The Historical Jesus: a Brief Consideration

In New Testament/biblical studies, the “Mythicist” school claims either that Jesus did not exist, or (more moderately) that there is no sound evidence to support his existence. But on serious investigation and reflection, it is possible to make the counter-claim that there is nothing intrinsically fictive about the main outlines of Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the Gospels.

Mainstream scholarship recognizes what are called “the seven authentic letters of Paul”.

In those letters, Paul mentions his personal knowledge of Jesus’ closest disciples, the “Jerusalem Pillars”, including Peter, John, and Jesus’ own brother James. If these letters are authentic, then clearly Paul virtually establishes Jesus’ existence via his acquaintance with Jesus’ own family members and closest disciples. One sound reason for viewing Paul’s references to Jesus’ disciples is the fact that most of Paul’s references are extremely critical of the Jerusalem disciples. If Paul’s letters were a secondary creation of an ideology-driven proto-Catholic church, then it would be very doubtful that Paul’s enmity with those who knew and traveled with the historical Jesus would be preserved – as it apparently is –  in all  its vitriol. On the contrary, the expectation would be that the church would smooth over, or even delete, these Pauline critiques, in order to present a false, manufactured picture of a nascent church as “one happy family”. But since the letters do present the conflict and the vitriol, consensus scholarship finds their historicity plausible and probable.

Even if it should turn out that these Pauline letters are, after all,  invalid, we still have the very historical plausibility of James, Jesus’ brother, and his long influence in Jerusalem and the early Jerusalem Jesus movement; and we still have records of the direct descendents and relatives of Jesus leading the Judean church for a hundred years after Jesus’ execution. These people and institutions point back to the strong likelihood that a real, Jewish, historical figure was their causitive agent.

Another item related to Jesus’ personal historicity is the Gospel record of his miracles and his theological claims. As it turns out, these issues are not as problematic as some would have it.

Most of Jesus’ miracles (cures, exorcisms) do not require a supernatural cause (obviously miracles like walking on water, storm-stilling, turning water into wine are exceptions to this rule, and are not under consideration here).
In fact, Jesus fits very well into religious-social categories that have been well-documented cross-culturally, globally, throughout time, including the modern era. The issue is not whether  miraclesand/or theological claims are supernatural. The issue is whether they happen via the actions and teachings of a healer/mystic. The answer is: of course they do. They happen all the time, especially in “third world” cultures not too dissimilar from Jesus’ own culture.

There follows a short list showing how Jesus fulfills well-known, documented religious-social functions that include both the miraculous and religious claims.

renewal movement founder
charismatic mediator
wisdom teacher
parable teacher
social prophet / religious rebel
mystic
healer/exorcist
messianic figure
spirit person/holy person/shaman
martyr

We can see that there is no pressing reason to leap to supernatural categories for the main outlines of Jesus’ ministry, nor is there any good cause to deny their reality, since from the evidence of  cross-cultural studies and anthropology, we know they exist in all cultures. There is nothing outlandish or preposterous about Jesus’ religious-social functions and roles; in short, nothing that supports the  Mythicist “improbability-to-Jesus’ non-existence” trajectory.

The issue, of course, is about plausibility, not certainty. Certainty relative to Jesus’ historicity cannot be achieved without access to time travel technology. But since we must rely on plausibility, all the indications support the notion that Jesus was a divine union mystic, an exorcist/healer, social prophet, and religious reformer. All of these attributes could be “Gospel fictions”. But if they are, support for their fictitiousness must be garnered from sources other than the extremely plausible Gospel accounts. That is, if the Gospel authors were spinning Jesus’ story out of thin air, they happened to find a narrative mode that conforms perfectly to the findings of modern scientific/anthropological research, with its substantiation of authenticity concerning religious figures, their healings, exorcisms, teachings, and claims.

Mythicists are free to make a “leap of faith” to an unhistorical, wholly mythological Jesus, but the New Testament documents themselves encourage a much more pragmatic, close-to-home, and research-supported view.

 

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