Hey, have you seen this on myspace? An atheist on my friend's list posted this.

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Hey, have you seen this on myspace? An atheist on my friend's list posted this.

I admit this is not at all my area of expertise..but perhaps you'd like to write her a response.


Until recently, I had always assumed the existence of Jesus as a historical figure as a given. "OF COURSE HE EXISTED." Doubt of this never even crossed my mind. Of course, I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian. So when it came to light that some people even questioned the very historical existence of Jesus, well, I wondered - why not? The movie, The God Who Wasn't There, presents some thin evidence for the non-existence of Jesus. While the title of the movie would suggest that it is all about Jesus' supposed existence, the movie itself is really more of a personal journey for a once-fundamentalist christian, and the resulting anger he had at realizing the fallacy in the "truths" he had been taught as a child. I can relate.

Thanks to Carl Sagan, for the more accepted belief of the historical existence of Jesus.

The Existence Of Jesus From Skepticwiki



There is a belief, which is fairly common among atheist and skeptical laypersons but entertained by only a few scholars today, that Jesus of Nazareth was not a historical figure but rather completely mythical. However, as provocative as this idea sounds on the surface, the most common sources that argue against the existence of a historical Jesus are highly polemical and have been found to contain fallacious arguments and distortions of fact.

Earl Doherty, author of The Jesus Puzzle, is a relatively well-known proponent of Christ-myth position, as is G. A. Wells, although he has softened his position somewhat. However, the so-called mythicist position is by far a minority amongst New Testament scholars and historians, even those who do not regard the New Testament as reliable, let alone infallible. As atheist historian Michael Grant wrote in his book Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels,

"... if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. Certainly, there are all those discrepancies between one Gospel and another. But we do not deny that an event ever took place just because some pagan historians such as, for example, Livy and Polybius, happen to have described it in differing terms. That there was a growth of legend round Jesus cannot be denied, and it arose very quickly. But there had also been a rapid growth of legend round pagan figures like Alexander the Great; and yet nobody regards him as wholly mythical and fictitious. To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory. It has 'again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars.' In recent years, 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus'―or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary. (p. 200) "

What follows is a brief discussion of the case for the existence of a historical Jesus of Nazareth, as opposed to the "Christ of Faith" of Christian orthodoxy. Where appropriate, mythicist arguments against the various points will be discussed. The core question of this article is whether the facts as we have them are better explained by a Jesus who existed as a historical figure, albeit one whose portrayal in the New Testament is highly embellished, or a Jesus that is wholly mythical. There are several facts that are trivially explained by the existence of a historical Jesus, but are not explained so easily by mythicist accounts. Some of these are discussed below. In addition to this, since it has been contended that the lack of references to Jesus of Nazareth makes it unlikely that he lived, the question of how much impact Jesus should have had on the historical record will be dealt with.

Unless otherwise noted, the Bible translation used is the NRSV.

Case for the existence of Jesus

Evidence trivially explained as having a historical basis

Jesus having siblings

This is perhaps the "smoking gun" for the case for the historical Jesus. The attestation that Jesus had brothers is attested across multiple sources, namely the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John, Paul's epistles, and Josephus. In Mark 6:1-6, the members of the synagogue in Jesus' home town state that Jesus had brothers named James, Judas, Joses, and Simon, and an unspecified number of sisters. In John 7:3-5, Jesus' brothers disbelieve his claims and sarcastically challenge him, "Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret." Paul in Galatians 1:19 refers to James as being the "brother of the Lord," and asks in 1 Corinthians 9:5 the rhetorical question, "Do we [that is, Barnabas and himself] not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?" Book 20, chapter 9 of Josephus' Antiquities also makes mention of a "James, the brother of Jesus, who is called Christ." A few have contended that this may have been added by a later editor or copyist, but unlike the more controversial passage in Josephus called the Testimonium Flavianum, this passage is generally considered authentic, for reasons discussed in the article Nonbiblical references to Jesus.

G. A. Wells and Earl Doherty both have their objections to "brother of the Lord" meaning physical brothers of Jesus. Wells argues that when Paul makes the above references to a "brother" or "brothers" in Galatians 1:19 and 1 Corinthians 9:5, he means it in the same sense as in Matthew 28:9ff and John 20:17, where "brothers" refers to the eleven apostles or disciples. Gerd Thiessen points out that this interpretation is untenable in The Historical Jesus--A Comprehensive Guide, where he writes,

"The argument that 'brothers of the Lord' in the passages mentioned means brothers who are especially zealous in the service of the Lord is intrinsically contradictory: in the Gospels, as is clear from the context, the brothers are the eleven apostles or the disciples, and Peter is always with included with them. In I Cor. 9.5, however, the 'brothers of the Lord' are distinguished from the 'other apostles and Peter'; in Gal. 1:19 James, and not Peter, is called 'brother of the Lord'."
(p. 581)

Earl Doherty argues similarly to Wells and contends that the references to a "brother" or "brothers" in Galatians 1:19 and 1 Corinthians 9:5 is similar to the reference to "brothers in the Lord" in Philippians 1:14, but this ignores that the "grammar in 'the Brother of the Lord' is completely different from that in every instance with which Doherty compares the use of the phrase, yet Doherty treats them all as identical [1]," (see also [2]). Another contention is that "brothers of the Lord" is a reference to members of a group entitled the "Brothers of the Lord." Frank Zindler writes,

"Originally, [Brother of the Lord] would have been the title born by a member of a religious fraternity associated with the worship of Yahweh, who in Greek was always referred to as kurios ('Lord'). This was carried over into primitive Christianity, where we know from I Cor. 9:5 that there existed a governing class coordinate with apostles that was called "Brothers of the Lord." Misunderstanding of the original meaning of the title led to the belief that Jesus had siblings - an error that can be found already in the earliest of the canonical gospels.

The problem is that 1 Corinthians 9:5, which is quoted in the opening paragraph of this section, does not imply that "brothers of the Lord" is any kind of "governing class" at all. This is simply a stretched interpretation of the passage. Furthermore, for this stretched interpretation to explain the apparent references to siblings that do not use the phrasing "Brother of the Lord," Zindler introduces the speculation that this title was later misunderstood as a reference to physical brothers. He misleadingly reports this speculation as fact.

In short, to explain away the multiple attestation that Jesus had siblings, the mythicists have had to resort to ad hoc hypotheses.

Paul implies Jesus was a human who recently died

Paul implies that Jesus had recently lived when he mentioned that he had met Jesus' brother (Galatians 1:19, see section Jesus having siblings). There are other indications that Paul believed that Jesus' death was recent. Paul describes Jesus as the first fruits of the general resurrection at the end of the present age (1 Corinthians 15:20), an event that he expected to see in his lifetime (1 Thessalonians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 15:51), or at least in the lifetime of his converts (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Layman Ben C. Smith pointed out in an IIDB post,

"If, for Paul, he [Jesus] rose from the dead at some point in the indeterminate past, then we must explain either (A) why Paul thought the general resurrection had begun (with Jesus) well before the end times or (B) why Paul regarded the end times as a span of time stretching from the misty past all the way to the present. If, however, Paul regarded the resurrection of Jesus as a recent phenomenon, all is explained. The resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of the general resurrection and thus the ultimate sign that the end times were underway. "

After pointing out again that Paul described Jesus as the first fruits of the general resurrection, Smith also adds, in the same post, "Since the firstfruits of the harvest precede the main harvest itself by only a short time, the very metaphor works better with a short time between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the rest of the dead, implying that the resurrection of Jesus was recent for Paul."

Strictly speaking, of course, this points out that Paul sees Jesus' resurrection as a relatively recent event, not necessarily his death. Paul also believes, however, that Jesus rose from the dead only three days after his death (1 Corinthians 15:4), and he claims to have met those who purportedly saw Jesus' resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:5,7; Galatians 1:18-19; 2:11). Of course, it is quite reasonable to doubt the claims that Jesus really did rise from the dead. However, if belief in the resurrection was due to a purportedly timeless mythical event, or to an event in the distant past, it is strange that Paul would describe it in terms that suggest just the opposite. It is not strange, however, if belief in Jesus' relatively recent resurrection was due to something the disciples experienced shortly after his death ( e.g. grief-induced hallucinations).

Aside from Paul's mention of Jesus' brothers, he shows awareness of Jesus' humanity in other places as well. For example, he referred to Jesus as being "descended from David according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3). This cannot prove that Jesus was actually descended from King David. However, Paul's statement only makes sense if he understood that Jesus was human, since David himself was understood to have been a flesh-and-blood human with flesh-and-blood descendants. Paul also writes in Galatians 4:4 that Jesus was "born of a woman." Paul also mentions several times that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified ( i.e. 1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:2,8; 2 Corinthians 13:4; Galatians 3:1).

