Debunking the Historical Jesus: Dan Barker

By Dan Barker

The question of the historical existence of Jesus has hit the news with the recent, intriguing lawsuit in Italy by Luigi Cascioli, who is suing a priest, Rev. Enrico Righi, over his published assertion that “Jesus did indeed exist.” Such a claim, Cascioli says, is a deception, an “abuse of popular belief,” which is against Italian law. The lawsuit refreshingly demands that Righi prove that Jesus existed.

In his defense, Righi and obliging media have trotted out many alleged evidences for Jesus, long ago discounted, yet which continue to pepper the credulous writings of conservative religious authors and scholars.

According to the Associated Press, Righi “cited many known observers, including nonChristian ones, who have written about the existence of Jesus, such as the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, considered by scholars to be the most important non-Christian source on Christ’s existence.”

Here is the paragraph that currently appears in The Antiquities of the Jews, written by Josephus around 95 C.E.:

“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 for him are not extinct to this day.”

If this is the strongest and earliest extra-biblical evidence for the historical Jesus, then the scholarship is on the shakiest grounds. That passage from Josephus has been shown conclusively to be a forgery, and even conservative scholars admit it has been tampered with. But even were it historical, it dates from more than six decades after the supposed death of Jesus.

The Associated Press chose to omit the fact that scholars have largely discounted the Josephus paragaph as a later interpolation. The passage, although widely quoted by believers today, did not show up in the writings of Josephus until centuries after his death, at the beginning of the fourth century. Thoroughly dishonest church historian Eusebius is credited as the real author. The passage is grossly out of context, a clear hint that it was inserted at a later time.

All scholars agree that Josephus, a Jew who never converted to Christianity, would not have called Jesus “the Christ” or “the truth,” so the passage must have been doctored by a later Christian–evidence, by the way, that some early believers were in the habit of altering texts to the advantage of their theological agenda. The phrase “to this day” reveals it was written at a later time. Everyone agrees there was no “tribe of Christians” during the time of Josephus–Christianity did not get off the ground until the second century.

If Jesus were truly important to history, then Josephus should have told us something about him. Yet he is completely silent about the supposed miracles and deeds of Jesus. He nowhere quotes Jesus. He adds nothing to the Gospel narratives and tells us nothing that would not have been known by Christians in either the first or fourth centuries. In all of Josephus’ voluminous writings, there is nothing about Jesus or Christianity anywhere outside the tiny paragraph cited so blithely by the Associated Press.

This paragraph mentions that Jesus was foretold by the divine prophets, but Josephus does not tell us who those prophets were or what they said. This is religious propaganda, not history. If Jesus had truly been the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, then Josephus would have been the exact person to confirm it.

And this is the “most important” historical evidence for Jesus!

The other phrase from Josephus that Righi and AP cite concerns James, the so-called “brother of Jesus,” and is likewise flimsy. It says that a man named James was stoned to death, which is not mentioned in the bible. Many scholars believe the “brother of Jesus” phrase is a later interpolation, and that Josephus was referring to a different James, possibly the same James that Paul mentions in Acts, who led a sect in Jerusalem. Contradicting Josephus, Hegesippus wrote a history of Christianity in 170 C.E. saying that James, the brother of Jesus, was killed in a riot, not by sentence of a court.

Righi also cited Pliny the Younger, who, in the early second century (112), reported that “Christians were singing a hymn to Christ as to a god.” Notice how late this reference is; and notice the absence of the name “Jesus.” The passage, if accurate, could have referred to any of the other self-proclaimed “Christs” (messiahs) followed by Jews who thought they had found their anointed one. Pliny’s account is not history, since he is only relaying what other people believed. No one doubts that Christianity was in existence by this time. Offering this as proof would be the equivalent of quoting modern Mormons about their beliefs in the historical existence of the Angel Moroni or the miracles of Joseph Smith–doubtless useful for documenting the religious beliefs, but not the actual facts.

