The Improbable versus the Even More Improbable: The Existence of Jesus

Another reprint from Mormon Matters. The following article, despite appearances, is not about whether or not Jesus existed. I accept that He did exist as an article of faith. This article is actually about a certain flawed way of thinking that we all sometimes fall into. As such, I admit up front that I know next to nothing about the historicity of Jesus. If you think you’re going to learn a lot about this subject by reading my post, you’re wrong. All that I know on this subject I got off Wikipedia from this article. Go read it yourself and draw your own conclusions. Maybe someday I’ll get serious about the historicity of Jesus and actually make a real attempt to study it. But in the mean time, bear in mind that this article has nothing to do with whether or not Jesus existed.

Not long ago I came across someone on the internet on Yahoo Answers asking for evidence that Jesus even existed. Several decent answers were posted pointing to the non-Biblical sources that refer to, or seem to refer to, Jesus. These are:

 

  1. Josephus – Two references. The first reference is considered probably false by most scholars. The second is considered probably true: “The second reference states that in the year 62 CE, the newly appointed high priest “convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought them a man called James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others.”
  2. Tacitus – “Tacitus in the context of the Great Fire of Rome refers to ‘some people, known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was emperor by the order of Pontius Pilate. But this deadly cult, though checked for a time, was now breaking out again.’”
  3. Suetonius – “Suetonius, who wrote in the second century, made reference to unrest among the Jews of Rome under Claudius caused by ‘Chrestus’. This has been commonly identified with Jesus Christ, though in this case it must refer to indirect posthumous effects and gives no biographical information.”
  4. Pliny the Younger – “There are references to Christians in the letters of Pliny the Younger, but they give no specific information about the founder of this movement. However critics point out that all the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan demonstrates is that by about 110 CE there were significant numbers of people who would not recant their faith in Christ even under torture or the threat of death, that this was a significant problem for the Imperial authorities, and the authorities considered it a “perverse religious cult, carried to extremes.”
  5. The Babylonian Talmud – “The Babylonian Talmud contains several references that have been traditionally identified with Jesus of Nazareth. However, whether these Talmudic verses actually refer to Jesus of Nazareth or to various other persons that were only later identified with Jesus and with each other remains controversial.”

All sources found here.

As is typical of Yahoo Answers, the person asking the question was actually setting a trap for those that disagreed with him. Naturally someone eventually gave an answer he liked that said “Jesus didn’t exist! There is not evidence at all!” and our less than sincere questioner picked this answer as “best answer” and then gave his own statement about how Christians are all idiots for believing in a non-existent person for which there is no evidence. He noted that the references mentioned above are all later references not during the life of Christ so they didn’t count.

From a certain point of view, his argument sounds logical. Let’s consider the seeming strength of his view:

  1. He doesn’t believe in Christianity (he was an atheist) and he’d love to believe Jesus didn’t exist at all.
  2. There really are no contemporary accounts of Jesus currently in existence.
  3. There are some accounts a few decades later, as already noted, but they are all at least somewhat debatable and they came later.
  4. The Bible itself is actually later memories not written down in the moment it was happening.
  5. The Bible isn’t reliable anyhow since it’s all biased to a Christian point of view.
  6. How in the world could a figure like Jesus have existed without someone having noticed him and written something about him!?

Given that evidence, and considering none other, it seems like he might have a point. This really looks like a bad case for the existence of Jesus as a historical person. Given only this evidence, the existence of Jesus seems improbable at best.

But is this really correct thinking? Can the existence of Jesus be boiled down to “there is no evidence, thus I conclude He didn’t exist?” Intellectually, we all know that “proof of non-existence” and “no proof of existence” are two different things, but we seem to have a real problem applying that knowledge in real life.

According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, we humans have a fundamental evolutionary deficiency when it comes to telling the difference between “no evidence of existence” and “proof of non-existence.” He argues that because of the same evolutionary deficiency we are suckers for a good sounding explanations (he calls this the “narrative fallacy”). I believe this is what has happened with our poor question asker.

Taleb also points out that an event that is very important later is not necessarily deemed important at the time. We have a backward bias of sorts that tricks us into being unfair in our evaluations of history. He writes: “The Roman chroniclers of that period did not even take note of the new [Christian] religion – historians of Christianity are baffled by the absence of contemporary mentions. Apparently, few of the big guys took the ideas of a seemingly heretical Jew seriously enough to think that he would leave traces for posterity.”

