Wow! Another week, another 400 views for this little blog! I appreciate all of you who stop by and read this every week more than I can say, and I hope what I write is always worth your time.
I have never been one to shy away from debate, and this week has been an exceptionally frustrating one in that regard. A longtime atheist sparring partner of mine has recently adopted the position that Jesus of Nazareth never even existed as a historical person. In fact, he's taken it one step further: He says both the books of the New Testament, and Christianity ITSELF did not exist prior to the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, when the Romans, led by Emperor Constantine and Bishop Eusebius, simply cobbled it together out of existing religious themes in order to create a single religion in order to unify the Empire.
Now, honestly, that latter claim is so ludicrous that I am not going to address it at length. There is Christian graffiti in the Catacombs of Rome dating to the earliest decades of the Second Century AD, and there are so many Christian authors that wrote commentaries on the Gospels and the Books of the New Testament in the Second Century (Clement of Rome, Papias, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Justin Martyr, just to name a few, plus the various Gnostic Gospels and epistles, written in the Second and Third Centuries) that claiming there were no Christians prior to Constantine's time is to deny history that is universally accepted by virtually all scholars, liberal and conservative, agnostic and faithful. Plus you'd still have to account for several hundred manuscripts of Christian writings that have been carefully and accurately dated by archeologists to the Second and Third Centuries. Frankly, denying the existence of Christianity prior to the Council of Nicaea is to deny eighteen hundred centuries of history, scholarship, and research, much of it by non-Christians.
But, the first point is certainly worth rebutting. Too many people today are willing to accept what they read on the net at face value, and so if they see someone claiming that Jesus never existed, then they pick the idea up without thinking much about it and pass it on to someone else. That's how falsehoods grow and thrive in the digital age - anyone can write up anything in halfway coherent prose and post it online, and the whole world accepts it as true. "Fake news," indeed!
So let me be clear: I can respect anyone who says that "Jesus of Nazareth was a significant historical figure, but I do not believe he was the son of God, or in any way divine." I do not agree - I would not have devoted so much of my life to the Gospel if I did - but that's a conversation that we can have, and I'll enjoy going back and forth with it. But when someone says: "Jesus never existed," that gets my hackles up. So - what evidence is there?
THE NEW TESTAMENT - There is a knee-jerk assumption that the Gospels, and the other writings that make up the New Testament, are somehow unreliable because they were all written by people who believed that Jesus was the Son of God. That is not necessarily an accurate assumption - is a biology textbook automatically suspect because it was written by someone who believes in evolution? While the dating of the books of the NT is always controversial, the vast majority of scholars who have studied the issue (this includes both Christian and non-Christian scholars) agree that most, if not all, of the NT books were written in the First Century AD. Even John's Gospel, acknowledged for centuries by Christians to be the last of the four, had been around for some time by 125 AD. That is the scientific date of the Rylands Papyrus Fragment, a hand-sized piece of John's Gospel discovered in Egypt about 80 years ago. It has been dated several times by various methods, and the date is as certain as that of ANY ancient text. Paul's letters, which clearly refer to Jesus as a real person AND a divine being, were all completed by the year 68 AD, when Paul was martyred. So in the NT we have 27 documents that all refer to Jesus as a real, flesh and blood person, all of them written within less than a century of His death in 33 AD. We know the rough timeframe of his birth and a much more specific time for his death, as well as the places where he lived and ministered. If we accept traditional authorship, then several books of the New Testament - John, Matthew, I and II Peter, James, Jude, and the letters of John - were written by men who knew and followed Jesus personally. The others were written by men who knew those who knew Jesus. Even if you reject the traditional authorship, you still have a substantial body of work that would have been written while the eyewitnesses of Jesus' life were still alive.
GREEK AND ROMAN SOURCES -
Well, first of all we have Tacitus, who wrote his Annals, an account of Roman history, around the year 116-117 AD - again, LESS than a century after Jesus' crucifixion. He said this about the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome:
"N]either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts … whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ [Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate … Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular.
Now, Tacitus didn't care for the Christians, obviously - but that makes his testimony all the more valuable, since he is a hostile witness. This passage occurs in all extant copies of his Annals, and is in the same classical Latin he uses throughout. What does he verify, then? That there were Christians in Rome at the time of Nero and the Great Fire (64 AD), and that their founder was a man known as Christ, who lived in Judea during the time of Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD) and the governorship of Pontius Pilate (27-37 AD). That's strong corroborative evidence.
Lucian of Samosata, who lived from 115-200 AD, made a reference to Christianity in one of his satires, The Passing of Peregrinus. The title character was a former Christian who became a cynic philosopher. Again, Lucian's reference to Christians is derogatory, but he also acknowledges that the faith was founded by a real person: "after that other whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. For having convinced themselves that they are going to be immortal and live forever, the poor wretches despise death and most even willingly give themselves up. 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 according to his laws."
Again, a hostile source identifies the founder of Christianity as a real person who was crucified in Palestine sometime prior to the Second Century AD. This is an ancient work whose authenticity has never been questioned by any serious scholar, and it contains a clear reference to the historical Jesus.
