Did Jesus really exist?
August 20, 2011 Leave a comment
I was linked an article in the comments of a previous post outlining some of the evidences for Jesus. Today I wanted to spend some time explaining why these examples aren’t good evidence and why further proof is needed to convince most sceptics and indeed myself. Here is the article:
Let me start by saying I think it’s more likely that a man named Jesus did exist around 2000 years ago and told some decent stories and explained some better morals. I’m not entirely convinced he existed, but I think it’s more likely. What I haven’t been able to find is any good evidence of Jesus Christ, a divine being. That is what I want to discuss today.
“Typically, when this question is asked, the person asking qualifies the question with “outside of the Bible.” “
The Bible should definitely be considered evidence for Christ. Unfortunately it is one of very few ‘reliable’ sources that claims Jesus was divine. It’s also not terribly reliable, as the Gospels disagree or omit important events, they don’t agree on the birth story, the birth story doesn’t line up with history, the Gospel stories don’t line up with each other, they often seem poetic in nature and may not have been intended as literal and there are no reliable sources to back them up. Just to name a few problems.
But that’s another post for another day.
“…writings less than 200 years after events took place are considered very reliable evidences.”
By whose standards exactly? I think when people start rasing the dead and healing the sick, people at the time would be writing about it. Considering the number of followers Christ is said to have had its unbelievable there are no first hand accounts of his feats.
“…the Epistles of Paul (at least some of them) were in fact written by Paul in the middle of the first century A.D., less than 40 years after Jesus’ death.”
Indeed this is true. What the writer forgets to mention is that Paul is not a first hand witness. He never met Christ. Nor did he have a great deal to do with the Apostles. And take this with a grain of salt as I haven’t read the Epistles of Paul, but I believe Paul never mentions miracles that Jesus performed. This article appears to support that idea.
“It is also important to recognize that in A.D. 70, the Romans invaded and destroyed Jerusalem and most of Israel… much evidence of Jesus’ existence was destroyed. Many of the eyewitnesses of Jesus would have been killed.”
Again this is indeed true. But as we’ve discussed before, a lack of evidence doesn’t suddenly make the stories more likely.
56AD – 117AD
Here is the text Tacitus wrote about Christians and Christ.
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre 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. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Indeed rather gruesome. But take note that Tacticus only mentions that the Christians followed a man named Christus, who was executed under Pontius Pilatus. No mention of miracles.
37AD – 100AD
Josephus mentions James, the supposed brother of Jesus, John the Baptist and Jesus himself. We’ll cover them in that order. Mostly because that’s the order Wikipedia covers them in 😀
“The brother of Jesus…whose name was James”
“Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned…”
There is a lot more to this quote and I encourage you to read the bulk on Wikipedia for your own understanding (and to make sure I’m not taking anything out of context 😉 ), but this is all that’s required for our purposes.
Let’s start with the obvious fact that once again this is merely a mention of Jesus, which although interesting does nothing to promote the idea he was a miracle worker.
The second point that needs to be brought up is that many Biblical scholars regard the bolded section to be a later addition. In other words a forgery. And considering the arguments put forth I’m inclined to agree with them.
Firstly Josephus was writing for a Roman or Jewish audience. He is not writing for Christians. Josephus only mentions Christ in one other passage, and that passage is considered by most scholars to definitely be a forgery. So what we have is a writer who, out of the blue mentions “Jesus, who was called Christ”. He hasn’t written about Christ in any earlier passages. His audience is unlikely to know who this Jesus character is. It is extremely random.
That is until you consider that in The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus, Arthur Drews points out that earlier manuscripts of Josephus’ writing didn’t include any mention of Jesus until around 300AD. It seems likely then that the writing is a forgery, and that this piece of ‘evidence’ for Christ doesn’t actually appear until 270 years after Jesus’ death.
John the Baptist
“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him.”
This quotation is considered by most scholars to be authentic. But…so what? It’s definitely interesting and shows it’s likely the Bible has some historical accuracy, but aside from that it’s pretty useless, at least in terms of evidence for Christ. There’s no mention of Jesus, man or divine. Interesting, but hardly proof of anything.
“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 amongst 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.”
Wikipedia has a mass of information on this quotation and I encourage you to read through it. It is not an easy read though, and I will try to compact what I feel are the important points.
Firstly, the earliest copy we have of ‘The Antiquities of the Jews’ dates back to the 11th century. This itself is somewhat problematic, but what is more concerning is that all the early copies we have, have been copied by Christian monks. By itself not enough to reject the quote, but enough to raise an eyebrow at.
It needs to be noted that Josephus was a Jew, not a Christian. It is unlikely then that he would have referred to Jesus as “He was the Christ”. Among other sections, this line is considered a forgery or mistranslation and more likely read “He was called the Christ”.
