David Fitzgerald on the Existence of Jesus

David Fitzgerald on the Existence of Jesus January 5, 2011

In his talk, Fitzgerald says that if you don’t like the talk, you won’t like the book. And so rather than looking at it as having wasted an hour from my life listening to the talk, I have saved myself the longer amount of time I would have wasted reading the book.

Let me sum up the essence of my criticism, before elaborating in detail. Fitzgerald makes frequent errors of fact, and when he doesn’t, he is largely presenting information that is common knowledge to scholars and those who read their works. And so he is very much like a creationist – not having any expertise in the area in question, utterly dependent on experts for the information that he does have, misunderstanding some of it, and ridiculing experts when he thinks he has reached a more plausible conclusion. And so, in a nutshell, this is a work of pseudoscholarly apologetics (or counter-apologetics) and not something that will consistently provide accurate information, much less offer plausible interpretations of that data.

On to the details. But first, let me share the video, lest it be said that I am not giving you a chance to hear Fitzgerald’s own perspective.


Fitzgerald gets off to a rough start. He indicates that he previously assumed that we have eyewitness accounts of Jesus. He then proposes asking what “history” says – and immediately mentions apologists. He regularly lumps scholars, apologists and Christians together.

When he asks about history, he turns to the census, and points out the discrepancy of dates. He discusses Matthew’s account of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. When he discusses the “triumphal entry” he understands it as an account in which the “entire city welcomes him as their king” and yet somehow the Romans don’t notice. He amusingly whether Jesus was a “one man kung fu army of death” to be able to occupy the temple. He mentions upernatural events that supposedly happened in conjunction with or after the crucifixion. He gets a lot of laughs from the audience, but what he doesn’t say is that these are not dirty little secrets that scholars are hiding. He presumably is dependent, whether directly or indirectly, on scholars for this information. Josephus tells of miraculous signs preceding the destruction of the temple. We do not discount the historicity of that destruction simply because an author connects miracles with it, and so historians of antiquity learn to discard miracles, not simply dismiss an author because of such content if other factors suggest that there may also be useful historical data present.

Fitzgerald’s all-or-nothing approach is a major issue as well. He jumps quickly from one extreme to the other, making the basic mistake of the excluded middle. If some things didn’t happen, none did. If an event didn’t happen on as large a scale as depicted, it didn’t happen at all. Sometimes it does indeed turn out that there is nothing historical, but it requires better reasoning to reach that conclusion.

Fitzgerald then goes on to categorize the first century as one of the best-documented periods in history. He starts with a list of Roman authors, and claims they are writers who should have been interested in Jesus, if he lived. But as he mentions Epictetus, Martial, and Juvenal he admits that it is not in fact particularly problematic that they do not mention Jesus. He mentions Seneca, but as far as I’m aware Seneca doesn’t talk about Jewish ethicists, and so it is unsurprising that Jesus gets no mention. Pliny the Elder, Seneca the younger, and Gallio (who says nothing about Jesus or Paul) are also mentioned by Fitzgerald. But as he acknowledges that this may not be significant, we can turn, as he does, to Jewish sources.

Fitzgerald pays particular attention to Justus of Tiberias, the first-century Jewish historian from Galilee. Fitzgerald does not explicitly mention an important point, which is that Justus’ writings have not survived. Fitzgerald makes much of the fact that later church fathers are annoyed at Justus’ lack of reference to Jesus, but doesn’t explain that the church father in question is Photius of Constantinople in the mid-to-late 9th century CE! If it is possible that the text of Josephus was tampered with before the 4th century, is it not entirely possible that whatever Christian scribes preserved Justus’ writings may have removed offensive and insulting mentions of Jesus? We simply do not know, but cannot make much of Justus’ alleged silence when we do not have Justus’ writing, do not know how it may have been edited or redacted, and do not even know for certain how thoroughly Photius read him.

Since the Talmud is late, and Fitzgerald’s discussion of it short, I will move on to Philo of Alexandria. Philo doesn’t mention the high priest in Jesus’ time, Caiaphas, nor does he mention that most famous of rabbis Hillel, as far as I am aware. And so I’m not at all surprised that he doesn’t mention Jesus.

