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Refuting the myth that Jesus never existed

Introduction

The thesis that Jesus never existed has hovered around the fringes of research into the New Testament for centuries but never been able to become an accepted theory. This is for good reason, as it is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading and an awful lot of wishful thinking. It is ironic that atheists will buy into this idea and leave all their pretensions of critical thinking behind. I will adapt what has become popular usage and call people who deny Jesus' existence 'Jesus Mythologists'.

A huge amount has been written on the web and elsewhere which you can find in the further reading section below. Not all Jesus Mythologists are lunatics and one at least, Earl Doherty, is extremely erudite and worth reading. Nevertheless, he is still wrong and, as I have seen myself, he reacts badly to those who demonstrate it. It is not my intention to study the minutiae of the argument but instead focus on three central points which are often brought up on discussion boards. These are the lack of secular references, the alleged similarities to paganism and the silence of Paul. Finally I want to bring all these together to show how ideas similar to those that deny Jesus' existence can be used on practically any ancient historical figure. With this in mind I set out to prove that Hannibal never existed.

Roman Historians

Occasionally people ask why there is no record of Jesus in Roman records. The answer is that there are no surviving Roman records but only highly parochial Roman historians who had little interest in the comings and goings of minor cults and were far more concerned about Emperors and Kings. Jesus made a very small splash while he was alive and there was no reason for Roman historians to notice him.

Christianity is mentioned by the historian Tacitus in the early second century. But he talks about it only because Christians were unfortunate enough to be made scapegoats by the Emperor Nero for the great fire of Rome. Tacitus is interested in the Emperor, not his victims about whom he gives very limited information. Still, he does tell us that Jesus existed and was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Jesus Mythologists counter this by claiming that he could have got his information from Christians which means his evidence is not independent. So, we have a very convenient situation for the Jesus Mythologists. Until Christianity had spread no one except Christians would be interested in Jesus but all later records are ruled out of court as they are tainted by association with Christianity. This sort of special pleading is one of the reasons that modern historians have no time for these theories as they are set up to be impossible to disprove. In fact, Christian evidence for a human Jesus who was crucified is trustworthy because it ran counter to the myths of the time and suggested that he had suffered a humiliating death. If they made it up and then suppressed the truth with clinical efficiency, why did they come up with a story which even the Christian apologist, Tertullian, admitted was absurd? It seems far more likely that they had a large number of historical facts that they had to rationalise into a religion rather than creating all these difficulties for themselves.

Sometimes Jesus Mythologists will produce long lists of writers none of whom have the slightest reason to mention an obscure Jewish miracle worker and somehow think this strengthens their point. In fact, it has all the relevance of picking fifty books off your local library shelf and finding that none of them mention Carl Sagan. Does that mean he did not exist either? Jesus was not even a failed military leader of the kind that Romans might have noticed - especially if he had been defeated by someone famous.

Josephus

The only historian who we might expect to mention Jesus is Josephus, a Jew who wrote a history of his people up to 66AD, which is called 'Jewish Antiquities'. In fact, Josephus does mention Jesus twice and so Jesus Mythologists have to devote a lot of attention to attacking the relevant passages. Their job is made easier because Josephus, a Pharisee, probably felt nothing but contempt for Jesus which meant later Christians tried to 'correct' his negative wording.

The majority opinion on Josephus is that the parts of the passage from book 18 of 'Jewish Antiquities' which are in red below are the additions of a Christian scribe trying to make Jesus appear in a better light.

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.

Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18, 3, 3

To support this idea we can look at the works of the Christian father Origen who was writing in the mid-third century. This was while Christianity was still a minor cult with no power or influence. It was generally ignored by the authorities as long as it kept its head down. Therefore there is no way that Christians this early could have either knobbled Josephus so that no undoctored copies were available or got away with quoting something from Josephus that was not there. We have no reason to suppose that a bright chap like Origen would even have tried and so can be sure that the copy of Josephus he read and quoted from was unamended by earlier Christians. We can be doubly sure of this because Origen flatly contradicts the modern version of Josephus where the Jewish historian is made to say Jesus was the Messiah. Origen makes clear he said no such thing.

What use would the early fathers have had for a passage in Josephus saying Jesus was not the Messiah? An educated Jew saying this would not be helpful in an apologetic sense as it would demonstrate that the prophecies in the Old Testament were not nearly as clear cut as early Christians would have liked to have believed. And because no one ever challenged Jesus' existence, they never had reason to point to a critical Jewish source to prove he did. Hence Josephus was not quoted by the few earlier Christian writers.

