Choking on the Camel: Part 2

The Apologists’ Arguments

Even though there is no contemporary extra-biblical documentation for the existence of Jesus, Christian apologists are far from ready to concede the battle. Though there may not be eyewitness records, they claim, nevertheless the historical record does provide more than sufficient support for Christianity’s picture of its own origins.

In analyzing the evidence, though, such claims do not stand up to scrutiny. Though there are some later extra-biblical references to Jesus, the lack of first-hand evidence alone makes them all into hearsay. In other words, historians who lived after the time of Jesus cannot provide any direct witness to his existence – they can only repeat what others have told them, without being able to verify it themselves. Nevertheless, it will be instructive to consider the ancient historians most commonly cited in support of the historicity of Jesus. While examining each of their following testimonies, there are three important criteria to keep in mind:

  1. Who is this person? The first question to ask is, who is writing this – what is their background, their perspective, their religious affiliation? For obvious reasons, the testimony of some random person on the street who might just have been repeating popular rumors is worth less than the testimony of a known and respected historian whom we know was in the habit of carefully checking his sources. Additionally, we must ask – was this person a church father, or otherwise a Christian? If so, their testimony must be considered less reliable, since it would likely be influenced by theological biases. Some early Christians even believed that it was acceptable to conceal or fabricate evidence if it would further their religious aims, a doctrine sometimes known as “pious fraud”. For example, Eusebius, a third-century bishop, openly stated that lying for the cause of Christianity was occasionally necessary. See http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/NTcanon.html#6.
  2. What did they write? The second question we must ask is, does this person actually testify to the existence of a historical Jesus, or are they just describing the things a new sect believed? (I could say, “Mormons believe that the angel Moroni gave Joseph Smith the Book of Mormon engraved on golden tablets,” but that does not mean I vouch for the occurrence of such an event.) Do they mention Jesus by name, or do they merely attest to the fact that Christianity existed? Apologists sometimes produce historians who fall into the latter category, but no one doubts that Christianity was in existence during the second century. To be of any value, the historian must not just say that Christians believe in the divinity of someone called Jesus; they must bear their own witness to the fact that there actually was such a person who actually did the things he was claimed to have done.
  3. When did they write it? The later a particular historian lived, the less weight their testimony must be given. (Concurrent first-hand testimony would carry the most weight by far, but again, none exists.) A historian who lived in the second century CE, one hundred years or more after the time Jesus was claimed to have lived, is in a poor position to verify any stories that may have developed about him, yet such people’s writings make up the majority of evidence the apologists have to offer. Since these historians cannot bear their own witness to the truth of the things they write, they must instead be relying on earlier sources, and it is those sources which should be cited whenever possible.

The Historians

Flavius Josephus

Of all the ancient historians claimed to bear witness to the existence of Jesus, Josephus is without a doubt the one cited most frequently by Christians. He was a respected Jewish historian who worked for the Romans under the patronage of Emperor Vespasian; born around 37 CE, he is also the closest to the time of Jesus of all the historians cited by apologists. His two major surviving works are titled The Antiquities of the Jews, a detailed history of the Jewish people based largely on biblical records, and The Jewish War, a history of the disastrous Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation of Jerusalem around 70 CE.

Antiquities, book 18, chapter 3, contains the most infamous reference to Jesus to be found in the work of any historian. Few passages have ignited as much debate as this one, the so-called Testimonium Flavianum, whose full text appears below:

“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 amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at 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 after him, are not extinct at this day.”

To anyone unfamiliar with the debates swirling around this passage, it might appear to provide startling corroboration of the Gospel stories in virtually every detail. In fact, it seems too fantastic to be true. And indeed, this is the consensus of the overwhelming majority of critical scholars today. No one argues other than that the Testimonium Flavianum is, at least in part, a forgery, a later interpolation into Josephus’ work. We can be certain of this for several reasons. One is that the enthusiastic endorsement of Jesus’ miracles could only have been written by a Christian, and Josephus was not a Christian. He was an orthodox Jew and remained so his entire life. The church father Origen, who quoted freely from Josephus, wrote that he was “not believing in Jesus as the Christ”. Furthermore, in The Jewish War, Josephus specifically states his belief that the Roman emperor Vespasian was the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies – which is what got him his job in the first place.

