It’s Christmas Eve and the final Sunday of Advent. What better time to ask, are we celebrating the birth of a historical figure? My short and confident answer is, yes, there was a real Jesus. More than 2 billion Christians worldwide are celebrating the birth of Jesus, 30 percent of the earth’s population. I’m among those celebrating his birth. My heart sings with Emmanuel, Emmanuel, in translation, “God is with us.”
It’s a joyful holiday, yet it’s a somber time of reflection for me, mixed with sadness and hope. I’m sad that what ills the earth hasn’t changed much since Jesus’ day. I’m hopeful that together, Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist and all traditions, working outside religion, can make positive changes in the system of privilege, culture of division, and for the lives hanging on the margins.
Whether or not Jesus was everything Christian creeds say he was is not important to me. What’s important to me is the Gospel message he proclaimed. This is what directs my life and motivates me to serve and advocate for “the least of these,” the outcasts, ignored and forgotten. My questioning nature combined with my Sociology and Journalism education laid the foundation for my “just the facts, please,” attitude about everything. Belief and faith alone are sufficient for most, but it’s too uncertain for me.
I’ve studied arguments on both sides, academically, by immersing myself in non-aligned scholarly works and by examining with critical thinking the Gospel accounts in the original languages in which they were written. In other words, I’ve done my own homework. I don’t like being spoon fed. I was careful about giving too much weight to scholars aligned with Christianity. I understand the arguments over the historicity of the four Gospels. Whether the accounts are romanticized, allegorical, or conflating the teachings of several leaders of a larger movement, there’s too much there for me not to conclude that a man named Jesus actually lived as the Gospels describe. He made such an impact that we still debate about him 2,000 years later. Yes, I agree there are mythical typologies in the Gospels, but Jesus is no myth.
Critics say, prove him. Christians say, prove he wasn’t. The problem that critics have in winning the argument is that they must produce hard facts that show accounts of the life of Jesus, no matter how long they may have been written after his time, are completely false. In the absence of these facts, and there aren’t any, they’re left with spurious arguments such as the absence of any mention of Jesus in the writings of contemporaneous historians like the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus’ history of the Roman Empire during the period, written to please the emperor, doesn’t mention the Jesus we know as Christians. There was a fraudulent insertion of an account of Jesus, but even Christian-aligned scholars agree that this was a later Christian forgery and not authored by Josephus.
This at first gave me concern, until I considered the historical context of the time in which Jesus lived and Josephus had written. What Jesus did and what he taught were unimportant to a large empire’s political and military history. To them, he was merely another of thousands of trouble makers who was dealt with expeditiously and forgotten by all but his closest followers. The people Jesus reached, for the most part, were illiterate, poor and inconsequential to authorities. While Gospel accounts record that he ruffled Jewish religious establishment feathers and suggest their complicity in his crucifixion, only Matthew puts the blame squarely on them. Some scholars theorize the author of this Gospel may have had an ax to grind, since the other accounts don’t take it that far.
As I was still studying and trying to make up my mind in 2012, I found an ally for the Christian argument for a historical Jesus in a most unlikely place, an agnostic academician whose work had not been supportive of Christian tradition and creeds. I had been following and reading Bart Erhman for some time, including his book Misquoting Jesus, which examined inconsistencies among the Gospels and what appeared to be edits and redactions over the centuries. Even though his work was sometimes disconcerting to me and the Christian traditions I hold dear, I found him thorough, careful and objective in his analysis. That’s what I wanted. Dr. Erhman is an expert on the New Testament and Christian history, and he teaches at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He has appeared in numerous documentaries.
In 2012, Dr. Erhman shocked the academic community and received blow back from his peers when he published one of the most important books I’ve ever read, Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument of Jesus of Nazareth? I hope he appreciates the plug. I don’t have to put words into his mouth. I’ll let him speak for himself with this quote in a Huffington Post article published March 20, 2012.
One may well choose to resonate with the concerns of our modern and post-modern cultural despisers of established religion (or not). But surely the best way to promote any such agenda is not to deny what virtually every sane historian on the planet — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, agnostic, atheist, what have you — has come to conclude based on a range of compelling historical evidence.
Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.
For me, doubting Beverly, reading the well-laid-out arguments in Dr. Ehrman’s book was convincing and final. Here was a renowned critical scholar I respected with no agenda confirming what I had hoped for. That the Jesus I had loved since childhood and believed by faith was a real person of history. While I know that I would have held on to my faith regardless, because Christ lives in my heart, not my head, it was comforting to know that I wasn’t only believing a myth. I believed in history and something even bigger.
Merry Christmas and Shalom, everybody!