Syllabus Class 49 Jesus' Imagined History (Text Below)
Introduction- The problem of Jesus’ historicity – should it matter to atheists and agnostics?
Myth versus history-There is a strong possibility that the Jesus of the New Testament was not a historical person
The Gospels as testimony to Jesus’ historical reality
Many Christians turn to the Gospels for a record of the life and sayings of Jesus
Were the Gospels myth or history?
Definition of myth- many scholars believe the Gospels are primarily mythological- careful study of the language used and events described points to mythological, not historical content
Gospelists wrote in literary Greek- such literary schools encouraged pupils to invent stories about legendary people
The Gospels also incorporated and rewrote pre-Christian Jewish tales, rabbinical tales, pagan stories and Jewish scriptures
Choice of particular gospels for the New Testament decided by Church Councils, money and influence
Gospel of Mark- 70’s CE- a literary construction
Mark’s use of Barabbas character and its symbolic meaning- scapegoat tales from Jewish tradition and the holiday of Yom Kippur-
Mark’s tale of Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter from the dead parallels an Elijah Old Testament tale
Triadic, literary structure of Mark-
Mark’s attempt of replace the old, destroyed Temple rituals with a new dispensation
Gospel of Matthew- 80’s CE- Matthew copied and rewrote Mark, not as skillful a writer as Mark- Matthew desired to reverse Mark’s Gentile friendly concept- he wanted to bring back Torah observance even to Gentiles who became Christians
Matthew interested in day to day Church rules and apostles’ missionary work
Luke’s Gospel- sometime in the 90’s CE- attempts to present itself as history
Luke presents shaky “facts” and uses other devices to pretend that it is relating history-
Luke’s primary purpose was to pretend that in the Christian movement, the Gentile and Torah Observant Jewish factions were in unity from the very beginning
John’s Gospel- sometime in the 100’s CE- John’s text is not independent of the other three gospels- John also had many writers, much editing and so on
John tried to reverse concept of the other Gospels about “no sign being given” about Jesus’ divinity- a plethora of Jesus’ “miracles” presented by John to prove Jesus was the Messiah
John’s Gospel the least truthful and trustworthy of all the canonical gospels
Some Church Fathers were likely aware of the mythological nature of the stories and saying of Jesus, but believed the common people needed the belief these things were factual
Epistles of Paul-
The Pauline Epistles are the earliest, written accounts of Jesus from the 50’s or 60’s CE
Paul provided no information when he wrote to the Christian Churches about Jesus’ life, birth, ministry and so on
Any of the incidents concerning Jesus related by Paul could have taken place in outer space or a sacred space rather than earth
Apologists’ reasons for Paul’s omissions do not hold up under close scrutiny
Paul never cited James or Peter for Jesus’ directions
Paul’s account could easily be celestial- some scholars believe the narrative tradition of a historical Jesus post-dates Paul’s generation
Paul cites only revelation and scripture, mostly Old Testament, for his instructions to his churches
Paul’s account of the Eucharist and of Jesus’ death is puzzling- Paul blamed Satan and his demons for Jesus’ sacrifice
Paul’s Epistles point to Jesus as a post-historical deity who was originally a sky god
Acts of the Apostles-
Acts of the Apostles was most likely written by the Gospelist Luke
Acts has been discredited by most scholars as history
Some of Act’s sources- Josephus, the Jewish historian, for background material from his Antiquities- 93-94 CE, Homer’s Odyssey, Euripides’ Bacchae, Ezekiel and so on-
Luke once again attempted in Acts to promote the fictional unity of Jews and Gentile Christians being continuous and on good terms from the start-
Luke made false claims about Paul’s ministry, about the conversion of Jews at Pentecost and so on-
Acts also borrowed from popular Greek/Roman Romance/Adventure novels of the era-
What happened to Jesus’ body? Romans would not have allowed grave robbery to go unpunished or a dangerous renegade to go free-
Evidence from Extrabiblical sources-
No real proof Jesus was known to pagan historians, writers or philosophers
The following sources have all been disproved-
Josephus- both passages from his Antiquities cited in Acts are interpolations
Tacitus (56-117 CE), a good friend of Pliny the Younger (61-113 CE) could not have known much of Christians and since Nero’s persecution of Christians was an untrue tale, probably only repeated hearsay or never wrote about it, and the paragraph is an interpolation
Suetonius (69-122 CE) writes of a Jewish, not a Christian insurrection, and speaks of a Chrestus, not Christ. His account is likely untrue-
Seneca’s (45 CE to 65 CE) “Treatise on Superstition,” treats every sect in Rome and castigates each one, but never mentions Christians even though he talked about the Jews
Obviously the Christian hierarchy created a historical personage from a sky deity- a real personage was better marketing for Christianity- it allowed claims that the Church hierarchy’s narrative and dogma were the correct ones- this hegemony promoted power for the ruling group and promoted social cohesion which the nascent Church needed-
The new historical Jesus replaced Paul as the authority of Church doctrine- trying to claim revelation as Paul did for Jesus’ orders was an opening of the door to rival claims that their revelations were the true ones-
Conclusion- the claim that Jesus was a historical person helped the Church gain power and members but it was all a lie – to protect that lie and the Church’s power, countless people were oppressed, tortured and many died-
To choose to propagate the myth of Jesus’ divinity and historical reality gave rise to egregious outcomes for humanity.
Jesus' Imagined History
The references to volumes and articles I mention during the lecture may be found at AtheistScholar.org at the end of the written lecture in the Bibliography.
Additionally, there are excellent Bibliographies at the end of the following written lectures at AtheistScholar.org: Biblical Criticism- the Historicity of Jesus; Jesus and Mary’s Pagan Roots.
I would like to begin this lecture with the thought that I had for many years before undertaking this series of lectures on atheism and related topics. I have never believed that Jesus was a divinity, even as a child. As I grew older and became more interested in the ancient world of Greece and Rome, the more I became aware of Jesus’ resemblance to other dying-and-rising gods, such as Dionysius. (Please see Jesus’ Pagan Roots at AtheistScholar.org for the written lecture and link to the YouTube lecture.) I read such old classics as Frazer’s Golden Bough, written in the early 1900’s, and became convinced that Jesus had become part of the dying-and-rising god mythology. But earlier in my life, I thought that he had been a historical personage. It was obvious that he had had little historical importance, that he was likely one of many traveling preacher/magicians of that era. But it only dawned on me slowly that he may have never existed, that he had originally been a celestial deity with other supposed historical narratives tacked on to the story. I began to realize that the Jesus myth may have had such fables attached to it to make it appear that he had been a historical person.
I have recently read the large, impressive and erudite 2014 volume on the topic written by Richard Carrier. It is titled: On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt.
This lecture is gratefully dependent on the book and on Carrier’s intensive research. I am also indebted to Robert Price and other writers whom you can find listed in the Bibliography at the end of this written lecture at AtheistScholar.org.
Richard Carrier is quite correct in his taking the question of Jesus’ historical existence one step further. I agree with him that it would not really matter to most secular people whether Jesus was a historical personage or not. Most of the secular community, atheists and agnostics, have no belief that a historical Jesus was divine. Rather, it would be the religious community, or most of it, that reveres Jesus as a savior, whose world view would be challenged and threatened if it became clear that Jesus had never had a historical existence. Nevertheless, it is of interest to many secularists and intellectuals to look into the issue of Jesus’ alleged earthly life, sayings and works. We shall glance at the Gospels, The Epistles of Paul, The Acts of the Apostles, all in the New Testament, and then at the extra-biblical sources for some idea as to what can be proven, or taken as truth, about Jesus.
