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Jesus: Fact or Fiction?

The Christian points in this article are all taken from Josh McDowell's compilation Evidence that Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972)


Christian point Rebuttal
Ch. 5, 'Jesus--A Man of History', pp. 84-89:
1) Thallus, writing about 52 CE, gives the 'naturalistic explanation' of a non-believer who witnessed the darkness accompanying Christ's crucifixion. 1) Thallus was a Samaritan freedman of the Emperor Tiberius who wrote a history of Greece and Asia, who mentions an eclipse of the sun.  In 221 CE, a Christian writer, Sextus Julius Africanus notes that "Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun."  Thallus does not refer to a Jesus, only to an eclipse, which a Christian used to bolster the Christian story.
2) Mara Bar-Serapion, writing later than 73 CE to his son, says, "What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king?... He lived on in the teaching which he had given." 2) This Syrian was not an eyewitness of Jesus and does not mention a resurrection.  He is retelling a story he has heard.
Verdict on the first century:  "Apart from Thallus, no certain reference is made to Christianity in any extant non-Christian Gentile writing of the first century."  (F. F. Bruce, Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis in the University of Manchester, in The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, fifth ed.  (Ann Arbor:  Eerdmans, 1960), p. 114)
3) Josephus ben Matthias ("Josephus"), writing in 93 CE, says, "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man.... He was the Christ, and when Pilate condemned him to the cross...he appeared to them alive again the third day." 3) Josephus never wrote it. Christian defenders as early as Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) never cited it.   Origen (185-254), who dealt extensively with Josephus, wrote that Josephus did not believe Jesus to be the messiah nor proclaim him as such.  Eusebius, in 324 CE, first mentions this passage (twice), and is likely the forger of it.
4) Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus ("Pliny the Younger"), wrote in 112 CE that Christians sang "a hymn to Christ as to a god." 4) Again, this is derivative, not an eyewitness account of Jesus.
5) Cornelius Tacitus, wrote in 120 CE, "Nero punished...a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians.  Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus." 5) Tacitus is repeating the story Christians had told him, not what he had found in official archives, since:  1) the title procurator was current only from the second half of the first century (Pilate's title was prefect); 2) Christus ("Messiah") would not have appeared as a proper name in the archives.
6) Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, writes, "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome."  (circa 120 CE) 6) Again, derivative, useless for evidence that Jesus was an historical person.
7) Lucian, writing about 175 CE, refers to "the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world." 7) No eyewitness; retelling a story.
8) and 9) Tertullian and Justin Martyr 8) and 9) Christian apologists, who claim material relating to Jesus would be found in the archives of Tiberius and Pontius Pilate.  It wasn't.
10) Encyclopaedia Britannica: "uses 20,000 words in describing this person, Jesus." 10)  The Encyclopaedia Britannica also contains articles on Hercules and Odysseus.  This hardly makes them historical.

Verdict on the second through twentieth centuries:   These writers, who lived at the time that Jesus supposedly lived, left a library of Jewish and Pagan literature, in which not one mention of Jesus or of his apostles or his disciples appears:  Arrian, Plutarch, Apollonius, Hermogones, Appian, Damis, Aulus Gellius, Appion of Alexandria, Philo Judaeus, Petronius, Juvenal, Quintilian, Silius Italicus, Phlegon, Pausanias, Dio Chrysostom, Favorinus, Seneca, Dion Pruseus, Martial, Lucanus, Statius, Phaedrus, Florus Lucius, Columella, Lysias, Theon of Myrna, Pliny the Elder, Paterculus, Persius, Justus of Tiberius, Epictetus, Ptolemy, Valerius Maximus, Quintius Curtius, Valerius Flaccus, and Pomponius Mela.  McDowell cites Otto Betz, author of  What Do We Know About Jesus?  (1968) as concluding that "no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus" (p. 9).  Betz is either disingenuous or unaware of the work of Charles F. Dupuis, Robert Taylor, David F. Strauss, Kersey Graves, John M. Robertson, Thomas Whittaker, Robert Arthur Drews, Peter C. A. Jensen, William B. Smith, L. Gordon Rylands, P. L. Couchoud, and John E. Remsburg.

