The latest so-called scholarship arguing against the existence of Jesus has appeared from a University of Sydney graduate student and part-time lecturer. It started on the University web site and was picked up by the Washington Post, at least it’s online edition. (I’ve not yet seen it in the print version.)
I sent a letter to the editor despite the fact that the Post does not print letters responding to online articles. So here is the text of my letter:
Ralph Lataster’s “Did historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn’t add up” (Dec. 20) is so full of factual error and sloppy argumentation that it is not worthy of publication by a scholar—or by a newspaper—no matter what one thinks about the issue.
First of all, Lataster misrepresents the debate. Discussions about the existence of Jesus are debates among historians, not disagreements among atheists. Furthermore, even if Christians believe in “the Christ of faith” (though this is a problematic term in many ways) and also affirm the existence of the historical Jesus, that does not disqualify academically trained Christians from rightfully participating in the debate about Jesus’ existence. Many historians who are Christians are able to believe, in part, because they are convinced that historical study supports the existence of Jesus.
Second, Lataster misrepresents the text of the New Testament. There are plenty of passages in the gospels that narrate a teaching, healing, law-abiding, and law-breaking first-century Jewish teacher that do not even begin to fit the description of a “fictional Christ of faith”—though there are certainly texts that do portray Jesus as more than such a teacher. Moreover, in considering Paul’s letters, Lataster ignores Paul’s allusions to Jesus’ teaching, as well as Paul’s reliance on oral tradition like that found in the gospels when he describes Jesus’ Last Supper. Furthermore, Lataster mischaracterizes Paul’s apocalyptic language as indicating belief in a “celestial” rather than a human” Jesus. He also conveniently fails to mention Paul’s statement that Jesus was born of a woman (Galatians 4:4).
Third, Lataster misrepresents the nature of oral tradition and of the sources for our gospels, and either he is ignorant of current debate about each of these or else he fails to mention them. Yet he draws conclusions about the existence of Jesus based on such misrepresentation and ignorance (or suppression) of contemporary gospel scholarship.
The word “atrocious” that he applies to biblical scholarship does indeed characterize certain forms of published work. (Let the reader understand.) Another word comes to mind, too—“insulting”—both to people’s intelligence and, this week, to their spiritual and historical sensibilities.
Michael J. Gorman
Raymond Brown Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology
St. Mary’s Seminary & University