So what exactly did Origen say? Here are two passages which say basically the same thing and which reinforce each other:

And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the "Antiquities of the Jews" in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered so great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said, that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wonderful thing is, that, though he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James.

Origen - Matthew X, XVII

For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless-being, although against his will, not far from the truth - that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ) - the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice.

Origen, - Against Celsus I, XLVII

This tells us that the later passage about 'James, brother of Jesus called Christ' certainly existed in Josephus in Origen's time because he uses the phrase 'called Christ' twice. It cannot be a Christian interpolation as they called James either 'James the Just' or 'James the Brother of the Lord'. The reference to 'James, brother of Jesus called Christ' is still found in Antiquities 20 and this by itself torpedoes the idea that Jesus never existed. The fact idea that Christians were going around doctoring copies of Josephus while they were still a persecuted minority is just laughable. Origen also says that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah so our present day passage on Jesus in Antiquities 18 cannot have existed although the passing reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20 is further evidence that he was actually mentioned in less flattering terms. It should be pointed out that Origen himself reads too much into Josephus who does say the people thought the killing of James was wrong but does not go quite so far as to blame the entire Jewish War on the event.

Pagan similarities

Allegations that Christianity is an adaptation of a pagan religion have been around for ages. In the 19th century, Kersey Graves wrote his notorious The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviours - a book so poor that even the Internet Infidels admit (in rather more diplomatic language) that it is a load of old cobblers. Just recently the tradition was carried on in The Jesus Mysteries by Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke. These two amateurs are equally willing to play fast and loose with the facts using carefully pruned quotations, mis-translation and anachronism to produce a woefully inaccurate picture.

With this is in mind I present "Bede's Guide to the Production of a Best-seller that Undermines the Roots of Christianity". With this I can guarantee that you will be able to find all the parallels you like between paganism and Christianity or indeed, properly adapted, between any other two unrelated subjects that you care to name.

  1. The first thing to do is ensure you cast your net as widely as possible. So within Christianity you should include every cult, heresy and sect you can get your hands on. Gnosticism will be particularly helpful as they did indeed borrow large chunks of pagan thought which is partly why they were considered heretics in the first place. As for paganism, this can include just about everything. Freke and Gandy comb not only Greek cults (Oedipus) but also Egyptian (Horus and Osiris), Roman (Bacchus) and Persian (Mithras). Elsewhere you will find Celtic deities, Norse beserkers and Indian mystics pulled into the fray. Now, with this vast body of writing, finding parallels will not be too challenging provided you are willing to wade through it all.
  2. But don't restrict yourselves to pagan religions from before the time of Christ. Remember your methodology should be that Christians copied pagans and not the other way around. This is useful because you can now point to similarities between paganism and Christianity after the latter was already widespread. So if, like Freke and Gandy, you can find a picture showing Bacchus on a cross dating from two hundred years after Jesus was crucified you can still claim that the Christians copied the pagans and not the other way around.
  3. Language is important. Christian terms such as 'salvation', 'Eucharist', 'word made flesh' and 'lamb of god' are common currency today. Therefore when translating or paraphrasing pagan sources always use modern Christian language. Never mind that the ancient pagans would not have known what you were on about - you are not talking to them. In this way you can call a woman being raped by various kinds of wildlife a 'virgin birth', you can call having ones body parts stuck back together a 'resurrection' and you can call just about every Greek hero a 'son of god'. Also it is helpful to use King James Bible phrases and style when quoting pagan texts. It gives them some more gravitas.
  4. Do try to confuse liturgy and practice with history. For instance the mystery religions and Christianity were both underground movements so they had to operate in similar sorts of ways. Sacred meals and ritual washing are as old as religion itself so the Christianity using them as well as pagans is not surprising at all. Make it sound like a complete revelation.
  5. Say totally different things are in fact closely related. For instance, Mithras was sometimes represented by a bull. Say this is the same as Jesus being called the lamb of God (ignoring that one is a symbol of sexuality and strength and the other of innocence and humility). Compare the Mithric ritual of taking a shower in the warm blood of the aforementioned bull with Christian baptism with water. Claim that the thieves crucified with Jesus are the same as a pair of torch bearers that appear on some illustrations of Bacchus.
  6. For goodness sake do not mention the things that really made the pagan mysteries interesting. After all your work of showing that Jesus and Bacchus are one and the same, you will lose everything if you let on that Bacchus was the god of drunkenness and his worship involved getting plastered and having sex with anything in sight (goats being a particular favourite). In fact, keep sex out of it altogether. Yes, sex was the central feature of an awful lot of these pagan rituals but that is not the point your are trying to make.
  7. Avoid up to date scholarship which will probably pour cold water over your vaunted theories. You will find plenty of nineteenth and early twentieth century writers with a bone to pick that can support your wildest speculations. And do not worry if not everyone agrees with you - you can always dismiss the dissenters as apologists or as those unable to cope with your earth shattering ideas.

