The view that Jesus is not a historical figure had its origin during the late 18th century, the time of the French Revolution. According to Gordon Stein (An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism P. 183), the first persons who argued that Jesus was a myth were the Frenchmen Charles Depuis and Count C. F. Volney. To understand the thrust of the argument, one has to consider the nature of the New Testament to see why Jesus’ historicity became an issue.
The gospels are, contrary to popular belief, not named after their authors. They were initially nameless and were only given their current titles after the early Christian communities acquired more than one gospel and needed to distinguish between them. Not only are the authors unknown, they were also not eyewitnesses to the events that they describe. Luke makes this abundantly clear in the preface to his gospel (1:1-4). Problems with the reliability of the information contained in the gospels are compounded if one considers the dates of the various gospels and how they were composed. All the documents comprising the New Testament are dated much later than the death of Jesus. The earliest of the gospels is the one of Mark which is estimated to have been written around 70 CE, forty years after the crucifixion. It is followed in turn by Matthew and Luke (90 CE) and John (100 CE). Theologians also believe that a lost gospel called Q (for Quelle, the German word for source) existed at some stage. It probably preceded Mark and contained only the sayings of Jesus. The authors of Luke and Matthew, it is believed, incorporated both Q and Mark in their gospels. The implication of this Two-Source Theory, as it is known, is of course that the gospels of Luke and Matthew are neither original nor independent.
It is common knowledge that certain gospels did not make it into the New Testament. These apocryphal gospels, as they are called, were excluded from the Christian canon by the Third Council of Carthage in the year 397 CE. The Church father Augustine described them at the time as mere “fables”. According to Prof Jac J. Müller, the Apocrypha were rejected by the Church because they are the product of the imagination. Their “creepy and fantastical” stories, he tells us, led to error and heresy. (Nuwe Testamentiese Apokriewe P. xviii). For an unbeliever, however, it is well-nigh impossible to tell the Apocrypha apart from the canonical gospels based on their credibility. They all seem equally farfetched and unbelievable. I can also not help wondering whether Christians would have been willing to accept that Jesus is a historical figure if such a claim was based exclusively on the Apocrypha.
Another problem that Christians face in defending the gospels is that the earliest documents in the New Testament, namely the epistles of Paul which are dated around 50 CE, are at odds with them. For instance, instead of confirming the virgin birth recounted in Matthew 1: 18-25 and Luke 1:26-45, we are merely told in Galatians 4:4 that Jesus was “born of a woman”, not a virgin. Moreover, although the gospels are replete with accounts of the miracles performed by Jesus, these are expressly denied by Paul. He may have valued “signs and wonders and mighty works”, but he tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:23-24 that he cannot preach that Jesus was a miracle worker and a wise man, he can only say that he had been crucified. Furthermore, according to Paul, “the rulers of this age” were responsible for the crucifixion (see 1 Cor. 2:8). These “rulers” were at the time regarded as evil spirits. (See G. A. Wells Did Jesus Exist 2nd ed. P. 19-20). Paul clearly did not believe that Jesus had been crucified by the Roman authorities, for he urged his fellow Christians in Romans 13:1-7 to obey the (Roman) government. He describes it as God’s servant working for the common good. This sentiment is also expressed by the anonymous author of the epistle of Peter. (See 1 Peter 2:13-14). According to Mark 15:9-10, however, Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent when he condemned him to death. He most certainly did not act in the common good when he had him crucified.
