Shattering the Christ-Myth

The Reliability of the Secular References to Jesus
J. P. Holding


During a discussion of William Shakespeare, a student asked the old professor about the en vogue theory that Shakespeare did not write the plays ascribed to him.

The professor growled, "Young man, if Shakespeare did not write those plays,then they were written by someone who lived at the same time and had the same name!"

It is a sure sign of desperation: In disbelieving circles, one of the most popular ideas to come to the fore recently is the "Jesus-myth" - the idea that Jesus did not even exist, much less conduct a ministry as described in the New Testament. It is an idea that one would suppose would be relegated to the pages of the Weekly World News - and it might even be funny, were it not for the fact that there are so many who take it seriously and are extremely vocal in their seriousness.

At first glance, the "Jesus-myth" seems to be a stroke of genius: To eliminate Christianity and any possibility of it being true, just eliminate the founder! The idea was first significantly publicized by a 19th-century German scholar named Bruno Bauer. Following Bauer, there were a few other supporters: Couchoud, Gurev, Augstein [Chars.JesJud 97-8]. Today the active believer is most likely to have waved in their faces one of four supporters of this thesis: The turn-of-the-century writer Arthur Drews; the myth-thesis' most prominent and prolific supporter, G. A. Wells, who has published five books on the subject; Earl Doherty, or Acharya S. Each of these writers takes slightly different approaches, but they all agree that a person named Jesus did not exist (or, Wells seems to have taken a view now that Jesus may have existed, but may as well not have).

Does the "Jesus-myth" have any scholarly support? In this case, to simply say "no" would be an exaggeration! Support for the "Jesus-myth" comes not from historians, but usually from writers operating far out of their field. G. A. Wells, for example, is a professor of German; Drews was a professor of mathematics; Acharya only has a lower degree in classics; Doherty has some qualifications, but clearly lacks the discipline of a true scholar. The greatest support for the "Jesus-myth" comes not from people who know the subject, but from popularizers and those who accept their work uncritically. It is this latter group that we are most likely to encounter - and sadly, arguments and evidence seldom faze them. In spite of the fact that relevant scholarly consenus is unanimous that the "Jesus-myth" is incorrect, it continues to be promulgated on a popular level as though it were absolutely proven.

"Come off it, Holding. Just because a consensus of historians say that the Jesus-myth is wrong does not mean that it is wrong. The historians could be wrong. They could also be biased. Since this subject is dominated by theological agendas and philosophical presuppositions, a scholarly consensus does not constitute evidence for the existence of Jesus."

As silly as this may sound, it is actually the core of many arguments made in favor of the "Jesus-myth"! Behind every historian there is a conspiracy, a bias, or some gross error of judgment - and sometimes even the ancient historians are in on the conspiracy, too! At the end of this chapter we will offer some counsel for dealing with those who advance this type of argument, but for now, let's deal with this objection and take it seriously.

Of course, it is quite possible that all of the professional historians (even those with no religious interest!) are biased or wrong, while proponents of the "Jesus-myth" are the objective ones. And yes, a consensus does not equate with evidence. But a consensus on any historical question is usually based on evidence which is analyzed by those who are recognized as authoritative in their field, and therefore may be taken at their word. If this were not the case, why should there be any criteria for someone being a historian at all? Why should we not just pick a vagrant at random off the street and let him/her compose an official history of 20th-century America for the Smithsonian archives?

Therefore, while scholarly consensus is not itself evidence, it does function as a "weighting" or "warning" sign: if one agrees with peers who are detailed-students of the same subject matter, then less evidence is needed than would be needed if we disagreed with their consensus (as a very small minority). We would require not just a "good argument" but we would also have to refute all of the consensus arguments first. In other words, evidence may be mediated through expert witness and consensus. Therefore, the argument that consensus does not count as evidence, while correct in its own way, cannot be allowed to stand as a dismissal of consensus, nor as a leveling of the playing field. It is almost like the criteria, "extraordinarily bizarre positions require extraordinary evidence," that operates in scholarly circles. Such a minority position as the "Jesus-myth" is not courageous, but foolhardy - unless one has considerably stronger evidence than the majority; and even then, speculation about alternate views of historical references, such as is commonly found in "Jesus-myth" circles, is not going to keep the sawed-off limb up in the air!

