Did you know that there are some skeptics today who argue that Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, did not exist? In this vlog, Dr. Jeff Magruder identifies and breaks through the false pillars of this belief, Jesus mythicism. Magruder shares how we, as Christians, can effectively address and challenge Jesus Mythicism by identifying its weaknesses and inaccuracies.
Good morning, everybody. I’d like to thank Dr. Bridges, Dr. Clarensau, and Dr. Rosdahl for the opportunity. And I also want to say what a privilege it is to be able to partner with a former student of mine. And as it turns out, he was in my very first grad class that I ever taught. So very, very pleased. I should also point out that Professor Morgan has the opportunity to study with some of the most widely recognized Christian philosophers in the world today, including Gary Habermas. So I’m really looking forward to hearing from you, Peter, and couldn’t be more proud.
It wouldn’t surprise you to hear that skeptics argue that God does not exist. That’s old news. But what may come as a shock is that there are skeptics who are now arguing that Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, did not exist. Now to be clear, I don’t mean that they are saying that Christians have misunderstood him or that Jesus has been misrepresented. Those are ideas that have been around for a very, very long time. But this movement, which incidentally has not been widely regarded by larger academe– that is, historians, biblical scholars, religious studies scholars of various religious stripes, no religious stripe whatsoever– have not found this idea very persuasive. But because of the energy and intellect of some proponents of this view, this is an idea that has begun to gain some real momentum on the internet. And chances are, you will encounter people– in the coffee shop, in the blogosphere, people who went to youth group with you and then went away, took a world religions class at a secular school– who will suggest to you that Jesus may not have even existed. This view is called Jesus mythicism. And my goal today is to introduce you to Jesus mythicism, identify some of the major pillars in Jesus mythicism, and then help you to identify the weakness of one of their major tenets. And it’s my hope that by the time it’s over, you will not only feel as if you know more about this view, but you’ll also feel better equipped to be able to challenge it.
Jesus mythicism is characterized by four pillars. The first, that the gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Instead, they are late. That is, they were written much, much later than the events that they purport to record, and that they are filled with legend and filled with myth. Second, that there is no mention of the historical Jesus in the epistles. The argument goes that the epistles are concerned with a heavenly being, a Jesus who lives in the realm of the divine, and not actually someone who lived here on earth. Third, there is no mention of a miracle-working Jesus in secular sources. Now chances are, most of you are going to find yourself saying, well, I just know that’s not true. I have been, at this point in my education, exposed to instances– both Jewish sources and Greco-Roman sources– that identify Jesus as not only a historical figure but as a miracle worker. But Jesus mythicists will wave that away. They’ll claim that those documents have come to us from early Christian scribes who have doctored the evidence. And then fourth, the epistles teach about a heavenly, non-historical Jesus.
Well, what I’m going to be doing today is I’m going to be giving special attention to the claim that there’s no mention of a historical Jesus in the epistles. And what I hope to show you is that there is, indeed, specific references to a historical figure. And the reason this is important– and most of you have probably been exposed to this at some point in your journey at Southwestern. Maybe when you were taking New Testament Lit, maybe when you were taking Bible Study, but it is indeed the case that the epistles are the oldest Christian literature we have. Now I want to say that again. The epistles are the oldest Christian literature we have. It is true that the gospels include accounts that are older than the epistles, but the epistles– in the form in which we have them– are the oldest Christian literature. However, the writer of the epistles– and I’m going to give special attention to Paul– had access to the traditions and had access to people who authored the traditions that are found in the gospels. Specifically, both the book of Galatians and the book of Acts make mention of the fact that Paul spent time with Peter, with James. He knew the leadership of the Jerusalem church. In fact, in Galatians, he tells us that he fact-checked his gospel against their teaching, to make sure that what he was teaching and preaching was right. Incidentally, he didn’t just rely on his revelation and his experiences. He looked to the authoritative tradition of the apostles, to make sure what he was teaching and preaching was right. And may I say this with love in my heart, more charismatic and Pentecostal preachers could stand to do that. Amen? Making sure that what they’re saying is not just based on their experience but on what the gospel traditions actually teach.
Now what I want to do is get real specific now about this claim regarding a lack of historical Jesus in the epistles. And I’m quoting one of the leading thinkers in Jesus mythicism, a Canadian independent scholar named Earl Doherty. And I’m going to go ahead and read it. And as I do, I’m going to ask that you will zero in on the specifics and the details that he believes are true of a non-historical Jesus in the epistles. And by the way, let me mention. If you want me to email this to you after this is over, just email me. I’d be happy to share it with you. In the epistles, there is no conception of Jesus as a human man who had recently lived, taught, performed miracles, suffered, and died at the hands of human authorities or rose from a tomb outside Jerusalem. There is no sign in the epistles of Mary or Joseph, Judas or John the Baptist. No birth story, teaching, or appointment of apostles by Jesus, no mention of holy places or sites of Jesus’ career. Not even the hill of Calvary or the empty tomb. This silence is so pervasive and so perplexing that attempted explanations for it have proven inadequate. Let me just highlight a few things here. So no mention of Mary or Joseph, therefore no mention of his birth. You see that? Specifically, no birth story. No mention of his teaching, according to Jesus mythicism. No mention of an empty tomb. So everybody got that? The claim is that the epistles do not contain the kind of details we would expect to find were the Jesus that they’re talking about a Jesus of history.
