Until recently, I had never encountered a person who seriously questioned the existence of Jesus. Sure, I've known folks who said he was an admirable, if deluded teacher, or that his followers misunderstood him or elevated his status, but none have suggested that he didn't exist.
Then in a discussion with an academic philosopher, I was informed that "Biblical scholars tend to fudge the issue, but historians are much clearer: there is no evidence of Jesus' existence. He goes completely under the radar of the Roman records, the Palestinian historians -- everyone!"
Everyone? I asked. That would be news to Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, and Suetonius who, by the way, weren't particularly inclined toward this messianic character or his fringe following. Unfortunately, that comment didn't carry sufficient heft for the academian.
More recently I learned that the same argument is advanced in The God Who Wasn't There--the DVD, you will recall, offered in The Blasphemy Challenge. Frankly, these people remind me of Holocaust deniers or those conspiracy theorists who claim that the 9/11 attacks were not the work of Islamofascist terrorists, but of the U.S.government to justify a war to advance its imperialistic visions. I guess when history doesn't jive with ideology, some folks disregard it or just make up their own.
According to the historical record, Jesus was a Jew who lived in early first century Palestine and was executed on the order of Pontius Pilate. What's more, after his death, his disciples began saying he had risen from the dead. Those are the historical facts beyond competent dispute; even by some not-so sympathetic authorities.
For instance, classical historian Michael Grant admits, "Their testimonies cannot prove them to have been right in supposing that Jesus had risen from the dead. However, these accounts do prove that certain people were utterly convinced that that is what he had done."
If one dismisses all of that, there's still the troubling question--if Jesus never existed, how did a Christian community arise within the living memory of those who were his contemporaries? Even more--why did they allow themselves to be thrown into the Coliseum by Nero for a fictitious hero?
For whatever one may believe about the historical evidence about Jesus, one stubborn fact remains: the emergence (and persecution!) of a first century community that grew out of the teachings of a leader whose credentials could have been checked out from any number of surviving eyewitnesses.
But in a culture where the perpetrators of 9/11 are in doubt, that fact is just another casualty to ideology.
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Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a Centurion of the Wilberforce Forum. His "