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During a discussion of William Shakespeare, a student asked the old professor about the en vogue theory that Shakespeare did not write the plays ascribed to him.
The professor growled, "Young man, if Shakespeare did not write those plays,then they were written by someone who lived at the same time and had the same name!"
It is a sure sign of what the world is coming to: In Skeptical circles, one of the most popular ideas to come to the fore recently is the "Jesus-myth" - the idea that Jesus did not even exist, much less conduct a ministry as described in the New Testament. It is an idea that one would suppose would be relegated to the pages of the Weekly World News - and it might even be funny, were it not for the fact that there are so many who take it seriously and are extremely vocal in their seriousness.
At first glance, the "Jesus-myth" seems to be a stroke of genius: To eliminate Christianity and any possibility of it being true, just eliminate the founder! The idea was first significantly publicized by a 19th-century German scholar named Bruno Bauer. Following Bauer, there were a few other supporters: Couchoud, Gurev, Augstein [Chars.JesJud 97-8]. Today the active believer is most likely to have waved in their faces one of four supporters of this thesis: The turn-of-the-century writer Arthur Drews; the myth-thesis' most prominent and prolific supporter, G. A. Wells, who has published several books on the subject (but has recently abandoned this view); Earl Doherty, or Acharya S (who now writes as D M. Murdock). Each of these writers takes slightly different approaches, but they all agree that a person named Jesus did not exist (or, Wells seems to have taken a view now that Jesus may have existed, but may as well not have).
Does the "Jesus-myth" have any scholarly support? In this case, to simply say "no" would be an exaggeration. Support for the "Jesus-myth" comes not from historians, but usually from writers operating far out of their field. G. A. Wells, for example, is a professor of German; Drews was a professor of mathematics; Murdock only has a lower degree in classics; Doherty has only a bachelor's degree in history, though it is not clear from where he received it, and it is not even known whether he makes any professional use of it.
So it is that the greatest support for the "Jesus-myth" comes not from people who know the subject, but from popularizers and those who accept their work uncritically. It is this latter group that we are most likely to encounter - and sadly, arguments and evidence seldom faze them. In spite of the fact that relevant scholarly consenus is unanimous that the "Jesus-myth" is incorrect, it continues to be promulgated on a popular level as though it were absolutely proven.
The critic may say:
Just because a consensus of historians say that the Jesus-myth is wrong does not mean that it is wrong. The historians could be wrong. They could also be biased. Since this subject is dominated by theological agendas and philosophical presuppositions, a scholarly consensus does not constitute evidence for the existence of Jesus.
Yes, this is actually the core of many arguments made in favor of the "Jesus-myth": Behind every historian there is a conspiracy, a bias, or some gross error of judgment. A leading proponent of the view, Ken Humprhreys of jesusneverexisted.com, proclaimed as much in a radio debate with someone else, saying that those historians who believe Jesus existed come from Christian institutions or have some other bias. In my own debate with Humphreys, I asked him then why Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman (an agnostic and apostate) was not a Jesus-myth proponent.
Humprhey's telling answer: Ehrman was a relatively young man; perhaps he just hadn't considered the evidence yet!
Of course, it is possible that all of the professional historians (even those with no religious interest!) are biased or wrong, while proponents of the "Jesus-myth" are the objective ones. And yes, a consensus does not equate with evidence. But a consensus on any historical question is usually based on evidence which is analyzed by those who are recognized as authoritative in their field, and therefore may be taken at their word.
If this were not the case, why should there be any criteria for someone being a historian at all? Why should we not just pick a vagrant at random off the street and let him/her compose an official history of 20th-century America for the Smithsonian archives?
Therefore, while scholarly consensus is not itself evidence, it does function as a "weighting" or "warning" sign: if one agrees with peers who are detailed-students of the same subject matter, then less evidence is needed than would be needed if we disagreed with their
consensus (as a very small minority). We would require not just a "good argument" but we would
also have to refute all of the consensus arguments first.
In other words, evidence may be mediated through expert witness and consensus. Therefore, the argument that consensus does not count as evidence, while correct in its own way, cannot be allowed to stand as a dismissal of consensus, nor as a leveling of the playing field.
The Trypho Error
One example of how Jesus-myth proponents misrepresent or misunderstand evidence can be found in attempts to show that there were arguments that Jesus did not exist in early church history, cited these quotes from Justin's Dialogue with Trypho. Trypho, a Jewish person skeptical of Christianity, is speaking with Justin; the relevant passage says:
When I had said this, my beloved friends, those who were with Trypho laughed; but he, smiling, says, "I approve of your other remarks, and admire the eagerness with which you study divine things; but it were better for you still to abide in the philosophy of Plato, or of some other man, cultivating endurance, self-control, and moderation, rather than be deceived by false words, and follow the opinions of men of no reputation. For if you remain in that mode of philosophy, and live blamelessly, a hope of a better destiny were left to you; but when you have forsaken God, and reposed confidence in man, what safety still awaits you?
If, then, you are willing to listen to me (for I have already considered you a friend), first be circumcised, then observe what ordinances have been enacted with respect to the Sabbath, and the feasts, and the new moons of God; and, in a word, do all things which have been written in the law: and then perhaps you shall obtain mercy from God. But Christ--if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere--is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing."
Mythicist advocates imply that these quotes refer to Jesus, and that it was Jesus who was "made" and who was "entirely unknown." But these quotes make it quite clear that Trypho is not referring to the man Jesus. Trypho takes Jesus' historicity for granted throughout the debate with Justin. Consider these passages as samples:
xxxii -- "...But this so-called Christ of yours was dishonourable and inglorious, so much so that the last curse contained in the law of God fell on him, for he was crucified."
xxvi -"Now show if this man be He of whom these prophecies were made."
xxxviii - "For you utter many blasphemies, in that you seek to persuade us that this crucified man was with Moses and Aaron, and spoke to them in the pillar of the cloud; then that he became man, was crucified, and ascended up to heaven, and comes again to earth, and ought to be worshipped."
xxxxix -- And Trypho said, "Those who affirm him to have been a man, and to have been anointed by election, and then to have become Christ, appear to me to speak more plausibly than you who hold those opinions which you express. For we all expect that Christ will be a man [born] of men, and that Elijah when he comes will anoint him. But if this man appear to be Christ, he must certainly be known as man [born] of men; but from the circumstance that Elijah has not yet come, I infer that this man is not He [the Christ]."
This is strange language if Trypho believes that the Christians perpetrated a fraud to the point of inventing a man of history. What Trypho means in his earlier statement is that the Messiah - which is to say, the office of the Messiah - has been created by the Christians: He is saying that the "Christ" has not come in Jesus, but that Christians have made Jesus a Christ for themselves; and if the true Messiah was born and lived somewhere, he is entirely unknown.
The language here relates to the Jewish belief that the Christ, when he came, would not proclaim himself (a belief we see evidenced from Jesus' own circumspection in claiming to be Messiah, and in that Bar Kochba, when he arrived, did not claim the title for himself, but allowed others to proclaim it for him). Trypho is accusing the Christians, therefore, of identifying one as Christ who is not Christ -- he is not accusing them of making up a man of history.
Quite simply, one must ignore a great deal of evidence, and treat what evidence is left most unfairly, in order to deny that Jesus existed. What do the scholars say therefore?
- Greco-Roman historian Michael Grant, who certainly has no theological axe to grind, indicates that there is more evidence for the existence of Jesus than there is for a large number of famous pagan personages - yet no one would dare to argue their non-existence.
- Meier [Meie.MarJ, 23] notes that what we know about Alexander the Great could fit on only a few sheets of paper; yet no one doubts that Alexander existed.
- Charlesworth has written that "Jesus did exist; and we know more about him than about almost any Palestinian Jew before 70 C.E." [Chars.JesJud, 168-9]
- Sanders [Sand.HistF, xiv] echoes Grant, saying that "We know a lot about Jesus, vastly more than about John the Baptist, Theudas, Judas the Galilean, or any of the other figures whose names we have from approximately the same date and place."
- On the Crucifixion, Harvey writes: "It would be no exaggeration to say that this event is better attested, and supported by a more impressive array of evidence, than any other event of comparable importance of which we have knowledge from the ancient world." [Harv.JesC, 11]
- Dunn [Dunn.EvJ, 29] provides an anecdote similar to the one above regarding
Shakespeare. Referring to Wells' thesis, he writes:
The alternative thesis is that within thirty years there had evolved such a
coherent and consistent complex of traditions about a non-existent figure
such as we have in the sources of the Gospels is just too implausible. It
involves too many complex and speculative hypotheses, in contrast to the
much simpler explanation that there was a Jesus who said and did more or
less what the first three Gospels attribute to him. The fact of Christianity's
beginnings and the character of its earliest tradition is such that we could
only deny the existence of Jesus by hypothesizing the existence of some other
figure who was a sufficient cause of Christianity's beginnings - another figure
who on careful reflection would probably come out very like Jesus!
