What is the case for the historical Jesus? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
Since I’ve already looked at the words I believe, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. So let’s move on to the next line and notice that it says that I believe in Jesus.
At the bare minimum, let’s start with Jesus. What is the case that there was a historical Jesus?
Quite good actually.
You see, a lot of Christians don’t take the time to look for this evidence. A lot of atheists don’t either, or just disregard whatever evidence is presented because it doesn’t reach a bar that they arbitrarily set. Many don’t bother to take the time to see how the ancient world worked, to which I have some excellent resources on that here, here, and here.
Ancient historiography is not modern historiography. In our day and age, we have numerous recording devices and we all have access to ways to read and write for the most part. All of us communicate through the written word to some extent and we have added mediums the ancients didn’t such as television and the internet.
Also, ancients by and large had much better memories than we do. Why should we? We can make post-it notes and have our phones be our memories and save information on our computers. If you don’t have access to technology like that, chances are you’ll use your memory a lot more.
Let’s also keep in mind some realities which I’ve explained further in an article like this that would show that in the ancient world, Jesus wasn’t really worthy of mention. He never ran for office. He never went into battle. He never traveled as an adult outside of his country. He never wrote anything that lasted. To make matters worse, he was crucified as a Messiah claimant. You might say he did miracles, but so what? You think a historian in Rome is going to take seriously the claim that a supposed Messiah who was crucified did miracles? Nope.
So what do we have on the existence of Jesus?
Well right off, we have Paul’s letters. Now some will say these don’t say a lot about the historical Jesus. That’s right, but why should they? Paul is not attempting to write a biography. He’s wanting to deal with misunderstandings that have taken place. Yet there are times he does refer to the Jesus tradition.
In 1 Cor. 11, he has the Lord’s Supper.
In 1 Cor. 7, he has the Jesus tradition on divorce and marriage.
In 1 Cor. 15, we have the excellent creed that dates to within five years of the resurrection event that lists the appearances of Jesus.
In Romans 1, we have the testimony that Jesus was of the line of David.
In various places in the Pauline epistles, we have the statement of Jesus being crucified.
In 1 Thess. 4, it is believed we have some Jesus tradition in the fourth chapter concerning the resurrection.
In Galatians 1, we learn that Jesus had brothers, especially James.
Now some of you might be saying “And don’t we have in 1 Tim. that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate?” We do, but most skeptics will not accept 1 Timothy as an actual Pauline epistle. It is universally accepted that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon are authentic however.
After this, we also have all four Gospels. These Gospels date to the first century. For most ancient figures, if we had four sources like this within a hundred year period, we would be absolutely thrilled! Yet strangely enough, that bar is changed when we come to Jesus. Of course, anyone wanting to know about how the Gospels can be trusted is invited to listen here.
So let’s go on to sources outside the Bible. A great work you can read on these sources is “Jesus Outside the New Testament” by Robert Van Voorst. Let’s start however with Josephus. The longer reference is here.
“Antiquities 18.3.3 Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.”
This passage is known as the Testimonium Flavianum.
There is also no doubt that there are some interpolations in here, which means later scribes added some material. The question is, is the whole thing an interpolation?
The leading Josephus scholars say no. We do have here some authentic language that comes from Josephus with some parts added in.
Yet some basic truths we could learn from the passage is that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who was seen as one who worked miracles. He claimed to be the Messiah but was crucified under Pilate. There was a belief that He rose from the dead and the Christians named after Him persist to this day.
The idea that Jesus never existed and Josephus never mentioned him is not popular among Josephus scholars. It is a wonder why it is that we should take seriously the claims of internet atheists over scholars in the field.
What about the second passage?
Antiquities 20.9.1 But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.
Well this is not considered to be an interpolation at all and the reference to Jesus here points back to an earlier reference. Without the earlier reference, this latter reference makes no sense. From here, we would also get the idea that Jesus does indeed have as his brother James, which is consistent with Paul.
Next is the Roman historian Tacitus. Tacitus wrote in his Annals in 15.44 that
“But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the Bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements Which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero From the infamy of being believed to have ordered the Conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he Falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were Hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was Put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign Of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time Broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief Originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things Hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their Center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first Made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an Immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of Firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.”