So, imagine we remove the obvious Christian interpolations – phrases such as “if it be lawful to call him a man”, “he was the Christ”, and “he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold”. Could we let the rest remain, preserving a “reduced” Testimonium in which Josephus testifies to the simple existence of Jesus as a teacher and wise man without touting him as a messiah or a miracle-worker?

This is the position taken by most Christian scholars today, but it too is flawed. For one thing, even the “reduced” Testimonium still praises Jesus highly. This is very unlikely. Elsewhere Josephus does mention other self-proclaimed messiahs of the time, such as Judas of Galilee and Theudas the magician, but he has nothing but evil to say about them. He scorns them as deceivers and deluders, labels them “false prophets”, “impostors” and “cheats”, blames them for wars and famines that afflicted the Jews, and more. This is entirely understandable, since Josephus was writing under Roman patronage, and the Romans did not look highly on the self-proclaimed messiahs of the time since many of them preached about overturning the established order, i.e., Roman rule. (“The meek shall inherit the earth” would have fallen squarely into this category, as would “I came not to send peace, but a sword.”) Some messiah claimants went even further by actively confronting the established authority and sowing dissent (Jesus’ expulsion of the money-changers from the temple comes to mind). The Romans were prone to express their displeasure at these types of activities by executing the messiah claimants, several other examples of which Josephus does tell us about. Had Josephus genuinely written about Jesus he would have been compelled to denounce him, not only because of his orthodox Jewish beliefs but because he had to stay in accord with Roman views or risk being imprisoned or worse. It is all but impossible that he could have written even the “reduced” Testimonium.

There are other good reasons to believe this entire passage is a forgery; namely, it does not fit with the context. Book 18, chapter 3 of Antiquities begins with an account of a massacre of Jews by Pilate in retaliation for their protests against his use of sacred money; then comes the Testimonium, and then the next paragraph begins, “And about the same time, another terrible misfortune confounded the Jews…” It is inconceivable that Josephus, an orthodox Jew, would have considered the death of Jesus to be a Jewish misfortune. (Of course, it could be argued that the misfortune he was referring to was not the death of Jesus, but rather the founding of Christianity. In that case, however, the question must again be asked, how can this be squared with the enthusiastic praise for Jesus found in even the “reduced” Testimonium?) On the other hand, if the passage is removed entirely, the preceding and succeeding paragraphs naturally fit together.

One final argument can be made against the authenticity of the Testimonium – it does not appear anywhere until the fourth century CE. In the second century, the church father Origen defended Christianity against the attacks of the pagan Celsus; he freely quotes from Josephus to support his points, but never once mentions the Testimonium, though it would seem to be the ultimate ace in the hole. Modern apologists rationalize this by claiming that Origen was unaware of the existence of this passage, but this seems weak in light of the fact that he did demonstrate familiarity with Josephus’ works, and even weaker when one understands they are asking us to believe that not a single apologist before the 300s happened to notice this paragraph or thought it worthy of mention. The first Christian who quoted the Testimonium was Eusebius, in the fourth century; some scholars believe that he was the one who forged it.

There is another brief passage in Josephus that mentions Jesus. Antiquities, book 20, chapter 9, contains the following:

“Festus was now dead, and Albinus was put upon the road; so he [Ananus, the Jewish high priest] assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, him called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. And when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned….”

This passage is not as obviously a forgery as the Testimonium Flavianum. However, a more oblique line of attack is possible, which runs as follows:

Josephus was a Jewish historian, but he worked under the sponsorship of the Roman emperor Vespasian; he was writing for a Roman audience. A Roman audience would not have been familiar with the concepts of Jewish messianic expectation, and would not have known what the word “Christ” meant. It would only have confused them if that idea had been thrown in without explanation – and yet, if we reject the Testimonium as the obvious forgery it is, this brief snippet is the only use of the term anywhere in any of Josephus’ writings, provided without further elaboration. Since it is highly unlikely that Josephus would have used this term without explaining what it meant, it is therefore probable that this phrase is an interpolation as well.