When he gets to Josephus, Fitzgerald makes some serious errors. At first, he only offers two options: the Testimonium Flavianum was either written by “orthodox Jew” or by a later forger. In the process, Fitzgerald makes a telling admission. He says that Christianity was not “tribe-sized” until later. If so, then lack of reference to them in earlier sources is not surprising. Fitzgerald then goes on to say that Christians try to insist that it is only a half forgery, and some monk in the Middle Ages made it up. Although he backtracks on the botched dating in his reference to the Middle Ages, his attribution of this conclusion to “Christians” rather than scholars is misleading. The point is not what atheists or Christians say, but what results from careful study of the text by experts in the original language, the author’s style, and other relevant factors. And the paraphrase by Agapius ought not to be ignored when considering this subject.

Fitzgerald goes on to say that Origen criticized Josephus for “never mentioning Jesus.” But that is mistaken. In fact, Origen states that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, which suggests not a complete absence of the Testimonium but rather the presence of some less complimentary reference, or at least one that does not reflect a Christian perspective. And so Origen’s evidence fits best with the scholarly consensus.

Fitzgerald also muddles the other reference to Jesus by Josephus, which he accepts as authentic, but says referred to another Jesus that Christians later confused with their own. But the idea that “Jesus called Christ” was a reference to some other figure is highly improbable, and Origen provides evidence that the reference to James the brother of Jesus called Christ was in the writings of Josephus as he knew them.

Lest I bore you with other details, let me skip ahead to his treatment of Paul and the non-Gospel literature in the New Testament. Fitzgerald turns to Colossians as evidence of what Paul thought about Jesus. The jury is still out as to whether Paul wrote Colossians – scholars are genuinely divided on the subject. But even if it is Pauline, it is not all he wrote, and Fitzgerald’s characterization of what Paul’s letters say about Jesus is inaccurate in ways typical of mythicism. He says that there is nothing in them sounds like they are referring to a historical figure. That is not true. There are some things which, taken on their own, could be understood to refer to a purely heavenly figure, but there are likewise statements which, taken on their own, would suggest a human being and nothing more. Paul seems to have held a more complex view, and scholars are wary of those whose “explanation” of something involves ignoring or dismissing significant amounts of evidence.

Even worse, Fitzgerald seems to say at one point that Paul never talks about events like the Lord’s Supper as though they actually happened. It may be that these was some intentionally slippery wording at this point, or imprecise expression, but what it sounded like he was claiming suggests Fitzgerald might not even be aware of 1 Corinthians 11.

Fitzgerald asks whether those to whom Paul preached would not have asked him about the life of Jesus. The answer is obviously yes – and that is the best explanation as to why Paul can simply assume that the Christians to whom he writes already know things. When he refers to his Gospel or to traditions he handed on, time and again they echo material that would later be included in the Gospels.

Fitzgerald assumes that Gnosticism pre-dates Christianity – and it well may, although the evidence for that is less clear than the evidence for the existence of a historical figure of Jesus. But those texts from Nag Hammadi which are the best candidates for reflecting pre-Christian Gnosticism are also examples of non-Christian Gnosticism. They lack Jesus. As critics of Bultmann and Reitzenstein pointed out decades ago, the supposed Gnostic redeemer myth that Christians were supposed to have drawn on in fact is probably a result of Christian influence on Gnosticism, rather than vice versa (although some more complex interplay is also possible).

Fitzgerald also misuses “Midrash” in the way Spong and others have, as though Jews went around creating new figures from old stories rather than adding to and creatively supplementing them.

There is more that could be said, but the sum of the matter is that Fitzgerald’s talk is an attempt to counter bad Christian apologetics with bad atheist apologetics. If one likes that sort of thing, you may enjoy his talk – there are certainly some amusing one liners (such as the reference to Mark’s George Bush-like lack of familiarity with the geography of Palestine). But even though there is obvious dependence on scholarly findings, there is little evidence of awareness of scholarly methods. Considerations such as redaction criticism are not on the radar, as evidenced in his treatment of Mark’s narrator’s comment about Jesus declaring all foods clean, which Fitzgerald treats as though it actually was supposed to stem from Jesus.

If you are genuinely interested in the question of Jesus’ existence, you should go straight to sources with genuine expertise in this area. You can get everything that Fitzgerald offers and more, without the blatant factual errors, and as a result, with more satisfying historical conclusions being drawn.

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