- Finally, here are these words from a hardened skeptic and an Emeritus Professor of History, the late Morton Smith [Hoff.JesH, 47-8] . Of Wells' work, this historian and skeptic of orthodox Christianity wrote:
"I don't think the arguments in (Wells') book deserve detailed refutation."
"...he argues mainly from silence."
"...many (of his arguments) are incorrect, far too many to discuss in this space."
"(Wells) presents us with a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond
anything in the Gospels."
None of these scholars, we emphasize, are friends of fundamentalism or evangelical Christianity. Contrary to the protestations of the "Jesus-myth" proponents, they make their statements based on evidence, not ideology.
Fine Moments in Mythicism?
The Trypho error is just one example of the rather careless scholarship that emerges in mythicist circles. Here are a couple more that are of interest.
G. A. Wells, in attempting to explain why Pilate was chosen as the person who authorized the death of his fictional Jesus, Wells says that he was selected because he was "particularly detested by the Jews, and is indeed the only one of the prefects who governed Judea between AD 6 and 41 who attracted sufficient attention to be discussed by the two principal Jewish writers of the first century," Philo and Josephus. [Hoff.JesH, 39-40]
In other words, Pilate was chosen because he seemed like he would do something like the Gospels describe, which begs the question of how the evidence is to be interpreted If anything, this is better evidence, rather, that the Gospel writers knew what they were talking about, because they knew the history.
One well-known skeptic, Gordon Stein, cited as an authority on Josephus the works of Nathaniel Lardner - from the year 1838. There was no hint that Stein had consulted the works of modern Josephan scholars like Thackery and Feldman; there are no Taciteans, no cites from known experts in Greek and Roman history; instead, the bibliography of his report was bookended with works from G. A. Wells and Arthur Drews (a math teacher).
Do Jesus-myth proponents have and use credible scholarship? Apparently....not very often.
The critic may then say:
If Jesus existed and was so famous, we should have heard a lot more about him in historical sources outside the New Testament and the Church Fathers. The fact that so little was written about Jesus indicates that he was the creation of the church.
On the contrary, the fact that we have as much information as we do about Jesus from non-Christian sources is amazing in itself. Meier [Meie.MarJ, 7-9] and Harris [Harr.3Cruc, 24-27] have indicated several reasons why Jesus remained a "marginal Jew" about whom we have so little information:
- As far as the historians of the day were concerned, he was just a "blip" on the
screen. Jesus was not considered to be historically significant by historians of his time. He
did not address the Roman Senate, or write extensive Greek philosophical treatises; He
never travelled outside of the regions of Palestine, and was not a member of any known
political party. It is only because Christians later made Jesus a "celebrity" that He became
Sanders, comparing Jesus to Alexander, notes that the latter "so greatly altered
the political situation in a large part of the world that the main outline of his public life is
very well known indeed. Jesus did not change the social, political and economic
circumstances in Palestine (Note: It was left for His followers to do that!) ..the superiority
of evidence for Jesus is seen when we ask what he thought." [Sand.HistF, 3]
that "Roman writers could hardly be expected to have foreseen the subsequent influence
of Christianity on the Roman Empire and therefore to have carefully documented"
Christian origins. How were they to know that this minor Nazarene prophet would cause
such a fuss?
- Jesus was executed as a criminal, providing him with the ultimate marginality.
This was one reason why historians would have ignored Jesus. He suffered the ultimate
humiliation, both in the eyes of Jews (Deut. 21:23 - Anyone hung on a tree is cursed!) and
the Romans (He died the death of slaves and rebels.).
On the other hand, Jesus was a
minimal threat compared to other proclaimed "Messiahs" of the time. Rome had to call out
troops to quell the disturbances caused by the unnamed Egyptian referenced in the Book
of Acts [Sand.HistF, 51] . In contrast, no troops were required to suppress Jesus'
To the Romans, the primary gatekeepers of written history at the time, Jesus
during His own life would have been no different than thousands of other everyday
criminals that were crucified.
- Jesus marginalized himself by being occupied as an itinerant preacher. Of course,
there was no Palestine News Network, and even if there had been one, there were no
televisions to broadcast it. Jesus never used the established "news organs" of
the day to spread His message. He travelled about the countryside, avoiding for the most
part (and with the exception of Jerusalem) the major urban centers of the day. How would
we regard someone who preached only in sites like, say, Hahira, Georgia?