When we conclude this, several things fall into place. One is the puzzling word order of this paragraph – why would Josephus have thought to mention Jesus first, when the passage is actually about someone else entirely? But it makes perfect sense that a Christian interpolator, consciously or unconsciously, would have given pride of place to his savior’s name. Another is the phrasing of the passage. Some have translated the crucial phrase as “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ.” However, this translation is not supported by the original Greek – in fact, the original Greek words used are identical (except for being in a slightly different case) to the wording of Matthew 1:16.

It is true that these things might be coincidences. However, there is yet another anomaly. Reading the rest of chapter 9, we learn that the Jews were so angered by the stoning of James that they wrote to the king, Agrippa, demanding that Ananus be fired. Why would Jews be so upset over the killing of an apostate, a Christian leader, that they would attempt to depose their own high priest?

None of these four points are conclusive by themselves. However, when we add them all up, the weight of the evidence points strongly to the conclusion that this, too, is a later Christian interpolation. There are other people named Jesus mentioned in Josephus’ writing: in fact, that very same chapter mentions a man named “Jesus, the son of Damneus” who was made high priest after Ananus. If this person had a brother named James, that might have been whom the passage was originally about, and a later Christian copyist who mistakenly assumed the passage was referring to “his” Jesus and James could have made that connection himself by inserting the “brother of Jesus, him called Christ” phrase. (Thanks to EvanT for making this suggestion.)

This conclusion makes good sense and makes the passage less jarring, more easily fit within context. After all, if Josephus really had written the “him called Christ” phrase, it is difficult to believe he would have left it at that without further elaboration. After all, to call someone “Christ” is a claim that is presumptuous in the extreme – it makes that person out to be the God-sent messiah, the long-awaited savior the Jews had been promised who would establish God’s kingdom on earth for all time. It seems very likely that Josephus would include at least a brief discussion of the actions of the person who would dare to take such a lofty mantle on himself, even if he did not believe that person’s messianic claims. But no such discussion is to be found anywhere in Josephus, and thus we can confidently conclude that this is because he never wrote this phrase in the first place.

Suetonius

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a Roman biographer and historian whose most famous work is titled The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, a biography of twelve Roman emperors livened up with gossip and stories of scandal. Written about 120 CE, the book contains one passage apologists frequently cite:

“Because the Jews of Rome caused continous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from the city.”

As historical evidence for the existence of Jesus, this verse is very weak. A number of anomalies immediately crop up upon reading it. One is that Jesus’ name is seemingly misspelled. But on further examination, this may not be a misspelling at all. “Chrestus” does not mean “Christ” (that would have been “Christus”) – rather, “Chrestus” was a perfectly valid Latin name in its own right, and a very common one as well. It may well be that this passage is referring to some unknown Jewish agitator, perhaps another messianic pretender such as the ones Josephus describes. Furthermore, Claudius was the Roman emperor from 41 to 54 CE. There is no indication historically that Christianity had spread to Rome by this time, or that it was powerful enough to have caused a revolt. Note, too, that the passage says it was not Christians who were causing disturbances, but Jews – and Suetonius does write about Christians elsewhere in his works, so he plainly knew the difference.

Also, Claudius’ decree is mentioned in the Bible, in Acts (18:1-2). Backing up Suetonius’ account, Acts describes it as an expulsion of Jews only. If the emperor had also expelled Christians from Rome, it seems likely that this passage would have mentioned it, since Acts never misses a chance to record persecutions of Christians. But nothing of the kind is described, which makes it even more likely that Claudius’ expulsion was a Roman-Jewish dispute with no connection to Christianity. (Thanks to EvanT for pointing this out.)

Finally, it is worth noting when this passage was written. After Josephus, the chronologically nearest witness to Jesus’ life the apologists have to offer, we now leap to 120 CE. An ambiguous reference to a person who might have been Christianity’s founder, written over seventy years after his supposed death, is hardly compelling evidence for the existence of Jesus.

There is another brief verse in Suetonius that apologists occasionally cite:

“After the great fire at Rome [during Nero’s reign]…. Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.”

Note the second question at the beginning of this essay – what did the historian write? This brief passage mentions nothing about the existence of Jesus, and thus is worthless as evidence of his existence. It merely proves that there were Christians in 120 CE, which no one disputes.

