Questioning Jesus at Easter

Easter may be the biggest festival of the year for Christians, but in the UK, Jesus Christ has apparently slipped to fourth place on the list of things most people associate with Easter. Ranking just above the Easter bunny and just below hot cross buns, only 55% of people connect Easter with Jesus, according to a new YouGov survey. That figure drops to 44% for 18-24 year-olds. Here’s the YouGov top five:

Chocolate Easter eggs (76%)
Bank holiday (67%)
Hot cross buns (62%)
Jesus Christ (55%)
Easter bunny (49%)

Several commenters on the YouGov website blamed slipping educational standards for the decline of knowledge about Jesus, but others linked the survey to research carried out in 2015 by the Church of England and others which found that 39% of adults in England did not believe Jesus was a real historical figure. The theory that Jesus never existed at all (known as mythicism) has very little support among scholars, including atheist writers, but an exception is a new bestselling book, Décadence (subtitle: ‘From Jesus to Bin Laden: The Life and Death of the West’), by the French pop philosopher Michel Onfray. Onfray claims that the central story of the West is a lie and that Jesus of Nazareth is a fiction.

Prompted by the debate, Simon Gathercole, Reader in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge, wrote about the case for the historical existence of Jesus in The Guardian for Easter. Gathercole argues for a real, flesh and blood Jesus and says that ‘the documents produced by Christian, Jewish and Roman writers form the most significant evidence.’ Responding to the question, ‘Did ancient writers discuss the existence of Jesus?’, he says:

Strikingly, there was never any debate in the ancient world about whether Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. In the earliest literature of the Jewish Rabbis, Jesus was denounced as the illegitimate child of Mary and a sorcerer. Among pagans, the satirist Lucian and philosopher Celsus dismissed Jesus as a scoundrel, but we know of no one in the ancient world who questioned whether Jesus lived.

Simon Gathercole also says that the historical evidence for Jesus is both early and widespread:

Within a few decades of his supposed lifetime, he is mentioned by Jewish and Roman historians, as well as by dozens of Christian writings. Compare that with, for example, King Arthur, who supposedly lived around AD500. The major historical source for events of that time does not even mention Arthur, and he is first referred to 300 or 400 years after he is supposed to have lived. The evidence for Jesus is not limited to later folklore, as are accounts of Arthur.

Gathercole concludes: ‘These abundant historical references leave us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. The more interesting question – which goes beyond history and objective fact – is whether Jesus died and lived.’

Also interviewed at Easter about the historical existence of Jesus was Richard Burridge, Professor of Biblical Interpretation at King’s College London. He said:

I am as convinced that Jesus of Nazareth existed as I am that anybody else in the ancient world existed, not least because everything has a cause and effect… The church was caused by the Jesus movement. If Jesus of Nazareth hadn’t existed, there must have been someone else very much like him.

Richard Carrier, the author of On the Historicity of Jesus, and a foremost proponent of mythicism, debated Mark Goodacre, Associate Professor in New Testament at Duke University, North Carolina, on Premier Radio’s Unbelievable show in 2012. Listen to their debate here.

Read the full Guardian article here.

Photo: ATOMIC Hot Links