XFiles Friday: In search of a historical Jesus

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 9.)

Chapter 9 marks a turning point in the book. Up to now, Geisler and Turek have been basing their case on superstition, misrepresentations of science, and blithe obliviousness towards their own self-contradictions. Now, finally, at about halfway through the book, they are going to turn their attention to the evidence which, according to them, proves that it takes more faith to be an atheist. Actual evidence, they claim, of God actually existing and doing something in the real world. And this evidence—go figure—is about two thousand years old.

Just how many non-Christian sources are there that mention Jesus? Including Josephus, there are ten known non-Christian references who mention Jesus within 150 years of his life. By contrast, over the same 150 years, there are nine non-Christian sources who mention Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor at the time of Jesus. So discounting all the Christian sources, Jesus is actually mentioned by one more source than the Roman emperor.

Of course, just to keep things in perspective, this argument is like proving Mormonism by counting how many non-Mormons mentioned Joseph Smith prior to 1970. Or, for that matter, the angel Moroni.

Since they bring up the subject, though, let’s take a quick review of the ten non-Christian sources who supposedly mention Jesus and see what they really have to say.

1. Josephus.

Modern copies of the works of Josephus contain two references to Jesus, of which at least one is suspected of being a forgery for reasons such as the fact that it seems a bit too evangelical to have come from the pen of an unbelieving Jew. The other reference, however, is probably authentic, even though it is not what you would call an eye-witness testimony to the life of Jesus, since Josephus wasn’t even born until 37 AD. Also, there is some evidence that a key phrase (i.e. “Jesus who is called the Christ“) may be a later interpolation, and that the Jesus mentioned in the authentic passage might not be the New Testament Jesus at all.

Whether or not the writings attributed to Josephus were really written by him, or were later interposed by Christian editors, we can say that the things Josephus reports about Jesus are the things he has heard from the Christians. Josephus, thus, is not a witness to the existence of Jesus directly, but is a witness to the stories Christians were telling about Jesus in his day. With or without the interpolations, Josephus is a second-hand reference at best.

2. Tacitus.

Tacitus, writing about 110 AD, mentions a “Christus,” hero of the Christians, who “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius” and who also inspired “a most mischievous superstition” among his followers. This early reference is particularly interesting in that, while it mentions Christus dying, it says nothing about him coming back from the dead, or about Christians believing that he had. Call this one a more clear-cut reference to Jesus, though one that came a generation or three after the fact.

3. Pliny

In 112 AD, Pliny the Younger wrote to the Emperor Trajan on the subject of Christians, whom he described as “addicted to a bad and to an extravagant superstition.” Pliny, however, makes no mention of Jesus (or Christ) being an actual person, but describes believers relating to him in the same sense that the Greeks and Romans related to their gods. Pliny, thus, is not a fair reference to the existence of Jesus (unless he is also a reference to the existence of Jupiter, Apollo, and the rest of his pantheon). This one seems to be a case of Geisler and Turek padding their count.

4. Phlegon

Geisler and Turek may also be padding their count by appealing to Plegon of Tralles, whose writings we no longer possess. What we have are a set of conflicting claims by Eusebius and Africanus that Phlegon, writing in the 140’s AD, mentioned darkness and an earthquake (in far-off Turkey!) at the time of the death of Jesus. Well, actually, Eusebius claims that Phlegon puts these events (darkness at noon and a Turkish earthquake) some time in 32AD, while Africanus fills in a few details, such as the eclipse happening during the full moon, and from 9AM to noon, that Eusebius omits or contradicts. The bottom line is that we don’t have what Phlegon actually wrote, and what quotes we do have show evidence of having been embellished with specifically Christian legends.

5. Thallus

Thallus has the same problems as Phlegon, only more so. As Richard Carrier writes, “The only information we have about him, even his name, comes entirely from Christian apologetic sources beginning in the late 2nd century, and that information is plagued with problems.” As a witness for the existence of Jesus, Thallus leaves a lot to be desired, since his own existence seems rather questionable, or at least second-hand.

6. Seutonius [sic]

Just a side note: if you want to look up Suetonius, spell his name right, and don’t just copy G&T’s spelling. 😉 Suetonius mentions Jewish riots in Rome during the reign of Claudius. According to Suetonius, these riots were instigated by one “Chrestus,” a common Roman name meaning “good” or “useful,” which some believers have identified as being a reference to Jesus. Jesus, however, is not recorded as having instigated any riots in Rome during the reign of Claudius, and therefore is unlikely to be the “Chrestus” referred to by Suetonius. Scratch this one from the list.

7. Lucian

Lucian, a Greek satirist who wrote in the early second century, mentions Christians “worshiping” their founder who was crucified for his beliefs. He also mentions them being unusually gullible, hmmm. Let’s just take his word for that, shall we? We’ll put Lucian down as another genuine, second-hand witness to what Christians were saying about Jesus in his day.

8. Celsus

Another “witness” whose writings did not survive to the present day, Celsus is known to us only through being quoted in the rebuttals published by various church fathers. According to Celsus, the Christian religion was started by the bastard son of a Jewish woman whose husband divorced her for committing adultery with a Roman soldier. So we can put Celsus down as a second-hand, second-century witness to what other people (probably not Christians) were saying about Jesus a hundred years later.

