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The Great Jesus debate. Did he exist at all - and if he did, what reasons do we have to believe he was divine?

(326 Posts)
EllieArroway Tue 05-Mar-13 13:51:59

Madhairday and I have been plotting behind the scenes to have this debate as we think it will be interesting, both for us and for others.

Mad is a Christian & I am an atheist. I will leave it entirely up to her to present her case.

Mine is:

It's impossible to conclude that Jesus actually existed at all given that there's simply no evidence to work with. I am aware that the majority (although not all) of scholars, both secular & religious, have concluded that he did exist, but this is for inferential reasons not evidential ones, so the issue is nowhere near as cut and dried as many people suppose.

While I am generally happy to accept that there was some man, probably called Yeshua/Joshua/Jesus, who lived in the Galilean region at the beginning of the 1st century & who may have died by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans - I don't feel that this is particularly significant or justifies anyone in believing that he was divine.

I also believe that nearly all of the "Jesus story" - the nativity, the miracles, the resurrection etc is complete myth and never happened at all.

I have continually pointed out on many threads that "There's no evidence that Jesus existed" and been called ignorant and so forth. So, this is my opportunity to make my case and demonstrate that this is, in fact, a correct statement.

So, I'm kicking of this (hopefully) interesting discussion with:

There is no evidence that Jesus the man existed. Discuss wink

(By the way, this is an open discussion for anyone to join in, ask questions, make points etc, it's not just for Mad and I).

MadHairDay Tue 05-Mar-13 15:37:59

<pulls up comfy chair>

<gets cuppa>

<chucks ds off computer>

As Ellie said, we thought it would be good to have a discussion about Jesus; whether he existed, who he was if he did, if he really died, if he was really resurrected, and who he thought himself to be. It would be great if we could have a polite and supportive kind of debate - not necessarily to tolerate each others points of view, as such, but to be kind to each other. Like Ellie, I've been called ignorant (and far worse), but for the opposite reason. However, it's an open forum, so whatever goes goes smile

My position: I believe there is an intellectually robust and compelling case of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth as portrayed in the gospel and NT writings. I think that there is a surprising amount of evidence with good historicity to show of his existence, and similarly a good case to be built for his self recognition as the son of God, and for his death and resurrection.

I believe that the nativity, miracles, death and resurrection are historical events.

I believe that his actions have had infinite effects upon history and humanity.

There we go then grin

MadHairDay Tue 05-Mar-13 16:54:53

'There is no evidence the man Jesus existed. Discuss.'

OK - where to start? smile

I'll start with the most obvious but the most refuted, the gospels. There is obviously a huge range of scholarly opinion but most scholars are agreed that they were variously written between the 60s and the 90s (there's good evidence that they were written quite a bit earlier, but probably more on that later) smile Now the fact that they were written 40 or more years after the events they detail is often held up as evidence that they were either made up, made up of bits of legend and myth that had been constructed through the years, or simply misremembered and disjointed.

But looking at other ancient historical texts, they are unique in their closeness of dating to the events. Alexander the Great, for example: The first biographies written about him were 400+ years after his death, but are widely upheld as historical documents. Myth and legend about him have developed since they were written, but it seems that this period of years managed to keep the facts intact in historical opinion.

Many more ancient texts have similar gaps between the event and the chronicle of it. 40 years is pretty much contemporary to the event in such terms.

Now, this does not answer any objections as to accuracy, content or consistency - yet. There's a breadth of material and we'll hardly touch the surface...but we can play around the edges a little smile

Now, for more on this issue, there is the authorship of the gospels, the possibility or not of them being eyewitness accounts, the accuracy of what we read now compared to what was first written, and then the whole area of any extra biblical evidence for Jesus. Where to start??? grin

EllieArroway Tue 05-Mar-13 21:05:36

Hi Mary - not ignoring you. Will be back on to demolish address your points in the morning smile

HolofernesesHead Tue 05-Mar-13 22:42:27

Just piping in to say 'Ooooh this looks like my kind of thread!' I'm dead on my feet right now but will check back in when I can.

HolofernesesHead Tue 05-Mar-13 22:43:19

Haha! I'm popping in, not piping in. That's haggises, isn't it?

noisytoys Tue 05-Mar-13 22:49:18

Jesus existed. He is the son of god. I can't prove it but I have faith.

Snorbs Tue 05-Mar-13 22:57:13

whole area of any extra biblical evidence for Jesus.

