Jesus : His Life - Did Jesus Exist?

Having reviewed the television program I wanted to address some of the content from the Jesus : His Life website as well, namely the page that addresses the historicity of Jesus. I do find it significant that they address the existence of Jesus at all, at least acknowledging the growing number of people who doubt that Jesus was a real person. This is my last post covering the His Life series.

The website for the program includes several pages that address various aspects of Jesus lore. One such page addresses the question of whether Jesus existed at all. The page notes that a survey by the Church of England found that 22 percent of Brits didn't believe that Jesus was a real person. 

We are then told, however, that of course the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars (the majority of whom are Christians) do believe that Jesus was a real person. So what evidence does the site put forward to support the existence of Jesus? 

I was actually somewhat shocked at how meager the evidence they put forward is. Essentially they base the whole case on "external evidence", i.e. evidence from non-Christian sources.

The first "source" that is addressed is Jewish rabbis from antiquity. They quote Lawrence Mykytiuk noting that Jewish rabbis never said that Jesus didn't exist, instead accusing Jesus of being a magician or a false prophet, etc.

There are major problems with this claim, some of which, ironically, are noted in Mykytiuk's own article that they link to. From Mykytiuk's article a footnote to his statement that the rabbis never denied the existence of Jesus reads: 
Van Voorst finds that “most passages alleged to speak about him in code do not in fact do so, or are so late as to have no value” (Van Voorst, Jesus Outside, p. 129).
This is the issue. The reality is that while there are a few passages that are alleged to talk about Jesus from various ancient rabbinical sources, it's either not clear that they are really talking about the Jesus of Christianity, they were written after the third century, they are directly responding to the Gospels, or all of the above.

This gets at an issue that is very important, and relevant to the remaining discussion: There is no question that by the late first or early second century many people believed that Jesus Christ was a real person. That is beyond dispute. We know that somewhere around 90 to 150 CE the belief that Jesus was a human being had been established. What we find in all of these external sources is that they all come after this period or later. Now some people try to argue that the mere fact that people thought he was real proves that he was, because why else would people think that he was real, but this fails to acknowledge basic facts about Hellenistic culture. 

At this time false beliefs were ubiquitous in the Roman world. Establishing the truth of rumors and claims was not only very difficult, it wasn't even something that was attempted the way we think about it today. Understand that the Romans employed soothsayers in the Roman Senate to guide policy. They tried to predict the future by reading the entrails of sacrificed animals, patterns in bird flocks, the stars, etc. They thought that dragons existed and all types of monsters really existed. They thought that there were literal heavenly beings that lived above their heads in the clouds. They believed in the existence of literally thousands of people who never existed, including people who were described as having recently lived. There were stories about many people who could do miracles that were assumed to be true by virtually everyone, including emperors and generals and philosophers - the most well educated people of the time. This was not a time of skepticism and rigorous investigative reporting. This was a time when wild claims were widely accepted at face value and concocted stories about fake people were absolutely ubiquitous.

Even if we could find discussions by rabbis from the second century clearly talking about Jesus as a real person, we can also find numerous discussions by rabbis from that same period talking about other things that aren't real as if they were real as well. Josephus talks about literal heavenly armies that have been seen by people, etc. So this is a key issue. When dealing with claims made at this time, one can't simply say, "So and so said it, so its true." That goes for far more than just Jesus as well and it goes for claims that aren't even supernatural or necessarily suspect, like simply claims about policies or things various people said, etc. The sad reality is that a huge amount of what is recorded in ancient writings is made-up nonsense, unsupported hearsay, lies, urban legends, misunderstandings, propaganda, mixed up sources, etc. and that's assuming that our present-day copies are accurate and haven't been  intentionally or unintentionally corrupted.

Yes, we have to be able to use ancient writings to understand what happened in the past, but those writings have to be approached with extreme skepticism because ancient writings are full of non-factual claims and later scribal errors.

So anyway, back to the case they are putting forward. The article does acknowledge that there is no archaeological evidence for Jesus, but dismisses this by noting that this isn't surprising, which is true. The lack of archaeological evidence for Jesus doesn't prove anything, we can all agree on that. They go on to mention that archaeological evidence for the existence of the town of Nazareth has been found, but this is misleading. Yes, we do have evidence that a settlement existed in the first century in the location of what is now called Nazareth, that's true. However, there is no evidence that this place was called Nazareth in the first century. The earliest record of this place being called Nazareth comes from the third century(yeah I'm getting lazy and using Wikipedia links), long after the Gospel stories had achieved fame. And regardless, even if it were the case that the town of Nazareth were a real place in the first century, that doesn't do anything to establish the existence of Jesus.

Bart Ehrman is quoted as acknowledging that the Gospels are a biased source that can't be used to establish the existence of Jesus (though Ehrman tries to do this all the time), but Ehrman claims that we have other non-Christian sources that do confirm his existence. The article states:
Within a few decades of his lifetime, Jesus was mentioned by Jewish and Roman historians in passages that corroborate portions of the New Testament that describe the life and death of Jesus.
They then go on to attempt to support this claim. 