Pliny the Younger

For two years the proconsul of Bythinia, a Roman-held province in Asia Minor, Pliny the Younger is best known for several letters he wrote to the Emperor Trajan around 112 CE that provide information on life at the time. One of them says this:

“[The Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god….”

Again, note the second criterion. This passage mentions nothing about a historical Jesus, nor does it vouch for the existence of any such person. It merely states that the Christians worshipped Christ, but this proves nothing, just as a verse about the Romans worshipping Zeus would not demonstrate that such a being existed. (Note too that “Christ” is a title, not a name.) This verse does not state that this Christ was ever on Earth – it does not even state that the Christians believed he was. Thus, it is entirely compatible with an early Christianity worshipping a spiritual Christ whose death and resurrection took place in Heaven; but even if not, one hundred years is more than enough time for legends about a historical man to take root.

Tacitus

Another Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus’ surviving works consist of the Germania, the Histories, and the Annals, written around 115 CE. One passage late in the Annals, book 15, chapter 44, has another mention of Jesus:

“Consequently, to get rid of the report [that he was responsible for the great fire], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre 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.”

This passage is very likely authentic to Tacitus; a Christian interpolator would not have written such uncomplimentary things about his own religion. (Compare this to the glowing tone of even the “reduced” Testimonium Flavianum.) But again, as with the other historians, it is important to note that Tacitus did not write this until almost one hundred years after Jesus supposedly lived. Thus, he cannot provide first-hand evidence for the existence of Jesus, and it therefore makes sense to ask where he did get his information from – what his sources were.

The idea that Tacitus got his information from official Roman records seems highly unlikely. There is no evidence that the Romans kept meticulous records extending back almost a century of every single crucifixion carried out in every corner of the empire, and that possibility is further reduced by the fact that Rome had essentially burned to the ground in the interim (which is what Tacitus was writing about in the quoted paragraph). The most likely scenario is that Tacitus was getting his facts from contemporary Christian sources; he would have had no reason to doubt them. This passage, therefore, is probably based on later Christian hearsay and is weak as evidence for a historical Jesus.

Mara Bar-Serapion

Mara Bar-Serapion was a Syrian, but other than that nothing is known of his life. All we possess today are fragments of a letter he was writing to his son from prison, one of which says the following:

“What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burying Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.”

The second and third criteria both come into play here. First, it should be noted that the dating of this letter is very uncertain. Even the earliest estimates place it around 70 CE, over 40 years after Jesus’ death, while some historians have dated it well into the third century. Secondly, and far more importantly, the letter does not even mention Jesus by name – it only refers to a “wise king”, and does not mention any specific deeds or sayings of this individual. It could be referring to any of the messianic pretenders of the first century, or someone else entirely unknown to us. There is no way to tell. In fact, it seems less likely that Bar-Serapion meant Jesus than any other would-be messiah, since Jesus was killed by the Romans, not by the Jews. The fact that he does not even name this “wise king”, whereas he does name Socrates and Pythagoras, suggests that Bar-Serapion knew almost nothing about him. Therefore, as confirmation of the historicity of Jesus, his testimony is without merit.

It further supports this argument to note that Bar-Serapion is sloppy and careless with other historical details in this passage. Pythagoras, for example, apparently died in southern Italy, not Samos; the exact location and manner of his death vary depending on the telling (in Croton by political adversaries or in Metapontium by hunger strike), but no historical account puts his death in Samos, nor is there any record of a significant natural disaster there that might correspond to what Bar-Serapion mentions. Also, Socrates was executed several decades after the Great Plague of Athens, which seems to be what this passage is alluding to, obviously making it impossible that the plague could somehow have been divine retribution. Bar-Serapion’s inability to get known historical details right makes him far less trustworthy when it comes to disputed ones. (Thanks to EvanT for pointing this out.)

Lucian of Samosata

Born around 125 CE, Lucian of Samosata was not a historian, but a satirist who wrote dialogues ridiculing Greek philosophy and mythology. Some apologists cite a brief passage of his:

“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account…. You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.”

