Most Australians may doubt the existence of Jesus, but historians do not


A new survey has found that less than half of all Australians believe Jesus was a true historical person. This is bad news for Christianity, especially at Christmas, but it is also bad news for historical literacy.

Each year as Christmas approaches, it is customary for the faithful to read stories in the “secular media” providing a summary of our beloved history. The Bethlehem star never arrived. The three wise men are inventions. And the virgin birth is a typical trope of the ancient myth. But such outrageous claims are generally interpreted in religious circles as click-bait skepticism and are not representative of mainstream Australia.

A poll just released by church-friendly NCLS Research suggests Australians are as disbelieving as the media. The 2021 Australian Community Survey asked a representative sample of Australians: “Which of the following statements best reflects your understanding of Jesus Christ? 22 percent agreed that “Jesus is a mythical or fictional character”; 29 percent said they “don’t know” if Jesus lived; and only 49% said that “Jesus was a real person who really lived”.

This is obviously terrible news for Christianity in Australia. One of the unique selling points of the Christian faith – in the minds of believers – is that it focuses on real events that have occurred in time and space. Christianity is not based on a lonely dream or a private view of someone. It is not just a divine dictation in a holy book to be believed with blind faith. Jesus was a real person, “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, the fifth governor of Judea, as the Symbol of the Apostles says. It seems that many Australians really disagree.

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But, frankly, this new survey is also bad news for historic literacy. This reported majority view is not shared by the overwhelming consensus of academic historians specializing in the Roman and Jewish worlds of the first century. Whether Jesus is a “mythical or fictional character,” this news has not yet reached the standard collections of secular historical scholarship.

Take the famous single volume Oxford Classic Dictionary. Every classic has it in its library. It sums up scholarship on all things Greek and Roman in just over 1,700 pages. There is a multi-page entry on the origins of Christianity that begins with an assessment of what can be reliably known about Jesus of Nazareth. Readers will find that no doubt is raised about the basic facts of Jesus’ life and death.

Or take the much bigger Cambridge ancient history in 14 volumes. Volume 10 covers the “period of Augustus,” roughly around the time Tiberius, Livia, Pliny the Elder and, yes, Jesus all lived. It contains an important chapter on the birth of Christianity. The entry begins with a few pages describing what is known about the life and death of Jesus, including his preaching of the kingdom of God, his fellowship with sinners, and more. No doubt is raised as to the authenticity of these essential elements.

Not wanting to stress this point, but we could also turn to the Compendium of Jewish History, the Cambridge History of Judaism in four volumes. Volume 3 covers the “early Roman period”. Several different chapters make passing reference to Jesus as an interesting figure in Jewish history. One chapter – 60 pages – focuses entirely on Jesus and is written by two leading scholars, neither of whom have qualms about rejecting pieces of the New Testament when they think the evidence is against it. The chapter offers a first-rate account of what experts currently think of the historical Jesus. His teaching, his fame as a healer, his openness to sinners, the selection of the “twelve” (apostles), prophetic actions (like the cleansing of the temple), clashes with the elites and, of course, and his death on a cross are all treated as beyond a reasonable doubt. The authors do not address the resurrection (unsurprisingly), but they do acknowledge, as a historical fact, that the first disciples of Jesus “were absolutely convinced that Jesus of Nazareth had risen and was Lord and that many of them were certain. that it had appeared to them.

There is a reason for this consensus. When you apply the normal rules of history to Jesus of Nazareth, this figure is clearly historical, not mythical. The ancient and various sources we have put its existence (and much more) beyond a reasonable doubt. Maybe only 49% of Australians think ‘Jesus was a real person’, but I bet 99% of professional historians in ancient times – atheists, Christians, Jews or whatever – would agree with this view. minority.

In 2014, in a rush of blood to my head, I offered a cheeky bet, first on Twitter and then in an article for the ABC: I’ll eat a page of my Bible if anyone can find a full professor. history, Classics, or New Testament to any real university in the world that claims Jesus never lived. My Bible has been safe for the past seven years. Philosophy teachers, of course. English literature or German language teachers, yes. But no professor in the relevant fields has yet been appointed.

Perhaps such a scholar exists somewhere. There are thousands to choose from. So I prepared the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (which tells of the birth of Jesus). I’m ready to rip it off, cut it and eat it with my Christmas pudding. But in the meantime, I will lament not only the growing skepticism in Australia towards Christianity, but also our historic declining literacy.

John dickson is an author and historian, and host of the Undeceptions podcast. He holds a PhD in Ancient History from Macquarie University and is a Visiting Professor (2016-2022) at the Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford.


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