Is it really the case that there’s no evidence for the historical Jesus?
Huffington Post last Christmas published a piece arguing that Christmas was stolen from the pagans which I replied to. Their standards haven’t gone up at all and to show that they’re really up for anything that will lampoon Christianity, they’ve gone so far as to publish an article endorsing the Christ myth. This is of course the idea that Jesus never even existed which I have dealt with elsewhere. Overall, it is not a serious idea.
How much of a joke is this idea? Well let’s consider how atheists don’t take creationists seriously who say that evolution is only a theory. There is no real debate in the academy going on then about evolution. Okay. How does that compare to the Christ myth idea? As James McGrath has said
Creationists can find 3,000 academics who will sign a statement against evolution. That’s not 3,000 academics in relevant fields, just 3,000 academics, including retired ones. I’ve yet to see mythicism show any sign of even coming close to that. And yet supposedly we are to believe that creationism’s 3,000 are irrelevant, but the 10 or so mythicist sympathizers show that the historicity of Jesus is “a theory in crisis”?
You won’t find this theory being taught by the leading academics in the field. Ph.D.s at universities and seminaries, even liberal ones, that are accredited and teaching Classical or ancient or NT history don’t even give it a moment’s notice. Usually when someone writes on this, it’s with a sense of exasperation. They can’t believe they actually have to say something about it.
Here are in fact a few scholarly writings from within the past century on the topic:
“There is, lastly, a group of writers who endeavour to prove that Jesus never lived—that the story of his life is made up by mingling myths of heathen gods, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, etc. No real scholar regards the work of these men seriously. They lack the most elementary knowledge of historical research. Some of them are eminent scholars in other subjects, such as Assyriology and mathematics, but their writings about the life of Jesus have no more claim to be regarded as historical than Alice in Wonderland or the Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” – George Aaron Barton, Jesus of Nazareth: A Biography, Macmillan, (1922), px
“An extreme view along these lines is one which denies even the historical existence of Jesus Christ—a view which, one must admit, has not managed to establish itself among the educated, outside a little circle of amateurs and cranks, or to rise above the dignity of the Baconian theory of Shakespeare.” – Edwyn Robert Bevan, Hellenism And Christianity, 2nded., G. Allen and Unwin, (1930), p256
“Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community.” – Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, Collins, (1958), p13
“A hundred and fifty years ago a fairly well respected scholar named Bruno Bauer maintained that the historical person Jesus never existed. Anyone who says that today—in the academic world at least—gets grouped with the skinheads who say there was no Holocaust and the scientific holdouts who want to believe the world is flat.” – Mark Allan Powell, Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee, Westminster John Knox, (1998), p168
“The data we have are certainly adequate to confute the view that Jesus never lived, a view that no one holds in any case.” – Charles E. Charleston, Prologue from Bruce Chilton & Craig A. Evans, eds., Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research, Brill, (1998), p3
“Most scholars regard the arguments for Jesus’ non-existence as unworthy of any response—on a par with claims that the Jewish Holocaust never occurred or that the Apollo moon landing took place in a Hollywood studio.” – Michael James McClymond, Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth, Eerdmans, (2004), p8, 23–24
“A phone call from the BBC’s flagship Today programme: would I go on air on Good Friday morning to debate with the authors of a new book, The Jesus Mysteries? The book claims (or so they told me) that everything in the Gospels reflects, because it was in fact borrowed from, much older pagan myths; that Jesus never existed; that the early church knew it was propagating a new version of an old myth, and that the developed church covered this up in the interests of its own power and control. The producer was friendly, and took my point when I said that this was like asking a professional astronomer to debate with the authors of a book claiming the moon was made of green cheese.” – N. T. Wright, Jesus’ Self Understanding, from Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O’Collins, eds., The Incarnation, Oxford University Press, (2004), p48
“In the academic mind, there can be no more doubt whatsoever that Jesus existed than did Augustus and Tiberius, the emperors of his lifetime.” – Carsten Peter Thiede, Jesus, Man or Myth?, Lion, (2005), p23
“I think the evidence is just so overwhelming that Jesus existed, that it’s silly to talk about him not existing. I don’t know anyone who is a responsible historian, who is actually trained in the historical method, or anybody who is a biblical scholar who does this for a living, who gives any credence at all to any of this.” – Bart Ehrman, interview with David V. Barrett, The Gospel According to Bart, Fortean Times, (2007)
