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Jesus Christ History or Myth?

Commentary by Lewis Loflin

What is presented was supposed to have been written by an avowed atheist, Dan Barker. As a former Christian, Barker turned against it for some personal reason perhaps disappointment in his own life, etc. He lists the following reasons why he thinks Christianity is false which I will comment on. What I present will be upsetting to secular humanists like Barker and the Religious Right.

Barker claims to have been a minister for years, yet he displays no knowledge of the Bible. Most of his references come from Prometheus Books, which is operates as a propaganda outlet for Humanist Society. To quote Wikipedia,

Prometheus Books is a publishing company founded in 1969, which publishes scientific, educational, and popular books, especially those of a secular humanist or skeptical nature. Their headquarters are located in Amherst, New York and they publish worldwide. They have published books by personages such as Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman, Martin Gardner, Antony Flew, Ibn Warraq, George H. Smith, James Randi, and Philip J. Klass. Paul Kurtz served as proprietor.

For the record I'm not a Christian nor do i believe Jesus was anything more than human.

Oddly for Barker, atheist philosopher Antony Flew has rejected atheism and now believes due to scientific proof that God does exist! But if Barker really wanted to dispute Christianity, that could be done with the Old Testament. His agenda is atheism, and I doubt he knows anything about the Old Testament anyway. Let's look at his arguments.

1) Barker: There is no external historical confirmation for the New Testament stories.

Well, yes and no. But if he demands formal birth certificates and big state proclamations at the time saying "here is Jesus Christ," then why not demand the same of Buddha, Zoroaster, or many other "historical" figures?

Even Mohammad left no writings of his own, the earliest copies of the Koran date over 100 years later. Many historical figures are known only by what others write of them. This includes many Greek philosophers as well. Give me something written by Socrates in his own hand.

If anyone would deny the existence of the historical Jesus, it would be the Jews. Jesus is listed in the Jewish Encyclopedia as having lived, while they deny He was God, etc.

2) Barker: The New Testament stories are internally contradictory.

This statement is true, but also shows his lack of knowledge of the Bible. But this is the fault of the Christian Church as well. (I assume he means the four Gospels.) In general theme, Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree, but vary in minor details. This creates problems for the claims of Biblical inerrancy by the Church. John is another matter.

John is not historical but spiritual. It's heavy on Gnostic themes and wording, and is the only Gospel that directly "proves" Jesus' divinity. For more on the Gnostics see Gnosticism an Overview.

Barker cites experts such a John E. Remsburg (1848 - 1919) whose book The Christ I happen to have. Quoting Remsberg below,

Philo was born before the beginning of the Christian era...He was living in or near Jerusalem...

Wrong. Philo lived in Alexandria, hundreds of miles away in Egypt. While he may have been an influence on the writer of John and perhaps Paul, he didn't know day to day details about Jerusalem. He never lived there.

3) Barker: There are natural explanations for the origin of the Jesus legend.

This is very true, but those explanations can also prove a man named Jesus existed. Even if the man Jesus didn't exist, it doesn't disprove God. Antony Flew does believe in God but rejects the Bible.

4) Barker: The miracle reports make the story unhistorical.

I agree. We can blame this on the Church. By the 2nd century what became Christianity was in a battle fighting internal division and the Gnostics. Gnosticism is really a broad-brush term for many heresies threatening clerical authority and church unity. Gnostics believed in individual interpretation, and used mythical stories to express spiritual concepts.

Luke has 18 parables of which only 2 matches Mark or Matthew. Mark also has 20 miracle stories of which half match Mark and Matthew. Mark has only 4 parables and 20 miracle stories. Matthew has 15 parables concerning Jesus' life in Galilee and the Passion and 21 miracle stories. John is a pseudo-Gnostic work written in Ephesus (modern Turkey) around 90 C.E. John has only 8 miracle stories of which only 2 match anything in Matthew, Mark or Luke and the only place where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. (John 11:1)

Thus many things the Church claimed was "literal" could have been myths to deliver a message. Many early Christian heretics believed Jesus' resurrection was "spiritual" or He never died on a cross at all.

5) Mithra was a virgin-born Persian god...

Wrong. That again discredits Barker because Mithra was born out of a rock. He is as ignorant of history as he is of the faith he once claimed to belong to.

In the end, if Jesus was God or not doesn't prove if there is a no God. Lewis Loflin

Anti Barker site at http://www.tektonics.org/af/barkerd02.html

Dan Barker (born June 25, 1949) is an avowed atheist who served as an evangelical preacher for 19 years, but left Christianity in 1984. He is the current co-president with his wife Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (www.ffrf.org), an American Freethought organization that promotes "the separation of church and state." He is the author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist (ISBN 1-877733-07-5). He has a daughter named Sabrina Gaylor, born in 1989, who is also a member of his organization.

Jesus: History or Myth?

by Dan Barker?

  1. Can Jesus be confirmed historically?
  2. Josephus
  3. The second century and later
  4. Bottom of the Barrel
  5. Not The Gospel Truth
  6. How did the myth originate?
  7. Are the miracles historical?
  8. Conclusion

In all the years I was a Christian minister, I never preached a sermon about the evidence for a historic Jesus. There was no need for such a sermon. I stood before many congregations and associated with many ministers, evangelists and pastors, and not one of us ever spoke about the possibility that Jesus was a fable, or that his story is more myth than history. We had heard, of course, that there were academic skeptics, but we dismissed them as a tiny minority of quacks and atheists.

In my four years of religious study at Azusa Pacific College, I took many bible classes - an entire course about the book of Romans, another class about Hebrew wisdom literature, and so on - but I was offered only one course in Christian apologetics. It was called "Christian Evidences," and I found it to be the least useful of all my studies. Since I preferred evangelism to academics, I found the information interesting, but irrelevant. The class did not delve deeply into the documents or arguments. We recited the roster of early historians and church fathers, and then promptly forgot them all.