Interestingly, this is also the only place that he refers to Pontius Pilate.
Tacitus is seen as one of the greatest if not the greatest Roman historian. There is no reason to think that he uncritically shared a rumor and this is in fact something that a Christian would not write. It is not flattering to Christ at all. It refers to a mischievous superstition and indicates that it was something hideous and shameful.
Often reasons for rejecting this passage include that Tacitus gets the idea wrong about Tacitus. He was a prefect and not a procurator. Yet it’s just fine to think that Tacitus was using the title that was around in his day to refer to Jesus. There is also a possibility that there was a fluidity between the terms. To say that it is a hard and fast error is a huge burden for the skeptic.
Our next source is Seutonius.
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”
This could in fact be a reference to what is talked about in Acts 18 when some Christians were expelled from Rome as well. At that point in time, there would not be known to be much difference between Jews and Christians. Still, some are skeptical of this.
For instance, Raphael Lataster writes that Chrestus refers to “The Good.” I wrote to my friend Ron C. Fay, a Greek expert, on this regards, only to have him tell me that it’s a Latin term and does not mean “the good.” In fact, when I contacted other Greek experts, including my own father-in-law, Mike Licona, none of them thought such a thing was even plausible.
On a prima facie basis then, there is no reason to disregard this. The burden is on the part of the mythicist.
Next we have Lucian who did not care for the Christians at all. The first reference?
“It was then that he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—how else could it be?—in a trice he made them all look like children, for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He inter preted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.”
What we could get from this is that Christians worshiped Jesus and that Lucian believed that they were gullible in doing so. This would also help indicate that Christianity was a shameful belief at the time. I take the reference to a synagogue to actually show some confusion on Lucian’s part in thinking that Christianity was a sect of Judaism, or else he is just referring to a gathering that he sees as an off-shoot of Judaism, which is correct insofar as it goes, and would meet at a synagogue then as that’s where Jews met. The other lawgiver in this case then could be Moses.
What about the second reference?
“The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once, for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence.”
Again, this is hardly a flattering statement to the Christians and not one that they would make up. They would not refer to Jesus as a crucified sophist and say that they accept claims without evidence. (So yes, this also means that the claims of Boghossian are nothing new.)
There’s also Pliny the Younger, who wrote about the behavior of Christians and said
“They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up.”
Here we have indications that these people were willing to die for Christianity, which is why Pliny is supposed to arrest them. They are being tried as if guilty of a crime. Surely if they were convinced this was a myth, they would not be willing to do so. Therefore, early on, we have belief in Jesus as a deity. How did this happen entirely within a relatively short time with zero reality behind it?
Finally, we’ll look at Mara Bar-Serapion.
What did he say?
“What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their Kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given.”
Now some might say Jesus isn’t mentioned by name. Fair enough. But let’s see what we know about this person. He was a teacher of the Jews. He was said to be their king. He was said to be wise. After executing (Not just killing but executing which I take to refer to a capital offense) him their kingdom was taken away from them. This king lived on in the teaching he had given. (Note he does not say was resurrected as a Christian would.)
Okay. So someone wants to say it wasn’t Jesus.
Feel free to say who is a better candidate.
In light of all of this, and without strong evidence to the contrary, I find it no shock that NT scholarship doesn’t even debate this question any more. There are more certified scientists who hold to a young-earth than there are equivalent scholars in ancient and NT history that hold that Jesus never even existed.
“But the YEC position is totally bizarre!”
Yes. A number of skeptics might say that, but if you want to be consistent and consider Christ-mythicism as a serious position, then you should do the same with YEC. Note I say this in no way to insult YECs. I am not one, but I am happily married to one. (My own wife just doesn’t really care about the debate and even respects Hugh Ross far more than Ken Ham.)
For the Christian who says they hold to a historical Jesus, they are on the firm ground of NT scholarship. It is the internet atheist who has convinced himself he knows better.
He has not convinced those in scholarship of that.
There’s a reason for that.
And oh, if someone wants to say that this is just Christians saying this, two non-Christian scholars, Maurice Casey and Bart Ehrman, have also written against Christ-myth nonsense.
Again, there’s a reason it’s considered nonsense.