As difficult as it is for our deficient brains to fathom, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Jesus would not stand out enough to warrant a non-follower mention from a political big wig.

But this begs the question: why do scholars, even non-believing ones, overwhelmingly believe Jesus did exist? As Wikipedia states: “The idea of Jesus as a myth is rejected by the majority of biblical scholars and historians. In 2004, Richard Burridge and Graham Gould stated that they did not know of any “respectable” scholars that held the view today” (link)

As it turns out, they have a pretty good reason – though obviously it’s not proof beyond doubt – to believe that Jesus did exist: How else do you explain the existence of Christianity and the Bible?

You see, if you want to assert that Jesus didn’t exist, you don’t just get to shoot holes in the beliefs of those who think He did exist – you have to come up with a viable theory to explain all the existing evidence. Shooting holes in someone else’s beliefs is far easier then coming up with your own hole-free belief system.

For example, Earl Doherty, one of the proponents of Jesus as a myth was forced to explain away the existence of Christians and the Bible – and more importantly the lack of any opponents of Christianity claiming Jesus never existed – by claiming that Jesus was a heavenly figure dreamed up by early Christian visionary prophets. As Wikipedia states:

“A more radical position is taken by Earl Doherty, who holds that these early authors did not believe that Jesus had been on Earth at all. He argues that the earliest Christians accepted a Platonic cosmology that distinguished a “higher” spiritual world from the Earthly world of matter, and that they viewed Jesus as having descended only into the “lower reaches of the spiritual world”. Doherty also suggests that this view was accepted by the authors of the Pastoral epistles [i.e. Paul’s pastoral epistles], 2 Peter, and various second-century Christian writings outside the New Testament. Doherty contends that apparent references in these writings to events on earth, and a physical historic Jesus, should in fact be regarded as allegorical metaphors.” [1]

But how believable is that story? Doherty is asserting that the entire Christian religion came into existence around a vision of a non-existent man – yet we have little or no documentation at all of these early visions, other than the forced example of Paul. This new religion forming around an imaginary person then goes on to document a real flesh and blood person named Jesus, and yet not a single person opposed to this religion seems to notice this fact or exploit it!? Is this possible? Perhaps. Is it likely? Intuitively, it seems considerably less likely than simply accepting that Jesus was overlooked by “the big guys.”

Worse yet, Paul’s own writings, the very little evidence Doherty puts forward, deny his own thesis. While Paul may have seen Jesus in a vision personally, there is counter evidence from his own writings that Jesus wasn’t just a visionary figure to him. As Wikipedia continues: “Opponents regard such interpretations as forced and erroneous eg in the Pastoral letter to Timothy the author speaks of Jesus as being ‘revealed in the flesh’. [see Timothy 3:16] Others also find Doherty’s argument lacking in credibility eg ‘The only way Doherty can make this statement is by engaging in blatant question-begging’”

No belief stands alone but it must always be compared to the next best alternative. In other words, as hard as it is to believe that Jesus existed because of the lack of evidence, it’s nearly impossible to believe he didn’t exist because there is currently no believable counter explanation.

[1] I am just using this as an example to explain my point. There are less radical views, all that have their own flaws.  However, keep in mind that I am just explaining why the vast majority of scholars, even non-believing ones, believe Jesus existed. I’m not really trying to make my own case for the existence of Jesus.

10 thoughts on “The Improbable versus the Even More Improbable: The Existence of Jesus

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention » The Improbable versus the Even More Improbable: The Existence of Jesus The Millennial Star -- Topsy.com

  2. I’m going to go off on a related tangent that I’ve wondered about, pertaining to the types of evidence we have in this world about various events and characters from the standard works.

    For instance, in the case of Jesus, we know his atonement was necessary for people in all worlds, and that worlds have been created without number. Some say since his atonement was infinite and eternal, it means it applies to all worlds, I’m not so hung up on that as we have the Lord himself using the definition of eternal has he likes. And it no doubt is infinite and eternal for those whom it applies to. But the implication is that does every world have a Savior? Or is there one for all worlds? Think the atonment must necessarily apply to all worlds? Well, keep reading.

