In the closing stages of writing my latest book, The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK], I had a few test readers. One was David Austin, down in Australia, who has provided a few guest articles for your delectation. Here is another one – thanks muchly to him:
The “Real” “Minimal Facts” about Jesus
There is an element of sarcasm in the title of this essay. Apologists, like William Lane Craig, are fond of quoting the, so-called, “Minimal Facts” about Jesus, whereas, in reality, they are just “claims” with very little evidential foundation (They can certainly NOT be considered as “Facts”).
I am approaching this search for “Minimal Facts” from, what I believe, is a more rigorous examination of the sources for Jesus’ life & Ministry. I do not claim them to be facts, but I feel they are reasonable in the circumstances.
History is not an exact science; You cannot re-run History like you can re-run experiments in other sciences. Your knowledge of past events is only as good as your sources, and whether they can be trusted to be valid, from disinterested eyewitnesses, or from trusted reporters close to the events discussed.
Unfortunately, for Jesus, we have no contemporaneous extra-biblical documents, from the time of Jesus’ life & especially the time of his ministry which could confirm any events as reported in the New Testament (hereafter referred to as “NT”). In addition, the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) were not written by eyewitnesses, and date to perhaps 40 to 70 years after the supposed death of Jesus. Furthermore, they are not the writings of disinterested reporters, but they were written specifically for evangelical purposes. For the purpose of this essay, I will assume Mark was written first (probably around 70 CE), followed by Matthew & Luke (probably around 80 – 85 CE) and John the last written (probably around 90 – 95 CE).
The epistles of Paul, which, whilst closer to the time of Jesus’ life, (maybe 10 to 20 years later), show that Paul never met Jesus, and he claimed to get his information from revelation & scripture (ie The Jewish Bible aka The Old Testament, which I will now refer to as “OT”) and not from any person. He provides almost no biographical information about Jesus, which some observers find astonishing, especially considering he was one of the most important evangelisers of the 1st Century.
So where does that leave us? What can we reasonably extract from the poor sources that we have? Can we even establish whether Jesus was a real person (as per Historicists), or, as some people claim, a mythical character later “inserted” into History (as per Mythicists)? I will attempt to answer some of these questions, based on what we reasonably infer from the Gospels (Paul is not much help, as indicated earlier), in the hope that there is a “kernel” of actual history buried amongst a lot of embellishments.
- Did Jesus exist?
It is impossible to be certain one way or the other. I lean towards Jesus being a historical character, based on the late Christopher Hitchens argument on this issue. He based his view on the fact that Jesus seemed to be known as “Jesus of Nazareth”, and was likely born in Nazareth. This presented a problem for the Gospel writers Matthew & Luke, as OT prophecies seem to suggest the Messiah would need to be born in Bethlehem. The Gospel writers needed to overcome this embarrassing issue since they wanted to claim Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. Thus Matthew & Luke “concocted” elaborate (and contradictory) accounts of how Jesus was, actually, born in Bethlehem even though the family finally settled in Nazareth. As Hitchens astutely observed, if Jesus was totally mythical, then they could just have claimed he was always known as “Jesus of Bethlehem”, and save all the bizarre justifications. This is not a “cast-iron” defence, but certainly makes sense. For the purposes of the rest of this essay, I will assume Jesus was an actual person who lived in the 1st century Palestine.
- Was Jesus born a Jew, raised as Jew, lived the life of an observant Jew & died as a Jew with no thought of starting a new religion?
I think it is clear from what we can glean from the NT that, Jesus was born into a Jewish family, was circumcised as per Jewish custom, and he never railed against Jewish scripture, just the interpretation of the OT by the Pharisees and Sadducees. He appears to have preached an apocalyptic vision, whereby, the Jews had strayed so far from the “true” teachings of the OT, that they had brought God’s wrath upon themselves. This had resulted in their subjugation by the Romans, and all the problems that this had brought upon the Jewish people. The apocalyptic view was that things had got so bad that God would have to intervene, and re-establish his “true” kingdom on earth. Those who were “right” with God would be rewarded, and those who had co-operated with the Roman authorities or who had exploited the people would be punished when God intervened.