Now Earl Doherty claims that the crucifixion of which Paul spoke supposedly took place in a mythical level of the heavens, and that Paul is not claiming that it was done on Earth. However, this is based on speculation dubious translation of the Greek phrase kata sarka as "in the sphere of the flesh" rather than "according to the flesh." For example, in arguing for this translation, Doherty attempts to use C.K. Barrett's commentary The Epistle to the Romans to imply that Barrett's analysis justifies Doherty's translation. This, however, is what Barrett actually says:

"The preposition (κατα) here rendered 'in the sphere of' could also be rendered 'according to', and 'according to the flesh' is a common Pauline phrase; in this verse, however, Paul does not mean that on a fleshly (human) judgement Jesus was a descendant of David, but that in the realm denoted by the word flesh (humanity) he was truly a descendant of David. Similarly, 'in the sphere of the Holy Spirit' does not introduce a truer evaluation of Jesus' person, but a second evaluation also true in another (divine) sphere. (For the translation 'Holy Spirit' see below, p. 19.)

That Jesus was of Davidic descent is attested in various parts of the New Testament (e.g. Matt. i.1; Acts ii.30; Rev. v.5), but nowhere else by Paul (but cf. xv. 12). It is a probable view that he mentions the matter here because he is quoting a formula which he did not himself compose; and not impossible that he quotes it in order to commend his orthodoxy to persons who he knew would recognize the formula. Evidently he saw no reason to question the fact; it was part of the conviction that Christ had fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament ( e.g. 2 Sam. vii.12; Isa. xi.1); but for him a more significant statement of the Old Testament background out of which the Christ emerged was that he was 'born under the law' (Gal. iv.4; cf. Rom. xv.8, with the note).

Jesus, then, as a man was a descendant of David; but 'in the sphere of the Holy Spirit he was appointed Son of God'. This translation is not universally accepted. For 'in the sphere of' see above. 'The Holy Spirit' is literally 'spirit of holiness', and this has been taken to refer not to the Holy Spirit, but to Jesus' own (human) spirit, marked as it was by the attribute of holiness. It is true that, though Paul frequently refers to the Holy Spirit, he nowhere else uses this descriptive genitive, which is probably of Semitic origin; but this fact is explained if we accept the view that the Christological formula is pre-Pauline. (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 18-19, see also entry from the Biblical Studies discussion group)

Barrett does indeed use the phrasing "in the sphere of the flesh," but in a way opposed to Doherty's. Obviously, Barrett is not affirming that "sphere of the flesh" is anywhere in the heavens. More fundamentally, Barrett's use of "sphere" is more abstract. Doherty uses "sphere" in the sense of "region," implying some kind of area or location (such as a level within the heavens, or another dimension). This is not what Barrett does. Rather than use "sphere of the flesh" as a region where flesh dwells―which for Barrett would be the earth―he describes it as the "realm denoted by the word flesh," which he identifies as humanity itself. "Humanity" is not a region. The only thing that Barrett and Doherty have in common here is that they both render kata sarka with the English words "in the sphere of the flesh." The meaning that they assign to these words is completely different.

Also, as pointed out above, David was purportedly flesh-and-blood, which would preclude kata sarka from referring to an event in the heavens and not on earth.

Layman Bernard Muller has further pointed out that Doherty's translation does not work for verses such as Romans 4:1, "What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?"; 1 Corinthians 1:26, "Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards [kata sarka], not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.", 1 Corinthians 10:18, "Behold Israel after the flesh [kata sarka]: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?" (KJV translation). It does not work for several non-Christian works, such as Josephus' Jewish War, where verse 2.154 speaks of the Essenes: "For their doctrine is this: That bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever; and that they come out of the most subtile air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh [kata sarka], they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward." Nor does it work for Aristotle, as in his History of Animals, Book III, Part 17, which reads "These cartilaginous fish themselves have no free fat at all in connexion with the flesh [kata sarka] or with the stomach. The suet in fish is fatty, and does not solidify or congeal. All animals are furnished with fat, either intermingled with their flesh [kata sarka], or apart," or with Epicurus, in Principal Doctrines 4, "... pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily [kata sarka] pleasure does not last for many days at once." Doherty objects by pointing out that the same phrase can have different meanings depending on the context, and protests that he is interpreting kata sarka according to context not on an ad hoc basis to support his own hypothesis. However, considering Doherty's justification of kata sarka was dubious to begin with, such an ad hoc interpretation appears to be exactly what he's doing.

