On the evidence for Jesus

(RiderOnTheClouds) #1

I thought I’d go over what I feel the evidence for Jesus’ historical existence is. I’ve tried to look at the evidence in a non-biased manner, so do not be surprised if what I suggest is not entirely in line with traditional Christian teachings.


Josephus (37 CE - 100 CE) is one of the few historians contemporary to Jesus who would have any interest in reporting about Jewish messianic claimants from Judea, If Jesus was a real person, we would therefore expect Josephus to mention him, and as it happens, despite all mythicist claims to the contrary, he does.

Josephus, in Antiquities XX.9.1 mentions:

“Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so (the High Priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Messiah, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.”

A clear reference to a figure with more than a few similarities to the Jesus of the New Testament. Some Mythicists will tell you that the Jesus in question was ‘Jesus Ben Damneus’, a Jewish High Priest. The problem with this hypothesis is that Josephus was very clear to distinguish between people of the same name, if Josephus meant to say ‘Jesus Ben Damneus’ he would have said so, especially since he later mentions Ben Damneus in the same passage. So this Jesus must have been unique, with ‘the messiah’ being what he was primarily known as. This character has more than a few similarities with the Jesus of the New Testament, Other mythicists will claim this is an interpolation by later Christians. This is highly unlikely however, since the Church father Origen quoted from this passage far to early in Christian history for Christians to have been in the power to tamper with texts.

Earlier, Josephus is even clearer in Antiquities XVIII.3.4:

“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 paradoxical deeds, 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.”

Mythicists are quick to insist that this whole passage is a forgery. Here they go against the great consensus of Josephan Scholars (mostly Jews, who lack a dog in the fight). True, whilst we can safely say that at least some of this is a later interpolation, it is unlikely that as devout a Jew as Josephus would have accepted Jesus as the messiah without skepticism, there are hints that there is some authentic Josephan material contained here. The passage contains language which Josephus frequently uses elsewhere, which is absent from early christian texts. Furthermore, early paraphrases of this passage seem to show Josephus having more skepticism of the claims of Jesus, exactly what we would expect from him, and lacking the editing of the Christian Interpolator. This clearly shows that the Interpolaters were editing something already in existence, rather than making up the passage on the spot. There is no reason to deny the authenticity of the original text, especially since it accurately describes what a 1st century devout Jew would have thought about Jesus.

The Birth of Jesus:

All but the most conservative scholars accept the accounts of the nativity in Luke and Matthew to be contradictory and ahistorical. It is highly unlikely for example that the Romans would have recalled Mary and Joseph to the home town of an ancestor so far distant as King David. Jesus was known to be ‘from’ Nazareth, so inventing a story about his birth in Bethlehem was likely an attempt to shoehorn his birth into Biblical prophecy (Micah 5:2). Some mythicists use this as evidence for their case. Yet one must ask why would the gospel writers have gone through this trouble in the first place? The most obvious answer is that it was well known that Jesus came from Nazareth in real life, and this fact was embarrassing to early Christians, since the expectation was that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Furthermore, if Jesus was a fictional character, why would such a small, insignificant town such as Nazareth be in the story at all?

Lack of mention of Jesus mythicism in early Anti-Christian polemics:

A Messiah who never existed would be a great argument to be used by Pagan and Jewish critics of Christianity. The fact that they never used this argument suggests to us that there really was no doubt that he existed in the centuries after his death.

Lack of mention of Jesus mythicism by early Christians

Contrary to the claims of some Jesus mythicists, the Epistles of Paul do not describe Jesus as a purely divine, heavenly being. According to Galatians 4:4, for example, Jesus was born of a woman, not only is this an indication that Jesus had a human, not divine nature, but it was a common Jewish expression that someone was human. This heavily implies that Jesus was according to Paul, human, not what we would expect from a purely heavenly being. Furthermore, divine heavenly beings tend to be immortal, so how Jesus could have been executed, (1 Corinthians 2:8) and buried (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) is unknown. Paul also claimed to have met Jesus’ brother James, and makes no mention of him having a divine heavenly nature. (Galatians 1:19) This shows that the earliest Christian texts understood Jesus as being an earthly, human being, not (just) a divine one.

Yet the possibility of Jesus being a purely divine, heavenly being would have been perfect for Gnostics, who shunned the physical and embraced the spiritual, and emphasised the spiritual aspects of Christ over his physical aspects. Yet even they described him as appearing on earth (albeit as a spiritual being, with the illusion of flesh), which indicates that the fact that Jesus (not just Christ) actually existed could not be denied even by those whom it presumably would have been convenient to.


