Evidence for the Historical Jesus (5)

The road to the mythical Christ leads from an examination of the historical Jesus. As long as there is sufficiently credible evidence for the historical Christ, then of course the idea of claiming Jesus to have been a mythological figure is ridiculous. Research into the historical Christ, from a brief internet search to an in depth comparison of scholarly texts, always brings to light the same handful of historical passages, which have been used for well over 1,000 years as the definitive proof for the historical Jesus Christ. Answerbag.com gives this wonderfully short overview of these passages:

“The “proof” for the existence of Christ can be found in three main sources. The argument for the existence of Jesus is strengthened because the person of Jesus Christ is mentioned by independent Christian, Jewish, and Roman sources. Obviously the person of Jesus is mentioned quite thoroughly in the New Testament and other early Christian writings but Jesus is also mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus. The fact that Josephus, a practicing Jew and a man who was not actively involved Christian circles and not part of the early church mentions the existence of Jesus of Nazareth in his writings definitely gives credence to the argument for the existence of Jesus Christ. In turn, another of the most credible arguments for the existence of Jesus Christ are the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus. Tacitus was a Roman historian who also mentioned the existence of the crucifixion of Jesus in his writings. In turn, the writings of Tacitus are viewed by historians as crucial to not only understanding early Middle Eastern history but also what we know of early Germanic tribes in Europe. In essence, while the divinity of Jesus is not something that can be proven historically, the historical community is quite sure that a person named Jesus did live in the Middle East two thousand years ago and can look to independent historical sources to strengthen their argument.” answerbag.com

This short description makes the claim, as most Christians also do, that Jesus Christ is mentioned by independent Christian, Jewish, and Roman sources – but then provides only 1 Jewish source, and 1 Roman source, both of which, as we will see, are not accepted as reliable evidence by scholars, and neither of which were written by contemporaries of Jesus. As the continued argument stemming from the original answerbag passage shows, the verdict is still out on all of these sources.

The three sources listed by Answerbag.com sum up the publicly known historical references to Jesus, and are the only ones that seem to continue to be used and relied on by Christians in defense of their faith, however we will add to them Pliny and Suetonius, whose writings are also sometimes used in divining the historical Jesus. Before we get into them individually, I want to point out, that the heated debate over even the validity of these passages already calls them into question. There is no other person in the history of mankind whose historicity has been so hotly contested as Jesus Christ. Not Caesar, not Buddha, not Mohammed; no other figure in the combined literature of the world has had so much trouble being accepted as a historical figure. This is because, as we shall see, all of the evidence in favor of the historical Jesus is so flimsy that it can be contested by those who don’t believe in him. Rather than irrefutable proof, what we are left with is a collected body of historical references whose authenticity can only be believed in by those who want to believe in them.

The Bible

The Bible is the main text used by Christians as proof that Jesus was real. It is taken as a collection of four separate eye witness accounts, as well as other early Christian literature and letters, which demonstrate the founding of the early Church. The earliest copies of these documents were written in stylistic Greek literature, using many of the same terms as contemporary Greek philosophers, including concepts such as, soul, heaven, son of God, sin, redemption and salvation. The idea of the Word, or Logos of God, in particular, (who was with the father in the beginning, and created the world in his outpouring of creative energy,) began with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus about 5 centuries before the beginning of Christianity. The apostles of Jesus, on the other hand, were mostly poor, Jewish fisherman. Some may have been educated, some may have even learned Greek, but to write an entire book full of Greek philosophy, mythology, and even stories about other Pagan saviors, seems a little beyond their abilities.

Even if these texts were inspired; why the similarities? As we will see in Diabolical Mimicry, there is nothing that Jesus said or did in the canonical gospels that were not previously done by other mythological figures. So we have to ask, did Jesus copy, either on purpose or accidentally, plot events from Pagan mythology? Or is it more likely that they were written in by the authors of the gospels in order to elevate him to divine status?

As eye-witness accounts, the four gospels are horribly lacking – There aren’t even any I’s in them! Unlike Revelations, which is clearly a 1st person narrative, “Then, in my vision, I saw a door open in heaven…” (Rev. 4), the gospels are all in 3rd person. Instead of, “I saw Jesus perform a miracle and was amazed,” they say, “The disciples saw Jesus perform a miracle, and they were afraid.” This why sound like nominal semantics, but think of those people who walk around talking about themselves in 3rd person. Isn’t it strange? Isn’t it unusual? Why would anyone write a whole story like that, as if they were pretending not to be there.

They are also, for eye-witness accounts, tremendously impersonal. As a small group of disciples that traveled with Jesus they should have become very close to him, and each other. But they tell no stories, share no opinions, and ignore their own personal experiences. There are no anecdotes, there is no spice of personality, and they never hint of even one private conversation between themselves and Jesus. They also never claim to be eye-witness accounts; unlike the letters of Paul, which say emphatically, “I, Paul, wrote this with my own hand. See, this is my own handwriting,” the gospels have no authors attributed to them. It is only because the names of the gospels themselves, which were chosen later, match the names of the disciples listed in the text itself, has tradition assigned them to actual disciples of Christ.

When we compare the three synoptic gospels, it becomes even clearer that they are not eye-witness accounts. Due to their similarity, scholars agree that Mark, the briefest of them, came first, and the other two synoptics, Matthew and Luke, copied from him, and added their own material. Why would an eye-witness account copy from another eye-witness account? Having the gospel of Mark in hand, wouldn’t they have been more likely to provide details that Mark had missed, rather than merely collaborate his story?

Many Christians are excited by historical research that has uncovered many of the people and places mentioned in the gospels, because these seem to support the bible’s historicity. Actually, many scholars think that the earliest Christian documents were a simple collection of Jesus sayings, like a list of quotations, and that names, places and dates, all the physical details, were added in later. (And even this is only if we skip over the first documents used by the early church, like the Shepherd of Hermas, which doesn’t mention Jesus at all.) We can see this progression in comparing Mark, which is sparse in historical detail, to Luke and Matthew, who add in lots of detail; although sometimes with contradictory results. It should also be understood that the gospels were written in a literary style known as Historical Narrative; they were stories about Jesus which included historical details in order to appear historical. How do we know? Historical Narrative is simply the literary style of the Bible – this was well known to the church fathers, the majority of whom, for at least the first 5 or 6 centuries of Christianity, taught that scripture was metaphorical and needed to be interpreted.

“It is sufficient however, to represent in the style of a historical narrative what is intended to convey a secret meaning in the garb of history, that those who have the capacity may work out for themselves all that relates to the subject.” Origen, Against Celsus (Book 5, Chapter 29)

On top of this, due to the early controversy concerning Jesus’ historical nature, passages were written into the gospels specifically to prove his physical nature. To the already realistic style of historical narrative, scribes added in specific details, names, dates, as well as more and more examples of the physical Jesus interacting bodily with the world. Scholars can recognize these passages by changes in handwriting, spelling, grammar or style. This means that those passages which seem most useful as proofs for the historical Jesus, such as doubting Thomas sticking his finger into the wounds of Christ, or the resurrected Jesus eating fish, or Christ appearing to a large number of disciples, are actually the least reliable – because they were inserted precisely in order to be used as evidence that Jesus had been a real, physical person.

The strongest evidence against the Bible as a historical text is the fact that all of the stories, parables, and actions of Jesus, as well as the language used to describe him, have corresponding passages in pre-Christian literature. This is, in fact, the main reason that most scholars have completely given up on the Bible as a historical document. The other reason, of course, is that those who do not come to Bible with a faith in the miraculous abilities of Jesus will read the gospel stories as obvious fiction. It takes a suspension of Newtonian laws, which in all other circumstances appear to govern our existence, even to consider that the gospels are historical. If we try to use the Bible as a historical document by removing all of those things that challenge logic, such as the miracles, the similarities between other traditions, and the phrases that literary critics don’t believe Jesus really said, then we might get a figure similar to the 30 year study of the Westar Institute, which concluded that only 16% of the Bible might possibly be true.

But isn’t it enough that these gospels were written? Even if mostly false, don’t they have to be grounded on a historical root that inspired the disciples? If there were no other evidence, then yes, even after proving that there are no plausible historical records for Jesus, I would still admit that he had to be someone, somewhere, because there were a lot of people talking about him. But in light of much more evidence than is generally recognized, we have discovered that Jesus was a mythological figure, just like Santa Claus. (The reason this evidence is not as well known as the “evidence” for the historical Jesus, is that virtually nobody is looking for the mythological Jesus. Once you have the idea of him, and you do research with him in mind, you soon get inundated with more evidence than you can handle!)

Everybody talks about Santa Claus. He is mentioned in thousands of books, he is well known by millions of people. We know where he came from and what he does every year, the names of his reindeer, even his favorite food! Facts and details were added to make the story of Santa Claus to make it interesting and realistic. It is only our understanding of Santa as a myth that keeps him a myth – if someone were given The Night Before Christmas and told “This really happened!”, it would assume a cult status overnight, with people waiting, watching, for the return of Santa. A long time ago, everybody saw Jesus Christ in the same way that we see Santa Claus: as a story.