Carrier divides those who believe Jesus was a historical person, and those who believe he was not, into two categories, historicists and mythicists. When we have concluded this lecture, it will be interesting to see what each listener has come away with- who has become convinced that Jesus was a real personage, although never a divine one, a savior, and those who think that he was, from the beginning, a celestial deity who was later provided with a false history. Such a false history can be assumed to be a marketing ploy of an ambitious religious sect that would ultimately grow into the Christian Church.
I would like to begin by considering the matter of the Gospels of the New Testament. The Gospels are accepted by many Christians as the true historical record of the life and sayings of Jesus. The most important question for us must be whether the material set down in the Gospels was myth or history. It was a common practice in the ancient world to include so-called historical biographies of mythological characters in books which also contained biographies of genuine historical characters. The eminent historian, Plutarch (46 CE- 120 CE) is an excellent example. When he wrote his 2nd Century Lives, he included such characters as Romulus, the mythological founder of Rome, and provided many allegedly biographical facts about Romulus. None of the particulars he included were true in the least. The important point is that even such a well known and well regarded historian wrote about Romulus’ fabricated life as though it was equivalent to the life of Julius Caesar, who was a historical personage.
A myth is a narrative spoken or presented as an apparent straight forward account of an event or action that has taken place. Yet with closer scrutiny, one may observe that the elements of the tale have been arranged to convey a deeper meaning. The author has used symbols, allusions and other literary devices, in many cases even altering the point of the earlier myths he has borrowed from. The objective for his changes and use of various other literary strategies is to communicate the writer’s own values and notional truths to his audience and to convince his auditors to embrace those values in their turn.
In the present day, there are quite a few scholars who have confirmed, by careful analysis and objective study, that the Gospels are, in the words of Richard Carrier: “…primarily and pervasively mythical.” Carrier goes on to cite Marcus Borg, stating that (1) much of the language of the Gospels is metaphorical, (2) that what matters is the more-than-literal meaning, and (3) that the more-than-literal meaning does not depend on the historical factuality of the language. These facts put the Gospels in the category of allegorical myth, not history, not even remembered history.
Furthermore, we do not know, nor are we ever told, who the Gospel writers are, what their claim to authenticity is, what their sources are, and why they are qualified to tell the story of Jesus.
It has become obvious to many biblical scholars that the Gospels cannot be considered eyewitness testimony or even a collection of such testimonies. We do know, however, that the writers, whoever they were, wrote in literary Greek, so they most likely at some point had attended ancient literary schools. Such schools taught students to invent stories about legendary people, and to create symbolic and moral messages out of collections of general rules and proverbs. David Gowler points out that the Gospels “appear to be an assembled network of vignettes” that were already identified in ancient schools as chreiai, standard and rhetorical devices, taught to all students who attended such schools.” Biblical scholars call such assembled networks of vignettes, periscopes.
Scholarly research has discovered that the Gospels are not historical records, although that is what the Gospel writers tried to claim.
They are literary constructions, intelligently designed, to communicate what each writer wanted to communicate, rather than what each one was told by genuine eyewitnesses or other reliable sources. By now, most New Testament scholars have become aware that many of elements of the Gospels have incorporated and rewritten pre-Christian Jewish tales, some pagan stories, and some “scriptures.” In fact, according to Richard Carrier and others, “… nearly the whole core of Gospel narratives can be found to be derived from scripture.” Let us keep in mind that we do not have all the early scriptures. Therefore we cannot judge how much more ‘inspiration’ we may have been able to locate concerning the sources of the New Testament Gospel literature. The Gospel authors were not ‘inspired’ by god or eyewitnesses but by earlier writings from which they freely borrowed.
It is important to remember the fact that the Gospels were largely created by rewriting pagan tales and especially by reworking early Jewish accounts, particularly Jewish scriptures. Such practices were the norm, according to scholars, and not the exception. The Gospels of the New Testament often very closely resemble Jewish rabbinical tales in both style and content. They have been rewritten to advance the disparate agendas of the writers. Almost the entire core of the Gospels has come from those earlier scriptures. Some biblical experts are of the opinion that additional incorporation of materials from prior texts, such as one called The Wisdom of Jesus, the Old Testament psalms, and revelations, like those claimed by Paul, were other sources for the gospelists. Three Gospel writers used the effortless method of pilfering from earlier Gospel authors, Matthew borrowing from Mark, Luke from Matthew, and John from Luke.
The Gospels included in the New Testament were chosen at church councils and were likely to have been those that could be cobbled together to make up some sort of cohesive narrative. But they were chosen out of many other gospels, perhaps a hundred others, because they had backers on the councils who put their inclusion forward, both with money and with political influence. The canonic status of the four Gospels we shall be glancing at was universally recognized by the 300’s, although many of the canonic New Testament inclusions were formally accepted by the Catholic Church much later.
Very little material selected in that process can be said to have any historical accuracy or relevance. The more conservative biblical scholars claim that such literary constructs have accumulated around a historically accurate core, or at the very least, verbally transmitted memories that are somewhat accurate. Therefore they assert that all that is needed are the proper methods and tools to tease out the admittedly tiny historical facts from the plethora of accumulated myth. But experts who have undertaken a direct examination of the Gospels have been able to do no such thing. If there is any historicity to the Gospels, no one has found it and the likelihood that it can be discovered grows more remote with each study.
To go into all the myths, parables, lies and inaccuracies of each Gospel is far beyond the scope of this lecture. I have included an incident or two from each of the Gospels, and shall use them as examples to illustrate the unreliability of the information provided by them. Not one of the works is a trustworthy source. None can be believed to contain even a minute core of historical fact.
(Please see the references I have listed at the end of this written lecture at AtheistScholar.org in the Bibliography for a thorough review of the New Testament and its inaccuracies, as well as the lecture, Biblical Criticism, at AtheistScholar.org.)
The Gospel of Mark, probably written sometime in the 70’s CE, is a literary construction from beginning to end. I would like to remind my audience of the tale of Christ’s crucifixion. Mark’s Gospel version added a previously unknown character, an insurrectionist, who had committed murder. Mark gave this character the name of Barabbas. The tale continued with the Jewish crowd being asked by the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, whether they wanted Jesus or Barabbas to be released. Mark claimed that the crowd, worked up by the Jewish priests against Jesus, called for the release of Barabbas. Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judaea from 26-36 CE, acceded to their wishes and set the insurrectionist free. Does that narrative make any sense as a true account of historical fact?
There was a historical precedent of temporary parole being granted to people who had committed innocuous crimes on the Feast of Dionysius. (Please see “The Pagan Roots of Jesus and the Virgin Mary” at AtheistScholar.org, for an extended discussion of Jesus’ similarity to Dionysius, the Greek god of wine.) But there was no historical precedent or evidence for Pilate’s releasing a prisoner at the Jewish Passover. A brutal prefect, such as Pilate, or any Roman magistrate, would never release a murderous insurgent for any reason.
