Did Jesus Exist? a Response to atheists.org's Frank Zindler

Frank Zindler of atheists.org argues that Jesus never existed. Learn how to answer arguments like the ones that Zindler brings up in his article.
Did Jesus exist?
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Introduction

First, here is a link to the original article that this post addresses: "Did Jesus Exist?". In this article, Zindler's thesis is that "It is easier to account for the facts of early Christian history if Jesus were a fiction than if he once were real."

The purpose of this post is to demonstrate that Zindler's thesis is wrong. Here, we will not quote Zindler's entire article, but only the relevant parts.

Zindler compares Jesus to Zeus, Thor, Isir, and Osiris

Even in the case of other deities, such as Zeus, Thor, Isis, and Osiris, I had always taken it for granted that they were merely deified human heroes: men and women who lived in the later stages of prehistory – persons whose reputations got better and better the longer the time elapsed after their deaths. Gods, like fine wines, I supposed, improved with age.

Comparing Jesus to "other deities" such as Zeus, Thor, Isis, and Osiris is absurd. The very obvious and enormous difference between Jesus and these other deities is that whereas Jesus has always been claimed to have been a very specific person who existed during a very specific time and place in actual history, having eyewitness accounts of specific things he did during his physical life on earth, these other deities have absolutely no such characteristics.

If Zindler believes these other deities have these same characteristics that were just listed about Jesus, the burden of proof is upon him to demonstrate this. As it stands, there is simply no meaningful comparison between Jesus and other deities such as the ones Zindler listed.

Zindler's thesis

I now feel it is more reasonable to suppose he never existed. It is easier to account for the facts of early Christian history if Jesus were a fiction than if he once were real.

Three points to note here:

  1. First, "more reasonable" is a very subjective position. After reading this post's responses to Zindler's arguments, one will just as easily be able to say that it is "more reasonable" to believe that Jesus existed. In fact, the fact that the large majority of people believe that Jesus existed points to his existence being "more reasonable" to believe than his non-existence.
  2. The definitive argument for Jesus' existence does not rest in anything external to the Bible, but rather in presuppositional argumentation, which states that one must presuppose the Bible (or, that God has revealed Truth through the Bible) in order for Truth, logic, and knowledge to even be possible in the first place. Thus, one who denies the Bible denies the only legitimate explanation for knowledge itself. Presuppositional apologetics will be covered in another post.
  3. It's worthwhile to recognize that Zindler is biased. He wants to believe that Jesus did not exist, and so his interpretation of the facts will be biased in that direction.

The burden of proof

Although what follows may fairly be interpreted to be a proof of the non-historicity of Jesus, it must be realized that the burden of proof does not rest upon the skeptic in this matter. As always is the case, the burden of proof weighs upon those who assert that some thing or some process exists. If someone claims that he never has to shave because every morning before he can get to the bathroom he is assaulted by a six-foot rabbit with extremely sharp teeth who trims his whiskers better than a razor – if someone makes such a claim, no skeptic need worry about constructing a disproof. Unless evidence for the claim is produced, the skeptic can treat the claim as false. This is nothing more than sane, every-day practice.

Just like before, when Zindler compares Jesus to other deities like Zeus and Thor, again Zindler makes an absurd comparison by comparing Jesus to "a six-foot rabbit...". Claiming that "a six-foot rabbit" exists is completely different from claiming that Jesus existed. It seems that Zindler is trying to manipulate the reader emotionally into thinking that believing in Jesus' existence is akin to believing in something like "a six-foot rabbit," which is extremely deceptive.

What are the obvious differences? Well, there are actual writings in history that describe in great detail actual things that Jesus did during his life, things for which there were eyewitness accounts, and there was an enormous movement that started, and continues strongly to this day, as a result of these things that Jesus did. There is physical, tangible, observable evidence that point strongly in the direction of Jesus' existence. In contrast, the concept of this "six-foot rabbit" that Zindler brings up is utterly ridiculous at the start.

As for the burden of proof, Zindler's logic is not convincing. It seems to be far more reasonable for the burden of proof to be upon those who do not believe Jesus existed, since the vast majority of people throughout history have believed in Jesus' existence, and there are numerous physical documents that are used as evidence for Jesus' existence.

Of course, Zindler does attempt to show that these documents do not prove Jesus' existence, but to purport that the burden of proof rests in the nearly-unanimous majority is simply untrue.

Comparing Jesus to Tiberius Caesar is irrelevant

I generally agree that N.T. Wright's usage of Tiberius Caesar is not very helpful. Proving that Jesus existed versus proving that Tiberius Caesar existed are quite different tasks.