A particularly interesting source of the historicity of Jesus is the early church father Papias. Papias wrote Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord, a text containing sayings of Jesus, which do not show any reliance from the gospels, or other early christian texts. Rather, Papias claimed to have known the apostles of Jesus himself, or at least to have known those who knew him. This is as close as we have to an eyewitness account that Christ was a real person, as Bart Ehrman says, as Papias was able to source quotations by Christ from those who knew him.

On mythicist arguments

Finally, Jesus mythicist arguments tend to offer highly weak explanations for how a mythic Jesus could have arose. I we use the principle of Occam’s reason, this likely means that the simplest option, is that Jesus was most likely a real person.

Jesus was a Jewish incarnation of dying and rising God myths

To start with, there is very meager evidence for such a belief. the God Osiris, was killed, and reanimated, but remained dead, in the underworld. The Babylonian God Tammuz is sometimes mentioned, he was indeed but considering how Second Temple Jewish texts were highly polemical ‘against’ Babylonian paganism, (for example) this is quite simply absurd. His death and resurrection is furthermore very different from that of Jesus, as every half a year he returns to the underworld, then comes back.

But even if there was such a belief as a dying and rising god, this is highly unlikely to have been the basis for the Jesus Christ. The evidence suggests that the earliest Christians did not believe that Jesus was divine, or at least this was not the universal position, which you would expect it would be if the very foundation for Jesus was a god. This is shown both in biblical and extra-biblical texts. According to Pliny the Younger, Christians sang hymns to Christ ‘as to’ a God, not ‘as’ a God.

Jesus was an amalgamation of various pagan gods, or a pagan god adopted by early christians

A similar hypothesis, but rather than claiming that the basis for Jesus was a Jewish incarnation of a possible belief, this theory suggests that multiple non-Jewish pagan gods were the basis for the figure of Christ. This theory has no academic acceptance even by mainstream mythicists such as Richard Carrier and G.A.Wells, largely being the domain of sensationalist authors such as Dorothy Murdock and Freke and Gandy, conspiracy theorists such as Peter Joseph and gullible online New Atheists. Gods often mentioned include Horus, Mithras, Dionysus. Krishna and the Buddha. To start with, many of thees parallels are either weak, or nonexistent, many of them exist, but can be explained by pre-existent Jewish traditions as well (such as the virgin birth) and many of them postdate the foundation of Christianity. But the reason why this theory can be safely ignored is due to the fact that it is an absurd premise that highly Anti-pagan first century Jews (who, for example cut their hair short because long hair was considered pagan) would steal pagan ideas as the basis for their messiah. In fact, early Christians went through the trouble of trying to accommodate gentiles into their new religion, strange considering how Christianity is said to have a pagan foundation!

Jesus was a heavenly/celestial figure who was not considered earthly until later

The position taken by Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier. As we have already discussed, contrary to this claim, the Pauline Epistles, the earliest Christian texts ‘do’ mention Jesus as an earthly, human figure. Furthermore, Doherty offers no evidence for the existence of a ‘sub lunar realm’ where divine beings can appear in the flesh in Platonic philosophy, which is the cornerstone for his argument.

I hope you enjoyed.

My main sources were:

Did Jesus Exist?, a blog post by Tim O’Neill.

Did Jeus Exist?: The Historical Argument For Jesus of Nazareth, by Bart Ehrman.

Did Jesus Exist? With Tim O’Neil. Podcast part 1

Jesus Mythicism with Tim O’Neill, part 2

(Curtis Henderson) #2

Thanks, Reggie, good stuff!


If anyone makes nonsensical claims against the Josephus passages, just link them to Tim O’Neill’s overwhelming and crushing refutation of Richard Carrier.

Carrier has catastrophically failed to address this. It’s honestly one of the most crushing refutations I’ve ever seen.

Anyone claiming any nonsense about dying and rising gods can be pointed to a few simple facts. For one, the NT obviously connects Jesus’ resurrection with the Old Testament, not pagan sources. See 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 for just one example. That flat out refutes a pagan connections. Secondly, you can just refer the mythicists to Trygge Mettinger’s massive study The Riddle of Resurrection: Dying and Rising Gods. He is very kind to the claim of dying and rising god in some sources, but even then, says that they flat out have nothing to do with Jesus. This is just a ridiculous conspiracy theory, and in fact, exactly what Samuel Sandmel warned against in his 1962 presidential address at the Society of Biblical Literature: the pseudologic of parallelomania. I’d encourage anyone to read this paper, especially since it’s freely accessible here.