Researchers, such Raymond Brown and Robert Merritt, state that “… the ceremony [of prisoner release] obviously emulates the Jewish ritual at Yom Kippur of the scapegoat and atonement.” Such experts believe that the allegorical nature of the Barabbas tale is quite clear. Mark’s narration had begun to merge the two rituals, Jesus’ sacrifice at the Passover, which earlier Christians believed had occurred, and the Jewish Yom Kippur. Barabbas’ name means “son of the father,” and was most likely added to in order to become “Jesus Barabbas.” Two sons of the father in one story is a rather obvious clue to the tale’s allegorical rather than historical nature.
Yom Kippur was the ritual of atonement for Israel’s sins. Origen, the 3rd Century Church Father, understood the symbolism of Mark’s tale very well. Origen wrote that Barabbas was symbolic of Israel’s sin, being a stand-in for the devil; Israel had adulterously chosen Barabbas for a husband rather than the true groom, Jesus. Jesus is spat upon, scorned and beaten during the crucifixion tale, like a scapegoat. There is no mistaking the description. The Jews blindly, according to Origen, chose sin rather than salvation when they cried out for Barabbas and condemned Jesus. Mark has brilliantly employed words and phrases from the Old Testament Psalms to depict Jesus as “the just man afflicted and put to death by evildoers, but vindicated and raised up by god.” As biblical researchers have observed, the Mark crucifixion story is obviously myth, and not memory.
Mark’s story of Jairus begging Jesus to help his dead daughter is straight out of the Old Testament, as well. In 2 Kings 4. 17-37, the prophet, Elisha, resurrected a woman’s son, and the two stories have elements that are so similar, it is obvious that Mark has borrowed once again, from earlier scripture.
In addition the text of Mark’s Gospels contains many Triads, groups of three, a common and much used literary device.
Three was an ubiquitously employed number, which was considered to have mystical and mysterious properties. Here are some examples in Mark’s narrative. There were three women, three days, three times and so on in the passion of Jesus story. Mark also borrowed symbolism from the Jewish Passover holiday, as well as from the aforementioned Jewish Yom Kippur. He compared Jesus to the Passover lamb, with numerous quotations from Exodus, which is further evidence that Mark did not need, and probably could not obtain, historical evidence for Jesus’ fictional crucifixion. Rather, Mark availed himself of the oasis of testimony- Old Testament scriptures- as source texts.
Mark was writing after the fall of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, but was engaged in creating a prophetic note as though Jesus had predicted the disaster. Hamilton-Kelly has shown that Mark 11-16 contains an escalating number of symbols and statements about replacing the Temple cult with a new cult of the faithful, with no central authority, location, or power of money, including its attendant corruption. Mark merged Old Testament stories, Homeric tales and ancient tales, into a powerful narrative centered on a fictional being, Jesus. But at the same time, he also conveyed what he thought early Christians should think and believe. Please keep in mind that I am merely citing a few obvious pieces from the four Gospels that give away their fictitious nature. Richard Carrier’s work and the texts I have cited in the Bibliography contain a plethora of proof that the New Testament Gospels are myth, rather than history.
Now I would like to glance at Matthew’s Gospel, composed most likely in the 80’s CE. Matthew rewrote, and when he did not rewrite, copied much of Mark.
He is not considered as skillful a writer as Mark, often breaking up Mark’s written cohesiveness when he appropriated the earlier writer’s work. But Matthew’s extensive borrowing from Mark is a strong indication, a probability even, that he had no earlier source or sources from which to draw his material. I am going to discount the Quelle document, which some scholars credit as a source for Luke as well as for Mark and Matthew. This notional earlier document has been assumed to be a gathering of either Jesus’ sayings, or a scriptural narrative, like the other Gospels that have survived. But there is no evidence that such a document ever existed, only a general speculation that it did, and was source material for the Gospelists. It is time to put such a theory out to pasture, given the lack of any verification.
Biblical scholars have pointed out that Matthew wrote not only to corroborate and expand Mark’s Gospel, but also to reverse the too gentile friendly attitude embedded in Mark. Mark apparently was partial to Paul’s version of Christianity, which among other factors, favored the optional observance of the Torah. But most experts agree that Matthew came from a group of Torah-observant Christians. Those Christians were most keen to proffer statements from Jesus that would oblige Gentile converts to adhere to Jewish law and become practicing Jews. Such requirements included circumcision of boys and men and adherence to Jewish dietary laws and customs. Interestingly, the Temple cult rules had been laid aside, because there was no Temple any longer.
Matthew’s Gospel demonstrated an increasing emphasis on the apostles ‘missionary activities.
The writer was additionally concerned with how to run the Church and how to live in the Church. Such details were being worked out by the early Christians and were most realistically concerns that arose after Jesus’ death. Here is an observation on Matthew’s probable invention of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “His (Matthew’s) Sermon on the Mount fits neatly within known rabbinical debates over how Jews could still fulfill the Torah after the destruction of the Temple cult. The general consensus among the rabbis was that good deeds now fulfilled that role, especially acts of love and mercy.” According to Richard Carrier, there is the assumption in Matthew that the Temple cult did not exist any longer, meaning Jesus’ Sermon speech was composed after 70 CE, and that Jesus never made it.
Luke’s Gospel, written in the late 80’s or 90’s CE, makes a valiant attempt to present itself as history. Matthew claimed his Gospel was true because it accorded with scripture. But Luke threw in some shaky facts, such as adding unimportant historical details and at times trying to put dates to some events. The writer of Luke tried to authenticate Matthew’s earlier resurrection narrative by putting in details that neither Paul, Mark nor Matthew had ever mentioned, such as Peter double checking the women’s story that Jesus’ tomb was empty and then handling the discarded burial shroud. Luke added that the risen Jesus showed his disciples his wounds, making sure that the apostles touched him. Luke also depicted Jesus eating the food his followers had provided for him, which proved to them he was not a ghost.
Luke worked diligently to present a false history of Jesus, probably in order to persuade naysayers or doubters both within and without Christianity.
There were Christians at that time that had very different beliefs about the resurrection. Luke did not, however, cite sources, disclose where he received his facts and so on, but instead claimed he had recorded what was handed down to him. Biblical historians know this was a lie, because his two most obvious sources were Mark and Matthew and he freely altered them. We may assume he did the same to any other Jesus material he came across.
What can we deduce was Luke’s purpose, as it was certainly not writing factual history? There are many experts who argue that Luke was attempting to unify the two opposing factions of Christianity, the Gentile friendly and the Torah observant sects. Researchers maintain that Luke was the writer of not just the Lukean Gospel, but also of The Acts of the Apostles, in which he tried to create the same impression. Experts believe that Luke reversed history in order to raise a smokescreen, the false portrayal of the past harmony between the two factions. Richard Carrier believes that Luke had a secondary motive, as well, which was to portray Christianity as “… a valid, devout, law-abiding philosophical sect that was respected even by the Romans.” Luke wanted to create the impression that the only opposition to Jesus had been from a faction of hard-line Jewish elite.
Notice the movement we encounter as we glance through some portions of the Gospels. Mark was non-Torah observant, Matthew very involved in Torah rites for Christians, even Gentiles, and Luke attempted to portray a reconciliation of the early Gospels. Although he never said so outright, his Gospel promoted the notion of a harmonious Church, one that was a faithful transition from the Judaic into the Gentile Church.