Using this guide you should be able to produce as many parallels as you require to convince even the most blinkered of readers. As you can probably tell from the above I am not impressed by the pagan myth hypothesis. It is interesting to note that despite his vast amount of reading, hostility to orthodox Christianity and willingness to allege that most the New Testament is fictional, not even John Dominic Crossan has any time for the idea that Jesus was made up of pagan motifs. Nor indeed do the vast majority of liberal scholars - the pagan myth hypothesis is firmly outside the pale of scholarship and with good reason.

The Non - Silence of Paul

The whole idea that Jesus did not exist started with the fact that Paul does not say very much about his life or ministry. It is instructive to first find out what he did say so here is a list. You can read the relevent snippet biblical text by holding your mouse over the red scripture references.

  • Jesus was born in human fashion, as a Jew, and had a ministry to the Jews. (Galatians 4:4)
  • Jesus was referred to as "Son of God". (1 Cor. 1:9)
  • Jesus was a direct descendent of King David. (Romans 1:3)
  • Jesus prayed to God using the term "abba". (Galatians 4:6)
  • Jesus expressly forbid divorce. (1 Cor. 7:10)
  • Jesus taught that "preachers" should be paid for their preaching. (1 Cor. 9:14)
  • Jesus taught about the end-time. (1 Thess. 4:15)
  • Paul refers to Peter by the name Cephas (rock), which was the name Jesus gave to him. (1 Cor. 3:22)
  • Jesus had a brother named James. (Galatians 1:19)
  • Jesus initiated the Lord's supper and referred to the bread and the cup. (1 Cor. 11:23-25)
  • Jesus was betrayed on the night of the Lord's Supper. (1 Cor. 11:23-25)
  • Jesus' death was related to the Passover Celebration. (1 Cor. 5:7)
  • The death of Jesus was at the hands of earthly rulers. (1 Cor. 2:8)
  • Jesus underwent abuse and humiliation. (Romans 15:3)
  • Jewish authorities were involved with Jesus' death. (1 Thess. 2:14-16)
  • Jesus died by crucifixion. (2 Cor. 13:4 et al)
  • Jesus was physically buried. (1 Cor. 15:4)

It turns out that careful analysis of the letters shows that Paul was not actually all that silent at all. The first reaction to all this from the Jesus Mythologist is to dispute that Paul wrote very many of these letters. But actually seven of his letters are completely undisputed and all facts about Jesus's life shown above are from these. It is ironic that the pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, that liberals insist are late (and date from after the synoptic Gospels), contain practically no details about the life of Jesus at all.

As there are still rather a lot of details about the historical Jesus in the undisputed letters, the Jesus Mythologist will use special pleading to try and explain them away. But as we can see, Paul is not attempting to tell Jesus's life story, he is just using the odd snippet about Jesus where it is helpful to illustrate his point. He knows that his readers are aware of what happened because all of his letters are to people who are already Christians. He is not trying to convert them and he is not engaged in apologetics.

If we look at the letters of the early Christian fathers, they rarely have details about the life of Jesus except in passing because they know their readers are familiar with the Gospels. What we today call the Gospels had not, of course, been written down at the time that Paul was preaching but oral communication was considered to be more reliable than the written word at the time. When these people had heard about Jesus they did not need a revision primer when Paul wrote to them but specific advice about problems and controversies. Of course, none of this will convince the Jesus Mythologist who just cannot understand why Paul does not just repeat verbatim to his correspondents what he has already told them in person.

Did Hannibal really exist?

I want to wrap up by showing how easy it is to produce a scenario where we can deny the historicity of a major public figure. When I published this spoof on the Secular Web's discussion board it was taken seriously even though with hindsight it seems ridiculous. The comments in italics are annotations to bring out points of similarity with the various Jesus Myth ideas in currency.