Paul makes very exalted claims for Jesus, and he does not mention much detail about any life he purportedly had before his crucifixion. The details that he does mention, however, indicate that Paul understood that Jesus had been human and that his death was an event around Paul's lifetime. To make these details consonant with a mythical Jesus requires ad hoc justification, and Doherty even went so far as to misportray his source in order to make his case. This is readily consistent with there having been a historical Jesus of Nazareth rather than a mythical one.

Nazareth as hometown and possible birthplace

The Gospels consistently report Jesus' hometown as being the "city" (really a obscure village) of Nazareth. Other than exaggerating by calling Nazareth a city (polis in Greek), the place is portrayed at best neutrally, and is portrayed negatively in Mark 6:1-6 and the parallel passages Matthew 13:54-58 and Luke 4:14-30. There would seem to be no theological motive to place Jesus in Nazareth. There is support for the existence of the Nazarenes as another name for Christians in general, and as a name for a Christian sect mentioned by Jerome and Epiphanius. However, the only support for the Nazarenes as a pre-Christian cult comes from Epiphanius, who is of uneven reliability. (More on this in the section Existence of Nazareth.) Despite the claim in Matthew 2:23 that the prophets predicted that "He will be called a Nazorean," there is no Old Testament prophecy naming Nazareth or a Nazorean. The closest things are the prophecies referring to one who will be called the "branch," which in Hebrew is netser [8]. The connection between "branch" and Nazareth, however, is a stretch, and if Matthew himself is making such a connection, that would suggest that Matthew is shoehorning, trying to force the prophecy to fit into the facts. By contrast, there is a prophecy that could easily be interpreted as indicating that a messiah would be born in Bethlehem, Micah 5:2, which reads

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke resort to contorted stories to have him be born in Bethlehem, and these stories aren't quite consistent. The Gospel of Matthew implies that Jesus' family grew up in Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth to avoid the threat of Herod and his son Archelaus, while the Gospel of Luke implies that the hometown of Jesus' family was Nazareth and that they took a relatively brief trip to Bethlehem. This and other problems (see [9] and Birth narratives of Jesus) point to the birth narratives being made up to fit the prophecy. What is curious here is that both the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke attempted to fit Nazareth into their stories. If Jesus were mythical, and the supposed prophecies required him to be born in Bethlehem but said nothing of Nazareth or a Nazorean, the most obvious thing to do would be to have him be Jesus of Bethlehem, not Jesus of Nazareth, and avoid the complications. The contortions, however, are trivially explained if the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were forced to deal with a real Jesus who was really from Nazareth, and thus had to account in their birth narratives for how he ended up there.

Existence of Nazareth

It has been argued that Nazareth did not exist [10]. This, however, is not consistent with the archaeological evidence. Richard Horsley, in Archaeology, History & Society in Galilee, had pointed out that in Nazareth were found Middle Bronze Age tombs, silos dating from the Iron Age, various olive and wine presses, cisterns, and holes for storage jars. Aside from a possible refounding about the third or second centuries B.C.E., it appears to have been continuously inhabited. An inscription found in a synagogue in Caesarea Maritima indicated that the priestly family of Happizzez moved to Nazareth some time after the Hadrian war in 135 C.E . (pp. 107-112). There are a couple ad hoc hypotheses to work around the implications of the archaeological evidence. One is to argue that the site of Nazareth was merely a necropolis, but the presence of the olive and wine presses and the cisterns is not consistent with this. Another is to argue that the site of Nazareth could just as easily be a large, single-family farm. The problem with this is that it implies a single family living in an isolated place, apart from people who make plows and other equipment, apart from fellow families whose sons and daughters could be married or given in marriage, apart from social support in general, etc. To support the whole idea that the presence of agricultural activity does not imply a village, one has to support the idea that it is probable that a family would choose to live in such isolation, despite the obstacles in the first century which would make such a life impractical.