If proponents of the "Jesus-myth" were either qualified historians or had equivalent knowledge, then their counter-consenus position might deserve to be taken more seriously. However, the overwhelming prevalance of tortured explanations, inventive theories, arguments from silence, and outright misrepresentations to get around the evidence that Jesus existed mitigates strongly against offering the Jesus-mythers any scholastic solace. The argument is more than that writers like G. A. Wells are scholars out of their field; it is also that their being out of their field shows like a gaping wound! Drews, for example [Drew.WH, 16-17], attempting to show that there were arguments that Jesus did not exist in early church history, cited these quotes from Justin's Dialogue with Trypho. Trypho, a Jewish person skeptical of Christianity, is speaking with Justin; the relevant passage says (words used by Drews, etc. highlighted):

When I had said this, my beloved friends, those who were with Trypho laughed; but he, smiling, says, "I approve of your other remarks, and admire the eagerness with which you study divine things; but it were better for you still to abide in the philosophy of Plato, or of some other man, cultivating endurance, self-control, and moderation, rather than be deceived by false words, and follow the opinions of men of no reputation. For if you remain in that mode of philosophy, and live blamelessly, a hope of a better destiny were left to you; but when you have forsaken God, and reposed confidence in man, what safety still awaits you? If, then, you are willing to listen to me (for I have already considered you a friend), first be circumcised, then observe what ordinances have been enacted with respect to the Sabbath, and the feasts, and the new moons of God; and, in a word, do all things which have been written in the law: and then perhaps you shall obtain mercy from God. But Christ--if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere--is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing."

Drews writes with the implication that these quotes refer to Jesus, and that it was Jesus who was "made" and who was "entirely unknown." But these quotes make it quite clear that Trypho is not referring to the man Jesus. Trypho takes Jesus' historicity for granted throughout the debate with Justin. What Trypho means is that the Messiah - which is to say, the office of the Messiah - has been created by the Christians: He is saying that the "Christ" has not come in Jesus, but that Christians have made Jesus a Christ for themselves; and if the true Messiah was born and lived somewhere, he is entirely unknown! The issue here relates to the Jewish belief that the Christ, when he came, would not proclaim himself (a belief we see evidenced from Jesus' own circumspection in claiming to be Messiah, and in that Bar Kochba, when he arrived, did not claim the title for himself, but allowed others to proclaim it for him). Trypho is accusing the Christians, therefore, of identifying one as Christ who is not Christ -- he is not accusing them of making up a man of history! This argument by Drews, depending as it does on taking Trypho's quotes badly out of their literary and social context, should be an extreme embarrassment to other mythicist advocates; but even Wells and Doherty are making use of it!

The modern defender of the "Jesus-myth" fares no better. G. A. Wells has also picked up on the "Trypho error" in his latest work. In another place, attempting to explain why Pilate was chosen as the person who authorized the death of his fictional Jesus, Wells says that he was selected because he was "particularly detested by the Jews, and is indeed the only one of the prefects who governed Judea between AD 6 and 41 who attracted sufficient attention to be discussed by the two principal Jewish writers of the first century," Philo and Josephus. [Hoff.JesH, 39-40] In other words, Pilate was chosen because he seemed like he would do something like the Gospels describe! If anything, this is better evidence, rather, that the Gospel writers knew what they were talking about, because they knew the history.

