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Wednesday, February 01, 2006 

Jesus is a Myth Challenge Examined

I wrote: "if you have any proof outside of the bible about Jesus' existence, I (and the world) would love to hear about it."

Steve Harris correctly points out that the NT could be used for theological claims and historical claims. I didn't think of it this way, but that makes sense.

Certainly I was trying to head off the theological arguments in the form of "since the bible was written by my God, the stuff in it must be true! Since it says someone walked on water, it must have really happened!"

What about historical claims? There is still a bit of a problem, because when someone has a vested interest in an outcome, the claim needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

So is there a way to find the information in the NT that can help prove the point (Jesus -> real person?) while being cognizant of the vested interest?

Try me out, I'd love to hear what you think.

>when someone has a vested interest in an outcome, the claim needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

You neglected to mention two other major problems with viewing the NT as a valid source of history:
One is that there are supernatural claims and events in the book, which significantly raises the bar for verification.
The second is that the NT was not given to a large group of people at one time, or to the people who were actually there, so there was no credible audience to verify it. In other words: If I wrote a book and widely circulated it among New Yorkers, claiming that the World trade center was not destroyed in 2001, and that it still stands, that book would never be accepted as history. But if I gave it to a small group of America-haters in Afghanistan, or to a remote tribe in New Zealand, their acceptance of it would mean nothing.

great points, as usual. Thanks!

Hey freethoughtmom,
Thanks for the comment. How did you find my post, just curious?


"when someone has a vested interest in an outcome, the claim needs to be taken with a grain of salt."

Everyone has an interest or bias when it comes to studying and interpreting history, whether a sceptic or a Christian or whoever. There is no such thing as pure objectivity.

"One is that there are supernatural claims and events in the book, which significantly raises the bar for verification."

There are limits to what is historically knowable. History is a science (of sorts) and has its limitations. Our methods of historical investigation have been developed with no accounting for anything supernatural, and thus anything supernatural is dismissed a priori, but this does not then mean that nothing supernatural could ever have happened.

Neither a Christian nor a sceptic can 'prove' (or disprove) something like a historical miracle. There are sources that say Jesus performed miracles and signs, but from a purely historical viewpoint this is impossible to subject to scrutiny because the events are not observable or repeatable, but this neither confirms nor discounts any historical miracles. The literary accounts are all the access we have to these events.

The second is that the NT was not given to a large group of people at one time, or to the people who were actually there, so there was no credible audience to verify it.

This reflects a very poor understanding of how the NT came into existence. Paul's writings are the earliest in the NT and he was a contemporary of Jesus disciples. In 1 Corinthians 15 for example, he offers the very earliest Christian writing on the resurrection and names other apostles and 500 others (unnamed) who were witnesses to it. There were plenty of opportunities for both then Jewish authorities and subsequently Gentiles to refute the church's claims and proclamation about Jesus. Although Paul's writings assume the existence and ministry of Jesus, not even his opponents seem to call this into question. Paul's concern is mainly with overseeing the development of the early church congregations.

I would be interested to know how many people constitutes a sufficiently "large group" to verify the historicity of the New Testament. Compared to any other first century writing (religious or not) the existence of even four separate accounts of one person's life is unparalleled. A fact made all the more astonishing when you consider that there are very, very few literary sources for anything at all originating in 1st Century Palestine.

As for 'widespread verification' of the Gospel events, bear in mind that Jesus never travelled more than about 30 miles from his home town and seems to have spent most of his time in rural villages, so the fact that anything is known about him at all is quite surprising.

Yet within a generation of his death, the stories about him have reached Rome itself, and all within the lifetime of (most) of the people who were with him. There would have been ample opportunity for the opponents of early Christians to refute or reject anything or everything about Jesus, but none of them seem to.

If all the Gospel events were nothing but an elaborate imagination or a hoax the NT claims would have easily collapsed and the church disappeared along with them.