The idea of a heavenly Jesus in Paul has got to be one of the most contrived things I’ve ever seen.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #4

Is Mettinger’s study freely avaliable?

(RiderOnTheClouds) #5

I need help responding to this mythicist argument:


(John Dalton) #6

Have you read Tim O’Neill’s article linked a couple of posts above?


Wouldn’t those dates put Josephus’ birth after the claimed death and resurrection of Jesus?

(George Brooks) #8


And what does this mean? Are you saying that a dangling participle would have meant something different?

Is this your formulation? Or did some academic actually propose this as an important distinction?

“Sang hymns to Jesus as to a God


“Sang hymns to Jesus as a God” ?


That post is blatantly dysfunctional. He makes countless errors, even dishonest claims. For example, he writes;

Professor Bart Ehrman reports on Eusebius’ dishonest character in the following words:

‘Eusebius stands at the end of this process. It was his rewriting of history that made all later historians think that his group (Orthodox Christianity) had always been the majority opinion. But it did not really happen that way’.(7)

Eusebius appears to have been a zealous fraud, who, given the chance to advance his own religious beliefs, would probably have seize upon such an opportunity with the tenacity of a starving gutter rat.

This is a flat out failure to correctly read Ehrman. I’ve read one of Ehrman’s books precisely about Eusebius. Ehrman writes that Eusebius is a treasure for ancient lost literary documents and the history of the time, the only problem that Ehrman has with Eusebius (as you can literally see from the quote provided) is that Eusebius makes it seem as if orthodoxy has always been the dominant sect of Christianity, whereas Ehrman thinks that non-orthodox sects (Marcionism, gnosticism) were much more influential in the 2nd century of Christianity than Eusebius makes it seem. That’s literally all. I’ll even quote Ehrman;

In the early fourth century, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote a ten-volume history of the Christian church that began with the life of Jesus and went up to his own day. This history still survives and is a gold mine of information for historians interested in knowing what was happening in the second and third Christian centuries. Eusebius often quotes earlier Christian writings at length, and in many instances we have no access to these writings otherwise. Most of Eusebius’s account, however, is his own narrative of the spread and growth of the Christian church, its persecution from local and imperial authorities, and its internal turmoil. It is the internal conflicts that most interest us here, since these were for the most part caused, according to Eusebius, by heretics, who had been inspired by demons to corrupt the true faith passed down from Jesus to his disciples and through them to the church at large. (pp. 175-176, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot (Oxford University Press 2006)

If you want to keep reading from there and finish Ehrman’s discourse on Eusebius, Ehrman’s entire book quoted above is freely available here. So the author is either lying through his teeth, or simply ignorant when he says “Eusebius seems to have been a zealous fraud.” Recently, Ken Olson has produced a study that tries to show the testimonium flavium was forged by Eusebius, but as Ehrman noted in his 2012 book Did Jesus Exist (you can probably find this one in a library), Ken Olson’s study has been refuted by Josephan scholars (and by the way, Olson had not even graduated when he wrote that study). So on all these points, his arguments crash.

The argument from silence is even worst, since it literally is an argument from silence. We already know that the testimonium flavium contains an interpolation, but it’s also obvious to Josephan scholars that there is an authentic core. In the 1970’s, an Arabic work was discovered from about the 10th century (approximately the same time as our earliest manuscript of Josephus) quoting the testimonium flavium, and it actually has a variant account that does not contain the clearly interpolated non-Jewish parts, which is significant evidence that the flavium has an authentic core. A similar non-interpolated quotation can be found in the works of Michael the Syrian (12th century). There is no reason to think why Justin would have quoted the TF since it literally offered nothing new to him.

I also recommend you actually look at his citations. There are 22 citations. I will make some observations;

Citation 1 goes to a random online Jewish website, citation 18 goes to a random Muslim website (total 2 citations referring to irrelevant blogs). Citations 2-4, 14, 16-17, and 19-20 are just quotations of Josephus himself (a total of 8 of the citations). Citations 7 and 13 go to Bart Ehrman’s book and Ken Olson’s study, which we have already addressed, as well as citations from what Eusebius wrote himself (another 2 citations). Citations 8-12 all go to the work of John Remsburg, a hyper atheist who has been dead for almost a century with zero qualifications in history (or even any academic subject in general, he’s literally just a popular 19th century writer) (that makes up another 5 of his citations). Citation 5 goes to another book that was written in 1930. Citations 15 and 21-22 go to the translations of the church fathers (and are also over a century old, but they are good translations nonetheless despite the fact that they don’t validate a word he said)

So literally, in all 22 citations of his, he failed to provide a single valid citation to defend his thesis. The only valid citation for his claim was to the work of Ken Olson, which as I’ve noted earlier, Ehrman considers debunked. It’s incredible how he does not mention the fact that Ehrman considers this work refuted, perhaps he simply hasn’t read Ehrman talk about this.

The last argument he makes is about the laughable claim of the Jesus in Antiquities of the Jews XX.9.1 being “Jesus ben Damneus” has been debunked by Tim O’Neill here. Mettinger’s book is freely available for download here, the download worked for me.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #10

Ok, I’ll now respond to same of the article

In Memory of D.M. Murdock

Please stop calling yourself a rationalist.

As previously mentioned, Josephus mentioned around twenty different people named Jesus, and upon further examination of the context of this passage we see that the Jesus in question may have in fact been Jesus the son of Damneus.

Except if there were so many people called Jesus, Josephus would have made it clear which Jesus he was talking to, since elsewhere Josephus is heavily consistent with this.

If we understand that the person who ended up ascending to the throne of high priest following the illegal execution of “James the brother of Jesus,” was Jesus the son of Damneus, then it makes sense that James’ death would have been mitigated by the Enthrarch in a bid to quell the subsequent unrest in Judea, who, by placing his brother Jesus the son of Damneus in the position of high priest, not only brought peace back to his land, but at the same time, won a political point with his Roman overlord, Albinius.

There are about a million reasons why this almost certainly cannot be Jesus the son of Damneus.

  1. Josephus makes the pattern of referring to people in the Patronymic, then in name only. Considering how Josephus mentons Ben Damneus later in the same passage, him mentioning him twice in the passage by the same title is highly inconsistent with his writing.
  2. Ben Damneus’ brother had just been illegally murdered, would he really be so willing to cozy up to the authorities?

If such was the case, as it appears to have been, we may argue that the Jesus “who was called Christ” phrase, may have originally read, Jesus “the son of Damneus,” and that this was changed by someone, possibly even by the first ever Christian to quote this passage, the third century Church father Origen – although such an allegation against Origen is merely speculative and circumstantial at this stage.

Sorry, NO. Firstly, Origen quoted this text far too early for Christians (Origen or otherwise) to be tampering with texts. Secondly, early Christian authors, (Origen included) made the point of insisting that Jesus ‘was’ the Messiah, not that he was just ‘called’, the messiah. This makes most sense if it originally came from a skeptical Jew such as Josephus. So no, not a Christian interpolation.

Further, Origen equates the James of this passage in Josephus’ Antiquities, with the James from the Christian Scriptures, which seems to me to be a little problematic, logically speaking. If the James spoken of by Josephus was the Christian James identified throughout the New Testament, then the Jewish rabble would not have been likely to have protested his execution, nor even care that he was executed. Such a person would have been branded a heretic by the masses for worshiping, or even being associated with, Jesus; an act, the New Testament and early Christian writings tell us, was something the majority of Jews saw as offensive. Yet according to Josephus’ account, so many Jews protested James’ execution that both the Roman procurator and the Enthrarch of Judea were forced to intervene, resulting in the deposing of the high priest Ananus, and the subsequent insertion of Jesus the son of Damneus in his place.

This makes the false assumption that Christians were branded as heretics at the time. According to the Book of Acts, written decades later (after Christianity had presumably diverged more from Orthodox Judaism), Christians were nt only tolerated, but allowed to preach in the temple and take part in rituals there. Not exactly what we can expect from a persecuted heretical sect! Given how it has already been established that the outrage was due to the execution being illegal, there is no reason why they wouldn;t have been outraged at the death of a Christian.

