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Study Two - Did Jesus Exist?

Introduction

One of the ideas that persist today is the "Jesus-myth" - the idea that Jesus did not even exist. This idea has been around for some time, and was first significantly publicized in the 1800's by a German scholar named Bruno Bauer. [3]

To think about: What would you currently say in response to the statements that 'Jesus never existed' or that 'Jesus is just a myth'?

Does the "Jesus-myth" have any scholarly support? The answer is a definitive "no". One has to ignore a great deal of evidence, and treat the evidence left over most unfairly, in order to deny that Jesus existed. Support for the "Jesus-myth" does not come from historians, but from writers operating far out of their field. [3] For historians, the historicity of Jesus is as sure as that of Julius Caesar. [5 p. 81]

Before we look at some of the available evidence for the historicity (real historical existence) of Jesus Christ, it is worth noting a primary reason why the "Jesus-myth" is not taken seriously: the fact that we have no evidence that the historicity of Jesus was questioned in the first centuries. Surely, if Jesus did not exist, this would have been the first thing that opponents of Christianity, especially those in the Jewish community, would have highlighted. [4]

Evidence from Christian Sources for the Historicity of Jesus

These sources include the twenty-seven different New Testament Documents and the writings of the early Church Fathers (e.g. Polycarp, Eusebiusm Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin and Origen). Most historians would agree that these sources are sufficient to testify to the existence of Jesus. After all, what we know about Alexander the Great could fit on only a few sheets of paper; yet, no one doubts that Alexander existed. [3] The issue whether these sources are reliable reports of the details of Jesus' life is another matter, and will be dealt with later.

To think about: What would some objections be to referring to the New Testament and early Church Fathers writings as evidence for the existence of Jesus? What could you say in response to these objections?

Evidence from Secular Sources for the Historicity of Jesus

J.P. Holding [3] concludes that we find three levels of source material:

  • Highly reliable sources: Tacitus and Josephus.
  • Moderately reliable sources: Thallus, Pliny, and Lucian.
  • Marginally reliable or unreliable sources: Suetonius, the letter of Mara Bar-Serapion, and the Talmud.

Cornelius Tacitus

Tacitus was a Roman historian writing early in the second century AD (112 AD). His Annals provide us with a single reference to Jesus of considerable value. The following is a full quote of the relevant cite, from Annals 15.44. Jesus and the Christians are mentioned in an account of how the Emperor Nero went after Christians in order to draw attention away from himself after Rome's fire of 64 AD: [3]

But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center 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. [3]

Is this Tacitus a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust what he says? The answer here is: Absolutely! The Tacitean literature is full of praise for the accuracy, care, critical capability, and trustworthiness of the work of Tacitus. [3]

What does Tacitus tell us about the historical existence of Jesus?


 

 

 

 


Flavius Josephus

Josephus (born AD 37) was a Jewish historian. He became a Pharisee at the age 19 and in A.D. 66 he was the commander of Jewish forces in Galilee. After being captured, he was attached to the Roman headquarters. [5 p. 82] In Josephus' antiquities, there are two quotes that mention Jesus. Here is the first and smaller quote:

Antiquities 20.9.1 But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned. [3]

Evidence favors highly the genuineness of this passage.[3]

What evidence presented here by Josephus opposes the Jesus-myth?


 

 

 

 

Here is the second Josephus reference, the Testimonium Flavianum, as it is popularly called. The authenticity of the passage was first questioned in the 16th century; one of its most significant detractors was the French sceptic Voltaire.[3] The passage reads:

Antiquities 18.3.3 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 among 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. [3]

The fact that there are interpolations (additions) here is seldom questioned; very few scholars hold that the entirety of the passage is genuine. It is doubtful, however, that the entire passage was 'made up', but rather that interpolations were added at a later stage. [3]

In summary, the evidence points to the authenticity of the first quote, and accepts the second quote acknowledging interpolations. [3]

Thallus, The Samaritan-Born Historian

He is one of the first Gentile writers who mentions Christ. In 52 A.D. he wrote attempting to give a natural explanation for the darkness which occurred at the crucifixion of Jesus. However, his writings have disappeared and we only know of them from fragments cited by other writers. One such writer is Julius Africanus, a Christian writer about 221 A.D. [5 p. 84] One very interesting passage relates to a comment from Thallus. Julius Africanus writes:

" 'Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun - unreasonably, as it seems to me' (unreasonably, of course, because a solar eclipse could not take place at the time of the full moon, and it was at the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died)." [5]

What can we infer about the existence of Jesus from this reference to Thallus' histories?


 

 

 

 

From the reference we see that the Gospel account of the darkness (Matthew 27:45) which fell upon the land during Christ's crucifixion was well known and required a naturalistic explanation from those non-believers who witnessed it. [5 p. 84] Note that the word 'Gospel' often refers to one of the four main New Testament books: Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

Pliny the Younger

Pliny the Younger was Governor of Bithynia. His correspondence in 106 A.D. with the emperor Trajan included a report on proceedings against Christians. In an extended explanation to his supervisor, Pliny explained that he had been killing both men and women, boys and girls. There were so many being put to death that he wondered if he should continue killing anyone who was discovered to be a Christian, or if he should kill only certain ones. He goes on to say that he also forced them to "curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do." [5 p. 83] He also described their actions and practices as follows:

They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. [5 p. 83]

What does Pliny reveal about the early Christians and the existence of Jesus?