Your analogy with 9/11 is not a correct comparison with the history of the NT, it is the wrong way round. If a group of people in rural Afghanistani villages and towns claimed to have witnessed events X,Y and Z and then travel around the world telling people about them, you could by no means dismiss them as having never happened just because the population of the USA had not been able to verify them.

Likewise of several of the Afghans who had been present at events X,Y and Z then wrote an account or supplied information to those writing an account, it is not logical to say that because large numbers of people in the USA didn't see it happen, then it definitely didn't happen.

Using your logic... we cannot prove or disprove that the Greek gods did or did not exist even though there is much writing about them. So using your logic we cannot say they did NOT exist and interact with humans because we read about them in ancient texts written by real people who believed in this mythology at that time in history. Books of mythology contain accounts of all sorts of magical feats performed by the gods. But christians and muslims all swear that their mythology is true...and still cling to the belief that it is real.

As for long-lasting religions...if you judged the reality of a religion on how long it has endured...Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism have lasted far longer than christianity yet christians reject those religions. So that logic doesn't hold up either, just as the argument "how can so many be wrong?"...for that answer look at Nazi Germany, for instance...people were mesmerized by eloquent speeches by Hitler and they almost took over the world. Or Islam...which is still very influential to millions and millions of people. There are over a BILLION Hindis. Why don't you believe in their religion based on your logic? Just because a bunch of people believe something, doesn't make it true or right.

Since St. Nicholas walked the earth so long ago in EUROPE and his story is still told BY ADULTS TO CHILDREN and believed by millions and millions of children...wow...that must make it true. That is your logic.

Another point...it was common belief for thousands of years that the earth was flat...then a handful of explorers ventured out alone into the seas and proved the people wrong.


Thanks for your responses, although they appear to be confused.

I would be interested to know of any Greek texts which treated the mythical gods as having been real historical figures. The Gospels are an altogether different kind of literary genre, they are not mythology. If you want to stick to Greek terms, the genre of the Gospels is that of bioi, akin to biography in modern times.

You are also confusing between theology and history. The original post on this blog, and the response on my blog (here)
was to the suggestion that no one called Jesus had ever existed in Palestine in the first century, which as I showed makes no sense historically, since the sources that attest to his having existed do not reflect a common belief in the ancient world that Jesus was nothing more than a story. The Roman historian Tacitus refers to the fact that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate - you don't write that sort of thing if you know full well he never existed.

I said that you were confusing theology and history, let me explain: Here's a historical statement: "Jesus was crucified on a cross in Palestine." No problem with that, both the Gospels and non-Christian sources will affirm this.

Now here's a theological statement: "Jesus was crucified on a cross in order to bring about the forgiveness of sins and reconcile God with the world." You can verify the historical statement, but you cannot use historical research to investigate how the cross brought about forgiveness and reconciliation, it's a theological question.

The theology surrounding Jesus arises from the interpretation those with him and writing about him gave to his historical actions. To say that Jesus never existed and is only a myth like some ancient tooth fairy is bad history. To argue whether or not he was the Son of God is a theological question.

I don't base my faith on the number of people who follow a religion. I was simply making the point to TJF that the fact that the NT events were witnessed in only a small area and not by the whole world is a nonsensical reason to assume that these events then never happened.

You're right that just because someone believes something doesn't make it right - and the same goes for someone who appeals to history to show Jesus never existed when there is good evidence that he did.

Your analogies to Father Christmas and a flat earth are a little mystifying. Father Christmas is believed in by children - but only children, unlike the earliest Christians. As you point out, St Nicholas was a historical figure, and I'm saying that Jesus was too.

As for the flat earth - if you're trying to make an analogy with belief in Jesus then by all means go and be one of the explorers who will overthrow 2,000 years of historical scholarship and show us that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax all along.