There is support for the existence of the Nazarenes as another name for Christians in general, and as a name for a Christian sect mentioned by Jerome and Epiphanius. However, the only support for the Nazarenes as a pre-Christian cult comes from Epiphanius, who is of uneven reliability. As S.J. Case writes in The Historicity of Jesus:

Epiphanius makes two further statements which are sometimes thought to point to a pre-Christian Jesus. He says that there were Nazarees (or Nasarees) before Christ, and that Philo once wrote a treatise describing the early Christian community in Egypt. If there was a well established Christian church in Egypt in Philo's day, and if the Nazarees were in existence in pre-Christian times, are we not to infer that Christianity was known in the first century B.C.? Epiphanius himself says that Christians were first known as Nazorees, so that the similarity of names suggests a close relation for the two bodies. Moreover Philo, who was a man of advanced age in 40 A.D. when he headed the Jewish embassy to Rome, can hardly have seen Christianity, on the traditional view of its origin, so firmly established in Egypt as is implied in the treatise to which Epiphanius refers. Hence we are to look for the beginnings of the new religion in the first century B.C., so the argument runs.

On examining the data more closely it very soon becomes evident that Epiphanius has no thought of connecting Christianity with the Jewish Nazarite heresy. He places the latter's origin before the Christian era and classes it along with the Hemerobaptists, etc. On the other hand, he describes Christian heretics whom he designates Nazorees [Nazwraioi], distinguishing with perfect clearness between them and the Jewish non-Christian Nazarees. The difference is not merely one of name; they have very distinct characteristics. The Nazarees are distinguished for the unorthodoxy of their Jewish beliefs and practices; the Nazorees are pre-eminently rigid Jews who have added to their Judaism a smattering of Christian belief. Hence they derive their name from Jesus the Nazorite, the name by which the Christians were called before they received the designation "Christians" at Antioch. Epiphanius' thought is often very hazy, but on this subject he is perfectly clear. There was among the Jews even before the Christian era a heresy of the Nazarees; then came the Christian movement, which at first was known as the sect of the Nazorees and which finds its proper continuation, as Epiphanius takes great pains to prove, in the catholic church; and finally there was a third class who took upon themselves the primitive Christian name of Nazorees but who adhered so rigidly to Judaism that Epiphanius curtly remarks, "they are Jews and nothing else."

Whether there ever was such an array of sects bearing a similar name--and Epiphanius adds yet another, the Nazirees, represented by Samson in the Old Testament and later by John the Baptist--may be questioned. Judging from the same writer's skill in splitting the original Essenes up into Jessees, Ossenes, and Ossees, we may wonder whether he did not occasionally invent a name, in his ardor to defend Nicene orthodoxy against every "hydra-headed serpent of error" that could ever possibly have existed whether commonly known or not. But one thing at least is clear. His statements about Nazarees, Nasarees, Nazorees, and Nazirees involve no ambiguity whatever as to the date of Christianity's origin. The traditional date is the only one suggested. Those who argue for a pre-Christian Jesus can find nothing for their purpose here except the bare mention of the early existence of a Jewish Nazarite heresy. To prove the reliability of this statement, and to show further that the sect was "Christian" in character, is another problem. Epiphanius supplies no argument for this. He does not even so describe the Nazarees as to suggest characteristics which show them to have been precursors of the Christian movement. (pp. 102-106)

Crucifixion as a core doctrine

To modern-day people acquainted with Christian iconography, the shocking nature of the Christian claims about Jesus' crucifixion is easily forgotten. Say, however, that someone in the modern day had claimed that a hillbilly from a backwater died in the electric chair, and that this somehow saved the world. (Yes, the word "hillbilly" is supposed to connote an offensive stereotype.) The level of apparent absurdity in this claim is comparable to the level of absurdity the pagans saw in what the Christians claimed about the crucifixion of Jesus. It was an easy target for mockery by the pagans of the day.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1:23, calls the doctrine of the crucifixion "a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." Origin quotes Celsus, a pagan critic of Christianity, as saying

He next charges the Christians with being "guilty of sophistical reasoning, in saying that the Son of God is the Logos Himself." And he thinks that he strengthens the accusation, because "when we declare the Logos to be the Son of God, we do not present to view a pure and holy Logos, but a most degraded man, who was punished by scourging and crucifixion."

There was graffiti with a crudely scrawled picture of a crucified donkey-headed man captioned "Alexmenos worships his god."

Arnobius, in Book 1 of the apologetic work Adversus Gentes, argues "But, says my opponent, the deities are not inimical to you, because you worship the omnipotent God; but because you both allege that one born as men are, and put to death on the cross, which is a disgraceful punishment even for worthless men, was God," ( 1.36) and says in 1.41 of his opponent, "O ye who laugh because we worship one who died an ignominious death" .