This was quite a common view around this time, and there were many preachers espousing this view, but most were either “eliminated” or just ignored as “crazy”.
Where, maybe, Jesus differed, was that, in his view, after God intervened, God would install him as “King of the Jews”, with his twelve disciples as “Ministers” with responsibility for the “Twelve Tribes of Israel”. This was going to put him in great danger, as we shall see later.
I think we can safely assume that Jesus lived the life of an observant Jew, and had no idea that a new religion would form around him. I think we can also safely assume that he had no idea that he would be killed, as he was thinking he was to be installed as “King of the Jews”. His supposed “fore-knowledge” of his death was probably injected into the text by the Gospel writers.
- Was Jesus baptised by John the Baptist?
Using the “Criteria of Embarrassment”, I think it is quite plausible that Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. The “Criteria of Embarrassment” is used where a topic is mentioned, which would normally be seen as embarrassing to the protagonist, but because it was well known it had to be included in the narrative despite its embarrassing nature.
The inclusion in the narrative of a supposed “sinless” Jesus being baptised for the forgiveness of sin, is certainly an embarrassment. Mark has this event being part of an “Adoptionist” theology where a “fully human” sinless Jesus was “adopted” by God and imbued with the “Holy Spirit”, which enabled Jesus to perform miracles and heal the sick etc. but this spirit left Jesus at his crucifixion (Gods cannot die), which explains Jesus’ final words “My God, my God why have you forsaken me”. This theology was considered heretical later, which is why later Gospels seem to minimise the importance of this baptism (for instance, Matthew & Luke have Jesus being divine from his birth, and John has Jesus being divine from the beginning of time. John even totally ignores the baptism).
- Was Jesus tried by the Jewish Sanhedrin for blasphemy?
Much ink has been spilt by multiple authors as to the authenticity of the Trial accounts in the Gospels. It appears there are multiple issues with this Trial, which breaks many rules pertaining to Jewish Jurisprudence in the 1st century. I will not attempt to list all the problems, but will just mention a few pertinent points.
- To claim to be the “Messiah” is not blasphemous, since it was generally considered that the Messiah would be a man (maybe divinely inspired), that would throw off the oppressors of the Israelites and secure lasting peace.
- According to the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew & Luke), Jesus never claimed any divine status. If he had done so, it seems highly likely these gospel writers would have mentioned it. Only John’s gospel (the last one written) has Jesus claiming some kind of divinity.
- It appears that the Jews in Palestine were allowed quite a bit of freedom to follow their laws & customs even under Roman rule. This being the case, if Jesus had been tried & found guilty of blasphemy, he would almost certainly been stoned to death, following Jewish custom.
Following, again, the “Criteria of Embarrassment”, all Gospels relate that Jesus was crucified by the Romans. Although this would be an embarrassment for the early church, it could not be suppressed, as it was probably widely known. It seems feasible that the Trial was a fiction invented by the Gospel writers to put the ultimate blame for Jesus’ death on the Jews, since there was probably some animosity between the early church and the Jewish hierarchy by the time the Gospels were written. Had Jesus been stoned for blasphemy, the Gospel writers would have used that information to vilify the Jewish hierarchy.
- Was Jesus crucified?
Following on from 4. above, it seems almost certain that Jesus was crucified by the Romans.
To be clear, crucifixion was used by the Romans for the most serious crimes ie. Sedition & Insurrection against the Roman state. There were many easier, faster (& cheaper) methods of dispatching criminals than crucifixion, which was a slow, painful lingering death, but it was used to send a clear message “Don’t try to overthrow Roman rule”. To compound the deterrent aspect, the miscreant would probably not be afforded a honourable burial, and would be buried in a criminal’s graveyard or communal mausoleum. To slightly assuage Jewish sensibilities, the miscreant’s body, after death, would be probably be removed from the cross so as not to dishonour the Sabbath.