Luke or his sources made everything up. As with the earlier Gospels, the tales in Luke were never facts, even eyewitness or hearsay ones, but were mythological stories told for the meanings and effects he wanted to convey. The historical value of his accounts is worthless. As many biblical scholars have agreed, even if there had been a few true facts about Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, it is impossible to identify them.
We shall end this portion of the lecture with John’s Gospel, most likely written sometime in the late 90’s or 100’s CE. There are those who claim that the text of John is independent of the three other Gospels, but that is not so. What did happen was that the writer of John fully rewrote the material of the earlier works, which was the usual practice of classical writers of that era.
One of his (And I use the singular designation loosely, because according to biblical scholars, John had many writers and appears to have been redacted many times,) goals appeared to be to reverse the early gospelist position that no sign should be given that Jesus was the Messiah. According to the other Gospel authors, Jesus worked his miracles to a generally small audience; those who were his recipients or witnesses usually told no one, sometimes by Jesus’ own request. Only the one miraculous sign was made known- Jesus’ resurrection.
John expanded the signs that proclaimed Jesus the Messiah. In John’s Gospel, the signs, or miracles, proliferated. John did not accept Jesus’ words in the previous Gospels. Jesus, when asked for a sign, had claimed no sign would be given, or that only an evil generation would ask for one. Finally Jesus relented and told the apostles that his resurrection would be a sign.
But in John, Jesus’ miracles abounded. John claimed that Jesus’ ministry was filled with marvels that “manifested his glory.” John even went so far as to allege that was the reason “his disciples believed in him.” Such a notion was not to be found in the earlier Gospels. John told his own audience that: “Having seen the signs he (Jesus) did, many believed in his name (John 2:23,) and “a great multitude followed him because they beheld the signs he did.” (John 6.2) Later when people saw Jesus’ miracles, or signs, they declared Jesus a true prophet because only if god was with someone, could such miracles have come to pass. It was in John that Jesus told the people: “You will in no way believe unless you see signs and wonders.” (John 4.48-54). Jesus then proceeded to show them a miracle even though he was rebuking them.
John’s Gospel contained the most relentless relation of miracles; there was an obsessive preoccupation with them. It was John who invented the Doubting Thomas story, but it is difficult to know exactly what John’s writer had originally composed because there were many authors and many redactions in the John Gospel. Someone later reorganized the Gospel as well, shifting material from one place to another and adding and subtracting material, often in a sloppy fashion.
But what we may be assured of is that the Gospel of John spoke about providing evidence, “bearing witness”, of Jesus’ divinity over 31 times! There were other fictitious elements in John, such as a number theory and so on. It was that Gospel which referred to an “eyewitness” source, unnamed, and never heard of previously. John claimed to have obtained Gospel information from the unknown witness.
It is clear that John’s authors were determined to make the point that Jesus’ many miracles, or signs, were proof of his divinity. The previous gospelists had denigrated the notion of signs. Richard Carrier states that the emphasis on Jesus’ alleged miracles, “… makes John the most ruthless propagandist, and thus the most frequently untrustworthy, of all the canonical Gospels.”
This lecture’s short description of the Gospels as literary constructions should help dispel any expectation or belief that any of them are able to provide accurate proof or historical evidence of events that may have taken place during Jesus’ alleged earthly existence, and certainly no proof of miracles or substantiation that Jesus was a historical person.
What seems likely is that Luke and John first began to market their Gospels as historical accounts. Then others began to present Mark and Matthew’s Gospels in the same manner, although neither of those gospelists had made such claims. Skeptical scholars are of the opinion that the Christian Church elite may have been aware of the hoax, but went along with it. Some Church fathers, such as the aforementioned Origen, spoke of some of the truths and narratives of the Church that would be taken as symbolic and allegorical by the elite, while the hoi-polloi would be instructed that the material was literal. Origen was writing in the 3rd Century, but the early Church was likely engaged in such practices as well as the more established, later Church. Paul attested to such a system existing in his churches even before he arrived. It is quite obvious that claiming fiction as historical fact was a marketing bid to sell Christianity to everyone it could. It was regretfully a very successful ploy.
I would now like to glance at the Epistles of Paul, the earliest written accounts we have of Jesus and of the nascent Christian Church. I would like to begin with a query raised by Richard Carrier. He compares the written accounts of Pliny, the Roman writer, about his father’s death with Paul’s written accounts of Jesus’ death and suspicious lack of facts concerning Jesus’ earthly life. Carrier embarks on a long discussion concerning Pliny the Younger (61-113 CE) and Tacitus, (56-117 CE), the eminent historian. He has made an important point with his comparison between Pliny and Paul. Pliny and Tacitus were Romans, close friends and both governors of provinces at the same time during their official lives. I shall be speaking more about them vis-à-vis Christianity in a few minutes. Tacitus was a respected historian and writer and Pliny an important letter writer and Roman official. Tacitus wrote to Pliny to inquire about the death of Pliny the Elder, who was the adopted father and uncle of the younger man.
Pliny the Elder died in 79 CE, while he was commander of the Roman Naval Fleet near Mount Vesuvius when it erupted. The Elder was interested in investigating the disaster and he was also attempting to rescue any survivors. He died of respiratory failure after breathing the ash fall from the eruption. Tacitus wrote to his friend, Pliny, for all the details about the commander’s demise, to include it in his history, but also because he knew and admired the deceased. He wanted to know not only what happened, but how Pliny bore his final days. Pliny the Younger sent Tacitus a letter of about 1500 words, detailing an extensive eyewitness account of the event and his father’s death.
Richard Carrier’s point is that Paul wrote about 3,000 words in his letter to the Galatians, his shortest work, and about 10,000 to the Romans. Many scholars suspect that most of Paul’s letters to the various Christian Churches were mishmashes and redactions of separate letters, edited to make longer ones. We have seven letters that most biblical researchers agree are authentic, all written during the 50’s CE. But the difficulty remains that in all those lengthy letters, Paul never described Jesus’ life, his ministry, his miracles, or his trial. He did not mention Galilee, or Nazareth, or Pilate, or Mary or Joseph, or where Jesus was from, where he had been, or people he had known. Carrier points out that it seems none of the Christian community asked about such details either.
Does the omission of details when Paul mentioned Jesus, by name or title, three hundred times and in half of those cases, one fact or other about Jesus, raise any suspicions? None of those so-called facts connected Jesus to an earthly life. Any of the incidents mentioned by Paul could have happened in outer space, the type of mystic space used to describe the happenings and adventures of pagan gods and goddesses.
It stands to reason that the early Christians would have had a burning desire to know every earthly detail about Jesus they could find. Why didn’t the earliest accounts of Jesus, written by the putative founder of the Christian Church, Paul, to ardent congregations, include facts about their savior’s earthly life? The Christian Church members could not have been uninterested. We can assume they would have eagerly absorbed every small detail supplied them about Jesus’ time on earth and asked for more.
