A “popular” position to hold these days amongst atheists on the internet is that of the “Jesus mythicist”. It’s a view popularised by people like Richard Carrier, Robert Price, organisations like Mythicist Milwaukee and Youtubers like the Godless Engineer. It’s nothing new, the view has been around for sometime now, but to me it sometimes feels like it’s taking over large groups of atheists on the internet by storm. Why is this view so popular amongst atheists? Probably because it’s super convenient. If the instigator of Christianity never existed, than Christianity has got no foundation at all! But what if Jesus did probably exist? Does that mean Christianity has a shot of being valid? We’ll come back to that question later.
First off: History isn’t an exact science
Many people don’t realise this, but history isn’t an exact science. We can’t repeat the experiment of the past. We can only have levels of probability of what happened in the past or not. And the probability gets measured by the available sources. Historians like to have lots of sources, as much as possible. The only problem is that the further one goes back in time, the fewer these sources get. If you want to know what Donald Trump was doing back in 2016 on any given day, we can get a pretty good idea because we have an abundance of sources telling us what he did. If we want to know what Julius Caesar did on any given day, than that’s going to be a little harder.
Historians also like to have sources as close to the narrated event as possible. The longer it takes for something to get written down, the bigger the chance that the content could be corrupted. Below is a list, basic rules of fist that help us understand how historians go about their jobs:
1. Any given source of historical information may be forged or corrupted.
2. First-hand information is more credible than second-hand information, which is more credible than third hand information, etc.
3. The more time transpires before recording an event , the less reliable the narrative becomes.
4. Multiple, independent accounts should all converge onto the same message in order for that information to be credible.
5. The more implausible the events are with respect to the known laws of physics, the less reliable the narrative becomes.
6. The more languages the record has been translated through, the less reliable it becomes.
7. The more biased a source is, either politically or socially, the less reliable that record becomes.
8. The more relics that can support a narrative, the more reliable it becomes.
Bart Ehrman says:
“The historical disciplines are not like the natural sciences, in part because they are concerned with establishing what has happened in the past, as opposed to predicting what will happen in the future, and in part because they cannot operate through repeated experimentation. An occurrence is a one-time proposition; once it has happened, it is over and done with. Since historians cannot repeat the past in order to establish what probably happened, there will always be less certainty. And the farther back you go in history, the harder it is to mount a convincing case. For events in the ancient world, even events of earth shattering importance, there is sometimes scant evidence to go on. All the historians can do is establish what probably happened on the basis of whatever supporting evidence happens to survive.” – Bart Ehrman – Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (p. 195)
Yale professor Dale Martin explains:
“The “past” does not exist, at least not in any way that is accessible to any human being. Historians sometimes speak in a confusing way when they say that they are “reconstructing” a historical event. They actually are not “reconstructing” it; they are simply “constructing” a historiographical account of something that happened in the past.
Philosophers of history sometimes make this point by differentiating “history” from “the past”. The “past” refers to what actually happened – say, the Civil War. The “history” of the Civil war refers more particularly to some account of the Civil War; how a historian may depict or narrate “what happened” in a linguistic account.
A historian can confirm the probability using regular historical methods, but the historian cannot confirm -or deny- that “God” had anything to do with that fact. God is not one of those things that are subject to modern historical analysis. – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 182/183)
Keep in mind that last paragraph by Martin as we move on to the next part.
The Historical Jesus versus the Theological Jesus
There is a very important distinction we should make before moving any further. There is the theological Jesus, a construction of Christian theologians, and there is the historical Jesus, the Jesus historians try to study. The two are not the same. The theological Jesus has many theological aspects; he is God, performed miracles, rose from the dead, etc. These are all things historians can not prove or disprove. Historians can say that his followers viewed him as God, they can say that people thought Jesus performed miracles and they can say that people thought Jesus rose from the dead but they can not prove that these things actually happened due to the nature of the historical method. The historical method only deals with the natural world, has no theological presuppositions and can’t prove or disprove any supernatural claims.