Yet another source is Celsus, a Greek philosopher who despised Christianity. He is quoted (and refuted) in the works of Origen, but his statement on Jesus is still interesting: "Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her own hands. His mother had been turned out of doors by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery [with a soldier named Panthéra (i.32)]. Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard. Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain (magical) powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god."
The bit about Panthera was common gossip among the foes of Christianity, probably a play on words - Jesus was referred to by the early church as "ben Parthenos" - "son of a virgin," and it's a short hop there in Greek to "ben Pantheros" - Pantherus being a common Roman name. But still, what does Celsus say? That Jesus was born to a young woman, betrothed to a carpenter, and that he spent time in Egypt as a boy, that he was possessed of seemingly supernatural powers, and finally that he made claims to divinity.
Roman governor Pliny the Younger also wrote a letter around 112 AD to the Emperor Trajan, asking what to do with Christians. His only direct reference to Jesus is this: "On a fixed day they used to assemble before dawn to sing an antiphonal hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath not for any criminal purpose, but to commit no fraud, no robbery or adultery, to bear no false witness, and not to deny any debt when asked to pay up. After this it was their custom to separate and to reassemble to eat a communion meal, all together and quite harmless."
Three things to note here: One, that Christians clearly worshiped Jesus as a God during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD), and that they observed the communal meal mentioned in the New Testament. Last of all, Pliny never refers to "Christ" as a myth or legend.
Rounding off our Greco-Roman sources is the letter of Mara ben Serapion, a Stoic philosopher captured by the Romans in 73 AD. He wrote a letter to his son that contains this reference:
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.
If the date most scholars assign to this letter - around 75 AD - is accurate, this is quite possibly the earliest extra-biblical reference to Jesus. While Serapion does not mention Jesus by name, there was no other person during that time frame, known as the "King of the Jews," who was executed - nor who would have lived on through the "new law" he introduced.
So what do all these sources agree on? That Christianity was introduced during the first half of the First Century AD by a real, physical person named Jesus of Nazareth. All of these men, except possibly Serapion, were foes of Christianity and regarded the Christian faith as a vile superstition - yet NONE of them claimed that Jesus was a mythical figure, a legend, or a fabrication.
JEWISH SOURCES: At the head of this list stands Josephus, the foremost Jewish historian of the ancient world. There are two passages in his Antiquities of the Jews that refer to Jesus, one of which is universally accepted by all scholars, the second of which is controversial but still worth mentioning. Let's go with the one we're sure of first, an account of the death of James:
Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.1
What does this show us? That around 62 AD, during a time when the old Roman governor had died and the new one was on his way to Judea, the High Priest Ananus put to death a man named James, the brother of Jesus "who is called Messiah." (Note: This is a Jewish translation; Josephus wrote in Greek and used the title "Christos.") Therefore, before 62 AD, there was a man named Jesus whom some called the Christ. Skeptics have tried to argue (in a long and incredibly boring YouTube video my friend forwarded to me, most recently) that the "Jesus" in question was Jesus ben Damneus, who succeeded Ananus as High Priest. This founders on two things: One, Josephus never mentions a character in passing without explaining him first, and second, there is no evidence Jesus ben Damneus was ever "called Messiah." Of course, they respond that the "Messiah" bit was a later Christian interpolation, but there is ZERO manuscript or historical evidence for that. A Christian interpolator would have simply called him "James the Brother of Jesus," "James the Lord's Brother," or "James the Just" - the titles by which James was known to them. So there must have been an earlier reference to Jesus, and sure enough, a few pages back, in Book Three of Antiquities of the Jews, we find this reference, the infamous Testimonium Flavinium:
Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him, for on the third day, he appeared to them restored to life. The prophets of God had prophesied this and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out.
"Jesus-mythers" will tell you all day long that this passage is a shameless fabrication inserted into the text by a later, Christian scribe. However, the vast majority of scholarship - and this encompasses both Christian and non-Christan scholars - have concluded that the core passage is authentic, with some interpolations added by a Christian scribe later on to turn this into a positive witness of Jesus as Messiah instead of an account of the death of a would-be Messiah. There is a nice summary of the debate in the Wikipedia entry on the Testimonium Flavinium, and a more scholarly treatment in the Biblical Archeological Review entitled "Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible." In short, most historians and scholars believe that Josephus did, in fact, write a short summary of the life of Jesus in his Antiquities.
Finally, there were no more rabid opponents of Christianity than the Jews of the Second Century onward. Many Talmudic references to Jesus were either censored or edited later on to make the references to Jesus less clear - their favorite tactic was to erase His name and describe Him as "Such a one" - but the references are still there. The Babylonian Talmud, compiled around 400-500 AD from earlier writings, states:
Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve. Forty days previously the herald had cried, “He is being led out for stoning, because he has practiced sorcery and led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy. Whosoever has anything to say in his defense, let him come and declare it.” As nothing was brought forward in his defense, he was hanged on Passover Eve.
While this reference is later in date than the others, and somewhat confused (note the contradiction on Jesus' death - it references him being stoned and hung (a Jewish euphemism for crucifixion) in the same Passage - it is very clear that he was considered to have been a real person who was actually executed on the eve of Passover. There are several other Talmudic references, but this is the most clear.
Was Jesus a real, historical person? I will conclude with the words of atheist scholar Bart Ehrman:
". . . as a historian I think evidence matters. And the past matters. And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist."