Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Did Jesus Exist?

By Emeritus Professor Philip Davies
University of Sheffield, England
August 2012

I cannot resist making a contribution to the recent spate of exchanges between scholars about the existence of Jesus—these mostly on the internet and blogosphere, and so confined to a few addicts, but the issue has always been lurking within New Testament scholarship generally. Shortly before his death, Robert Funk had approached me about the possibility of setting up the equivalent of a ‘Jesus Seminar’ for Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, perhaps a ‘Moses Seminar’? I couldn’t see any scope for such an exercise (and still can’t), but have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises.

The new collection of essays Is This Not the Carpenter1 represents something of the agenda I have had in mind: surely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. The ‘amateurs’ are now all retired professors, while virtually everyone else in the field has become minimalist (if in most cases grudgingly and tacitly). So, as the saying goes, déjà vu all over again.

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. In the first place, what does it mean to affirm that ‘Jesus existed’, anyway, when so many different Jesuses are displayed for us by the ancient sources and modern NT scholars? Logically, some of these Jesuses cannot have existed. So in asserting historicity, it is necessary to define which ones (rabbi, prophet, sage, shaman, revolutionary leader, etc.) are being affirmed—and thus which ones deemed unhistorical. In fact, as things stand, what is being affirmed as the Jesus of history is a cipher, not a rounded personality (the same is true of the King David of the Hebrew Bible, as a number of recent ‘biographies’ show).

Does this matter very much? After all, the rise and growth of Christianity can be examined and explained without the need to reconstruct a particular historical Jesus.2 The persistence of Christianity owes most, in fact, to Constantine, who opted for it as the imperial cult, and endowed it, creeds and fancy dress included, with imperial trappings. Next to him, we should credit S/Paul and his missionary and literary efforts, and finally Jesus, in whose name all this was done, but who might not have wanted to answer for the consequences. And it is how he was understood that matters, it is that which created Christianity. And clearly, he was understood in many different ways, many of them obviously wrong since not all can be right. All of the historical Jesuses can explain what follows, or are made to explain what follows. Does it matter to the historian who or what he was, beyond mere curiosity?

What I can see, but not understand, is the stake that Christians have in the unanswerable question of Jesus’ historicity and his true historical self. Religious (as distinct from cultural) Christians are serenely placed (my born-again mother is word-perfect on this) to testify that Jesus is alive now and that absence of proof is precisely what faith means. I have respect for this position (nothing to do with my mother) and no ability nor desire to prove such religious experiences wrong. I think they are wrong, but who knows (certainly not Richard Dawkins)? What I do find ridiculous are those so-called believing Christians who are trying to prove from ‘historical’ reasoning that what they believe is true, even (as in the case of Dr Wright, it seems) stories about saints let out of their graves [Matthew 27:52-3] who, it seems, never went back. Well, at least this explains the existence of zombies. But what else?

Let’s abandon fatuous reasoning such as accepting miraculous stories because no-one would make them up (Wright, the con man’s dream mark), or placing faith in ‘eyewitness’ accounts while actually admitting how unreliable they are (Bauckham). Sophistry of this sort betrays an already accepted dogma looking for rationalization: fides quaerens indicium. There are reasonable ways of setting out the historical problem, even if there is no satisfactory solution.

So what do we have here by way of evidence for Jesus? No certain eyewitness accounts, but a lot of secondary evidence,3 and of course the emergence of a new sect and then a religion that demands an explanation. As the editors of Is This the Carpenter rightly recognize (and Mogens Müller’s essay in the volume especially), we really have to go through Saul/Paul of Tarsus. This is because his letters are the earliest datable evidence for Jesus, and because, if we accept what he and the author of Acts say, his writing is almost certainly the only extant direct testimony of someone who claims to have met Jesus (read that twice, and see if you agree before moving on). We need not (and should not) trust everything S/Paul says or accept what he believes, but explaining Christian origins without him is even more difficult than explaining it without some kind of Jesus. But in S/Paul we are not dealing with someone who knew the man Jesus (his letters would have said so). There are three accounts in Acts of an apparition (chs 9, 22, 26), including a voice from heaven.4 If this writer is correct—and the letters of S/Paul do not confirm the story in any detail—the history of the figure of the Jesus of Christianity starts with a heavenly voice, a word (cf. prologue to Fourth Gospel) perhaps on a road, even to Damascus.

We would be right to exercise caution over Acts’ dramatic account(s) of S/Paul’s ‘conversion’. But his subsequent behaviour and writings entail that he believed Jesus to be a divine figure, and he did not come to this belief by Dr Wright’s kind of reasoning. He thought Jesus told him, in as many words. He allows that he had been engaged in either gang warfare or some kind of authorized inquisition against the Jesus sect but changed his mind and now accepted that Jesus had spoken to him (from the sky?), so must have been resurrected (not in itself a problem for a Pharisee to accept) and deified (in a sense that the letters never quite make clear). The beginning of belief in the divine status of Jesus does not need to go back any further.5 Paul now went around telling everyone—well, we know what he wrote as he kept working out what all this meant.

