This is a superb article, and worth quoting at length because the SMH will make you pay for it after three weeks! I don’t know that Dickson is saying anything new, but what he does say is worth repeating given the attacks on Jesus (as well as Christianity in particular and religion in general) in the past few years.

Easter highlights the risky, even vulnerable, position of the
world’s 2 billion Christians. I am not just thinking of the
blockbuster headlines that frequently coincide with their holy days
– the discovery of Jesus’ tomb (complete with his remains), reports
of his marriage to Mary Magdalene, and so on.

There is something about Christianity itself that puts believers
in a precarious situation. I am talking about the overtly
historical claims of this particular faith. Reports of the public
execution of a famous teacher and healer, not to mention his
supposed resurrection, are just asking for a raised eyebrow. The
logic is simple: if you say that something spectacular took place
on the stage of history, thoughtful people are going to ask you
historical questions. It is as if Christianity happily places its
neck on the chopping block of public scrutiny and invites anyone
who wishes to come and take a swing.

And swing they do. Professor Richard Dawkins of the University
of Oxford tells us in
The God Delusion that a “serious”
historical case can be made “that Jesus never lived at all”. In
The Atheist Manifesto the French philosopher Michel Onfray
contends that from start to finish Jesus was “a trick born of the
rational mind”. He finds the crucifixion story particularly
implausible. “At that time,” he assures us, “Jews were not
crucified but stoned to death.” And, finally, in the provocative
God Is Not Great Christopher Hitchens speaks of Jesus’
“highly questionable existence” and says of the resurrection: “We
have a right, if not an obligation, to respect ourselves enough to
disbelieve the whole thing.” Suddenly, all the events of Easter –
Jesus’ existence, crucifixion and resurrection – disappear in a
moment of dogmatic unbelief, and those with even a faint inkling
about the significance of Jesus are made to feel foolish.


How do Christians cope with this chorus of scepticism? Some
adopt an accommodating stance. They retreat from the traditional
claims of Christianity and opt for a spiritualised version of the
message: Jesus is not so much the crucified and risen Saviour as
the pious sage whose wisdom touches the soul. This is an old
tradition going back to the Gnostics of the second and third
centuries. They produced counter-Gospels in which Jesus is stripped
of his historical particularity as a Jewish prophet, healer and
martyr and is recast as a transcendent figure whose teaching unites
us to the Divine. Such a Jesus is unassailable to historical
doubters because his actual history is irrelevant. Curiously, you
are more likely to find this figure in an Easter sermon of a
mainstream church than in an ancient history lecture at a
university. It is questionable theology but it is even worse
history.

Other Christians take an entirely different route. Offended by
the caustic criticisms of the nouveau atheists and disdainful of
the accommodating strategy of the liberals, some attempt to defend
every historical detail of the Gospel record. In the past 30 years
quite an industry has arisen dedicated to confirming the entire
Jesus story from virgin birth to heavenly ascension. “Apologetics”,
as it is called, fills many a wall in the Christian bookshops of
the world. It is a mixed bag. Some of it is measured and
well-informed. Some of it makes the historian – especially the
Christian historian – cringe. I don’t know how many times I have
heard well-meaning believers say “there is more evidence for Jesus
Christ than for Julius Caesar”. The statement is based on the
observation that Caesar’s
Wars has survived in just 10
ancient manuscript copies, whereas the New Testament has survived
in several thousand. It sounds impressive but it is misleading. The
huge number of New Testament manuscripts does help scholars
reconstruct what was in the original text but it tells us nothing
about whether the reported events were accurately recorded in the
first place. A well-preserved mistake is still a mistake. In any
case, the existence of Julius Caesar is confirmed by independent
inscriptions and coins (things not normally granted to Galilean
carpenters). Christian apologetics is sometimes the mirror image of
atheist apologetics – marked by rhetoric and overstatement rather
than responsible scholarship.

Outside this triangle of sceptics, accommodators and apologists
there is another group of men and women who number in the
thousands, whose works fill the academic libraries and journals of
the world and yet whose views are rarely considered in popular
discussion of this topic. I am talking about professional biblical
historians: not professors of theology in religious institutions
but university historians specialising in the language, literature
and culture of the biblical period. Be they Christian, Jewish or
agnostic, such scholars shun both overreaching scepticism and
theological dogma. They approach the Gospels not as zealous
fabrications or divine scripture but as texts comparable with any
other from the period. All texts have blind spots and points to
prove. If historians waited until they found a source with no
angle, they would have nothing left to work with (ancient or
modern). The goal is not to discover an agenda-less source but to
analyse every source in light of its discernible commitment. This
is how scholars read every ancient text, including the New
Testament. They do not privilege the Gospels, but nor do they come
to them with prejudice. Christians may be unsettled by this
objective historical analysis of their sacred texts but there is no
comfort here for the dogmatic sceptic either. For while mainstream
scholars disagree on many things about the life of Jesus, there is
a very strong consensus that the basic narrative of the Gospels is
historically sound.

