False Claims in the Popular Press

False Claims in the Popular Press

Dr. Craig exposes sensationalistic claims about the historical Jesus making the rounds in popular media.

Transcript False Claims in the Popular Press

What do we actually know about Jesus Christ, the man?

There exists not a single contemporary reference to such a character. Not a single genuine artifact. Nothing to substantiate that he ever walked the earth.

We don't even really have any evidence that those particular individuals – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – actually lived.

He leaves no trace in the historical record.

There is absolutely no historical evidence that Jesus existed, period. Not a single person wrote a single word about him in the time he supposedly lived. Not a single painting. Not a single artifact. He didn't write anything himself down.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, we are taking a look at something that is making the rounds and haunting the blogosphere, and that is that Jesus never existed. One of the articles that is often quoted on this is from Valerie Tarico who writes for AlterNet – “5 Reasons to Suspect Jesus Never Existed.”[1] The leading headline is “A growing number of scholars are openly questioning or actively arguing against Jesus’ historicity.” This is from September 1, 2014.

Dr. Craig: My initial response to that claim is that if the number grew from 0 to 1 then it might be true to say a growing number of scholars doubts Jesus' existence. The trouble is, when you read the article, this is one of those things that you just have to roll your eyes at. It hasn't even increased from 0 to 1. It is still 0. The people that she talks about in this article are people like David Fitzgerald who has written a new sensationalist book on Jesus. He is no scholar. His best credentials is that he has a degree in history from Fresno State, and that may well be a B.A. He is an atheist activist and speaker. So the fact of the matter is that there are no scholars who deny that Jesus of Nazareth existed. People like Robert Price and Richard Carrier that are named in the article do not hold professorships at academic institutions or read papers at scholarly societies or publish with academic presses. There aren't any bona fide scholars that hold to this extreme and, frankly, silly view.

Kevin Harris: It really is a ridiculous notion. Talk about sensationalist. I would hate to besmirch people's motivations, but if you say something sensational like this you do get invited on a lot of talk shows and it could help your book.

Dr. Craig: Yes, it is the old man-bites-dog notion. That's what makes the news.

Kevin Harris: Fitzgerald says that he wanted to correct the errors in the Zeitgeist movie that gave the mythic background and tried to eradicate the existence of Jesus and show “young people interesting, accessible information that is grounded in accountable scholarship.”

Dr. Craig: Even he acknowledges that things like that Zeitgeist movie are irresponsible and inaccurate.

Kevin Harris: It still makes the round, so I'm glad at least there he is saying,Come on.

Dr. Craig: So he backs away from that but then continues to make claims just as extreme in the sense that he thinks Jesus never existed and that it is to be explained in some way mythologically, which Valerie never goes into in this article. She never actually gives what their positive account is of how all of this evidence for Jesus of Nazareth came to be if there never was such a person. The article is completely negative in offering what they think are reasons to doubt Jesus existed.

Kevin Harris: The article begins, “Most antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are 'mythologized history.'”

Dr. Craig: Now right from the get-go, Kevin, she has got it wrong. That is not what the majority of ancient historians think about the Gospels. The idea that the Gospels are a fusion of historical fact with mythology is a view that characterized 19th century scholarship and then on into the first half of the 20th century, popularized particularly by the German scholar Rudolf Bultmann who said that the facts about Jesus were overlaid with myth and legend in the course of the decades until Jesus became mythologized. That is no longer held.

What has happened instead, as we've explained on other occasions, is what is known as the Jewish Reclamation of Jesus.[2] Scholars have come to appreciate that Jesus of Nazareth and all of the disciples were Jews. It is against the background of first-century Palestinian Judaism that Jesus and the Gospels are to be properly interpreted and understood. The context of pagan mythology is simply the wrong context for understanding this man and the movement that he spawned. This has led to what historical Jesus scholar Craig Evans has called the eclipse of mythology in historical Jesus research. Mythology is no longer a relevant category in life of Jesus studies.

So she has got it wrong right from the beginning when she is presenting this outmoded view from over a half-century or more ago that the Gospels are to be explained in terms of mythology conjoined with a residue of historical facts. In fact, when you look at Jesus against the background of first-century Palestinian Judaism, what you discover is that the Gospels emerge as very credible sources for the life of Jesus. These so-called pagan myths and parallels are just spurious.

