The idea that Jesus did not exist goes against the very grain of contemporary New Testament and Biblical scholarship, it is unanimously accepted that Jesus did exist, and that we can actually know facts about him. So, we ought to think that Lataster’s article is going to deliver a knock down blow against the Jesus of history. But, does he do that?
- Bible believing Christians “ought not to get involved” in historical investigation:
First off, Lataster begins by saying, “Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved.”
Well, is that not revealing? The very person trying to persuade readers that “The evidence just doesn’t add up” is telling us who can and cannot be involved in this process of historical investigation. Would it be right if I were to say, “Any atheist ought not to get involved in New Testament studies on Jesus because they are clearly biased against supernatural agency”? I would hardly say such a thing. I can’t help but note that this author holds Christian scholars in contempt – what about the extremely prominent New Testament scholars Gary Habermas, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, and Mike Licona, are we simply to dismiss these PhD. scholars because of their religion? Can they not conduct historical investigation?
Arrogance, and contempt on the part of the author.
- Lack of early sources:
The author goes on to say, “The first problem we encounter when trying to discover more about the Historical Jesus is the lack of early sources. The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith. These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them.”
Now, sources being written, I am not sure what he means by compiled (the Council of Nicea, or the early Church fathers? He doesn’t say), decades after events does nothing to prove that that Jesus is a “clearly fictional Christ of faith” at all. It is true that the Gospel accounts of Jesus were written about 30 – 60 years after his life – however, some of Paul’s letters in the New Testament date even earlier to the early 50’s AD (15 to 20 years after Jesus life). Even better yet for Jesus’ historicity is that in Pauls writing (1 Corinthians 15:1-11) we find it contains an early Christian creed that is dated by scholars to between 3 and 5 years after Christ’s death.
Now, Paul met with Jesus’ brother James, and Jesus’ beloved disciple Peter – the very two people that would know a thing or two about Jesus and his existence especially since they were martyred for their faith in him – that would be a tough one for Lataster to hop out of, he doesn’t address it.
- Reasons to question the Gospel authors:
However, I agree with the author when he says, “which gives us reason to question them” as a result of the authors trying to promote Christianity. We should always question the intentions of an author.
Where I disagree is that we, if this is the point that the author is trying to hint at, should dismiss the Gospel accounts because they try to promote Christianity. In fact, competent historians have methods by which to sift through bias and extract historical fact, as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman writes:
“The question is not whether sources are biased but whether biased sources can be used to yield historically reliable information, once their biased chaff is separated from the historical kernel. And historians have devised ways of doing just that.”
Again, this hardly disproves the existence of Jesus. If Lataster’s methodology here was true then we would need to reject every Jewish account of the internal workings of the German concentration camps. We would need to reject every report of a car crash as each participant would likely be biased in one way or another. We would also need to reject what we know of the famous Socrates, as all we know of him comes from his students. Hardly the historian’s method (as Bart explained above).
- Anonymous authorship:
Next the author writes:
“The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources”
It is true that the Gospel authorship is left anonymous, however, this is not really arguing anything against the existence of Jesus – instead we need to examine the Gospel authors by other means, namely: by location, archaeology, and whether the early Church founders affirmed the documents as trustworthy or not as they would be at the time and place in history to do so.
What we find actually strengthens the veracity of these accounts, this shows that the scribes that authored the Gospels are reporting reliable history. Of course that does not “prove” that they are telling the truth, but it allows us to trust their competence as authors.
As notable Christian debater, philosopher, and New Testament scholar William Lane Craig states:
“…when you think about it, the names of the Gospels’ authors are quite immaterial. At most what matters is that the author, whether named Luke or Joshua or Herkimer or what have you, was in a position to deliver historically reliable information about the historical Jesus.”
In fact, just by looking at, for example, the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the author clearly shows competence, as they following scholars attest to:
“Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… [he] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”
-Sir William Ramsay (Archaeologist and New Testament scholar)
“For accuracy of detail, and for evocation of atmosphere, Luke stands, in fact, with Thucydides. The Acts of the Apostles is not shoddy product of pious imagining, but a trustworthy record… it was the spadework of archaeology which first revealed the truth.”
