Did Jesus Exist?
By John Dickson
In what might turn out to be a rush of blood to the head, a few years ago I was so confident that Jesus' existence is regarded as beyond reasonable doubt in contemporary secular scholarship that I published a challenge on the ABC (Australia's public broadcaster): if anyone can find just one full professor of Ancient History, Classics, or New Testament in any real university anywhere in the world who argues that Jesus never lived, I will eat a page out of my Bible.
The response on social media was fun, as various sceptical friends (and some who were not-so-much friends) set out to make me eat holy Scripture. As the hours and days passed, a volley of names was offered: professors of psychology, English literature, philosophy, folklore (I kid you not), and German language—but not one professor from any of the relevant fields. My Bible was safe.
I have since inadvertently discovered that there is an atheist group here in Australia determined to meet the challenge. And when they find an eligible professor who denies the historical existence of Jesus, the intention is apparently to barge into my office with a camera and make me eat a page of my Bible for the online public to enjoy live.
Whether or not there is an eligible professor out there who denies Jesus ever lived, there is a simple shortcut for non-specialists to confirm that there is, indeed, a consensus among contemporary secular scholars that the broad outline of Jesus' life is historically sound. This does not prove that Jesus existed, but it does demonstrate that professional scholarship—even outside religious institutions—considers there to be no real doubt about his existence.
Anyone with access to a serious public or university library can easily consult the standard reference works in the disciplines of ancient history and classics. The big academic publishing houses produce compendiums designed to describe the state-of-the-question on all things historical. There are at least five such works that would be regarded as the authoritative and relevant volumes in English-speaking secular academia.
The first is the famous single-volume Oxford Classical Dictionary (published by Oxford University Press), which summarises scholarship on all things Greek and Roman in just a little over 1,700 pages. The several-page entry on the origins of Christianity begins with an assessment of what may be reliably known about Jesus of Nazareth. Readers will discover that no doubts are raised about the basic facts: that this teacher-healer really lived and really did die by crucifixion.
Next is the much larger Cambridge Ancient History in 14 volumes (published, of course, by Cambridge University Press). Volume 10 covers the Augustan period, right about when Tiberius, Livia, Pliny the Elder and Jesus all lived. It has a sizeable chapter on the birth of Christianity. The entry begins with a couple of pages outlining what is known of Jesus' life and death, including his preaching of the kingdom of God, his fraternising with sinners and so on. No doubts are raised about the authenticity of these core elements of the Jesus story.
The third relevant standard work is also published by Cambridge University in the UK. It's the Cambridge History of Judaism in four volumes. Volume 3 covers the early Roman period. Several different chapters refer to Jesus in passing as an interesting figure of Jewish history. One chapter—60 pages in length—focuses entirely on Jesus and is written by two leading scholars, neither of whom has any qualms about dismissing bits of the New Testament record when they think the evidence is against it. The chapter offers a first-rate account of what experts currently think of the historical Jesus. His teaching, fame as a healer, openness to sinners, selection of “the twelve” (apostles), prophetic actions (like cleansing the temple), clashes with elites, and, of course, his death on a cross are all treated as beyond reasonable doubt. The authors do not tackle the resurrection (unsurprisingly), but they do acknowledge, as a matter of historical fact, that the first disciples of Jesus...
. . . were absolutely convinced that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised and was Lord and that numerous of them were certain that he had appeared to them.
The fourth standard work comes from a different angle entirely and is very revealing for anyone who imagines there are doubts about Jesus' existence in mainstream secular scholarship. The monumental Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae (from Germany's 260-year-old publishing house De Gruyter) is a recent six-volume compendium of all the known inscriptions in Judaea/Palestine for the thousand year period from Alexander the Great to Muhammad. A photo of each inscription (when available) appears, followed by an analysis of its date, context, and content.
Some might be surprised to read entry 15 of the Jerusalem inscriptions: “Titulus on the cross of Jesus in three languages: Aramaic, Latin and Greek, ca. 30 AD”. The four renditions of the inscription from the Gospels appear (basically, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”), followed by a brief commentary on the Roman practice of placarding the reason for the punishment of a condemned person. The entry then states: “Therefore there is no reason to doubt the tradition that a titulus with the reason for his condemnation by Pilatus was affixed on Jesus' cross.”
The point for my purposes isn't just that this volume affirms the tiny detail of the sign above Jesus' cross—that is probably of minor interest to most readers. The point is that this peerless historical compendium of ancient inscriptions takes it as an absolute given that the Jewish figure of Jesus existed, that he caused a scandal of some kind and that he ended up on a Roman cross.
The fifth and final example is Brill's New Pauly: Encyclopaedia of the Ancient World (published by Brill Academic). It is a classic German-language compendium of Ancient History, now translated into English in 20 volumes. You can buy your own set for just €5,795 (a little over £5,000 or $6,600). Of course it has an entry on the historical Jesus, reaching 5239 words (I didn't count; each entry tells you exactly how many words it contains).
It is sceptical about a lot of things in the Gospels. It has no interest in propping up the Christian faith. But nor does it express even the slightest doubt about Jesus' existence, the basic themes of his teaching, his reputation as a healer, and his crucifixion.
None of these five works are theological, or even remotely religious. They are the standard secular reference works to which scholars themselves turn to double-check certain details, and to get a quick summary of the state-of-the-question for just about any ancient topic you can imagine. Each volume treats the existence of Jesus the teacher, healer, and martyr as beyond doubt.
I recognise that this chapter amounts to what philosophers call an argument from authority—we have not yet begun to explore the direct evidence for Jesus. But arguments from authority are far from bogus. They are used all the time in courts of law—where the judgement of an expert witness is considered evidence. And we all rely on authorities for many of the things we know about the world. If, for example, I am not a particle physicist, I will have to rely on experts for pretty much everything I know about the atom. When I learn that a consensus of particle physicists agrees that the Higgs boson exists and has a mass of approximately 125 GeV/c2, I am justified in accepting this consensus as a shortcut to reliable knowledge on the topic.
It is no different with matters of history. The fact that there is an obvious consensus of scholarship that places Jesus' existence beyond doubt must count for something: not everything, but something.
— John Dickson co-founded the Centre for Public Christianity, and has published 18 books and three TV documentaries. He teaches “Historical Jesus” at the University of Sydney, and is a Visiting Academic (2016-2021) in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford. In 2019 he was appointed Distinguished Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Public Christianity at Ridley College, Melbourne.
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