“The theological Jesus is just not the same as the historical Jesus. The theological Jesus -the full Christ who inspires and grounds Christian faith and doctrine- is a product of concerns for theologians and Christians. The historical Jesus is one constructed by the rules of modern historiography. The historical Jesus is an account of Jesus constructed by modern historians playing by the rules of modern historiography. And the historical Jesus is not a necessary foundation for or component of Christian faith or theology. In fact, the historical Jesus is radically unacceptable for Christian faith precisely because no historical Jesus can be divine.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 183/184)
So when it is conceded that Jesus probably existed in history, it still won’t function as a proper foundation for the Christian faith because the historical Jesus can not be divine. So this means that the historian can not say anything about the miracles concerning Jesus.
“The historian has no access to “supernatural forces” but only to the public record, that is, to events that can be observed and interpreted by any reasonable person, of whatever religious persuasion. If a “miracle” requires a belief in the supernatural realm, and historians by the very nature of their craft can speak only about events of the natural world, events that are accessible to observers of every kind, how can they ever certify that an event outside the natural order-that is, a miracle- occurred? – Bart Ehrman – Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (p. 193)
Why does the vast majority of scholars think there probably was a historical Jesus? What are they basing this idea on? Historians are basing this idea on the sources we have. The sources I’ll be using to make probable Jesus’ existence in first century Roman Palestine are: the Gospels (including the non-canonical gospel of Thomas), Paul, Josephus and Tacitus. I could have used a few other sources (Papyrus Egerton 2, Gospel of Peter), but these will do to make probable the existence of Jesus. These are all sources written within a hundred years after Jesus’ death.
What people perhaps don’t understand is that Jesus was actually a very unimportant man during his lifetime. His followers made him more and more important.
“Jesus became such an important man in world history that it is sometimes hard to believe how unimportant he was during his lifetime, especially outside Palestine. Most of the first-century literature that survives was written by members of the very small elite class of the Roman Empire. To them, Jesus (if they heard of him at all) was merely a troublesome rabble-rouser and magician in a small, backward part of the world. When he was executed, Jesus was no more important to the outside world than the two brigands or insurgents executed with him.“ – E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p.49)
“If we look at the historical record itself, I should emphasise, for historians there is nothing else to look at, it appears that whatever his influence on subsequent generations, Jesus’ impact on society in the first century was practically nil. This becomes especially clear when we consider what his own contemporaries had to say about him. Strangely enough, they said almost nothing.” – Bart Ehrman – Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (p. 56)
It is exactly this unimportance that makes him unworthy of mentioning by “hostile” witnesses and that’s why we don’t have an awful lot of hostile witnesses. Why was Jesus so unimportant? I’ll try to answer that question later in a different post about who the historical Jesus probably was.
The Evidence: The Canonical Gospels
Right of the bat I will concede that the Gospels are problematic, but they can and therefore must be used as historical sources. To dismiss them is because of ideological reasons, not historical.
“We don’t dismiss early American accounts of the Revolutionary War simply because they were written by Americans. We take their biases into consideration and sometimes take their descriptions of events with a pound of salt. But we do not refuse to use them as historical sources. To refuse to use them as sources is to sacrifice the most important avenues to the past we have, and on purely ideological, not historical grounds. So too the Gospels. Whatever one thinks of them as inspired scripture, they can be seen and used as significant historical sources.” – Bart Ehrman – Did Jesus Exist? (p. 74)
The Gospels are studied by historians as literature and not as Scripture and historians consider the Gospels to be ancient Greco-Roman biographies by scholars. These were less concerned with historical fact than with portraying someone’s character. So it’s important to remind that Greco-Roman biographies are not the same things as biographies of today. They don’t have the same historical standard or purpose.