We will skip responding to this section, since it is not directly relevant to proving Jesus' existence. The evidences for Jesus' existence are simply different than the evidences for Tiberius Caesar's existence, since they were very different men with very different roles in history.

The Old Testament "evidence"

I generally agree with Zindler that the Old Testament is not directly relevant to the discussion of Jesus' existence in terms of empirical evidence.

However, I disagree with his statement that "All of the many examples of OT 'predictions' of Jesus are so silly that one need only look them up to see their irrelevance." Since Zindler does not go any further into demonstrating the irrelevance of Old Testament prophecies, all I will say here is that, contrary to Zindler's claim, there is strong evidence that Jesus fulfills exactly the descriptions of many Old Testament prophecies, which points towards both Jesus' existence and the reliability of the Bible. But, the better place for arguing for this position would be another post, since this is a different type of argument for Jesus' existence than the ones we are examining here.

The New Testament evidence - Revelation

A third category of writing, apocalyptic, of which the Book of Revelation is an example, also exists, but it gives no support for the historicity of Jesus. In fact, it would appear to be an intellectual fossil of the thought-world from which Christianity sprang – a Jewish apocalypse that was reworked for Christian use. The main character of the book (referred to 28 times) would seem to be “the Lamb,” an astral being seen in visions (no claims to historicity here!), and the book overall is redolent of ancient astrology.

The book of revelation provides support for the historicity of Jesus in two ways:

  1. Its author is John, one of Jesus' apostles, an eyewitness of Jesus' life. In a citation below, Zindler says that it is "extremely doubtful" that John was even a historical figure, but the burden of proof for this claim is certainly upon the skeptic, since the book itself says that the author is John and there was no dispute about Revelation's authorship until relatively recently.
  2. It references someone named Jesus, whom John knew and had a relationship with. It is illogical to believe that John is writing about an imaginary character he invented. Although the Jesus John refers to in Revelation is the post-resurrected, post-ascended Jesus, it can be assumed that this Jesus is the same Jesus that John knew while Jesus lived on the earth.

Zindler's statement that the book of Revelation "is redolent of ancient astrology" is misleading and irrelevant. There are enough differences between the book of Revelation and "ancient astrology" that one cannot equate the two so simply.

The name Jesus occurs only seven times in the entire book, Christ only four times, and Jesus Christ only twice!

This is absolutely silly. The number of times "Jesus," "Christ," and "Jesus Christ" occur in Revelation is not an argument at all against John's portrayal of Jesus as a real person/being. There are many places in Revelation where John is clearly referring to Jesus without actually using his name, such as when John refers to "the lamb," so Jesus shows up in far more of the book of Revelation than Zindler would lead us to believe.

It seems that Zindler's implication here is that the lack of times Jesus is specificlaly mentioned points to the fact that the author of Revelation simply took an existing story and added in a few references to Jesus. However, as mentioned above, Revelation contains far more references to Jesus, enough that the book of Revelation can be considered significantly different from other kinds of "ancient astrology."

While Revelation may very well derive from a very early period (contrary to the views of most biblical scholars, who deal with the book only in its final form), the Jesus of which it whispers obviously is not a man. He is a supernatural being. He has not yet acquired the physiological and metabolic properties of which we read in the gospels. The Jesus of Revelation is a god who would later be made into a man – not a man who would later become a god, as liberal religious scholars would have it.

Here are the numerous problems with this paragraph:

  1. Oftentimes, when someone writes that "most biblical scholars" hold to a particular position, that person means "most biblical scholars that I consider legitimate, and I do not consider biblical scholars who hold a conservative view of the Bible to be legitimate." The term "most biblical scholars" is quite subjective and not at all an accurate or useful term when used in this way.
  2. Although the Jesus in Revelation is the post-resurrected, post-ascended Jesus, John still describes Jesus as having a human form, and we can assume that this is the same Jesus that John wrote about earlier as having lived and walked on the earth as a human man.
  3. The next few sentences are simply completely inaccurate. It is simply inaccurate that the Jesus in Revelation "has not yet acquired the physiological and metabolic properties of which we read in the gospels." Rather, the events in Revelation occur after the gospels, so in Revelation, Jesus has already lived his life on earth. The Jesus in Revelation is not at all "a god who would later be made into a man." Zindler is simply completely wrong in his understanding of Jesus in Revelation in this section of his article.

The Gospels

The notion that the four “gospels that made the cut” to be included in the official New Testament were written by men named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John does not go back to early Christian times. The titles “According to Matthew,” etc., were not added until late in the second century.

