A Deeper Look at the Historical Legitimacy of Jesus Christ

In light of my last post, I want to clarify why I do not accept Jesus Christ as a legitimate historical figure. In doing so, I find it necessary to identify what qualifies as historical truth.

Pinpointing historical people or events as true is difficult. First of all, it requires eye-witnesses. If there are no eye-witnesses to an event or if there is no contemporary evidence of a historical person (i.e. one’s own writings, letters, or involvement in confirmed historical events), it is inappropriate to deem them legitimate. Needless to say, the difficulty of identifying truth in history becomes increasingly more difficult as we move back in time. For something to be solidified as a near historical fact, it must be supported by separate eye-witnesses, all of which must represent contrasting biases. Of course, nothing in history can be confirmed as absolutely 100% true, as all of it relies on the perceptions and records of humans, leaving them vulnerable to fabrication and bias. However, given a rational evaluation of the evidence at hand, a historical person or event can be widely accepted as true if it adheres to certain criteria.

Given this basic framework, I will try to explain why I do not see any good reason to believe in the existence of Jesus. Let us first look at which ancient historians were around during the alleged time of Jesus’s life. The most prominent was Philo (approx. 20 B.C.E. – 50 C.E.). Rare among ancient historians, his writings are largely preserved. Conveniently for the purposes of analyzing the legitimacy of Jesus, Philo wrote an extensive narration of Jewish life during the time of Jesus and even chastised Pontius Pilate, the man who famously “washed his hands” of the execution of Christ in the Gospels. Despite having the ideal opportunity to mention the man who supposedly transformed Jewish life by acting as a great moral teacher and, more newsworthy, was a miracle-worker, he suspiciously did not make any mention of him at all. Another well regarded historian who fails to write about Jesus is Seneca (5 B.C.E. – 64 C.E.), whose documents Christians felt the need to blatantly intrude on in an effort to include Jesus, but such forgeries were later exposed. There are others, such as Damis and Justus, who shared this suspicious exclusion of Jesus, but the point is that opportunity and motive were both present – and still, we find no potential eye-witnesses who can vouch for the life of Jesus.

Despite the striking absence of Jesus in the writings of contemporary ancient historians, most scholars do acknowledge the likely existence of some rabbi who garnered a small following that fits the description of Jesus. There are several minor details, that I will not burden you with in this post, that contribute to this assumption. However, there is a difference between someone’s existence being vaguely probable and someone being considered a legitimate historical figure. There are certain tidbits of information that we can pick out of the Gospels (I say tidbits because the Gospels in their entirety cannot be deemed as reliable historical documents) and later historical documents that point to Jesus’ possible presence on earth. However, this in no way qualifies Jesus as a man in history. The absence of eye-witness testimony essentially eliminates him from that category right off the bat. But, is the general consensus correct? Was there probably an arguably delusional moral teacher walking the streets of Jerusalem? Well, it depends who you ask.

Christian apologists who ardently vouch for validity of Jesus’s existence like to point to two historians in particular that support Jesus. The first, and possibly most well known, is Josephus. Josephus does, in fact, mention Jesus in the following passage of his book The Antiquities of the Jews:

“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 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.”

Okay, right off the bat, it is imperative to note that the viability of this passage is largely in dispute. While Christian apologists stand by its authenticity, many historians deem it either a complete forgery or a mix of forgery and Christian interpolation. But you do not have to be a historian to make your own interpretation of this passage. Its language seems highly suspicious to be coming form the mouth of a reliable historian who most certainly did not live in the period when Jesus is said to have lived. In fact, it seems polluted by Christian intrusion. Josephus would not simply make the casual claim that he “rose on the third day” or question if it was “lawful to call him a man” without witnessing first hand these outrageously impactful deeds performed by Jesus. He was too big of a skeptic for that. Furthermore, this passage is basically the only one he dedicates to Jesus. Josephus was known to be almost painstakingly thorough. Briefly and casually mentioning a man who walked on water and rose from the dead seems glaringly out of character. Thirdly, even if he did write this himself, it is certain, given that he was born several years after the alleged death of Jesus, that he was relying on the stories of orators. So, at very best, Josephus was a second hand source to Jesus’s existence, and a rather weak one at that.

Another major writer given credibility by Christian apologists is Tacitus, who was also born several years after the purported death of Jesus. There are several details in Tacitus’s text on Jesus that prove to be suspicious when accounting for forgery, such as certain factual mistakes he is unlikely to have made and certain phrases he is unlikely to have used. The largest piece of evidence against Tacitus in my mind, however, is the fact that his documentation was not quoted in any text until the fifteenth century; not even by the Roman Bishop Eusebius, who attempted to dig through every piece of available textual evidence to support the reality of Christianity. And again, to stress the significance of primary sources, Tacitus, if he did in fact write this himself, would have had to rely on others for his testimony.

Admittedly, I am no expert in medieval history. However, my keen interest in this topic has lead me to compile some valuable research that has convinced me that I cannot trust the legitimacy of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure. I am in no way ruling out his existence completely or saying that other evidence could not sway me in one direction or the other. However, given the evidence I have laid out in this post, I remain firm in my rejection of the solidity of Jesus as a historical figure. My central objection is regarding the absence of primary sources that document Jesus. There was opportunity and motive for his life to be recorded, but it simply was not. With that, I rest my case.

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4 responses to “A Deeper Look at the Historical Legitimacy of Jesus Christ

  • MaryAnn McHugh

    What did Philo chastise Pilate for? Washing his hands,or something else?
    Because if it was the hand washing, there’s your evidence. If it was something else, that’s different. Writers during the time of Jesus may not have been aware of him at that time. News didn’t travel as quickly and easily as it does today (obviously). And, the average person didn’t write. When do we look at past presidents in a historical way – judging what they were responsible for? Not til much later in history than the years they actually served. That’s the way it works. Don’t know why you don’t think events written by different people (the gospels) don’t qualify as proof. It’s not like they were best friends and decided to make up some great story to fool, and rule,
    the masses.

  • Mark McHugh

    Chastised him for his general cruelty, not anything related to Jesus. I realize everything you said about time traveling slower and such but how does that change the fact that there were people who could have and would have mentioned Jesus but didn’t? Everything we have, assuming it is all authentic, is secondary. That’s just not enough to consider someone a valid figure, especially given the fact that people had the opportunity to write about him but didn’t and that, given that a religion was formed around him, people were more prone to fabricate information about him.

  • Noah Ketterman

    I would ask you to consider the major authors you site above who failed to mention Jesus in any of their writings. I was not previously familiar with Philo so I spent a little time learning about him, and I think that you are making an incorrect assumption about what happened when Jesus came to earth. Jesus did indeed transform Jewish history, but remember that many Jews rejected him as the Messiah. The Jews were under Roman rule and were desperately waiting for their savior to come. They thought this Messiah, based on prophesies from the OT, would be a mighty warrior who would help them overturn the Roman rule. Instead, they got a spiritual warrior and many hated him for that. Remember, it was the Jewish leadership at the time who worked the hardest to eventually execute Jesus (they plotted to do it multiple times before finally helping to see it through). As such, there are many Jewish leaders who saw Jesus as nothing more than a heretic (after all, he claimed to be God – that was blasphemy to the highest degree under the law). So, it is not unreasonable for me to think that a Jewish historian would omit Jesus from his writings. Admittedly, I don’t know much about Seneca other than the fact that he was a Roman historian. I will even concede that there are other Roman historians around the time of Jesus who didn’t mention him like Seneca. Again, though, consider their intentions. They were interested in matters that affected the Roman state. Jesus led a small uprising that lived underground for a while to escape persecution. They were not in any way threats to the state, especially considering the fact that Jesus was execute as a criminal. I find it very likely that a Roman historian would not waste any effort in capturing anything about the life of Jesus.

    I do find one thing fascinating about this argument, though. You put a ton of faith into these “credible” documents that all omit Jesus. I won’t argue their credibility, but I will tell you that all of their writings pale in comparison the mountain of manuscripts evidence we have of the scriptures. Also, we have pieces of Christian documents that can be traced back to within a few generations of the original copies and have nothing of the sort for any of these writers. I do not think you can remain consistent by bringing them to the table in this discussion while at the same time rejecting the legitimacy of the Christian Gospels. I would love to consider these sources more, but will refuse to do so until you can prove to me they are legitimate with GREATER accuracy than you can the Gospels.

    And now to Josephus. First of all, Josephus makes two references to Jesus in the Antiquities, not one. The first, which you omit, is as follows: He (Ananias) convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man names James the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned.” There is no scholar who has successfully disputed the integrity of that passage, and that is evidenced by the fact that there is nothing in there that indicates any kind of tampering. Now, you did mention the other, lengthier mention of Jesus. I agree with you that it is very likely that this passage was altered. There is language in there that Josephus would not have included in the original. However, the consensus among scholars is not that the passage is an insertion in its entirety, but rather that it was originally written by Josephus and augmented later by Christians with some of the language that is favorable to the Christian faith. That being said, Josephus did acknowledge that Jesus lived when he said he lived which strengthens the credibility of the Gospels (even if people later took the liberty of adding to his works).