I figured that Christian scholars had already done the homework and that our faith rested on a firm historical foundation, and that if I ever needed to look it up I could turn to some book somewhere for the facts. I never needed to look it up. As a freethinker, I decided to "1ook it up." I am now convinced that the Jesus story is just a myth. Here's why:

  1. There is no external historical confirmation for the New Testament stories.
  2. The New Testament stories are internally contradictory.
  3. There are natural explanations for the origin of the Jesus legend.
  4. The miracle reports make the story unhistorical.

Can Jesus be confirmed historically?

At face value the Christian evidences appear to be overwhelming. Looking outside of the New Testament, many texts in apologetics will include a long list of names and documents that claim to confirm historically the existence of Jesus: Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny, Tacitus, Thallus, Mara Bar-Serapion, Lucian, Phlegon, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Origen, Cyprian, and others.

Some of these names are church fathers writing in the second to fourth centuries and are therefore too late to be considered reliable first-century confirmation. Being church leaders, their objectivity is also questionable. These facts were not important to us evangelists nor would they cause any red flags to raise in the minds of the average believer reading the average book of Christian "proofs."

However, the list does include some nonbelievers - Jewish and Roman writers who were likely not biased towards Christianity - so it would appear that there can be no question about the historical existence of Jesus. Who could possibly doubt it?

It is rarely if ever pointed out that none of these evidences date from the time of Jesus. Jesus supposedly lived sometime between 4 BC and 30 AD, but there is not a single contemporary historical mention of Jesus, not by Romans or by Jews, not by behevers or by unbelievers, not during his entire lifetime. This does not disprove his existence, but it certainly casts great doubt on the historicity of a man who was supposedly widely knovm to have made a great impact on the world. Someone should have noticed.

One of the writers who was alive during the time of Jesus was Philo Judaeus. John E. Remsburg, in The Christ, writes:

"Philo was born before the beginning of the Christian era, and lived until long after the reputed death of Christ. He wrote an account of the Jews covering the entire time that Christ is said to have existed on earth. He was living in or near Jerusalem when Christ's miraculous birth and the Herodian massacre occurred. He was there when Christ made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He was there when the crucifixion with its attendant earthquake, supernatural darkness, and resurrection of the dead took placewhen Christ himself rose from the dead, and in the presence of many witnesses ascended into heaven. These marvelous events which must have filled the world with amazement, had they really occurred, were unknown to him. It was Philo who developed the doctrine of the Logos, or Word, and although this Word incarnate dwelt in that very land and in the presence of multitudes revealed himself and demonstrated his divine powers, Philo saw it not."

There was a historian named Justus of Tiberius who was a native of Galilee, the homeland of Jesus. He wrote a history covering the time when Christ supposedly lived. This history is now lost, but a ninth-century Christian scholar named Photius had read it and wrote: "He [Justus] makes not the least mention of the appearance of Christ, of what things happened to him, or of the wonderful works that he did." (Photius' Bibliotheca, code 33)

Josephus

My Dad's birthday present to me when I turned nineteen was a copy of the complete works of Flavius Josephus. When it comes to hard evidence from outside the bible, this is the most common piece of historical documentation offered by Christian apologists. Outside of the New Testament, Josephus presents the only possible confirmation of the Jesus story from the first century.

At face value, Josephus appears to be the answer to the Christian apologist's dreams. He was a messianic Jew, not a Christian, so he could not be accused of bias. He did not spend a lot of time or space on his report of Jesus, showing that he was merely reporting facts, not spouting propaganda like the Gospel writers. Although he was born in 37 AD and could not have been a contemporary of Jesus, he lived close enough to the time to be considered a valuable second-hand source. Josephus was a highly respected and much-quoted Roman historian. He died sometime after the year 100. His two major tomes were The Antiquities of the Jews and The Wars of the Jews.

Antiquities was written sometime around the year 90 AD. It begins, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," and arduously parallels the Old Testament up to the time when Josephus is able to add equally arduous historical details of Jewish life during the early Roman period. In Book 18, Chapter 3, this paragraph is encountered (Whiston's translation):

"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 sug- gestion 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 from him, are not extinct at this day."

This truly appears to give historical confirmation for the existence of Jesus. But is it authentic? Most scholars, including most fundamentalist scholars, admit that at least some parts of this paragraph cannot be authentic. Many are convinced that the entire paragraph is a forgery, an interpolation inserted by Christians at a later time. There are many reasons for this:

The paragraph is absent from early copies of the works ofJosephus. For example, it does not appear in Origen's second-century version ofJosephus, contained in Origen Contra Celsum where Origen fiercely defended Christianity against the heretical views of Celsus. Origen quoted freely from Josephus to prove his points, but never once used this paragraph, which would have been the ultimate ace up his sleeve.

In fact, the Josephus paragraph about Jesus does not appear until the beginning of the fourth century, at the time ofConstantine. Bishop Eusebius, a close ally of emperor Constantine, was instrumental in crystallizing and defining the version of Christianity which was to become orthodox, and he is the first person known to have quoted this paragraph of Josephus.

Eusebius said that it was permissible for Christians to tell lies if it furthered the kingdom of God. The fact that the Josephus-Jesus paragraph shows up at this time of history, at a time when interpolations and revisions were quite common, makes the passage quite dubious. Many scholars believe that Eusebius was the forger.

The passage is out of context. In Book 18, which contains the paragraph about Jesus, Josephus starts with the Roman taxation under Cyrenius in 6 AD, talks about various Jewish sects at the time, including the Essenes, and a sect of Judas the Galilean. He discusses Herod's building of various cities, the succession of priests and procurators, and so on.

Chapter 3 starts with a sedition against Pilate who planned to slaughter all the Jews but changed his mind. Pilate then used sacred money to supply water to Jerusalem, and the Jews protested. Pilate sent spies into the Jewish ranks with concealed weapons, and there was a great massacre.

Then comes the paragraph about Jesus, and immediately after it, Josephus continues: "And about the same time another terrible misfortune confounded the Jews . . ."

Josephus, an orthodox Jew, would not have thought the Christian story to be "another terrible misfortune." It is only a Christian (someone like Eusebius) who would have considered this to be a Jewish tragedy. Paragraph 3 can be lifted out of the text with no damage to the chapter. It flows better without it.

Josephus would not have called Jesus "the Christ" or "the truth." Whoever wrote these phrases was a Christian. Josephus was a messianic Jew and never converted to Christianity. Origen reported that Josephus was "not believing in Jesus as the Christ."

The phrase "to this day" shows that this is a later interpolation. There was no "tribe of Christians" during Josephus's time. Christianity did not get off the ground until the second century.

Josephus appears not to know anything else about Jesus outside of this tiny paragraph and a reference to James, the "brother of Jesus" (see below). He is silent about the miracles of Jesus, although he reports the antics of other prophets in great detail.

He adds nothing to the Gospel narratives, and says nothing that would not have been known by Christians already, whether in the first or fourth century.

In all of Josephus's voluminous works, there is not a single reference to Christianity anywhere outside of this tiny paragraph. He relates much more about John the Baptist than about Jesus.

He lists the activities of many other self-proclaimed Messiahs, including Judas ofGalilee, Theudas the magician, and the Egyptian Jew Messiah, but is mute about the life of one whom he claims is the answer to his messianic hopes.

The paragraph mentions that the life of Jesus was foretold by the divine prophets, but Josephus neglects to mention who these prophets were or what they said. In no other place does Josephus connect any Hebrew prediction with the life of Jesus. If Jesus truly had been the fulfillment of divine prophecy, Josephus would have been the one learned enough to confirm it.

The hyperbolic language is uncharacteristic of a careful historian: " . . . as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him . . ." This sounds more like the stuff of sectarian propaganda.

Christians should be careful when they refer to Josephus as historical confirmation for Jesus. It turns around and bites them. If we remove the forged paragraph, the works of Josephus become evidence against historicity. If the life of Jesus was historical, why did Josephus know nothing of it?

There is one other passage in the Antiquities that mentions Jesus. It is in Book XX, Chapter 9:

"Festus was now dead, and Albinus was put upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, (or some of his companions). And when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned . . ." (Whiston's translation)

This is flimsy, and even Christian scholars widely consider this to be a doctored text. The stoning of James is not mentioned in Acts. Hegesippus, a Jewish Christian, in 170 AD wrote a history of the church saying that James the brother of Jesus was killed in a riot, not by sentence of a court, and Clement confirms this (quoted by Eusebius).

Most scholars agree that Josephus is referring to another James here, possibly the same one that Paul mentions in Acts, who led a sect in Jerusalem. Instead of strengthening Christianity, this "brother of Jesus" interpolation contradicts history. Again, if Josephus truly thought Jesus was "the Christ," he would have added more about him than a casual aside in someone else's story.

So it turns out that Josephus is silent about Jesus. If Jesus had truly lived and had accomplished all of the deeds and miracles reported in the Gospels, Josephus should have noticed. Josephus was a native of Judea, a contemporary of the Apostles.

He was Governor of Galilee for a time, the province in which Jesus allegedly lived and taught. "He traversed every part of this province," writes Rernsburg, "and visited the places where but a generation before Christ had performed his prodigies.

He resided in Cana, the very city in which Christ is said to have wrought his first miracle. He mentions every noted personage of Palestine and describes every important event which occurred there during the first seventy years of the Christian era. But Christ was of too little consequence and his deeds too trivial to merit a line from this historian's pen."

The second century and later

After Josephus, there are other writers who mention Christianity, but even if they are reliable, they are too late to claim the confirming impact of a first-century witness. Suetonius wrote a biography called Twelve Caesars around the year 112 AD, mentioning that Claudius "banished the Jews from Rome, since they had made a commotion because of Chrestus," and that during the time of Nero "punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief. . ." Notice that there is no mention of Jesus by name.

It is unlikely that Christianity had spread as far as Rome during the reign of Claudius, or that it was large enough to have caused a revolt. "Chrestus" does not mean "Christ." It was a common name meaning "good," used by both slaves and free people, and occurring more than eighty times in Latin inscriptions. Even if Suetonius truly meant "Christus" (Christ), he may have been referring only to the Jews in Rome who were expecting a Messiah, not to Jesus of Nazareth.

It could have been anybody, maybe a Roman Jew who stepped forward. It is only eager believers who will to jump to the conclusion that this provides evidence for Jesus. Nowhere in any of Suetonius's writings did he mention Jesus of Nazareth.

Even if he had, his history would not necessarily have been reliable. He reported, for example, that Caesar Augustus bodily rose to heaven when he died, an event that few modern scholars consider historical.

In 112 AD, Pliny (the younger) said that "Christians were singing a hymn to Christ as to a god . . ." Again, notice the absence of the name Jesus. This could have referred to any of the other "Christs" who were being followed by Jews who thought they had found a Messiah.

Pliny's report hardly counts as history since he is only relaying what other people believed. Even if this sentence referred to a group of followers of Jesus, no one denies that Christianity was in existence at that time. Pliny, at the very most, might be useful in documenting the region, but not the historic Jesus.

Sometime after 117 AD, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote in his Annals (Book 15, chapter 44): "Nero looked around for a scapegoat, and inflicted the most fiendish tortures on a group of persons already hated for their crimes. This was the sect known as Christians.

Their founder, one Christus, had been put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. This checked the abominable superstition for a while, but it broke out again and spread, not merely through Judea, where it originated, but even to Rome itself, the great reservoir and collecting ground for every kind of depravity and filth.

Those who confessed to being Christians were at once arrested, but on their testimony a great crowd of people were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson, but of hatred of the entire human race."

In this passage, Tacitus depicts early Christians as "hated for their crimes" and associated with "depravity and filth," not a flattering picture. But even if it is valid, it tells us nothing about Jesus of Nazareth. Tacitus claims no first-hand knowledge of Christianity.

He is merely repeating the then common ideas about Christians. (A modern parallel would be someone reporting that Mormons believe that Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moroni, which would hardly make it historical proof, even though it is as close as a century away.)

There is no other historical confirmation that Nero persecuted Christians. Nero did persecute Jews, and perhaps Tacitus was confused about this.

There certainly was not a "great crowd" of Christians in Rome around 60 AD, and the term "Christian" was not in use in the first century. Tacitus is either doctoring history from a distance or repeating a myth without checking his facts. Historians generally agree that Nero did not burn Rome, so Tacitus is in error to suggest that he would have needed a scapegoat in the first place.

No one in the second century ever quoted this passage of Tacitus, and in fact it appears almost word-for-word in the writings of someone else, Sulpicius Severus, in the fourth century, where it is mixed in with other myths. The passage is therefore highly suspect and adds virtually no evidence for a historic Jesus.

In the ninth century a Byzantine writer named George Syncellus quoted a third-century Christian historian named Julius Africanus who quoted an unknown writer named Thallus who referred to the darkness at the crucifixion: "Thallus in the third book of his history calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun, but in my opinion he is wrong." All of the works ofAfricanus are lost, so there is no way to confirm the quote or to examine its context.

We have no idea who Thallus was, or when he wrote. Eusebius (fourth century) mentions a history of Thallus in three books ending about 112 BC, so the suggestion is that Thallus might have been a near contemporary of Jesus. (Actually, the manuscript is damaged, and "Thallus" is merely a guess from "_allos Samaritanos.")

There is no evidence of an eclipse during the time Jesus was supposedly crucified. The reason Africanus doubted the eclipse is because Easter happens near the full moon, and a solar eclipse would have been impossible at that time.

There is a fragment of a personal letter from a Syrian named Mara Bar-Serapion to his son in prison, of uncertain date, probably second or third century, that mentions that the Jews of that time had killed their "wise king." However, the New Testament reports that Jesus was killed by the Romans, not the Jews.

The Jews had killed other leaders, for example, the Essene Teacher of Righteousness. If this truly is a report of a historical event rather than the passing on of folklore, it could have been a reference to someone else. It is worthless as evidence for Jesus of Nazareth, yet it can be found on the lists of some Christian scholars as proof that Jesus existed.

A second-century satiricist named Lurian wrote that the basis for the Christian sect was a "man who was crucified in Palestine," but this is equally worthless as historical evidence. He is merely repeating what Christians believed in the second century. Lucian does not mention Jesus by name. This refer- ence is too late to be considered historical evidence, and since Lucian did not consider himself a historian, neither should we.

Bottom of the Barrel

In addition to Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, and the others, there is a handful of other so-called evidences and arguments that some Christians put forward. One very silly attempt is the Archko Volume containing supposedly authentic first-hand accounts of Jesus from the early first century, including letters from Pilate to Rome, glowing eye-witness testimony from the shepherds outside Bethlehem who visited the baby Jesus at the manger after being awakened by angels, and so on.

Its flowery King-James prose makes entertaining reading, but it is not considered authentic by any scholar, although an occasional Christian has been duped into swallowing it. It was written in the nineteenth century by a traveling salesman who said he translated it from original documents found in the basement of the Vatican, although no such documents have ever been found.

Some of the other highly questionable confirmation attempts include Tertullian (197 AD), Phlegon (unimown date), Justin Martyr (about 150 AD), and portions of the Jewish Talmud (second through fifth centuries) that mention Jesus in an attempt to discredit Christianity, supposedly showing that even the enemies of Jesus did not doubt his existence.

Though all of these socalled evidences are flimsy, some Christians make a showy point of listing them with little elaboration in their books of apologetics. Ministers can rattle off these "historical confirmations" with httle fear that their congregations vdll take the time to investigate their authenticity.

In Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell makes an argument that is common among apologists: "There are now more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions (MSS) and we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today.

No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the Iliad by Homer is second with only 643 manuscripts that still survive."

This information might cause believers to applaud with smugness, but it misses the point. What does the number of copies have to do with authenticity? If a million copies of this book you are reading are printed, does it make it any more truthful? Are the "historical" facts reported in the Iliad considered reliable?

There are currently hundreds of millions of copies of the Koran in existence, in many forms and scores of translations. Does the sheer number of copies make it more reliable than, say, a single inscription on an Egyptian sarcophagus?

This argument is a smokescreen. There are no original manuscripts (autographs) of the bible in existence, so we all agree that we are working from copies.

Critics might agree that the current translations of the bible are based on a reasonably accurate transcription of an early form of the New Testament, but what does this have to do with authenticity, reliability, or truthfulness?

Another argument made by McDowell and others is the close interval of time between the events or original writing and the earliest copies in our possession. Homer wrote the Iliad in 900 BC, but the our earliest copy is from 400 BC - a span of five hundred years. Aristotle wrote in 384-322 BC and the earliest copy dates from 1100 ADa gap of fourteen hundred years.

In contrast, the New Testament was written (McDowell says) between 40 and 100 AD, and the earliest copy dates from 125 AD, a time span of twenty-five years.