The excuse given by biblical apologists is that such details had been discussed orally. They argue that Paul’s letter exchanges with the Christians were for the purposes of administration of their churches and receiving doctrinal prescriptions from Paul concerning issues that had arisen. But then, why didn’t Paul quote what Jesus had said about those same issues? The early Christians believed Jesus was their god and savior. When instructing the emergent churches, why didn’t Paul repeat what Jesus had said concerning doctrinal questions during his time on earth? Paul commented on such complex issues as baptizing the dead, what the angels might do if women did not cover their hair in church, even on the interesting idea that Christians would one day judge the angels. But when he cited his avenues of learning about Jesus’ wishes, none of them were remotely connected to Jesus’ earthy sojourn. What were Paul’s claims to knowing what Jesus said and what he desired of his followers, the members of his churches?
Paul repeatedly claimed knowledge of Jesus from scripture, meaning the Old Testament and possibly early works we do not have, and from revelation. He apparently received a plethora of revelations from Jesus. Here is Paul on Jesus’ sacrifice: “…according to Scriptures, Christ died for our sins, and that he was buried, and that according to scriptures, he had been raised on the third day, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve, and then he appeared to hundreds of brethren all at once, and then he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles, and last of all to me as well, as if to an aborted fetus, because I am the least of the apostles, who is not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Assembly of God.”
Most of us are aware that Paul persecuted Christians until he had a putative vision of Jesus on the way to Damascus.
Paul’s choice of words in the letter I just quoted has raised questions for later scholars studying his epistles. He appeared to be saying that Christ’s death and resurrection were known from “Scriptures,” but that Jesus was only seen by the faithful after those events. Paul did not make any claims that Jesus had a ministry or earthly life at all. Instead Paul conveyed the impression that the savior descended from heaven, submitted to death and then reascended.
As Carrier points out, Paul never said: “… from James I learned that Jesus, who was his brother in life, had done or said X, nor did he even say something along the lines of: “Peter says he was there when Jesus said X, so why is your teaching at odds with X?” Instead we have Paul citing revelations (the ones he received from Jesus and from god) and scriptures of which we have no copies, nor even mention of, when addressing the early Christian churches. He referred to Scriptures which he interpreted and personal revelations he had from Jesus to instruct the members. When he exhorted them as to how Christians should believe and how to conduct their affairs he never quoted Jesus from his time on earth.
There were myriad controversies in the nascent Church and different sects within it, many of them claiming to have the truth about doctrine and practice. But Paul never cited what the historical Jesus said about such issues. He never repeated what James or Peter might have told him about Jesus’ teachings and opinions, although he claimed to have met with both men.
Such direct information concerning Jesus’ wishes would have been invaluable when Paul was attempting to settle arguments with people who did not accept his pronouncements on doctrine. Yet Paul never referred to any statements made by Jesus during the savior’s lifetime to confirm his doctrinal exhortations. Instead, as we have seen, he stated repeatedly that he had obtained his knowledge from scripture and revelation, particularly revelation.
Gerd Ludemann, who has made a study of Paul’s letters, has noted the same puzzling fact. So have other scholars. Ludemann points out that Paul only showed a passing acquaintance with traditions relating to Jesus’ life, or as he says, “… nowhere an independent acquaintance with them.” Ludemann concludes that Paul is not a reliable witness to the teachings, life, or the historical existence of Jesus.” Scholar after scholar, sometimes reluctantly, points out that Paul’s letters do not permit any conclusion concerning the life of Jesus. Why would the so-called facts about Jesus being some sort of preacher/healer/magician from Galilee disappear early from the Christian tradition? This oddity has given many experts pause. Some of them have begun to suspect, since there was no fully formed tradition of Jesus’ deeds and sayings from Paul’s writings, that perhaps the narratives and traditions post-date his generation.
Except for scripture and revelation, there were no sources that Paul ever cited about an earthly Jesus. Most of his references were to a celestial divinity, and so we have no proof of the historicity of Jesus from Paul’s Epistles. Even inexact historical events are missing in Paul.
What is the probability of a man writing over 3,000 words to churches whose worship centered on a putative man/god, without mentioning a few words about that deity’s earthly life, his friends, his travels or even the false tales spread about him by his enemies? Paul made no such references to Jesus, even in passing. Such omissions, if Paul actually had facts about Jesus, defy common sense.
Now I would like to turn to New Testament contradictions with regard to the tradition of the Eucharist. According to the Gospels, and to Paul, the initial event happened historically. However, Paul did not claim to have received knowledge of the Eucharist rite from either witnesses or oral tradition. Rather, he appeared to have gained it from his revelations, which seem to have been a sort of hallucinating series of conversations with Jesus.
As Paul reported the ritual, Jesus broke the bread and took up the wine, and proclaimed that it should be done in remembrance of his death, that it should be reenacted until his return. Paul did not name anyone who might have been present at that first Eucharist rite. Since Jesus seemed to have been addressing someone in the story, we can assume others were present. But Mark’s later Gospel turned the ceremony into a dinner, with guests present.
Paul’s account did not appear to be describing a historical event, as did Mark’s. As Paul told of it, the rite described was a revelation. We have already learned that Paul’s revelations stemmed from visions of conversations with Jesus. In Paul’s Eucharist revelation, Jesus apparently gave the apostle instructions for repeating the rite. Therefore, Paul’s validation of the communion ritual was that it was a direct communication from Jesus to him.
The historical verification for the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist is impossible to ascertain from any part of the New Testament.
I would like to turn to Paul’s account of Jesus’ death, which seemed to describe an event that materialized at least partly in outer space and that happened to a celestial deity. Paul’s written passages about such a momentous moment for mankind did not appear to describe an earthly event, as did the later Gospels. Most significant occurrences concerning pagan gods and goddesses took place on a stage that was not earth, but in some mythical land and/or sky. Paul’s story of Jesus’ sacrifice accorded with other tales of celestial deities and belonged to the stuff of myth rather than reality.
Paul’s rendition of Jesus’ sacrifice is also puzzling vis-à-vis the later Gospels in the New Testament. As I have mentioned, the entire story seems to have played out on some stage in outer space. Most perplexing were Paul’s vague accusations about who had killed Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 2.6-10, the text appeared to claim the killers were the demons of the air rather than any human, earthly authority. Paul stated that god’s plans about Jesus’ sacrifice were hidden. But the “hidden thing” that Paul was referring to was the fact that Jesus purportedly atoned for humanity’s sins. His death, according to Paul, rescued us from the wages of sin and permitted us eternal life. Paul seemed to be saying that if the rulers of this world, the Romans, and even the Jewish elite, had known of god’s plan, they would not have prevented the event, as it was beneficial to mankind. They would have gone quickly ahead to have Jesus’ sacrifice carried out to save us all.
Therefore, who would have been against saving mankind? Not the Romans. Not the Jews. It would have been Satan and his minions who would have been invested in the death and corruption of humans. They alone would have been set against god’s plan. Many scholars are now of the opinion that Paul’s phrase, “the rulers of this world,” referred to the Satanic world order, the kingdom of demons and fallen angels and not to earthly powers. Researchers believe that Paul did not mean the Roman or Jewish authorities.
