The historical Jesus

Over at Evangelical Realism, we’re starting to look at William Lane Craig’s arguments for a historical resurrection. You can head on over if you’re interested in the full critique. Meanwhile, I’d like to take a look at a topic where I think a certain number of skeptics are mistaken (to the very great glee of apologists like Craig).

There is no serious question that the Gospel is false in its supernatural details. Believers argue in favor of the miracles because they’re believers, but the real-world evidence is pretty consistently against such stories. Some critics, however, have thrown the baby out with the bath water, by proposing that Jesus himself did not really exist either.

Frankly, I think that’s nonsense. If we go back to the origins of Christianity, there’s nothing special about the name “Jesus.” Obviously, somebody had to invent the religion. God did not create it ex nihilo. It didn’t just drop down out of the sky. We can tell from its flaws and human-centered superstitions that it’s a man-made product. Why, then, would one particular name (“Jesus”) be any less likely to be the name of the man who invented it?

The alternative to a historical Jesus is a conspiracy of apostles. I suppose that’s not impossible, but it strikes me as hugely unrealistic. Charisma of that magnitude is much more likely to show up in a single individual than in twelve individuals at once. And again, if you have two remarkably charismatic and ambitious personalities, they’re much more likely to compete than to cooperate and conspire. Imagine if there were not two, but twelve of them! Yet without a historical Jesus to provide the charisma and ambition, we have to find it in the apostles.

And if the apostles are not all equally endowed with world-shaking charisma and ambition, if only one of them emerges as the true leader and founder of Christianity, can you imagine him achieving such dominance without eventually supplanting his fictitious competition, and becoming the true Messiah himself? Again, it’s not completely inconceivable, but it seems a lot less likely than just supposing that some guy named Jesus was the ambitious and charismatic founder of the religion. The mere existence of a man named “Jesus” does not pose any problems significant enough to require alternative explanations.

Now, as to the legend of the Messiah persona that was layered on top of the original, historical Jesus, I think there’s no question that this is a myth, with elements borrowed from a diverse spectrum of earlier, popular mythologies. If by “Jesus” you mean the Incarnate Divine who walks through the Gospels, then yes, that’s a fiction. But there’s a difference between rejecting the legend and rejecting the original historical mortal around whom the stories accreted. To go to extremes in denying the founder is to play into the hands of the apologists, and to give them plausible grounds for claiming to have overturned skepticism.