This is important when considering the reliability of the text itself. A shorter interval of time allows for fewer corruptions and variants. But it has no relevance to the reliability of the content.

If the New Testament should be considered reliable on this basis, then so should the Book of Mormon, which was supposedly written (copied by Joseph Smith) in 1823 and first published in 1830, a gap of only seven years.

In addition to Joseph Smith, there are signed testimonies of eleven witness who claimed to have seen the gold tablets on which the angel Moroni wrote the Book of Mormon. We are much closer in history to the origin of Mormonism than to the origin of Christianity.

There are millions of copies of the Book of Mormon and a thriving Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (with millions of members and billions of dollars in assets) to prove its veracity. Though most scholars (pro and con) agree that the current edition of the Book of Mormon is a reliable copy of the 1830 version, few Christian scholars consider it to be reliable history.

Not The Gospel Truth

If we stick to the New Testament (we have no choice) how much can we know about the Jesus of history? Although the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) have been placed first in the current New Testament, they were not the first books written. The earliest writings about Jesus are those of Paul, who produced his epistles no earlier than the mid 50s.

Strangely, Paul mentions very little about the life of the historical Jesus. The Jesus of whom Paul writes is a disembodied, spiritual Christ, speaking from the sky. He never talks about Jesus's parents or the virgin birth or Bethlehem.

He never mentions Nazareth, never refers to Jesus as the "Son of man" (as commonly used in the Gospels), avoids recounting a single miracle committed by Jesus, does not fix any historical activities of Jesus in any time or place, makes no reference to any of the twelve apostles by name, omits the trial, and fails to place the crucifixion in a physical location (Jerusalem). Paul rarely quotes Jesus, and this is odd since he used many other devices of persuasion to make his points.

There are many places in the teachings of Paul where he could have and should have invoked the teachings of Jesus, but he ignores them. He contradicts Jesus's teachings on divorce (I Corinthians 7:10) allowing for none while the Gospel Jesus permitted exceptions.

Jesus taught a trinitarian baptism ("in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost"), but Paul and his disciples baptized in Jesus's name only, which makes perfect sense if the concept of the trinity was developed later.

Paul never claims to have met the pre-resurrected Jesus. In fact, one of the most glaring contradictions of the bible appears in two different accounts of how Paul supposedly met the disembodied Christ for the first time.

When Paul was traveling to Damascus one day in order to continue persecuting Christians, he was knocked to the ground and blinded by a great light (struck by lightning?).

In both versions of this story, Paul heard the voice of Jesus, but in one account the men who were with Paul heard the voice (Acts 9:7), and in the other his men specifically "heard not the voice" (Acts 22:9).

Did Paul's men hear the voice, or didn't they? There have been many ad hoc attempts by apologists to reconcile this contradiction (for example, pretending that the different declensions φονη imply "voice" vs. "sound," or that "hear" means "understand" in one passage - a dishonest lactic employed by some modern translations, such as the popular New International Version), but they are defensive and unsatisfactory.

The "silence of Paul" is one of the thorny problems confronting defenders of a historical Jesus. The Christ in Paul's writings is a different character from the Jesus of the Gospels. Paul adds not a speck of historical documentation for the story. Even Paul's supposed confirmation of the resurrection in I Corinthians 15:3-8 contradicts the Gospels when it says that Jesus first was seen of "Cephas [Peter], then of the twelve." (See "Leave No Stone Unturned.")

The Gospels were written no earlier than 70 AD, most likely during the 90s and later. They all pretend to be biographies of Jesus. No one knows who wrote these books, the names having been added later as a matter of convenience.

The writer of Matthew, for example, refers to "Matthew" in the third person. Neither Mark nor Luke appear in any list of the disciples of Jesus, and we have no way of knowing where they got their information.

The general scholarly consensus is that Mark was written first (based on an earlier "proto-Mark" now lost) and that the writers of Matthew and Luke borrowed from Mark, adapting and adding to it. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are commonly known as the "synoptic Gospels" since they share much common material.

The writer of John appears to have written in isolation, and the Jesus portrayed in his story is a different character. John contains little in common with the other three, and where it does overlap, it is often contradictory. (See "Leave No Stone Unturned.")

There is very little that can be ascertained from the four Gospels about the historic Jesus. His birthday is unknown. In fact, the year of Jesus's birth cannot be known. The writer of Matthew says Jesus was born "in the days of Herod the king."

Herod died in 4 BC. Luke reports that Jesus was born "when Cyrenius [Quirinius] was governor of Syria." Cyrenius became governor of Syria in 6 AD. That is a discrepancy of at least nine years.

Luke says Jesus was born during a Roman census, and it is true that there was a census in 6 AD. This would have been when Jesus was at least nine years old, according to Matthew.

There is no evidence of any earlier census during the reign of Augustus; Palestine was not part of the Roman Empire until 6 AD. Perhaps Matthew was right, or perhaps Luke was right, but both could not have been right.

Matthew reports that Herod slaughtered all the first-born in the land in order to execute Jesus. No historian, contemporary or later, mentions this supposed genocide, an event which should have caught someone's attention. None of the other biblical writers mention it.

The genealogies of Jesus present a particularly embarrassing example of why the Gospel writers are not reliable historians. Matthew gives a genealogy of Jesus consisting of twenty-eight names from David down to Joseph. Luke gives a reverse genealogy of Jesus consisting of forty-three names from Joseph back to David.

They each purport to prove that Jesus is of royal blood, though neither of them explains why Joseph's genealogy is relevant if he was not Jesus's father: Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Ghost. Matthew's line goes from David's son Solomon, while Luke's goes from David's son Nathan. The two genealogies could not have been for the same person.

