A Response to Dan Barker

As I mentioned in a previous post, New Atheism has a problem with promoting fringe historical theories. These are not just held by a small fringe of the movement but rather seem to be mainstream to the point of no return. Such is shown by this article posted by Dan Barker, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is proof of this. The nature and quality of some of his claims are quite frankly embarrassing, and hopefully should show just how ‘Rational’ these “Rationalists” truly are.

Here is the article: Debunking the Historical Jesus

"Here is the paragraph that currently appears in The Antiquities of the Jews, written by Josephus around 95 C.E.:
“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 for him are not extinct to this day.”
If this is the strongest and earliest extra-biblical evidence for the historical Jesus, then the scholarship is on the shakiest grounds. That passage from Josephus has been shown conclusively to be a forgery, and even conservative scholars admit it has been tampered with. But even were it historical, it dates from more than six decades after the supposed death of Jesus.

The Associated Press chose to omit the fact that scholars have largely discounted the Josephus paragaph as a later interpolation. The passage, although widely quoted by believers today, did not show up in the writings of Josephus until centuries after his death, at the beginning of the fourth century. Thoroughly dishonest church historian Eusebius is credited as the real author. The passage is grossly out of context, a clear hint that it was inserted at a later time.
All scholars agree that Josephus, a Jew who never converted to Christianity, would not have called Jesus “the Christ” or “the truth,” so the passage must have been doctored by a later Christian–evidence, by the way, that some early believers were in the habit of altering texts to the advantage of their theological agenda. The phrase “to this day” reveals it was written at a later time. Everyone agrees there was no “tribe of Christians” during the time of Josephus–Christianity did not get off the ground until the second century.
If Jesus were truly important to history, then Josephus should have told us something about him. Yet he is completely silent about the supposed miracles and deeds of Jesus. He nowhere quotes Jesus. He adds nothing to the Gospel narratives and tells us nothing that would not have been known by Christians in either the first or fourth centuries. In all of Josephus’ voluminous writings, there is nothing about Jesus or Christianity anywhere outside the tiny paragraph cited so blithely by the Associated Press.
This paragraph mentions that Jesus was foretold by the divine prophets, but Josephus does not tell us who those prophets were or what they said. This is religious propaganda, not history. If Jesus had truly been the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, then Josephus would have been the exact person to confirm it.
And this is the “most important” historical evidence for Jesus!"

What he (and countless other mythicists)fail to tell you is that ‘yes’, whilst ‘most’ of the passage is a Christian forgery, the general consensus amongst scholars is that at least some of it is genuine. Whilst we can debate just how important to history Jesus was, we still have enough evidence that Jesus was a real person from this paragraph.

“The other phrase from Josephus that Righi and AP cite concerns James, the so-called “brother of Jesus,” and is likewise flimsy. It says that a man named James was stoned to death, which is not mentioned in the bible. Many scholars believe the “brother of Jesus” phrase is a later interpolation, and that Josephus was referring to a different James, possibly the same James that Paul mentions in Acts, who led a sect in Jerusalem. Contradicting Josephus, Hegesippus wrote a history of Christianity in 170 C.E. saying that James, the brother of Jesus, was killed in a riot, not by sentence of a court.”

Actually, the vast majority of scholars believe that this reference to Jesus is genuine. Middle 2nd Century Church Father Origen repeatedly quotes this passage from Josephus in relation to Jesus. It is highly unlikely that he was quoting from tampered texts, given as he was living in the days before Christianity had such power. Furthermore, Josephus, who lived from 37 CE to 100 CE would certainly be a more reliable source that Hegesippus, who lived much later.

“Tacitus, another second-century Roman writer who alleged that Christ had been executed by sentence of Pontius Pilate, is likewise cited by Righi. Written some time after 117 C.E., Tacitus’ claim is more of the same late, second-hand “history.” There is no mention of “Jesus,” only “the sect known as Christians” living in Rome being persecuted, and “their founder, one Christus.” Tacitus claims no first-hand knowledge of Christianity. No historical evidence exists that Nero persecuted Christians–Nero did persecute Jews, so perhaps Tacitus was confused. There was certainly not a “great crowd” of Christians in Rome around 60 C.E., as Tacitus put it, and, most damning, the term “Christian” was not even in use in the first century. No one in the second century ever quoted this passage of Tacitus. In fact, it appears almost word-for-word in the fourth-century writings of Sulpicius Severus, where it is mixed with other obvious myths. Citing Tacitus, therefore, is highly suspect and adds virtually nothing to the evidence for a historical Jesus.”

The general consensus amongst scholars is that this is genuine, it uses 2nd century Latin Grammar which would be hard for a later Christian scribe to perfectly imitate. As for the claim that Jesus was never mentioned by name, the ‘Christus’ figure, who was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate certainly has striking similarities, with the Jesus figure. Similarities which are far too similar to be coincidental.

“Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, in their book The Jesus Mysteries, explain how the myth and legend of Jesus could easily have arisen without a historical founder. The Jesus story was pressed from the same template as other mythical savior-gods who were killed and resurrected, such as Osiris, Dionysus, Mithra, and Attis.”

This is proof that the New Atheists are not the ‘champions of reason’ as they claim. The quite frankly absurd and incoherent claim that heavily Anti-Pagan 1st century Jews (who shunned theatre and long hair due to their associations with Hellenic Paganism) would copy from Pagan myths has long been rejected by serious historians, as have most of the supposed parallels between Jesus and Pagan gods. For example, contrary to Barker’s claims, there is no indication that Mithras was killed or resurrected, and his cult developed far too late to have influenced Christianity. As for Attis and Dionysus, whilst the deities themselves certainly predate Christ, we cannot be sure that the same is true for stories of their deaths and resurrections, which were possibly in fact derived from the story of Jesus, not the other way round.