Now what I’m going to do is challenge that, very specifically. I’m going to challenge that by first explaining why it is that there would be a lack of details about the historical Jesus in the epistles. And then, I’m going to show you some places in the epistles where I think it’s beyond doubt that they are indeed referencing the life of Jesus during his earthly ministry. First, the epistles were written to solve specific problems in the church, not offer Jesus’ life story. When you read Romans, when you read Corinthians, when you read Galatians, when you read James or first Peter, they are writing to a specific group of people for a specific reason addressing a specific set of problems. And let me offer, by way, a contemporary analogy. When you get an email from Southwestern and they want to talk to you about some new policy that the school is adopting, they want to talk to you about the status of your school bill, they want to talk to you about a new degree program that’s going to be offered, they don’t offer the history of Southwestern in those emails. They don’t say anything about PC Nelson. There’s no mention of the Shield of Faith Bible Institute. There’s no reference to, say, Azusa Street, the beginnings of the Assemblies of God. Why is that? Or Hot Springs, Arkansas, the beginnings of the Assemblies of God. Why is that? Because it’s not necessary. It’s not necessary. That’s not the issue they’re trying to address. They’re not trying to provide a history lesson, they’re trying to talk to you about something you need to know with the assumption there’s things you already know. As a minister in the Assemblies of God, I get ministerial letters often, as we all do who are credentialed. And they make no mention of the first general counsel. They don’t talk about Hot Springs, Arkansas. They don’t mention even, believe it or not, all 16 fundamental truths in the ministerial letters. And yet, that doesn’t mean that those things don’t exist or haven’t been established. Or more to the point, that they can’t assume the people reading the letters are not aware of them. Which leads me to the second idea here. The epistles were written to people who had been Christians for more than 10 years. So these are people that they could safely assume knew the Jesus story. In the case of Paul, many of these were people who he knew personally and churches that he had been the one to plant. And as a result, he knew what he had taught them. He knew what it is that they had already learned. And so he was writing to them about things that they needed to know more about, not trying to provide a history lesson.
Now having said that, I’m going to identify places in three letters of Paul. Letters that scholars don’t debate about, letters that I believe contain very specific references to the life and ministry of a historical Jesus. First, in Romans. By the way, Romans is so uncontested as a letter of Paul that if suddenly there was an archaeological discovery and they thought they found III Thessalonians or II Galatians, that archaeologists uncovered a letter that they believed may have been written by Paul, one of the first things they would do is compare it with Romans. They know that Romans is the voice of Paul. And let me mention three instances where he talks about a historical Jesus. First in Romans 1:3, he says he’s descended from David. That means he has ancestors. That means that he comes from somewhere and was a historical figure. And you might recall that in the case of both Mary and Joseph, Jesus was descended from David. So already, we see a challenge to the idea that there is no mention of his parents or no mention of his being raised on earth. Second, he was regarded as Messiah. That is, there were people in Jesus’ lifetime who believed that he was Messiah. And I should point out one of the reasons they believe he was Messiah was because of his signs and wonders. Thirdly, in 15:3, Paul is actually able to appeal to the selfless life that Jesus lived as an example and motivation for the way the Roman Christians ought to live. We’re talking about a historical figure. In I Corinthians in Chapter 7 verse 10, Paul makes mention– listen carefully– of the teachings of Jesus when giving the Corinthians instructions about divorce and remarriage. So yet again, we see an instance where Jesus mythicism claims there is no teaching Jesus in the epistles. And yet clearly, we have him. Closely related to this is the Last Supper being referenced when Paul talks about communion in I Corinthians 11:17-26. Remember the quote from Doherty that said there is no mention of a resurrection? Well in 15:1-58. not only does he talk about a spiritual body, he talks about an empty tomb. The tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Now why doesn’t he say the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea? Because he is writing to a people who already know this stuff. So he makes reference to something with the assumption that they would be able to connect the dots.
The last book from Paul I’m going to highlight is the book of Galatians, that I think has some of the most exciting evidence for historical Jesus found in the epistles. First, it makes reference to James, the Lord’s brother, in an offhanded way. In talking about a different topic, he simply mentions James, the Lord’s brother. Bart Ehrman, who if any of you know anything about Professor Ehrman’s writings know that he is no fan of traditional Christianity. Bart Ehrman, who himself is deeply skeptical about Jesus mythicism, says one of the reasons why we know that Jesus was a historical figure was because Paul knew his brother, James. Next, Christ was crucified. Do you remember that one of the claims of Jesus mythicism is that there is no mention of his historical or political crucifixion? Let me ask you something. When people are living under the Roman Empire and they hear that Jesus was crucified, who is it that crucifies? It’s the Roman Empire. And as it turns out, it was under Pontius Pilot in Judea. So just that mentioning of Jesus being crucified both assumes and confirms all of the historical details that surround his actual crucifixion that happened in history. Oh, and another important point. Jesus was Jewish. And they make reference to this. He’s not just a heavenly figure, though he may be in heaven at the time of their writing. But instead, he was a person who lived in first century Judea but lived such an exceptional life that they didn’t just refer to him as a prophet– though some did– not simply a rabbi– though some did– but some would eventually say, Lord. The great British New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn says about the argument that there is no reference to historical Jesus in the epistles as a ludicrous claim that simply diminishes the credibility of the argument used in its support. And I hope in some modest way I’ve helped to show you this morning why that is.
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