I would invite any Jesus Mythologist to explain to me the substantial differences between their theory and the spurious one below.

To ask whether or not the great Carthaginian general Hannibal every actually existed might seem rather pointless. An exercise for a student learning about the nature of historical evidence perhaps but not something any serious scholar would waste time on. But maybe we should not be too hasty in acquiescing with the opinion of establishment historians (in other words, there's a plot by academics stifling debate).

In fact, although there is plenty of writing about Hannibal, none of it is contemporary and there is no archaeological evidence for him at all (not surprising given the Romans razed the city from whence he came). Furthermore he is not mentioned in any Carthaginian sources - incredible given he was supposed to be their greatest leader (there are no Carthaginian sources as the Romans burnt their city down)! We find when we actually try to pin him down he tends to recede further into the mists of time. His exploits, such as leading elephants over the Alps, are clearly legendary (the sceptic pretends to be incredulous but seems happy to buy his own amazing theory) and it is not hard to find a motive for the creation of this colourful character by Roman writers (as long we can invent a motive for fabrication we can assume that fabrication exists).

Rome and Carthage were great trading rivals in the Western Mediterranean and it did not take them long to come to blows. Rome signed a peace treaty but, under the leadership of the elder Cato desperately wanted to rid itself permanently of the competition. (this is actually true and so helps to hide when we slip into fantasy) They needed an excuse and the idea they came up with was brilliant. Like all ancient civilisations, the Romans rewrote history as it suited them to demonstrate their own prowess. (a useful and exaggerated generalisation) Consequently we should not be surprised to find that they invented a great enemy from Carthage to demonstrate the threat still existed and justify a further war to wipe them out.

The author of the fiction was Cato himself (we need someone to point the finger at and note how there is no distinction made between the background material above and theorising here) who we know wrote the earliest Roman History (true as well, actually). But it was intended simply as a justification for a further war with Carthage. It contained the details of Hannibal's alleged campaigns against the Romans including victories on Italian soil (it might well do but Cato's history has conveniently not survived). Cato brilliantly combined the truth with his own anti-Carthaginian propaganda with the intention of goading Rome into another wholly unjustified war with the old enemy (give the fabricator lots of credit for his invention). Once the war was over and Carthage razed to the ground, the Romans were able to ensure that only their version of history survived (this is important as it enables all other sources to be declared forgeries).

Therefore the myth of the great Carthaginian war leader became fact and later Roman historians like the notoriously unreliable Livy (we have to denigrate counter sources) simply assumed Cato's fabrications were true (because the ancients were stupid and simply could not do any research themselves).

Conclusion

In history there is little that is certain but there is also a level of scepticism that makes the task of the historian impossible. Furthermore, the thesis that Jesus never existed requires selective scepticism about which sources are reliable and how others are interpreted. In the end, if Jesus did not exist, it makes Christianity a much more incredible phenomena than if he did.

Further reading

Books:

  • The Evidence for Jesus - RT France: Very few scholars have bothered reply to the Jesus Mythologists but France was one who did. This book refutes elements of GA Wells with rigour and honesty. Sadly only available in the UK.
  • One Hundred Years Before Christ - Alvar Ellegard - Literary critic invents a variation on the Dead Sea Scrolls conspiracy and then redates all the ancient documents to support it.
  • The Jesus Mysteries - Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy: Unadulterated rubbish from the masters of the genre.
  • The Jesus Puzzle - Earl Doherty: A serious minded and worthwhile effort to put the best case for an impossible theory.
  • The Christ Conspiracy - Acharya S: Makes Freke and Gandy look like serious scholars. Really, really, silly and unintentionally quite funny.
  • The Jesus Myth - GA Wells: Another serious effort to show Jesus never existed. Sadly for devotees the author has changed his mind now and admits he was wrong.

Web sites:

  • Tekton Apologetics - JP Holding: Among many other things, contains a demolition job on the Jesus Mythologists so total and complete you even end up feeling sorry for them.
  • The Jesus Puzzle - Earl Doherty: Worth reading if you find his book hard to get hold off. Covers some points in more detail.
  • Truth be Known - Acharya S: For those who cannot believe how dreadful her book is, there is more here.
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James Hannam 2001.
Last revised: 6 October, 2001.