Mark is our earliest Gospel (70 CE) and counts as an independent source probably based on oral traditions. People were most probably telling stories about this guy Jesus and these were spreading around Palestine before the author of Mark recorded them in his Gospel. Matthew and Luke follow afterwards (80 CE) and used Mark as a template, so their not independent for that part. However, Matthew and Luke also present evidence not found in Mark. Matthew and Luke share information not found in Mark, so this has to come from a source. This is the so called “Q” source (German for Quelle) and is unfortunately no longer available to us. Probably because it became obsolete when Matthew and Luke went into circulation. Matthew also contains information not found in Mark and Luke, this has to come from a source and this source is called the “M” source. This source could be oral or written. Luke too has information not found in Matthew and Mark, this source is called the “L” source and could also be oral or written. And then there is the Gospel of John (90 CE). John is considered an independent source altogether by scholars. So already we have Mark, Q, M, L and John. But there is more.
The Evidence: The Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas is an interesting read for those interested in the historical Jesus. It’s a Gospel that caused quite the excitement when it was found in Nag Hammadi in 1945. Small pieces of the text have been going ’round before 1945. These pieces are called “Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Fragments” and were written in Greek. The Gospel found in Nag Hammadi, however, was written in Coptic and appears to be a Coptic translation of the original Greek text. The reason why Thomas is interesting to scholars is because Thomas shares a lot of things found in the synoptics. A lot of the passages found in Thomas are also found, often in a slightly different form, in the Synoptics. This can give scholars an insight to what Jesus actually might have said. The Gospel of Thomas, like the hypothetical “Q” source, is a sayings Gospel. It contains 114 sayings attributed to Jesus.
Scholars can’t seem to agree on what to date the Gospel of Thomas. There is an early camp (first century) and a late camp (mid second century). Despite the trouble dating the text, the consensus is that Thomas is an independent source and not based on Mark, Q, M, L or John.
The Gospel of Thomas is considered a Gnostic Gospel but this isn’t entirely true. It contains also material that’s not dependent on the Gnostic worldview. Dutch theologian and historian Gilles Quispel, who is an expert on Gnosticims and Thomas, writes in his Dutch translation of Thomas that he thinks that there are two sources behind the text of Thomas. An “Alexandrian source” which is indeed Gnostic of nature, and a “Judaean source” which would go back ’round about the time when Q was going ’round. It’s the Judaean source that shares so many passages found in the Synoptics. Some scholars would even claim that Thomas contains an earlier form of a saying by Jesus than found in the Synoptics and therefore it’s more likely Jesus said it the way Thomas puts it down. A reason why scholars think this is because a saying found in the Synoptics and Thomas is shorter in Thomas than in the Synoptics and scholars tend to think that the shorter version is the earlier version because things get more and more embellished over time. Not every scholar agrees, however, that every shorter saying found in Thomas and shared by the Synoptics is more likely to been said by Jesus.
The Evidence: Paul
Paul is our earliest Christian source writing somewhere between 50 CE and 60 CE. Unfortunately Paul doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Jesus, his letters are occasional letters addressing problems that arose in the Churches he tried to set up. That being said, Paul does tell us somethings about Jesus:
– Jesus was born as a human
– Jesus was a Jew
– Jesus was a descendant of King David
– Jesus had brothers, one of them named James
– Jesus had a ministry to Jews
– Jesus had twelve disciples
– Jesus was a teacher
– Jesus anticipated his own death
– Jesus had the last supper the night he was handed over
– Jesus was killed at the instigation of Jews in Judea
– Jesus died by crucifixion
The Evidence: Josephus
One of the “hostile” witness I use and that gets banged on a lot by mythicists for being a complete forgery is the Testimonium Flavianum by Josephus. The text goes as follows:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.” – Flavius Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3
Anyone with a little knowledge on Josephus can see the problem here. Josephus was a pious Jew, why would he consider Jesus to be the messiah? Scholars think there is an later interpolation here made by a Christian scribe. Why do scholars think there is an interpolation and don’t think it’s a complete forgery? Because of the Arabic and Syriac manuscripts found of Antiquities of the Jews. When combined with the Greek manuscript, scholars can get a pretty good idea of what the original text most probably said:
“At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. He was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. When Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease tot do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.”
