Last week, Our Weekly spoke to a few theologians about the story of Jesus, explaining away some questions that have possibly run through the minds of curious believers and non-believers.
This week, we spoke to Byron R. McCane Ph.D., a professor of religion at Wofford College and a professional archaeologist. He answered some of the burning questions both sides of the argument have asked in the past, including uncovering the misconception of the Shroud of Turin. Without disclosing his religious affiliation, McCane carefully answered each question according to a historian’s research, void of a theological perspective.
Our Weekly: Was Jesus a real man? How do we know?
Byron McCane: The assertion that Jesus did not exist is not taken seriously by scholars either in the field of religion or history. That is an idea that has periodically surfaced in the world of scholarship and been repeatedly been rejected. No serious historian has any doubts that Jesus existed. We have the accounts in the Gospels to start with, but then there are sources from the ancient world, Josephus, Tacitus who mention Jesus. The work of archaeologists, the work we do in digging, helps us see that many of the stories of the Gospels do cohere very closely with what we know was very ordinary, typical life in the first century in Galilee.
OW: Is the story of Jesus like other mythological stories of ancient days? Could they possibly be the same ones?
BM: … Everyone is unique and no one is unique… Historians and scholars of religion and the Bible and working with Jesus don’t talk about uniqueness… of course his story resembles a lot about the ancient world, and of course it’s distinctive in many ways. But I don’t think any important conclusions can be made about that. Is Jesus different than anybody else? Yes. Is he a lot like everybody else? Yes.
OW: Is the Bible a viable resource for proving Jesus?
BM: Of course it is. But like every source, it has to be used by historians with care and scrutiny. People didn’t do it back then and they don’t do it today, write things just as a leisure time activity. They wrote things because they cared passionately to write them. Every source has a point of view that has to be taken into account. Sometimes when we get a little bit cynical, historians say when looking at ancient sources, ‘Why is this source lying to me.’ It’s not necessarily that they are all trying to lie to us, but every writer can see certain things and can’t see others. Or see certain things and highlight them and sees other things but wants our attention directed away from (it). So we handle the Bible just like we handle every other source. We try to see what the writer was trying to accomplish and we try to sift through those motives and the way the story is told. What we look for is the convergence of multiple lines of different kinds of evidence.
OW: What extra-biblical sources can we point to regarding the story of Jesus?
BM: There’s lots of stuff. I think if you want to learn about Jesus in particular, the two most important, most valuable historical sources are the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus who mentions Jesus. The other one would be the Roman historian Tacitus. But then it’s very interesting to study what we call other apocalyptic movements in the founding of Judaism during Jesus’ day because there were a number of figures during the first century… who were hailed in various ways, called messiahs. He makes sense in his time and place.
OW: What about the miracles of Jesus?
BM: When the ancient sources talk about Jesus miracles, of course Christian sources take them as true, and as signs that Jesus was the Son of God or the Messiah… The sources outside of Christianity frequently assert that Jesus did these miracles through evil powers. And what’s interesting is that very few ancient resources say that he didn’t do miracles, because miracles in the ancient world weren’t something that people believed in. They thought these things were possible… The Mediterranean world was a civilization without a health care system… so it’s a world without health care and the stories of miracles were more plausible
OW: What ethnicity was Jesus?
BM: Jewish. We feel pretty confident in this — he was from Nazareth. He wouldn’t have looked anything like our American depiction of him… based on skeletal remains and a sample size of over 1000 skelet(ons) that we can get some sense of what a typical person looked like back then. He would have been 5’6″ and would have had a round head, with a Mediterranean complexion, dark hair… I’ll tell you that he wouldn’t have looked like the man of the Shroud of Turin. This is one of the reasons you will never find a practicing archaeologist say this is the burial cloth of Jesus because that’s not a first century Galilean man (on the cloth). Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t bury their dead in a shroud like that either. The size and length of the shroud is long and narrow. They used short strips of cloth. The weave of the shroud was a herringbone weave that wasn’t even invented until several hundred years after Jesus. There’s definitely no doubt that the Shroud of Turin is not the burial cloth of Jesus… That’d be like saying Jesus listened to an iPod.
OW: Was the resurrection mentioned in extra biblical sources?
BM: As part of the apocalyptic movement in Judaism in Jesus’ day (that’s a movement that started 200 years before Jesus) belief in bodily resurrection is a key part. People believed that in the end times, God would intervene and there would be a great day of judgment and all of the dead would be raised bodily, in order to be judged by God and receive exactly what they deserved for the way they lived. So the notion that there would be a bodily resurrection of all the dead is common in Judaism in Jesus’ day. But the idea that one dead person and only one dead person would be raised, was pretty much unheard of. This we didn’t see before Christianity comes along. That’s innovative in the religion of Judaism of that time.