Don't believe Jesus ever existed? Scholars of history would seriously disagree
Author and historian John Dickson wants you to read the gospels with fresh historical eyes
Saying Jesus never existed is “the historical equivalent of being an anti-vaxxer or denying the moon landing”, says author and historian John Dickson.
Dickson is hoping his new book Is Jesus History?, which is available from today, might speak to those who are sceptical about whether there’s much substantial evidence or historical scholarship around the figure of Jesus.
“The nutty claim that Jesus never lived drives me crazy.” – John Dickson
“The nutty claim that Jesus never lived drives me crazy,” he told Eternity. “In historical scholarship it really isn’t a serious contention. And yet there was one survey that found something like 11 per cent of Australians thought that Jesus had never lived. That just blows my mind.”
Dickson believes the tendency to doubt whether Jesus existed as a historical figure is because he is just so influential.
“It’s a version of the tall poppy syndrome: he’s so big that we want to cut him down to size. He’s a big, slow-moving target. Apart from anything else though, he’s the guy that the church bangs on about, and a lot of people are getting pretty fed up with what the church bangs on about. So of course there’s going to be some rear-guard action against the person of Jesus.”
While critics and sceptics of Jesus are to be expected, Dickson says historical scholarship has developed significantly in the past 15 years, to the point that it is basically agreed that Jesus did walk the earth.
“I’ve written a lot of books on Jesus … I wanted to write something now that shows simultaneously how history works and then also how it works in relation to Jesus. I want to show that if you approach Jesus in the same way as Alexander the Great or Tiberius or Pliny the Younger – with normal historical analysis of the ancient texts and manuscripts in their Roman and Greek contexts – if you apply that same methodology to Jesus, you end up with a pretty strong view of Jesus.
“It’s not that we can prove everything. But there is clearly, in the last 15 to 20 years of Jesus scholarship, a tendency to grant that the gospels are genuine historical sources. In recent scholarship, there’s a consensus that even if we might never be able to prove that Jesus said X Y or Z, the general portrait – the vibe – of the gospels really only fits as genuine historical writing in early first century Judea and Galilee.”
“There is an increasing confidence in scholarship today that the broad outline of who Jesus was is more robust than we ever thought.” – John Dickson
Two things have changed in particular when it comes to historical scholarship on the person of Jesus.
The first, says John, is that there is more archaeology that tells us more about the social context at the time of Jesus.
“It gives us a general portrait of what Judea and Galilee were like, and therefore how Jesus really fits in that context.”
The second is that the methodology for historians has changed. They are no longer trying to prove that Jesus said a particular verbal saying but looking for a “mood” or “motif” across the time and place that Jesus lived, using that new archaeological evidence of the time in which Jesus lived.
“Even though historians might not be willing to say ‘he definitely said this’, more scholars are willing to confidently say that [Jesus] definitely took a more liberal approach to Jewish law, for example,” says Dickson.
Another example is around miracles. Dickson says that while there are plenty of historians who don’t believe in miracles, what they are willing to say is that there is enough evidence that people around Jesus believed he was doing them.
“Maybe we can’t prove historically that Jesus did any particular miracles, but given the diversity of similar evidence all pointing in the direction of him healing the sick, we can make a very firm judgement about that trajectory of evidence,” says Dickson.
“This methodology has come to the fore in historical scholarship. And what it means is that while we can’t – and may never be able to – prove details, there is an increasing confidence in scholarship today that the broad outline of who Jesus was is more robust than we ever thought.”
Dickson says he knows that, ultimately, history can’t prove the Christian faith. “That’s not what this book is about,” he said.
“But it is about showing an open-minded reader how history works. And when you understand how history works, and you apply it to Jesus, it really looks like these gospels are serious historical sources.
“So I want people to pick up a gospel and read it as a serious historical text. Because when they do that, who knows what happens!”
John Dickson is also the host of a new Eternity podcast, Undeceptions, which seeks to tackle common myths and misconceptions about the Christian faith. Find out more here.