"Jesus Never Existed" - Responding to Valerie Tarico's Ojections
Every year, around Christmas and Easter, the usual objection articles start to pop-up. Last year the infamous Kurt Eichenwald The Bible" So Misunderstood It's a Sin article arose (my response can be found here). This year however, Valerie Tarico of RawStory has come out of the woodwork to take things to an entirely different level, questioning Jesus' existence in her piece entitled Here are 5 Reasons to Suspect Jesus Never Existed.
While these theories may be popular on the internet, they hold next to no scholarly backing. The fact remains that your typical Easter/Christmas hit piece will not usually attack external factors, such as Jesus' actual existence. Rather, it will focus on the internal material of the Bible, seeking to rewrite its contents concerning Jesus, because virtually all scholarship is unanimous on certain facts about him. Mainly, that he did exist.
Take your pick of scholarship, from as skeptical and left-wing as Bart Ehrman and Dominic Crossan to as conservative and right wing as Daniel Wallace and Bruce Metzger. While they may disagree on much, the one uniting factor is that a man named Jesus of Nazareth walked the streets of first century Palestine and created a following that impacted the world.
It is so hard to find scholarship that thinks that Jesus didn't exist that you have to go to the fringes of the academic world. The most notable example of this is Richard Carrier, author of The Historical Jesus, an individual who has been described by Dr. James White as the, "most overqualified unemployed blogger out there". So fringe is Carrier's opinion that the most popular secular critic of the New Testament, Bart Ehrman, wrote a response to Carrier in his book Did Jesus Exist?
Nevertheless, Tarico (a psychologist by trade) has decided to traverse mount impassible and throw all of modern scholarly consensus out the window in order to make a headline. Her points are as follows...
"No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef."
Tarico begins with the idea that secular sources don’t talk about Jesus in the first century. However, there are a few glaring problems with this type of argument.
First, it must be noted that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Secular historians in the first century would have had little to no interest in a single account of an itinerant backwater Jewish preacher in Galilee. In the grand scheme of what historians were writing about in the first century, Palestine was barely on their radar. This type of argument from silence is regarded as silly precisely because it requires the person making the statement to claim to know why historians talk about some things and not others.
Secondly, Tarico conveniently ignores numerous first-century Christian sources that do tell us about Jesus. Namely, twenty seven documents that later came together to be known as the New Testament. No doubt, Tarico will make the claim that these sources are not trustworthy. However, (and ironically) these are precisely the sources that would have actually taken notice of a person like Jesus. This type of bias ignores the fact that the New Testament authors would have actually been in Galilee and Judea and would have been able to record such thing. Instead, she does the opposite of what historians do in these types of inquests, picking and choosing the sources she deems "useful"and ignoring outright the ones that don't fit her point.
Third, Tarico fails to mention the writings of the first-century historian Josephus, who discusses Jesus. Perhaps this is because Josephus is Jewish and therefore not “secular”? If so, it is a very poor reason to omit such a valuable source. As a Jew, Josephus had no personal investment in the Christian movement, and likewise was writing from an outside unsympathetic point of view.
"The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystallized in later texts."
Tarico goes on to appeal to an old argument that, since Paul (who is our earliest Christian writer) provides little biographical details of Jesus’ life, then Jesus must have been made-up by his "followers" to fit a certain agenda of theirs. This argument is problematic on a number of levels.
First, this argument ignored completely what Paul’s letters were written for. They were epistles (letters written to certain believing communities), not gospels, and therefore not intended to recount the words and deeds of Jesus.
Secondly, it ignores the fact that Paul himself divulges quite a bit of historical information about Jesus in his letters.
Third, Paul says he knew immediate disciples of Jesus ( Peter and John for example) and likewise, through them would have known many other people who lived during the time of Jesus. If Jesus never existed, did Peter and John just lie to Paul? Or is it that Paul just made up the characters of Peter and James and the witnesses of the resurrection1? Ultimately, Paul’s life, writings, and impact on the ancient world is nonsensical if Jesus didn’t really exist.
"Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts."
Tarico's former points may be misunderstandings, however, at this point she truly has not left any hope for even extreme and peripheral scholarship. She makes the claim that “we know” that the Gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. A fact that is historically invalid, logically problematic, and simply false.
For example, John’s gospel claims to be written by someone who is actually at the last supper and an immediate disciple of Jesus2. And the historical evidence from ancient sources like Irenaeus and Polycarp for John as this person is extremely strong.
As for the Gospel of Mark, we have early, widespread, and uniform patristic testimony that it was undoubtedly and unreservedly written by John Mark, the disciple of Peter, containing therefore, Peter’s eyewitness accounts.
In fact, scholars such as Richard Baucham and Michael J. Kruger have written so extensively on this subject that the scholarly consensus is exactly the opposite of what Tarico paints. If only she had read Baucham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, or Kruger's The Question of Canon then maybe she would have realized the mountains of evidence and historical backing for the Gospels being first-hand personal accounts of the person of Jesus.
Tarico may assert it, but the data is against her at every point.
"The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other."A list of accusations of biblical issues just would not be complete without the inevitable claim of contradictions. The problem is however, that this argument simply doesn't hold water.
First, declaring it doesn’t make it true. Tarico assumes there are contradictions without providing any such evidence. Yes, the Gospels offer different perspectives on the life of Jesus, but, there is no reason to regard these as contradictory. A lot of these so-called contradictions evaporate upon closer inspection, especially when methods of ancient historiography are taken into account. In fact, modern scholarship is uniform on the gospels fitting perfectly into the genre of Greco-Roman biography.
Secondly, even if the Gospels did contradict each other, it would be poor evidence that Jesus didn’t exist. Giving Tarico the benefit of the doubt and assuming that historical sources disagree at points, does this then require a wholesale abandonment of the historical realities that stand behind them? By using this standard, modern historians would struggle to prove any historical figure had ever existed.
"Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons."
Unfortunately, this point is irrelevant. Scholars disagree about the details of Jesus’ life therefore he never existed? Would it not be possible for Jesus to have really existed and have scholars disagree about the specifics of his life? Are these two facts mutually exclusive?
Likewise, Tarico fails to understand that the disagreement among scholars is not due to problematic sources. In fact, often the problem is the plethora of information we do have, what textual critic Daniel Wallace refers to as "an embarrassment of riches". More often than not, disagreement is due to the fact that certain scholars refuse to accept the content of the sources we do have, insisting on reconstructing Jesus for themselves (a fine example being J.D. Crossan, Marcus Borg and Robert Funk).
When all is said and done, Tarico has provided few reasons to think we should doubt the existence of Jesus. In fact, I would encourage anyone to look further into the points she has outlined, for the fact is, that each of her suggested reasons when explored further reveal solid reasons to believe in the existence of the historical character of the biblical Jesus.
Scholars may disagree about a great many things regarding Jesus. Scholars may disagree on the details of the biblical accounts, on theology, epistemology, textual criticism, etc. However, the one thing they all agree on is the historical existence of an itinerant Jewish preacher in first-century Palestine named Jesus of Nazareth .
For More information on evidence for the historical Jesus from ancient sources see my post Doctrines, Dates, and Dead People: Is There Any Evidence for Jesus Outside of the Bible?
1) For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me also. - Paul, 1 Cor. 15: 3-8
2) This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. - John 21:24