I would find this particularly interesting. As far as I am aware, there isn't anything even close to contemporary plus what there is often talks more of "Christ" rather than "Jesus". Given that "Christ" is a generic term for "the Messiah" and only became inextricably linked to Jesus long afterwards, that strikes me as somewhat tenuous.

niminypiminy Tue 05-Mar-13 23:00:27

Watching with interest smile

SingingSands Tue 05-Mar-13 23:03:44

How strange to find this thread, I was debating this with myself at the weekend during a long drive! I confused myself though, and couldn't come to a conclusion either way, so probably won't have much to contribute here!

TheDreadedLurker Tue 05-Mar-13 23:16:23

You lot are being totally UNREASONABLE for starting this debate so late !! I gotta get to bed! Humf!
Here's my take .... Rather hurriedly....
I'm not a historian but have always been told there was a fair amount of documented stuff by the Romans to prove he did exist. The whole Pontius Pilate trial, I THINK is on record.
After 10 yrs of convent schooling, I got to know the Bible pretty well and always found so many inconsistencies between what was written and what the church subsequently concluded was the truth.
For instance, this whole "son of god" thing. Nowhere does Jesus ever say that he IS God or divine in any way! He calls himself the son of God, but he says that we ALL are! His prayer..." OUR Father..." Not, "MY Father and ya boo sux to the rest of you"!!
He was an incredible person. A true radical with revolutionary ideas for his time . He was just human though.
The "mysteries " of his half-god, half-human, part of the Trinity thing is all church Dogma and made up by his followers who wanted to deify him.
So in conclusion.... Unless anyone can quote me a passage where he says, I am God... Then I think we can say he was one of the most amazing, world-changing HUMAN BEINGS of all time. I do think he, or at least some guy who came up with his amazing philosophies, DID exist.

LuisGarcia Tue 05-Mar-13 23:19:05

bookmarking this thread with interest

LadyLech Wed 06-Mar-13 01:37:13

It's been almost 20 years since I did my theology degree, so brain is more than a tad rusty, but I seem to remember that...

Scholars consider the likelihood of there being a person called Jesus as historically probable. There are 10 agreed beliefs about this person. Can't remember them all, but one of them is that he was crucified. I have got them written down in my Bible at work. Can look this up tomorrow, if anyone is really interested.

When I studied this, we looked at the two traditions; the Christian tradition and the polemic tradition. His opponents said that he was a sorcerer of black magic amongst other things. I have another list of key beliefs maintained in the polemic tradition too.

Both traditions seem to agree that Joseph was probably not Jesus' biological father. Obviously, Christians believe he is divine, but the polemic tradition said he was the son of a Roman Soldier - Ben Panthera or something (now I really am making this up grin). Some modern theologians believe Mary may have been raped.

Other stories or traditions about Jesus have no historical basis whatsoever. For example, there is no archeological evidence that King Hreod ever took a census of all the people (so Mary and Joseph never had to go back to Bethlehem, and it is very unlikely that Jesus was born in a stable). There is also no evidence of King Hreod killing all the newborn baby boys (am less convinced on this!)

Umm, that's all I can remember. I did a unit in my degree called 'in search of the historical Jesus' in which we analysed all the gospels, including the ones not incorporated in the Bible (like the gospels of Thomas and Mary), we did a comparative study of the gospels and tried to find the oldest traditions from "Q" and studied what his opponents had to say, and other archeological evidence. It was a fascinating subject, and I really enjoyed it. But like I say, I started my degree almost 20 years ago, so things may have changed in that time.

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 01:42:27

Yes, please do look all that up if you can, LadyLech - sounds really fascinating actually. Have never heard about this Ben Panthera (or whatever). Excellent stuff.

I'll be back in the morning.

CuriousMama Wed 06-Mar-13 01:50:01

I'm of the same thought as TheDreadLurker. Totally believe the man existed but not that he is the son of God. He did amazing things and was charismatic, kind and also strong willed.
Dogma and inconsistencies are what drove me from Christianity.
I'm responsible for my own sins. No one else is.
Although they are getting less and less with age wink

MadHairDay Wed 06-Mar-13 08:44:17

Some interesting posts since last night smile

Haven't got time this morning but will be back later to join in. Just a quick one to say looking forward to discussing evidence for Jesus outside biblical accounts and also the whole area of whether Jesus believed himself to be the son of God, and divine. I believe there are compelling grounds to say he absolutely did. Good and wise person, yes. But was that really it? A nice bloke who got himself killed in the most derogatory way led to such an explosion of belief in him as the Christ and redeemer?

<wishes had more time now>


MostlyLovingLurchers Wed 06-Mar-13 10:25:21

Talking of evidence outside of the gospels, does anyone have a view on the tradition that Jesus visited India in his younger years and again after surviving the cross?

