Why Should I Believe in Jesus? Parts 3 and 4
Posted by That Other Mike on 12/11/2007
I was going to do these seperately, but what the hell.
The Writers of the Gospels were Apostles
If I were a bookmaker, you wouldn’t get very good odds on this one. The essence of it goes:
- The writers of the Gospels were the Apostles, and they were eyewitnesses. Why would all of them lie, and if they did, why do the events agree so well?
The first claim, that the writers of the Gospels were Apostles, is highly suspect. Standard theological scholarship puts the authorship of Mark in the 70’s CE, Matthew and Luke in the 80’s CE, and John in the year 90 CE or thereabouts. Even allowing for this to be within a century of the alleged life and death of Jesus, this brings their authorship into question.
The earliest evidence pertinent to the authorship of Mark comes from the 3rd-century CE Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who quotes an earlier writer named Papias. Papias himself quotes a statement concerning Mark’s Gospel by a still earlier figure whom he calls the presbyter:
“And the presbyter used to say this: ‘Mark, being Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately, but not in order, that which he remembered of what was said and done by the Lord’!”
It is generally considered, that, in Papias’s opinion, this Mark was the John Mark, cousin of Barnabas, mentioned in Acts (see, for instance, Acts Ch.15 v.37 – 39), in several letters of Paul (see Colossians Ch. 4 v.10; 2 Timothy Ch. 4 v.11, Philemon Ch. 24), and in 1 Peter Ch. 5 v.13. Critical research has been able neither to prove nor to disprove this opinion, but there are reasons to doubt it.
Early Christians tended to link the Gospels with one of the 12 apostles. If the text was firmly attributed by early tradition to a man named Mark, Papias’s presbyter probably did the best he could with this tradition by identifying this Mark with John Mark in order to link him to the apostle Peter. Furthermore, the text itself neither suggests nor supports the traditional attribution. Hence, many scholars believe that the Gospel was written by an otherwise unknown early Christian named Mark, who drew on a number of traditions to write this Gospel3.
Early Christian writers believed this book to be the earliest of the synoptic Gospels, attributing it to Matthew, one of the apostles. They held that he wrote the Gospel in Palestine, immediately prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Although still believed by some, most scholars now consider the Mark the earliest Gospel. They believe, on the basis of external and internal evidence, that the author of Matthew used Mark as one of his two major sources and a collection of Jesus’ sayings called “Q”, which may also be a composite document, as the second. They doubt, moreover, that the apostle Matthew wrote the book.
The author is often identified as a Jew: partly because his Gospel contains many references to Jewish scripture, law, and traditions that presuppose familiarity with them, and partly because other evidence suggests that he wrote chiefly for Christians of Jewish origins. This is further muddied because of the juxtaposition of Jewish traditions with pro-Gentile and anti-Semitic material. The place of writing is not definitely known. Some authorities think it was Palestine; others favour another early Christian centre, possibly the city of Antioch in Syria. The time of composition frequently suggested is some time around 80 CE.
Church tradition, dating from the end of the 2nd century CE, attributes this to “Luke, the beloved physician” (Colossians Ch. 4 v.14), one of the “fellow workers” (Philemon Ch. 1 v.24) mentioned by Paul. The same tradition also attributes to Luke Acts, which, together with the Gospel bearing his name, is commonly regarded as having formed a larger work on the origin of Christianity. Most modern scholars accept Luke’s authorship of both works. Some scholars, however, because of contradiction between Paul’s letters and the accounts of Paul in Acts, doubt that Luke and Paul were closely associated during Paul’s missionary work.
It is now generally agreed that the Gospel of Luke dates from the 80’s CE. Also suggested have been earlier or later dates: about 63-65 CE, if, as some have proposed, Acts was written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome; at the end of the 1st century CE, if the absence before then of any reference to the Gospel in the writings of the earliest Church fathers is taken as proof of a later date. It is unknown whether the Gospel was written in Rome, Asia Minor, or Greece.
Since the 19th century the identity of the author of the Gospel of John has generated heated controversy. Conservative scholars today generally accept John the Evangelist as the author, but other scholars have proposed several different hypotheses. Chief among these are that the fourth canonical Gospel was written by “the elder” mentioned in the Second and Third Epistles of John; that it was composed by a disciple of John the Evangelist (and so was based, in part, on John’s recollections of the Gospel events); that it may have been written by a friend of Jesus, Lazarus of Bethany; or that it was written by an anonymous Christian in Alexandria in the first half of the 2nd century.