9.Mara Bar-Serapion

Bar-Serapion gives us another vague reference to a “wise king” who was executed and who may have been a reference to Jesus. It’s also interesting in that this executed “wise king” is described as “living on” the same way that Socrates and Pythagorus did: by the perpetuation of their teachings among their followers. Bar Serapion wrote some time after 73 AD which might make him one of the earlier witnesses to a non-physical “resurrection,” assuming his wise king is really a reference to Jesus.

10. The Talmud

Last on our list, we have the Jewish Talmud, which has a story about a Jewish Miriam who was raped by a soldier, and gave birth to a bastard son named Yeshu, who studied sorcery in Egypt and returned to Israel where he preached heresy and was ultimately stoned to death for his sins. Given that stoning was forbidden by the Romans, however, some people doubt that this Yeshu is the same person as the New Testament Jesus.

So, what’s the overall summary? We have ten cited sources of testimony to the existence of a Jesus or Yeshu or Chrestus or Christ or wise king, who may or may not all be the same person. None of these sources wrote until decades (at least!) after the death of Jesus, with the possible exception of the Talmud. Thus, all are second-hand sources at best. A number of these sources report Jesus’s death, but don’t seem to make any reference to him coming back from the dead, except in a non-literal sense. However, based on the few references that do sound legitimate (like Celsus), it seems reasonable to me to conclude that a person named “Jesus” did once exist.

Now, whether that person is the mythical Jesus of the New Testament stories, is a different matter. It would be easy enough for a bastard son, born of a rape or an adulterous affair, to pick up a few magic tricks and a mantle of moral superiority, and make a famous “prophet” of himself, at least within a small region. And it would be easy enough for his Christian followers to apply his non-literal, spiritualized view of “truth” in a way that would make a “genuine” resurrection out of a stone cold corpse. So far, the mere existence of a famous Jesus is not all that far-fetched.

There are those who make a case for the idea that Jesus never existed at all, but so far I’m not convinced (though I’d be glad to hear more). As far as Geisler and Turek’s case goes, they needn’t have worked so hard to pad their list and “prove” that Jesus existed. If a man existed, that’s no big deal. G&T need to find some evidence that he was a god.

But if he was a god who died and rose again so he could be with us forever, then we ought to see him here with us forever. The evidence from 2,000 years ago ought to be completely moot. There ought to be no need to wonder what Phlegon and Celsus really wrote; we ought to be able to ask Jesus, and he ought to be here to tell us. The fact that Geisler and Turek have to take a pseudo-historical approach is itself evidence that their apologetic is wrong. And that Lucian was right.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “XFiles Friday: In search of a historical Jesus”

  1. VorJack Says:

    What these quotes show is that there was a first century Christian movement – a fact which no one questions. The quotes from Tacitus, Mara Bar-Serapion, Lucian and Pliny only refer to Christians and what they were claiming, not to any personal historical knowledge. As for Josephus, my favorite rebuttal is to point out that the Christian fathers like Origen, who read and wrote on Josephus, somehow never mentioned his little confession of faith and concluded that the man was staunchly Jewish. The quote must have been added in the fourth century.

    Mentioning the anti-christian polemicist Celsus and the Talmud takes gall (gee, I guess it’s lucky that the Christians didn’t burn ALL the copies of the Talmud.) These are counter-narratives spun by the Jews and other opponents of Christianity. The goal was to undercut Christian narratives by showing Jesus as a charlatan – sort of like Simon Magus in Acts. We know from one of the letters of the church fathers that some Jews were saying that Jesus’s body had been moved by the gardener so that his followers wouldn’t trample his cabbages. The stupid disciples found the body gone and assumed that he had been taken up to heaven in classic greco-roman fashion.

    And the church’s response to this slander? “You’ll regret saying this when Jesus comes back.” Which shows you all the evidence that the church was able muster in its defense.

    This is where I lose respect for apologists. It’s long been accepted by scholars that there are no non-biblical references of the life of Jesus. It takes a level of desperation to keep circulating and padding this list.

  2. jim Says:

    Shouldn’t the existence of all the apocryphal literature that even Christians reject as being authentic, blast to smithereens the idea that ancient Christians weren’t willing to embellish, invent, and lie about the records?

  3. galloway Says:

    ” By contrast, over the same 150 years, there are nine non-Christian sources who mention Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor at the time of Jesus. So discounting all the Christian sources, Jesus is actually mentioned by one more source than the Roman emperor. ”

    Shouldn’t the standards for deification be higher than for just simple history?

  4. Steven Carr Says:

    Are Geisler and Turek claiming there is a real possibility that there had been no Emperor in Rome and that later people fabricated the existence of an Emperor?

    But we know for a fact that Christians fabricated stories about Jesus.

  5. VorJack Says:

    Given the number of sources we have that talks about the deification of the emperors, I wonder if the pair accept that Julius Ceaser is a god? The original JC! Perhaps they accept that Augustus was actually conceived of Apollo in the form of a giant white snake, as the official roman histories record? Maybe they’ll get all theistic rationalist on us, “Really, the mutant snake just happened to be crawling after a really big mouse when it passed over Augustus’ mother and …”