Although the authors of the four gospels are not named in the gospels themselves, there was no dispute in the early church concerning their authorship. It was simply assumed that the four gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The lack of debate in the early church concerning the authorship of the gospels points to the fact that they were indeed written by these authors.

Papias and Justin Martyr

Thus, although Papias ca. 140 CE (‘Common Era’) knows all the gospels but has only heard of Matthew and Mark, Justin Martyr (ca. 150 CE) knows of none of the four supposed authors.

Here, Zindler's language is, at best, over-simplified and confusing, and, at worst, deceptive. Here are several points in response:

  1. First, what exactly is "knows all the gospels but has only heard of Matthew and Mark" supposed to mean? I simply have no idea what "knows all the gospels" is supposed to mean, and the assertion, "but has only heard of Matthew and Mark" is extremely misleading. More accurately, Papias only mentions Matthew and Mark in the passage we have concerning what he says about gospel authorship. To conclude that Papias "has only heard" of the gospels mentioned in this passage requires an enormous leap of logic. He could simply not have written anything about the other gospels. We simply do not know.
  2. Second, ignoring everything else, it remains that Papias wrote about Matthew and Mark, and that Papias lived at a time that was very close to the time that the original authors would have lived. There are strong arguments that Papias's writing demonstrates that Mark was indeed the author of Mark and that Matthew's writing was likely the foundation upon which the Greek version of Matthew was based. Zindler unjustifiably dismisses the weight of Papias's writing by making another misleading statement concerning Justin Martyr, which we will examine in the third point below. For more information, see Papias and gospel authorship.
  3. Papias writes that Justin Martyr "knows of none of the four supposed authors," which is another very misleading statement. Just because Martyr does not mention any of the authors by name does not at all mean that he "knows of none of the four supposed authors." Zindler is making a completely unjustified assertion here, and not only that, Martyr's writings contain information that is relevant to Mark's authorship, which we will examine in the fourth point below.
  4. In his writings, Martyr mentions the "memoirs of [Peter]," and says that in these memoirs, it is written that Jesus changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter and also changed the name of the sons of Zebedee to Boanerges, meaning sons of thunder. These two events are not in the so-called Gospel of Peter, but they are both in the Gospel of Mark, and the second event is found only in Mark. Furthermore, Papias wrote that Mark was Peter's interpreter, which would lead us to believe that Mark was the author of Peter's memoirs. For more information, see Justin Martyr and the Authorship of Mark?

Irenaeus

It is only in 180 CE, with Irenaeus of Lyons, that we learn who wrote the four "canonical" gospels and discover that there are exactly four of them because there are four quarters of the earth and four universal winds. Thus, unless one supposes the argument of Irenaeus to be other than ridiculous, we come to the conclusion that the gospels are of unknown origin and authorship, and there is no good reason to suppose they are eye-witness accounts of a man named Jesus of Nazareth.

There is a huge problem with Zindler's logic here. To dismiss Irenaeus's statements concerning the authorship of the gospels simply because he finds something else Irenaeus wrote to be "ridiculous" is not logical at all. What Irenaeus says concerning the authorship of the gospels does not become negated because of something else Irenaeus says that is really not relevant to the dicussion of authorship.

Because of all this, The conclusion that Zindler reaches is not at all valid. The writings of Papias, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus, as well as the lack of debate during this time concerning the authorship of the gospels, all point towards the traditional view that the gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

At a minimum, this forces us to examine the gospels to see if their contents are even compatible with the notion that they were written by eye-witnesses. We cannot even assume that each of the gospels had but one author or redactor.

Of course, we should examine these questions, but so far, we do not have good reason to believe anything other than that the gospels were each written by one author, and that these authors were eyewitnesses.

Matthew and Luke's usage of Mark

It is clear that the gospels of Matthew and Luke could not possibly have been written by an eye-witness of the tales they tell. Both writers plagiarize (largely word-for-word) up to 90% of the gospel of Mark, to which they add sayings of Jesus and would-be historical details.

Again, this is absolutely terrible reasoning from Zindler, as well as deceptive wording. A more position way of phrasing what Zindler writes is, "Both writers use Mark as a source, and they include additional details in specific ways to emphasize the particular message they are trying to communicate."

That Matthew and Luke utilized ("plagiarized" is an unnecessarily loaded term) Mark does not at all lead to the conclusion that "Matthew and Luke could not possibly have been written by an eye-witness of the tales they tell."

Matthew and Luke's genealogies

Ignoring the fact that Matthew and Luke contradict each other in such critical details as the genealogy of Jesus – and thus cannot both be correct –

There are several legitimate explanations for the seeming discrepancy between Matthew and Luke's genealogies.

Work in progress...

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