-Edward Musgrave Blaiklock (Classics, Auckland University)
- Filled with myth and embellishment?
The author then goes on to say, “Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.”
I have three points that not to be addressed regarding this allegation.
Firstly, since when does a text “Filled with mythical and non-historical information” necessitate that a figure of history did not exist? Much of what we know about Alexander the Great is shrouded in myth and embellishment, but we don’t conclude that he did not exist, or requite to default agnosticism over the question of his existence. Truth be told is that myth and embellishment is often constructed on top of a true historical nucleus of some well-known figure of history – this would make Jesus qualify (see the Gnostic Gospels for example).
Secondly, the interval between the events of Jesus’ life and death, and the time by which they were written down in the form of the Gospels is too short to allow for myth to mar the historical facts. For instance, A.N. Sherwin White studied the work of the ancient historian Herodotus, and could test at what point fact is marred and myth is interpolated. White, in his analysis of myth-making in the ancient near east in his book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, states:
“Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.”
Then regarding the Gospels he states: “But it can be maintained that those who had a passionate interest in the story of Christ, even if their interest in events was parabolical and didactic rather than historical, would not be led by that very fact to pervert and utterly destroy the historical kernel of their material.”
Notice that Sherwin-White’s conclusion is extremely cautious. He is not saying that it can be shown that every event recorded in the Gospels can be historically corroborated. He is saying, however, that the authors of the Gospels can reasonably be expected to get the historical kernels of Jesus’s life correct – one such “kernel” would be that he existed.
Thirdly, and lastly on this point is that Lataster has provided no argument whatsoever to back up his claim that the Gospels are “Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time” – where is his reasoning? There is none, thus what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
- Criterion of authenticity:
He then goes on: “The methods traditionally used to tease out rare nuggets of truth from the Gospels are dubious.” – here Lataster is referring to the criterion of authenticity. This is a method invented by scholars to find out the real facts about Jesus, his ministry, and so forth from within the Gospels. For instance, these criterion include the criteria of embarrassment, dissimilarity, and multiple attestation.
Lataster then tries to justify this by saying, “Unfortunately, given the diverse nature of Christianity and Judaism back then (things have not changed all that much), and the anonymity of the authors, it is impossible to determine what truly would be embarrassing or counter-intuitive, let alone if that might not serve some evangelistic purpose.”
I touched on the whole anonymous Gospel authorship issue above, so I won’t repeat myself, however, he seems to claim that both Judaism and Christianity were “diverse” in nature – again, he does not justify this or indicate what he means, hence, I cannot comment.
Regarding, that the criterion of authenticity are “dubious” because of “evangelical purposes” goes entirely against his near non-existent argument.
The criterion of embarrassment is when the author of the Gospels mentions something that he would certainly not have made up, hence, making the account more historically certain. For instance, Jesus calls Peter, his favourite disciple, Satan (Matthew 16:23) – this is hardly something someone would invent, especially regarding their leader. Another example would be Jesus’ crucifixion, as anyone being crucified was under the condemnation of God (of which Jesus was as he paid for our sins and received God’s wrath on the cross). If Jesus was the promised Messiah then no-one would put him on a cross if they were to invent a tale, and then run away in fear.
As mentioned above, this goes against the authors argument as these highly embarrassing events were well known by the disciples, and when the disciples went about the land evangelizing and proclaiming that Christ had risen, and telling people the full story. Hardly something someone would make up.
Then Lataster tries to undermine the criterion of independent attestation, “The criterion of multiple independent attestation can also hardly be used properly here, given that the sources clearly are not independent.”
Yet, the sources are independent both within the Bible, and outside of the Bible. For instance, Mark is our earliest source, and then Matthew and Luke come after him. Matthew and Luke are independent of each other – both have also consulted Mark, yet Mark also has a source he consulted that is even earlier than his Gospel (scholars think this source comes 15 years after Jesus’ death, this makes this source very early). Both Matthew and Luke seem to have material that is similar between them, and not found in Mark, this has caused scholars to conclude that there was likely another additional source – scholars call this Q. Then we have John’s Gospel, which is another independent source, and on top of that we have the Pauline epistles. In truth we have at least 5 or 6 independent sources found within the New Testament, and scholars count themselves lucky if they just have 2 sources that are independent.