Matthew's line is like this: David, Solomon, eleven other names, Josiah, Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel, Abiud, six other names, Matthan, Jacob, and Joseph. Luke's line is like this: David, Nathan, seventeen other names (none identical to Matthew's list), Melchi, Neri, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel, Rhesa, fifteen other names (none identical to Matthew's list), Matthat, Heli, and Joseph.

Some defenders of Christianity assert that this is not contradictory at all because Matthew's line is through Joseph and Luke's line is through Mary, even though a simple glance at the text shows that they both name Joseph. No problem, say the apologists: Luke named Joseph, but he really meant Mary.

Since Joseph was the legal parent of Jesus, and since Jewish genealogies are patrilineal, it makes perfect sense to say that Heli (their choice for Mary's father) had a son named Joseph who had a son named Jesus. Believe it or not, many Christians can make these statements with a straight face. In any event, they will not find a shred of evidence to support such a notion.

However, there is a more serious problem to this argument: the two genealogies intersect. Notice that besides starting with David and ending with Joseph, the lines share two names in common: Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, both commonly known from the period of the Babylonian captivity. If Matthew and Luke present two distinct parental genealogies, as the apologists assert, there should be no intersection.

In a last-ditch defense, some very creative apologists have hypothesized that Shealtiel's grandmother could have had two husbands and that her sons Jechoniah and Neri represent two distinct paternal lines, but this is painfully speculative.

The two genealogies are widely different in length. One would have to suppose that something in Nathan's genes caused the men to sire sons fifty percent faster than the men in Solomon's line.

Matthew's line omits four names from the genealogy given in the Old Testament (between Joram and Jotham), and this makes sense when you notice that Matthew is trying to force his list into three neat groups of fourteen names each. (Seven is the Hebrew's most sacred number.) He leaves out exactly the right number of names to make it fit.

Some have argued that it was common to skip generations and that this does not make it incorrect. A great-great grandfather is just as much an ancestor as a grandfather.

This might be true, except that Matthew explicitly reports that it was exactly fourteen generations: "So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations." (Matthew 1:17) Matthew is caught tinkering with the facts. His reliability as a historian is severely crippled.

Another problem is that Luke's genealogy of Jesus goes through Nathan, which was not the royal line. Nor could Matthew's line be royal after Jeconiah because the divine prophecy says of Jeconiah that "no man of his seed shall prosper sitting upon the throne of David, and riding any more in Judah." (Jeremiah 22:30)

Even if Luke's line is truly through Mary, Luke reports that Mary was a cousin to Elizabeth, who was of the tribe of Levi, not the royal line. (Some Christians desperately suggest that the word "cousin" might allowably be translated "countrywoman," just as believers might call each other "brother" or "sister," but this is ad hoc.)

Since Jesus was not the son of Joseph, and since Jesus himself appears to deny his Davidic ancestry (Matthew 22:41-46), the whole genealogy is pointless. Instead of rooting Jesus in history, it provides critics with an open window on the myth-making process. The Gospel writers wanted to make of their hero nothing less than what was claimed of saviors of other religions: a king born of a virgin.

The earliest Gospel written was Mark. Matthew and Luke based their stories on Mark, editing according to their own purposes. All scholars agree that the last twelve verses of Mark, in modern translations, are highly dubious. Most agree that they do not belong in the bible. The earliest ancient documents of Mark end right after the women find the empty tomb. This means that in the first biography, on which the others based their reports, there is no post-resurrection appearance or ascension of Jesus.

Noticing the problem, a Christian scribe at a much later time inserted verses 9-20. The Gospel accounts cannot be considered historical, but even if they were, they tell us that the earliest biography of Jesus contains no resurrection! They tell us that the Gospels were edited, adapted, altered, and appended at later times in order to make them fit the particular sectarian theology of the writers.

The Gospels themselves are admittedly propagandistic: "And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name." (John 20:30-31)

This hardly sounds like the stuff of objective historical reporting. This verse sends up a red flag that what we are reading should be taken with a very large grain of salt.

How did the myth originate?

If Jesus is a fable, how did the story originate? How did there come to be a worldwide following of billions of Christians spanning two millennia if the story is not true? An idea does not need to be true in order to be believed, and the same could be asked about any other myth: Santa Claus, William Tell, or Zeus. Nevertheless, it is not an unfair challenge to ask skeptics to suggest an alternative to historicity.

There are a number of plausible explanations for a natural origin of the Jesus myth, none of which can be proved with certainty. Unbelievers are not in agreement, nor need they be.

Some skeptics think that Jesus never existed at all and that the myth came into being through a literary process. Other skeptics deny that the Jesus character portrayed in the New Testament existed, but feel that there could have been a first-century personality after whom the exaggerated myth was patterned.

Others believe that Jesus did exist, and that some parts of the New Testament are accurate, although the miracles and the claim to deity are due to later editing of the original story. Still others claim that the New Testament is basically true in all of its accounts except that there are natural explanations for the miracle stories. (It is not just atheists who possess these views. Many liberal Christians, such as Paul Tillich, have "de-mythologized" the New Testament.)

None of these views can be proved, any more than the orthodox position can be proved. What they demonstrate is that since there do exist plausible natural alternatives, it is irrational to jump to a supernatural conclusion.

One of the views, held by J. M. Robertson and others, is that the Jesus myth was patterned after a story found in the Jewish Talmudic literature about the illegitimate son of a woman named Miriam (Mary) and a Roman soldier named Pandera, sometimes called Joseph Pandera.

In Christianity and Mythology, Robertson writes: ". . . we see cause to suspect that the move- ment really originated with the Talmudic Jesus Ben Pandera, who was stoned to death and hanged on a tree, for blasphemy or heresy, on the eve of a Passover in the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (B.C. 106-79). Dr. Low, an accomplished Hebraist, is satisfied that this Jesus was the founder of the Essene sect, whose resemblances to the legendary early Christians have so greatly exercised Christian speculation."