Now if Jesus really had been crucified, then it makes sense that the doctrine of his crucifixion would be there; the disciples were forced to deal with the crucifixion of their master, and the doctrine evolved from there. However, the prejudice against crucifixion makes it unlikely that anyone would have wanted to make up from whole cloth a religion with a crucifixion as its center.

Now aside from the easy familiarity with Christian symbolism, mythicist arguments also obscure the scandal of the crucifixion. Earl Doherty's work centers on speculation about a mythical crucifixion in a lower level of the heavens based on a dubious translation of the Greek phrase kata sarka as "in the sphere of the flesh" rather than "according to the flesh." (See section entitled Paul implies Jesus was a human who recently died.) Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy argue that there was a crucified pagan godman, Osiris-Dionysus, but resort to pseudohistory in The Jesus Mysteries, using distortion and stretched interpretation to make the case for Dionysus having been crucified. For example, they misrepresent the understructure of a wooden idol of Dionysus as a being a cross on which he was crucified.

How much impact on the historical record should Jesus have had?

As noted in the article "Nonbiblical references to Jesus," the references to Jesus of Nazareth outside of New Testament are meager. The most detailed non-Christian reference, the Testimonium Flavianum, is also the most disputed, with the majority of scholars agreeing that it has been altered by Christian copyists, and a minority of scholars believing that it was forged altogether. The only other reference that would indicate directly that Jesus of Nazareth had a flesh-and-blood existence is the mention of "James, the brother of Jesus, who is called Christ" in Josephus' Antiquities. The rest of the references are non-Christians relaying what Christians believed about Jesus of Nazareth. If Jesus of Nazareth existed, would one expect such a pausity of non-Christian evidence?

One way to answer the preceding question is to see is what mark any messianic claimant should have made on the historical record. The web site Livius: Articles on ancient history mentions several who may have been messianic claimants around the time of Jesus' purported career which dates from around 30 C.E. Some of them did symbolic acts that implied a claim to messiahship, while others simply tried to become "king of the Jews" by force. Here is a partial list:

Judas, son of Hezekiah, Simon of Peraea, and Athronges, the shepherd (4 B.C.E.). These three men each led revolts against Archelaus, tetrarch of Judea, while Archelaus was heading to Rome for his coronation. Judas was a brigand, and Simon was a slave of king Herod. Athronges' rebellion may have lasted nearly two years. Archelaus' own troops were not able to contain the revolts and it took the forces of the Roman governor of Syria, Quinctilius Varus, to restore order [15]. This was mostly reported by one author, Josephus, in Jewish War 2.56-65 and Antiquities 17.271-284, but Tacitus mentioned Simon of Peraea in Histories 5.9.2.

Judas, the Galilean (6 C.E.) After the Romans disposed of Archelaus for his incompetence and put Judea under direct rule as a province, a census was taken for taxation purposes, spurring a rebellion led by Judas. Reported by one non-Christian author, Josephus, in Jewish War 2.433 and Antiquities 18.1-10,23, and briefly mentioned by the author of Acts in verse 5:37.

John the Baptist (c.28 C.E.) This is the John the Baptist mentioned in the Gospels, which go to great lengths to make clear that he did not claim that he was the Messiah. Whether that fit with his own self-perception is less clear, though Josephus, the only non-Christian author who mentions him, in Antiquities 18.109-116, does not say he is a messianic claimant either. The occasion for John's mention in Antiquities is a defeat of Herod Antipas' army in a battle against King Aretas. Josephus explains that "some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God as a just punishment of what Herod had done against John."

The Samaritan prophet (36 C.E.) Led an armed crowd toward the sacred Mount Gerizim in Samaria, where he promised to "show them the sacred vessels which were buried there." The people in the mob were killed or scattered by Pilate's troops before they made it to the mountain. Reported by one author, Josephus, in Antiquities 18.85-87.

Theudas (45 C.E.) Led a crowd to the river Jordan and promised to part it, echoing Joshua 3:14-17. Intercepted by horsemen sent by Fadus, the current procurator of Judea, who killed and arrested those following Theudas, who himself was executed by beheading. Reported by one non-Christian author, Josephus, in Antiquities 20.97-98, and briefly mentioned by the author of Acts in verse 5:36.

The Egyptian prophet (52-58 C.E.) Led a crowd to the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. Felix, the current governor of Judea, attacked and "slew four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive," but the Egyptian escaped. Reported by one non-Christian author, Josephus, in Jewish War 2.259-263 and Antiquities 20.169-171, and briefly mentioned by the author of Acts in verse 21.38.