    What evidence do we have that many of the things contained in the record of the scriptures happened on this world? Could they not be revealed, seen in vision by prophets of things that happened on other worlds? Would it change anything? Imagine now if you say it does.

    Well, what does this mean about the other worlds, for which there was potentially no atonement performed on them? If you believe Christ’s atonement took place on this world and covers all the inhabitants in all the worlds and universes, then you must also believe there are worlds in which they believe in a Chris that never actually existed on their world.

    Now… what if that world is our world? What if our world is the world where he never existed, but rather we have the evidences of things not seen (ie. didn’t happen here)?

    Well, there’s a thought at least. I’m content with whatever, because in one sense I’m fine with it happening either way — That the atonement is repeated on other worlds or that one world covers them all. But if the latter is the case, it means there are worlds without number where there is no physical/historical evidence for what they believe–other than their faith and testimonies which should not be discounted.

  3. Just to add in to the previous thought the implication this could have on the BoM and evidence for it.

    Personally, I think they all happened here. But maybe there were some things that didn’t.

  4. C,

    I tend to see the Book of Mormon as a pattern of what the Christian experience would be like on other populated worlds; teaching, testimony and prophesy by prophets, with a post-Resurrection visitation. Angelic ministrations to introduce or restore Priesthood and keys thereto. For all intents and purposes, the Book of Mormon peoples might as well have been on another planet given their distance and isolation from Palestine.

  5. C, I really think you’re getting off into the weeds thinking about whether Jesus’ atonement is for other worlds. Concentrate on our little planet. As the Lord himself said:
    “But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you.” (Moses 1:34). You can of course speculate all you want, but I would caution that that does not seem to be the main message of the gospel.

    Bruce, I think you are really onto something concentrating on the difference between “no evidence of existence” and “proof of non-existence.” I think a lot of people, especially atheists, confuse these two concepts until you force them a little bit. Arguing with atheists on such an issue is a waste of time, but I would like to point out one scene that I find especially convincing as a believable detail given by an eyewitness. When the woman caught in adultery is taken to Jesus in John 8:6, there is a description of Jesus writing on the ground with his finger while the accusers gather around. These are the little details that people notice when they are seeing things themselves, but his writing on the ground with his finger has nothing to do with the rest of the story. It seems easy for me to believe that John was actually there witnessing the discussion.

    Again, this is “proof” of nothing. I can no more “prove” Jesus existed than I can see the wind in the sky. But I *can* prove that the idea of the Savior has had tremendous influence on billions of people, just as I can prove that the wind will move the branches in the trees.

  6. Weeds?!? Do me the dignity and acknowledge my sights on the stars. You’re the one staying down on this world in the weeds ;)

    But really, the point could be brought closer to home with what Tom says. The BoM were for all intents and purposes on another world with no evidence, other than the words of the prophets & testimony, for their belief. Within a few generations of any miraculous event (crossing the oceans in a boat, visitation of Christ, crossing dead sea for that matter, etc.), anything without hard physical evidence gets reduced to legend and myth.

  7. Hugh Nibley basically said that evidence can be presented, but “proof” is decided by each individual. We cannot force anyone to believe, just present the case. Out of topic, if you want some great books on the historical Jesus I can give you a list starting with the outdated Jesus the Christ that strangely got me involved with the topic to start with.

  8. Re #6: Great comment, Jettboy!

    Might I also add that the Spirit provides further proof, or, more to the point, a witness of the truth to those that diligently seek it.

  9. And its not like Jesus lived in a time of blogs, mass literacy, or even the printing press. There simply wasn’t a lot of writing going on at the time, so proving or disproving the actual historicity of a single person based on the lack of writing during a 33 year window without a lot of writing to begin with seems pretty disingenuous.

    I also really like the idea of “an event that is very important later is not necessarily deemed important at the time.” We do this all in the time in our lives (in hindsight that decision was pretty monumental for me as it sent me down a path I wouldn’t have taken otherwise . . .) or sports (that turned out to be the turning point of their season . . .), among others.

  10. Bear in mind that the post isn’t about whether or not Jesus really existed. It’s about epistemology. There is certainly room for a Book of Mormon view of Jesus, where we expect no evidence at all save only by visions. But then we have an entirely different truth claim to consider, so what I’m writing here would not apply any more.

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