The world’s most famous historical figure may also be one of its most elusive. The subject of millions of books, movies and even bumper stickers, Jesus Christ has been an international celebrity for almost 2,000 years.
But when archaeologists try to uncover even a single artifact regarding Jesus’ life, they can find nothing.
“It’s amazing how something you can’t prove scientifically can be so powerful,” said Adjunct Associate Professor of Judaic Studies Katharina Galor. On Sept. 11, she gave a lecture entitled “Jesus: What is the Archaeological Evidence?” at the University of Missouri.
Galor, who has worked for the past 20 years on excavations in Israel, said there is no physical evidence for the existence of Jesus. This, however, is not unusual for figures of his time period – religious artifacts from this era that can be traced to specific individuals are exceedingly rare, Galor said.
“Belief is defined mostly by words … and by emotions,” Galor explained, rather than by objects that people use in their daily lives that could be excavated thousands of years later. “It’s just like today. You would not necessarily be able to differentiate a Jew from a Christian or a Muslim. They use the same utensils to eat, they wear the same clothes.”
University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson echoed this inability to pinpoint a given faith’s archaeological footprint. “What are the artifacts of religion?” she asked. She said she feels religious truth does not lie solely in facts that can be proven by science. “What turns the course of history for Christianity is not the cobblestones that Jesus walked on.”
Though historians and Christians generally do not dispute the absence of archaeological evidence for Jesus’ life, neither group seems to believe that this disproves his existence.
“We don’t have any irrefutable historical evidence that there really was such a person,” said Professor of Religious Studies Ross Kraemer, who specializes in religion in antiquity, especially Christianity. “This isn’t going to bother many people.” Concrete evidence that could disprove the existence of Jesus or his resurrection would probably pose much greater problems for believers than the current lack of evidence, she said.
Kraemer, who is not a Christian, said she does not have to reconcile the historical evidence with her own faith, but that many Christian scholars do. “My informal sense … is that there’s a lot more at stake in these debates about Jesus than in, let’s say … debates about Socrates,” she said. “The vast majority of historical work that’s done on early Christianity is done by Christians.”
“Most people agree that Jesus existed,” said Philip Burns ’09, president of the Brown Christian Fellowship. “What’s controversial is, ‘Did he resurrect?’”
Tradition is central in Catholicism, explained Catholic Campus Minister Angie McParland. “Maybe archaeological evidence is the wrong search.”
Rather than scrutinizing the details of Jesus’ life, she said her religion is interested in the long history of Church practices from biblical times to the present. “That’s the goal,” she said. “It’s really important that the Church be continuous from the time of Christ to the present day.”
Nathaniel Johnson ’10, a leader in the Brown Christian Fellowship, agreed that his faith in Jesus is independent of the scientific evidence. “I’m pretty skeptical about a lot of people’s efforts to construct the historical Jesus,” he said. “At this point, I would say the basis of my faith is in experience. I know that Jesus saved me.” However, he said he welcomes any new findings because they give him a historical context and force him to construct more nuanced beliefs.
But even though most seem to be able to dismiss the lack of archaeological evidence as irrelevant to their beliefs, many believers said they often grapple with the question of Jesus’ existence and identity.
“Every single day I wonder if there are millions of people around the world praying to and worshipping … nothingness,” said Alex Schultz ’11, a Roman Catholic. Despite her concerns about the plausibility of Jesus’s story, Schultz said she believes in Jesus both as a historical figure and a divine entity.
“If you say it out loud it sounds so stupid,” she said, “but if I’m ever going through something that’s really difficult, I always feel like there’s somebody there … who’s looking over me.”
Associate Protestant Chaplain William Mathis said he struggles with “who Jesus is” even though he’s a minister. He added that his faith is based largely on the texts that describe Jesus’ life and on his personal relationship with God.
Mathis spent years studying scripture and the historical roots of Christianity. “There’s plenty in there for me to say that this Jesus thing is a whole bunch of crock.” However, he said, his personal relationship with God repeatedly reaffirms his belief.
In the end, nearly all Christians interviewed by The Herald placed great importance on the physical existence of Jesus, even as they questioned the relevance of the archeological evidence.
“It’s important to me that Jesus actually physically existed,” said Johnson, a leader of the Brown Christian Fellowship.
Jesus as a historical figure is “incredibly important,” said Burns, the fellowship’s president. “The whole point of Jesus is that he’s God become man. You can’t separate the divine aspect and the human aspect.”