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Questions from Readers, May 22

Questions from Readers

— Did Jesus ever really live?
— Is Zechariah 12:10 about Jesus?

Q. I saw an article recently about a high school student in Tennessee who was awarded a $1,000 scholarship by an atheist group for dressing like Jesus on the school’s “fictional character day.” Is there a trend toward people saying Jesus was only a make-believe character? My nephew, who’s a college freshman, said he doubts whether Jesus ever existed. — Natalie

A. If it’s a trend, it’s only because the Internet is so efficient at propagating silly and baseless theories. The vast majority of scholars scoff at the claims of these so-called “mythicists,” who assert that Jesus never really existed but was created out of legend and mythology.

According to Bart Ehrman, the religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is critical of many of the teachings of Christianity, skeptics started making these accusations in the 19th century. He said that communist leader Vladimir Lenin was influenced by these writings “and for that reason it became the dominant view in the Soviet Union throughout the 20th century.” He said the mythicist view is “widely found in agnostic and atheist circles in the United States” and is a popular perspective in some other parts of the West, including Scandinavia.

But even Ehrman — himself an adamant agnostic — believes “Jesus almost certainly did exist.” Ehrman recently wrote a book on the topic, because he wanted to establish that the mythicists “are wrong in what they think.” He charged in a recent interview: “Rather than succeeding in debunking religion they just make themselves look foolish.”

In his book Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence, the highly respected Craig Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia University in Canada and author or editor of more than fifty books, sets the record straight. He critiques writings by Canadian author Tom Harpur, who says there’s not even a “shred” of evidence Jesus lived, and Jesus seminar participant Robert Price, who “rejects almost every argument or proffered piece of evidence that there was a Jesus of history.”

Says Craig: “Not surprisingly, the radical skepticism of Harpur and Price has gained no scholarly following. Harpur’s strange theory–has been thoroughly refuted and is not followed by any reputable historian or Egyptologist. No major historian or New Testament scholar follows Price either.”

After setting forth some of the historical data for Jesus, Craig concludes by saying: “In short, we have a significant number of people who knew Jesus and who knew those who knew Jesus. We have an unbroken chain of transmission from the time of Jesus himself on through the first century and on into the second and third centuries and beyond. We have writings from people who knew Jesus (one or two of the Gospels, perhaps also the letters of James, Jude and 1 Peter) and from people acquainted with the original family members and disciples of Jesus (such as Paul, probably Papias and perhaps also Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp). The suggestion that all of these people were mistaken in supposing that Jesus was a real person, when in fact he was not, is absurd and flies in the face of common sense.”

Eminent scholar James D. G. Dunn of the University of Durham expressed astonishment that anyone still holds Price’s opinion that “it is quite likely that there never was any historical Jesus.” In responding to an essay by Price, Dunn used such words and phrases as, “Sad, really,” “disappointing,” “ludicrous,” “smacks of some desperation,” “scraping the barrel,” and “really quite unbalanced” in analyzing Price’s ill-supported assertions. “In short,” said Dunne, “if Price’s essay is a true expression of the state of health of the Jesus-myth thesis, I can’t see much life in it.”

Unfortunately, though, the Internet can function as a virtual life-support system, continuing to keep these sort of wacky theories alive despite the avalanche of evidence on the other side. It’s another reminder that we each have to serve as our own editor when we consume information from the worldwide web, carefully weighing whether the propagators of wild theories really offer any solid reasons to believe their claims.

By the way, in his book The Resurrection Of Jesus, historian Michael Licona offers these relevant quotes from respected scholars who have studied the historical Jesus and reject any “mythicist” theories:

Bultmann (1958): “Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community.”

Bornkamm (I960): “To doubt the historical existence of Jesus at all–was reserved for an unrestrained, tendentious criticism of modern times into which it is not worthwhile to enter here.”

Marxsen (1970): “I am of the opinion (and it is an opinion shared by every serious historian) that the theory [‘that Jesus never lived, that he was a purely mythical figure’] is historically untenable.”

Grant (1977): “To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars.’ In recent years ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’–or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.”

Van Voorst (2000): “Contemporary New Testament scholars have typically viewed their [i.e., Jesus mythers] arguments as so weak or bizarre that they relegate them to footnotes, or often ignore them completely.”

Burridge and Could (2004):  “There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more.”

Maier (2005): “The total evidence is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence.”

Allison (2005): “No responsible scholar can find any truth in it.”

R. J. Miller (2008): “We can be certain that Jesus really existed (despite a few hyper-historical skeptics who refuse to be convinced).”

Vermes (2008): “Let me state plainly that I accept that Jesus was a real historical person. In my opinion, the difficulties arising from the denial of his existence, still vociferously maintained in small circles of rationalist ‘dogmatists,’ far exceed those deriving from its acceptance.”

C. A. Evans (2009): “No serious historian of any religious or nonreligious stripe doubts that Jesus of Nazareth really lived in the first century and was executed under the authority of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea and Samaria.”

Q. In my readings of the Old Testament, I see that Zechariah 12:10 refers to “the one they have pierced.” Could this be a reference to Jesus? — Gary

A. The Case for Christ Study Bible, for which I served as general editor, explains how this verse does, indeed, foreshadow Jesus:

Writing more than 500 years before the crucifixion of Jesus, Zechariah depicts the death of someone who remains unnamed in the text. But the pain caused by this person’s death is likened to the pain a mourning parent experiences at the death of an only child or a first-born son. This person is pierced, and those who mourn for him grieve bitterly.

This verse is quoted only once in the New Testament: in John 19:37, which recounts Christ’s crucifixion (see also Revelation 1:7). Scholars agree that readers should interpret “pierced” in the context of Zechariah 12:10 not symbolically but literally; this describes a real, physical wound. During Jesus’ horrific death on the cross, he was pierced — his hands and feet with nails to secure him to the cross (see Acts 2:23) and his side with a spear to confirm his death (see John 19:31-34).

The descriptions of “only child” and “firstborn son” are also key to understanding this prophecy. Jesus is Mary’s firstborn (Luke 2:7), “the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29) and “the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). These verses all connect Jesus to “the one they have pierced.”

Let me add that there are other prophetic verses in the Old Testament that foretell the piercing of the Messiah. For instance, Isaiah 53:5 says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions,” and Psalm 22:16 says, “they have pierced my hands and my feet.”

A few critics have charged that the word “pierced” in Psalm 22 is an incorrect translation that Christians later imposed to make it look like the verse foreshadows the Messiah’s execution. They claim the proper rendering of the Hebrew should be, “Like a lion, they are at my hands and feet.”

Dr. Michael Brown, whose doctorate is in New Eastern languages and literatures, disputes that claim. “The oldest Jewish translation — the Septuagint — translates it as ‘they pierced,'” he told me. “The oldest Hebrew copy of the Psalms we possess, dating back to the century before Jesus, uses the Hebrew word ka’aru, which comes from the root meaning “to bore through” — not ka’ari, which means ‘like a lion.’

“But let’s assume the correct translation is, “Like a lion at my hands and feet.” What is the lion doing with the victim’s hands and feet — licking them? The renowned Jewish commentator Rashi says it means ‘as though they are crushed in a lion’s mouth.’ So the imagery is clear: the metaphorical lions are tearing and ripping at the sufferer’s hands and feet. This mauling and biting graphically portrays great physical agony. It’s entirely consistent with what occurs in a crucifixion. So either translation could be said to foreshadow the suffering of the Messiah.”