Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Response to the Village Atheists’ Claim that Jesus Never Existed

Over the last few weeks I have been "back and forthing" with some of the "village atheists on FredTalk.  One of the threads have been on the origin of morality and a moral law and some how a posting on a particular thread lead to a challenge to me about whether or not Jesus actually existed.  I worked on this response today and this is the text.   Before moving forward, I am grateful to some of the sources I had to read while undertaking the Certified Apologetics Instructor program with the North American Mission Board.  One of those sources is Paul Maier's essay on "Did Jesus Really Exist?"*  Much of this essay is from the content along with some of my own personal study on this very subject as well.

One of the more ludicrous claims made by those embracing the “new atheism” and militant atheism is that Jesus never existed in human history.  Some are willing to claim that the man Jesus did exist, but He was not the unique Son of God that Christians claim.[1]

Those who vehemently say, “No, he didn’t exist!” think that this is a powerful level by which to pry people away from “the fable of Christianity.”[2]  But this a weak lever at its very first usage.  The reason it is weak is due to there being more historical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth certainly lived than for most famous figures of the ancient past.  The evidence that I will present here will be two kinds:  (1) internal (sacred) and (2) external (secular).  The external evidence will have three branches to it ranging from Christian Church Fathers, Jewish sources and  lastly, external sources coming from the Roman historians.  In both of these cases, the total evidence is overpowering, and so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence.  And yet, this pathetic denial is still parroted by the “village atheist”, bloggers on the internet, or such organizations as the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

A Look at the Internal Evidence

Aside from the many Messianic predictions found in the Old Testament, not one of the four gospels or the 23 remaining documents in the New Testament would make an ounce of sense if Jesus had never lived. Did the whole cavalcade of well-known historical personalities in the first century AD, who interacted with Jesus deal with a vacuum?  Did Herod the Great try to terminate a ghost or a phantom?  Did the Jewish high priests Annas or Caiaphas interview a spook?  What about Pointius Pilate?  Did this Roman governor/procurator judge a ghost on the day he wrote the order to have Jesus crucified?  What about the apostle Paul and so many of the early disciples who encountered Jesus after his resurrection as well as during his earthly ministry?  Did they give their lives for a myth?

No one doubts that the above names are well known from both sacred and secular sources, as well as  archaeological evidence, and are therefore historical.  The same holds true of Jesus of Nazareth.  So why then is Jesus not permitted the “luxury” of actually having lived as did the rest of these historical people?  Why is there a hypocritical standard here?

From the internal, biblical evidence alone, therefore Jesus’ existence is simply categorical.  There is also an abundance of additional extra-biblical (external/secular) information on this question.  Let's move to the external evidences now.

The External Evidence:  Christian 

I could give additional attention to writings of the early Church Fathers, some of whom had close contact with New Testament personalities.  One of Jesus’ disciples, John later became the bishop of the church at Ephesus.  One of John's students was Polycarp, who was the bishop of Smyrna and student of his was Irenaeus of Lyon.  The central focus of all their writings was Jesus the Christ (“Messiah”).

Apart from such living personal links to Jesus, both geographical and temporal tangencies appear in the writings of Justin Martyr.  Justin was born of pagan parents around AD 100 in Nablus (between Judea and Galilee).  Justin tried and abandoned various philosophical schools of thought until he found Christianity the one true teaching.  As a native of the Holy Land, Martyr mentions sites that are associated with Jesus of Nazareth, such as the Bethlehem grotto in which he was born.  He also mentions details such as Jesus working as an apprentice carpenter in the shop of his foster father Joseph, where they specialized in producing agricultural implements like yokes for oxen and plows.

External Evidence:  Jewish

As far as any Jewish evidence for Jesus having historically existing, there is plenty coming from the rabbinical tradition.  Within this tradition there is plenty of Jewish rabbinical writings that mention Jesus.  There are sources that spell his name accurately in Aramaic, his native tongue:  Yeshua Hannotzri -- Joshua (Jesus) of Nazareth.  Some of the references to Jesus in the Talmud are garbled -- this is probably due to the vagaries of oral tradition -- but one is especially accurate, since it seems to be based upon written sources from the Mishna -- the earliest collection of writings in the Talmud.  This is no less than the arrest notice for Jesus, which runs as follows:

"He shall be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and lured Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. Anyone who knows where he is, let him declare it to the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

In this statement there are four items which support its authenticity as a notice that was composed specifically before Jesus’ arrest:

  1. The future tense is used;
  2. Stoning was the regular punishment for blasphemy among the Jews whenever the Roman government was not involved.
  3. There is no reference whatsoever to crucifixion, and
  4. That Jesus was performing “sorcery” -- the extraordinary or miraculous with a negative spin.

These facts, as remarkable as they are, not only invoke what historians call the “criterion of embarrassment”, which proves what is conceded, but accords perfectly with how Jesus’ opponents explained away his miraculous healings: "performing them with the help of Beelzebub" (Luke 11:18).

