Jackson Doughart
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Should Jesus be exempt from historical scrutiny?

The Holy Post, 01 March 2011

On February 4, American Catholic writer Mark Shea published an opinion piece for his column on the National Catholic Register entitled Did Jesus Exist?. The article, which was also published here on Holy Post, responds to a letter from a Catholic university student asking Shea for advice in debating the existence of Jesus with his atheist peers. In his response, Shea dismisses the claim that the matter is debatable and asserts that questioning the historical existence of Jesus is only undertaken by “a small cadre of zealots . . . in order to pursue their anti-Christian agenda.”

However, discussing the existence or non-existence of all historical figures in empirical terms is an important exercise, with Jesus being no exception. His existence obviously has crucial theological implications for those who consider him to be their saviour, making the issue a sensitive one, but avoiding the issue on this premise amounts to intellectual cowardice and dishonesty. Furthermore, everyone should be concerned when someone suggests that the practice of free inquiry amounts to zealotry.

There are two relevant questions to consider when discussing the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. The first is whether or not the person actually lived, based upon our knowledge of the history of the Levant and the claims made about Jesus in the New Testament. The second question is whether or not his existence, or lack thereof, infers any necessary moral implications.

There is simply not enough evidence to definitely determine whether or not Jesus was a real person. The writers of the New Testament were not contemporaries of the person in question, but rather relied upon the accounts of his followers, who had an interest in purporting the stories about him as true. His ministry was also supposedly very short, which would have left little evidence behind. Of course, none of this proves that Jesus did not live, but it does suggest that his existence is debatable.

In his article, Shea compares the denial of Jesus’ life to questioning the existence of Hannibal. This is an illegitimate and absurd comparison because there is significantly more epochal historical literature about the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, which involved Hannibal as a Carthaginian general. While the Romans kept public records and educated their youth in reading and writing, the peoples of the Levant in the First Century were mostly illiterate and thus have much less direct information to offer modern scholars than do the Romans.

A better comparison to illustrate the intended distinction is between Socrates and Jesus because the amount of reliable information that is available about their lives is comparable. Obviously the answer to both of these existential questions is extremely important in historical terms, as Socrates was an important figure in Ancient Greece (the world’s first democracy), while Jesus is perhaps the most influential figure in Western history. The fact that both of these men are so significant is even more of a reason to investigate their existential claims in critical and empirical terms rather than to believe them on faith, as Mr. Shea would prefer.

However, this comparison also helps to answer the second question about the moral implications of Jesus’ existence. While the Socratic method is revered by humanists as a fundamental principle of the Enlightenment, there is no definitive proof that Socrates ever lived. This is also true of Jesus, who is worshipped by Christians as the foretold Messiah of the Old Testament, despite no such definitive proof of his existence.

The difference between the two cases involves the implications of this reality for the followers of both men. For those who value the contributions of Socrates to ethical and political thought, the actual existence of the man himself is immaterial because the fruits of philosophy are the ideas that it produces and not the people who deliver them. What really matters is that someone advanced the method of reasoning for which Socrates is credited, not that he actually lived. If it could be determined that Socrates was definitely a fictional character, the ideas formerly attributed to him would be equally relevant and accurate (or irrelevant and inaccurate) as they were before.

This is not analogous to the case of Jesus, as his importance to Christians encompasses more than just the sum of his ideas. Christian theology is dependent upon Jesus having not only been a real person, but also, among other things, having been crucified and resurrected – these are extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence. Though proving that Jesus was a myth would mean that the claims made by Christianity are false, proving that Jesus was actually real would not necessarily entail that such claims are true. Even if it could be determined that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, Christian apologists would be left with all of their work still ahead of them in trying to defend the truth of their beliefs.

In his article, Shea claims that those who question the existence of Jesus are conspiracy theorists. Saying this devalues a term that has become almost entirely meaningless through overuse and also slanders those who attempt to frame a legitimate subject of historical debate into realistic terms. In addition to being petty and reactionary, Mr. Shea’s attitude is dangerous because it discourages historical debate by labeling those who participate as bigots. This is truly unacceptable.

Additionally, Mr. Shea’s mockery reveals not only credulity but also insecurity about the validity of truths that he alleges to be self-evident. Everyone should be able to see through such sophistry. Free inquiry is not zealotry; it is hostile to it. In this case, the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is a worthy subject of discussion and should not be curtailed by attempts from some religious commentators to represent it as prejudicial. Rather, the existential claims of all historical figures should be rigorously examined, with Jesus as no exception.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com