Regarding Jesus crucifixion as a fact of history it is attested in as many as 11 ancient independent sources. The existence of Jesus is attested in 19 sources of history – a very high number and why New Testament scholar R. J. Miller (Finding, 2008) writes:
“We can be certain that Jesus really existed (despite a few hyper-historical skeptics who refuse to be convinced).”
Although I justified above why the sources are in fact independent, again Lataster simply asserts without argument.
- Are the Gospels eyewitness accounts? What about contemporary accounts of Jesus?
Lataster goes on to: “Also important are the sources we don’t have. There are no existing eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus. All we have are later descriptions of Jesus’ life events by non-eyewitnesses, most of whom are obviously biased”
I addressed the bias allegation above. Again, the fact that we have writings that come after the life of Jesus does not militate against his existence. It may go against other things, such as what we can know about Jesus (which is debatable if we correctly apply the criterion of authenticity), but hardly against his existence.
I often like to draw a syllogism. Any conclusion to a syllogism can only follow if the premises are sound. So, accordingly to Lataster, he argues thus:
- A person of history can only exist if we have contemporary evidence of him or her existing at any specific time in the past.
- Our earliest written accounts on Jesus come some 20 years after his existence.
- Therefore, Jesus did not exist.
First off, premise one is false – if it were true then we would need to scrap most of what we know about many figures of history. No credible scholar of history would agree to this.
Premise two actually counts in favour for Jesus, as a 20 year interval is extremely short (as Sherwin White indicated above) – add in the creed in Corinthians that is dated just 3 to 5 years after Jesus’ death we only strengthen the case for Christ.
Premise three does not logically follow, in other words the argument is invalid. Premise 1 for a start is fallacious, and premise two is actually a positive for Jesus’ historicity. The argument is faulty on two fronts, hence, the conclusion cannot follow.
This is the argument, in a nutshell, that Lataster has put forward to us.
Secondly, the Gospel accounts are, in fact, eyewitness accounts (as Lastaster neglected to mention). Consult 2 Peter 1:16, John 1:6-7, Luke 24:44-49, Acts 1:6-8, 1 Peter 5:1, 2 Peter 1:16-17, 1 John 1:1-3, John 21:24-25, Luke 1:1-4.
The disciples heavily affirm themselves as eyewitnesses.
- What about the Josephus Flavius and Tacitus account? How many sources mention Jesus within 100 years of his existence?
Then in short, the author goes on to attack the Flavius and Tacitus extra biblical accounts:
“Little can be gleaned from the few non-Biblical and non-Christian sources, with only Roman scholar Josephus and historian Tacitus having any reasonable claim to be writing about Jesus within 100 years of his life. And even those sparse accounts are shrouded in controversy, with disagreements over what parts have obviously been changed by Christian scribes (the manuscripts were preserved by Christians)”
Firstly this is just not true on two fronts. For a start we do have more than just the two non-biblical sources, that Lataster does not mention, that actually date within 100 years of Jesus’ life and ministry that mention him. Here is a list of pagan and Jewish non-biblical sources:
- Flavius Josephus in ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ (93-94 AD) – 60 years after Jesus’ death
- Cornelius Tacitus in ‘Annals’ (116 AD) – 86 years after Jesus’ death
- Mara-Serapion in a letter (73-300 AD) – this letter could possibly be within 100 years of Jesus existence.
- Suetonius (121 AD) in ‘The Lives of the Twelve Caesars’ – 88 years after Jesus’ death
- Pliny the Younger (112 AD) in ‘Epistulae X.96’ – 82 years after Jesus’ existence.
We could also reasonably conclude that Thallus reported early on the eclipse at Jesus’ crucifixion (52 AD, referred to by Julius Africanus in 221 AD), that Phlegon refers to Jesus prophecies (80 AD, referred to by Origen 185-254 AD).