Quite simply, one must ignore a great deal of evidence, and treat what evidence is left most unfairly, in order to deny that Jesus existed. Greco-Roman historian Michael Grant, who certainly has no theological axe to grind, indicates that there is more evidence for the existence of Jesus than there is for a large number of famous pagan personages - yet no one would dare to argue their non-existence. Meier [Meie.MarJ, 23] notes that what we know about Alexander the Great could fit on only a few sheets of paper; yet no one doubts that Alexander existed. Charlesworth has written that "Jesus did exist; and we know more about him than about almost any Palestinian Jew before 70 C.E." [Chars.JesJud, 168-9] Sanders [Sand.HistF, xiv] echoes Grant, saying that "We know a lot about Jesus, vastly more than about John the Baptist, Theudas, Judas the Galilean, or any of the other figures whose names we have from approximately the same date and place." On the Crucifixion, Harvey writes: "It would be no exaggeration to say that this event is better attested, and supported by a more impressive array of evidence, than any other event of comparable importance of which we have knowledge from the ancient world." [Harv.JesC, 11] Dunn [Dunn.EvJ, 29] provides an anecdote similar to the one above regarding Shakespeare. Referring to Wells' thesis, he writes:

The alternative thesis is that within thirty years there had evolved such a coherent and consistent complex of traditions about a non-existent figure such as we have in the sources of the Gospels is just too implausible. It involves too many complex and speculative hypotheses, in contrast to the much simpler explanation that there was a Jesus who said and did more or less what the first three Gospels attribute to him. The fact of Christianity's beginnings and the character of its earliest tradition is such that we could only deny the existence of Jesus by hypothesizing the existence of some other figure who was a sufficient cause of Chrstianity's beginnings - another figure who on careful reflection would probably come out very like Jesus!

Finally, let's seal the coffin on consenus with these words from a hardened skeptic and an Emeritus Professor of History, Morton Smith [Hoff.JesH, 47-8] . Of Wells' work, this historian and skeptic of orthodox Christianity wrote:

"I don't think the arguments in (Wells') book deserve detailed refutation."

"...he argues mainly from silence."

"...many (of his arguments) are incorrect, far too many to discuss in this space."

"(Wells) presents us with a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond anything in the Gospels."

None of these scholars, we emphasize, is a friend of fundamentalism or evangelical Christianity. Contrary to the protestations of the "Jesus-myth" consortium, they make their statements based on evidence, not ideology. Conspiracy and bias exist only in their own imagination.

"That's not good enough. If Jesus existed and was so famous, we should have heard a lot more about him in historical sources outside the New Testament and the Church Fathers. The fact that so little was written about Jesus indicates that he was the creation of the church."

On the contrary, the fact that we have as much information as we do about Jesus from non-Christian sources is amazing in itself. Meier [Meie.MarJ, 7-9] and Harris [Harr.3Cruc, 24-27] have indicated several reasons why Jesus remained a "marginal Jew" about whom we have so little information:

  1. As far as the historians of the day were concerned, he was just a "blip" on the screen. Jesus was not considered to be historically significant by historians of his time. He did not address the Roman Senate, or write extensive Greek philosophical treatises; He never travelled outside of the regions of Palestine, and was not a member of any known political party. It is only because Christians later made Jesus a "celebrity" that He became known. Sanders, comparing Jesus to Alexander, notes that the latter "so greatly altered the political situation in a large part of the world that the main outline of his public life is very well known indeed. Jesus did not change the social, political and economic circumstances in Palestine (Note: It was left for His followers to do that!) ..the superiority of evidence for Jesus is seen when we ask what he thought." [Sand.HistF, 3] Harris adds that "Roman writers could hardly be expected to have foreseen the subsequent influence of Christianity on the Roman Empire and therefore to have carefully documented" Christian origins. How were they to know that this minor Nazarene prophet would cause such a fuss?
  2. Jesus was executed as a criminal, providing him with the ultimate marginality. This was one reason why historians would have ignored Jesus. He suffered the ultimate humiliation, both in the eyes of Jews (Deut. 21:23 - Anyone hung on a tree is cursed!) and the Romans (He died the death of slaves and rebels.). On the other hand, Jesus was a minimal threat compared to other proclaimed "Messiahs" of the time. Rome had to call out troops to quell the disturbances caused by the unnamed Egyptian referenced in the Book of Acts [Sand.HistF, 51] . In contrast, no troops were required to suppress Jesus' followers. To the Romans, the primary gatekeepers of written history at the time, Jesus during His own life would have been no different than thousands of other everyday criminals that were crucified.
  3. Jesus marginalized himself by being occupied as an itinerant preacher. Of course, there was no Palestine News Network, and even if there had been one, there were no televisions to broadcast it. Jesus never used the established "news organs" of the day to spread His message. He travelled about the countryside, avoiding for the most part (and with the exception of Jerusalem) the major urban centers of the day. How would we regard someone who preached only in sites like, say, Hahira, Georgia?
  4. Jesus' teachings did not always jibe with, and were sometimes offensive to, the established religious order of the day. It has been said that if Jesus appeared on the news today, it would be as a troublemaker. He certainly did not make many friends as a preacher.
  5. Jesus lived an offensive lifestyle and alienated many people. He associated with the despised and rejected: Tax collectors, prostitutes, and the band of fishermen He had as disciples.
  6. Jesus was a poor, rural person in a land run by wealthy urbanites. Yes, class discrimination was alive and well in the first century also!