- Jesus' teachings did not always jibe with, and were sometimes offensive to, the
established religious order of the day. It has been said that if Jesus appeared on the
news today, it would be as a troublemaker. He certainly did not make many friends as a preacher.
- Jesus lived an offensive lifestyle and alienated many people. He associated with the despised and rejected: Tax collectors, prostitutes, and the band of fishermen He had as disciples.
- Jesus was a poor, rural person in a land run by wealthy urbanites. Yes, class
discrimination was alive and well in the first century also!
A final consideration is that we have very little information from first-century sources to begin with. Not much has survived the test of time from A.D. 1 to today. Blaiklock has cataloged the non-Christian writings of the Roman Empire (other than those of Philo) which have survived from the first century and do not mention Jesus. These items are:
- An amateurish history of Rome by Vellius Paterculus, a retired army officer of Tiberius. It was published in 30 A.D., just when Jesus was getting started in His ministry.
- An inscription that mentions Pilate.
- Fables written by Phaedrus, a Macedonian freedman, in the 40s A.D.
- From the 50s and 60s A.D., Blaiklock tells us: "Bookends set a foot apart on this desk where I write would enclose the works from these significant years." Included are philosophical works and letters by Seneca; a poem by his nephew Lucan; a book on agriculture by Columella, a retired soldier; fragments of the novel Satyricon by Gaius Petronius; a few lines from a Roman satirist, Persius; Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis; fragments of a commentary on Cicero by Asconius Pedianus, and finally, a history of Alexander the Great by Quinus Curtius.
Of all these writers, only Seneca may have conceivably had reason to refer to Jesus. But considering his personal troubles with Nero, it is doubtful that he would have had the interest or the time to do any work on the subject.
- From the 70s and 80s A.D., we have some poems and epigrams by Martial, and works by Tacitus (a minor work on oratory) and Josephus (Against Apion, Wars of the Jews). None of these would have offered occasion to mention Jesus.
- From the 90s, we have a poetic work by Statius; twelve books by Quintillian on oratory; Tacitus' biography of his father-in-law Agricola, and his work on Germany. [Blaik.MM, 13-16]
To this Meier adds [ibid., 23] that in general, knowledge of the vast majority of ancient peoples is "simply not accessible to us today by historical research and never will be." It is just as was said in his earlier comment on Alexander the Great: What we know of most ancient people as individuals could fit on just a few pieces of paper.
Thus it is misguided for to say that we know so little about the historical Jesus, and have so little recorded about Him in ancient pagan sources. Compared to most ancient people, we know quite a lot about Jesus, and have quite a lot recorded about Him! (For a response to a commonly-used list of writers who allegedly should have mentioned Jesus, see here.)
What About the Christians?
In this essay set we will only deal briefly with the question of whether the testimony of the New Testament and/or the Church Fathers offer sufficient evidence for the existence and life of Jesus. Most historians would agree that these sources are sufficient to testify to the existence of Jesus. Whether they are reliable reports of Jesus' life is another matter, one best taken up in other areas.
On the more practical and popular level, using the New Testament and the Church Fathers as proof of the existence of Jesus is generally fruitless. As we might guess from the typical reaction to the opinion of professional historians, the Jesus-myth adherent will automatically say, "Well, the Bible and the Church Fathers are biased. Of course they assert that Jesus was real." Those words often bring the popular level of the argument to an end.
So, for our purposes, there is really no need to go much further into this facet of the subject, other than to quote Harris' illustrative anecdote, which although of a slightly different application, makes the point we seek [Harr.3Cruc, 25] :
Behind the call for additional non-Christian witnesses to the existence of
Jesus is the refusal to accept the testimony of the four writers we do have.
Should we reject the four because they are not forty? The silence of the
imaginary majority cannot overthrow the clear testimony of the few. This
demand for other witnesses reminds me of the anecdote about a man accused
of theft. At his trial the prosecuting attorney brought forward four witnesses
who saw him commit the crime, while the defense attorney introduced as
evidence fourteen persons who did not see him do it. Needless to say, the man
was found guilty!