Then, of course, there is the reliability of the various gospels that is also in issue. Luke’s claim in chapter 1 verses 3 and 4 that he carefully investigated the matter before committing his pen to paper is belied by the facts. Take for instance the genealogical table in the very first chapter of the first book in the New Testament, Matthew 1: 1-17. The German theologian David F. Strauss demonstrated as long ago as 1835 in his book Das Leben Jesu that the alleged genealogy of Jesus as it appears in Matthew is not only absurd but fatally contradicted by the one in Luke 3: 23-38. Both evangelists, bizarrely, trace Jesus’ lineage through his father’s ancestry. His father Joseph, however, was not his biological parent. It will be recalled that according to the Bible Jesus’ mother, Mary, was a virgin who was impregnated by the Holy Ghost before she conceived him. (See Matthew 1: 18). Although both genealogies claim that Jesus descended from King David, there are 42 persons listed as Jesus’ ancestors from the time of David in the genealogy of Luke but a mere 27 in the gospel of Matthew. And of those only two names appear in both genealogies, namely Shealtiel and Zerubbabel who were well-known figures from the time of the captivity (see Ezra 5: 2). If the descent of Jesus is so clearly fictitious, some people wondered, for what possible reason should we believe that he really existed?
These attacks by sceptics caused believers to scour the writings of ancient non-Christian authors to find extra-biblical proof of the existence of Jesus. After all, if he was a teacher and a miracle worker of renown, there should be some reference to him by his contemporaries – even if they did not believe that he was the messiah. Initially, however, the paucity of references to Jesus outside the Bible was an embarrassment to the ancient Christians. So desperate were they to find support for the claims in the New Testament, that they even fabricated correspondence between Seneca and Paul. When the fraud was later discovered, it turned out that the letters had been forged in the late fourth century. Another fraudulent stratagem of believers was to allege that official pagan documents relating to Jesus exist. The Church Father Tertullian, for instance, falsely claimed in his Apology (dated 197 CE) that Pilate reported all the miracles that had occurred during Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection to the Emperor Tiberius and that the report can still be consulted in the Roman archives. (See G.A. Wells The Jesus of the Early Christians P. 189).
Before we continue, something should be said regarding the evidential value of a genuine reference to Jesus in ancient documents. A mere reference to Jesus, needless to say, does not automatically prove his existence; its value depends on a number of aspects. An eyewitness account of Jesus by an unbeliever would, of course, have been invaluable but it simply does not exist. Even if he had only been mentioned by an impartial writer during his lifetime it would have carried a great deal of weight. In fact, this is what one expects if, as the gospels maintain, miraculous events accompanied the birth and death of Jesus and his fame spread far and wide during his ministry. But even here we come up empty. As Earl Doherty points out in his book The Jesus Puzzle (P. 200), the greatest Roman writer of ethics at the time, namely Seneca who lived from 4 BCE to 65 CE, had nothing to say about Jesus or Christianity. The same applies to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55 – 135 CE) whose ethical doctrines resembled those of Jesus to such an extent that he was later suspected of being a crypto-Christian. This silence is puzzling, Doherty says, since Palestine was not a rural backwater of the Roman empire at the time. It was strategically situated and a source of endless trouble for the Romans who had to resort to warfare during the years 66 – 73 CE to bring the recalcitrant Jews to heel.
With those Pagan and Jewish writers who referred to Jesus long after his death, the situation is more complicated. By that time Christianity had become better known and much of the information that was available regarding its founder came from the Christians themselves. Unless it can be shown that a writer used a reliable independent source, passages containing references to Jesus can accordingly not be regarded as proof of his existence. It could conceivably have been furnished by the court record of Jesus’ trial when he was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. A record of the court proceedings should have been kept and would have been available for public inspection. (Legally speaking, public documents of this nature are not regarded as hearsay evidence and are upon mere production in a court of law proof of the contents thereof).
What apologists do nowadays, is to invoke ancient authorities who had absolutely nothing to say about Jesus to prove his historicity. Claims have for instance been made that Thallus, a historian who wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world somewhere between 53 and the early second century CE, and Phlegon, whose “Chronicles” is dated sometime after 137 CE, confirm Jesus’ existence. The fact that both these works are lost have been exploited by Christians. According to Julius Africanus, an early Christian author, and the Church Father Origen both Thallus and Plegon described (in almost identical terms) a solar eclipse and an earthquake that took place in Judea. Thallus did not say when these events occurred but Phlegon allegedly reported that it took place in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e. 33 CE). This enabled Christians to claim that Thallus and Phlegon corroborate Matthew 27 verses 45 and 51 where it is stated that just before Jesus died on the cross, there was darkness over the whole land (or “earth” according to the 1933 Afrikaans Bible translation) from the sixth to the ninth hour and that earth shook and rocks split apart after his death.
