Tom Harpur: Several Arguments for Jesus' Existence

Historians in the News

Barry Henaut, from the Toronto Star (6-11-05)

[Mr. Henaut holds a Ph.D. in Early Christian Literature from the University of Toronto.]

Tom Harpur, in his book The Pagan Christ, advances the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth may not have been an actual historical person and that the gospel figure familiar to us is a mythic creation of the early Church.

There are, admittedly, few non-Christian sources from the first century after his death which refer to Jesus. Those that do, like Tacitus or Suetonius, can be said to reflect second-hand information likely derived from the local Christian community itself. But there is nothing unusual in this.

During his short public ministry, Jesus was a wandering sage with a small following in an "obscure" corner of the world from Rome's perspective. Why would its historians take note of him?

There is also a scarcity of references by non-Christian historians to Christianity itself, despite the early Church's rapid spread throughout the Roman Empire. This silence cuts both ways.

The testimony of the Jewish historian Josephus is also problematic since it says Jesus was the Christ and that after his death he appeared to his disciples. But if these aspects of the text are viewed as an interpolation into a shorter but authentic reference to Jesus as a wise man then we are left with a text little different from Josephus's reconstruction of numerous other Jewish holy men.

Harpur's theory also involves the paradox that while Jesus didn't exist, his brother James, did. There is a reference to James in Josephus that cannot be so easily expunged as an interpolation, and Paul indicates he visited James in Jerusalem. Surely James would have remembered that he never had a brother named Jesus!...

...Greater care must be used applying the "argument from silence" than Harpur admits. For example, a surprising number of important scholars on the historical Jesus - Rudolf Bultmann, Joachim Jeremias, and Geza Vermes - are not mentioned in his index or bibliography. Are we to conclude Harpur is unaware of these scholars?

What survives in the historical record is often not what we might expect or find convenient. Not until 1990 was the family burial tomb of the High Priest Caiaphas discovered near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This hardly should be viewed as finally providing the necessary proof that he in fact did exist.

Direct evidence for Jesus' existence in non-Christian sources or the archeological record may not yet be conclusive, but the other evidence for his existence is still indisputable.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Phil Whitney - 6/3/2006

A book has just been published that refutes Tom Harpur's The Pagan Christ:

Stanley E. Porter & Stephen J. Bedard, Unmasking the Pagan Christ: An Evangelical Response to the Cosmic Christ Idea (Toronto: Clements Publishing, 2006), 172 pages.
ISBN: 1894667719