As well as this there are many other sources that reference both Josephus’ writings about James and John the Baptist early on, however no one quotes the above passage until much later. Considering the passage would have been fantastic evidence for Christ it seems very strange it has not been quoted.
I encourage you all to read through the Wikipedia article (and hopefully others besides), as it goes into a great more detail than what I have here. What needs to be taken away from this is Josephus’ writings on Christ are extremely debatable, and when the most important passage is not backed up by other corroborating sources it becomes very weak evidence indeed.
Certainly though, this is the best evidence for Christ available.
160AD – 240AD
“This event followed each of his deeds, and healings of body and soul, and knowledge of hidden things, and his resurrection from the dead, all sufficiently proven to the disciples before us and to his apostles: after the most dreadful darkness fell over the whole world, the rocks were torn apart by an earthquake and much of Judaea and the rest of the land was torn down. Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun in the third book of his Histories, without reason it seems to me. For….how are we to believe that an eclipse happened when the moon was diametrically opposite the sun?
“In fact, let it be so. Let the idea that this happened seize and carry away the multitude, and let the cosmic prodigy be counted as an eclipse of the sun according to its appearance. Phlegon reports that in the time of Tiberius Caesar, during the full moon, a full eclipse of the sun happened, from the sixth hour until the ninth. Clearly this is our eclipse! What is common about an earthquake, an eclipse, rocks torn apart, a rising of the dead, and such a huge cosmic movement? At the very least, over a long period, no conjunction this great is remembered. But it was a godsent darkness, because the Lord happened to suffer, and the Bible, in Daniel, supports that seventy spans of seven years would come together up to this time.”
Obviously by his age Julius lived long after Jesus and this isn’t a first hand account. Julius does however refer to Thallus, who may have had a first hand encounter of Jesus’ crucifixion. He also mentions Phlegon, who we will also come to shortly. So Julius himself isn’t terribly interesting to us. He lived far too long after Jesus to offer us any useful information himself. It is the people he writes about that is interesting. We need to know more about Thallus and Phlegon.
I’d also like to note that if darkness covered the whole world we should expect many authors to have written about this, as eclipses cannot be seen from everywhere on earth. They are relatively localised.
Anywhere between 109BC – 180AD
Thallus is credited with writing a ‘brief compendium’, which covers the 167th Olympiad. The Olympiad dates between 112-109BC. Clearly Thallus was alive in a period after 109BC.
However the first time Thallus is quoted is by Theophilus, in 180AD. Considering Thallus could have written his Compendium any time after 109BC this leaves us with quite a gap where he may have lived and written. The above article goes into some details that may help shorten that large gap, but nothing is certain.
The above quote under ‘Julius’ is all we have of Thallus’ work. Thallus apparently mentions a darkness, however he does not mention (as far as we can tell anyhow) Jesus, man or divine. We don’t have the original quote from Thallus himself, nor do we know when Thallus was writing. Although Julius implies it, there isn’t any terribly strong reason to assume Thallus was an eye witness at all.
Phlegon is also credited with writing Olympiads, covering as late as 137AD. This means Phlegon had to have been alive and writing some time after this. Clearly Phlegon is also not a first hand witness, although once again you could be forgiven for thinking Julius is implying it.
The article at ‘Infidels.org‘ suggests that the quotation mentioning Phlegon may have been a later insertion. Remove the section:
“Phlegon reports that in the time of Tiberius Caesar, during the full moon, a full eclipse of the sun happened, from the sixth hour until the ninth. Clearly this is our eclipse!”
And the trail of thought suddenly seems a lot clearer. However I’m going to gloss over this point, as there is another quotation from Eusebius that I feel is more important.
“Jesus Christ..underwent his passion in the 18th year of Tiberius [32 AD]. Also at that time in another Greek compendium we find an event recorded in these words: “the sun was eclipsed, Bithynia was struck by an earthquake, and in the city of Nicaea many buildings fell.” All these things happened to occur during the Lord’s passion. In fact, Phlegon, too, a distinguished reckoner of Olympiads, wrote more on these events in his 13th book, saying this: “Now, in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad [32 AD], a great eclipse of the sun occurred at the sixth hour [noon] that excelled every other before it, turning the day into such darkness of night that the stars could be seen in heaven, and the earth moved in Bithynia, toppling many buildings in the city of Nicaea.”
This quote clearly shows Phlegon saying an earthquake happened in Bithynia (over 500 miles from Jerusalem) and that an eclipse also occurred. It is implied the eclipse may also have occurred in Bithynia (which is unlikely to be seen from Jerusalem), although we can’t be certain. The only connection we have between Jesus’ execution, the eclipse and an earthquake is that they happened in the same year. We can’t even be sure it happened on the same day!