It is necessary, in order to make sense of Paul’s words, to glance at the fact that there was an early redaction written called “The Ascension of Isaiah. The Isaiah Ascension was a 1st Century document, much redacted by the 5th and 6th Centuries CE. But it was composed originally about the same time as the first Gospels and is a window into very early Christian beliefs. In that work, Satan and his demons killed Jesus because god’s purpose was deliberately hidden from them. Isaiah explained that Satan and his dark minions would not know what Jesus’ death would accomplish- mankind’s salvation. So what Paul most plausibly meant in his text was that those sharing in the sacrifice of Jesus, mankind, now had the power to triumph over the demons. That was because, according to Paul, it was the unseen powers of darkness that had plotted against Jesus and killed him, not earthly powers. Origen, the 3rd Century Church Father, agreed with such an interpretation. He was quite certain that the scenario I have just described was about the defeat of demonic powers, not earthly ones.
Paul’s thinking also added to the confusion concerning Jesus’ nature, the issue of whether or not he was a man.
Paul’s epistles stated that since Sin entered the world through one man, Adam, due to that man’s disobedience, the original sin had to be removed by a man, Jesus, and his obedience. (Rom. 12-20). But then in Phil. 2.7, Paul said that Jesus was not really a man, but came in the “likeness of men,” and was found “in form like a man.” Elsewhere Paul maintained that Jesus was “only sent in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Richard Carrier points out that: “This is a doctrine of a pre-existent being assuming a human body, but not being fully transformed into a man, just looking like one, having a flesh-and-blood body to abuse and kill.” Carrier argues that such statements fit minimal mythicism exactly.”
It can be assumed that at Christianity’s origins, Christ was believed in as a celestial deity, like other celestial deities, who communicated with followers by means of dreams, visions and revelations. Later Christian communities were taught that the crucifixion story was real, was historical fact, and not the truth, which was that Jesus’ sacrifice was allegorical. The historicist sect of the Christian Church overcame the others and achieved hegemony. That we do not have more evidence from Paul’s Epistles might well be that much was destroyed and edited over the years that would have brought more clarity about Jesus’ celestial, rather than historical, being. Paul’s confusing statements point to a post-historical Christ, with the true origin of his story being that of a celestial, not an earthly being.
I would now like to turn to Acts, or Acts of the Apostles, in the New Testament, which according to experts, was most likely authored by Luke, the Gospelist. It may be assumed that they were written about the same time as the Gospel of Luke, in the late 80’s or 90’s CE.
Acts is probably the least believable of the three biblical areas discussed in this lecture. Paul’s Epistles were a look into very early Christian beliefs of Jesus as a celestial deity. The Gospels were attempts to create a historical savior, who had walked the earth and performed miracles, taught his followers, and had a ministry.
Acts has generally been discredited as history, even an apologetic one. Therefore researchers have had to resort to the thankless task of finding some written sources for Acts. This task is made more complex and difficult because Luke most likely relied on earlier texts that would be almost impossible to trust for any historicity or accuracy. Worse yet, we no longer have copies of those works, so biblical scholars cannot sort out what they might have said from the content that Luke left out, added to, or changed.
Dennis MacDonald has discerned that Luke reworked material from Homer’s Odyssey. He states: “The shipwreck of Odysseus and Paul that share nautical images and vocabulary, the appearance of a goddess or an angel assuring safety, the hiding of planks, the arrival of the hero on an island among hospitable strangers, the mistaking of the hero as a god, and the sending him on his way [in a new ship],” are all similar elements in both Paul’s and Homer’s works. The Odyssey was most likely composed in 7th or 8th Century BCE Greece.
Luke did not stop with such well-known borrowings, however. In Euripides’ The Bacchae, published in 405 BCE Greece, there is a famous miraculous prison break. The same type of literary construction has been used for the spectacular prison breaks of the various apostles. Randall Helms has also pointed out that many elements in Acts are borrowed from the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel.
Here are some examples: both Peter and Ezekiel see the heavens open; both twice respond to god; both are asked to eat unclean food and both protest they have never eaten unclean food before.
The author, Luke, assembled a very clever literary construction. His purpose in Acts, as in his Gospel, was to sell a historical account, a fabricated one, of how early Christianity abandoned Torah law. In fact, we know from Paul himself, that Paul was the only apostle who advocated abandoning Torah law for quite a while. Peter was against it, for some time, even contentiously so. But Act’s version pretended that Peter had approved of the abandonment of Torah law and that divine revelation had confirmed the approval.
Many, far too many, stories in Acts are fictional history, unrelated to any actual history and intended to sell Luke’s point of view on any issue he desired to promote. Luke was determined to popularize the notion of the continuity of Judaism and Christianity, as well as the harmony within the nascent Church from its very first days. Paul himself had told his Galatian Church that he went to Arabia after his Damascus conversion, then back to Damascus, then to Jerusalem. He was unknown, at least in person, to the Judean churches for at least three years. But Acts claimed that after his conversion, Paul went immediately to Damascus, then on to Jerusalem a few weeks later. Luke’s purpose in changing what Paul actually said seems to have been to emphasize the continuity of the Judeo-Christian entities of the Church, to the point of explaining that Paul was not only known in person, but was interacting with, the Jerusalem Church even before his conversion.
Luke also claimed that the standard story of the crucifixion and resurrection was generally preached to the Jews on the day of Pentecost. He said that the result of such sermonizing was often that hundreds of Jews rushed to convert to Christianity. Burton Mack gives Luke’s claim the lie. Mack explains no Jew worth his salt would convert to Christianity because he was told that he killed the Messiah. Few Greeks, as well, would be convinced by the dreary crucifixion/resurrection tale. Mack argues that Luke was, according to his custom, trying to convince people of the unity of the Christian movement from its beginning. He even depicted Peter and Paul as preaching the same Gospel. But historians and scholars know that there were many conflicts in the early Church, with many contending sects. Peter and Paul were often at odds concerning Christian doctrine and Christian practice. Burton Mack argues that Luke’s writing is “mythmaking in the genre of epic.”
Robert Price has noted the parallels in the stories about Peter and Paul- they each supposedly raised someone from the dead, each healed a paralytic, each healed by magical means, each bested a sorcerer, and each miraculously escaped prison. But Acts presented Paul’s story as often paralleling that of Jesus, as well. Oddly enough, every act that Jesus performed, Paul performed better and bigger, according to Luke. No one seems sure what his purpose might have been; perhaps it was to emphasize Paul’s authentic connection to Jesus, the true founder of the Christian Church. But such parallels are the stuff of myth, not history. Luke also borrowed stories from the Book of Tobit and the John the Baptist narrative.
It is well known by many Christian theologians, as well as secular biblical scholars, that many Acts of the Apostles were borrowed from the popular Greek/Roman Romance adventure novels of the time. One cannot take any of the narratives related in any of the Acts seriously. (Please see The Myth of Christian Persecution at AtheistScholar.org for more discussion of the doubtful claims of many Acts of the Apostles, including Peter and others.)
Here are the elements that the Acts of the New Testament share with the romance/adventure novels. (1) They all promote a particular god or religion. (2) They are all travel narratives. (3) They all involve miraculous or amazing events. (4) They all include encounters with fabulous or exotic people. (5) They often incorporate a theme of chaste couples separated and then reunited. A token nod to this element of the novels exists in Paul’s chaste interaction with Lydia in Acts 16.13-40. Paul also had many women followers, both named and unnamed. (6) They all feature exciting narratives of captivities and escapes, as in Acts 12, 16, 21, and 26, and (7) they often include themes of persecution. (8) They both contain scenes involving excited crowds (who become a character in the story, as in Ephesus and Jerusalem in Acts 18-19 and Acts 6-7 and 21-22. (9) They both contain divine rescues from danger and (10) Divine revelations are always integrated into the plot (through oracles, dreams and visions, all of which feature in Acts.) In fact, states Richard Carrier, Acts looks far more like a novel than any historical monograph of the period. “If Acts looks,” he states, “like an ancient novel, (and it does), are we really going to chalk this up to coincidence?”