Let me just give one example. She mentions the virgin birth as being based on reworked mythic themes that were common in the ancient Near East. That is a complete misunderstanding. What you have in pagan mythology are stories of gods taking on human form and coming down to earth and copulating with human females to sire divine-human offspring. It is a story of gods having sexual intercourse with women. As such, I think you can see this is completely different than the story of Jesus' virginal birth and conception where Jesus was born, not through any sort of sexual intercourse or copulation, but miraculously conceived by God. So to try to explain these virgin birth stories on the basis of these pagan myths is simply to misunderstand both the myths and these Gospel accounts.

Kevin Harris: She brings up Bart Ehrman early on, but he is not a Jesus mythicist, as I understand it. He believes Jesus existed.

Dr. Craig: He excoriates them. There is a very interesting online exchange between him and Richard Carrier on this very issue where Ehrman really takes Carrier to task for his irresponsibility in historical scholarship about Jesus. As you know, of course, Ehrman is no evangelical. He doesn't believe in the deity of Jesus himself, but he certainly believes Jesus existed.

Kevin Harris: She gives as the first piece of evidence, just in case there are any doubts about the scholarship on this thing: “No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.” Now, Yeshua ben Yosef might be unfamiliar to many of our listeners.

Dr. Craig: That is just an attempt to say “Jesus, son of Joseph” in a pseudo-sophisticated way. That is not the language of the New Testament, which is Greek, right? So this is just a pseudo-intellectual attempt to sound as though you are getting in touch with the Aramaic idiom of the day and referring to Jesus, son of Joseph. It is posturing. But the more important point here is that this first point is both false – actually, let me say three things about it! It is false, misleading, and irrelevant. [laughter] Which is pretty bad.

It is false because there are secular sources that refer to Jesus like Tacitus. Most people think that Tacitus does have a reference to Christ.

It is misleading because by saying secular evidence what she means to exclude is any Jewish testimony to Jesus. That is to say, Josephus, the Jewish historian. He was a Jewish-Roman general and historian who wrote a history of Judaism, and he mentions Jesus at some length. He then has a later passage where he talks about the martyrdom of James, who is the brother of the so-called Messiah (or of him who was called the Messiah).[3] You can't write that off as hearsay or deriving from the Gospels because the New Testament has nothing about the martyrdom of James.[4] Josephus gives us information about what happened to James that you cannot glean from the New Testament. So most scholars of antiquity will say we have here in Josephus historical testimony to the life of Jesus, as well as people like James, Caiaphas, John the Baptist. All of these people are mentioned in Josephus that is independent of the New Testament documents. The only reason she is able to exclude this from this first point is because it says no first century secular evidence, and Josephus doesn't count as secular because he is Jewish. There is also a Jewish author called Mara bar Serapion who wrote a letter in which he refers to the Jewish King. I guess she is going to exclude that. So this is both false and misleading.

But even more fundamentally, it is just irrelevant. The assumption that sticks behind this oft-repeated claim is that only material that comes from outside the New Testament counts as real evidence.

Kevin Harris: They penalize the New Testament documents.

Dr. Craig: Yeah. They penalize them because these were later collected under one cover by the church and put into a book called the New Testament. But any historian knows that these are the primary documents about Jesus. We've got four biographies of this man which is incredible for any figure of antiquity, as well as all of these letters from Paul and other people that were collected into the New Testament. These are the primary sources for the life of Jesus. To just blow them away because they were eventually collected into the New Testament by saying no secular figure outside the New Testament talks about Jesus is just an irrelevancy, especially when you reflect how obscure a figure Jesus of Nazareth was. He was a hillbilly preacher from Galilee who had at most a three year public ministry and got himself crucified like many other would-be Messiahs. I would ask these folks, “What documents are there that we have extant from the first century (that still exist) that you would expect to refer to Jesus of Nazareth?” You might say there ought to be something in Josephus – and there is! What other documents coming down out of the first century are there in which one would expect to have references to Jesus of Nazareth? I am not aware of any.

So this first point preys upon the ignorant and the naive who aren't familiar with historical Jesus scholarship. It is at once false, misleading, and ultimately irrelevant.

Kevin Harris: The second cited doubt is: “The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.”

Dr. Craig: What she is thinking of here are the letters of the apostle Paul. The claim is there that Paul doesn't refer to a lot of the events that you find in the Gospels. Now, again, I guess I want to say this is both false and irrelevant.

First it is false because in the letters of Paul you find abundant references to the life of Jesus including things like his death on the cross, his burial, his resurrection, and his postmortem appearances. But more than that, we know that Paul understood the context of the traditions that he hands on because he'll refer obliquely to them. For example, in handing on the traditions of the Lord's Supper, Paul says “on the night he was betrayed” Jesus took bread.[5] What that shows us is that Paul is aware of the story of Jesus' betrayal by Judas. He doesn't narrate it; he doesn't talk about it. But he does say that when Jesus celebrated the Lord's Supper it was on the night that he was betrayed. This is evidence to us that Paul isn't just reciting some formula here, but he knows the Jesus story. He knows the Passion story and the context of these traditions.