Bearing this in mind, it is again almost certain that Jesus was crucified for asserting that he would assume the role of “King of the Jews” after God intervened. The Romans were not concerned about the nuances of the apocalyptic theology, but just the fact that Jesus used the term “King of the Jews” was enough to have him executed for sedition against Roman rule. This is further corroborated by the sign placed over his head on the cross stating “This is the King of the Jews”.
- Was Jesus buried in a Tomb ?
Following on from 5 above, it seems unlikely that Jesus would have been afforded a honourable burial in a Tomb, and especially not from a leading member of the Sanhedrin (Joseph of Arimathea) that had found him guilty of blasphemy (supposedly).7
Paul never mentions a tomb, just saying Jesus was “buried” which is an ambiguous term (could be earth grave or tomb).
Mark’s gospel has the women running from the “Empty Tomb” and “telling no-one”. This was, maybe, a plot device to explain why the “Empty Tomb” narrative had not been mentioned previously to his gospel.
There are multiple problems with the Gospel accounts relating to the resurrection of Jesus & an “Empty Tomb”. See my contradiction account:-
Taking all this into account, it would seem likely that the whole “Empty Tomb” narrative was a plot device to indicate a “missing body”, and a pointer to the physical resurrection of Jesus. Obviously, if the location of Jesus’ body was unknown, there could be no “missing body” scenario to “prove” the physical resurrection of Jesus.
- Did Jesus “Rise from the dead”?
Carl Sagan astutely stated, “Extraordinary Claims require Extraordinary Evidence”.
This seems an axiomatic assertion, since without this basic principle, we would, theoretically, believe any claim proposed, however outlandish. This is even more relevant when a claim is made that goes against all we know about the natural world (In other words in our normal experience “Dead people stay Dead”).
For this reason, we would need massive amounts of evidence to believe this claim about the only human in history rising from the dead after 3 days. The Gospels do not represent anything approaching convincing evidence, being from non-eyewitnesses reporting upon events that took place 40 to 70 years earlier. On top of this, they have a stated agenda ie to convince the reader that is Jesus is “God”, and is the saviour of humanity.
From all the points discussed above, my opinion is that the only “Minimal Facts” we can glean from the poor sources we have about Jesus are:-
- Jesus existed (I am about 90% confident of this, but could change my mind if further evidence is forthcoming).
- Jesus was born (probably in Nazareth), lived & died a Jew, and had no interest in starting a new religion.
- Jesus was most likely baptised by John the Baptist.
- Jesus was most likely an apocalyptic preacher expecting God to intervene to establish a “New Kingdom”, and this was imminent (Within his lifetime & the lifetime of his disciples).
- Jesus was a failed prophet, as his “New Kingdom” never materialised in his or his disciples lifetime.
- Jesus never claimed to be divine (this was inserted into the text later)
- There was no trial of Jesus for blasphemy.
- Jesus was crucified by the Romans for sedition (claiming he would be “King of the Jews” in the New Kingdom).
- Jesus was dishonourably buried in a criminal’s graveyard or criminal mausoleum. (No “Empty Tomb”)
- One or more of Jesus’ disciples or followers had “visions” of a risen Jesus, which led them to believe that Jesus had been physically resurrected.
- Jesus did not resurrect 3 days after his death.
There have been many influences on my thinking over the years which have stimulated my interest in the Christian story, and especially the Resurrection accounts. These has led to my conclusions on these “Minimal Facts”. It would be impossible to list them all, but I would like to list some authors that I must acknowledge:-
Michael J Alter – “The Resurrection – A Critical Enquiry”
Bart D Ehrman – “How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee”
Jonathan MS Pearce – “The Resurrection – A critical examination of the Easter story”
David J. Austin 2021
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