A final consideration is that we have very little information from first-century sources to begin with. Not much has survived the test of time from A.D. 1 to today. Blaiklock has cataloged the non-Christian writings of the Roman Empire (other than those of Philo) which have survived from the first century and do not mention Jesus. These items are:

  • An amateurish history of Rome by Vellius Paterculus, a retired army officer of Tiberius. It was published in 30 A.D., just when Jesus was getting started in His ministry.
  • An inscription that mentions Pilate.
  • Fables written by Phaedrus, a Macedonian freedman, in the 40s A.D.
  • From the 50s and 60s A.D., Blaiklock tells us: "Bookends set a foot apart on this desk where I write would enclose the works from these significant years." Included are philosophical works and letters by Seneca; a poem by his nephew Lucan; a book on agriculture by Columella, a retired soldier; fragments of the novel Satyricon by Gaius Petronius; a few lines from a Roman satirist, Persius; Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis; fragments of a commentary on Cicero by Asconius Pedianus, and finally, a history of Alexander the Great by Quinus Curtius.

    Of all these writers, only Seneca may have conceivably had reason to refer to Jesus. But considering his personal troubles with Nero, it is doubtful that he would have had the interest or the time to do any work on the subject.

  • From the 70s and 80s A.D., we have some poems and epigrams by Martial, and works by Tacitus (a minor work on oratory) and Josephus (Against Apion, Wars of the Jews). None of these would have offered occasion to mention Jesus.
  • From the 90s, we have a poetic work by Statius; twelve books by Quintillian on oratory; Tacitus' biography of his father-in-law Agricola, and his work on Germany. [Blaik.MM, 13-16]

To this Meier adds [ibid., 23] that in general, knowledge of the vast majority of ancient peoples is "simply not accessible to us today by historical research and never will be." It is just as was said in his earlier comment on Alexander the Great: What we know of most ancient people as individuals could fit on just a few pieces of paper. Thus it is misguided for the skeptic to complain that we know so little about the historical Jesus, and have so little recorded about Him in ancient pagan sources. Compared to most ancient people, we know quite a lot about Jesus, and have quite a lot recorded about Him!


What About the Christians?

In this essay set we will only deal briefly with the question of whether the testimony of the New Testament and/or the Church Fathers offer sufficient evidence for the existence and life of Jesus. Most historians would agree that these sources are sufficient to testify to the existence of Jesus. Whether they are reliable reports of Jesus' life is another matter, one best taken up in other areas.

On the more practical and popular level, using the New Testament and the Church Fathers as proof of the existence of Jesus is generally fruitless. As we might guess from the typical reaction to the opinion of professional historians, the Jesus-myth adherent will automatically say, "Well, the Bible and the Church Fathers are biased. Of course they assert that Jesus was real." Those words often bring the popular level of the argument to an end.

