Is there evidence for Jesus? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
So yesterday, someone posted on Facebook asking about this article. It was material that they had never come across before. I can sympathize because people who don’t buy into conspiracy theories and such will ever come across Jesus mythicism. If all you read was the best scholarly literature on the historical Jesus, you’d never catch it.
Yes. I know so many atheist fanboys are screaming Richard Carrier, but no. He’s not the best. He doesn’t teach at an accredited university and his book he wanted to have an impact is hardly known anywhere. That’s not meant to be an insult. It’s just reality.
We’re told that the time Jesus lived is one of the most heavily documented in ancient history. That could be debated, but let’s just go with it. What of it? We are told there are no contemporary records. Of course, this is excluding the New Testament because, you know, if it’s in the Bible it’s automatically thrown out, a rule not followed by critical non-Christian scholars of the New Testament, but hey, who cares about consistency?
Unrealized of course is that if you went by this standard, you would have to deny many figures in ancient history such as Hannibal or Queen Boudica or the German Arminius. Are we going to see any Hannibal mythicists who will tell us the Punic Wars were a story made up by Rome to increase their reputation of defeating a great opponent to show how awesome in battle they were? Doubtful, but it would be the consistent outcome.
We’re also told a reign of terror was started when Christianity seized power and Eusebius was asked to write a church history. Little problem. Christianity was only legalized under Constantine. It was over 60 years later before it “seized power” as it were. Naturally, we’re also told Christianity was responsible for the Library of Alexandria being destroyed. Oh! What sources are cited for this? Gibbon is in the sources, but there’s no correspondence above to the note. At any rate, I recommend someone like Tim O’Neill for this.
At this, I suspect some skeptics reading might say I’m referring to another Christian so why bother? Well let’s see what O’Neill says about himself in the article where he takes Gibbon to task.
As an atheist, I’m clearly no fan of fundamentalism – even the 1500 year old variety (though modern manifestations tend to be the ones to watch out for). And as an amateur historian of science I’m more than happy with the idea of a film that gets across the idea that, yes, there was a tradition of scientific thinking before Newton and Galileo. But Amenabar has taken the (actually, fascinating) story of what was going on in Alexandria in Hypatia’s time and turned it into a cartoon, distorting history in the process.
Also, how do these people think we have works from the pagan world at all? Do they want to take a guess who was copying them? Was all of it done secretly by closet pagans for well over a thousand years? Do they not realize it was Christians preserving all these works from being destroyed?
Of course, they don’t.
The next source we get is Josephus.
This brief piece of evidence which supposedly contributed the best “proof” of Jesus’s existence has actually been proven to be a fraud. It has been demonstrated continuously over the centuries that “Testamonium Flavium” was a forgery manufactured by the Catholic Church, and was inserted into Josephus’s works. The Testamonium Flavium account is so thoroughly refuted, that biblical scholars since the 19th century have refused to refer to it, unless to mention its false nature.
Odd. I read Bible scholars regularly and never do I hear them saying that this is a fraud. Note that World Future Fund. I read scholars. I don’t read people on the internet who like to claim to be scholars but aren’t. The Testimonium is no doubt said to have some parts that are interpolation, but much of it still stands as accurate. There is also the second reference to Jesus in Josephus which largely depends on the first. That isn’t even questioned by WFF. My friend James Hannam has looked at several of the scholarly works as well and written an article here.
Most written accounts of the life of Jesus did not exist until a couple decades after his purported existence. These accounts were presented by a number of different authors and had somewhat conflicting stories about his existence. These written accounts are known as the Gospels. Also, it is worth knowing that not all of the gospels that were written even made their way into the bible. Only four gospels became the canonical writings for the church. The rest were burned, destroyed or lost. Historians estimate that the first written gospel, the gospel of Mark, was written sometime after 70 C.E, which means that at the earliest, it would have been written 40 years after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus.
Nothing is said about the epistles which contain our earliest references to the historical Jesus. Naturally, WFF goes with a conspiracy theory of sorts. If they want to know why other Gospels weren’t included, there’s a good reason. For one thing, they didn’t have apostolic authority. A Gospel needed to be by an apostle or an associate of an apostle. The early church worked to trace the origins of the Gospels they had and found them to come from those in the Jesus tradition. This wasn’t so with the later Gospels. This is one topic I discussed with biblical scholar Charles Hill here.