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 10:36:39

DreadedLurker No, Jesus isn't mentioned anywhere in the rather massive Roman record. Pontius Pilate was a real person but there's nothing contemporary that links him with Jesus, nothing at all. There are two things that are usually used to try and prove their connection - The Acts of Pilate and a series of letters from Pilate to Seneca. The first was written in the 4th century by Christians trying to prove the same thing Christians are still trying to prove today - Jesus' existence, and the second was written in the 1920s as a novel.

And yes, it's open to debate whether or not the biblical Jesus ever really said he was God. Like most of the Bible, it's open to interpretation. I would take issue with you about his "amazing philosophies" though. Not actually that amazing or even original - and in many ways a lot of what he supposedly said can be shown to be morally suspect. The sermon on the mount contains some of the worst advice ever proclaimed. I think we should expect better of God/the son of God.

Morning, Mad. Kudos for going with Alexander rather than Julius Caesar wink. Whenever Caesar is brought up in these discussions I do this face ----> shock because they could not pick a worse example - there's LOADS of evidence for him!

But there's much less for Alexander, so he's slightly more analogous with Jesus, but not by much. There's a lot of debate amongst historians about Alexander because of the lack of source material about him - but there isn't a total absence like there is with Jesus. His biography may not have been written for 400 years, but there's other evidence demonstrating him - archaeological evidence of the burning of Persepolis & the ongoing effects of his conquests for example. He commanded thousands and conquered an enormous empire and it's ridiculous to say that we can find no trace of him - he's woven into the fabric of the era.

There really aren't any historical figures that have no evidence at all demonstrating them but who are accepted as having existed. I can't think of any - only Jesus. Socrates is often offered as one example - we have no direct evidence of him at all, and some people believe he was an invention of Plato (I don't agree with this in case anyone wants to contradict me). But the point is, this lack of evidence HAS brought his existence into question. Evidence, usually, matters.

Now, Jesus was supposedly a humble man, a carpenter. Such people have existed in their billions throughout history and we can find no trace of them now, so in one respect it's unrealistic for us to expect to find any for Jesus. Except he wasn't just a humble carpenter, was he? He was God - turning water into wine, resurrecting the dead, healing the sick, speaking to thousands of people at a time. He frightened King Herod to such a degree that he had all the baby boys in Bethlehem slaughtered, he bothered the Romans enough that they hunted him down and publicly murdered him. At the moment of his death, all the graves in Jerusalem opened up and the dead bodies started walking around town!

It is very odd indeed that NOBODY- and I stress this - NOBODY thought to write any of these extraordinary events down while they were actually happening. And yes there were contemporary historians who were right there in the middle of the action who could have told us about it all but who remain very silent. They tell us all about other Messiah claimants (of which there were many), they tell us what the Romans were getting up to and about the various religious cults and their uprisings - but not the tiniest whisper of Jesus.

We have literally nothing from the life of Jesus, or even close to it, that even hints of his existence - no writings, no letters, no accounts, no tomb, no inscriptions, no busts - nothing. Nothing. Nothing. I think that's sufficiently peculiar and begs an explanation - and none that I have ever been offered makes much sense.

And so to the gospels - after I've made myself a coffee.

LadyLech Wed 06-Mar-13 11:01:43


Right this is what I have got as the agreed conservative consensus about Jesus

1. He was historically probable.
2. Was Galilean
3. Associated with John the Baptist
4. Gathered followers. The number varies, some sources suggest up to 14, but Jewish sources tend to say that it was 5.
5. Preached the kingdom of God and Judgement
6. Was rejected
7. Had something to say about the apoclytic figure known as the 'son of man'
8. May have implied a connection between himself and the son of man.
9. Climaxed apocolyptic teaching with an attack on the temple
10. He was betrayed
11. He was tried by a Roman Officer
12. There is nothing historically improbable to believe that his followers deserted him.
13. Historically probable that he was killed by crucifixion.

The polemical tradition upholds:

1. Jesus was a magician who learnt spells in Egypt.
2. He gathered around him 5 followers, one of whom betrayed him.
3. His mother was a prostitute named Miriam (Mary)
4. His father was a Roman soldier. He was named by the Jews Ben Panthera 'the panther's son' as a tribute to his father's sexual prowess
5. He was found to be a blasphemer, sentenced to death at Lydda and hung out for display on the eve of passover.
6. His disciples stole his body and declared him risen from the dead.

But I studied this in 1995 ish, so theological theories may have come a long way since then!

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 11:38:58

I wouldn't have a problem with any of the conservative consensus, Lady. I think such things can be inferred quite well - although I stress "inferred" rather than "proven".