    Concerning Tacitus, what about the following passage could have been doctored: “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for the 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 Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.” I have read multiple sources that mention Tacitus and none of them mention that there is an objection to the authenticity of his authorship of that passage. What would Christians have inserted? They certainly didn’t erase anything as there is some scathing language in their about them. I don’t buy that objection.

    You mention a few names of people who didn’t mention Jesus, but you also by no means included an exhaustive list of non-Gospel sources at around that time who DID mention Jesus. Some other sources that corroborate the fact that Jesus lived include: The Talmud (ancient Jewish writings that refer to him more than once), Pliny the Younger, and Lucian.

    Let me close by saying that your argument about eyewitness reporting is probably inconsistent with what you believe about news today. I assume you watch the news, heck it is your job to write for the Temple paper. So I will ask you, how many reporters were eye witnesses to the events on which they report? Almost none. Do you discredit their reporting of the facts because they didn’t witness them themselves? I hope not, your headed for a career that RELIES on the testimony OF OTHERS to report the facts. When we get the news, the reporter likely talked to as many people as he/she could who did witness the event or know important things about what happened in order to accurately report it. I am sure you trust them, so I don’t think it is fair for you to require only eye witness testimony during every question of authorship. As such, we would only have a very small handful of individual who would be “allowed” to write about events and then we would have to hope that they have the skills necessary to report what happened. Also, I feel compelled to repeat here that two of the four gospel writers were eye witnesses and Paul, who wrote the majority of the rest of the New Testament, also witnessed Jesus himself.

  • Mark McHugh

    Paul did not witness Jesus during his alleged life-span. The only time he saw him was in a purported vision, not the real, physical Jesus. Also, where are these “mountains of evidence” for the scriptures? As far as I can tell, we know virtually nothing about the gospel writers. Contrary to what you like to think, the authors are not eye-witnesses, according to the majority of historians. It is established that Mark was the first one to write an account, which was around the time the Temple in Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 CE. We don’t know who he is and he appears to receive his information from several different sources. He is also just flat out wrong about some geographical locations. Matthew and Luke were said to be written well after the life of Jesus, and likely used Mark as a reference. It is true that the Gospels are superior to most historical documents in originality, but that merely means that they haven’t been tampered with much – not that they are true or even reliable.

    Regarding your point about eyewitnesses, we could trace each and every current news event to its original source if we wanted to, but that would be tedious and inefficient. Instead, we have reporters as a medium to communicate the information and it is our choice to trust them, or not. This is far, far different than simply accepting something as true just because someone told you it was. But as far as historical documents go, an eyewitness must be present in order for it to be solidified. There are eyewitnesses of the Crusades, of the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, and several other significant events. For Jesus? None. The way we record events now is far different from how we recorded them 2000 years ago. We don’t need written records of every event – we have photos, videos, etc. Thankfully for previous events, we have reliable historians who have outlined the major events in history. You simply cannot argue that we have substantial evidence to identify the authors of the gospels. This is simply not true. And if we can’t identify the authors, how can the documents be considered legitimate?

    Jesus garnered a large following and regardless of whether people liked him or not does not change the fact that people failed to mention him. Admittedly, I have not delved into every single perspective on this issue. I don’t like reading Christian apologists because their bias is disgusting and many atheist sources like to twist the facts as well. I surely will read more about his historicity from the most unbiased and well regarded historians I can find. However, the fact that I have admittedly failed to do so now rests in the fact that I don’t feel the need. I don’t deem it necessary to pick hairs about the historicity of an ancient figure who is said to have performed miracles and I surely don’t believe that committing one’s life to such a figure is a smart life choice. I simply refuse to believe that these miraculous events occurred given that 1) nothing of that nature has occurred in the recent past that suggests the laws of gravity can be defied and 2) people in this age were incredibly ignorant of science and reason, and it would be commonplace for someone to record something nonsensical like this. Even in the 18th century people believed in magic and other irrational beliefs. It truly befuddles me how people as intelligent as you accept these things. To you, this probably sounds like the rhetoric of a typical atheist who closed-mindedly denies supernatural events and divine people. But I like to think I am open-minded to ideas that correspond to my sense of reason – and that certainly does not include Jesus, or at least Jesus as a divine figure.

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