But there are good reasons to doubt this claim. The first problem is that the original works were written after the death of Jesus. Were the events allegedly described by Thallus and Plegon personally observed by them? If not, how or from whom did they obtain the information? Unless these aspects are adequately addressed, one cannot accept the alleged “evidence”. Earl Doherty also points out on pages 57 to 58 of his book Challenging the Verdict that Julius Africanus was not impartial and had a motive to put his own spin on what Thallus had said. The same of course applies to Origen. Moreover, Doherty reports that he could find no independent writer of antiquity who confirms these claims. Pliny the Elder, a natural philosopher who died in 79 CE and painstakingly recorded all the natural phenomena of his time, made no mention of such events in his works. Doherty is further of the view that the passage in the New Testament where it is stated that Jesus’ death was accompanied by universal darkness was a literary invention by the evangelists to create the appearance that it was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Amos 8:9 and Joel 2:10 in the Old Testament. Given these objections, it is not strange that Wells reports that the Christian encyclopedias he consulted specifically state that Thallus is not a witness who confirms Jesus’ historicity (Did Jesus Exist? P.13).
There are a few other pagan authors who are often cited in support of this claim. One is Suetonius, a Roman historian who wrote a history of the early empire in 121 CE entitled The Twelve Caesars. He explained in his book that the Emperor Claudius (who reigned from 41 to 54 CE) had to expel the Jews from Rome because “…they constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus…” (Chresto in Latin). There has been some debate among scholars whether Suetonius referred to Jesus (as the Christ) or someone else who was an agitator in Rome at the time. It doesn’t matter how you interpret the passage; it is not going to save the day for Christianity. If Suetonius meant Jesus, then it is clear that he got a garbled account from an unreliable source. What seems more probable, however, is that Suetonius had another person in mind. He knew who the Christians were; in writing of the Emperor Nero’s treatment of them, he informed his readers that “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition”. Moreover, not only is it unlikely that Christianity spread as far as Rome within such a short time after its founder’s death, it is highly doubtful that it would have become powerful enough to cause riots there. The Jews, on the other hand, were frequently in revolt against the fetters that had been imposed by their Roman overlords. G. A. Wells (The Jesus of the Early Christians P. 185) further points out that Chrestus was a common name among slaves and freemen at the time; it appeared more than eighty times in Latin inscriptions of Rome.
Pliny the Younger, the nephew of Pliny the Elder, is another Roman author who has been commandeered by the Christians to solve their Jesus problem. But he had very little to say on the subject. All he did was to write a letter to the Emperor Trajan in his capacity as the governor of the province of Pontus-Bithynia in Asia Minor in the year 112 CE to ask him for guidance in dealing with the religion known as Christianity. It is, he explained, a “degenerate cult carried to extravagant lengths” whose adherents “…meet regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath…”. The problem here is much the same as previously. Pliny uses “Christ” as if it is the name of a deity while it is, in reality, the title of a mortal man. It would have made more sense if he had said “Jesus as a god”. The inference is accordingly inescapable that Pliny’s report to Trajan consists of information that can only be described as unreliable hearsay.
The last pagan writer that allegedly referred to Jesus is the historian Tacitus. He, like Pliny the Younger, was not only a historian but also the governor of the Roman province of Asia in the western part of Asia Minor between the years 112-113 CE. In his Annals written in 116 CE, he described a fire that was started in Rome during the reign of Nero in 64 CE. Some people thought that Nero himself was responsible for the conflagration. Tacitus did not accuse the emperor but wrote that Nero had fastened the guilt and “… inflicted the most exquisite tortures on those men who, under the vulgar appellation of Christians, were already branded with deserved infamy. They derived their name and origin from Christ, who in the reign of Tiberius, had suffered death by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate.”
