Jesus existed. In yesterday’s post, I began to show how Jesus is the best attested Palestinian Jew of the first century if we look only at external evidence. Josephus is better attested because we have his own writings. I am also not including Paul because I’m talking only about Jews from Palestine; he was from the Diaspora.
The Gospel Sources
We have four narrative accounts of Jesus’ life and death, written by different people at different times and in different places, based on numerous sources that no longer survive. Jesus was not invented by Mark. He was also known to Matthew, Luke, and John, and to the sources which they used (Q, M, L, and the various sources of John).
All of this was within the first century.
Non-New Testament & Non-Gospel Sources – We Have Many!
This is not to mention sources from outside the New Testament that know that Jesus was a historical figure – for example, 1 Clement and the documents that make up the Didache. Or — need I say it? – every other author of the New Testament (there are sixteen NT authors altogether, so twelve who did not write Gospels), none of whom knew any of the Gospels (except for the author of 1, 2, and 3 John who may have known the fourth Gospel).
By my count that’s something like twenty-five authors, not counting the authors of the sources (another six or seven) on which the Gospels were based (and the sources on which the book of Acts was based, which were different again).
How We Know Jesus Wasn’t “Made Up”
If there had been one source of Christian antiquity that mentioned a historical Jesus (e.g., Mark) and everyone else was based on what that source had to say, then possibly you could argue that this person made Jesus up and everyone else simply took the ball and ran with it.
But how can you make a convincing case if we’re talking about thirty or so independent sources that know there was a man Jesus? These sources are not all living in the same village someplace so they are egging each other on. They didn’t compare notes. They are independent of one another and are scattered throughout the Mediterranean. They each have heard about the man Jesus from their own sources of information, which heard about him from their own sources of information.
That must mean that there were hundreds of people at the least who were talking about the man Jesus. One of them was the apostle Paul, who was talking about Jesus by at least the year 32 CE, that is, two years after the date of Jesus’ death.
Paul, as I will point out, actually knew, personally, Jesus’ own brother James and his closest disciples Peter and John. That’s more or less a death knell for the Mythicist position, as some of them admit. I’ll get to Paul in a subsequent note. Here I am simply stressing that the Gospel traditions themselves provide clear evidence that Jesus was being talked about just a few years after his life in Roman Palestine.
There is more. Good evidence shows that some of the Gospel accounts clearly go back to traditions about Jesus in circulation, originally, in Aramaic, the language of Roman Palestine, where Jesus himself lived. One piece of evidence is that Aramaic words occasionally appear in stories about Jesus, often at the climactic moment. This happens in a variety of stories from a variety of sources. For example, In Mark 5 Jesus raises the daughter of a man named Jairus from the dead. When he comes into her room and raises her, he says to her “Talitha cumi.” The author of Mark translates for us: “Little girl, arise.”
Why would the author leave the key sentence in Aramaic? If you have ever had bi-lingual friends who assume you too know their second language and have heard them tell a joke about something that happened in the other country, you will know that sometimes they give the punch line in the other language, even though the lead up to the line is in English. That’s because often the punch line packs a better punch than the original.
I had a professor who used to do that with us as graduate students about something that had happened to him in Germany. It used to drive us nuts because even though we were able to read German, we weren’t fluent, and half the time we didn’t know what he was saying. We laughed heartily, though, since there’s no way on God’s green earth we were going to let on that we couldn’t follow German…..
This story about Jairus’s daughter, then, was originally told in Aramaic and was later translated into Greek, with the key line left in the original. So too with several stories in a completely different Gospel, the Gospel of John. It happens three times in just 1:35-42. This is a story that circulated in Aramaic-speaking Palestine, the homeland of Jesus and his disciples.
Traditions Stemming from Aramaic
The other reason for knowing that a tradition was originally in Aramaic is because it makes better sense when translated *back* into Aramaic than it does in Greek.
My favorite illustration of this is Jesus’ famous saying: “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; therefore the Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). The context: Jesus’ disciples have been eating grain from a field on the Sabbath day; the Pharisees object, and Jesus explains that it is permissible to meet human needs on the Sabbath. Then his clever one-liner.
But the one-liner doesn’t make sense. Why would the Son of Man (Jesus) be Lord of the Sabbath BECAUSE Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around? In other words, when he says “therefore” the Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath, what is the “therefore” there for?
The logic doesn’t work in Greek (or English). But it would work in Aramaic. That’s because in Aramaic the word for “man” and the word for “son of man” are the same word: “Bar enash” (could be translated either way). And so what Jesus said was: “Sabbath was made for bar enash, not bar enash for the Sabbath; therefore bar enash is lord of the Sabbath.” Now it makes sense. The saying was originally transmitted in Aramaic, and when translated into Greek, the translator decided to make the final statement about Jesus, not about humans.
For more about Jesus’ teaching in Aramaic, please see this article.
Reality Check: Jesus Existed
Christianity did not make a big impact on Aramaic-speaking Palestine. The vast majority of Jews in the homeland did not accept Christianity or want anything to do with it. There were not thousands of storytellers there passing on Christian traditions. There were some, of course, especially in Jerusalem.
But the fact that these stories based on Aramaic are scattered throughout our sources suggests that they were in circulation relatively early in the tradition. Most of these are thought to go back to the early decade or two (probably the earliest decade) of transmission. You cannot argue that Jesus was made up by some Greek-speaking Christian after Paul’s letters, for example.
Short story: we are not talking about a Bart Ehrman Jesus figure invented in the year 60. There was widespread information about Jesus from the years after his death. Otherwise, you can’t explain all the literary evidence (dozens of independent sources), some of it based on Aramaic traditions of Jesus’ homeland. But there’s more evidence that clinches the case. I’ll be talking about that in later posts.