But S/Paul himself wrote (1 Cor. 15) that Jesus had appeared to many others also after his death. The gospels (and Acts) suggest rather fewer numbers. Were these claims made by the other followers before S/Paul’s experience? What did they already believe about him that made them the object of Saul’s persecution? Can we reconstruct a reliable profile of these beliefs from the gospels, all composed later than Paul?6 The problem at the heart of the Historical Jesus quests is to get behind S/Paul to some earlier historical knowledge. It’s hard to see that we can, not through sources that we must suspect of having been influenced by the claims of S/Paul.7

I realize that I have said nothing new in all this. In addition, I have not trawled through the massive secondary literature.8 But the primary and secondary sources are few: what else is there to read? I have on the other hand thought (and written) a lot about doing historical work with biblical literature. Am I inclined to accept that Jesus existed? Yes, I am. But I am unable to say with any conviction what he may have said and done, or what his words and deeds might tell us about who or what he thought he was. Even what his followers thought about him is highly coloured with hindsight, embellishment, rationalization and reflection. Two articles in Is This Not the Carpenter? (by the two editors, in fact) amass a great deal of evidence that the profile of Jesus in the New Testament is composed of stock motifs drawn from all over the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world. These parallels are valid: in trying to provide an account of who and what Jesus was such resources were inevitably drawn upon, consciously or unconsciously by the gospel writers. But one should not argue from these, as do Thompson and Verenna, that Jesus was invented. The use in this particular case of such mythic types ought to have been provoked by something, and the existence of a guru of some kind is more plausible and economical than any other explanation—which, by the way, does not necessarily make it the right one, but historian’s rules apply: plausibility and economy are the trump cards. How quickly stories about a guru can be manufactured, and how the outline of a possibly historically figure can be obliterated by all kinds of creative ‘memory’ is clear from the Qumran allusions to the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’. Awareness of such types and tropes should inform the historian how easily traces of historical reality can be painted over in the colours of myth and the conventions of storytelling.

But why care? The issue of whether history or kerygma (let’s use the fancy theological term for such fabulation) should provide the basis for New Testament theology or Christian faith has been a persistent theme of New Testament scholarship since Strauss’s Life of Jesus (where myth reared its beautiful head). Still, both history and theology converge on a proper answer to this: the historical Jesus will always be a fabrication, and the search for him antagonistic to true religious belief. Yet some peculiar literal-minded historicist brand of (largely Protestant) Christianity finds impossible the temptation to replace the icons of Orthodoxy or statues and images of Roman Catholicism with the One True Image of the Lord: the Jesus of History. The result: poor history and, dare I say, even poorer theology.


1 Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna (eds), Is This Not the Carpenter: A Question of Historicity? (London: Equinox Press, 2011); Thomas Verenna at www.bibleinterp
; Thomas Thompson, www.
; Bart Ehrman ‘Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth’ (HarperOne, 2012) and; Thompson and Verenna at and the citations ad nauseam.

2 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History, Princeton University Press, 1996; James G, Crossley, Why Christianity Happened?: a Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE), Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006; Michael F. Bird and James G. Crossley, How Did Christianity Begin?: A Believer and Non-Believer Examine the Evidence, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, offers a surprisingly and commendable irenic conversation between secular and non-secular approaches.

3 This includes two testimonies, from Josephus and Tacitus that require some very delicate judgment. Did Josephus write of Jesus and thus know of him directly? What imperial records might Tacitus have consulted? Lester Grabbe sets out the evidence well in his essay in Is This The Carpenter, but I think might be a touch too generous.

4 This line of approach goes back to a drink I had with Christopher Rowland many years ago at a pub in London and was, as I remember, his opinion, though he may not have developed it as I do here.

5 It might be argued that Saul should have classified Jesus as a vindicated and exalted martyr, not a god. But the Jewish category of ‘divine being’ is quite elastic. This topic needs a separate essay.

6 James Crossley has argued that Mark’s gospel was written c. 40 (The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in. Earliest Christianity, London and New York: T. & T. Clark, 2004). Even if so early, the titles ‘Christos’ (8:29) and ‘son of God’ already show Pauline influence. Matthew and Luke are expansion of Mark and what influenced that gospel influenced the others.

7 Including the Fourth Gospel: by the time it was written S/Paul’s view of Jesus as a divine figure was already basic to the new belief system, but was being developed further. The majority of scholars seem correct in dating it too late to be of any use to the scholar looking for the historical figure of Jesus.

8 But I must be honest: James Crossley was kind enough to read this, though before I rewrote it somewhat.