A common objection is that the early church fathers never mention Josephus, but read the above text for yourself, what could have helped the early church fathers in making their case? That is, if they even heard of this passage at all.
Another objection is that the Testimonium Flavianum in Antiquities breaks up the flow in the narrative and that that is evidence of a later scribal insertion. What people often don’t know is that Josephus does this all the time. He wanders of a different places in his work, so it’s actually quite common for him to do so.
The Evidence: Tacitus
As a final piece of evidence we will consider is Tacitus’ mention.
“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.” – Annals 15:44
There isn’t a whole lot here but combined with what we have learned from our other sources, it’s enough to count this as an independent source. Tacitus talks about “Christ” who suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of Pontius Pilates. Now the name Jesus doesn’t get mentioned, but it’s obvious he is referring to the person mentioned in outs other sources. We don’t know of any other person called Christ who suffered the extreme penalty at the hands of Pontius Pilates. Christ is a title and Jesus was most probably mentioned by that title. If I was talking about “Temujin” you probably wouldn’t know who I was talking about, but if I mentioned him by his honorific title “Genghis Khan”, you would all know him.
Mythicists like to discard Tacitus’ mention as being a complete forgery, however, this is only a view shared by mythicists and not by experts on Tacitus.
“While I’m on the Tacitus reference. At one point in my book I indicate that “I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think” that the reference to Jesus in Tacitus is a forgery (p. 55). (Richard) Carrier says this is “crap,” “sloppy work,” and “irresponsible,” and indicates that if I had simply checked into the matter, I would see that I’m completely wrong. In my defense, I need to stress that my comment had to do with what scholars today are saying about the Tacitus quotation. What I say in the book is that I don’t know of any scholars who think that it is an interpolation, and I don’t. I don’t know if Carrier knows of any or not; the ones he is referring to were writing fifty years ago, and so far as I know, they have no followers among trained experts today.”
“But Carrier’s objection to my view did take me a bit off guard and make me wonder whether I was missing something, whether there were in fact scholars of Tacitus who continue to think the reference to Jesus was an interpolation in his writings. I am a scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity, not of Tacitus! And so I asked one of the prominent scholars of the Roman world, James Rives, who happens now to teach at UNC. Anyone who wonders about his credentials can look them up on the web; he’s one of the best known experts on Roman religion (and other things Roman) internationally. He has given me permission to cite him by name, as he is willing to stand by what he says.
My initial email question to him was this:
I’m wondering if there is any dispute, today, over the passage in Annals 15 where he mentions Jesus (whether there is any dispute over its authenticity).
His initial reply was this:
I’ve never come across any dispute about the authenticity of Ann. 15.44; as far as I’m aware, it’s always been accepted as genuine, although of course there are plenty of disputes over Tacitus’ precise meaning, the source of his information, and the nature of the historical events that lie behind it. There are some minor textual issues (the spelling ‘Chrestianos’ vs. ‘Christianos’, e.g.), but there’s not much to be done with them since we here, as everywhere in Tacitus’ major works, effectively depend on a single manuscript.” – Bart Ehrman – Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier
The Historical Jesus
The above considered, there is sufficient evidence to at least prove Jesus exists in history. Now this doesn’t yet tell us anything about who he was or how historians view Jesus, but it’s enough to prove the point. So who was this Jesus guy most probably?
As mentioned before, the historical Jesus can’t be divine, isn’t born from a virgin, didn’t perform miracles and wasn’t raised from the dead. The historical Jesus is the Jesus constructed by strict historical rules. So what can we say about Jesus? When all the divine aspects are removed, is there anything we can say at all about Jesus? Yes, and although it would require a blog entry of its own, I’ll try to explain what the broad consensus is about who scholars think Jesus was. But before that, we need a little more context.