As for dating, there’s no links here so we don’t know what scholars are being relied on. Decades later is hardly a problem in the ancient world. As for conflicting accounts, we also have two conflicting accounts on how Hannibal tried to conquer Rome. By the standard of these writers then, Hannibal never existed.
We go on.
There is widespread belief that Nero blamed the burning of Rome on the Christians; however, there are many holes in this theory.
This belief comes from the account of the Roman historian Tacitus (56-120 CE) about how Emperor Nero (37 – 68 CE) blamed the burning of Rome on “those people who were abhorred for their crimes and commonly called Christians.” The passage then states that the fire agitators were followers of “Christus” who “was put to death as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate.” The passage then also states that Christians constituted a “vast multitude at Rome” and goes on to discuss the ghastly ways in which they were persecuted.
However, there are many troubling details about the historical accuracy of this passage. Some critics call into question whether Tacitus wrote this account at all, or if it was yet another forgery. Around the date of Nero’s Fire, 64 AD, there were no “multitude of Christians” in Rome. At this time, there was not even a multitude of Christians in Judea. Therefore, it is highly doubtful that Nero would refer to Christians in this way.
It would be interesting to know who these critics are who say Tacitus is a forgery. Certainly no scholars of Tacitus. The text also speaks of Christians in such abhorrent terms that it’s nothing that the Christians themselves would make up. As for a multitude, the problem is that this is a term that is vague. A multitude does not have to have any set number of people. It just has to have a crowd that is deemed sizable enough to make a difference in some way. Again, this isn’t a problem for scholars in the field.
This is also the only mention of Christians in the work of Tacitus, despite the fact that he wrote several volumes
This is also the only mention of Pontius Pilate in the work of Tacitus, despite the fact that he wrote several volumes. What of it? I’m surprised frankly that Tacitus even mentioned Jesus once.
Also, the supposed persecution of the Christians by Nero is not recorded by any other historian of Nero’s time. If the persecution of Christians were really that widespread, wouldn’t other historians be writing about it?
No. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. was wide-known and killed 250,000 people and destroyed two cities yet for historians writing about it, you need to wait until Cassius Dio in the third century. You have allusions to it elsewhere and an off-the-cuff remark between Pliny and Tacitus, but no. Historians weren’t writing about it. Obviously, it was a myth. The Christians were more of a nuisance group. Why write about them?
In addition to the Testomonium Flavianum, there exists another tenuous piece of evidence that some have tried to use as proof for the existence of Jesus. The Roman Historian, Pliny The Younger (62-113CE), wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan in 110 CE requesting his assistance in the proper punishment of a group of “Christiani” who were causing trouble and would not bow to the image of the emperor. According to Pliny, these Christiani would meet before daylight and sing hymns with responses to “Christ as God.”
However, this letter does not provide concrete evidence for the existence of Jesus as a person since it makes no direct mention of “Jesus of Nazareth,” nor does it refer to his life. Also, there are many critics who have argued that this letter is a forgery.
It should be noted that the most oft given source here is Acharya S.’s Truth Be Known web site. Again, hardly a scholarly source and perhaps one should see the other myths Acharya has embraced before jumping wholeheartedly on the bandwagon. At any rate, there is no reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Well if the WFF wants to name another Jesus that would seem to match the account in Pliny, they’re welcome to try! Also, I know of no scholar who thinks this letter is a forgery.
The last piece of questionable historical evidence we’ll discuss here is the passage in Suetonius’s Life of Claudius, dating around 110 CE. There is a reference in this work to a figure named “Chresto” who caused the Jews to riot in Rome. First of all, if Jesus Christ did exist, it is not possible that he would have been in Rome at this time. Claudius reigned from 41-54 CE, this is at the time of Christ’s alleged crucifixion.
The reference is to Chrestus and some think Suetonius was just confused here. It doesn’t mean that the Chrestus was in Rome (Yes folks. Biblical scholars and historians had never figured out until now that Jesus never went to Rome.), but that the riots were about him. This is one source I would be more hesitant on using, but I still lean towards it being one to Jesus.
Naturally, we saw no scholarly evidence being cited in this reference and instead just speaking of conspiracy theories. Jesus mythicism is a conspiracy theory for atheists. I have to admit honestly I’m a bit thankful for it. The more mythicism spreads, the more Christians can build up real scholarship and corner a future market and the more atheists can destroy their own intellectual credibility. I know many atheists have not jumped on this bandwagon and are more open to evidence, but we see in mythicism that even atheism has a fundamentalism.