“…only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence. And yet this pathetic denial is still parroted by ‘the village atheist,’ bloggers on the Internet, or such organisations as the Freedom from Religion Foundation.” – Paul L. Maier, Did Jesus Really Exist?, 4truth.net, 2007, http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbjes…eid=8589952895 (Accessed November 20th 2015)
“The very logic that tells us there was no Jesus is the same logic that pleads that there was no Holocaust. On such logic, history is no longer possible. It is no surprise then that there is no New Testament scholar drawing pay from a post who doubts the existence of Jesus. I know not one. His birth, life, and death in first-century Palestine have never been subject to serious question and, in all likelihood, never will be among those who are experts in the field. The existence of Jesus is a given.” – Nicholas Perrin, Lost in Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus, Thomas Nelson, (2007), p32
“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.” – Graeme Clarke, quoted by John Dickson in Facts and friction of Easter, The Sydney Morning Herald, (2008)
“To describe Jesus’ non-existence as ‘not widely supported’ is an understatement. It would be akin to me saying, “It is possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, scientific case that the 1969 lunar landing never happened.” There are fringe conspiracy theorists who believe such things – but no expert does. Likewise with the Jesus question: his non-existence is not regarded even as a possibility in historical scholarship. Dismissing him from the ancient record would amount to a wholesale abandonment of the historical method.” – John Dickson, Jesus: A Short Life, Lion, (2008), p22-23
“…the whole idea that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist as a historical figure is verifiably false. Moreover, it has not been produced by anyone or anything with any reasonable relationship to critical scholarship. It belongs in the fantasy lives of people who used to be fundamentalist Christians. They did not believe in critical scholarship then, and they do not do so now. I cannot find any evidence that any of them have adequate professional qualifications.” – Maurice Casey, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, T&T Clark, (2014), p243
“I should say at the outset that none of this [mythicist] literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world). Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubt that Jesus existed.” – Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument For Jesus of Nazareth, Harper Collis, (2012), p2
“No serious historian, of any religious or nonreligious stripe, doubts that Jesus of Nazareth really lived in the first century and was executed under the authority of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea and Samaria. — Jesus and the Remains of His Day, Craig Evans – 147
All this still does not stop people like Chris Sosa from endorsing this nonsense idea. What does he say? A bunch of the usual canards that no historian in the field takes seriously.
The first place he goes to is Bible contradictions. Never mind that the first reference we have to Jesus would really be in the Pauline epistles, but oh well. Sosa has this same hang-up with inerrancy that would not work in any other field. There are hopeless contradictions between how Hannibal went to conquer Rome. No one doubts that he did. (Of course, he failed, but he was well on his way.)
Unfortunately, despite there being difficulties sometimes in historical Jesus studies, this does not mean that there are not basic facts on the life of Jesus agreed on. Had Sosa cracked open any book on the historical Jesus, he would have seen this. For instance, there are facts such as that he was a Jewish rabbi born in Nazareth and that he had disciples. He had a reputation as a healer and exorcist. (Before atheists start assuming that I’m saying that all scholars believe Jesus did miracles, no. I am merely saying he had that reputation as a miracle worker. It might be a legitimate reputation or it might not.) They agree that he was crucified and that he was claimed to be seen alive again and this belief was the cause of the rise of the early church. Are there disagreements on his birth and such? Sure. So what?
Of course, Sosa has to say something about the writings of the Gospels being anonymous. This is a favorite one thrown about. Now if understood in the way to mean “Name not included in the body of the work” many books today are anonymous. We know who wrote them because of copyright pages and covers added and such but when they get to their work, many writers do not mention their names. If he means of totally unknown origin, well this doesn’t follow either. Just because we might not have immediate access to who wrote them does not mean the first recipients did not.
Of course, Sosa does no investigation into the authorship of the Gospels. After all, we have many documents from the ancient world that are “anonymous” and we still have a good idea who the authors are. We also have documents that do have names on them and we’re sure those were not the original authors. It’s rather amusing. It doesn’t matter if the work has a name on it or not, someone can always find a reason to cast doubt on the document anyway.
Naturally, Sosa then decides to go with the argument about contemporary references. So what does he do? He goes to Bart Ehrman. (You know, the guy who wrote a whole book arguing that Jesus existed.)