What is clear is that this passage, whose authenticity cannot be doubted, is an improvement on the ones we have discussed, since it contains more information on Christianity and particularly its founder. One possibility is that Tacitus had access to either the record of the trial or to official records of crucifixions kept by the Romans. If so, it will be incontrovertible proof of the existence of Jesus. It requires, however, that the Roman Empire would have had to keep records for at least 86 years (from the death of Jesus in ± 30 CE to the time that the Annals were written in 116 CE). There is simply no evidence of such extensive record-keeping at the time while Tacitus was at any rate not in the habit of consulting original documents. (P. Fabia, Les Sources de Tacite quoted in G.A. Wells The Jesus of the Early Christians P.187). Another possibility is that Tacitus may have obtained his information from the gospels in the New Testament. But that too doesn’t seem to be the case. Wells points out that Tacitus would not have been bothered to do research into what he called a “dire superstition” (The Jesus Myth P. 199). Furthermore, the gospels do not describe Pilate as a “procurator”, according to them he was the “governor” of Judea. (See Matthew 27:11, Luke 3:1 and John 18: 28 -29). In reality, however, Pilate was neither procurator nor governor; he was the prefect of Judea (Did Jesus Exist? P. 14). If Tacitus had consulted official records, he would have been aware of the true facts and would not have made such a mistake. The official records, moreover, would have told him that the name of the man who was condemned to death by Pilate was Jesus, not “Christ”. Wells is accordingly of the view that Tacitus got his information from the Christians themselves since only they could have told him that their cult had a recent origin – a fact that was to their detriment as the Roman authorities only permitted ancients cults in the empire (The Jesus Myth P. 199 – 200).
I have only referred to pagan writers up until now, but what about the Jews who lived in the Roman Empire or particularly in Palestine during the period of Jesus’ ministry? Surely, they should have commented in writing on the life and deeds of a person who claimed to be the messiah? Unfortunately, however, there are no extant writings of this nature that throw any light on the matter. Neither Philo of Alexandria (who died in 40 CE) nor Justus of Tiberias (who lived in Galilee around 80 CE) makes mention of Jesus. There are references (dated after 200 CE) in the Talmud to a certain Jesus, it is true, but all they do is to create a great deal of uncertainty whether the Jesus in the gospels is intended. One says he was the son of a Roman soldier; another portrays him as a magician while yet a third tells us that the Jews stoned him to death in Lydda. There is also a dispute as to when he lived; according to one account, it was a century after Herod while another rabbi swears it was around 100 BCE. (Earl Doherty The Jesus Puzzle P. 204).
Christians do, however, rely on one Jewish author who allegedly proves the historicity of Jesus. He is Flavius Josephus (37 – 100 CE), a Jewish historian who lived in Rome and is chiefly known for his works The Jewish War and the Antiquities of the Jews. It is in the latter book, written in 93 CE, that two passages appear that have been held up as proof that Jesus existed. The first, known as the Testimonium Flavium, reads 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.”
Josephus, it must be stressed, was an orthodox Jew and a Pharisee who was an implacable foe of all would-be messiahs and opponents of the Roman Empire. He thought them all evil and regarded them as the bane of society. What is contained in the Testimonium is completely contrary to what we know of him. The only reasonable inference is accordingly that the passage must be an interpolation by a Christian. Although it is conceded by believers that Josephus would not have written the passage as it stands, many still believe that “there may be a genuine core in these strange lines…” (Will Durant Caesar and Christ P. 554). They seem to think that Josephus did mention Jesus at that spot but since he made a disparaging remark about him, some Christian who found it objectionable decided to “improve” the text but somehow left the original words intact minus, perhaps, the objectionable comment. However, attempts to establish just what this so-called “genuine core” is have not been successful. No matter how the words are juggled, it remains a eulogy to Jesus.