Menahem, the son (or grandson) of Judas the Galilean (66 C.E.) An early leader of a revolt at the beginnings of the war between the Jews and the Romans in 66-70 C.E., which eventually led to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. Menahem "captured the governor's palace at Jerusalem, laid siege to some minor Roman fortifications and ordered the execution of the high priest," but was later tortured and killed. Reported by one author, Josephus, in Jewish War 2.433-450.

John of Gischala (67-70 CE) and Simon bar Giora (69-70 C.E.) These were leaders of the revolts during the war between the Jews and the Romans in 66-70 C.E., which eventually led to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. John was a personal enemy of Josephus, who, like Josephus, had commanded Jewish armies in northern Galilee, and had led about 6,000 men. Simon was a rival of John, and he led 60,000 men. Josephus spent several books of his work Jewish War describing their activities.

The attestation for these possible messianic claimants is not very broad. Most of the men in the above list were only mentioned by one author, Josephus, and of the ones mentioned by other authors, only two get more than brief mentions by those other authors: Simon of Peraea, in Tacitus' Histories, and John the Baptist, in the Gospels. Even finding such claimants is nontrivial, since the historians of the first century do not outright describe them as such, so one has to rely on inferences and guesswork to even find possible claimants. For most of these possible claimants, the attestation is not very deep, either. Josephus spends most of his words on the last two men mentioned, John of Gischala and Simon bar Giora, who were major players in the war in which Josephus himself participated [16]. The rest of the men get roughly a paragraph or two. Josephus was also not writing a catalog of messiahs, but rather was writing about the war between the Jews and the Romans in 66-70 C.E. and the buildup to it in Jewish War, and he later wrote the work Antiquities about the history of the Jews from the supposed date of creation in the book of Genesis up to the beginning of the Jewish War in 66 C.E. [17]. In the former work, one would expect him to focus on the violent possible claimants, and he does; neither John the Baptist nor Jesus of Nazareth are mentioned, nor are even Theudas and the Samaritan prophet, who were perhaps potentially violent but more minor threats. The latter work covers a broad range of history, so expecting this work to name all the possible messianic claimants is unrealistic. As noted before, there is little coverage of possible messianic claimants in the first century outside of Josephus' work. Given this, the meager coverage of Jesus outside the New Testament is unsurprising.


It is far more likely than not that Jesus of Nazareth existed as a human being. In some cases, even the errors in the New Testament, such as those in the birth narratives, are far more consonant with a historical Jesus than with a mythical one. By contrast, to support a mythical Jesus requires more contorted explanations of the evidence. This is particularly acute in the evidence that Jesus had brothers. Even Paul is not nearly as silent about a historical Jesus as he has been purported to be, and the relatively slight non-Christian testimony is about at the level one would expect. Quite simply, Occam's Razor favors the existence of Jesus.

References and Suggested Reading

Books and Articles

"Dying and Rising Gods" by Jonathan Z. Smith, from the Encyclopedia of Religion whose editor-in-chief is Mircea Eliade. 1993 edition.

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus by John P. Meier.

The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders.

The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide by Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz.

Online material


XTalk academic e-list The New Testament Gateway's section on the Historical Jesus

-- Dr. James F. McGrath's outline for an academic course on Jesus

Mahlon H. Smith's page on the Historical Jesus

-- Earl Doherty's The Jesus Puzzle(argues that no historical Jesus existed)

-- Review of Doherty's work by layman Bernard D. Muller

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I just realized this si cut

I just realized this si cut and pasted from Skepticwiki

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LeftofLarry wrote:I just

LeftofLarry wrote:
I just realized this si cut and pasted from Skepticwiki

Furthermore the case for existence he asserts is the one that the mythicists most easily debunk.