There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp 56-57 of Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium)
Okay. Let’s have some fun. Let’s apply this same argument to Hannibal, Queen Boudica, and Arminius and see how well it works. Who were these people? These were people well known in their time for standing up against the Roman Empire. What mention do we have of them by their contemporaries? None. Heck. Hannibal nearly conquered Rome at the height of its power. Surely he would be mentioned. No. He isn’t.
If we look in Judea, only one writer really wrote about figures of notice there. That’s Josephus. Josephus mentions Jesus twice, but he is the only one who tells us about other Messianic claimants and many of these raised up armies and required thousands of Roman troops to come to arms. These guys are not mentioned at all in Roman sources. Yet somehow, a crucified criminal that didn’t even require the Roman army to come and was squelched by a crucifixion and had a ragtag band of a dozen men should have been mentioned.
Of course, Sosa completely discounts the Christian and Jewish sources. Why should we? What if we discounted sources about Socrates that were not his students? After all, Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War and Socrates served as a general in that war, and yet there is no mention of Socrates whatsoever in it.
Sosa from the paragraph of Ehrman goes on to say
Many Christian scholars will scoff at the preceding paragraph. But the outside arguments they offer in favor of Jesus’ existence, from Flavius Josephus to later figures like Tacitus, and Justin Martyr, all disintegrate upon close examination. Dan Barker gives a strong argument against their proposed “evidences” of Jesus’ existence in his excellent book Godless.
Well no. No they won’t. I interview Christian scholars and speak to them. They would not scoff at that. They’d just say that it is not a problem because really, it isn’t. Of course, he refers to Dan Barker and his book Godless. My ministry partner and I respond to that in our book Groundless. A quick visit to the Society of Biblical Literature shows no hits when Dan Barker’s name is put in. There’s a reason for that. He’s not taken seriously. He can say all he wants to that these references are not valid, but the real scholars in the field on all sides are not convinced.
And of course, no cry of mythicism would be convinced without the copycat thesis. Gotta hand it to these guys. They have some of the best scholarship of the 19th century.
Naturally, Zeitgeist is cited as well as Acharya S. and Kersey Graves. Any of these works taken seriously by scholars in the field? Nope. Not a bit. Let’s start with Buddha. Mike Licona contacted professor Chun-Fang Yu at Rutgers about Acharya S.’s claims about Buddhism. Professor Yu specializes in Buddhist studies. At the end, he got this reply.
Dr. Yu ended by writing, “[The woman you speak of] is totally ignorant of Buddhism. It is very dangerous to spread misinformation like this. You should not honor [Ms. Murdock] by engaging in a discussion. Please ask [her] to take a basic course in world religion or Buddhism before uttering another word about things she does not know.”
If Sosa is sure of this, I challenge him to find a primary source that predates the Christian era that says what he thinks it says.
How about Krishna? Well again, we have a flop here. I will state that Sosa needs to have some primary resources that pre-date the Christian era. For this one, Licona had contacted Edwin Bryant who is a professor of Hinduism at Rutgers. This was what was said.
When I informed him that Ms. Murdock wrote an article claiming that Krishna had been crucified, he replied, “That is absolute and complete non-sense. There is absolutely no mention anywhere which alludes to a crucifixion.” He also added that Krishna was killed by an arrow from a hunter who accidentally shot him in the heal. He died and ascended. It was not a resurrection. The sages who came there for him could not really see it.
Next is Odysseus. What do they have in common? Well they both wanted to return home (Which is news to me since I don’t remember Jesus’s longing to return to Nazareth in the Gospels) and they’re surrounded by dim-witted companions who misunderstand them and cause trouble. Of course, this is a rarity in history. Most great teachers have had companions who immediately understood everything that they said….
Seriously. This is your parallel?
Next is Romulus. The source for Romulus is in fact Plutarch, who wrote fairly close to the events of the life of Romulus, if you consider about eight centuries later to be close. (Never underestimate the ability of skeptics to question Gospels written within a century but place full trust in writings eight centuries later.) Again, let Sosa present the primary sources for this claim.
What about Dionysus?