Tacitus, another second-century Roman writer who alleged that Christ had been executed by sentence of Pontius Pilate, is likewise cited by Righi. Written some time after 117 C.E., Tacitus’ claim is more of the same late, second-hand “history.” There is no mention of “Jesus,” only “the sect known as Christians” living in Rome being persecuted, and “their founder, one Christus.” Tacitus claims no first-hand knowledge of Christianity. No historical evidence exists that Nero persecuted Christians–Nero did persecute Jews, so perhaps Tacitus was confused. There was certainly not a “great crowd” of Christians in Rome around 60 C.E., as Tacitus put it, and, most damning, the term “Christian” was not even in use in the first century. No one in the second century ever quoted this passage of Tacitus. In fact, it appears almost word-for-word in the fourth-century writings of Sulpicius Severus, where it is mixed with other obvious myths. Citing Tacitus, therefore, is highly suspect and adds virtually nothing to the evidence for a historical Jesus.

Such are the straws believers must grasp in order to prop up their myth.

Historians have no evidence of a historic Jesus dating from the early first century, even though many contemporary writers documented the era in great detail. Philo of Alexandria, for example, wrote in depth about early first-century Palestine, naming other self-proclaimed messiahs, yet never once mentioning a man named Jesus. Many other contemporary writers covered that era, yet there is not a single mention of any existence, deeds, or words of a man named Jesus.

Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, in their book The Jesus Mysteries, explain how the myth and legend of Jesus could easily have arisen without a historical founder. The Jesus story was pressed from the same template as other mythical savior-gods who were killed and resurrected, such as Osiris, Dionysus, Mithra, and Attis.

Early Christians agreed that Christianity offered “nothing different” from paganism. Arguing with pagans around 150 C.E., Justin Martyr said: “When we say that the Word [Jesus], who is the first born of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven; we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter (Zeus).” Fourth-century Christian scholar Fermicus, in attempting to establish the uniqueness of Christianity, met at every turn by pagan precedents to the story of Jesus, in exasperation concluded: “The Devil has his Christs!”

The Gospels are not history; they are religious propaganda, contradictory, exaggerated, and mythical. The earliest Christian writings, the letters of Paul, are silent about the man Jesus: Paul, who never met Jesus, fails to mention a single deed or saying of Jesus (except for the ritualistic Last Supper formula), and sometimes contradicts what Jesus supposedly said. To Paul, Jesus was a heavenly disembodied Christ figure, not a man of flesh and blood.

There is serious doubt that Jesus ever existed. It is impossible to prove he was a historical figure. It is much more plausible to consider the Jesus character to be the result of myth-making, a human process that is indeed historically documented.

In covering Luigi Cascioli’s fascinating lawsuit, the media need to stop acting like a megaphone for religion, and start doing some balanced reporting.

Here are a few references relating to the historical Jesus:

The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (1999, Three Rivers Press)
Did Jesus Exist? by G. A. Wells (1975, Pemberton)
The Jesus Puzzle: Challenging the existence of an historical Jesus by Earl Doherty (1999, Canadian Humanist Association)
Deconstructing Jesus by Robert Price (2000, Prometheus Books)
The Jesus Legend by G. A. Wells (1996, Open Court)
The Historical Evidence for Jesus by G. A. Wells (1982, Prometheus Books)
Jesus in History and Myth by Joseph R. Hoffman and G. A. Larue (1986, Prometheus Books)
Jesus: Myth or History? by A. Robertson (1949, Watts)
Pagan Christs by J. M. Robertson (1911, London)
The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer
The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by Acharya S (1999, Adventures Unlimited)
Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman (2005, Harper San Francisco) (to document gospel discrepancies)

See also Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead? by Dan Barker.

Dan Barker, Foundation co-president and a former minister who is now an atheist, is author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, which includes a section on the question of Jesus’ historicity. Barker has also widely debated the topic.

Freedom From Religion Foundation