Anti-Christmas grinches have upped the ante in the annual war on Christmas, moving beyond opposition to Nativity scenes and Wise Men to denying the very existence of Jesus.
A new article in Big Think claims that more and more, “historians and bloggers alike are questioning whether the actual man called Jesus existed.”
Trendy atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens also dabbled in the denial of the historical Jesus, with Dawkins asserting that it is possible “to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all, and Hitchens averring that Jesus’ existence is “highly questionable.”
Many of the writings we do have are “tainted,” Philip Perry now pronounces in Big Think, and historical sources are few. Even in the bible, Perry writes, “whole chunks of his life are missing. Jesus goes from age 12 to 30, without any word of what happened in-between.”
“What we do have are lots of sources completed several decades after the fact, by authors of the gospels who wanted to promote the faith,” he writes.
Moreover, the “gospels themselves are contradictory,” he adds, with “competing Easter stories” and no real names attached to many of them, “but rather an apostle’s who ‘signing off’ on the manuscript.” There is also “evidence that the gospels were heavily edited over the years.”
Perry does acknowledge that Roman historians Josephus and Tacitus do make “a few, scant remarks about his life,” but that was a century after Jesus’s time, he says, and their testimony could have been tampered with by Christians.
While holding that “the historical record itself is thin,” meaning that there are “no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates,” Perry fails to note the very obvious fact that we actually have very little evidence for anyone in the ancient world, especially if the person wasn’t an emperor, general or aristocrat.
As one more sensible atheist has written, we possess “about as much evidence for Jesus as we have for other, analogous preachers and prophets of his time. In fact, we have slightly more for him than most.”
Atheist scholar Tim O’Neill notes that almost all non-Christian scholars fully accept evidence from Tacitus and Josephus, “as being evidence that Jesus was, in fact, a historical figure.”
“The mentions of him by those writers are exactly what would we expect if someone like Jesus existed,” he observes.
Or as Dr. James Kennedy, himself a Christian, has written: “The evidence is all on Christianity’s side. Let’s take a tally: twenty seven books of the New Testament, nineteen pagan writers, and three Jewish writers testify to Jesus Christ’s historical reality.”
In point of fact, we “know” Jesus of Nazareth really existed just as far as we can know any historical fact. That is to say, none of us was present on the earth two thousand years ago to empirically verify Jesus’ existence, so we must rely on the historical record. But the historical record is as conclusive as we could possibly hope for, and much better than the record of many people whose existence no one doubts.
As Theodore Dalrymple noted some years ago in The City Journal: “If I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove.”
In other words, when it comes to history, what you believe depends on what you are willing to believe.
Christians may take some consolation in the fact that more than 2,000 years after his birth, Jesus Christ continues to stir up debate and controversy.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome