Christmas is around the corner, so let’s warm up with a mug of hot cocoa and some entry-level apologetic!
Time and again, the believing Christian will encounter the claim Jesus never existed, and that the “Jesus myth” was made up by some man or group of men who invented the Christian religion.
Collectively known as “Mythicists,” these people may go on to state a strawman like “The unanimous opinion of scholars is that Jesus never existed,” or “The life of Jesus was a hodge-podge of other Pagan deities,” or some other similar statement. I’ve even seen some websites along this line saying that Jesus never existed because not one document from the first century (outside the Bible) mentions him. Yet the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth, even if apologist Josh McDowell was less than accurate in quipping that we have as much evidence for Jesus as we have for Julius Caesar.
SO WHAT ARE THE SOURCES?
It would be nice if we could simply present a birth certificate, but state-issued documents attesting to a child’s birth simply didn’t exist in classical antiquity. Hence, when we talk about extra-biblical sources that talk about Jesus in the first century, we need to look to the Jewish and Pagan writers of the period, some of which were decidedly anti-Christian. We could even consider it fortunate these writers are anti-Christian, because if there was a fraud being committed, they’d be the ones fastest to point it out, and close enough in history to have interviewed actual witnesses, if not to have witnessed it themselves.
We should perhaps begin by looking at what was written by Pagans. This being said, we’re best to start by looking at the Annals of Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 AD-117 AD).
Tacitus was a historian and a Roman senator who lived in the late first century, and in the Annals, Book 15, Chapter 44, he describes the burning of Rome under Nero Caesar. The text reads as follows:
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.
This passage is generally accepted by scholars as being authentic, that it attests to the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion and of Pilate’s governorship at the time. The tone also squares with what an unconverted Pagan would’ve said, referring to Christianity as a “superstition” and of “hatred against mankind.”
Now, I once heard that if you don’t know the history of the author, you don’t know what you’re reading. This is very true, and what’s important to know about the author is that he was a proper Roman, deeply suspicious of anything to come out of the East. Therefore, if he knew anything about fraudulent origins, such as a founder who never really existed, he’s the type of person who would’ve included that and maybe even highlighted it.
The authenticity of the passage, and the fact it was authored by someone with no sympathy whatsoever for Christians, establishes a non-Christian, non-Biblical account of Jesus’ existence and of crucifixion.
2. Mara Bar-Serapion
From Tacitus, let us move on to Mara Bar-Serapion. Mara Bar-Serapion was a Stoic philosopher who lived in Syria. He is drawn into this discussion because of a letter written to his son (also named Serapion) regarding widsom and how the world unjustly persecutes wise men, and how God punishes the persecutors. Scholars have dated this passage anywhere from 73 AD to the end of the second century, but most set the date at or around 73 AD. The passage reads as follows:
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.
The letter contains no Christian themes, and scholars have debated whether Bar-Serapion was himself a Pagan or a Monotheist; my own non-evidence based speculation (which could be very wrong) is that he may have been an adherent of Zoroastrianism, the other monotheistic religion found in the Middle East prior to the rise of Islam. In either case, scholars are all agreed that the author was neither a Jew nor a Christian, and therefore this letter is a non-Christian source.
What we can pull out of this is that the title “King of the Jews” is not exclusively a Christian title (in fact even the Bible states it was Pilate, a Pagan, who came up with it!), and “the new law he laid down” is how we know that the author is referring to Jesus; there were several claimants to being the Messiah after Jesus’ time, but no record exists of any of these others being called “King of the Jews” or of laying down a new law. Thus we have another reference to the historicity of Jesus, written by a non-Christian and found outside the canon of Scripture.
1. The Babylonian Talmud
In the Talmud, we have references to Jesus written with an aim towards discrediting the claims of Christianity. Let us begin with Sanhedrin 43a:
It is taught: On the eve of Passover they hung Yeshu and the crier went forth for forty days beforehand declaring that ‘[Yeshu] is going to be stoned for practicing witchcraft, for enticing and leading Israel astray. Anyone who knows something to clear him should come forth and exonerate him.’ But no one had anything exonerating for him and they hung him on the eve of Passover.
The text is pretty cut-and-dried, accusing Jesus of being a sorcerer and leading Israel astray (by implication, claiming he was a man of God), and that he was hung (a euphemism for crucifixion — see Luke 23:39, Gal. 3:13), on the Eve of Passover.
The Talmud also contains this interesting sentence, in Sanhedrin 106a:
“R. Papa observed: This is what men say, ‘She who was the descendant of princes and governors, played the harlot with carpenters.‘”
The passage ostensibly talks about Balaam (Numbers 22:5-24:25), but a footnote to this passage gives an interesting interpretation:
“‘Shipdraggers,’ (v. Rashi). Herford, Christianity in the Talmud, p. 48, suggests that Balaam is frequently used in the Talmud as a type for Jesus (v. also pp. 64-70).
Though no name is mentioned to shew which woman is meant, the mother of Jesus may be alluded to, which theory is strengthened by the statement that she mated with a carpenter. (The Munich MS. has [H] in the margin instead of [H], i.e., singular instead of plural.)“
There are a number of other passages in the Talmud that suggest Jesus was the result of an unfaithful mother, including the suggestion he was the son of a man named “Pandera” (also spelled Pantera or Panthera, Latin for “Panther”). The Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner says this word is a play on the Greek “Parthenos,” or “Virgin,” and so they started calling him “Ben Pandera.” For those interested in reading more, the entire Talmud can be found online at: http://www.halakhah.com/tcontents.html
But here’s the question. If Jesus never existed, then why go through all the trouble to call him a witch and his mother a whore, when it would be so much easier just to say “The man never existed and his disciples are following a delusion?”