Most scholars now date John from some time in the last decade of the 1st century or early in the 2nd century. There is a considerable area of debate over the relationship between John’s Gospel and four other books in the New Testament that are attributed to him: three epistles, and the Book of Revelation. Whether these four are actually written by him – and if so, whether they precede or follow the Gospel – is still widely debated6.
So, basically, all four of the Gospels were written by uncertain authors in uncertain places, at uncertain times, according to uncertain sources. Suddenly, they don’t look so watertight. The Gospels cannot at all be verified as being from eyewitnesses, and a great deal of evidence suggests they weren’t written by witnesses to the events described within. Mark, perhaps, could have been written by an eyewitness, if, and only if, a poor man from Judaea managed to beat the crap out of the statistics and live into his 60s. This is not exactly a credible proposition; the average lifespan would most likely have been something akin to that of modern day African countries, possibly less, even: We’re talking mid-40s being old. Even so, had this ‘Mark’ managed somehow to beat the heat, the dirt, the widespread lack of sanitation and basic savagery, we have no evidence by which we can judge him to be a truthful and honest man. The other Gospels are written too late, or from various too-diverse sources to be first hand accounts; nowhere in the Gospels do any of the authors claim to have been present, either.
Secondly, the Gospels differ significantly in their depictions of the life of Jesus. It’s obvious by the accounts that none of the apostles were with Jesus at his Nativity, when the Magi came, and angels sung his praises; Were any of the apostles with Jesus when the devil flew him to a mountain top and bent space into a horseshoe? Who was the eyewitness when Jesus traveled to Egypt as a child to escape the wrath of Herod Agrippa?
The Gospels of Luke and Matthew also differ critically on the genealogy of Jesus. In the book of Matthew, it starts with Abraham and ends with Joseph, Mary’s husband, “of whom is born Jesus, who is called Christ.” It is further stated, in verse 179, that all the generations from Abraham to David were 14 generations, and from David to the Babylonian exile were 14 generations, and from the exile to Christ were 14 generations. Here already we stumble upon a major problem; in I Chronciles Ch. 3 v.10 – 24, the genealogy of the family of Solomon is given, and there are 18 generations between King David and the Babylonian exile, not 14.
Many people attempt to get around this by claiming that the genealogy of Matthew is that of Joseph, and the one in Luke that of Mary. Their evidence for this claim? Nothing. Nothing at all supports this assertion. It isn’t even wishful thinking; it’s grabbing at straws that aren’t even there.
Even such noted and famous a Christian Apologist as Lee Strobel acknowledges that “there are numerous points at which the gospels appear to disagree”. Strobel himself deals with the contradictions of the gospels by saying that, if they agreed word for word, they’d be called plagiarist. However, as we’ve already seen, the gospels do plagiarise from each another: they’re derived from common sources. Not only do they plagiarise, they also embellish and leave out material. Matthew, for example, adds earthquakes and dead bodies rising out of graves upon the death of Jesus. Odd that no-one in a position to be called a historian noticed.
As we can see, the writers of the Gospels are neither eye-witnesses nor in agreement with one another. Hardly what you would expect in a book allegedly inspired (or, if you’re a fundamentalist, written directly by) a deity.
This brings us to the final point of this section: why would the writers lie? Well, maybe they wanted their ‘truth’ to be the superior one. Perhaps they were liars by nature. Perhaps they didn’t actually know anything about their subject and had to make it all up. Even ancient historians of a more rigorous, and, shall we say, talented nature than the writers of the Gospels made things up; even the well-known historian and naturalist Pliny the Elder, a sober, rigorous-minded ex-cavalryman, included cyclops in his Historia Naturalis.
If ancient historians with the best educations that could be gained at the time are not reliable, why should we suppose that any semi-literate fisherman or peasant from 1st-century Judaea would be? If anything, the peasant would be more prone to credulousness; Graeco-Roman society was essentially a secular organism at the time. The forms of religion remained, but the heart of the religion was long gone. In Roman high society, religious belief was close enough to dead for the undertakers to start taking measurements.
The writers of the Gospels cannot be shown to have been Apostles, and the evidence points rather in the opposite direction, that they were not written by single authors, but by later Christians who cobbled together composite manuscripts.