 

 

 

 

Is this a genuine reference, or are there doubts about its veracity? Although a few critics in the previous centuries claimed otherwise, there is really no doubt about the genuineness of this reference. That it is some kind of Christian creation is a position that is not taken seriously today. [3]

What is important, is the testimony by Pliny that Christians died for their faith. This was extremely unlikely to have happened if Jesus had not existed. [3]

Lucian of Samosata

From this satirist and playwright of the second century, we have two quotes from a play entitled "The Passing of Peregrinus." The hero of the tale, Peregrinus, was a Cynic philosopher who became a Christian, rose in prominence in the Christian community, then returned to Cynicism. Lucian's attack is not so much on Christianity, but on the person of Peregrinus who took advantage of the Christians' simplicity and gullibility. [3] He alludes to Christ as

" the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult to the world Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers ... after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping the crucified sophist himself and live under his laws." [5 p. 82] Although, Jesus isn't mentioned by name, there is no doubt that he is referring to Jesus. No one else was ever worshipped by the Christians. [3]

How could this reference be used to support the historical existence of Jesus?


 

 

 

 

Suetonius

Suetonius was a court official and annalist under Hadrian, 120 A.D. [5 p. 83] He wrote the following:

"As the Jews were making constant disturbance at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome". [5 p.83]

The main objection to using this passage is that the word "Chrestus" as Suetonius spells it. Because of this, some say that it does not refer to Jesus Christ. [3] Others believe that it is an alternative spelling for Christus - a name used to refer to Jesus Christ. [5 p.83]

Note that Luke possibly references this same expulsion in Acts 18:1-2.

Mara Bar-Serpaion

Mara Bar-Sepaion sent a letter to his son Serapion. His letter contains following:

"What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their Kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given." [5 p. 84]

This reference to Jesus is not particularly valuable. We have no idea what qualifications the writer of this letter held. We are not even sure when this letter was written, other than that it was after 73 AD. At best, it offers us a special insight into how one particular non-Christian viewed the person of Jesus. [3]

It is, however, clear that the writer regarded Jesus as a "real" person like Socrates and Pythagoras - and not as a myth or an invention of Christianity, as the Christ-mythicists would argue. [3]

The Rabbinic Writings

The Talmud citations (Jewish writings from AD 100-500) are contested and some feel that they hold little value when it comes to the historicity of Christ. However, a worthwhile point that can be derived from the Talmud is that it provides no indication that Jesus was a mythical figure. Although the rabbinic sources may not contain clear references to Jesus - from the fact that the Talmudists concentrated on smearing Jesus' legitimacy rather than focusing on the issue of Jesus' existence, we may deduce that they had no grounds whatever for doubting his historical existence. [3]

The following is an example from one of the writings (note that the Talmud uses the term hanging when referring to Roman crucifixion)

"On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth) he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone knowing aught in his defense come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defense and hanged him on the eve of Passover" [5 p.86]

Why is it significant that the Rabbinic writings concentrated on smearing Jesus' legitimacy instead of dealing with the issue of his existence?


 

 

 

 

To think about: Which of the historical references to Jesus do you find the most interesting, and why?

Conclusion

There is large documented support, both Christian and secular, for the historical existence of Jesus Christ. The Jesus-myth is a groundless speculation, contrary to all evidence, and totally without basis. There can be no doubt that Jesus Christ is valid historical person.

Discussion questions and exercises

 

  • What is one of the primary reasons why the "Jesus-myth" is not taken seriously?



 

 

 

 
  • Name two reliable non-Christian sources for the historicity of Jesus. Who were they? What was the gist of what they wrote and how do their writings support the historicity of Jesus? ?



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
  • What would you tell someone who believes that Jesus did not exist?



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Groups

Preparation required for the following week

Please read the following

- The introduction to "Study Three - Is Scripture reliable as a historical record?"

- "Study Three - Part 1 - The Bibliographical Test"

Possible discussion questions for when the group meets next week


- How does a person test the reliability of a historical document? What three tests should be applied to the document? Briefly describe these tests in your own words.

- Can you think of any other tests that should be used?

- Why is it important that the New Testament be a reliable historical document?

- In the Bibliographical test, how do we establish that we have accurate copies of the original documents?

- What difference does it make if there are only a few copies and many variances?

- What difference does it make if our earliest copy of an ancient document is dated hundreds of years after the original was written?

- How many copies of the New Testament manuscripts are available? How does this compare to other ancient literature?

- What length of time passed between the original and earliest copies? How does this compare to other ancient literature?

- What variances exist between the copies of the New Testament? How does this compare to other ancient literature?

- What is it important that no core belief of Christianity is dependent on any textual variant?

- What do you think are the three main arguments against the possibility of later purposeful changes to the text of the New Testament?

- In your own words, state what the Bibliographical test is, and how and why the New Testament documents pass it so well?
 

 


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