Erasing Jesus from history

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘post-truth’ as their word of the year. This speaks volumes about our attitudes in society both politically and socially towards established grand narratives; we no longer accept absolute answers to questions, industry experts are no longer considered trustworthy sources, sensationalism wins the day and scepticism has become the norm.

A colleague recently made it clear that not only didn’t they identify as religious, they also were not convinced that Jesus Christ was a real, historical person. They’re not alone. One recent study in the UK suggested that up to 40% of adults do not believe that Jesus was a historical figure [1].

If that’s where you’re at, there’s little wonder that it seems ridiculous to pay attention to anything he supposedly said or did.

But this disbelief speaks more of prevailing attitudes towards historical evidence and truth in our time than to the actual weight of the evidence available to us. Most historical scholars—whether Christian or atheist—would strongly argue that the evidence does indeed point to Jesus being a real person in history, whether or not there is truth to his claim to deity. As the historian R. Joseph Hoffman (an Oxford University PhD) stated in his rebuttal to surfacing sensationalist internet arguments on this subject:

These same folk who hold up the scientific method to religionists want to walk past the complex evidence of textual and linguistic studies as though it weren’t there… [2]

Even Hoffman, an atheist, is alarmed by the cavalier nature of throwing out tried and tested methods of determining historical legitimacy in order to reduce the Christian argument. And he’s right to be alarmed. From the Holocaust to war crime denial, throughout history there have been those who have tried to rewrite or deny history, trying to cover up powerful truths.

So what is the evidence for Jesus’ existence? There is strong archaeological and scholarly evidence that the New Testament of the Bible was written very shortly after the events occurred, and is a record of eyewitnesses and interview accounts. But even for those who dismiss the Bible outright, citing it as circular reasoning, there are many texts which we cannot overlook so easily.

Tacitus, Pliny and Josephus, historians and Roman citizens (but not Christians), all wrote of the existence of Jesus and his followers. The Roman Senator and historian Tacitus, for example, writes of the persecution of early Christians at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero after a great fire in Rome;

Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace … [3]

Josephus writes even more specifically of Jesus;

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. [4]

It’s worth noting that these writers never suggested that Jesus was a mythical character—this suggestion has only appeared in modern times. Until then, people were willing to examine the evidence and let it lead them to the obvious conclusion: that Jesus Christ lived and died in Palestine around 2000 years ago, just as the Bible says he did. So if he really existed, the question then is, what difference will that make to your life?

My concern is not so much that my colleague and others are turning away from identifying as religious, because I believe that in many ways that is a positive thing, illustrating the erosion of false worship, lip service and cultural expectations of adhering to an approved religion within the West. My fear is that people are missing the opportunity to engage and grapple with the incredible claims and teachings of a man who has arguably made the biggest impact on history of anyone who ever lived.

If you’ve passed him off as mythical or irrelevant, I encourage you to have another look, and discover for yourself the challenging things he says.

For further reading into the evidence of Jesus’ existence I recommend reading this article from Dr Simon Gathercole in The Guardian.

Graham Ormiston

Graham Ormiston
Graham works in television production, with experience in various creative industries, especially video, photography, design, web development and music. He puts the rest of us to shame.

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