Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
Recently I got into an argument with my non-believer college pals regarding whether Jesus even existed as a historical figure (yes, people are still talking about that). They contended that there is no sufficient evidence, pointing out that that usual non-Christian sources (Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Josephus, etc.) were not contemporaries of Jesus and therefore only had the “hearsay” of believers to rely upon, and furthermore that the believers themselves could not be trusted because, obviously, they had a vested interest in ensuring that Jesus was regarded as a real person. They demanded that a reliable, “independent” source that was contemporaneous with Jesus would be sufficient proof, but of course no such source exists, as far as we know, mostly because Jesus was a “nobody” to contemporary historians at the time he lived. I responded by contending that their assumptions about the reliability of historical knowledge were wrong-headed (the main arguer, I know, is a fellow science major), but this didn’t get me very far.
Do you know of good sources concerning this question that I can also put forward to my non-believer friends? I’m still amazed that this question is even considered serious.
This sort of questioning is only taken seriously by a small cadre of zealots who trot this sort of argumentation out in order to pursue their anti-Christian agenda. Nobody talks this way about any other historical figure, much less a historical figure with the massive impact of Jesus. For instance, nobody says of Hannibal that he never existed, or that the campaign he waged against Rome was a myth. When people do attempt such massive conspiracy theories, they inevitably turn out to be either kooks or satirists.
For a good treatment of this silly fad among New Atheists and their socially inept acolytes (who do not understand normal social and affective cues and who therefore can’t conceive of how normal people function in their normal social and emotional interactions: thus blocking them from realizing how absurd this theory is on its face), I suggest this fine series by James Hannam here, here, here, and here.
When you have people making massive efforts to concoct a conspiracy theory that nobody would risk ten cents on any other historical figure, the burden of proof is overwhelmingly on the “Jesus never existed” dude, not on you, to show that his tissue of highly dubious suppositions and theories is valid. The problem with the ridiculous theorizing behind the Jesus Myth is that you can use it to “prove” that JFK never existed. (“Would an Ivy League graduate really say “I am a jelly donut” before a crowd of Germans as the JFK chroniclers describe? Obviously this is a Eucharistic text interpolated into the record in order to invest the JFK myth with cultic significance and transfer the affections of American Catholics from the Church to the so-called “Kennedy family”. We can see that shortly after these alleged “events” many American Catholics do, in fact, begin to place their faith more in the Kennedy cultus than in their previous allegiance to the Church. Clearly then, the JFK myth was concocted by the leaders of the Democratic party in order to draw gullible Catholics away from the Church and into their cult. In addition, the so-called “assassination” of JFK is rife with difficulties. How many shots were there? Where did they come from? Who was behind the so-called “murder” of “JFK”? Obviously, the whole story is a much later addition to a myth of the seasonal cycles and there originally was no “JFK” and no “assassination”. The story was added to provide a veneer of tragic martyrdom and solidify support for the Kennedy legend among the new band of followers that emerged in the late 60s and 70s.)
Anybody can play this silly game. Meanwhile, big solid facts in the New Testament records and the behavior of the early Church make it obvious that the writers and their followers (and their enemies, by the way) are all reacting to an actual person they either knew personally, or know just as the rising generation today know of JFK through their familiarity with the eyewitnesses. Only people with no normal social skills (like the New Atheists) think that the argument “Romans who cared not a jot for Jews and peasants never noticed Jesus, so he didn’t exist” is a crushing disproof of the existence of Christ.
As with all latest real Jesuses, this latest real Jesus tells you a lot about the blind spots and obsessions of the discoverer of the latest real Jesus. It tells you nothing about Jesus.