There are, on the other hand, compelling reasons for thinking that the passage was not there before it was inserted by someone else. Wells, who read wider than the Testimonium, points out that the reference to Jesus does not fit in with the rest of the text and is completely incongruous. The preceding and subsequent portions deal with the adversity of the Jews during their war against Rome. There is also, he says, an ancient table of contents of the Antiquities where one would expect to find the Testimonium. Yet it is conspicuous by its absence. Furthermore, during a debate with unbelievers during the third century, the Church Father Origen relied on the passage in the Antiquities that we shall be discussing shortly yet did not refer to the Testimonium, although it would have strengthened his argument greatly. The first time that it was mentioned was in the fourth century by Eusebius. (The Jesus Myth P. 201 et seq. See also Doherty The Jesus Puzzle P. 206 – 215).
The other disputed reference to Jesus in the Antiquities occurs in a sentence that appears later in the work where Josephus describes how a certain Ananus was deprived of the high priesthood of Judea by King Agrippa after he had “the brother of Jesus, the one called Christ, James by name” brought before the Sanhedrin together with other alleged miscreants. Their subsequent conviction and sentence, namely death by stoning, created a public outcry and forced the king to replace Ananus with a certain Jesus, the son of Damnaeus.
The first problem is to whom the phrase in inverted commas refers. Christians maintain that Jesus Christ and his brother James are intended but, speaking for myself, it appears prima facie to say that the brother of Jesus, namely James, is also known as Christ. It is rather strange that Josephus, who could normally express himself so clearly, was unable to do so in this particular instance. Wells (The Jesus Myth P217-221) advances in this regard convincing reasons why the phrase in question could not have been written by Josephus. He points out that Josephus, as an orthodox Jew who was still waiting for the Messiah (or Christ) to arrive, went out of his way to avoid any reference to it. He discussed no fewer than 10 people in the last three books of the Antiquities who pretended to be the Messiah but, in doing so, rather referred to them as swindlers, false prophets or similar names than to use the dreaded M-word, Messiah. Yet in this particular instance, he had no scruples in doing so. It is furthermore extraordinary that he discussed the other would-be Messiahs in detail, but didn’t do it in the case of Jesus/James.
The problems do not end there. Wells (The Jesus Legend P. 54-55) also points out that the history contained in the passage under discussion cannot be correct in so far as it relates to James, the brother of Jesus. According to both Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria, Christian writers of the second century, James, the brother of Jesus was never tried and convicted in a religious court. What happened instead was that he was injured in a tumult instigated by Scribes and Pharisees. His body was subsequently thrown from the temple after which he was clubbed to death. Origen too had a different version. Writing in the third century, he claimed in his book Contra Celsum that the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple were God’s punishment for the Jews’ murder of “the brother of Jesus, him called Christ”. Wells is of the view that the fact that these three authors do not refer to the earlier account of Josephus, strongly suggest that the phrase in question was added to the text after the third century. On page 11 of Did Jesus Exist he persuasively argues that what probably happened was that Josephus wrote an account concerning the death of a person simply called “James”, a not uncommon name at the time. A Christian who later read it erroneously thought that he referred to the brother of Jesus who was, according to tradition, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. He consequently wrote in the margin by way of explanation “James = the brother of Jesus, him called Christ”. Subsequent copyists thought that it formed part of the text and incorporated it therein. (This, I may add, is something that often happened in ancient legal documents. Lawyers call such marginal notes that contained comments that were later accidentally introduced into the text in the days before the printing press, “glossae”).
Although the extra-biblical passages by unbelievers that I have discussed do not support the Jesus described in the gospels, it is not necessarily fatal to Christianity. It also doesn’t mean that those who reject the passages are of necessity mythicists. Of the two critics of Christianity whose works I have discussed, namely Earl Doherty and G.A. Wells, Doherty does not accept the historicity of Jesus and thinks that he is a myth. Wells, on the other hand, started off as a mythicist but later changed his position. He tells us in his 1999 book The Jesus Myth that he now believes that the biblical account is “…based on the life of an actual itinerant Galilean preacher of the 20s or 30s, although (he adds) it is surely hazardous to try and decide which details are really authentic.” (P. 103). I think that the only thing that can with any certainty be said is that this type of critique reduces Jesus from deity to nonentity.