I will leave the Bible alone for now because it will be dealt with in more detail later. We will see that, even if the Bible is historically accurate, and Jesus did physically complete all those miraculous events that had already been ascribed to earlier mythological saviors, it only opens an even larger can of worms. Did Jesus copy intentionally or accidentally? Was he a fake, or an idiot? Did the devil make all of the copies first to throw doubt on Jesus when he came? Why would the Devil have had that much power over God’s only plan of salvation?

To carry on then, the first and most widely quoted non-Christian reference to Jesus comes from a historian named Josephus, in his book, The Antiquities of the Jews. It is called the Testimoniam Flavianum.

“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 received 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 ceased not, for he appeared to them thereafter again the third day, as the divine prophets foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And even now the tribe of Christians so named from him is not extinct.” wikipedia.org

Wow! Great passage, right? Except Josephus is not Christian, but Jewish, and remained so all his life. He would never have called Jesus, “The Christ,” which means Messiah. Origen, whose extensive writings quote Josephus many times, knows nothing about this passage, even though he would have seized upon it as evidence. Some scholars argue that at least some of this passage is genuine, but the majority see it as an inserted Christian passage. (It fits poorly into the surrounding text, and the style stands out as being dissimilar.) That means, rather than an unbiased Jewish source, it is most likely a Christian deception, possibly written by Emperor Constantine’s church historian, Eusebius, who was also the first to quote from it. And while Christians today continue to use it as a proof for their faith, it was questioned as early as 1770 by Bishop Warburton of Gloucester, who called it a “rank forgery, and a stupid one, too.” Over a hundred years ago it was discarded in more depth, by a book called Christian Mythology Unveiled, written by Mitchell Logan in 1842.

“The famous passage which we find in Josephus, about Jesus Christ, was never mentioned nor alluded to in any way whatever by any of the fathers of the first, second, or third centuries; nor until the time of Eusebius, ‘when it was first quoted by himself.’ The truth is, none of these fathers could quote or allude to a passage which did not exist in their times; but was to all points short of absolute certainty, forged and interpolated by Eusebius.” Christian Mythology Unveiled, pg. 79

For die-hard supporters of this passage, we will recreate the Dr. Larner’s more exhaustive effort, first published in 1760, and reprinted in T.W. Doane’s 1882 book, Bible Myths and their Parallels in other Religions. (Appendix D: Jesus Never Existed.)
1. It was never quoted by any of our Christian ancestors before Eusebius.
2. Josephus has nowhere else mentioned the name or word Christ, in any of his works, except the testimony above mentioned, and the passage concerning James, the Lord’s brother.
3. It interrupts the narrative.
4. The language is quite Christian.
5. It is not quoted by Chrysostom, though he often refers to Josephus, and could not have omitted quoting it, had it been then, in the text.
6. It is not quoted by Photius, though he has three articles concerning Josephus.
7. Under the article Justus of Tiberius, this author (Photius) expressly states that this historian (Josephus), being a Jew, has not taken the least notice of Christ.
8. Neither Justin, in his dialogue with Typho the Jew, nor Clemens Alexandrinus, who made so many extracts from ancient authors, nor Origen against Celsus, have even mentioned this testimony.
9. But, on the contrary, Origen openly affirms (ch. xxiv., bk. i, against Celsus), that Josephus, who had mentioned John the Baptist, did not acknowledge Christ.
Moving on to the passage from Tacitus:

“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 centre and become popular.” wikipedia.org

