Jesus Never Existed

Yes, that Jesus! True, the name Jesus or Yeshua was in common usage at the time of the New Testament, but I am referring specifically to Jesus of Nazareth, also known as the Christ. Let me be clear. I am not saying that Jesus never existed. Rather, that is the claim of Joseph Atwill, a self-proclaimed biblical scholar. He intends to make his allegation public on October 19th. However, before grabbing a notepad or setting your recorder, let’s examine the following.

I suppose the fact that Atwill is a "self-proclaimed" biblical scholar puts everything else in focus. If his credentials had any validity, he would surely say so. His argument, however, does not collapse merely on his own lack of merit. It has no integrity or internal support. His fundamental statement is that the government of ancient Rome invented Jesus as way of discouraging the continual insurrections of the Jews who had grown tired of the Roman occupation.

During the years of Rome’s superiority in the ancient world, the emperor did some strange things. Fiddling was not one of them; claiming to be divine was. Atwill would have us believe that the emperor (a divine one, at that), created a fictional character who represented the Messianic hopes of a conquered people, had that character preach peace in opposition to rebellion, and then executed him thus turning that fictional character into a martyr. Really? That would only have incited more revolution. Bring back Nero, the fiddles, and let Rome burn. It’s a better and more believable story.

Atwill suffers from bigger problems than logic, however. He bases his theory (a generous term, to be sure), on the writings of the first century Jewish commander and historian, Flavius Josephus, specifically his book Wars of the Jews. This is where a little history would benefit Atwill.

The earliest of the New Testament books is the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, written in the year 52, approximately 20 years after Jesus died. The first gospel was written by Mark about 30 years after Jesus’ death, and by at least the mid-40s, the Christian faith had already arrived in Rome. But the Roman-Jewish wars did not begin until the year 66. Oops!

Beyond chronology, it would be helpful if Atwill understood a little more about the bible. On this point, sadly, even some Christians are misguided. The bible is not history. It does contain some elements of history, most notably the Books of Chronicles. But at its core, the bible is faith. The belief that Jesus is the promised Messiah was not accepted by all. That he is the Christ is a testament of faith that even the early Christians did not come to accept until after the Crucifixion and and their faith in the Resurrection. Who Jesus was, what he meant to people in the first century, and what he means today is a matter of faith. His existence is not in question. It is indisputable and supported by non-biblical material, including the writings of Josephus.

According to Atwill the creation of a fictional Jesus was the result of Rome’s frustration on the battlefield. He claims, "When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare." In the year 70, the Romans destroyed the Temple, the holiest site. I suggest that this act, combined with the defeat of the Jewish nation was more than "psychological" warfare.

Barring any unexpected catastrophe, like the return of a Roman emperor, October 19, 2013, will be just another Saturday. There is no reason to be concerned. On Sunday, October 20th, Joseph Atwill will be just another easily forgotten “self-proclaimed”--and not very good--biblical scholar.

Bill O'Reilly and Jesus

There is a new book in the O’Reilly-centric world, “Killing Jesus: A History.”

As the title suggests, Bill O’Reilly would have us believe that he is a legitimate historian who has put his unequaled intellect to work explaining the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Within the covers of the book itself, there are factual, dare I say historical, errors. Some are glaring, others are subtle—as if they were written to mislead and compel agreement from his readers, rather than enlighten minds or open dialogue. But there is a deeper problem.

Had O’Reilly titled his work “Killing Jesus: A Meditation”, or something else that suggests a spiritual reflection on the Crucifixion, his only problem would be the factual errors. As it is, O’Reilly’s title is self-defeating. It is not possible to write a history of Jesus in any true sense of the word. The writing of history depends upon verifiable factual evidence. The interpretation of that evidence often varies among historians. But the evidence, itself, is irrefutable.

However, we do not have such evidence when it comes to Jesus. The Jewish historian, Josephus, does make mention of him. However, the scant references that occur in non-biblical writings serve to prove only that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was executed. The gospels present a profound collection of stories about Jesus, but they do not provide a sound basis for history.

Like most of the Bible, the four canonical Gospels are books of faith. They are important and instructive for someone who already believes, and perhaps someone who is seeking faith. But they are not history. Sometimes the gospels agree with each other. Sometimes they do not. The writers were quite comfortable making up stories, or changing passages from the Old Testament to suit their purposes. That should not create consternation for anyone. These men were trying to explain their faith and give others a reason to believe in Jesus. As one scholar has said, “The Bible is the Word of God in the words of the men who wrote it.” The words used to convey THE Word are utilitarian, meeting the needs of the author.

A good suggestion concerning the gospels, is to compare the evangelists to painters. If four artists each paint the exact same scene, the resultant works will all be quite different, because the scene is perceived through four different sets of eyes. So it is with the gospels. Each writer is telling the same story. But because they see Jesus through different eyes, their “pictures” of him are not the same. Ironically, the Crucifixion scene, or “killing of Jesus”, is a classic example. The image of Jesus in the first three gospels is of a man rejected and defeated. It is in his resurrection that he is vindicated. John’s gospel is quite different. While many elements are similar, the image John creates is not of a defeated man. Rather, Jesus is depicted as a king who ascends the cross of his own power and exercises authority from that cross.

Like the people of their time, the gospel writers were not concerned with facts. They were concerned with the meaning of events. In order to convey that meaning in all its depths, some events had to be created or altered. I am not suggesting that the bible is false. Rather, it is necessary for us to make the following distinction:

The opposite of fact is fiction; the opposite of truth is falsehood.

Both fiction and fact can convey truth. And in the bible we find many fictional stories that tell of God’s love, that challenge us to love one another and build a better world. These stories speak deep truth, but they are not factual and do not lend themselves to writing a history.

In the past, there have been attempts to write the story of Jesus, usually under such titles as “The Life of Christ”. Some of these books were moving testimonies of faith, but none were history.

I admire O’Reilly’s faith. Like him, I believe in Jesus. Let’s just not pretend to suggest that our faith is history.