as a Jew (Galatians 4:4)
- He was a descendant of King David (Romans 1:3-4)
- He had brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5)
- One of whom was named James (Galatians 1:19) (Paul knows him personally)
- His ministry was to and among Jews (Romans 15:8)
- He had twelve disciples (1 Corinthians 15:5)
- One of whom was Cephas/Peter (Paul knows him personally as well)
- He was a teacher, and Paul knows some of his teachings (1 Cor. 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:22-24)
- He had a last supper with his disciples at which he predicted his coming death (1 Cor. 11:22-24)
- He was crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2 and millions of other places)
- This was on orders of the civil authorities (1 Corinthians 2:8)
- At the instigation of the Jewish leaders in Judea (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15)
- He was then buried (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
- Paul also thinks, of course, that God raised Jesus from the dead.
How can anyone say that Paul doesn’t think Jesus was a real, historical Jewish teacher in Israel who was crucified? You might wonder why Paul doesn’t tell us more – we have all wondered that, a good deal. But there are obviously possible explanations: for example, that he wasn’t writing a gospel but personal correspondence dealing with problems his churches had.
To say that Paul would have to mention Jesus’ baptism, temptation, parables, transfiguration, miracles, and so on if he knew about them seems to me to be completely wrong. If you were to take seven letters of my own dear mother, who is highly religious and deeply committed Christian in every way — even letters in which she talks about her faith — and looked for places where she talked about Jesus’ baptism, temptation, parables, transfiguration, miracles, and so on, you would look in vain. That’s probably true of most Christians today.
Paul possibly had no reason to mention such things. He possibly didn’t think such things were all that important for his message and ministry. He possibly didn’t know much about such things (remember: he is writing before the Gospels). It’s hard to say. But what is easy to say is that Paul certainly knew about the man Jesus. He tells us some things about him. And he learned about Jesus no later than 32 CE or so. The historical man Jesus could not have been myth invented many decades later.
It’s clear, at least to me, that Paul does indeed talk about Jesus. Yes, I find it troubling that Paul doesn’t mention much of the historical information about Jesus found in the gospels. Dr. Ehrman writes:
Paul of course has a lot to say about the importance of Jesus, especially the importance of his death and resurrection and his imminent return from heaven. But in terms of historical information, what I’ve listed above [i.e., in the previous posts] is about all that we can glean from his letters. Imagine what we wouldn’t know about Jesus if these letters were our only sources of information. We hear nothing here of the details of Jesus’ birth or parents or early life, nothing of his baptism or temptation in the wilderness, nothing of his teaching about the coming Kingdom of God; we have no indication that he ever told a parable, that he ever healed anyone, cast out a demon, or raised the dead; we learn nothing of his transfiguration or triumphal entry, nothing of his cleansing of the Temple, nothing of his interrogation by the Sanhedrin or trial before Pilate, nothing of his being rejected in favor of Barabbas, of his being mocked, of his being flogged, etc. etc. etc. The historian who wants to know about the traditions concerning Jesus — or indeed, about the historical Jesus himself — will not be much helped by the surviving letters of Paul.
It is up to each of us to determine whether what Paul does say about Jesus is sufficient to conclude that Paul believed Jesus was a real person.
My wife and I were discussing this issue the other day. I told her that even if I had doubts about the existence of Jesus, I wouldn’t share them publicly. My goal as a writer is help Evangelicals who have doubts about Christianity and help people who have recently left Christianity. Telling doubting Evangelicals that I don’t believe in the existence of Jesus would kill any hope I had of helping them. Such a belief is what I call “a bridge too far.” Doubting Evangelicals would stop listening to me if I said to them, “you know Jesus never existed.” But Bruce, doesn’t truth matter? Of course it does. However, I don’t believe that mythicists have an overwhelming amount of evidence to bolster their claims. I am not saying that mythicists don’t have any evidence, they do. What I am saying, however, is that I don’t find their arguments compelling, and as things now stand, I see no reason to overthrow the status quo.
Let me be clear, I believe in the existence of the historical Jesus, not the Biblical Jesus. Almost 2,000 years ago, a Jewish man named Jesus lived and died. I can reasonably conclude that he was a Jewish rabbi or political operative who was executed by the Roman government at the request of Jewish leaders. Anything else is a matter of myth and legend. Whether Jesus was a “good” man depends on how much weight you give the stories told about him.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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