“There is more documentary evidence for Jesus than for Julius Caesar!”
Or Abraham Lincoln. This is a surprisingly common claim, especially by Christians on the Internet.
I’ll be blunt. It’s a false claim. It’s untrue.
There are no verifiable or trustworthy contemporary accounts of the person known as Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels are not accurate, are internally inconsistent, and of unknown authorship. They do not qualify for being historical or evidential sources any more than Babe qualifies as evidence of talking pigs.
Harsh, but true.
There are a number of historical writers and figures whom Christians like to trot out as evidence of the existence of Jesus. Not one of them is a historical contemporary, and some of them are just downright dubious.
They are usually:
Pliny the Younger
Flavius Josephus (37 CE or 38 CE – c. 101 CE)
Jewish historian, born in Jerusalem of both royal and priestly lineage. His original name was Joseph Ben Matthias. A man both learned and worldly, he was a member of the Pharisees, and also a public figure who, before the Jewish revolt against Rome (66 CE), had made friends at the court of Emperor Nero.
There are allegedly references to Jesus in two of Josephus’ books: The Jewish Antiquities and the Testimonium Flavianum. His is perhaps the most famous of alleged historical mentions of Jesus. However, there are a number of problems with this.
There are allegedly two references to Jesus in the writings of Josephus.
But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought it before the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.
It is likely that these passages are interpolations – bolt-ons to the text – by later Christian authors or copyists.
This is unlikely to be the original manuscript; it is not known before c. 200 CE; also, when related to the next passage, from the Testimonium Flavianum, it seems curiously limp and uninterested.
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.
This passage is extremely suspect, especially the bold parts. The previous reference to Jesus is, to be blunt, non-committal and fleeting. Why would Josephus get so worked up in the Testimonium, and yet later be so faint-hearted?
The entire quotation seems open to accusations of being rather clumsily added on later. It exists in all extant manuscripts of Josephus – yet none of them date from earlier than the 10th century CE. It is quoted by Eusebius in the 4th century CE, but three centuries is a long enough for it to have been added in. Some scholars have suggested that Eusebius himself added the passage – he was a noted Apologist. Although the style and vocabulary are basically similar to those of Josephus, there is no reason for us to suspect that Josephus had a particularly difficult style. It has been suggested that the passage is genuine because Josephus blames the Romans rather than the Jews; a 4th century Christian forger would most likely not have let himself leave the Jews blameless. However, looking at the passage again:
…when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross…
This seems an indictment of the Jews; who else would be the principal men among us but the Sanhedrin?
The Sanhedrin was the supreme national tribunal of the Jews, established at the time of the Maccabees16. It consisted of 71 members and was presided over by the Nasi, at whose side stood Ab-Beth-Din. Two similar bodies are thought to have existed: a secular Sanhedrin dominated by the Sadducees, the Nasi being the high priest; and a religious one governed as a democracy of Pharisaic scholars. The limits of the Sanhedrin’s jurisdiction, and much else concerning the ruling body, are not known, but apparently at one time the supreme decision over life and death was in its hands.
Christian tradition has it that the Sanhedrin condemned Jesus to death; this seems a good case for believing that the passage is a later insertion by Christian forgers.
Also: the passage mentions Jesus as Messiah, which is somewhat improbable, as Josephus was a lifelong Pharisee. Certain Pharisees do appear as sympathetic to Jesus, but the essence of the Pharisees was adherence to the Law.
It is very unlikely that Josephus would have written the bold passages; they would jar too much with his Pharisaic beliefs. The passage in its entirety is not quoted by the Church Fathers Justin Martyr, Tertullian or Origen, when such a quotation would have extremely powerful value in Apologetics; the fact that Apologists even now attempt to use it is a telling sign of how powerful an actual, real, historical reference could be. Even the ghost of one like this has them scrambling for their pens to write tortuous ‘proofs’ of the historical Jesus.
Pliny the Younger (62 CE – c.113)
Governor of Bithynia. Around 111 or 112 CE he wrote to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with Christians. He basically states that some Christians died for their beliefs when tortured before trial. This does not in itself make their beliefs any more valid. Pliny did not become governor until 110 CE, and mentioned that some Christians had also given up their faith before then.
Good to see that Atheism was at work even then. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Pliny contributes nothing at all to the issue at hand; he was too late and too far away. Christians dying for their beliefs do not actually prove their beliefs in any way; by that rationale, Allah is real because of the WTC attacks.