Another view is that the Jesus myth grew out of a pre-Christian cult of Joshua. Some suggest that the New Testament story about swapping Jesus for Barabbas (meaning "son of the father") arose from the tension between two different Joshua factions. Origen mentioned a "Jesus Barabbas." The name "Jesus" is the Greek for Joshua ("Yeshua" in Hebrew). In Mark 9:38 the disciples of Jesus saw another man who was casting out devils in the name of Jesus (Joshua). The Sibyllene Oracles identify Jesus with Joshua, regarding the sun standing still.

Other scholars suggest that the Jesus story is simply a fanciful patchwork of pieces borrowed from other religions. Pagan mythical parallels can be found for almost every item in the New Testament: the Last Supper, Peter's denial, Pilate's wife's dream, the crown of thorns, the vinegar and gall at the crucifixion, the mocking inscription over the cross, the Passion, the trial, Pilate's washing of hands, the carrying of the cross, the talk between the two thieves hanging beside Jesus, and so on.

There were many crucified sun gods before Jesus. There was the crucifixion ofAntigonus, the "King of the Jews," and Cyrus, a Messianic figure. Prometheus and Heracles wear mock crowns, and in some versions of the story, Prometheus is executed by crucifixion. Babylonian prisoners dressed as kings for five days, then they were stripped, scourged, and crucified.

Attis was a self-castrated god-man who was born of a virgin, worshipped between March 22 and 27 (vernal equinox), and hanged on a cut pine tree. He escaped, fled, descended into a cave, died, rose again, and was later called "Father God." Dionysus was a savior sacrifice who descended into hell. There is the story about Simon the Cyrenian sun God who carried pillars to his death. (Compare with Simon the Cyrene who carried the cross of Jesus in the New Testament.) Before Jesus there were many ascension myths: Enoch, Elijah, Krishna, Adonis, Heracles, Dionysus, and later Maiy.

Mithra was a virgin-born Persian god. In 307 A.D. (just before Constantine institutionalized Christianity), the Roman emperor officially designated that Mithra was to be the "Protector of the Empire." Historian Barbara Walker records this about Mithra:

"Mithra was born on the 25th of December . . . which was finally taken over by Christians in the 4th century as the birthday of Christ. Some say Mithra sprang from an incestuous union between the sun god and his own mother . . .. Some claimed Mithra's mother was a mortal virgin. Others said Mithra had no mother, but was miraculously born of a female Rock, thepetra genetrix, fertilized by the Heavenly Father's phallic lightning.

"Mithra's birth was witnessed by shepherds and by Magi who brought gifts to his sacred birth-cave of the Rock. Mithra performed the usual assortment of miracles: raising the dead, healing the sick, making the blind see and the lame walk, casting out devils. As a Peter, son ofthepetra, he carried the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . .. His triumph and ascension to heaven were celebrated at the spring equinox (Easter) . . ..

"Before returning to heaven, Mithra celebrated a Last Supper with his twelve disciples, who represented the twelve signs of the zodiac. In memory of this, his worshippers partook of a sacramental meal of bread marked with a cross. This was one of seven Mithraic sacraments, the models for the Christians' seven sacraments. It was called mizdy Latin missa, English mass. Mithra's image was buried in a rock tomb . . .. He was withdrawn from it and said to live again.

"Like early Christianity, Mithraism was an ascetic, anti-female religion. Its priesthood consisted of celebrate men only. . . .

"What began in water would end in fire, according to Mithraic eschatology. The great battle between the forces of light and darkness in the Last Days would destroy the earth with its upheavals and burnings. Virtuous ones . . . would be saved. Sinful ones . . . would be cast into hell . . .. The Christian notion of salvation was almost wholly a product of this Persian eschatology, adopted by Semitic eremites and sun-cultists like the Essenes, and by Roman military men who thought the rigid discipline and vivid battle-imagery of Mithraism appropriate for warriors.

"After extensive contact with Mithraism, Christians also began to describe themselves as soldiers for Christ;. . . to celebrate their feasts on Sun-day rather than the Jewish sabbath; . . .. Like Mithraists, Christians practiced baptism to ascend after death through the planetary spheres to the highest heaven, while the wicked (unbaptized) would be dragged down to darkness." (The Woman's Encyclopedia Of Myths And Secrets, pages 663-665)

The name "Mary" is common to names given to mothers of other gods: the Syrian Myrrha, the Greek Maia, and the Hindu Maya, all derived from the familiar "Ma" for mother. The phrases "Word of God" and "Lamb of God" are probably connected, due to a misunderstanding of words that are similar in different languages.

The Greek word "logos," which means "word" and was used originally by the gnostics, is translated "imerah" in Hebrew; but the word "immera" in Aramaic means "lamb." It is easy to see how some Jews, living at the intersection of so many cultures and languages, could be confused and influenced by so many competing religious ideas.

In the fourth century a Christian scholar named Fermicus attempted to establish the uniqueness of Christianity, but he was met at every turn by pagan precedents to the story of Jesus. He is reported to have said: "Habet Diabolus Christos sous!" ("The Devil has his Christs!")

W. B. Smith thinks there was a pre-Christian Jesus cult of gnosticism. There is an ancient papyrus which has these words: "I adjure thee by the God of the Hebrews, Jesus."

G. A. Wells is one scholar who believes Jesus never existed as a historical person. He, and others, see Jesus as the personification of Old Testament "wisdom." The Dead Sea Scrolls have Essene commentary on the Old Testament wisdom literature, and Wells has found many parallels with the life of Jesus.

