Is Jesus Christ a Myth? Part One

By James Hannam

Introduction

Picture of Christ from Roman Catacomb (4th century)

The thesis that Jesus never existed has hovered around the fringes of research into the New Testament for at least a century but it has never been accepted as a mainstream theory. This is for good reason. It is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading, and an awful lot of wishful thinking. It is ironic that certain atheists will buy into this idea and leave all their pretensions of critical thinking behind.

A huge amount has been written on the internet and elsewhere about the “Christ Myth.” The only in-depth refutation in print is Shattering the Christ Myth (2008), which goes into great detail. However, some academic historians have taken the time to rubbish the idea that Jesus never existed and a few other books on the subject have appeared over the years.

In this four-part series, it is not my intention to study the minutiae of the various arguments. Instead, I will focus on three central contentions often advanced in discussions about Jesus. These are 1) the lack of secular references, which I cover in this installment; 2) the alleged similarities to paganism, which I deal with next; and 3) the silence of St. Paul. Finally, in the fourth part, I will bring all these arguments 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.

Secular Historians

People ask why there is no record of Jesus in Roman records. The answer is that there are no surviving Roman records. All we have are 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 2nd century. But he talks about the religion 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. He only gives us very limited information about Christians and Christ. Still, he does tell us that Jesus existed and was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Christ Mythologists counter the evidence of Tacitus by claiming that he could have got his information from Christians and so is not an independent source. This puts the Christ Mythologists, who seek a non-partisan source, in a very convenient situation. Until Christianity had spread widely, no one except Christians would have taken interest in Jesus. But all later records are ruled out of court insofar as they might have been influenced by Christians. This sort of special pleading is one of the reasons that modern historians have no time for the theory that Jesus was not a real person: the Christ Myth is set up to be impossible to disprove.

In fact, Christian evidence for a human Jesus who was crucified is trustworthy because it runs counter to the myths of the time and suggests that he had suffered a humiliating death. If they had fabricated the mythology, and then suppressed the truth with clinical efficiency, why did they come up with a story that 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 harmonize into a religion, rather than creating all these difficulties for themselves.

Sometimes Christ Mythologists will produce long lists of writers who make no mention of Jesus—yet none of whom would have had the slightest reason to mention an obscure Jewish miracle worker—and somehow believe 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? 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 whom we might expect to mention Jesus is Josephus, a Jew who wrote a history of his people up to 66 A.D., which is called Jewish Antiquities. In fact, Josephus does mention Jesus twice, and so Christ 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. This meant later Christians tried to “correct” his negative phrasing.

The first mention of Jesus is in book 18 of Jewish Antiquities. Historians are largely agreed that the passage in question has been tampered with by a later Christian scribe. However, at least part of the passage is widely believed to be authentic. The words in bold below are thought to be the additions of a Christian scribe trying to make Jesus appear in a better light than Josephus would have wished.

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 the idea that the passage is partly authentic and partly interpolated, we can look at the works of a 3rd-century Christian father called Origen. He lived while Christianity was still a minor cult with no power or influence. Its adherents were generally ignored by the authorities as long as they kept their heads down. Therefore, there is no way that Christians this early could have secured every copy of Josephus so that no undoctored copies remained, or could have gotten away with quoting something from Josephus that was not there. So we can be sure that the copy of Josephus that Origen read and quoted from had not been amended 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 stating this would not be helpful, as it would demonstrate that the prophecies in the Old Testament were not nearly as clear-cut as early Christians would have liked to believe. And because no early skeptics or opponents of Christianity ever challenged Jesus’ existence, early Christians never had any reason to point to a critical Jewish source to prove that he was real. Hence Josephus was not quoted by earlier Christian writers.

So what exactly did Origen write? Here are two passages from his works. Both of them basically say the same thing and 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 such 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, although 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, Commentary on 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)

The second mention of Jesus by Josephus is a much briefer reference to “James, brother of Jesus called Christ.” We also know about James from the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. He was indeed Jesus’ brother and one of the early leaders of the Church. This second mention of Jesus certainly existed in Origen’s copy of Josephus because Origen uses the phrase “called Christ” twice. It cannot be a Christian interpolation into Josephus because Christian texts 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 book 20 of Jewish Antiquities, and this by itself torpedoes the idea that Jesus never existed. The idea that Christians were going around doctoring copies of Josephus while they were still a persecuted minority is ludicrous. Origen also says that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, so our present day passage on Jesus in Jewish Antiquities 18 cannot have existed in its current form. However, the authentic passing reference to Jesus in Jewish Antiquities 20 is good evidence that he had been mentioned previously by Josephus.

It should be pointed out that Origen himself reads too much into Josephus. Josephus does indeed say the people of Jerusalem thought the killing of James was wrong, but he does not go quite so far as to blame the entire Jewish War on the event.

It is clear that the existence of Jesus and the fact of his crucifixion are adequately attested by Josephus, even leaving aside the New Testament and other early Christian sources. To claim Jesus did not exist, in the face of the evidence from Josephus, is to indulge in special pleading. Historians should not ask for a higher standard of proof for the existence of Jesus than they do for any other ancient figure.

In the second part of this series, I will consider the alleged similarities between the story of Christ and the mythological stories of various pagan religions.

Part Two here.  Part Three here. Part Four here.

Reprinted with permission of the author. Source.

James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at http://bedejournal.blogspot.com and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. The book was recently shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2010.

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