As we come up to Easter, we face the inevitable flood of sceptical articles and programmes about Jesus and the Gospel. Some of them ask good questions (to which good answers exist), others are just silly. In this short series, God willing, I shall deal with some of the latter type.
1. "There's no archaeological evidence Jesus ever existed."
This is a depressingly common one. Depressing because it evidences a total ignorance of how we do archaeology, and what archaeology can do. I recently came up against this idea on another blog, in the comments. I responded:
"My dear Anonymous, we have four accounts of the life of Jesus, plus a whole religion based on him. What else do you want? I know of NO credible historian who would agree with the proposition that we don't know if Jesus existed or not! Obviously they debate whether or not he really was all Christians believe he was, but there is pretty much a consensus that a man called Jesus of Nazareth was crucified outside Jerusalem some time between about AD 30 and 35.
"Given that he was a teacher from a peasant background, what archaeological evidence would he have left that we could pin on him? What archaeological evidence do we have of Rabbi Akiva? Or Philo of Alexandria for that matter!"
We are also faced with the fact that Jerusalem has been destroyed several times since the time of Jesus. The climate in Jerusalem is such that anything written on anything other than stone would have perished long ago, and the stone has been re-used and damaged. So we really have a very slim chance of finding any objects that can be associated with any individual from that period.
It gets worse. Jesus was a peasant from Galilee. Those whose names are preserved in stone inscriptions are the upper classes, but Jesus appealed to the outcasts of society. He was not a priest or associated with the government. Jesus did not own a fancy rock-cut tomb, and since he rose from the dead, his bones were never placed in an ossuary.
Result? We ought not to expect to find any direct archaeological 'evidence' for the existence of Jesus. He is, however, so well-attested in literature that it is quite absurd to suggest that this shows he did not exist. A good comparison is with the aforementioned Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, about whom we know much less. Like Akiva and Philo, Jesus was primarily known as a teacher, and thus did not leave the sort of monuments that archaeology can unearth. Rather his monument is in his teaching.
Of course, Jesus is more than a teacher, he is the saviour of the world, but on earth he was known primarily as a teacher. So ask those who say "there's no archaeological evidence Jesus existed," what sort of evidence they would expect there to be. Then point out that Jesus is in reality one of very many figures of antiquity who are known only from literary sources, and that the literary sources about Jesus are VASTLY superior than they are for any other ancient figure.