Taken at face value, Lucian’s testimony would seem to support the idea that such a person as Jesus Christ actually existed. However, the third question comes into play here – when did he write? Given that this passage was not written until the mid-second century at the earliest, it cannot possibly provide any direct evidence for the historicity of Jesus – Lucian must be getting his facts second-hand, from other sources. But what sources did he use? Since he does not say, we cannot know for certain, but the most likely scenario is that he is simply repeating stories he heard from contemporary Christians. Without any citation of his source for this knowledge, all we can say is that Lucian’s writing provides no independent confirmation for Jesus’ existence.

The Jewish Talmud

A compendium of Jewish oral law and rabbinical commentary still used by Orthodox Jews today to complement the Torah, the Talmud was entirely oral until it was codified and written down somewhere around 200 CE. It contains a few scattered references to Jesus, one of which is reproduced below:

“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.”

The problem with the Talmud is this – it is not an objective history, but a polemic. It is obvious that the above verse is not a description of something that actually happened; rather, it is a Jewish retort to the New Testament accusation that the trial and execution of Jesus took place secretly and in haste. Theological biases render historical accounts unreliable, and this is just as true for the Jews who were answering Christian accusations as for the Christians who were making them. By the time the Talmud was compiled, centuries after Jesus’ alleged death and after the Jewish War which caused vast destruction in Jerusalem and scattered the Jewish people to the winds, third-century rabbis would have been in no position to be able to refute the very existence of Jesus (not to mention that they also lacked the exegetical techniques that would have allowed them to even suspect such a possibility). It would have been much easier to grant his existence and then slant the stories about him to favor their side of the argument rather than the Christians’, and this is exactly what happened.

Furthermore, the Talmud is without value as a historical account because it dramatically contradicts the Christian version of events, and even contradicts itself in numerous places, when speaking about Jesus. Note that the above verse says he was hanged, not crucified. The same chapter says Jesus had just five disciples, and gives them completely different names than the Bible does: Matthai, Nakai, Nezer, Buni and Todah (sourcethanks to EvanT for pointing this out).

There are other Talmudic accounts that say Jesus died by stoning, not at Calvary, but at Lydda, and not by the Romans, but by the Jews. Some verses say he was the son of a Roman soldier, others say he was a magician. One mention of Jesus places his life at the time of the Maccabean kings, around 100 BCE, while another says his parents were contemporaries of a second-century rabbi. Such fragmented and inconsistent accounts show that the Talmud cannot possibly be accurate history; if it were describing true events, it would be impossible for it to contradict itself. This, combined with its late writing date, makes it even weaker than the other accounts as evidence of Jesus’ existence.

Thallus

The true name of the historian we now call Thallus is in fact not known. Nothing written by Thallus has survived to this day; the only reason we know anything about him is that he is mentioned in the writings of others. In the ninth century CE, a Christian named George Syncellus quoted an early third-century Christian named Julius Africanus, who in turn referenced the work of another man who wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean sometime between 50 and 100 CE. The true name of this man is unclear, as the manuscript is damaged and a letter is missing, but “Thallus” seems to be the most likely spelling. Neither any of his original works nor any of the original works of Africanus survive, and a fragment of third-hand hearsay stretching across eight centuries is about as weak and uncompelling as any evidence could possibly be. Nevertheless, if Syncellus and in turn Africanus are to be believed, Thallus’ history mentioned the three-hour darkness at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. (No direct quotes from Thallus are known.)

As previously stated, this evidence is so ridiculously weak and circumstantial that it could be justifiably dismissed without going any farther. Third-hand hearsay is not compelling proof of a worldwide darkness that everyone should have noticed. Furthermore, Thallus himself did not even necessarily say it was anything out of the ordinary. Syncellus quotes Africanus as saying this:

“Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun – unreasonably, as it seems to me.”

Passover is around a full moon, and it is physically impossible for a solar eclipse to occur during a full moon, much less to last for three hours, so Africanus would be right if that was what Thallus said – but we do not know what Thallus said; he is not quoted directly. Astronomers have calculated that a solar eclipse did occur in November of 29 CE. Is it not possible that Thallus was recording this, nothing more, and that the link to the gospel story was made by Africanus who mistakenly thought it was an attempt to explain away a mysterious three-hour darkness? And of course, this is assuming that Africanus accurately referenced Thallus, and that Syncellus accurately referenced both of them. None of the links in this long chain of assumptions can be substantiated, and thus there is no good reason to accept Thallus as any corroboration of the gospel account.

