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.