About two weeks ago I engaged in a discussion about evidence that Jesus lived with a fellow through social media. Because it was on social media I was able to record our back and forth verbatim. It was a good discussion: he made some good points and it never degraded into mean-spirited argument (as so many do).
This topic branched off from a discussion with others about how silly religion in general is with all its rules and clouded, conflicting information. Here is our discussion: he is Bruce, I am Doug.
Bruce: So how do you know which parts of the bible, if any, to believe? Perhaps all of it is a creation of men. After all, there is not one single contemporary account that Jesus ever existed, not one.
Doug: Not so. Flavius Josephus (a Jewish historian) wrote of the life of Jesus from the Jewish perspective. Tacitus (Roman historian) wrote of the insurrectionist Jesus. Thallus wrote the History of Eastern Mediterranean World and talks about the events on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia mentions The Christ in his writings. The Talmud mentions Jesus the Christ, Lucian (a Greek writer) talks about him … all ancient texts written by people who were affected.
Bruce: Those are all sources frequently named however, none was an actual contemporary. None was a witness. The crucifixion was allegedly accompanied by hours of darkness, earthquakes, and a multitude of reanimated corpses. All things that would certainly be mentioned in contemporary histories yet there is no mention anywhere outside the bible. Even the gospels vary widely in their accounts of Jesus’ birth, his life, his personality, his miracles, his death, and his resurrection. Shouldn’t the biblical accounts of such momentous events be the same?
Doug: Since most of the people who followed Jesus around, seeing His miracles and listening to Him teach were illiterate, it is not surprising that their memoirs did not survive the millennia. Since those who were educated were the Jewish leadership who hoped this heretic upstart and the cult that followed Him would just go away once they had the Romans kill him, and since these actions in no way conformed to Jewish law, it is not surprising that they did not record their actions in this matter for posterity.
There was one educated man, a physician, who interviewed eye witnesses of the ministry of Jesus and wrote a detailed account for an important Roman citizen named Theophilus. That letter became the book of Luke. Luke then traveled with some of the apostles as they began spreading the gospel to the gentile world and chronicled their exploits. That letter became the book of Acts. Both of which you discount because they are in the Bible.
Bruce: I’m not trying to win an argument nor am I trying to convince you that you are wrong and I am right. Instead, let me tell you my personal story so that maybe you will understand how I got to where I am.
I was baptized in the Methodist church and raised in the Presbyterian church. I was taught as a child that God and Jesus and the bible were all true. Like any child, I had no reason to doubt the words of my parents, minister, or all of the other adults in my life who believed. I didn’t give religion any thought. It just “was”. But even as a child I never felt any connection to God. I never felt that my nightly prayers went any farther than my bedroom ceiling.
In my teen years I started to have questions about what I had been taught. So much of it made no sense.
I began to attend services of other denominations; Catholic, Baptist, Orthodox, and a few evangelical churches where people spoke in tongues and collapsed on the floor. I took my questions to priests, pastors, ministers, and theologians. The “answers” I got were always some variation of “faith is believing when common sense tells you not to”, “God moves in mysterious ways”, “all will be revealed in His time”, “have trust in god’s plan”, “pray for His guidance”, etc. I thought to myself if these are the best answers that the experts can give me then here’s something wrong with this whole game. After all these people are supposed to know the real answers.
I began to read voraciously. I read biblical critiques, the philosophy of religion, the history of pre-Christian faiths, the works of Christian apologists, and more. The more I read and learned the more I saw religion as mere superstition. You wrote earlier that the bible was written in a time when illiteracy was the norm and that echoes my own thoughts; illiterate Bronze Age goat herders trying to explain the mysteries of their world gave birth to Judaism and Christianity. How can any intelligent person believe the story of Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, Moses, Jonah, and all the other bizarre tales of the bible?
Recently I’ve started to re-read the bible; not select passages that the clergy lead us to. I started at page one and have been working my way through it. The OT reads like a horror story: continuous warfare, mass genocide, infanticide, slavery, torture, and more all commanded by God. As a moral guide the bible is the worst possible source.
The bible is filled with errors of biology, geography, geology, and history. Perhaps much of the bible is parable or allegorical. If so, which parts are real and which aren’t? How does anyone know?
I understand the draw. To believe that the all knowing, all powerful, supreme creator of the universe cares about me personally and wants me to join him in paradise is both comforting and flattering. To believe that death is not the end; that my loved ones are waiting for me in heaven rather than moldering in the grave has great appeal. To believe that good will eventually defeat evil (why the wait?) fits our concept of justice.
Anyway, that’s my take on the subject. Believe it or not, I’ve enjoyed our exchange of ideas and opinions and I appreciate the courteous and respectful way that you have dealt with me despite our differences.
Doug: I respect your views, Bruce. I don’t share them, but I respect them. I often encourage people to try to understand that each of us walks a different path; what happens along that journey shapes our beliefs: religious, political and societal. We’ve traveled different paths, I respect that.
Doug: Everyone is free to believe or not believe as they wish. No one, however, is exempt from the consequences of their choice.
Doug: I’ve tried to just let this go, and I’m not trying to be argumentative, but I must know: do you use the same yardstick to measure the validity of all historical figures and accounts? If you only accept as fact accounts written by eye witnesses, I’d say your history book shelves are pretty empty.
I understand Bruce’s journey and the position he now holds. I’m not going to denigrate him for his choices. At least he did make the effort to find answers for himself rather than just taking the word of others as irrefutable truth. And there is no point in arguing with him: we could go on debating the finer points mentioned along the way forever, but it won’t change anything. He’s made up his mind, and that’s his right.