Phlegon

As we approach the end of the list, we encounter Phlegon of Tralles, a writer who lived sometime around 140 CE. Like Thallus, he is typically cited as a witness to the miraculous darkness around the time of the crucifixion; also like Thallus, his major works, the Chronicles and the Olympiads, have been lost, and the only way we know anything they said is through references made to them by later Christian commentators, such as Origen, Eusebius and Julius Africanus (who is himself lost and only preserved through quotes by another writer, George Syncellus, as previously mentioned). All of them reference Phlegon in support of the darkness. For example, Julius Africanus (as quoted by Syncellus) says the following:

“In fact, let it be so. Let the idea that this happened seize and carry away the multitude, and let the cosmic prodigy be counted as an eclipse of the sun according to its appearance. Phlegon reports that in the time of Tiberius Caesar, during the full moon, a full eclipse of the sun happened, from the sixth hour until the ninth. Clearly this is our eclipse!”

And Eusebius, the only one to quote Phlegon verbatim, has this to say:

“In fact, Phlegon, too, a distinguished reckoner of Olympiads, wrote more on these events in his 13th book, saying this: ‘Now, in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad [32 CE], a great eclipse of the sun occurred at the sixth hour that excelled every other before it, turning the day into such darkness of night that the stars could be seen in heaven, and the earth moved in Bithynia, toppling many buildings in the city of Nicaea.'”

Of course, considerations of the third criterion intervene – Phlegon was, by all accounts, far too late to have witnessed any of these things personally. He cannot provide independent attestation of the darkness.

However, there is a far more serious consideration of the first criterion, one that bears directly on Phlegon’s credibility as a historian. He was not a Christian as far as we know, so there are no grounds to accuse him of inventing the story to support his own beliefs. However, it seems that Phlegon was particularly fond of fantastic and miraculous stories, regardless of their origin, and endorsed as fact many things that are impossible. His book On Marvels contains stories about things such as living centaurs, ghosts, men giving birth, a thousand-year-old Greek prophetess, oracles spoken by a corpse on a battlefield, and the animated, decapitated head of the Roman general Publius, which continued to speak even after his body was devoured by a great red wolf.

By the time Phlegon wrote, in the mid- to late second century, Christian mythology about the crucifixion would have become widely spread. It is highly likely that Phlegon, never averse to fantastic stories, picked up on these tales and uncritically repeated them. A writer so plainly unreliable, and in any case known to us only through hearsay by Christians who might well have put their own spin on what he wrote, cannot be regarded as useful historical testimony.

Others

Beyond the writers and historians listed here, some apologists will cite second-century or later church fathers and apologists such as Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Origen or Eusebius. The testimony of a Christian who lived centuries after Jesus’ death can hardly be considered a valuable or reliable source – where can they possibly be getting their information from, other than the gospels? By any reasonable standard, none of these contribute one shred of independent evidence to the historical existence of Jesus.


There are good grounds to dispute either the authenticity or reliability, or both, of every historical source cited as support for the existence of Jesus. But even if it were otherwise – even if there was no reason to contest any of the passages listed above – this still would not constitute a very impressive witness to the most important man who ever lived. Put all of them together and they would hardly fill a page. Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus’ life would have been noticed by so few? Is it reasonable to believe in a worldwide darkness noted only by two obscure writers, both now lost, whose testimony comes to us only through third-hand hearsay? Or a mass resurrection of deceased saints noted by no one at all? Or an incarnated Son of God whose numerous miracles, huge crowds of followers and triumphant return from the dead are mentioned only in a few brief passages written by historians who lived decades after he died?

Clearly, there is something very wrong here.

But what is the solution? Part 3 will answer that question, analyzing the New Testament epistles and the writings of the early apologists to argue to a very different conclusion about what it was that the first Christians actually believed.

Back to Part 1

Part 3: The Religion of the Word


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