Take the question of Jesus’ existence. Dawkins may have his
reservations; so might Onfray and Hitchens. But no one who is
actually doing ancient history does. I contacted three eminent
ancient history professors this week and asked if they knew of any
professional historian who argued that Jesus never lived. They did
not. Professor Graeme Clarke of the Australian National University
was happy to go on the record as saying: “Frankly, I know of no
ancient historian or biblical historian who would have a twinge of
doubt about the existence of a Jesus Christ – the documentary
evidence is simply overwhelming.” Dawkins inadvertently proves the
point. In
The God Delusion his sole example of a serious
historical case against the existence of Jesus is that of
“Professor G.A. Wells of the University of London”. Dawkins does
not mention that George Wells is a professor of German language,
not history.

That Jesus lived cannot be disputed. In addition to the
plentiful Christian sources of the first century, we have two
references to Jesus by the first-century Jewish writer Josephus,
one mention by the great Roman chronicler Tacitus and a highly
probable reference by Mara bar Serapion, a little-known Syrian
writer of the first century. From these non-Christian sources we
learn not only when and where Jesus lived and died but also that he
was a famous teacher and healer. Josephus speaks of
paradoxa
erga
, “extraordinary deeds”. I recently interviewed Professor
Geza Vermes of the University of Oxford and asked him about these
intriguing words. Vermes is a leading biblical historian and
committed Jew. He explained what virtually everyone in the field
today considers beyond doubt: Jesus did things which friend and foe
alike thought were supernatural. What those things were the
historian cannot say. All we know with near certainty is that
Jesus’ contemporaries found them extraordinary.

But what of the Easter events? There is a broad consensus here,
too. Few biblical historians accept all of the details of the
Gospel accounts – to the chagrin of some Christians – but most,
whether Jewish, Christian or agnostic, agree that these writings
have preserved a reliable core of information about the tumultuous
final days of Jesus’ life: he created a public disturbance in the
Jerusalem temple shortly before his arrest; he shared a final
(Passover) meal with his disciples; he was arrested by the priestly
elite and handed over to the Romans; he was crucified for treason
under the mocking charge “king of the Jews”. These are the accepted
facts of the Easter narrative. Christian apologists may often
exaggerate them but the new atheists simply ignore them.

Consider Onfray’s historical commentary in The Atheist
Manifesto
. “Jews were not crucified but stoned,” he tells us,
and even if Jesus had been crucified, he would not have been placed
in a tomb, as the Gospels say, because crucifixion victims were
never given a proper burial: “There was no question of bodies being
laid to rest in tombs.” This amounts to a clear historical blunder
on the part of Onfray. Jews were perhaps the most crucified people
in antiquity. The Dead Sea Scrolls and Josephus both report an
incident where 800 Pharisees were crucified on one day; their wives
and children were made to look on. Josephus tells us further that
during the siege of Jerusalem in AD70 the Romans crucified 500 Jews
a day while sacking the city. Actually, our only archaeological
remains of a crucifixion victim – a male heel bone with an
11-centimetre nail still in place – were discovered in a Jewish
tomb. This Jew, like Jesus, had been crucified and then properly
buried.

But what of the resurrection? Despite the arguments of some
Christian apologists, most mainstream scholars do not treat the
resurrection as belonging to their field of inquiry. It is similar
to Jesus’ healings. Historians would not say that Jesus actually
performed miracles – that would be to turn from history to
philosophy and theology. They can only say that he did things which
those around him interpreted as miraculous. So, too, with the
resurrection. No historian wearing his or her historical cap would
say that God raised Jesus from the dead. That is a theological
interpretation of the evidence. What most scholars do affirm is
more modest, though not without significance: Jesus’ tomb was empty
shortly after his crucifixion and significant numbers of men and
women experienced what they believed to be appearances of the risen
Jesus. These are the historical facts of Easter Sunday: an empty
tomb and resurrection experiences. They are accepted not only by
serious Christian scholars but also by leading Jewish historians
such as Vermes and self-confessed agnostics such as Professor Ed
Sanders of Duke University, who once wrote: “That Jesus’ followers
(and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a
fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do
not know.” This is typical of the responsible historian’s approach
to Easter: whatever the explanation, something extraordinary
happened.

This is where history leads us – and leaves us. How we go on
from here to interpret the historical evidence involves our other
beliefs about the world. Those who are convinced that the laws of
nature are the only things regulating the universe will reject the
resurrection in principle: no amount of evidence could suggest
otherwise. However, those who suspect that there is a reality
behind the laws of nature – a lawgiver – can feel rationally
justified in remaining open to an outrageous claim such as the
resurrection of God incarnate.

Christianity will continue to lay its neck on the chopping block
of public scrutiny, inviting anyone who wishes to come and take a
swing. My hope is that the sceptics will go about this with less
dogmatism and that Christians will avoid both an accommodating
retreat and overreaching apologetics. The truth lies elsewhere.
While it is not possible to prove every detail, the core of the
Jesus story is historically sound, and it is intellectually
irresponsible to say otherwise. Believers could learn to be less
defensive; sceptics could read more widely. Then, as the dust
settles, we might be able to enjoy a more measured conversation
about the hugely significant figure at the heart of Easter.

Dr John Dickson is the director of the Centre for Public
Christianity (www.publicchristianity.org) and an honorary associate
of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University. His
documentary
The Christ Files airs on Channel Seven at
midday.