It did get me thinking though.
I too have been in a position of questioning God. I too sought answers. I found different answers than Bruce did. I accept the truth of the Bible not because some preacher said I should, but because I’ve read it. Several times. In fact I continue to not just read, but to study it in detail every morning. The more I study it, and apply what I learn, the more it has to teach me.
Bible Study is more than reading
The key to effectively studying the Bible is to understand what a passage says by understanding to whom it was written, when, and why. Also realize that the Bible I read is in English. The original texts that became our Old Testament were written in Hebrew, the New Testament were Greek or Aramaic. These languages use words that paint a picture. These are difficult to translate accurately into English because they depend greatly upon context. Take for example the word we know as “love”.
In Greek there are 5 words that describe different kinds of love:
- Eros: passionate, sensual love
- Storge: Natural affection, such as a parent has for their child
- Thelema: A desire or fondness, such as I have for dark chocolate
- Agape: A sacrificial love, often used to describe Jesus’ love for mankind
- Philia: a dispassionate, virtuous love. Root for Philanthropy
Everywhere these words occurred in the Greek text, we see just the English word “love” in our Bible. Plugging the wrong meaning into your Bible reading will greatly change your understanding of the passage. Where it says, “Brothers, love one another as I have loved you.” is not an invitation to an orgy, but a command to look after one another’s needs. We know that by looking up the meanings of words.
Bible study tools in my personal library include Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible and Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. These bring clarity to my studies by helping me find the original meanings of words used. I also have the Bible in King James, New King James, New International, American Standard, English Standard, and the Amplified versions. Comparing a particular passage in each of these sometimes clarifies meaning as well.
Not an open book to all
There is also attitude. I go into the Bible eager to learn what it says, and it teaches me. Those who go into it looking for points of contention, also find what they are looking for. Jesus Himself says that to those who think themselves wise, the Word of God is foolishness. And that is as it should be: the Bible was not written for them. Those who come to God saying, “Prove to me you exist and I’ll believe in you.” are met with silence. Elohim does not play that game. To claim the promises of God, one must believe through faith, not evidence. That makes no sense to the worldly: but it’s not supposed to.
Evidence that Jesus Lived
If we are to disallow the letters written to the churches by the men who lived and traveled with Jesus as evidence that Jesus lived, because they are in the Bible, and if we are to disallow all historical accounts of that period, because they were written by historians not eye witnesses, the evidence is scant. But disallowing the evidence that is available makes no sense, except to be contentious.
Nearly all our knowledge of history comes from historians piecing together fragments of pottery and ancient written accounts. Even contemporary “historical person” accounts are compiled by interviewing that person’s children and grand children to find out what kind of person that figure was. Their deeds are known, but to learn who they were requires intimate knowledge.
As I mentioned to Bruce, most of the people who actually interacted with Jesus and could provide evidence that Jesus lived and was who the Bible says He is were illiterate. Even if some did make notes of the amazing things they’d seen or experienced in a personal journal, that person and their account were lost to the flow of time. Those who were important enough to have their words chronicled and preserved had no intention of preserving their deeds for posterity.
Accounts of non-followers
Of the twelve men who traveled with Jesus, four wrote accounts of their experiences with Jesus that were preserved. There were others, but because they were not included in the Holy text, they have been lost. If we discount the word of Matthew, Mark, John and Peter as a conspiracy to promote some new religion, we still have the accounts of several men who could not be accused of being in their club.
I told above how Luke, a physician and man of science, compiled one detailed account on Jesus, and another on the exploits of His followers after His departure. Luke was not a follower of Jesus at the start.
Saul was a Pharisee, and a dedicated persecutor of those who followed The Way. He may have been among those who heard Jesus speak, but he hated Jesus as a heretic and traitor to Judaism. After the death, resurrection, and assention of Jesus, Saul met Jesus in spirit form as a bright light and disembodied voice. Saul, and only Saul, was blinded by the encounter. His traveling companions were amazed, but unharmed.
After his restoration Saul changed his name to Paul and became the most outspoken supporter of Jesus. He traveled the Mediterranean rim spreading the gospel and planting churches. His letters to those churches and several companions comprise 2/3 of the New Testament. But he was not part of The Club. In fact, the Apostles knew Saul as the zealous Pharisee who had caused the imprisonment or death of many believers. They did not trust him after his conversion. That took time.
Jude and James were the half-brothers of Jesus. They grew up with Him and knew better than anyone what evidence that Jesus lived existed. They, however, did not believe He was the Messiah and tried to talk Him into abandoning His mad quest, knowing that the Pharisees wanted to kill Him.
But after they watched their eldest sibling be executed and buried — and then, days later, found him alive and walking around again, they believed. James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, Jude was influential in the faith. Both wrote letters, one from each were preserved and eventually included in the Bible. But because it’s in the Bible, people like Bruce will disallow it as evidence that Jesus lived.
So, can I offer irrefutable evidence that Jesus lived and did all the Bible says He did — without using the Bible? No: *I* cannot. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I of ancient texts knows of the existence of some papyrus scrolls that offer eye-witness accounts of the ministry and aftermath of Jesus. Perhaps the Essenes and their Dead Sea scrolls will provide this when they are all finally released and translated. So far they only validate old Testament texts and prophesies of the Messiah. As far as I know, the Bible is the only text that chronicles the life of Jesus … and maybe that is as it was intended. God’s Word remains unique.