The first source they cite is Josephus, as would be expected. Of course they mention the two citations in Jewish Antiquities. They quote Mykytiuk as saying, “he was around when the early church was getting started, so he knew people who had seen and heard Jesus.” 

This is just a flatly false statement. It would be correct to say that Josephus "could have" known people who "could have" seen Jesus if he were real, but to claim that Josephus did know people who had direct knowledge of Jesus is an outright lie.

They first relate the passage from book 20 of Jewish Antiquities that mentions, "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James." Mykytiuk simply notes that "few scholars" doubt the authenticity of this passage and moves on. But this is not true. Actually many scholars doubt the authenticity of this passage. Perhaps the majority of biblical scholars claim that it is original, but the majority of biblical scholars are also Christians, many of whom are defending the existence of Jesus. But the case against the authenticity of this passage is actually very strong and growing numbers of scholars do doubt the authenticity of the passage (as will be addressed in an article by Richard Carrier linked below). I address this passage on pages 270-282 in Deciphering the Gospels. Richard Carrier addresses it in On the Historicity of Jesus. Earl Doherty addresses it in Jesus : Neither God Nor Man. And many others address it as well and many papers have been published on it.

To summarize the case against authenticity: The citation comes in the middle of a long discussion about how a high priest named Ananus abused his power to kill a man named James, and as a result the public revolted against him causing him to be removed and James' brother Jesus son of Damneus to be installed as high priest in Ananus' place. Clearly the Jesus being talked about in the quoted passage is supposed to be Jesus son of Damneus, but some later scribe inserted the phrase "who was called Christ". This is actually a very straight-forward case.

Next we move on to the Testimonium Flavianum, which is a passage found in book 18 of Jewish Antiquities. I address this passage on pages 251-270 of Deciphering the Gospels, and again, Carrier and others address it at length in their works as well. Again Mykytiuk assures us that this passage is at least mostly  authentic. The Testimonium Flavianum is funny because basically everyone has to acknowledge that the passage can't be entirely authentic because it says that Jesus was a miracle worker who was the Messiah. We know for sure that Josephus denounced messianic movements and certainly wouldn't have thought that Jesus was the Messiah (or else he would have been a Christian) so everyone is forced to acknowledge that the passage can't be "entirely authentic". In addition, the passage was denounced as a forgery for hundreds of years, until relatively recently, when Christian apologists started realizing that they didn't have any good evidence for Jesus so they started trying to resuscitate this piece. 

What we have from recent Christian apologists are a bunch of proposed hypothetical reconstructions of what Josephus might have originally written, for which there is no evidence. It's like Q all over again. If there is one thing that Christian scholars love, it is lost sources that can fill in holes in their theories. The reality is that not a single ancient source ever cited this passage for over 200 years of when it would have existed had it been original, and then it appears in citations starting in the fourth century and is heavily cited after that. As I note in my book, this passage is almost certainly a fourth century interpolation, and if it isn't then it is a passage that was based on the Gospel story, because so much of what it says comes straight from the Gospels.  Either way, it's not an independent attestation to the existence of Jesus. 

From there we move on to the usual suspects: A passage from Tacitus written around 116, a passage from Suetonius written in 120, and a letter from Pliny the Younger written in 112. I address each of this in my book, as does Carrier, etc.

In fact, even conservative Christian scholars acknowledge that none of these are proof of Jesus' existence. 
"Tacitus and Pliny the Younger reflect instead what they have heard Christians of their own day say. Despite various claims, no early rabbinic text (the earliest being the Mishna, composed ca. A.D. 200) contains informationabout Jesus, and later rabbinic texts simply reflect knowledge of, and mocking midrash on, Christian texts and preaching."
- The Present State of the ‘Third Quest’ for the Historical Jesus: Loss and Gain; J.P. Meier, 1999
J. P. Meier is a devout Catholic biblical scholar and ardent defender of the historicity of Jesus. Even he acknowledges that the one and only passage from antiquity that might support the existence of Jesus is the Testimonium Flavianum. So presenting these other passages as "evidence for Jesus" is certainly misleading, as that is not supported even by mainstream defenders of historicity. The fact that Mykytiuk goes on defending all of these sources just shows his lack of credibility.

I think it's interesting that they decided to essentially put all of their eggs in the "non-Christian sources" basket. The reality is that of all the sources they cite, only one actually has meaningful support from scholars as a potential witness to the existence of Jesus, and that source, the Testimonium Flavianum, is highly dubious with obvious issues. At best it is "partly authentic" but has been tampered with by Christian scribes. At best. Yet, in reality the case against the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum is very strong.

With that I'll end with a link to a post from Richard Carrier on the Testimonium Flavianum that explains why the case against it is so strong and why people still claiming that it is authentic are full of it: Josephus on Jesus? Why You Can’t Cite Opinions Before 2014