In conclusion to this section it appears that Julius Africanus has found some facts by earlier authors and brought them together himself, making a few assumptions along the way. It is certainly possible Thallus could have been a first hand witness to these events, but it is also equally likely he wasn’t. Unless further evidence is dug up this alone can hardly be considered strong evidence.
Pliny the Younger
61AD – 112AD
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, but better known as Pliny the Younger did indeed write about Christians and their worshipping practices. And considering he thought of them as a cult and had many of them executed it is likely his writings are authentic. When your enemies are writing about you it’s likely you exist.
The Wikipedia article has several of Pliny’s quotes about Christians, briefly detailing their worship methods, that they believed Jesus to be a god and that of their executions. It is rather barbaric and completely intolerant. Unfortunately it doesn’t offer any information about the likelihood of Jesus’ existence, nor offer any reference to his divinity (outside of the Christians already believing this).
Here is one of Pliny’s letters in full:
I find it interesting that Pliny says some of the Christians claimed to have been believers for 25 years or so. Theoretically this would put them as believers not long after Jesus’ execution. Sadly we don’t have any quotes or literature from them.
I also found it interesting to note that the earlier Christians were still sacrificing animals. The ‘lamb of God’ is still considered quite literal at this stage in history.
The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a)
This one actually gets somewhat confusing. Here’s the quote:
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.”
‘Yeshu’ is one possible translation for ‘Jesus’. However Jesus was a very popular name at the time, so there is no guarantee it refers to Christ. Certainly the Gospels say nothing of a 40 day waiting period, although this does seem more likely. It also says he was ‘hanged’, however it is possible this is a translation for crucifixion.
The problem is, references to this text are difficult to find online and what is available doesn’t appear to come from reliable sources. I’ve read some articles suggesting this passage refers to a time somewhere around 100BC.
Certainly information on this passage is sparse and hardly conclusive, yet the authors of this article put it forward as if there is no debate and no confusion.
Lucian of Samosata
125AD – 180AD or later.
Now this one I really love. The authors at ‘gotquestions.org’ write as if Lucian was an historian and wrote glowing reviews of the Christians beliefs, devotion and rejection of material goods. In fact the work they are referring to is ‘The Passing of Peregrinus’ which is in fact a satirical story that happens to include Christians and makes fun of them for their naive devotion. Being a work of fiction everything in it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
On top of that we have the usual issue of Lucian being born far too late and not being a first hand witness. This is evidence that Christians existed. Nothing more.
~73AD – 3rd Century
“What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defense? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates? Famine and plague came upon them as a punishment 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 and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the “new law” he laid down.”
At first glance it appears this quote may be in reference to Jesus, and it is always possible it might be. However there is no guarantee as there were many ‘Messiahs’ (or people pretending to be) in the Holy Lands at that time. This letter was also written from prison, so it is unlikely Mara is an eye-witness anyhow. Again, this is a possible reference to Jesus, but at the same time it’s equally likely to have been someone else. We may never know.
And like so many other historical references, even if it does refer to Jesus it only speaks of his execution. There is no reason to think the ‘wise king’ being referenced was divine in any way.
The Gospel of Truth
The Apocryphon of John
The Gospel of Thomas
The Treatise on Resurrection
These writings are long and detailed, and would require at least an entire post to cover each of them. I would prefer to take my time to read them individually before I make any comment on them, so for now I’m going to gloss over them as I don’t feel I know enough to do them justice.
So to try and answer my original question, “Did Jesus really exist?” I would tentatively suggest yes. It is quite likely a man called Jesus lived around 0-33AD. He may have been a teacher of some sort and it is even possible he was executed for his teachings. All of that is possible, although as I said, it is a tentative suggestion as the evidence is far from overwhelming.
But to answer the question posed by the authors at gotQuestions.org, “Is there any historical evidence of Jesus Christ?”, I would strongly suggest no. All the evidence they provide of a divine being appears to be inaccurate or a forgery. Even some of the evidence provided suggesting a man called Jesus existed is patchy.
So what do you believe from all this? Well, whatever you want. Certainly there is evidence of a mortal Jesus, and the Gospels may be enough to convince you he was also divine. But whatever it is you choose to believe, please don’t go around saying there is “overwhelming evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ”. This is a blatant lie. There is scant evidence and all of it is questionable.
And as for this stupid notion:
“Perhaps the greatest evidence that Jesus did exist is the fact that literally thousands of Christians in the first century A.D., including the twelve apostles, were willing to give their lives as martyrs for Jesus Christ. People will die for what they believe to be true, but no one will die for what they know to be a lie.”
All I will say is, “Don’t drink the Kool-aid“. And that is why:
-Ignorance is not bliss. Stay inquisitive.