So, for our purposes, there is really no need to go much further into this facet of the subject, other than to quote Harris' illustrative anecdote, which although of a slightly different application, makes the point we seek [Harr.3Cruc, 25] :

Behind the call for additional non-Christian witnesses to the existence of Jesus is the refusal to accept the testimony of the four writers we do have. Should we reject the four because they are not forty? The silence of the imaginary majority cannot overthrow the clear testimony of the few. This demand for other witnesses reminds me of the anecdote about a man accused of theft. At his trial the prosecuting attorney brought forward four witnesses who saw him commit the crime, while the defense attorney introduced as evidence fourteen persons who did not see him do it. Needless to say, the man was found guilty!

To put it succinctly, the rule of parsimony, or simplest theory, applies here. It is used explicitly as a criterion for deciding between rival hypothesis of equal explanatory power, and the simplest theory wins. (Or, as one reader put it: "Not only does Hypothesis A have more items that beg experimental support than Hypothesis B has, some of them are bigger beggars than those in Hypothesis B." Occam's Razor is a logical fallacy and one that a scientist [like a physicist] ought to NOT use to eliminate theories; but historians may be able to use it in a form like this.) Even if we do grant the wildly outrageous view that the "Jesus-myth" has equal explanatory power, it would be rejected by the law of parsimony. But, since it fails to explain the vast majority of the details - passion of the few, triumph in closed locales, resistance to modification by subsequent cultures, uniformity in variegated sources, etc. - it never even makes it this far. Parsimony, we say in summary, is closely related to plausibility, and the most parsimonius and plausible explanation for the origin of Christianity in this regard is that Jesus actually existed.

With that, we now turn to mimi-essays on the non-Christian sources for the life and existence of Jesus. For each of these references, we will ask these questions, as applicable:

Is this a genuine reference, or are there doubts about its veracity? Does it really refer to Jesus?

Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust what they say?

What objections have been registered against this citataion?

What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer?

We conclude that we find three levels of source material:

  • Highly reliable sources. There are two of these: Tacitus and Josephus.
  • Moderately reliable sources. We find three: Thallus, Pliny, and Lucian. For the matter of Thallus, please see also our link in our essay to Glenn Miller's essay on that subject, linked in our essay. (We will look at some objections to the Thallus cite.)
  • Marginally reliable or unreliable sources. Three are in this class: Suetonius, the letter of Mara Bar-Serapion, and the Talmud.


Conclusion: What To Do with this Information

The evidence is clear: The Jesus-myth is a groundless speculation, contrary to all evidence, and totally without basis. Here are our concluding thoughts on the matter:

I have personally come to the conclusion that adherence to the "Jesus-myth" is not the result of careful deliberation of the evidence, but rather, is the product and province of skeptical minds in the grips of an obsession. Long ago, I presented the information on Tacitus above to a Jesus-mythicist - whose ONLY source of data was G. A. Wells. He replied with implications that Tacitus was secretly in league with the Christians of his time! Then, in reply to the opinions of professional and distinguished historians regarding Wells' work, he simply suggested that they had not read Wells carefully, or even at all!

Some may say that this is merely abberational, but it is not: It is the modus operandi of the Jesus-myth circle. One well-known skeptic, Gordon Stein, cited as an authority on Josephus the works of Nathaniel Lardner - from the year 1838! There was no hint that Stein has consulted the works of modern Josephan scholars like Thackery and Feldman; there are no Taciteans, no cites from known experts in Greek and Roman history; instead, the bibliography of his report is bookended with works from G. A. Wells and Arthur Drews! Is this the work of a reasonable person, or someone in the grips of obsession?

The question remains: What on earth could possess otherwise intelligent and educated people to be so uncritical in their beliefs regarding the existence of Jesus? Here is my advice in the matter: If you have encountered people like this, I highly recommend that you provide a clear presentation of the Gospel, then leave them alone. It is a waste of time to deal with such people (except to the extent that they are deceiving others), we perform no service any time that we so much as imply that their views should be taken seriously. Their views are the result of a fallen and sinful human nature, of rampant egotism and arrogance, and nothing more. (For more evidence of this, see our responses to Wells and Doherty and Acharya S.)


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