Was Jesus Just a Mythical Person?

From my correspondence with a graduate student friend, a Christian, who asked, Was Jesus a mythical hero rather than a real person? The idea seems to be expressed in some recent statements on television and on the web.

Hi J.

I am unimpressed that an archaeologist found an object with an image of someone on a cross and naked; that tells us nothing.  The Romans crucified thousands of people that way, so it was not necessarily Jesus.  I was surprised that the argument [that you mentioned] made no mention of the paucity of references to Jesus in the ancient secular sources, which is an argument I am familiar with.  I think the earliest mention of Jesus outside of the New testament and the works of the Church scholars is from Josephus and I looked up what he had to say.  He was writing in possibly AD 70-90, published his book in 93, in Rome.  I was struck by how much he actually said.

But even if there were no such publications about Jesus in the first century I don’t see how archaeology would establish one thing or another.  What they have clearly established is that there was a church in Palestine and that it gave central place to Jesus in their iconography.  If you argue that Jesus never existed then did Paul exist?  Did Luke Exist?  Eventually you have to discount the writings of the New Testament merely as religious fiction created many years later — and as you know there are people who argue that.  What they seem unwilling to think about is the power of the movement, which gained so much influence within a few decades that that the shrines in Asia Minor ceased to be visited by many people.  Also, the people who claim this simply disregard the NT writings.

Have you read the book by FF Bruce, The New Testament Documents; Are they reliable? This was the first work by Bruce, who had been an antiquities scholar before taking up the NT documents.  Also, anyone who reads the NT would have a hard time fitting the story into the narrative that the deniers would have to construct.  The NT story is that the movement began almost suddenly, a few weeks after Jesus was crucified, beginning only a few hundred feet from where he was supposed to have been buried, and it became a major social problem to Herod, who therefore executed James in order to satisfy the Jewish leaders [to say nothing of the Stephen event], and that the message that Jesus taught and healed many and then rose from the dead had spread all over the circum-Mediterranean within a few decades.

Recently we read through Acts; I have heard that the details of the shipwreck in Acts are considered useful in understanding the way ships were rigged, etc.  The New Testament works books were deliberately crafted in historical settings, meant to tell about actual events. I now am inclined to read Luke-Acts as some version of the brief that must have been presented to Caesar as part of the legal case for Paul; it ends, note, with Paul waiting for a decision.  Also, the last time I read Hebrews I was struck with how early it must have been written, given what it was teaching:  This is a teaching about the eternal status of Jesus written before 70 AD [when Jerusalem was destroyed]: the author had no idea that the sacrifices were no longer being practiced, a good sign he was writing before 70 AD. Such a concept of Jesus as the High God was being taught within the lifetimes of hundreds of people who could have seen Jesus face to face.

Something important, seems to me, is the power of the twelve as the crucial witnesses of Jesus. When you get my book [Walking Blind, And Other Essays about Biblical Texts], look at the chapter on the Twelve Jewish Men.  Their influence was crucial.  They provided a united statement of what Jesus did and taught including of course the resurrection; their role was crucial.  They produced the early written statements of what Jesus did, in opposition to the fanciful myths that surely were swirling all around Palestine (note the so-called NT apocrypha).  Their unity in affirming the early short statements about Jesus, the “Q”, were fundamental to what we know about Jesus [used by the writers of the Synoptic Gospels].  And then you note that virtually all of them, except John, suffered violent deaths claiming that their stories of Jesus, including the Resurrection, were actual events.  This is part of my argument [in Walking Blind] for the Resurrection in the chapter on why I believe.

Anyway, it seems to me that those who claim that Jesus never existed have much to explain that they don’t address. History is a field that is always contested, which is another sign of how wise it was the Jesus assigned twelve men — twelve! — to be his “witnesses”.  They had to agree on what the movement would claim.  They may seem to be invisible now, but they did a wonderful service in providing us with — actually authorizing — a set of texts that reflect their teaching, their claims.

J., you are brilliant and so able to, and inclined to, read widely. This is all the more reason you need to be reading through the great texts of scripture.  Make it your daily habit to “listen” to what they have to say.

It’s such a privilege to know you and interact with you on these issues. We will be praying that God will lead you though the issues that you are struggling with, and will use you and prepare you for even great use for Jesus.

Best, Bob