Incidentally, this passage shows how disliked Christians were in the Roman world. They were hideous and shameful, mischievous, haters of mankind, and hated for their many blasphemies. The passage from Tacitus is often used to show that even a non-Christian believed in the historical Jesus, and knew certain details about him. Some consider it a forgery, like the passage in Josephus, others argue that Tacitus was only writing down what he knew about Jesus based on what he’d heard Christians themselves say of him. And while it is true that Christians believed Jesus to have been put to death under Pontius, this doesn’t mean that it really happened. How reliable is this passage? Let’s turn back to Larner and Doane, who also regard this passage as a forgery:
10. This passage, which would have served the purpose of Christian quotation better than any other in all the writings of Tacitus, or of any Pagan writer whatever, is not quoted by any of the Christian Fathers.
11. It is not quoted by Tertullian, though he had read and largely quotes the works of Tacitus.
12. And though his argument immediately called for the use of this quotation with so loud a voice (Apol. ch. v.), that his omission of it, if it had really existed, amounts to a violent improbability.
13. This Father has spoken of Tacitus in a way that it is absolutely impossible that he should have spoken of him, had his writings contained such a passage.
14. It is not quoted by Clemens Alexandrinus, who set himself entirely to the work of adducing and bringing together all the admissions and recognitions which Pagan authors had made of the existence of Christ Jesus or Christians before his time.
15. It has been nowhere stumbled upon by the laborious and all-seeking Eusebius, who could by no possibility have overlooked it, and whom it would have saved from the labor of forging the passage in Josephus; of adducing the correspondence of Christ Jesus and Abgarus, and the Sibylline verses; of forging a divine revelation from the god Apollo, in attestation of Christ Jesus’ ascension into heaven; and innumerable other of his pious and holy cheats.
16. Tacitus has in no other part of his writings made the least allusion to “Christ” or “Christians.”
17. The use of this passage as part of the evidences of the Christian religion, is absolutely modern.
18. There is no vestige nor trace of its existence anywhere in the world before the 15th century
19. No reference whatever is made to this passage by any writer or historian, monkish or otherwise, before that time, which, to say the least, is very singular, considering that after that time it is quoted, or referred to, in an endless list of works, which by itself is all but conclusive that it was not in existence till the fifteenth century, which was an age of imposture and of credulity so immoderate that people were easily imposed upon, believing, as they did, without sufficient evidence, whatever was foisted upon them.
20. The interpolator of the passage makes Tacitus speak of “Christ,” not of Jesus the Christ, showing that-like the passage in Josephus-it is, comparatively, a modern interpolation, for
21. The word “Christ” is not a name, but a title; it being simply the Greek for the Hebrew word “Messiah.” Therefore,
22. When Tacitus is made to speak of Jesus as “Christ,” it is equivalent to my speaking of Tacitus as “Historian,” or George Washington as “General,” or of any individual as “Mister,” without adding a name by which either could be distinguished. And therefore,
23. It has no sense or meaning as he is said to have used it.
24. Tacitus is also made to say that the Christians had their denomination from Christ, which would apply to any other of the so-called Christs who were put to death in Judea, as well as to Christ Jesus. And
25. “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts xi. 26), not because they were followers of a certain Jesus who claimed to be the Christ, but because “Christian” or “Chrēstian,” was a name applied, at that time, to any good man. And,
26. The worshipers of the Sun-god, Serapis, were also called “Christians,” and his disciples “Bishops of Christ.”
“So much, then, for the celebrated passage in Tacitus.”
David W. Heley, whose homepage is a wealth of historical and religious trivia, adds this insightful description of the history of Tacitus’ famous passage:

“The original MSS. containing the “Annals of Tacitus” were “discovered” in the fifteenth century. Their existence cannot be traced back further than that time. And as it was an age of imposture, some persons are disposed to believe that not only portions of the Annals, but the whole work, was forged at that time. Mr. J. W. Ross, in an elaborate work published in London some years ago, contended that the Annals were forged by Poggio Bracciolini, their professed discoverer. At the time of Bracciolini the temptation was great to palm off literary forgeries, especially of the chief writers of antiquity, on account of the Popes, in their efforts to revive learning, giving money rewards and indulgences to those who should procure MS. copies of any of the ancient Greek or Roman authors. Manuscripts turned up as if by magic, in every direction; from libraries of monasteries, obscure as well as famous; the most out-of-the-way places,-the bottom of exhausted wells, besmeared by snails, as the History of Velleius Paterculus, or from garrets, where they had been contending with cobwebs and dust, as the poems of Catullus.” David W. Heley

Not mentioned at answerbag.com are Pliny the younger, who asked emperor Trajan what to do about the “Christian problem” in 100AD, and Suetonius, who, writing around 120AD, announces that the Jews were being expelled from Rome, for stirring up trouble under the direction of their leader, “Chrestus”. Neither of these say anything about Jesus himself, but only agree with Tacitus that Christianity was a thorn in the side of Roman authority. The early Christian church, it may be noted, was not meek, nor pacifistic. The Christian religion was called strange and unlawful by a senatorial degree of the year 35. Tacitus called it deadly and hateful, while Suetonius said it was new and harmful; pretty harsh reviews from the same men whose references to Jesus are used as proof in his existence!

At any rate, there are the sources used to justify the historical Christ. As we have seen, none of them can be accepted at face value as hard evidence, or even as genuine. Looking at the big picture, we have to be aware of something else: all of these few sources (including the gospels,) were written after Jesus’ death. There are no contemporary accounts of Jesus of any kind – including the gospels, which at the very earliest were written several decades after the supposed death of Jesus – and as Kersey Graves pointed out in 1875, this is a big, big problem!