To put it succinctly, the rule of parsimony, or simplest theory, applies here. It is used explicitly as a criterion for deciding between rival hypothesis of equal explanatory power, and the simplest theory wins. (Or, as one reader put it: "Not only does Hypothesis A have more items that beg experimental support than Hypothesis B has, some of them are bigger beggars than those in Hypothesis B." Occam's Razor is a logical fallacy and one that a scientist [like a physicist] ought to NOT use to eliminate theories; but historians may be able to use it in a form like this.)
Even if we do grant the wildly outrageous view that the "Jesus-myth" has equal explanatory power, it would be rejected by the law of parsimony. But, since it fails to explain the vast majority of the details - passion of the few, triumph in closed locales, resistance to modification by subsequent cultures, uniformity in variegated sources, etc. - it never even makes it this far.
Parsimony, we say in summary, is closely related to plausibility, and the most parsimonius and plausible explanation for the origin of Christianity in this regard is that Jesus actually existed.
With that, we now turn to mimi-essays on the non-Christian sources for the life and existence of Jesus. For each of these references, we will ask these questions, as applicable:
Is this a genuine reference, or are there doubts about its veracity? Does it really refer to Jesus?
Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust what they say?
What objections have been registered against this citataion?
What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer?
We conclude that we find three levels of source material:
- Highly reliable sources. There are two of these: Tacitus and Josephus.
- Moderately reliable sources. We find three: Thallus, Pliny, and Lucian. For the matter of Thallus, please see also our link in our essay to Glenn Miller's essay on that subject, linked in our essay. (We will look at some objections to the Thallus cite.)
- Marginally reliable or unreliable sources. Three are in this class: Suetonius, the letter of Mara Bar-Serapion, and the Talmud.
The Gamaliel Challenge
Every now and then I like to throw out challenges that I am pretty sure will sit here for 500 years ignored; that's fine with me, because it does make a good point. Now here's a new one: I challenge any Christ-myther to prove to me that Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 5:34) wasn't a myth.
You'll be hard pressed to dissuade me. You see, aside from that reference in Acts, Gamaliel isn't mentioned anywhere at all, except in a paltry handful of rabbinic material (see here) from hundreds of years later. Since you think Acts was written as late as the second century, that means all we have to prove that Gamaliel existed is a bunch of third-hand (at best) hearsay -- and as well as know from the expert historian Thomas Paine, all hearsay is automatically not be be believed.
And yet, Jewish persons (with an obvious confessional interest!) would have us believe that this guy "occupied a leading position in the highest court, the great council of Jerusalem." What are they, religious nuts? They also say he wrote three epistles.
Big deal! Those could have been forged by Gamaliel-fanatics in later centuries. I say that this is the case; as one of those worthless rabbinic documents says, "When he died the honor [outward respect] of the Torah ceased, and purity and piety became extinct" (Sot.ah xv: 18). I say he was a fake, and a rallying point used to keep Jewish persons in line in the troubling period after Bar Kochba.
I also find it suspicious (see link above) that he was the first person to have the title "rabban". I think it was retrojected onto him by the Jews as a way to honor this fake, who obviously never existed and was just a figment created to inspire Jewish persons.
Finally, if this Gamaliel guy was such a hot shot and a great Jewish leader, why is his name missing from the works of historians of the day? He's not mentioned by the chief Jewish historian of his day, Josephus, who as a comtemporary would surely have recognized him as a brilliant man if all that is said above was true about him.
He's not found in the works of Tacitus, Plutarch, Quintillian, Seneca, Pliny, Juvenal, Arrian, Petronius, Appian, Lucanus, Silius Italicus, Ptolemy, Lucian, Pompon Mela, Favorinus, Damis, Columella, Happy, Dopey, Sneezy, Sleazy, or Doc. Surely if this guy was so important, one of these writers would have taken the time to at least write a sentence about him. Why don't they?
The few records we have of him are also suspicious. There is no hint of where he was born, or where he was educated, or what kinds of tacos he liked, or anything. Surely something would have compelled someone somewhere to babble all this contextually useless information about him.
Given that Gamaliel of Jabneh, also known as Gamaliel the Younger (the supposed grandson of this obviously mythical figure Gamaliel the Elder) was the head of the school of Jabneh, which became the centre of Judaism and Jewish studies after the destruction of Jerusalem, it could easily be speculated that the
reason for inventing the Gamaliel myth was that the persons in charge of the school of Jabneh needed to bolster the authority of their school and thus they together invented this Gamaliel myth in order to root the authority of their leading figure all the way back to the the supposed first "rabban".
I think Gamaliel never existed. You just try and prove me wrong!
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