Steven Harris

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Okay, here's the 'evidence' i offer that is 'outside of the bible' as you ask:

Plinius Secundus, Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor (A.D. 112), Pliny was writing the emperoor Trajan seeking counsel as to how to treat the Christians. He explained that he had been killing both men and women, boys and girls. There were so many being put to death that he wondered if he should continue killing anyone who was discovered to be a Christian, or if he should kill only certain ones.
He explained that he had made the Christians bow down to the statues of Trajan. He goes on to say that he also "...made them curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do." In the same letter he says of the people who were being tried: "They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up." Epistles X.96

Cornelius Tacitus (born A.D. 52-54) A Roman historian, in 112 A.D., governor of Asia, son-in-law of Julius Agricola was Governor of Britain around A.D. 80-84. Writing of the reign of Nero, Tacitus alludes to the death of Christ and to the existence of Christians at Rome: "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 with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called 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." Annals XV.44.

Tacitus has a further reference to Christianity in a fragment of his 'Histories', dealing with the burning of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70, preserved by Sulpicius Severus (Chron. ii. 30.6)

Surely if the diciples were promulgating a "pack of lies" and "half-truths", no reasonable person of their day would have listened, followed, and adhered to their teachings as it would have been extremely easy for them to be able to refute their claims and inaccuracies. Instead, we find many converting to Christianity because of the "truth" of it; and even the religious leaders of the day were being converted.

There is also very substantial archaeological evidence available that substantiates much of what the scripture authors have recorded and testified about.

For instance, Paul writes in Romans that the city treasurer was Erastus (Rom 16:23). During excavations of Corinth in 1929 a pavement was found and it bore an inscription of: ERASTVS PRO: AED:S:P:STRAVIT ("Erastus, curator of public buildings, laid this pavement at his own expense").

Another, Luke has often been accused of using poor word usage for Roman affairs during the first century. In Philipians, for example, he calls the rulers "praetors" but scholars have have always said that two "duumuirs" would have ruled the town.

Archaeological findings however, have shown that the title of "praetor" was indeed employed by the maistrates of a Roman colony thus verifying the accuracy of Luke's choice of the Greek venacular of the day.

Also, for your information, if you studied mythology, and read the bible completely, you would find lots of greek and roman mythology incorporated into the text. Did you ever wonder why there exists a Greek and a Mesopotamian tale strikingly similar to Noah's Flood?

Have you ever heard of the parallel Greek tales existing for the story of the Creation, the Forbidden Fruit, the Tower of Babel and the burning of sinful cities by Gods?

People at that time were really into myths and stories. It's amazing that most people really haven't changed very much with the way they create myths and stories to explain things there are no cut-and-dried explanations for.

My point about ancient people believing the earth flat and a few explorers proving them wrong was that MAYBE WE HANDFUL OF ATHEISTS ARE RIGHT. It's always been a small minority who have been the pioneers and proceed to explore other options despite the ridicule of the masses...only later to become respected and revered for their discoveries and contributions which advance society.

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Your grasp of first century history seems rather poor to say the least. We do not have ANY sources about ANY first century figure that were written about them at the same time as they were doing whatever it was they did. Even the Roman histories of their own rulers were written many years after the events - so presumably they are all made up too?

None of the sources in my original post on my blog make any sense whatsoever if, as you claim, everyone thought Jesus was only a story. I would be interested to hear your theories regarding the origins of Christianity.

Yes, there are similarities between the Mesopotamian, Babylonian and Biblical flood stories (and also many differences). It couldn't possibly suggest a common source in history could it?

"...ancient superstitious people who knew nothing about science or anything beyond their own little world."

That's right, all people in the first century were stupid and ignorant and knew absolutely nothing about their own time and culture. Please enlighten us as to exactly how you would consider yourself to be better placed to explain life in the first century than the people who actually lived in it.

It is a free country, and I encourage free-thinking. The problem comes in when christians push your religious beliefs on others and expect everyone to be "assimillated" to your way of thinking.

Who is pushing their beliefs on who? I thought this was a debate? And what has this got to do with the historical figure of Jesus? Nada. When atheists attack Christianity, it's "free thought". When Christians counter dubious atheist claims about ancient history we're "imposing our beliefs on everyone".