Dionysus was born of a virgin on December 25 and, as the Holy Child, was placed in a manger. He was a traveling teacher who performed miracles. He “rode in a triumphal procession on an ass.” He was a sacred king killed and eaten in an eucharistic ritual for fecundity and purification. Dionysus rose from the dead on March 25. He was the God of the Vine, and turned water into wine. He was called “King of Kings” and “God of Gods.” He was considered the “Only Begotten Son,” Savior,” “Redeemer,” “Sin Bearer,” Anointed One,” and the “Alpha and Omega.” He was identified with the Ram or Lamb. His sacrificial title of “Dendrites” or “Young Man of the Tree” intimates he was hung on a tree or crucified.
This would all be fascinating to scholars of Greek mythology. Let him produce the primary sources. Please tell me where I can find an ancient source saying Dionysus was born on December 25th (Which isn’t even a claim of the New Testament about Jesus.) Feel free to show where Dionysus was called all of the titles given to him. Don’t just give me hacks that aren’t accepted by scholars. Give me the scholars themselves.
Next comes Heracles. Now this is quite amusing to me since as a child who enjoyed Greek mythology, Heracles was one of my favorite figures. The article starts by saying
Heracles is the Son of a god (Zeus). It is recorded that Zeus is both the father and great-great- great grandfather of Heracles, just as Jesus is essentially his own grandpa, being both “The root and offspring of David” (Revelation 22:16) as he is part of the triune God which is the father of Adam and eventually of Jesus. Both are doubly related to the Supreme God.
Yes. You read that right. Jesus is essentially his own grandfather. As if Jesus had sexual relations with His parents or something. Riiiiiight.
And again for the rest, we have strained parallels and no primary sources.
Next comes Glycon and we have a problem right at the start.
In the middle of the 100s AD, out along the south coast of the Black Sea, Glycon was the son of the God Apollo, who: came to Earth through a miraculous birth, was the Earthly manifestation of divinity, came to earth in fulfillment of divine prophecy, gave his chief believer the power of prophecy, gave believers the power to speak in tongues, performed miracles, healed the sick, and raised the dead.
This is all that is written and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone that Glycon comes AFTER Jesus, yet somehow Jesus is said to copy Glycon. It’s a wonder how this works. Again, primary sources?
Next is Zoroaster. Of course, going eight centuries with Romulus was enough (And it could border on nine), but with Zoroaster our first sources are ten centuries later. All of these sources come AFTER the time of Jesus. Still, it’s a wonder that no one ever supposedly copies Christianity but Christianity copies everyone. So Sosa, got any primary sources?
Attis was born on December 25 of the Virgin Nana. He was considered the savior who was slain for the salvation of mankind. His body as bread was eaten by his worshippers. He was both the Divine Son and the Father. On “Black Friday,” he was crucified on a tree, from which his holy blood ran down to redeem the earth. He descended into the underworld. After three days, Attis was resurrected.
By now, we know the drill. Primary resources. Does the author have any scholars of Attis to consult? It’s amazing atheists will readily believe anything they find that argues against Christianity, but only when it comes to examining the claims of Christianity do they demand evidence. (And then reject it when given.)
Disappointingly, Mithras is not on the list. Someone was slacking, but the last one is a favorite.
Born of a virgin, Isis. Only begotten son of the God Osiris. Birth heralded by the star Sirius, the morning star. Ancient Egyptians paraded a manger and child representing Horus through the streets at the time of the winter solstice (about DEC-21). In reality, he had no birth date; he was not a human. Death threat during infancy: Herut tried to have Horus murdered. Handling the threat: The God That tells Horus’ mother “Come, thou goddess Isis, hide thyself with thy child.” An angel tells Jesus’ father to: “Arise and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt.” Break in life history: No data between ages of 12 & 30. Age at baptism: 30. Subsequent fate of the baptiser: Beheaded. Walked on water, cast out demons, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind. Was crucifed, descended into Hell; resurrected after three days.
That is of course Horus. Well Sosa, if you think this is convincing, I have a challenge for you. Find me one professional Egyptologist teaching today with a ph.D. in the field and at an accredited university who will say not that this is all true, but that this is on the right track. Maybe if you gave some tinkering, it would be accurate. Find me one. Just one.
Sosa thus shows himself to be one who will believe on blind faith anything that argues against Christianity. Believe it or not Sosa, many atheists believe in a historical Jesus and go on to live happy and meaningful lives. In the end, mythicism is just a loony conspiracy theory for atheists.