Whether or not, the first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus mentions “Jesus who is called the Christ” in his Jewish Antiquities is really not as important to this presentation here as another quote where he mentions the death of Jesus’ half-brother James the Just of Jerusalem (20:200).  And in two books earlier, the longest and most discussed non-biblical reference to Christ, he tells of Jesus midway through his discussion of the events in Pontius Pilate’s administration:

"At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day." (Jewish Antiquities, 18:63: Arabic Version)[3]

This is the recent, uninterpolated text that replaces the traditional version taken from a Greek version, which, unfortunately, has suffered early interpolation.

External Evidence: Secular

Some of the most reliable pieces of evidence come from the side of what is called “enemy attestation.”  These attestations come from the pens of the Roman historians:  Cornelius Tacitus (a.k.a. “Tacitus”), Gaius Seutonius (a.k.a. “Seutonius”) and Pliny the Younger.  Of these three sources Tacitus is one of the most reliable source historians of first century Rome.

In his Annals he wrote a year by year account of the events in the Roman Empire under the early reigns of the Caesars.  Among the highlights that he reported in AD 64 was the great fire of Rome.  The people blamed the emperor Nero for this inferno, since it happened under his watch, but in order to save himself, Nero passed the blame to “the Christians,” which is the first time they appear in secular history.  Tacitus, being the careful historian that was, he explains who “the Christians” were:

“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 Judaea, 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. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. (Annals, 15:44).

Notice Tacitus’ words, reporting the hatred toward Christians and the horrors that were inflicted on the them in what became the first Roman persecution. With his words in his Annals, let it be noted that Tacitus was not some Christian historian who was trying to prove that Jesus Christ really lived. He was a pagan who despised Christians describing them as a "disease," a term he uses later in the passage. If Jesus had never existed, Tacitus would have been the first to expose that pathetic phantom on whom such cultists placed their trust. And even if no other references to Jesus available, this passage alone would have been sufficient to establish his historicity.

Educated skeptics realize this, and so have tried every imaginable means to discredit this passage—but to no avail. Those who are participating in more in depth manuscript analysis and computer studies, from both sides of the debate, have never found any reason to call this sentence into question, nor its context.

A second source of enemy attestation is from Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (Seutonius), who recorded events of the first century in his famous Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Seutonius also regarded Christians as a sect “professing a new and mischievous religious belief” (Nero, 16) and cited “Christus” as well, as spelling his name “Chrestus” (Claudius, 25). Some might think that this is an inconsistency in the spelling “Christ” for ancient times, despite the fact the vowels “e” and “i” were often interchangeable is demonstrated by the French term for “Christian” to this day:  “chretien.”[4]

Finally, there is Pliny the Younger (Pliny). Pliney was the Roman governor of Bithynia—today, located in what is known as the northwestern corner of Turkey—and about the year AD 110 he wrote the Emperor Trajan (98-117 A.D.), asking what to do about the Christians, a "wretched cult" whom he mentions eight times in his letter. In this letter, Christ himself is cited three times, the most famous instance referring to Christians ". . . who met on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ, as if to a god..." (Letter No. 96). Trajan's response, interestingly enough, suggests that Christians not be hunted out. (Ibid., No. 97). But again, if Christ were only a mythical character, these hostile sources would have been the first to emblazon that fact in derision.

There are other sources that can be mentioned to settle this matter of whether or not Jesus Christ actually existed in time space history.  Some of the other ancient secular sources like Theudas and Mara bar Serapion also bear witness to the historicity of Jesus. But any further evidence clearly comes under the category of "beating a dead horse" as far as this response is concerned.  Nothing more is necessary in view of the overpowering evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was certainly no myth, but a totally historical figure who truly lived.

My thoughts about skeptics wanting to challenge Jesus’ existence should not be toward whether or not he actually existed.  The problem that skeptics should focus on instead is whether or not Jesus was more than a man. That, at least, could invite a reasonable debate among reasonable inquirers, rather than a pointless discussion with sensationalists who struggle to reject the obvious.

Source: *Paul L. Maier, Did Jesus Really Exist?


[1] I spoke with one of my neighbors, a teen ager and asked him if he thought Jesus existed.  He said he believed that there is all kinds of evidence.  Then I shared with him this essay.

[2] I find it fascinating that many Christians who have not considered this question hearing this charge coming from the new atheism are so susceptible to believing it.  Why is this?

[3] The most popular quote comes out of a Greek translation and is quoted in William Whiston's (1667-1752) compilation of the Works of Josephus, containing the "Testimonium Flavianum" which states the following:  "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." (Whiston, 379)

[4] Je parle français un petit peu.  (I speak French a little bit) having forgotten a lot of my vocabulary and grammar.  However I did give my testimony in French at Oklahoma Baptist University and the word "chretien" is the the word "Christian" en français


JC Lamont said...

I LOVE Paul L. Maier. Great post!

Rob Lundberg said...

Thanks JC! One cannot reinvent what Dr. Maier has so eloquently put together. I just personalized it and added some footnotes and kept the credit where it was due. Thanks again. RL