The fact that Pliny mentions Christians mentioning Jesus does not prove the existence of Jesus; it proves that someone mentioned him.
The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, writing in 115 CE, explicitly states that Nero prosecuted the Christians in order to draw attention away from himself for Rome’s devastating fire of 64 CE:
But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
The reliability of this passage is dubious. There is no other corroborating evidence that Nero persecuted the Christians – he was indifferent to the religions in Rome – nor would there have been a multitude of Christians in Rome at that time. ‘Christian’ was not a common term in the first century. Tacitus does not use the name Jesus and yet assumes that his readers know of Pontius Pilate. There is also no corroborating evidence which suggests that Nero started the fire in Rome, either.
It’s possible that the passage is genuine; whether the information it contains is genuine is another matter. Tacitus was not above spreading false rumours to illustrate a moral point, as when he asserted that the Emperor Augustus was murdered by his wife Livia in order to illustrate a point about the moral vices of Nero.
Tacitus was also contemptuous of almost all Easterners – he would not have spent as much time or energy researching Christians as he would have on researching court intrigues, and such things. It’s just as probable that Tacitus is simply mentioning what other people have said to him and asserted to be the truth. Either way, Tacitus is not a viable historical source.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69 – 140 CE),
The Roman historian and biographer usually known as Suetonius, wrote several works, including his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, an account of the lives of the first twelve Roman Emperors. In his Life of Claudius, he writes:
As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.
Close, but no cylindrical smoking thing.
Chrestus is not Christ. It is, however, a Greek proper name. Claims that Suetonius unwittingly misspelt Christus or deliberately misspelt it for a Gentile audience with no understanding of the concept of the messiah are fraudulent. Suetonius also knew the difference between Jews and Christians – he refers in other works to Christians without the misspelling and without the reference to the Jews; he seems to regard them as being unrelated. Suetonius mentions Christians – spelt correctly – as being punished under Nero. He does not specify what they were being punished for, and neither does he say that they were put to death. The Christian New Testament scholar R.T. France says
The great fire of AD 64 is not mentioned in this connection, and indeed the punishment of Christians is included in that part of the book (up to section 19) which deals with Nero’s good acts, before he turned to vice and crime. Nor does Suetonius even so much as mention the ‘Christus’ from whom their name derived.
Suetonius is out as a source.
Lucian (c. 120 CE – after 180 CE)
A Greek writer and rhetorician, famed for his development of satiric dialogue. He was born in Samosata (now Samsat, Turkey) and devoted himself from an early age to the study of rhetoric and philosophy. He travelled throughout the Roman Empire as a lecturer and orator and then settled in Athens, turning to the writing of dialogues. His satire is directed chiefly at superstitious beliefs and false philosophical doctrines. His fantastic tale Vera Historia (True History) is a parody of the fictions put forward as facts by early poets and historians.
Lucian was born approximately 90 years after the death of the figure Jesus of Nazareth. This doesn’t exactly qualify as being contemporary.
He wrote around 170 CE:
… the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world…. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws.
This cannot be used as historical verification of Jesus. It’s third hand information at best, written by a man who wasn’t even born until nearly a century after his subject was killed. Lucian was concerned with historical accuracy, unlike a great many historians of the time. However, given that he wrote this in the latter half of the 2nd century CE, it is unlikely at best that he had any independent, let alone eye-witness or contemporary accounts of the life of Jesus (whichever version was most popular at the time, anyway). He may have relied on Christian assertions or stories, common knowledge, or an earlier pagan reference, such as Tacitus. It is credible that Lucian would have accepted the Christian claim that their founder was crucified simply on their say-so. However, given that Lucian is writing at over a century’s remove and the lack of corroboration, it seems that he cannot be accepted as any thing but a source of hearsay, rather than evidence.
These are the best references to Jesus historically; none of them are contemporary or valid sources. None of them prove anything but that there were Christians who told other people about what they believed about their mythical founder.
It would seem that the historical argument is also a non-starter.
None of the above arguments or assertions for the existence of a historical Jesus, or even a mythological one, can stand up to sustained questioning.
Basically, it’s time for Christianity to either provide some real evidence, make up some new arguments or shut up about it. Until the first two possibilities can be put into motion, I vote for the third.
Put up or shut up.