I was recently challenged on why I use the fact that the great majority of historians say that Jesus existed or that the majority of Josephus scholars acknowledge that Josephus said something about Jesus, although Christians expanded his bare description. That is a fair question. After all, critics could say that the majority of scientists say that there is no God or the majority of philosophers say the Bible is false. The truth is not determined just be a head count. This is a good thing to be reflecting on. Here are some things to consider.
1) When looking at the number of scholars saying something, take note of what their area of expertise is
A scientist says there is no God. Is that because he has done some research that seems to point to the non-existence of God (I can’t imagine what that would be) or is that his personal opinion, separate from the fact that he is a scientist? Does the philosopher have training in biblical studies, or does her worldview require that the Bible be false, even without examination? The same goes for the deity of Christ. A historian is qualified to say that the earliest followers of Jesus understood him to be divine, but cannot say, as a historian, that he was divine. So when I say that historians say that Jesus was a historical figure, I am drawing on their historical expertise and not their religious faith.
2. Is the conclusion based on a scholarly theory of doing things or is it based on religiously or philosophically charged emotions?
Christians have reasons for wanting to believe Jesus existed. Jesus mythicists and some atheists have reasons for not wanting Jesus to exist. That cannot be our starting point. Our starting point has to be about how we do history, what kinds of texts are considered useful, what standards are practical and generally how we would determine that any given figure was historical rather than a myth. Once we have that historical method, then we can see how Jesus either meets or fails these standards. It is based on this practice that I value the fact that the majority of historians believe Jesus existed. If I thought it was based on the majority of historians’ religious faith, I would not use that argument.
3. Sometimes the majority of scholars hold a position because it is true
I believe the earth is round and I believe that men landed on the moon. The majority of people do believe this. It is not true because the majority believe it but the majority believe it because it is true. Sometimes the conspiracy theory is just false.
4. I talk about the majority of scholars believing that Jesus existed, not to silence objection, but to get people to think
I understand that there is something romantic about being the persecuted minority that knows the truth, fighting the system and working against the lies of the majority. But for a moment, ask yourself: Why is it that it is not just evangelical and Roman Catholic scholars who believe that Jesus existed? Why is it that almost every scholar, conservative or liberal, religious or secular, western or eastern, understands Jesus to be a historical figure? If it is not pressure from the church or nostalgic religious feelings, what is it that ties these scholars together? Could it be their historical training, their understanding of how to use texts and investigate history? Could it be that they are holding Jesus to the same standards that they use for other historical figures? This may not change your mind, but I hope it will make you think.