Jewish Apocalypticism & Jewish Revolts
To understand who Jesus most probably was, we need to understand what “apocalypticism” is. The Jews had suffered one occupation after the other; the Babylonians , the Romans. How could that be? Wasn’t the land of Israel promised to God’s chosen people? Different Jews had different solutions and answers, you can find these in the literature of the Old Testament. The book of Isaiah, for example, was written during the Babylonian exile and Isaiah is lamenting. According to Isaiah the people of God are suffering because they have gone astray. The Jews are worshipping different gods and aren’t following Yahweh anymore and God is punishing them for it. Apocalyptic Jews had a different view.
Apocalyptic Jews thought that they were suffering because evil powers were in control, but God would soon intervene. All they had to do, is to hold on a little longer and than God would sent his judge, the “Son of Man coming on a cloud from heaven”, to overthrow the forces of evil in an epic battle and install God’s Kingdom. The book of Daniel is an example of a apocalyptic book in the Old Testament.
Before Jesus entered the scene there was a Jewish uprising, a pretty successful one at first, against the Romans. This revolt is known as the Maccabean revolt. When things got settled in favour of the Romans, they installed a puppet king. Israel paid tribute to Rome, but the seeds of revolt had been sown. So Roman authorities were always on the look out for anyone causing a stir and trying to start an uprising.
Jesus: The Apocalyptic Prophet
Jesus is seen by most historians as an apocalyptic prophet and there are clear signs for that view in our sources and all these signs pass the different historical criteria with flying colours. How that exactly works, I’ll explain in a different blog entry.
If one reads the Gospels in chronological order (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), you will find more traces of an apocalyptic message in our earliest Gospels and less and less in the later was. The apocalyptic message got trimmed down as time went by. Why? Probably because the imminent end wasn’t so imminent after all. Independent sources tell us that Jesus associated with John the Baptist, an apocalyptic prophet himself probably. Historians think that because of apocalyptic texts like these:
“The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:10
This saying can also be found in Luke 3:9 so it most probably is derived from our “Q” source.
So Jesus associated with an apocalyptic figure, could it be that Jesus proclaimed an apocalyptic message himself? Yes, indeed. In our earliest sources we do find apocalyptic messages proclaimed by Jesus:
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. – Matthew 19:28 (also found in Luke 22:30, therefore probably “Q”)
“But in those days, following that distress, the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” – Mark 13:24/27
“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” – Matthew 16:28
There is plenty of more. Most of what Jesus claims, like his stance on divorce for instance, in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) makes perfect sense from an apocalyptic perspective. Jesus was telling the people to repent and to prepare for the end of times when the Son of Man would come and judge.
So why did Jesus have to die? Given the context provided earlier, it perhaps now becomes clear why Jesus had to die according to the Roman and the Jews in power. Jesus was proclaiming the end of times and that the Son of Man would come and overthrow the forces of evil (a.k.a the Romans) and install God’s kingdom. The Jews (and Romans for that matter) nearly recovered from the previous revolt and here was a new possible instigator. The Romans wouldn’t have anyone else claiming to be “king of the Jews” when they installed a puppet king, this Jesus guy had to go. And if the Jewish Sanhedrin wanted to stay in power, they’d better cooperate. So they punished him in the most embarrassing way possible, crucifixion. The Romans would use this punishment for the lowest of the low. They wouldn’t even use it on their own citizens.
Jesus was by no means the only one creating a stir in first century Palestine. There was Hanina Ben Dosa, Honi the Circle Drawer, Theudas, The Egyptian. All of them have miracles attributed to them, but none of them were lucky enough to have had a decent PR campaign after they died. That’s why Jesus became popular.
There is a lot more we can say about Jewish Apocalypticism and Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. I’ll go over that in a different post. For now, if you want to know and learn more about the subject and perhaps read some of the objections mythicists present and why they are wrong, just check out the links below:
Debate between Ehrman and Price:
Debate between Inspiring Philosophy and Godless Engineer: