Archaeology and Jesus

Archaeology and Jesus March 15, 2019

Bart Ehrman wrote something recently that conveys something crucial, and does so clearly and succinctly:

It makes sense that people today would think that we should have archaeological evidence of Jesus – after all, he’s the most important figure in the history of Western Civilization!  If he existed, surely we’d have some physical record of it, right?   The problems are that (a) we too quickly assume that someone who is important *after* his life must have been equally important *during* his life; but that’s absolutely not the case.  No one who has looked seriously into the matter thinks Jesus was “the talk of the empire,” of importance to anyone outside of his small circle of acquaintances in rural Palestine.  Even more important (b) the reality is that we don’t have archaeological records for virtually *anyone* who lived in Jesus’ time and place.

Who was the most important Jewish figure in Palestine for the entire first century (who wasn’t, say, the actual king)?  There’s no doubt.  Flavius Josephus.  Highly placed aristocrat, military leader, political figure, eventually made a court historian by the Roman emperor himself, and our principal source of information for the Jewish people and history at the time.  And how much archaeological evidence do we have of his existence?  None.

So too, who is (by far) the best known Jewish cultural figure *outside* of Palestine in the first century?   Again, not much competition: Philo of Alexandria, brilliant philosopher, massively prolific author, political activist, known even at the highest levels of government in Rome itself.  How  much archaeological evidence do we have of his existence?  Again, none.   The lack of evidence does not mean a person at the time didn’t exist.  It means that she or he, like 99.99% of the rest of the world at the time, made no impact on the archaeological record.  Evidence of existence has to be established, then, on other grounds.

This is just one part of an interview he gave and it is worth reading the whole thingThe History Channel website also offered an overview of the question of Jesus’ existence, discussing archaeology and texts, in direct connection with Ehrman. See too Ehrman’s response to a question from a reader of his blog about Jewish sources that provide historical information about Jesus.

Of related interest, the BBC had a very interesting article about the involvement of the Franciscans in archaeology, historically (pun intended) and in the present day. And Steven Fine shared his contribution on the burial of Jesus and archaeology that is part of the Jewish Annotated New Testament. The Live Science overview of “Biblical Archaeology” may also be of interest.

And on the topic of Jesus mythicism, Tim O’Neill has posted his latest installment in his series on Jesus mythicism. Here’s an excerpt:

[I]n almost 20 years of asking those making this “Amalgam Jesus” claim to detail their analysis I have almost always been given … nothing. This stance seems, in most cases, to not be a real position based on analysis of evidence at all, but little more than a comforting hunch. It does not require the effort and the baroque contortions of full scale Jesus Mythicism, but it also keeps any kind of close historical basis for anything claimed by Christianity at a safe distance. So it feels about right, even if its proponents cannot actually back it up with any kind of detail. Like most forms of Mythicism, semi-Mythicism and “Jesus agnosticism”, it is based more on emotion than reason.

Click through to read the rest. See too Candida Moss on the similar portraits of Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana. Tim also made an appearance on the Non Sequitur Show. It is definitely one of the oddities of the entire mythicist phenomenon that people find this “amalgam Jesus” idea plausible. Ancient people, and indeed people in any time period or specific cultural context, resemble one another more than they resemble the onlooker viewing them from outside that time/place/context. It pretty much never makes sense to take two people with different names and activities and to simply identify them with one another, merely because they are similar in some respects.

Larry Hurtado’s recent comments may or may not have been about mythicists, but they sure are applicable. See also his list of recommended reference books about early Christianity.

Do also take a look at Joel Edmund Anderson’s survey of conspiracy thinking in Richard Carrier’s mythicism and Ken Ham’s young-earth creationism. He writes, “the similarities between the two groups can be seen in their tendencies, mindset, and approach to both scholarship and biblical interpretation.” But he also says some things that are much blunter.

Also on the topic of Jesus and history, Elizabeth Palmer interviewed Amy-Jill Levine. Ben Witherington has a series about Amy-Jill Levine’s book Entering the Passion of Jesus. It includes a review of the book, and then an interview with Levine across multiple posts. Here are Part One, Part TwoPart Three, Part Four, Part FivePart Six, Part Seven, Part EightPart Nine, and Part Ten so far. Meanwhile, Mike Bird clues us in that Helen Bond’s latest book about Jesus mentions Doctor Who, among other things! And David Capes is blogging about Jesus and Capernaum.

This post grew and grew and so I scheduled a second post…and then a third one. And so there will be more posts about mythicism coming your way soon, in case you’re wondering – including one inspired by a recent interaction on another Patheos blog!

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  • John MacDonald

    Thanks for such a detailed post! It’s going to take me a while to go through all those links, lol.

    • John MacDonald

      I really liked the Joel Anderson blog post. I liked it when he wrote:

      And the reason why the likes of Carrier and Ham can get away with absolutely butchering the biblical text is because, sadly, by and large people—both Christians and non-Christians alike—are largely biblically illiterate. When you are biblically illiterate, it is very easy for someone to play to your own presuppositions and biases and get you to read into the text things that aren’t there.

      I, like many Canadians, were taken in on this path by Dr. Tom Harpur’s “The Pagan Christ” because we didn’t know any better. In fact, practically no one at the time seemed to know any better! Click on the link and scroll down to see these professional reviews of “The Pagan Christ” ! see http://www.tomharpur.com/books/paganchrist/

  • swbarnes2

    There is a world of difference between saying “there should be archaeological evidence” and “there should be contemporaneous documents”. If dead people were walking around Jerusalem, someone should have written about that. Why wouldn’t there be multiple people writing about how of course it was a known thing that the dead got up and walked around that day in Jerusalem when the sky went dark?

    We have documents of officials writing to emperors saying “What should we do about Christians?” when they were a quietly growing cult. But not a single document expressing alarm about a guy publicly collecting crowds that number in the thousands?

    • Ehrman is talking about the historical Jesus, not bizarre claims about dead people exiting their tombs.

      Do you doubt the existence of John the Baptist, and of the other figures who apparently worried authorities but are not mentioned in anything like an APB written in their own time?

    • “Jesus” is the Pharaoh. That’s the Pharaoh’s title “Son of Ra.” I am heartbroken because I loved him so much as a kid and I grew up to find out the only reason the documents were there in the first place was because the people who wrote the Tanakh betrayed the King for their own personal benefit.

      All I wanted was my real creator – to serve and please it.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rYm0t7Reuk

    • Mark

      That someone forty years later was credulous enough to claim that people emerged from tombs in Jerusalem when he died, is part of the evidence that Jesus existed. That is, Mark’s inevitably miracle-laden messianic tract is part of the evidence that Jesus existed.

      • John MacDonald

        Do you think the idea seemed to be floating around at the time that the resurrected Jesus was the “First Fruit” (1Corinthians 15:20) of the general/first stage resurrection harvest of souls at the end of the age, so perhaps Matthew thought something like The Night of the Living Savior scenario must have happened, and so included it in his Gospel? In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is described as stating that “in the time of harvest” he would instruct the harvesters (i.e., the angels) to gather the “tares”, bind them into bundles, and burn them, but to “gather the wheat into [his] barn” (Matthew 13:30). In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as stating “…he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal: that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together” (John 4:36).

        • Mark

          Darn, youre right, I thought the bit about the people rising from their graves was in Mark, the only gospel reasonably referred to in this sort of context. Only the preliminary “And the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” is in Mark. Matthew manages to lard it up with more material before concluding with the memorable cry of the centurion.

          The Matthew passage is bizarre from the point of resurrection beliefs, since it isn’t clear what happened to them – somehow it seems they’re supposed to have gone back to their graves? Later there is the doctrine of the ‘harrowing of hell’ which fits with the fact that these people are ‘hagioi’, but otherwise it makes no sense here.

          • John MacDonald

            Here are some thoughts in response:

            (1) Matthew may simply have not thought through the implications of his writing on this point, and so might not have considered that the zombies would have had to go back in their graves (analogous to NT writing that said “some among you won’t taste death until the coming of the Son of Man;” or, the development of various Hebrew traditions about those who were cursed to walk the earth forever).

            Matthew emphasizes “After Jesus’ resurrection,” which seems to stress the priority of Jesus’ resurrection in the zombie event = the first fruits, with subsequent stages of the harvest to follow. The notion that Jesus was the “first fruits” of the general resurrection of souls at the end of the age was certainly floating around back then, as I said, not only in 1 Cor 15:20, but also in the pseudepigraphical Col 1:18.

            (2) On the other hand, maybe the zombie event in Matthew was simply literary fiction in the eyes of Matthew, and so was meant to be symbolic of the idea that Jesus was the first fruits, even though Matthew didn’t think the mass resurrection event ever happened in history. We know Matthew was willing to invent literary narrative element to make theological points, such as the “Jesus is the New Moses” material. If this latter symbolic scenario is plausible, then the zombie incident perhaps isn’t really evidence in favor of the historical Jesus as you initially suggested. I am firmly in the historical Jesus camp, but perhaps the zombie pericope in Matthew doesn’t count as positive evidence in favor of historicity …

            What do you think, Mark?

          • Mark

            The ‘zombie’ material is interpolated between sentences copied from Mark. All Jesus-historicity questions are about Mark (and Paul), it seems to me. My botched point was that the miracles don’t count against Mark as evidence of Jesus existence. The Synoptics are are a dangerous distraction when dealing with the mythicism-historicity question.

          • John MacDonald

            Yes. Carrier admits, in Mark, that legendary material might just as well reflect that fantastic stories accumulated around an historical person, as they could a mythical figure. And, Carrier’s Rank Raglan argument, that he dresses up in what he sees as the royal robes of math, is basically to point out that if we were to put the names of all figures as heavily mythologized as Jesus into a hat, the likelihood of pulling the name of an historical figure out of that hat (as opposed to someone mythical, like Oedipus) is around 1/3. Hence, he concludes the likelihood of Jesus being a historical figure is 33%.

            I find that Carrier has a few simple arguments that he then proceeds to dress up in 400 pages of repetition/digression, and endless You Tube videos. Whatever happened to Nietzsche’s concise, aphoristic style, lol? Carrier trying to apply the Rank Raglan mythotype to Jesus isn’t really valid, because Raglan didn’t methodologically defend his selection of the archetypal characteristics that he chose, but just basically took them from the myths of Oedipus, and then simply grouped-in mythical characters that exhibited some of these characteristics. Many mythical heroes score very poorly on this scale, if at all. What is interesting is that Jesus scores close to Oedipus, which could suggest that when the stories of Jesus were being shaped and transmitted, people formed the stories to emulate parts of the famous Oedipus myths, like the way Matthew shaped his narrative about Jesus to reflect the story of Moses, presenting Jesus as the New and Greater Moses. Jesus may have also been viewed as the New and Greater Oedipus.

            Dr. Dennis MacDonald has argued for a heavy coloring of Homer in the gospels. MacDonald seems to find Greek literary parallels everywhere in the gospels, and so is probably engaged in what Samuel Sandmel (1962) called “Parallelomania,” but surely our Greek speaking writers of the New Testament would have composed their material in reflection of at least a few of the traditions of writers such as Homer, Plato, Euripides, etc. For instance, I tend to see Jesus’s ethical approach as sometimes reflecting Socrates/Plato, but this could simply mean the Platonic ideals were floating around the ancient world at that time, and so it would be natural to portray Jesus as not only reflecting Jewish ethical ideals, but Greek ones as well.

          • John MacDonald

            If anyone is interested in Carrier’s Frosty The Snowman Magic Hat of Historicity Clairvoyance, see Carrier’s blog posts:,

            (1) “James McGrath Gets Everything Wrong (Again),” https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/14352 – Carrier writes:

            The Gospels only tell us, not on an item-by-item basis, but globally, how mythologized Jesus was. The answer: just as mythologized as a lot of other mythical people. In fact, few historical persons were ever that mythologized. I’ve explained this to McGrath before. If you put Jesus and everyone else as mythologized as he is into a hat, and drew one out at random, the odds you’d draw a historical person are no better than 1 in 3—and possibly as bad as 1 in 15 (OHJ, Ch. 6). Because this cannot be circularly prejudged—so we cannot say in advance whether the person drawn out of that hat is Jesus or not. The odds must be the same. For Jesus as for anyone else in the hat. That can only be changed with evidence—that is, evidence specifically that Jesus is more likely historical than the others in that hat. Notably, exactly what McGrath wants to say.

            For instance, if for some reason Julius Caesar were in that hat (he isn’t, but let’s pretend he is), the prior odds he’d be historical would be 1 in 3—the odds upon merely drawing his name from the hat—but the evidence would still be overwhelming that he nevertheless existed, totally crushing that 3 to 1 against into millions to one in favor. So we need evidence. And that’s what we lack for Jesus. Despite McGrath’s hyperbolic assertions to the contrary, we have no evidence for Jesus that can even be called good…compared to every other person we are certain existed. For example, even Hannibal or Spartacus are way better attested.

            (2) “McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype,” https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/6840: Carrier writes:

            if you put all the people in that set in a hat, jumbled them up, and pulled one out at random, how likely will it be that the one you pull out is historical? That’s your prior probability. And the answer equals the ratio of persons in that set who are historical, to those who are not. And this is true even when historical persons are in there. And it remains true even if one of those historical persons is Jesus.

            As I said, Raglan had no grounded method for determining the archetypal traits of the hero mythotype, but rather largely derived it from the mythical biographies of Oedipus. Carrier is trying to argue something like the idea that professional exemplary hockey superstar Sydney Crosby from the Pittsburgh Penguins has a skill set of X,Y,Z, so if indvidual 2 has the same skill set, in all probability they are also a professional hockey player. This may initially seem as reasonable logic, but where it falls apart is that, as I said, Raglan never established that the traits he identified belong to characters that are mythical exemplars. The traits are mostly derived from Oedipus. And, the real flaw in Carrier’s reasoning, as Folklorist Alan Dundes pointed out, is that Raglan did not categorically deny the historicity of the Heroes he looked at, rather it was their common biographies he considered as nonhistorical. Everyone, whether mythicist or historicist, agrees Jesus’s biography is highly legendary. Furthermore, Dundes noted that Raglan himself had admitted that his choice of 22 incidents, as opposed to any other number of incidents, was arbitrarily chosen.