Carrier makes another excellent point concerning Acts. He questions what happened to Jesus’ body.
He argues that “the public history of the Christian mission begins only in Acts 2, which depicts the first time Christians publicly announced their gospel.” But what happened at that point? For some more than twenty-seven chapters that spanned three decades of the history of the beginning of the Christian movement, did any Romans or the Jews seem to have any hints, intimations or knowledge of a missing body? In addition, they never seemed to investigate what was obviously a serious crime of tomb robbery and desecration of the dead (these offenses carried death penalties), or perhaps worse? We are told by the Gospel of Matthew that there were claims that the Jewish authorities accused the Christians of such crimes before Pilate himself. (Matthew 27. 62-66; 28, 11-15.)However, biblical scholars who have studied both the external and internal evidence have discovered such claims were fictional.
Common sense would dictate that since it was Christians who were claiming Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb, they should have been the first suspects. It would be supposed that either they, or Joseph of Arimathea, apparently the last person to have custody of the body, according to Mark and Matthew, would be under suspicion. But Joseph seemed to quickly melt into thin air in those narratives. Logically, Christians should have been the next suspects. But, as Richard Carrier points out, although many of Jesus’ followers were interrogated many times over the years by both Romans and Jews, they were never questioned about the capital crime of grave robbery.
Why would the Romans ignore the missing body of Jesus?
The Christians were, we have been told, preaching that Jesus, most likely through supernatural aid, had somehow escaped execution, was observed rallying his followers, and then disappearing. Why would Pilate and even the Jewish Sanhedrin be so insouciant about an escaped convict roaming about? This Jesus was convicted as having committed treason by claiming to be god and king. All the Gospels agreed on this point. The Sanhedrin was reportedly so eager to kill Jesus that it met on Passover Eve to hold a trial, something never done and also unheard of. One cannot imagine that Pilate would have failed to bring all Christian suspects in and interrogate them. It stands to reason there would have been a massive manhunt.
Jesus was supposedly alive, was taken in by his followers, fed by them, and then they listened to his words. This man was considered a dangerous insurrectionist, a thwarter of Roman justice, and a threat to Roman authority. Does anyone doubt that the authorities, both Roman and Jewish, would be at utmost pains to stop Christian attempts to hide their leader? This tale defies common sense and logic.
There were hints, which cannot be confirmed, that the early Christians preached that Jesus rose in an entirely new body rather than the old one he left in his tomb. Paul wrote that the body that dies “is not the body that is to come,” but rather the buried body that was left to be destroyed while a superior replacement body was already stored up in heaven awaiting the faithful (1 Cor. 15. 35-50; 2 Cor. 5. 1-4.) Perhaps the earliest followers of Jesus did not speak of a missing body at all, but of their savior triumphing in heaven with a new body.
Perhaps there was never a missing body, and perhaps there had never been a historical trial and execution.
There are other difficulties in Luke’s Act of the Apostles, such as Paul’s Roman trial, Stephen’s speech before being stoned by the Jews, and how all the supposedly historical people, associated with an alleged historical Jesus, simply disappeared during the narrative. Eventually, Mary, Jesus’ mother, his brothers, Simon of Cyrene and his sons, Pilate, Joseph of Arimathea, Martha and Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene vanished from the entire story. It is not difficult to make the assumption that at the beginning there might have been no historical Jesus, but a cosmically dying-and rising Christ, known only from revelation and scripture. The lack of any reliability from the tales written about in the Acts demonstrates one thing alone- “that the historicity of Jesus is essentially non-existent.”
Some sectarian people attempt to get around the issue of the highly flawed, mendacious, superstitious and erroneous accounts of Jesus and his followers in the New Testament by citing extra- biblical sources, sometimes provided by writers and histories that were not Christian. For a thorough overview of such so-called sources, I highly recommend Richard Carrier’s 2014 On the Historicity of Jesus. In this volume, Carrier summarizes an impressive array of works and writers who were working from outside the New Testament. It is a thorough, exhaustive and well-referenced chapter, with a plethora of opinions that are beyond the time limits of this lecture.
I would like to glance at some of the most quoted authors, who are alleged to have given independent “proof” of a historical Jesus.
Most of them are quoted by Christians, when they wish to claim that Jesus was known to both pagan and Jewish writers and historians. I shall be discussing Josephus (37- 100 CE), Seneca (4 BCE- 65 CE), Pliny the Younger (61-113 CE) Tacitus (56- 117 CE), and Suetonius (70-130 CE).
There are two passages in the historian Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, published sometime after 93 CE, that mention Jesus Christ. Those passages indicate that he was a historical person. However, both passages have been discovered to be almost certainly interpolations by Christian scribes. The first passage is called the Testimonium Flavianum, and it says that not only was Jesus a wise man, but that he rose from the dead and the Christians have gone on, that they have not failed. Josephus was both a devout Jew and a sophisticated author. The entire passage that was inserted into his work is a fawning and gullible account written by a Christian. Josephus was cataloging the crimes of Pontius Pilate and so that made it seem like an opportune place for an ignorant scribe to slip the forgery in. No Christian mentioned this passage until the unreliable Church historian, Eusebius, in the 4th Century. Origen, the formidable Church Father from the previous century, made no mention of it, casting even more doubt on its authenticity.
Origen never quoted the second passage slipped into Josephus’ work either. In that portion, Josephus was claimed to have mentioned James as the brother of Jesus, who was called “the Christ.” The forgery goes on to say James and others were tried and stoned for unspecified crimes. The phrase, “who was called Christ,” is a 3rd Century interpolation.
In fact, it seems Josephus might have been speaking about a different Jesus and a different James. Neither mention of Jesus in Josephus has been found to be credible.
Tacitus apparently mentioned the persecution of the Christians by the Emperor Nero in 64 CE. Rome had experienced a devastating fire, and in some quarters, there is the belief that Nero blamed the disaster on the Christians. Tacitus was an eminent historian. I have already mentioned him earlier in this lecture. If you will recall, Pliny, Tacitus’ good friend and correspondent, was the provincial governor of Bithynia. Tacitus was the governor of a neighboring province during the same time period. (Please see The Myth of Christian Persecution at AtheistScholar.org for a detailed discussion of Pliny and his execution of some Christians while in Bithynia.) Pliny had served in many important Roman posts, as consul and praetor and he had also been one of the Emperor Trajan’s top legal advisors. Until his second year in Bithynia, Pliny had never heard of Christians or about anything they believed in. We also know that his adoptive father, Pliny the Elder, devoted a whole volume to his eyewitness account of the entire year in which Rome’s fire occurred, and never once mentioned Christians. Pliny the Younger would surely have known about Christians had his father witnessed their persecution.
Tacitus wrote about the savage persecution of Christians after Rome’s Great Fire. But either the passage was an interpolation or Tacitus was writing about another man, Chrestus, suppressed by the Emperor Claudius, who reigned from 41-54 CE.
