Why does there seem to be so much more of a burden of proof on the facts surrounding the life of Jesus that for other historical figures? In his book ‘Jesus A Short Life’ John Dickson reveals that Jesus is mentioned in at least 11 texts from the first and second centuries. Some of these are more relevant than others, but there is no doubt about (as Dickson says ‘no one in the know doubts) the existence of Jesus as an historical figure. His appearance in so many sources is seen as reliable proof.
Even Richard Dawkins agrees. That’s a fairly hefty vote of confidence.
So we have a (small) pile of reliable sources. But then we have the Gospels, which introduce Jesus as a charismatic miracle worker.
I always thought that the New Testament was written an impossibly long time after Jesus lived. It was part of my atheist manifesto, if you like. Actually though, Paul’s letter were begun only 20 years after the death of Jesus and the Gospel of Mark was written between 35 and 40 years after his death.
While visiting my grandmother today she told me a story about her father (fined for poaching swans during the 1920’s. Great tale – my boys loved it). Nan had heard it from him, and then she repeated it to me and I’ve got no reason to think it isn’t accurate (although the part where he dropping his pants for no discernable reason sounds embellished. And kind of bizarre).This time frame; about 90 years, is comparable to the memories of those writing the Gospels.
In a society in which most of the population was illiterate it was obviously important that stories could be trusted to remain unchanged through many retellings. According to people who make it their business to know this type of thing, oral history could be relied on to be quite accurate. When we apply this fact to an analysis of the Gospels, it could, if you want it to, give them a great deal of weight. Of course, the stories of Jesus could be totally fictitious and made up; just because they were written shortly after they were said to have occurred doesn’t necessarily make them anymore valid. But to my mind, it does make them a BIT more believable.
Like so many other things to do with this whole religion caper, you take from it what you want. If you want to discount evidence, then its usually possible to do this without too much anguish and historical betrayal. If, on the other hand, you want something it to be incredibly significant then you can probably put together a pretty convincing argument. Of course, if you’re sitting on the fence then you’re going to be no better off than you were to start with.
Dickson, and others that I have read, claim that precisely because oral history was so reliable and because we are willing to take much of the historical fact seriously, then when we come to the miracles that Jesus performed we should not immediately discount them. Given that there is so much evidence to support them, we should not put a more strenuous burden of proof on these miracles that we do on the other activities in the gospels. As Dickson says ‘the dogmatic rejection of miracles has little to do with evidence and a lot to do with existing assumptions about what is possible in the universe’ (p82).
aaaaaaaaaand, he’s lost me.
I’m trying; honestly, I’m trying. But if you’re going to suggest that the laws of nature and physics were looking the other way for a few years in Galilee during the first century, then yes I’m going to need more. The burden of proof IS going to be greater if there is going to be such a dramatic claim. I’m not saying that I discount them immediately on principle (I love me a good convincing ghost story) but I’m not going to take such claims as gospel (bada boom).
The historical records may be incredibly reliable and believable. But I’m going to have to stop you at the miracles. Claiming that they are just as valid an historical fact as other events isn’t believable. To me, that is. What do you think?
If you want to know more about the gospels as eyewitness testimony then you could read Bachmans ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony’ . Good luck with it though; I’ve been on chapter 2 for about 6 months. Let me know if its worth persevering.