2. Flavius Josephus
Though the most quoted, I have saved Josephus for last, because the current state of his work can also be the most problematic. Josephus (37AD-100AD) was a Jewish historian who was involved in the Roman-Jewish War and fully defected to the Roman side. His contribution to this discussion is found in his Antiquities of the Jews, written around 93-94AD, and which contains two references to Jesus; one such reference is generally considered authentic and the other is clearly doctored by later hands.
a. James the Brother of Jesus
The authentic reference is found in Book 20, Chapter 9, where Josephus talks about the execution of James the Apostle:
And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus… 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, the so-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.
This passage is considered by scholars to be authentic, and reads exactly as what we would expect from an unconverted Jew. He casually refers to Jesus as “the so-called Christ,” which is to say, “They called him the christ but I don’t believe it,” without going into hysterics or going out of one’s way to prove anything. In any case, this provides another first-century reference to Jesus’ existence, apart from the canon of Scripture.
b. The Testimonium Flavianum
Apart from the reference to James, Jesus is also mentioned one other time in Book 18, Chapter 3. This reference is called the “Testimonium Flavianum,” and reads thus:
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.
One can tell just from the tone that this passage has been altered, and scholars suspect the Christian historian Eusebius did so around 324 AD. An unconverted Jew would certainly not refer to Jesus as the Messiah — even if there were other good things the author had to say about him — and he wouldn’t proclaim Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as fact, either. In the science of textual criticism, this is considered one of the sure-fire signs a text has been altered, by comparing its contents with what is known about the author.
So what are we to make of it? Again referring to the science of textual criticism, the first thing we do is compare all known extant copies of ancient and medieval manuscripts of Josephus’ Antiquities — in Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Syriac — to see what is the greatest agreement between the copies, and what wording is supported by most of them. By doing so, the majority of scholars in the field have come to the conclusion that the Testimonium is partially authentic, in at least a core part. A more-or-less agreed-upon reconstruction reads thus:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
This rendering sounds more like something an unconverted Jew would say, and lacks the over-arching attempt to “prove” Jesus was the Messiah or came back from the dead. If majority opinion is to be believed, then it’s safe to go with this one.
In spite of what some people in the New Atheist or Secular Humanist communities would have you believe, the overwhelming majority of scholars of antiquity affirm that Jesus did factually exist.
Of course, this raises the question of “Which scholars?”
To name a small sampling, we can start with secular humanist Will Durant, who tells us:
“That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so loft an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospel. After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature of the history of Western man.” (Caesar and Christ, 1944)
We can also quote atheist scholar Michael Grant who tells us that “modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory,” and that “[Mythicism] has again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars.” (Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, 1977)
Classical scholar, Oxford Fellow, and atheist Robin Lane Fox tells us on no uncertain terms that a Jesus of History existed. (The Unauthorized Version, 1992)
Finally, I’ll quote skeptic historian and self-described “agnostic with atheist leanings” Bart Ehrman, who says:
Those who do not think Jesus existed are frequently militant in their views and remarkably adept at countering evidence that to the rest of the civilized world seems compelling and even unanswerable. But these writers have answers, and the smart ones among them need to be taken seriously, if for no other reason than to show why they cannot be right about their major contention. The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist.
Serious historians of the early Christian movement—all of them—have spent many years preparing to be experts in their field. Just to read the ancient sources requires expertise in a range of ancient languages: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and often Aramaic, Syriac, and Coptic, not to mention the modern languages of scholarship (for example, German and French). And that is just for starters. Expertise requires years of patiently examining ancient texts and a thorough grounding in the history and culture of Greek and Roman antiquity, the religions of the ancient Mediterranean world, both pagan and Jewish, knowledge of the history of the Christian church and the development of its social life and theology, and, well, lots of other things. It is striking that virtually everyone who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure. This is not a piece of evidence, but if nothing else, it should give one pause. In the field of biology, evolution may be “just” a theory (as some politicians painfully point out), but it is the theory subscribed to, for good reason, by every real scientist in every established university in the Western world.
— Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 2012
Note that every author I just quoted is either an atheist, a secular humanist, or an agnostic, and we could pull out the names of plenty more academics and scholars; in fact Ehrman also desribes mythicism is as “a (very) small but (often) loud minority voice.” So why would people who claim to love “science” — who hold to the majority opinion of researchers in other fields (which is what accepted science is, in the sciences this is called “peer review”) — adamantly refute a majority conclusion in this subject? The answer is a very simple one: because they simply wish to believe their opinion is true.
Now, just because Jesus’ existence is established by these texts doesn’t mean that everything said in the New Testament is automatically proven true; that’s technically referred to as studying the “Christ of Faith” and would require another and more detailed study. But establishing the existence of Jesus is by far the first step and the most important part.
In fact, the discerning reader may note that I’ve made a point to exclude other oft-quoted texts, such as Suetonius 25.4, Pliny X.96, or Lucian of Samosata 11-16. I found these texts either historically too far removed or too ambiguous for the purposes of this writing. Instead, we need to focus on that fact that the one we call Savior did in fact exist as a real person, and that we live in an age where Christians should make themselves familiar with the most basic and direct literature mentioning Jesus outside the Bible.
[I wrote this article for my church’s FB page back in 2013, when I was still in exoteric ministry. For this posting I corrected what typos I found and added quotations from specific scholars.]