And, what about the early Church founders? Some of their letters date within 100 years – these early Church founders were well acquainted with the disciples of Jesus’ and their contemporaries. The only reason, I could think of, that the author refuses to mention them is because he holds Christian authors in contempt – hardly the marks of a true historian trying to evaluate the evidence as objectively as possible.
Here is a list of these texts that mention Jesus:
- Clement (95 AD) in a letter to Corinthian Church – 65 years after Jesus’ death.
- Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, (110-115 AD) in letter to the Trallians – 85 years after Jesus’ death.
- Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, (110-115 AD) in letter to the Smyrneans – 85 years after Jesus’ death.
- Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, (110-115 AD) in letter to the Magnesians. – 85 years after Jesus’ death.
- Quadratus to Emperor Hadrian (125 AD) – 95 years after Jesus’ existence.
- Pseudo Barnabas (130-138 AD) – possibly within 100 years of Jesus’ existence.
- Papias (95-120 AD, referred to by Eusebius of Caesarea in the 300’s AD) – 90 years after Jesus existence.
- Polycarp’s letter (110-140 AD) to the Philippians – possibly within 100 years of Jesus’ existence.
As we can see there is a wealth of texts that date from within 100 years of Jesus existence that are non-biblical. As soon as we add the Gospels and Pauline epistles to the rest we have strong evidence for Jesus existence.
This is also just the texts that mention Jesus within 100 years, what about the others that come shortly after that 100 year mark? Texts such as the Gnostic Gospels, the other Christian and Church writers (Justin Martyr, Saint Apollinaris Claudius, Tatian, Melito of Sardis, Saint Dionysius) who all date within 150 years? We also find that Jesus is mentioned by other non-biblical writers within 150 years of his existence, such as Lucian (before 165 AD) in ‘Passing of Peregrinus’, and the Jewish Talmud.
After surveying this it shows that Lataster is being rather disingenuous in his claims.
Now, just the second and final problem I see with the author’s above statement is that he seems to suggest that we ought dismiss the Josephus passage of Jesus as spurious, and doubt the authenticity of Tacitus.
First off, these two historians are prominent figures of history – much of what we can know from that area in the 1st century comes from Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius (all of whom mention Jesus). So, the fact that they even mention Jesus is a positive, and historians note this.
Yet, what about the passage we find in Josephus’ writings?
It is true that one passage (Book 18, Chapter 3, 3) in Josephus’ work ‘The Antiquities of the Jews’ mentioning Jesus was touched up by a Christian scribe. However, Louis Feldman, the world’s leading Josephus scholar, states that this passage indicates that Josephus did say something about Jesus, and that the majority of modern scholars consider it partially authentic. The passage contains a historical nucleus, despite some clear Christian interpolations in the text. Whatever the case, Josephus did mention Jesus in this passage, and this is the scholarly consensus.
In Josephus’ writings we also find he sheds light on other Biblical characters such as Jesus’ brother James, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, Roman Governor Pilate, King Herod, John the Baptist and so forth. We are dealing with a competent historian, and someone that would really research his subjects – why would he not do so with Jesus?
Then in Josephus’ second reference to Jesus we read that, “Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but 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”
This text, according to Louis Feldman is “almost universally acknowledged” and mentions Jesus – this is the second time Josephus mentions Jesus.
We can reasonable conclude with confidence that Josephus does touch on the historical Jesus.
Now, what about Tacitus? Is his account “shrouded in controversy” as the author wants us to believe.
Tacitus in Annals, book 15, chapter 44, refers to Jesus, his execution by Pilate, and the early Christians that at that time were existent in Rome.
However, most scholars consider this passage concerning Jesus to be authentic. Scholars generally consider Tacitus’s reference to be of historical value as an independent Roman source about early Christianity that is in unison with other historical records.
Robert Van Voorst in his book ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’ suggests that the passage is unlikely to be a Christian forgery because of the pejorative language used to describe Christianity, this view is also shared with Andreas Kostenberger who states that the tone of the passage towards Christians is far too negative to have been authored by a Christian scribe.
Also, scholars such as Bruce Chilton, Craig Evans, Paul R. Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd agree with John Meier’s statement that “Despite some feeble attempts to show that this text is a Christian interpolation in Tacitus, the passage is obviously genuine.”