The book of Proverbs depicts "Wisdom" as having been created by God first, before heaven and earth. Wisdom mediates in creation and leads humans into truth. Wisdom is the governor and sustainer of the universe. Wisdom comes to dwell among men and bestows gifts. Most people reject wisdom and it returns to heaven.

Solomon's idea of a just man is one who is persecuted and condemned to a shameful death, but then God gives him eternal life, counting him as one of the "sons of God," giving him a crown, calling him the "servant of the Lord." He is despised and rejected. In The Jesus of History and Myth, R. J. Hoffinan writes: "In sum, musing on the Wisdom and on other Jewish literature could have prompted the earliest Christians to suppose that a preexistent redeemer had suffered crucifixion, the most shameful death of all, before being exalted to God's right hand."

Another view is presented by Randall Helms in an article, "Fiction in the Gospels" in Jesus in History and Myth. Helms notices that there are many literary parallels between Old Testament and New Testament stories. He calls this "self-reflexive fiction." It is as if there are some skeletal templates into which the Jews placed their stories. One example is the comparison between the raising of the son of the widow of Nain in Luke 7:11-16 and the raising of the son of a widow of Zarephath in I Kings 17. Not only is the content similar, but the structure of the tale is almost identical.

Other examples are the storm stories in Psalms and Jonah compared with the New Testament storm story in Mark 4:37-41, and the story of Elijah's food multi- plication with that of Jesus. The first-century Jews were simply rewriting old stories, like a movie remake. This view, in and of itself, does not completely account for the entire Jesus myth, but it does show how literary parallels can play a part in the elaboration of a fable.

John Allegro suggested that the Jesus character was patterned after the Essene Teacher of Righteousness, who was crucified in 88 BC. He wrote that the Dead Sea Scrolls prove that the Essenes interpreted the Old Testament in a way to make them fit their own Messiah. Allegro writes: "When Josephus speaks of the Essences reverence for their 'Lawgiver' . . . we may assume reasonably that he speaks of their Teacher, the 'Joshua/Jesus' of the Last Days. By the first century, therefore, it seems that he was being accorded semi-divine status, and that his role of Messiah, or Christ, was fully appreciated." (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth)

An example of one of the many naturalistic attempts to explain the miracles is the "swoon theory," found in The Passover Plot by Dr. Hugh J. Schonfield. This is the idea that the resurrection story is basically historically accurate but that Jesus merely fainted, and was presumed to be dead, com- ing back to consciousness later.

Some of these explanations turn out to bejust as difficult to believe as the miracle reports themselves, in my opinion; but they are, nevertheless, viable hypotheses that show that even if the docu- ments are entirely reliable, the story itself can be explained in other ways. If it is possible for part of a story to be misunderstood or exaggerated, then why not the whole thing?

Prudent history demands that until all natural explanations for the origin of an outrageous tale are completely ruled out, it is irresponsible to hold to the literal, historical truth of what appears to bejust another myth.

Are the miracles historical?

During a debate at the University of Northern Iowa, I asked my opponent,

"Do you believe that a donkey spoke human language?"

"Yes, I do," he responded.

"Yesterday, I visited the zoo," I continued, "and a donkey spoke to me in perfect Spanish, saying, "A'la es el unico Dios uerdadero" Do you believe that?"

"No, I don't," he answered without hesitation.

"How can you be so quick to doubt my story and yet criticize me for being skeptical of yours?"

"Because I believe what Jesus tells me, not what you tell me."

In other words, miracles are true if the bible says so, but they are not true if they appear in any other source. When questioning the miracle reports of the New Testament, this become circular reasoning.

The presence of miracle stories in the New Testament makes the legend highly suspect. But it is important to understand what skeptics are saying about miracles. Skeptics do not say that the miracle reports should be automatically dismissed, a priori. After all, there might be future explanations for the stories, perhaps something that we yet do not understand about nature.

What skeptics say is that if a miracle is defined as some kind of violation, suspension, overriding, or punctuation of natural law, then miracles cannot be historical. Of all of the legitimate sciences, history is the weakest. History, at best, produces only an approximation of truth. In order for history to have any strength at all, it must adhere to a very strict assumption: that natural law is regular over time.

Without the assumption of natural regularity, no history can be done. There would be no criteria for discarding fantastic stories. Everything that has ever been recorded would have to be taken as literal truth.

Therefore, if a miracle did happen, it would pull the rug out from history. The very basis of the historical method would have to be discarded. You can have miracles, or you can have history, but you can't have both.

However, if a miracle is defined as a ""highly unlikely" or "wonderful," event, then it is fair game for history, but with an important caveat: outrageous claims require outrageous proof. A skeptic who does allow for the remote pos- sibility of accurate miracle reporting in the Gospels nevertheless must rel- egate it to a very low probability.

Since the New Testament contains numerous stories of events that are either outrageous (such as the resurrection of thousands of dead bodies on Good Friday) or impossible, the story must be considered more mythical than historical.

Conclusion

Either in ignorance or in defiance of scholarship, preachers such as tel- evangelist Pat Robertson continue to rattle off the list of Christian "evidences," but most bible scholars, including most non-fundamentalist Christians, admit that the documentation is very weak. In The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer, wrote: "There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus. . . . The historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma . . ."

To sum up: There is no external historical confirmation for the Jesus story outside of the New Testament. The New Testament accounts are internally contradictory. There are many other plausible explanations for the origin of the myth which do not require us to distort or destroy the natural world view. The miracle reports make the story highly suspect.

The Gospel stories are no more historic than the Genesis creation accounts are scientific. They are filled with exaggerations, miracles, and admitted propaganda. They were written during a context of time when myths were being born, exchanged, elaborated, and corrupted, and they were written to an audience susceptible to such fables. They are cut from the same cloth as other religions and fables of the time. Taking all of this into account, it is rational to conclude that the New Testament Jesus is a myth.