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Doherty addresses "Brother of the Lord" issue

Doherty on the Brother of the Lord issue from reader feedback #26  


 Brendan writes:

   In college I studied under Paula Fredriksen at Boston University, and for years I was convinced that she did the best job (compared to her contemporaries, like Crossan, Mack, and others) of portraying a historical Jesus who actually made sense in the context of being a Galilean Jew in late Second Temple Judaism.
   There were some lingering questions in my mind that her depiction of Jesus never fully answered (like how he became elevated to godhead so suddenly upon his death, or why the epistle writers show so little interest in Jesus's life and teachings), but until I came across a better explanation, I just had to accept that those questions would remain.
   Then a couple of years ago I found your writings on the Secular Web, became intrigued, and over the course of reading through your entire website, was quite convinced that you have presented a depiction of the origins of Christianity that has the most explanatory power.
   So a heartfelt congratulations on your insight, and my sincere thanks for sharing your scholarship via the internet.
   I do hope that mainstream New Testament scholars will be forthcoming in their serious critical reviews of your work. I was quite disappointed to see my former mentor, Prof. Fredriksen dismissing any notion of a mythological Jesus argument out of hand.
   Finally, I'd like to bring up a point that I don't think I've seen raised in your previous 25 reader feedbacks. It seems that most New Testament scholars, both secular and apologetic, accept that Jesus had brothers and/or sisters (be it James and Jude of the epistles; James, Joseph, Simon and Judas mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew; or the unnamed brothers in the Gospel of John). But what is striking, then, is that throughout the formative years of Christianity, there are not significant attempts made by Christians to trace their lineage back to a blood relative of Jesus.
   It seems to me to parallel the glaring absence among the earliest Christian writers of tracing their chain-of-teachings back through an original apostle to Jesus himself. While having (or claiming to have) a bloodline back to a brother or sister of Jesus might not have guaranteed a position of power in the early church, surely it would have gone a ways toward gaining some respect, authority, reverence, etc.

(Doherty's) Response to Brendan:

The Brothers of the Lord

Although the silence on other characters in the Gospels is frequently brought up (such as by Brad in the previous Reader Feedback), there has been little focus on the reputed brothers of Jesus as mentioned by various evangelists, particularly in regard to tracing a line of descent or authority back to any of them. The one exception, of course, is James the Just (as in the Gospel of Thomas, saying #12), although even this does not appear until well into the second century. I have pointed out several times that even the New Testament letters pseudonymously attributed to James and Jude (virtually no critical scholar regards them as authentic) do not identify such apostles as brothers of Jesus, even though they are likely the product of the late first or early second century. The silence in the Christian record during that initial period is universal in regard to anyone having been associated with an historical Jesus. Since the appeal to an authoritative or prestigious link back to people of that stature would be undeniable and irresistible, we must conclude that such links did not exist and were unknown even in theory.

It occurs to me that this throws some light on a perennially argued verse, namely Galatians 1:19, with its reference to James as "the brother of the Lord." Those who claim that this must mean sibling of Jesus, often appeal to a related phrase in 1 Corinthians 9:5:

Have I no right to be accompanied by a wife [literally, a sister wife], as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?

Here Paul is claiming his legitimacy as an apostle of Christ (note that this is because he, like them, has "seen Jesus our Lord" which, since he is included, can only mean through visionary experience), and by referring to these "brothers of the Lord" he demonstrates that they, too, are active apostles, going about with their wives and presumably their children. If this is a reference to siblings of Jesus, we have direct evidence that they were active in the missionary movement, that they had families, and thus Brendan's observation stands out with perplexing clarity. Why, indeed, would there not have been those in later decades who possessed traditions about these sibling apostles, tracing from them some descent, some apostolic tradition, some line of authority, appealing to the prestige of being associated with the very brothers of the Lord himself? Such traditions and appeals only begin to appear over a century later, and those developments we can certainly put down to artificial constructions based on characters found in the Gospels, writings that were now beginning to circulate throughout the Christian world.

This void is a good argument for interpreting the phrase in a different fashion, not as a reference to siblings of a human Jesus, but as "brethren" in the sectarian sense, dedicated to a figure called "the Lord"—which could mean a spiritual Son of God, or even God himself. In that same sentence, the word "sister" appears, "a sister as wife"—which is hardly a reference to an incestuous relationship, but to a female member of the sect who is also wife to a "brother of the Lord". Since the phrase "the brothers of the Lord" appears as one element in a series enumerated by Paul (apostles, Lord's brothers, Cephas), this could indicate that there was a core group—perhaps the originating members of the sect—which was known by this name, part of a larger active group by the time Paul was writing. This would strengthen the interpretation that Paul's reference in Galatians to James as "the brother of the Lord" (if it is not simply a marginal gloss by a later scribe that got inserted into the text) was in the nature of a title, referring to him not only as part of that core group but almost certainly as its leader and possibly originator.


Implicit with belief through faith is that the proposition at hand is unable to stand on its own merits.