So, in concluding this point we have seen that Lataster is disengenious on at least three accounts by dismissing both the Tacitus and Josephus accounts regarding Jesus, as well as on how many sources mention him within 100 years of his existence.
- Is agnosticism over the existence of Jesus the best answer?
The author writes, “Agnosticism over the matter is already seemingly appropriate, and support for this position comes from independent historian Richard Carrier’s recent defense of another theory.”
Now, regarding Richard Carrier I have read some of his works and watched him in numerous debates against Christian opponents. No matter the case, Carrier is paddling heavily against the current of historical scholars in the field, and because of this it barely warrants him any significant attention within the scholarship community.
In a debate with William Lane Craig, Craig summed Carrier up as follows:
“Richard [Carrier] takes the extremist position that Jesus of Nazareth never even existed, that there was no such person in history. This is a position that is so extreme that to call it marginal would be an understatement; it doesn’t even appear on the map of contemporary New Testament scholarship.”
Then Lataster goes on to say, “To summarize Carrier’s 800-page tome, this theory and the traditional theory – that Jesus was a historical figure who became mythicized over time – both align well with the Gospels, which are later mixtures of obvious myth and what at least sounds historical.”
Well, simply referring to Carrier’s “tome” is baseless here, as this article is the focal point of interest to me. Secondly, anyone can write an 800 page tome, in fact I know a longer one, heard of Harry Potter?
Again, I addressed the whole myth allegation above (see Sherwin White), so I go there again.
So, in conclusion I believe “agnosticism over the matter” is just not warranted regarding the existence of the Jesus in history. I don’t think the author has made a near enough compelling case thus far.
- So what do the mainstream (and non-Christian) scholars say about all this?
Lataster goes on to say, “So what do the mainstream (and non-Christian) scholars say about all this? Surprisingly very little – of substance anyway. Only Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey have thoroughly attempted to prove Jesus’ historical existence in recent times.”
Why is that, do you think? The truth is that the evidence for the existence of Jesus in history is so compelling it hardly warrants any attention in order to defend it – in fact it is a waste of time and money for the scholars to even think about it. There are more important things that are given attention by contemporary scholarship. This summed up rather nicely by Burridge and Could:
“There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more.”
The author then goes on, “Their most decisive point? The Gospels can generally be trusted – after we ignore the many, many bits that are untrustworthy – because of the hypothetical (i.e. non-existent) sources behind them.”
Well, that is exactly the point! Even though some events in the Gospels are “untrustworthy” (which warrants further discussion, and is on many accounts debatable) we can still draw historical facts from them – one such basic, primary fact is that Jesus existed.
- In conclusion
Lataster concludes, thus, “In sum, there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence – if not to think it outright improbable.”
I hope at least that this brief analysis of the author’s allegations against the historical Jesus has shown them to be fallacious. In fact, there is barely one argument above that even if it were true would negate the existence of Jesus. We could conclude, which for obvious reasons we don’t, that the Gospels contain myths and embellishments, that they were altered by the early Church, that the non-biblical accounts of Jesus by Josephus and Tacitus are spurious, and so on and on – to these it does not logically follow that a Jew named Jesus did not exist in the 1st century – not even that would give “clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence”.
Let me end by quoting sceptical New Testament scholars:
“I don’t think there’s any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus …. We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.”
“Some judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example, Jesus really existed, and he really was crucified, just as Julius Caesar really existed and was assassinated. …. We can in fact know as much about Jesus as we can about any figure in the ancient world.”
“This view [that Jesus didn’t exist] is demonstrably false. It is fuelled by a regrettable form of atheist prejudice, which holds all the main primary sources, and Christian people, in contempt. …. Most of its proponents are also extraordinarily incompetent.”
“….. the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”
“[In answer to the question, did Jesus exist?] I would say it is much more likely that he did than he didn’t. To believe that he had been imagined or invented is a much harder task than to rely on the available evidence, which is obviously not as clear-cut as one would like, but is sufficiently good to say that somebody by the name of Jesus existed around the time when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea in the first century AD.”
References and further reading coming soon :