My Great Grandfather skipped town and left his family sometime in the late 1930s. No one ever saw him again – there were no verified sightings, anyway. There were stories, though. One of his children claimed to have seen him soon after he left. A family friend thought they might have caught a glimpse of him checking in on his family many years later. But ultimately, there were never any reconciliations, letters, birthday cards, or even an obituary to indicate when he died. He was just gone.
I know very little about my Great Grandfather. His name was Alfred P. Jonas, he was born in 1894 in New York, he later moved to Western Wisconsin, and he married my Great Grandmother in the late 1920s. That’s about the extent of my insight into who he was. I have no anecdotes, no pictures, and I have no idea what he was like.
If a person investigated my Great Grandfather, going on physical evidence alone, they might conclude that he never existed. Yet this conclusion is absurd at face value. I exist. I am his great Grandson. Therefore, Alfred Jonas must have existed!
According to people who defend Jesus’ existence (even well-respected, secular scholars, such as Bart Ehrman), the scenario I described with my Great Grandfather is the logical equivalent to the argument from silence that mythicists wage against Jesus’ existence.
In fact, Jesus’ historicity is *more plausible* than my Great Grandfathers because plenty of people claimed to have known Jesus, and there’s all sorts of stories about him. We even have paintings of him (he looked curiously European, as it turns out). Therefore, according to all those who defend Jesus, he must have existed.
*This is what the Jesus who lived just north of Egypt looked like
Of course, no one ever claimed that my Great Grandfather rose from the dead, or performed other magic tricks. So the analogy falls apart in that regard.
One of the underlying components to the heuristic a person could use to determine whether or not Alfred P. Jonas ever existed is to assess the credibility of my claim that he did exist. They can also refer to other independent sources to determine whether he was real, or they could interview other family members closer to him than I was, and they can eventually get a rough idea of whether he was real, or just a figment of my imagination.
In other words, a person’s existence does not rely entirely on whether there is an abundance of physical evidence. Taking a pragmatic approach, we can follow the bread crumbs to determine the likelihood of a person, including a non-magical, non-supernatural Jesus, which is what most secular scholars claim (or assume).
We actually have analogous historical characters that are easier to verify, and who supposedly had a fairly close connection to this Jesus guy – certainly a closer relationship to Jesus than I ever had to my Great Grandfather.
For instance, we have Polycarp – the beloved Catholic Saint, whose existence was verified and authenticated by Saint Irenaeus, the beloved heresiologist. Saint Irenaeus tells us that Polycarp was a student of the Apostle John – son of Zebedee, brother of James, and in Jesus’ inner circle.
That does it then, doesn’t it? If Saint Irenaeus said that Saint Polycarp was a student of John the Apostle, well then, it must be true. How could it not be? Irenaeus was a saint, after all…Polycarp was a saint, too. It’s a good thing we have bold, obvious, and meaningful titles to refer to when assessing the credibility of early Christian figures. Otherwise, we might be suspicious of such a claim, considering there’s no good evidence nor secular corroboration that the Apostle John ever existed, either.
Of course, the Catholic church isn’t so quick to believe Polycarp’s contemporaries. Valentinus claimed to be a student of Theudas, Paul’s disciple. They don’t believe Basilides, either, who claimed he was a student of Glaucias, an interpreter of Saint Peter. In fact, the Catholic church disbelieved these guys so much, that they swept them under history’s rug – they hid all evidence for their existence, as much as they could, and they were still killing people, hundreds of years later, who did believe them. The church was so successful in hiding this part of history, that the bulk of the evidence we have for these guys comes from long-lost scrolls hidden in caves – lost for millenia…and we’ve got some accounts by the Saints who originally deemed them Godless heretics, beginning with Saint Ireneaus!
The fact that we can find these early Gnostics in history at all is a testament to how enormously popular they were, and how much loyalty their followers showed to them.
Why shouldn’t we believe that Basilides and Valentinus had similar levels of apostolic authority as Polycarp? Why does Polycarp get a pass, while Basilides and Valentinus don’t?
One might (and the Catholic church does) point to Polycarp’s peers who also learned from the great apostle: Ignatius and Clement. It certainly adds an extra layer of authenticity to have people who corroborated Polycarp’s story, aside from Saint Irenaeus (who has been dubiously claimed as a student of Polycarp…but wasn’t he Justin Martyr’s student?). The trouble with Polycarp’s supposed corroboration is that the surviving works of Ignatius and Clement present stories that are not plausible (Ignatius was supposedly locked up by Rome, but was allowed to send out letters detailing his imprisonment – characterized by being hauled all around the empire, and eventually being eaten by lions), nor is there widespread scholarly consensus about their authenticity. It’s actually more likely that the extant writings of Ignatius and Clement are later forgeries, as were most early Christian writings.
But why on earth would Saint Irenaeus or some other early church leader forge letters that would authenticate Polycarp’s biography? Hmm…
Could it be that the 2nd century church was so desperate to validate Jesus’ historical existence that they invented a boatload of whoppers, such as those recited by Irenaeus, as well as those presented in the Acts of the Apostles? After all, there were plenty of “Acts” books that never made it to the official canon. What makes Acts of the Apostles so special? Oh yeah – Irenaeus validated it. I can see why people think this Jesus-myth-thing is so implausible. With all the great evidence supporting Jesus, why should anyone suspect it’s all a great big lie?