There is another very plausible explanation, which is that Tacitus learned about Christians from his good friend, Pliny, who closely questioned the Christians he had under arrest. Christians in Bithynia would have probably heard exaggerated tales about the much earlier events in Rome and might have repeated them to Pliny. Pliny wrote about the Christians and what they believed in about 116 CE.
Candida Moss, in her 2013 The Myth of Persecution, has also weighed in on the issue of Tacitus’ account. Moss states that Tacitus’ Annals dates to 115-120 CE, about fifty years after the so-called Neronian persecution of Christians. Moss explains that at the time the fire occurred, it is quite likely that no one identified Jesus’ followers by the name of Christian. The Christians themselves did not regularly use the term to describe themselves until about the end of the 1st Century CE. Moss provides an interesting viewpoint on the issue- she and other secular scholars believe Tacitus was using the term, Christian, as an anachronism, reporting on the growing animosity toward Christians in the 2nd Century, his own time. Moss argues that “for almost all of the 1st Century, it is unclear that Roman Emperors even knew Christians existed.”
Tacitus’ account of Neronian persecution does not hold up to historical scrutiny. Let us glance at how little Pliny knew about Christians in the 2nd Century. Tacitus’ close friend, Pliny, seems to have executed a few Christians who would not renounce their faith. His purpose was apparently to bring peace back into a region.
There were economic difficulties in the region, exacerbated because Christians would not buy or eat the meat of sacrificed animals. Christians had aroused the animosity of the financially distressed butchers of the area because they were depriving butchers of customers. Pliny seemed puzzled about Christians and what to do to restore peace. He told the emperor that he had not known of them before the accusations brought against them. It surely stands to reason that Tacitus would not have known about Christians either nor about their supposed persecution by Nero in an earlier era. Anything he would have learned around 116 CE, he would have learned from Pliny. Tacitus’ later sources would seem to have been thoroughly mistaken or non-existent.
Now let us glance at Suetonius (70- 130 CE.) There are only two relevant passages in his work. One reference is to Jewish rioters, not to Christian ones. Here is the quotation which makes reference to the Emperor Claudius (10 BCE- 54 CE): “… since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” We have here a mention of Chrestus again, not of Jesus, and of Jews, not of Christians. It is important to keep in mind that Chrestus was a common name during that era.
These few lines from Suetonius do not make sense. During his era, there were tens of thousands of Jews in Rome who owned extensive real estate, businesses and synagogues. At the lower social scale, there were countless Jews who were slaves, both in public and private hands. They were part of Rome’s extensive slave trade. It would have been a thankless job to locate all of these people and drive them out of Rome.
In fact, another historian mentions how greatly the number of Jews in Rome had grown by that time. His account states that since a tumult would have occurred by expelling all the Jews in the city, Claudius merely ordered them to continue their traditional mode of life, but not to hold meetings.
Seneca the Younger (48 BCE- 65 CE) wrote a treatise called “On Superstition” sometime between 40 CE and 62 CE that was a scathing criticism of every known cult in Rome, even trivial and obscure ones, but he never once mentioned the Christians. He merely spoke of the Jews, the traditional Jews. Note how early the dates of his work were. Christians do not seem to have been known of at that time. Yet Seneca was the brother of Gallio, the governor of the Greek province in the early 50’s CE. Acts 18. 12-17 claimed that Christians were brought to trial before Gallio. Would Seneca not have been aware of Christians in Rome, or somewhere in the Empire if his brother had presided over a trial of some of them?
I have merely glanced at a few of the well-known writers, thinkers and historians who wrote, or allegedly wrote, about Christians or about Jesus outside of the New Testament in the early years of Christianity. The evidence for extra-biblical accounts of Jesus or of Christians is pitifully thin, so pathetic that it points to the lack of Jesus’ historicity rather than any proof of it.
Richard Carrier is one of the scholars who is fairly convinced that “the evidence (for Jesus) was erased, doctored or rewritten in support of a historical party line against a mythicist one.”
Kurt Noll is another expert who has logically demonstrated that when there is intense religious competition over control of resources and ideology, false claims of the historicity of certain figures and events is commonly the result. Noll discovered this fact when researching false claims of historicity in Islam.
Here is an extensive quotation from Noll: “The data betray a clear evolutionary process from the proclamation of the so-called Jerusalem pillars, through the teachings of Paul, and ultimately into several competing varieties of post-Pauline Christianity. Earlier Christian doctrinal modes went extinct as later ones evolved. The doctrinal mode favored by the Jerusalem pillars was extinct by the late 1st Century. Although Paul’s doctrinal mode was able to survive it, it could only do so by evolving significantly new traits, including a conceptualization of a ‘historical’ Jesus guaranteed by supposedly eyewitness testimonies. This newly invented, ‘historical’ Jesus effectively replaced Paul as the authority behind Paul’s doctrinal mode.”
It is quite obvious that it became much easier for the Church pillars to claim that Jesus was a historical figure and that Church doctrine could be traced back to eyewitnesses and descriptions of actual events. The former alternative had been to claim that everything about Jesus was known mainly through revelation. Let us keep in mind that early Christianity’s development was very fluid, with great tension between competing beliefs and sects. If the Church pillars had claimed revelation for knowledge of Jesus and as a foundation for doctrine, what would have prevented upstarts and rivals from claiming that their revelations had the same validity?
Such claims would not only challenge the hegemony of the Church elite, but also the social cohesion the growing Church needed to flourish.
Carrier argues that the strategy of claiming a historical tradition stemming from a historical Jesus would allow the Church pillars to reject the “other” revelations, simply by saying that that was not what Jesus said. They were able to carry their strategy off because they alleged they had documents from men who were there during Jesus’ ministry and heard Jesus, and that the Church also had men who claimed to have known men who knew these men. In that way, the tradition the pillars wanted to expound was preserved and saved.
An earthly Jesus in the flesh would have been a more effective marketing tool for propagating Church dogma rather than a mystical Jesus who made his ideas known through revelation. The Christian churches were competing for authority. There was inevitable pressure to invent an earthly Jesus. The invention was a brilliant move, a marketing ploy that became more successful than the early Church authorities could have ever foreseen or dreamed. But it was only that- a marketing ploy and not the truth. It was a lie from start to finish.
That initial lie made it easy to make up more lies. What had begun as a power play and a marketing strategy, grew into a monster of deceit. That monster had to be protected at all costs. Over the centuries, the lie was added to, embellished and made more sacrosanct. Dogma and doctrine crystallized. Anyone who questioned small portions of that dogma, of that doctrine, or chose to believe differently, or not believe it at all was perceived as a grave danger to the lie.
Entire communities were decimated, horrendous tortures applied, countless blood was spilled and misery and murder was committed to protect the original falsehood and its excrescent augmentations.
The evil has not yet been eradicated, but it has lost a great deal of its venom. In the West, reason, science and meticulous scholarship have been applied to the falsehood of Jesus’ alleged historicity and to his invented deity. The secular community is in great debt to the research of such intrepid scholars as Richard Carrier, Robert Price, Earl Doherty and others. The hydra-headed monster spawned by religious ambition has been slain by their efforts. They have focused the clarity of the light of reason on the darkness of religious mendacity and have helped dispel it.
Not only is Jesus dead, but so is his myth.
Thank you for your attention. I am looking forward to our discussion.
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