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The undisputed historical facts about Jesus; judging by evidence or conjecture?
In the realm of ancient history and New Testament scholarship, the distinguished professionals consist of believers and non-believers alike. These are the respected experts in the field, many who have spent their entire professional life studying and investigating what happened in that first century AD. These include the likes of Gary Habermas, Bart Ehrman, N.T. Wright, Michael Licona, Ben Witherington, Bruce Metzger and many others. They have learned the original languages of the people, literature and places of the day, have published peer-reviewed papers, and are the true 'go-to' people for the facts about New Testament-era history.
Now, my blog isn't here to provide a detailed re-hash of everything that can easily be found online and in books, but I thought I'd list the historical facts agreed on by virtually all professional scholars and historians dealing with first-century Christianity - again, these include Christian, agnostic and atheist scholars and historians alike. Feel free to look these up for yourself from respected, reliable sources.
Undisputed historical facts about Jesus:
Now, you'll find dozens of popular bloggers, speakers and authors who debate the above facts, but they are all, without exception outside of the field of study. Inquire within the ranks of respected professional scholars and historians, and you will find virtually no such debate exists! Again, don't take my word for it - you can research that to your heart's content.
- Jesus was a real person, not a myth or fabrication.
- Jesus performed acts that, to the people who witnessed them, believed them and described them to be miracles.
- Jesus was executed by public crucifixion by the Roman authorities.
- Jesus' burial tomb was found empty the following Sunday morning, first by women (a significant detail due to women's social status at the time).
- Hundreds of people had clear experiences of seeing who they believed to be Jesus, in bodily form, after His tomb was found empty.
- The Christian faith spread rapidly following these events due to the sincere belief that Jesus had risen from the dead as an interpretation of what believers had witnessed.
- Paul, a documented persecuter of Christians, converted after seeing what he interpreted to be the risen Jesus.
The real debate among scholars, mainly between believers and non-believers, is the interpretation of these facts - that is, whether or not there exists some alternate explanation for them other than what the canonical Gospels testify to. The Christian believes the testimony of the Gospels as the best explanation for those facts, while the skeptic just says "there has to be some other explanation". The skeptics, at this time, do not have any plausible universally agreed-on alternate explanation, that is, one that they have concrete evidence for. In essence, the skeptic - following strict naturalistic presuppositions - presumes the resurrection account to be false until all alternate explanations can be ruled out with certainty. For example, one possibility put forth is that trickery and deception were used both in Jesus' miracles and his resurrection - a intriguing theory, but one that there is no evidence for. However, until that can be ruled out with absolute certainty, the skeptic will not eliminate it as a possibility.
Perpetual skepticism: judging by endless conjecture
My take on this type of skepticism is that it is impossibly-perpetual conjecture. That is, it doesn't take much to come up with an infinite number of alternate theories of any historical record, even with mounds of evidence present to support the offical accounts. With this type of skepticism, essentially the skeptic can never be convinced because virtually all of these possible conspiracies, particularly the more far-fetched ones, can never be ruled out with certainty - simply because it's been 2,000 years since the events transpired! It's like telling me to prove that I never stole a candy bar from a store when I was 7 years old. I never did, but how can I prove that? You might assume by default that I did, solely based on the fact that it's not uncommon for kids to be mischevious at that age. I could say "look up all of the crime/police records from the early 1980s in Pennsylvania and West Virginia", and the skeptic would reply, "OK, those don't show anything, BUT your parents could have paid the store owner to keep quiet" and "the police records for 2PM to 3PM on June 22, 1982 are lost, so it could have happened then". And it would go on and on and on from there. There would be no way for me to convince the skeptic that I was innocent, because he would generate an infinite number of possiblities that I could have no possible way to disprove. In this case, I'd be judged by impossible-to-disprove possibilities instead of my testimony, the ample supporting evidence, and the glaring lack of evidence that I was guilty. That type of criteria would never hold up in a court of law!
Despite the absurdity of presuming my guilt in the above hypothetical example, that exact thing is happening with Jesus and Christianity today. It's easy to dream up evidence-scarce conspiracies all day that are virtually impossible to fully investigate 2,000 years later. The validity of Christianity, in essence, is being judged based on all of the unproven-but-impossible-to-disprove possibilities that skeptics and conspiracy theorists can think up, with the official accounts, first-hand experiential testimony of believers, and true experts in the material being unilaterally dismissed. This is truly difficult to understand, given that it's coming from a faction that trumpets evidence, logic and reason as their core values.
There are a lot of parallels with this issue and 9/11 conspiracy theories. There are probably an equal number of bloggers covering both Christian skepticism and 9/11 conspiracies. Alternate explanations for both using cherry-picked facts are dreamed up every day, just as fast as facts and arguments refuting them come in. However, the conspiracy theorists can't let it go and accept the most obvious explanation, embracing the next possibility to come down the pipe. They never step back and look at the big picture nor take all the evidence. The light bulb just never goes off where they say 'I get it'. In essence, that's what faith is - stepping back after looking at all of the evidence and finally seeing what's been in front of you all along. Faith is simply letting go of the endless conspiracy theories and finally moving forward with reality.
Faith in Christ today is no different from faith 2,000 years ago. Even some people who saw and walked with Jesus Himself didn't turn out as believers, so it's no surprise that people today can look at the same information and reject Him. The religious leaders of the day even started conspiracy theories of their own, including one alleging Jesus' body had been stolen from the tomb. But looking at the hard evidence, faith is one that takes the 'official' explanation of those above facts that Jesus was who He said he was, and that He rose from the dead. It's far from being a self-deceptive, anti-intellectual fairy tale.
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