Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Did Jesus Actually Exist?

This blog post is part of an ongoing series which addresses the claims made by Bill Maher in his movie "Religulous". To see a comprehensive list of the topics or to learn more about the movie, click here

Maher's claim: There is no historical evidence that Jesus ever existed.

Frankly I do not even know where to start. I've tried to write this post half a dozen times now and I always wind up deleting what I've written. The truth is most reputable historians, even though they may disagree on certain details of his life, believe that Jesus Christ did in fact exist.

Aside from the Historical Reliability of the Gospels (to borrow a book title by Criag Blomberg), and what they have to say about Jesus, the extra-biblical evidence is outstanding.

Basic outline of extra biblical evidence

Flavius Josephus, 37-97 AD court historian for Emperor Vespasian.

Josephus references Jesus twice in his Antiquities. Once in book 20, chapter 9, 1 where he says, "...the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, whose name was James". This passage acknowledged as authentic my nearly every scholar in the field.

The authenticity of Antiquities 18.3.3, a portion often called the Testimonium Flavianum, has been called into question because of a few uncharacteristic comments. These comments have been traditionally accepted as interpolations (later additions that were not in the original document). It reads as follows (I have bolded what are considered interpolations):

"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."

Cornelious Tacitus 55-120 AD

Tacitus, in Annals 15.44, refers to the Great Fire of Rome (64 AD), the execution of Christ, and the presence of the Christians in 1st century Rome. According to Tacitus, Nero, often described as the Emperor who fiddled while Rome burned, blamed the conflagration on the Christians.  This resulted in a massive persecution of the early church.

Pliny the younger, Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor (around 112 AD)

Pliny, in a letter to Emperor Trajan (c. 112), related some things about Christians and noted that they refused to worship the Emperor. He explains that he executed them. In response to Piny's Letter Emperor Trajan responded that "the method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is extremely proper."

Lucian a Greek Satirist in the 2nd Century wrote that the Christians, "...deny the gods of greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws"

Thallus, a historian whose writings were lost, is spoken of in A History of the World (c. 220) by Julius Africanus. Thallus said that during the passover "an eclipse of the sun" took place. Africanus noted, however, that the passover always takes place on a full moon and a solar eclipse can only take place on a new moon.  Tertullian in Apologeticus commented that those who were not familiar with the prophesy "...no doubt thought it was an eclipse."Phlegon of Tralles also wrote down this strange occurrence: "...during the time of Tiberias Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon." These are corroborated in several other early writings (St. Jerome, for instance, references the "many gentile writers" who wrote about the eclipse). 

Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) in a letter to Minucius Fundanus, the Asia proconsul, wrote concerning the treatment of Christians. It seems they may have been slandered but if they were guilty they were to be, "...judged according to the heinousness of the crime..." Gaius Seutonious Tranquillas chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian 117-138 AD wrote that "...punishments (because of the Great fire of Rome) were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief."

The Jewish Talmud

"On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, 'He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Anyone who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.' But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover."

Mara Bar-Serapion of Syria, a Syrian stoic Philosopher, wrote to his son (also called Serapion) from prison, encouraging him to pursue wisdom because, even though you may be persecuted for a time, wisdom always triumphs. He references the death of Socrates and Pythagorus and the "wise king" who was executed by the jews. 

There is more evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ but, honestly, this isn't even an issue that is in scholarly dispute. But you don't have to take my word for it. Listen to what some of the leading experts have to say about it. (To skip the music go to 24 seconds)

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  1. As you've said Ben, this is but some of the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth that Mr. Maher fails to consider when making his claim. To claim that there is not a historical Jesus is an absolute absurdity, a claim that even highly liberal scholars such as the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, and Bart Ehrman clearly accept. And there is more evidence; much, much more. But well put. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series. Jacob

  2. Typical christian response:

    The Bible says so!

    And why should we believe the Bible?

    Because the Bible is the word of God!

    And why should we believe that the Bible is the word of God?

    Because the Bible says so!

    Sorry Xtians, no dice.