“The fact that no history, sacred or profane,-that not one of the three hundred histories of that age,-makes the slightest allusion to Christ, or any of the miraculous incidents ingrafted into his life, certainly proves, with a cogency that no logic can overthrow, no sophistry can contradict, and no honest skepticism can resist, that there never was such a miraculously endowed being as his many orthodox disciples claim him to have been. The fact that Christ finds no place in the history of the era in which he lived,-that not one event of his life is recorded by anybody but his own interested and prejudiced biographers,-settles the conclusion, beyond cavil or criticism, that the godlike achievements ascribed to him are naught but fable or fiction. It not only proves he was not miraculously endowed, but proves he was not even naturally endowed to such an extraordinary degree as to make him an object of general attention. It would be a historical anomaly without a precedent, that Christ should have performed any of the extraordinary acts attributed to him in the Gospels, and no Roman or Grecian historian, and neither Philo nor Josephus, both writing in that age, and both living almost on the spot where they are said to have been witnessed, and both recording minutely all the religious events of that age and country, make the slightest mention of one of them, nor their reputed authors. Such a historical fact banishes the last shadow of faith in their reality.” Kersey Graves, All History Ignores Him.

I’m not trying to prove, through only an “evidence from silence” type of argument, that Jesus didn’t exist. Of course, silence alone can not show whether or not Jesus existed. But once we do admit the silence surrounding Jesus, we have lost all claims to the evidence of an overwhelming impact that Jesus was supposed to have made. The gospel story makes it seem like everybody was talking about him. What the silence does show is that the idea of mountains of physical, irrefutable evidence, sometimes claimed by Christians, is a fabrication. Instead there are, at most, 5 or 6 references to him in historical documents, which most scholars see as obvious forgeries.

Let’s go back to the passage from Answerbag.com, which I used at the beginning of this essay. “In essence, while the divinity of Jesus is not something that can be proven historically, the historical community is quite sure that a person named Jesus did live in the Middle East two thousand years ago and can look to independent historical sources to strengthen their argument.” I think the author of this passage may, unfortunately, be right. Although the historical community, as in the scholars who actively conduct historical research in Christianity, have found not one iota of proof for the historical Jesus, most of them are still confident that there was one. Based largely on assumption and a refusal to consider any new ideas, there is an overwhelming scholarly bias to consider Jesus as a historical figure. And it is also true that the lack of evidence, or absence of proof about Jesus, cannot begin to scratch this large shield of righteous indignation the historical Jesus has built up around him.

But I will be content, if readers of this essay will leave it with one idea: that there are no historical documents which refer to Jesus Christ which can be accepted without first investing them with a powerful faith. After critically examining all the sources and historical texts, the Jesus of history becomes less than a shadow, and the continued search for him is likewise is a matter of faith. I cannot challenge faith; it is a self-sustained, non-rational system, and is beyond my powers to question. But the statement, “I believe in Jesus Christ” is very different from, “I believe that there are historical documents which prove that Jesus actually lived on earth 2,000 years ago.” Christians (and many scholars) have faith in documents that don’t exist concerning a history that didn’t happen. Because I see danger in the acceptance of this fabricated history, it is my right and duty to intervene.

This part of the essay has been about the historical references used to prove the physical Jesus Christ, and I hope I’ve shown that, at the very least, they are not universally accepted as evidence. While this process is important in leaving the idea of the historical Jesus behind (for if he was historical, he almost certainly would have had more references than these, short, highly contested few!) we haven’t gotten any closer to the idea of the mythical Christ, which is absolutely necessary to answer all of the questions that come up when we remove the idea of the historical Jesus. Proving that Jesus didn’t exist, and only that, digs and abandons a big, gaping hole. If he didn’t exist, where did the crazy idea of him come from? It must have come from somewhere – it didn’t materialize out of thin air! The way to smooth the ground is to see that Jesus was first a mythology, who later become mistaken for a historical figure. But to begin with, I want to spend some time going over the proofs for the mythical Jesus, or the strongest evidences we have for believing that Jesus was mythological. That way, we can see the evidence for both interpretations of Jesus, side by side, and choose the most reasonable.

The articles in this section are part of a 50,000 word treatise on the historical Jesus and Christ Myth Theory, dealing with Christian history, the mystical significance of Christian symbols, and the mistaken belief that Jesus Christ was a historical person. You can download the entire collection for free as a PDF file ebook by clicking here!