Dale Allison, who is a very eminent historical Jesus scholar, refers to the letters of Paul as the fifth Gospel because it is full of these allusions and references to Jesus and his teachings. As Allison says, only the tip of the iceberg is in view here in Paul's letters.

That brings me to the second point I wanted to make about the irrelevancy of this.[6] What she doesn't seem to understand is that the epistles are what are called “occasional letters.” That is to say, they are written on specific occasions to address specific circumstances in the various churches to which Paul was writing. Paul isn't trying to give a life of Jesus here. He is addressing specific problems in the churches. That means that one wouldn't expect to have all of these details of the life of Jesus laid out in these epistles. A great example is what I just mentioned – Paul's knowledge of the Lord's Supper (how Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave the cup, and memorialized his death in the Last Supper). If certain people in the church of Corinth had not been abusing the Lord's Supper – getting drunk at the celebration of the Lord's Supper – we would have no mention anywhere in the Pauline epistles of the Lord's Supper. It is only because of what was going on in Corinth that Paul finds the need and occasion to address that. If that hadn't been going on, scholars would say, “Look! There is no mention in the Pauline epistles of the Lord's Supper. This shows that the Pauline churches did not celebrate the Lord's Supper. They did not commemorate the Eucharist! Blah blah blah.” It is only because of these historically contingent circumstances that Paul finds occasion to mention it.

So this point about Paul not mentioning many of the stories and details in the Gospels is just irrelevant.

Kevin Harris: Bill, this says, “The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!”

Dr. Craig: Isn't that absurd? I think she is talking there about the dispute between Peter and Paul mentioned in Galatians about whether or not one should eat with the Gentiles as a believing Jew.[7] Paul rebukes Peter, but not because he's not a Christian or not a believer! When he says “We know that we are redeemed through the blood of Christ and that these Gentiles are redeemed as well” what he accuses Peter of is behaving hypocritically. Peter normally behaves in a way that is consonant with Paul's attitude of openness and inclusivity of the Gentiles, but it was only on this occasion that Peter kind of pulled back and separated himself. Paul is saying, Come on, Peter! You know better than this! This is not at all what she is accusing him of here – that they are non-Christians.

Kevin Harris: Even in that passage, you can tell that Paul holds Peter in high esteem by saying “Even Peter was drawn away.”

Dr. Craig: Right! Even Peter – one of the pillars of the church, as he calls him in Jerusalem.[8] So when you look at the relations of Paul with these early followers of Jesus, like Peter and James (Jesus' younger brother), you've got here indisputably authentic letters from a man who spent time with and had firsthand contact with Jesus' younger brother and with his chief disciple. And he reports to us that both of them saw Jesus alive after his death, and Paul then himself says I saw Jesus after his death on the way to Damascus. This is just a real distortion of the facts that no one should be fooled by.

Kevin Harris: Number three, the article says, “Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts. We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not written by them.” So it is the old authorship thing.

Dr. Craig: Right. And this is, again I think, misleading and inaccurate. It is true that the manuscripts of the Gospels in the Greek don't carry the author's name. It doesn't say, “The Gospel According to Matthew.” That is correct. It doesn't say that on the Greek manuscript. But she is quite incorrect to say that the attributions of these Gospels to their received authors is something that only arose in the second century. These authors were recognized from very early times as having been the writers of the Gospels.[9]

Again, for the modern historian, this point is just irrelevant. I hate to keep repeating this but she keeps harping on these irrelevancies. It doesn't matter if the author of the Gospel was named Herman, or Joseph, or what. What matters is the credibility of the historical information that he hands on. Whomever these authors were, whatever their names were, modern historical Jesus scholars, on the basis of various criteria, say that these documents are largely reliable accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. So that confidence in the historical credibility of the Gospels today isn't predicated upon the names of their received authors.

Kevin Harris: The fact that they don't claim to be first-hand accounts – what do you have to say about that?

Dr. Craig: In order to write credible history you don't have to be an eyewitness. In fact, I would say most history is not written by eyewitnesses. It is written by someone who interviews eyewitnesses, talks to those who were there, and who then writes an account. Just to give an example, the earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch 400 years after Alexander's death. Yet classical historians still regard these as largely accurate accounts of the life of Alexander. In the case of the Gospels, we have four biographies of the life of Jesus which were written within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses during the first generation after the events had transpired. So the fact that they don't claim to be first-hand accounts is not a mark against the credibility of the historical information that they passed on.

Kevin Harris: Number four – boy is this one common: “The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.”

Dr. Craig: Again, when you have contradictions between separate documents, that doesn't mean that all of the documents are false. It would mean at most that one of them is false if they can't be harmonized. When you look at the four Gospels, you will find apparent conflicts in the secondary and circumstantial details of the narratives. But there is unanimity in the core traditions that are handed on. This is particularly true with regard to the Passion narrative – the story of Jesus' suffering and death, his burial, and then also the resurrection account, the empty tomb story. So the existence of discrepancies in the secondary details is just irrelevant to the historicity of the core story. Again, an example from secular history: our accounts of Hannibal's crossing the Alps with elephants to attack Rome comes to us from a pair of different sources which are impossible to reconcile. They are historically incompatible with each other. But nobody doubts that in the Punic War, that Carthage did attempt to mount such an attack upon Rome using elephants. So the core of the narrative is correct even if in the secondary details there are conflicts and discrepancies. No historian simply throws out the document because of those sorts of discrepancies. Remember, she is trying to justify belief that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. That would be like saying conflicting details in the account of the assassination of John Kennedy means that John Kennedy never existed. It is just silly.

Kevin Harris: Bill, I don't even let people get me bogged down in the alleged contradictions anymore. People still want to chase these who maybe I am sharing my faith with or interacting with and skeptics, I'll say, “Look if you really want to look into that, if this is really a stumbling block for you, we can look at that and I can show you how some proffered harmonizations on this are probably valid.” I've looked at all of these. But the core is what you just said, Bill, and that is, let's look at these as historical documents and not chase down Judas falling after he was hanged and his guts spill all over the place, and did he jump or did he fall or did he hang himself. I can show you all that and show you how it probably works out, but really we are going far afield of the main part.

Dr. Craig: Yes. That is the key point – that this is a rabbit trail to distract you from the main point.[10] I am with you, Kevin. In talking with an unbeliever, I am more inclined just to concede for the sake of argument the contradictions and say, “Yeah, they are there. Looks like these are contradictory. I will concede that for the sake of argument. Now, what do you draw from that? What is the conclusion?” Again, you can't conclude that Jesus never existed because of that.

Mike Licona will often cite testimony of the survivors of the Titanic about what happened when that ship went down. In the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic, people who survived in the lifeboats and were interviewed, some of them said that before the ship sank, the ship broke in two. As the ship sank, it became elevated in the air and it snapped in two and broke. Others of the survivors said, no, the ship did not break in two. Now, how could anybody miss that if it happened? You would think, surely if the ship actually broke in half before it sank everyone would have noticed it. And yet the eyewitnesses to this account were in disagreement about that. Well, when they finally found the ship on the bottom, it turns out that it did break in two. It actually split. These other people somehow failed to have noticed it. Now, did that discrepancy in the testimony mean that the ship didn't sink? That the Titanic never went under? Obviously not. These kinds of discrepancies in the secondary details don't affect the historicity of the core of the story.

Kevin Harris: Bill, if anybody is disturbed by alleged contradictions and discrepancies in the New Testament, go look at Dr. Gleason Archer's book on The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. It will answer so many questions the skeptics throw at you.

Number five, finally: “Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.”

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I had to laugh when I saw this one because what she is pointing out here is that if you deny the historical Jesus was as the Gospels describe then you invent your own historical Jesus as a substitute, and different critical scholars have invented different historical Jesus's. So what this is testimony to is not that Jesus never existed, but that if you deny the historical credibility of the portrait of Jesus pointed in the Gospels then you are launched into subjectivism in which the critical historian or critical thinker manufactures a Jesus of his own making to substitute for the Jesus described in the Gospels. In that sense, ironically, I think that would describe the mythological Jesus as well – this Jesus that never existed is similarly an imaginative construct of people who deny that the Gospels portray the actual man who lived. So she is hoist on her own petard here. So long as the press capitalizes on sensationalism, we will continue to get these man-bites-dog stories.[11]

[1] See http://www.salon.com/2014/09/01/5_reasons_to_suspect_that_jesus_never_existed/ (accessed October 2, 2014)

[2] 5:04

[3] Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1. See http://www.ccel.org/ccel/josephus/works/files/ant-20.htm (accessed October 9, 2014).

[4] 10:09

[5] cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23

[6] 15:10

[7] cf. Galatians 2:11ff

[8] cf. Galatians 2:9

[9] 20:03

[10] 25:13

[11] Total Running Time: 28:48 (Copyright (©) 2014 William Lane Craig)