No serious scholar with relevant fields I know of has endorsed Freke and Gandy’s book. In fact, Jesus Mythicist Richard Carrier has claimed that book “will disease” the mind of a reader with “rampant unsourced falsehoods and completely miseducate”.

“The Gospels are not history; they are religious propaganda, contradictory, exaggerated, and mythical”

I wonder if Barker truly even knows what he is talking about. The historicity of the gospels argument is not an ‘argument from scripture’ as he assumes it is. And it’s interesting how he points out that the gospels are contradictory. This hardly supports his notion that the gospels cannot be used as evidence for the existence of Jesus, far from it. In many instances, key events from the gospels, such as the Baptism of Christ are discussed in completely different ways by the gospel writers. The fact that their claims are so contradictory, yet they all make mention of the same event seems to imply that the event really took place, confirmed by multiple sources with differing opinions. As Tim O’Neill explains:

“So in these three examples we have three different versions of the same story written at three times in the early decades of Christianity. All of them are dealing with the baptism of Jesus by John in different ways and trying to make it fit with their conceptions of Jesus and at least two of them are having some trouble doing so and are having to change the story to make it fit their ideas about Jesus. All this indicates that the baptism of Jesus by John was a historical event and known to be such and so could not be left out of the story. This left the later gospel writers with the problem of trying to make it fit their evolving ideas about who and what Jesus was”.

The earliest Christian writings, the letters of Paul, are silent about the man Jesus: Paul, who never met Jesus, fails to mention a single deed or saying of Jesus (except for the ritualistic Last Supper formula), and sometimes contradicts what Jesus supposedly said. To Paul, Jesus was a heavenly disembodied Christ figure, not a man of flesh and blood.

This claim is false, and truly shocking to see from Dan Barker, a former Pastor who is presumably well educated in the Bible. The descriptions of Jesus given by Paul heavily suggest that he was a real person, not a spiritual one:

“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life[a] was a descendant of David” (Romans 1:1-3)
Notice how it is clearly stated that Jesus had an earthly life, and had a Human ancestor, clearly indicating that he was a real life, not just spiritual person.

“I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19)

If Jesus was merely a spiritual heavenly being and nothing else, how then could he have a human sibling?

“None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:8)

A clear indication that Jesus was, according to Paul, an earthly person who walked amongst, and was executed by men.

“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife”. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)

This is a clear mention of a saying by Jesus (not I, but the Lord), contrary to Barker’s claims that there were none mentioned by Paul.

I could go on and on, but the point is that according to Paul Jesus was indeed a real, earthly person (whom Paul was hardly silent on), not just a heavenly Christ.

There is serious doubt that Jesus ever existed. It is impossible to prove he was a historical figure. It is much more plausible to consider the Jesus character to be the result of myth-making, a human process that is indeed historically documented.

In covering Luigi Cascioli’s fascinating lawsuit, the media need to stop acting like a megaphone for religion, and start doing some balanced reporting.

I wonder if Dan Barker is doing balanced reporting himself, rather than merely parroting claims made by popular atheist authors (and worryingly, much more fringe sources, as we shall see). In reality there is no ‘serious doubt’ that Jesus ever existed amongst historians and Biblical scholars, even those of atheistic leanings such as Bart Ehrman. As John Dominic Crossan states: “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be”. I find that the only reason why this vocal minority insists on denying it is due to the fact that it supports their worldview.

Finally Barker gives his references relating to the historicity of Jesus, with worrying signs:

Here are a few references relating to the historical Jesus:
The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (1999, Three Rivers Press)
Did Jesus Exist? by G. A. Wells (1975, Pemberton)
The Jesus Puzzle: Challenging the existence of an historical Jesus by Earl Doherty (1999, Canadian Humanist Association)
Deconstructing Jesus by Robert Price (2000, Prometheus Books)
The Jesus Legend by G. A. Wells (1996, Open Court)
The Historical Evidence for Jesus by G. A. Wells (1982, Prometheus Books)
Jesus in History and Myth by Joseph R. Hoffman and G. A. Larue (1986, Prometheus Books)
Jesus: Myth or History? by A. Robertson (1949, Watts)
Pagan Christs by J. M. Robertson (1911, London)
The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer
The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by Acharya S (1999, Adventures Unlimited)
Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman (2005, Harper San Francisco) (to document gospel discrepancies)

References I think are of note I was placed in Italics. It is terrifying to think that Barker (and likely many other supposed “rationalists”) think New Age Author Acharya S is a reliable source (very likely purely because she agrees with their general thesis). Bart Ehrman’s inclusion is also interesting. Since Ehrman’s 2012 book, 'Did Jesus Exist? is heavily critical of Jesus Mythicism.

It must be said that New Atheism is NOT the answer to Christian Fundamentalism. Junk history is just as prevalent amongst New Atheists as Young Earth Creationism is amongst Christian Fundamentalists. Do not be fooled into thinking that they are the champions of reason as they claim. They will find any source, no matter how outdated or false and take it as evidence for their worldview.

I find the brother of Jesus to be the best of these texts…

I think the case for Paul having distorted the life of Jesus to be far more convincing than any other scenario…

For most of us “old” atheists, we are still waiting for evidence that supports the gospels as written. We really don’t see the need to disprove that which hasn’t been supported to begin with.