The crucifixion is a good example, and one I use a lot. Dying on a cross was a shameful death & not one you would pick if you were writing fiction about a hero figure. A bit like having Superman dying of syphilis. So, it's likely that the writers gave him this death because they had to - because that's what happened.

The polemical tradition is more exciting though wink

Thank you. I'm going to read more about this aspect.

I'll be back later to talk about the gospels, Mad.

LadyLech Wed 06-Mar-13 11:56:03

I would totally agree that none of this is proven. I don't any theologian who would actually say that it was. These agreed beliefs tend to be what theologians occur is the most probable taken from the range of sources available to them.

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 12:05:23

Lurchers There have been some interesting books written about Jesus & India and I read one ages ago. Too long ago for me to really remember that much. As far as I recall, there is some support taken from various sources, but it doesn't add up to enough for it to be taken that seriously amongst scholars generally. The similarities between Jesus & Buddha are interesting though & worth considering.

MadHairDay Wed 06-Mar-13 12:23:23

I know that we're always going to come from different positions re the historicity of the gospels and how contemporary these accounts were to Jesus/the early followers of Jesus. I think that a good case can be made that they are accurate and good as historical source material. One thing about ancient historians is that there was no idea of writing objective history in order to chronicle events. There had to be something to learn from what was written. The other aspect, which you picked up on, was that historians only tended to chronicle important figures - political, royal, leaders - and it would have been strange to pick up on an obscure carpenter from an obscure region.

You wonder why more was not written in contemporary historical documents about someone who performed miracles and who was raised from death. But the fact is that at the time, much of what Jesus did was cloaked in obscurity, and with any beginnings of movements it was mostly not until decades or even centuries after that events would be recorded about such movements. The fact that there is evidence, from the NT and from other sources - small and scattered, but there - all contributes to the fact that there is better historical documentation for Jesus than for any other founder of any other ancient religion.

Take Buddha, for example. Writings about The Buddha were not formed until the first century AD, whereas Buddha lived in the sixth century BC. One would not expect there to be a multiplicity of objective historical documentation about an ancient obscure figure, firstly because of his obscurity and secondly because of the way ancient historians operated.

Saying all that, there are several places where Jesus is documented outside of the NT. I am aware of the division of opinion from various scholars, but taking Josephus, for example, even if his secondary reference to Jesus is discounted due to interpolations by the early church, the first reference he makes, about James, the brother of Jesus, is widely accepted by scholars to be genuine. I would argue that his second passage has genuine roots, that there are underlying parts of it that were written by Josephus. He wrote describing the life and death of Jesus, and parts of what he wrote can be easily seen as later additions as they do not fit in with his writing style or his theology, but parts do fit perfectly with his wider writing, and these parts can be taken just as much as evidence of Jesus living and dying under Pontius Pilate.

Now my post is getting too long, so I'm going to leave the other sources, plus the gospels and writings of Paul for now...

LadyLech Wed 06-Mar-13 12:23:47

I know this is from Wikipedia, but the top part at least seems to tally in with what I remember. My brain is very old and rusty now though!

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 13:04:12

But the fact is that at the time, much of what Jesus did was cloaked in obscurity

Really? If that's the case, then you can dismiss rather a lot of what the NT has to say about him. He performed a miracle in front of 5,000 people, remember. And how many listened to the Sermon on the Mount. Nothing "obscure" about any of this - or the slaughter of the innocents & the zombie invasion of Jerusalem.

You cannot have it both ways. He was either too obscure & unknown during his lifetime to warrant a mention - or he was performing extraordinary miracles in front of lots of people and rattling the Roman authorities.

Occams Razar - all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be correct. What's the simplest explanation for the clear and inescapable fact that not one of the many historians that were in the right place at the right time managed to mention this extraordinary man? It's that he wasn't that extraordinary and none of these miraculous events actually happened.

all contributes to the fact that there is better historical documentation for Jesus than for any other founder of any other ancient religion Jesus didn't really "found" Christianity, I suppose that was St Paul.

What we do have is evidence of early Christians, mentioned here and there in a few extra-Biblical sources. They say nothing whatsoever about Jesus himself, so they are not evidence that he existed....just evidence that there were people who believed he did. So what? I can give you evidence of believers in every single religion conceived of by man. I can give you evidence of people who have been abducted by aliens and had their bottoms probed - and that evidence is BETTER than the Jesus "evidence" because it's eyewitness and these people are still alive.

Early Christians existed and were making a minor kerfuffle - this we know. But it does not prove that Jesus did. Tom Cruise exists - does this mean Scientology is all real?

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