The existence of Jesus and the credibility of the Gospels

On July 31 2013, New Testament PhD student Hilde Brekke Møller published a blog post on the existence of Christ. This was reported on the front page of Norwegian Christian newspaper Vårt Land on August 8 2013, which again triggered a debate, which was probably Møller’s intent, to create ‘publicity’ around the research on the historical Jesus. On August 9, 2013, I got a comment on my blog from some John, which can be related to Møller’s post. I’ll quote the relevant bits:

Did Saint Jesus of Galilee (who never ever in any sense a Christian) really utter any of the words attributed to him in the “New” Testament, or is the “New” Testament essentially a work of religious fiction?

John cites an article, «The Forgotten Spiritual Esotericism of Saint Jesus and the Christian Social Exotericism That Succeeded It» by the Avataric Great Sage, Adi Da Samraj, and a webpage on Jesus. I will not dwelve deeply upon these, neither of which seems to be terribly preoccupied with academic credibility. I’ll take as my starting points the opening paragraph of the article:

Apart from the words about Jesus of Galilee that appear in the “New Testament”, there is virtually no evidence for Jesus’ existence. References to Jesus, to a movement in response to him, and to people who were his followers only begin to appear years (and even decades) after the time when (as it is “reported” in the “New Testament”) Jesus is commonly presumed to have lived—yet, there is no historical evidence for Jesus’ existence that is contemporary with the time Jesus purportedly lived.

The first thing we see here, is that Samraj does not recognise the New Testament as historically relevant or credible. We further see that he betrays a great deal of ignorance about historical research when he uses as one of his key points that the New Testament was written «years (and even decades) after the time when (as it is “reported” in the “New Testament”) Jesus is commonly presumed to have lived.» I have absolutely no idea why Samraj would find that problematic, unless he knows absolutely nothing about historical research. Would he say the same things about Caesar? One thing that strikes me about Samraj, is that he produces a string of claims, yet serves next to no arguments. He points out that Paul never knew Jesus when he walked upon earth, yet he fails to show how that is relevant. He makes the claim that all Paul was preoccupied with was to exploit (or even invent) Jesus in order to be a ‘church-maker’ or an ‘institutionalizer.’

He claims that «[all] the stories in the Gospels about Jesus’ early life before he began to preach are myths,» yet fails to produce even a single piece of evidence or a single argument to back up his claim. In academia, conclusions are made after arguments and evidence is produced, not before, and if you fail to produce arguments and evidence, your audience have absolutely no duty to agree with your claims. As the old saying goes: Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur – what is asserted without reason may be denied without reason.

When Samraj makes the claim that «[relative] to nearly all of the life-stories about Jesus, the writers of the Gospels could not have been making use of information of a factual nature in order to “record” historical fact,» I would love to see the evidence of that. I see none. He asks: «Where, how, and from whom would they have acquired such information?» Well, they could have been with Christ, they could have talked to people who were with Christ, they could have asked all kinds of people all kinds of questions – just like any biographer. And it is quite telling that Samraj points out that «the presence of remarkable contradictions between the separate accounts in the Gospels is one of the outstanding indicators that make it obvious that the Gospels are a form of literature, rather than of historical reporting.» First, what kind of contradictions are Samraj referring to? It is not my duty to find out, it is his duty to reference them. And does Samraj even know what the word literature means? It seems as if he has read somewhere that the New Testament is literature, and has concluded that this makes it fictitious. But literature is anything written – from historical reports to letters.

Samraj seems to disregard the New Testament because it is religious. But there are no compelling reasons why we ought to to disregard it on that basis. It is also painfully obvious that the reason Samraj rejects the historical credibility of the New Testament is that he represents another religion. Maybe he has read the New Testament and has come to the conclusion that Jesus must be followed if the New Testament is true. I see no other reason for his rejection of the historically ‘obvious’ fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure.

For some relevant literature, see three books by N.T. Wright in his series Christian Origins and the Question of God (COQG): The New Testament and the People of God (COQG, vol. I. 1st North American edition. Fortress Press 1992); Jesus and the Victory of God (COQG, vol. II. Fortress Press 1997); and The Resurrection of the Son of God (COQG, vol. III. Fortress Press 2003).

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