The ten sources cited are McDowell's only evidences outside the gospels for the existence of Jesus as an historical person. Except one, and here he planted the seeds of his own destruction, because it is the key to how the cult of Christianity was constructed:

11)   The Jewish Talmuds, in which Jesus is referred to as "Ben Pandera".   11) Second-century Rome was the golden age of professional story-telling.  Pliny the Younger says street-corner story-tellers would announce, "Give me a copper coin and I'll tell you a golden story."  Their stories were of first century wonder workers, whose fantastic miracles delighted hearers.  Favorites were the Transformations of Apuleius, Life of Apollonius Tyana by Flavius Philostratus, and Book of the Generation of Jesus (in Hebrew the "Sepher Toldoth Jeshu").  It was the latter from which the idea and name of Jesus came. 

In 178 CE the atheist Celsus wrote the first attack on the Christian cult.  In Alethes Logos, or True Word, Celsus refers to this story that Jesus was born of a country-woman, and that when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain Roman soldier named Panthera who lived at Bethlehem; that Jesus, having served for hire in Egypt, and then coming to the knowledge of certain miraculous powers, returned to his own country, and by means of those powers proclaimed himself to be god.  Every copy of the True Word was destroyed by zealous Christians, and today it is known only by Origen's attack on it, in which he had to quote from it.  The story Celsus quoted from, the "Sepher Toldoth Jeshu", was mentioned in the Jewish talmud, and has survived.  It refers to Janneus, the Sadducee king of Judea, who reigned from 106 to 79 BCE; and to Simeon ben Shetach, who lived in 90 BCE.  The birth of the fictitious Jesus is placed at this time, and the rest of the book is filled with his wonder-working and miracles.


Creation of Christianity:  At the same time this popular street story of Jesus, son of Joseph Pandira or Panthera, was spreading in Rome in the first century BCE, the cult of Mithra was introduced into the Roman empire and attracted the military and mercantile classes. This cultural influx of a Persian religion meshed with ancient Hebrew traditions to form what became the cult of Christianity. Anyone who doubts that the popular story of the Jewish Jesus was written into the worship of Mithra to become Christianity should look at Mithraic worship point by point.  (See the link above for a summary by David of that religion).

Jesus acquired a biography in the so-called gospels just as Paul Bunyan would if four Americans separately tried to write down all of his history and wonder-working activities, in order to consolidate that aspect of American culture.

Final verdict:  There is no historical evidence whatever that the Jesus of Christianity was an historical person.

Scholars and historians who have concluded that Jesus Christ is nonhistorical:

Charles F. Dupuis, Origins of All Cults (1794)
  Robert Taylor, Diegesis (1829)
*^§ David F. Strauss, Life of Jesus (1844 ); The Old and New Faith (1872)
  Kersey Graves, Sixteen Crucified Saviors (1891)
§ John M. Robertson, Christianity and Mythology (1900); Pagan Christs (1903); Jesus (1916)
  Thomas Whittaker, The Origins of Christianity (1904)
§ Arthur Drews, The Christ Myth (1910)
  Peter C. A. Jensen, Moses, Jesus, Paul (1910)
§ William B. Smith, Ecce Deus (1912)
  L. Gordon Rylands, Did Jesus Ever LIve? (1929)
  P. L. Couchoud, The Creation of Christ (1939)
  John E. Remsburg, The Christ: A Critical Review and Analysis of the Evidence for His Existence (circa 1945)
  George A. Wells, The Historic Evidence for Jesus (1982)
§ listed in Webster's Biographical Dictionary (1953)
^ listed in The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia (1995)
* separate article in Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed.)

For a contemporary view, see Frank R. Zindler, "Did Jesus Exist?" vol. 36, no. 3 (1998), American Atheist; same author, "How Jesus Got a Life" vol. 34, no. 6 (1992), American Atheist.

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