He was so great but NO ONE documented anything about him AT THE TIME HE LIVED...NO ARTWORK ...NADA.

What artwork do you have in mind? In Judaism it was forbidden to make graven images of anyone, and unless you were an emperor it's highly unlikely anyone would make a bust or sculpture of you. If you're waiting for an arachaeologist to dig up a portrait of any first century Jew you'll be waiting a very long time indeed.

If things were found that were written AT THE TIME Jesus supposedly lived, I am sure there would be no debating that he was at least a historical figure.

If we applied this logic to any first century figure we would have to conclude that none of them actually existed. It means nothing to object to the existence of a historical Jesus on the basis that there aren't live eyewitness accounts of his life. Although those who were with him were used as eyewitness for the writing of the Gospels.

Also, for your information, if you studied mythology, and read the bible completely, you would find lots of greek and roman mythology incorporated into the text.

Now that's an interesting theory. Would you care to name some examples of where Greek and Roman myths have been incorporated into the Bible? The scholarly world is all ears...

First off, let's keep in mind that atheists are not going to you to talk about beliefs, you came here in atheist territory.

Now that that is established, let me state that I am aware that the bible contains historical information, mythology, and some fictional fables, poetry, psalms. However, the contents of the Bible is not the debate here. The debate is if there is evidence for Jesus OUTSIDE of the bible at the time he lived. You, being the believer are the one who should supply support for your claim. I am open-minded and willing to accept evidence that you find OUTSIDE of the bible that you can provide...AT THE TIME OF JESUS. This issue is now being considered in an Italian court and I am waiting to hear what the sholars provide. I seriously doubt we are going to accomplish anything here in blogland.

As for examples of mythology and the bible. When I was a christian in the Presbyterian church we had a few bible studies concerning mythology getting caught up in the writing, especially since Mithraism was still in existence and Mitraism had a huge influence on Christianity.
Here is a site to read from the UK
I have taken courses in Bible as Literature, looking at the literature in a neutral way and compared Biblical accounts with numerous and varied creation myths, flood myths, and so on.
A good book to use, which is unbiased and fair is Understanding the Old Testament by Bernhard W. Anderson and also World Mythologies by Donna Rosenberg. These are two texts that we used, along with the Tanakh, and the christian bible (KJV and the Good News Bible). Greek and Roman Mythology is scattered about the Old Testament (unicorns, sartyrs and giants to name some things that got sucked into the biblical texts) and Mithraim, which was the major religion at the time Chrstianity was just starting greatly influenced the New Testament and the character of Jesus, who has an almost identical resemblance to Mithras. Constantine would have chosen Mitrhaism to continue as the official religion of the land if it would have served him better, however, Christianity would serve him better, making him look benevolent to the new followers of the christianity in its infancy. You can read about all that on the link I provided. It took me several courses to understand the similarities, and the influences of mythology in christianity, and I think you are not going to understand things until you explore it for yourself. Not enough time or space on a blog post.

Now back to the discussion for evidence of Jesus at the time in which he lived. If I am stupid, then please...educate us..give us some facts other than biblical. As a scholar of literature and educated in journalism and research techniques, I DO know that a good researcher has more than one source and it makes a claim more credible to have unbiased sources.

FTM - some links that debunk the common non-biblical sources for Jesus.




Thanks for the links Lya, they are really helpful. I was looking for something like that to save myself having to look up all that info. And it is simple, organized and to the point, whereas I tend to ramble. :-S

Freethought mom, what do you think?

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  • I'm the freethoughtmom from New England. Welcome!
  • The word rational means having the ability to reason. Reasoning takes time. Giving yourself the space to think is practically a luxury in our society.

    My father is a logical engineer, my mother a caring nurturer. My handwriting with my dominate hand resembles that of my father, the other, my mother. I feel lucky to have both sides to draw from.
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