It seems to me that the initial reading of Jesus “who was called Christ” would have been likely to have been Jesus “the son of Damneus,” as it makes a lot more sense in the context of the story. All a Christian forger would have had to do was substitute ‘the son of Damneus’ for the phrase, ‘who was called Christ’, and they would have succeeded in convincing future apologists and the Christian laity alike that this was in fact a historical reference to their god-man. If we look at the situation from an investigative point of view, the Christians had the means to manipulate this passage, as they controlled and manipulated the texts of various ancient authors on several other occasions, including the Testamonium Flavianum, in this very same text. They had motive, for there is no greater witness to their historical messiah than this renowned first-century Jewish historian, and they had opportunity, as they possessed and controlled this ancient historian’s works for centuries, with the first mention of the Testamonium Flavianum coming from the pen of the fourth-century Church father Eusebius, and the first mention of the second reference to Jesus ‘called Christ’ coming from the third-century Church father Origen. Means, motive, opportunity and a proven penchant for altering and even destroying the works of ancient authors whose versions of history did not conform to their belief system, which, in my opinion, is enough evidence to at least consider that the references to Jesus within the works of Josephus were probably forgeries.

Except we’ve already established that this is a highly incoherent hypothesis.

Whilst the Testimonium Flavianum is somewhat more problematic, the preponderance of the4 evidence sugests that the Second reference is genuine and unaltered. So we have at least one reference to Jesus in the writings of the one writer interested in Jewish Messianic claimants, which is good evidence that he was real, much to the dismay of mythicists. Of course facts don’t care about your feelings.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #11

I may make another response to some of Sherlock’s articles. They are full of standard New Atheist nonsense history found in Internet memes but given the illusion of serious scholarship through a handful of citations.

Amongst his nonsense is the following:

  • Joseph Stalin wasn’t an atheist.
  • The Holy Trinity was taken from Pagan myths. (rather than second temple Jewish Divine fluidity)
  • The pluralistic title ‘Elohim’ is proof of Israelite polytheism. (I don’t deny that some early Biblical texts ‘do’ have hints of Polytheism or Monolatry, but referring to a singular god by the plural was actually common practice in the ANE)
  • Christmas began as a festival of Sol Invictus. (actually our only references to Sol Invictus’ festival on September 25th come ‘after’ the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire.
  • Taking the long outdated views of 19th century Panbabylonists such as Friedrich Delitzsch as historical fact.
  • Claiming the Virgin Mary is derived from the Egyptian goddess Isis being seen as a Great Virgin. (Ignoring the fact that she did have intercouse with Osiris to produce Horus. Even if she was an eternal virgin, the Bible claims Jesus had multiple siblings, so Mary couldn’t have been an eternal virgin. Matthew 1:23 clearly gets the idea of the virgin birth from the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14)

(Lynn Munter) #12

I got curious enough to look this up. Here’s the text, for anyone else curious:

“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”


(RiderOnTheClouds) #13

I see absolutely no reason to doubt the authenticity of this passage, it has all the indications that it was written by a skeptical Jew rather than a Christian forger.

(George Brooks) #14


One: You wrote September 25. Did you mean December 25?

Two: There are references to Sol Invictus and December 25 before the official Roman adoption of Christianity.

(Lynn Munter) #15

Well, reading a bit more, it was apparently translated from Josephus’ Greek to Syrian to Arabic to English, so the details are not to be relied upon heavily, but overall it seems to cover the basics!


Alright, sounds good. If I may make two more additions;

-the ‘elohim’ passage is actually clearly referring to the divine council of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible possesses the belief in one, supreme God that rules over a council of lesser divine entities (like angels)
-for the December 25th date, this will be the best thing to read

(RiderOnTheClouds) #17

I’m guessing you’re a fan of Michael Heiser. (I am too)


It can be relied on in the sense that scholars predicted where the interpolations were, and the archaeology outright supported that.


How did you guess!

(Lynn Munter) #20

It strikes me as also remotely possible that some <10th century Arab also figured there were obvious Christian interpolations, and redacted accordingly. But I think this is improbable.

The bits in the article I linked where scholars used knowledge of Syrian to discuss some predictable pitfalls of translation, and how they would affect the final results, were particularly interesting!

And it fits really well with Origen complaining Josephus didn’t accept Jesus as Christ, while at the same time there must have been an ambiguous reference to him as Christ or the passage about James wouldn’t have used “Christ” to clarify which Jesus he was talking about.

(Yes, it took me so long to quote the text because I was reading the whole Wikipedia article on the testimonium flavonium, hoping vainly I could get it from there!)