January 05, 2006

Jesus On Trial

{So, has anyone else noticed that in spite of my resolution to post proactively, everything I've done so far has been reactive?}

Luigi Cascioli, a retired agronomist and atheist, is taking the Roman Catholic Church to court for "abusing popular credibility" by teaching that Jesus existed. A Catholic priest, Father Enrico Righi, is the immediate defendant, but the precedent that the case could set is clear -- if Father Righi is found guilty, the rest of the Catholic Church will also be guilty of breaking that same law. From the Times of London:

[Cascioli] argued that all claims for the existence of Jesus from sources other than the Bible stem from authors who lived 'after the time of the hypothetical Jesus' and were therefore not reliable witnesses.

Signor Cascioli maintains that early Christian writers confused Jesus with John of Gamala, an anti-Roman Jewish insurgent in 1st-century Palestine. Church authorities were therefore guilty of 'substitution of persons'.

Cascioli's arguments rely on a late dating of the Gospels that most scholars have rejected in recent years. But even without that point, the merits of the lawsuit are questionable.

Jesus was, until late in the first century, an obscure figure who was put to death at a young age in a backwater part of the Roman Empire. He certainly would not have attracted much Roman attention. Most people in Rome would not have heard of Christ until after 70 AD, when Jews driven from Jerusalem arrived in Rome. And even they wouldn't have necessarily talked about Jesus. They wanted a political savior, not a religious nut who got himself crucified. The fact that we know anything about Christ at all is unusual. The fact that no Roman historians of the period wrote much about him shouldn't surprise us at all.

Cascioli writes off Tacitus, who mentions followers of Christ in his Annals. (I won't talk about Josephus, because his most famous reference is of questionable authenticity, and his reliability as an historian is something that I personally question.) He ignores the fact that there were people, living within 100 years of Christ's death, who were willing to die for their belief in him.

Of course, I'm not sure that Cascioli really exists. All I've seen are pictures (easily faked) and interviews with a man claiming to be Luigi Cascioli. And I'm sure that in a hundred years or so, nobody will believe that I really existed -- based on the same requirements that Cascioli places on Jesus of Nazareth. And we can't prove that anyone existed at the time of Christ based on his requirements. So unless we believe that Judea in the first century was a pretty desolate place, we have to allow for the existence of people who were not written about by Roman historians. That would include Jesus of Nazareth -- no matter what you may think of the religion that has grown up around Him.

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 08:36 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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