Did Jesus ever Exist?

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
Baltimore, MD

3 Responses to “Did Jesus ever Exist?”

  1. Mark Erickson says:

    Yes, the cross does cattle prod everything here, professor of theology at a seminary. One question regarding: “Paul’s reliance on oral tradition.” Doesn’t Paul explicitly say he doesn’t rely on oral tradition at all?

    PS I hope your spiritual sensibility was recovered by Jesus’ birthday.

  2. MJG says:

    Mark, in Galatians 1 Paul says he received the revelation of Jesus apart from human agency, but in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 15 he speaks of having received traditions and of having passed them on–about the Last/Lord’s Supper and about the early Christian “creed.”

  3. Richard Woodhouse says:

    Just the usual stuff that appears at Christmas and Easter. Its so bad that it really is a mistake to even respond to its many errors. Its a case of people who “wish” that Jesus Christ never existed, and grasp at any pseudo “scholarship” they can get their hands on. The silver lining in such things is in the fact that it shows how offensive the Gospel story is to people. Nothing new and its part of what convinces Me that its where the truth is to be found. Following Jesus Christ can be very difficult and requires we live different than our natural proclivities tend to go. And it is a scandal to believe that a Crucified Man is in some way God. That all of reality is governed by this person. That’s nothing new either. Yet many still believe in Him in the Traditional way. There is good reasons for these beliefs, but they are not knock down, un doubtable reasons. Intellect alone won’t lead to orthodox beliefs about Christianity. Its part of it, but not the sole factor. Its also an act of will. An act of Faith. Its a struggle and it always will be. The great Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has been very helpful to Me in all of these questions. He was a man of massive learning and reason. Yet He often said that until the Eschaton, Christianity will always be debatable. The nature of our finite historical existence and situation, makes this an obvious tautology. Rick from Bradford PA USA

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