(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
To determine whether Jesus is a myth or was real, we cannot rely on rhetoric or Bible quotes. We have to analyse the evidence. Let’s start with the Bible. Then I’ll look at non-biblical sources. Lastly, I will consider other evidence and issues before drawing a conclusion.
Using the Bible to decide if Jesus is historical or myth isn’t easy. No original manuscripts remain. Apart from a fragment of the Book of John, there’s nothing before c. 200 CE, with the earliest manuscripts for many books dating to the 3rd or 4th century. The Gospels are supposed to cover most of the known story of Jesus. Yet we are unsure who wrote them or when. Various dates are given, usually a range of dates. The earliest generally accepted date for one or two of the Gospels is around the mid 60s CE. It’s hard to understand why writers waited more than 30 years before putting reed to papyrus, as it were, if Jesus was real and such an important person with so many miracles and other good deeds attributed to him.
Debate continues over which of the Gospels was written first and indeed who actually wrote them. Matthew probably didn’t write his gospel. Luke may have written his. Mark probably wrote his, but whether he was a witness is pure speculation. They are far too close to one another to have been written by three independent authors. Yet there are some odd inconsistencies such as Jesus’ ancestry between Matthew and Luke. John’s book is regarded as an unreliable source of Jesus’ life and may have been written by several authors, including for example Cerinthus in the 2nd century. Also, no non-biblical sources mention any gospel stories until the 2nd century.
Over the years, especially in the first few centuries, numerous changes were made to the original biblical manuscripts. There was much bickering among early Christians as to what was scripture, and various Christological issues were hotly debated. Many of the writings were chopped and changed amid followers accusing one another of corrupting text. Second century philosopher Celsus said that some of them “changed the original text of the Gospels three or four times or even more, with the intention of thus being able to destroy the arguments of their critics”. A number of early church leaders worried about the extent of changes, including Tatian, Origen, Jerome and Augustine.
The birth of Jesus was prophesied in the Old Testament. But if he existed as such a celebrated figure, exact dates of his birth and death would surely be well known and recorded in biblical and early non-biblical records. His birth and death dates are usually given as a range of possible years. Debate over the dates has continued to the present. Some 500 years after Jesus, Dionysius Exiguus came up with a birth year that eventually stuck, although he was probably out by a few years with most commentators suggesting a birth year around 7-2 BCE.
No one knew his birthday either. The early centuries are quiet on the matter. In the 4th century, December 25 was chosen as Jesus’ birthday, probably to try and muscle in on pagan god celebrations that had been on this day for many centuries. In earlier times, this calendar date had coincided with the northern winter solstice, the traditional birthday of numerous pagan gods. Many other possible dates have been put forward over the centuries, and December 25 is now generally thought to be incorrect. Little is known of Jesus’ life from soon after his birth until he was aged around 30. This situation would be most unlikely in a real person so famous.
Jesus’ year, day and time of death are also uncertain. His year of death varies from 30 to 36 CE, although 30 CE is the most commonly given year. John 19:14 suggests Jesus’ crucifixion was sometime after the sixth hour, while Mark 15:25 says it was at the third hour. They were both using the same time system. The Roman civil day started at midnight. However, everyone in those days counted hours from sunrise to sunset, and then from sunset to sunrise. Day was divided into 12 equal hours and so was night, regardless of the time of year. Clocks weren’t accurate enough to use hours of equal length between day and night or throughout the year. Whoever wrote this part of John, about 60 years after the crucifixion, probably thought the death occurred early during the alleged eclipse, whereas Mark believed the eclipse came about three hours after Jesus’ death.
A three hour eclipse and an earthquake on the day of Jesus’ death would have been witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people, and the time, day, month and year of Jesus’ death would have been well known and written in various documents, biblical and non-biblical, by the time John was written. After all, the population of Jerusalem alone was around 40,000 in ancient times. A major event sticks in people’s minds. In modern times, most people who are old enough to remember will recall dates and details of where they were and what they were doing at the time of John F. Kennedy’s death, the first manned moon landing, Princess Diana’s death, 9/11 and so on. Yet we don’t know the date Jesus died.
Further, Paul said he had 500 witnesses and that these people were alive and could verify the resurrection. But there doesn’t seem to be any more information from any of these witnesses. There were no interviews, no names, and nothing written down. Yet Paul’s comment is taken as proof of Jesus’ resurrection.
Can we find evidence of Jesus in non-biblical sources? Josephus includes a paragraph on Jesus in his Antiquities of the Jews, written in the 90s CE. It contains mention of most of the main apparent things about Jesus, including his existence, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection, and that he was the Christ. Josephus’ two works, the other written in the 70s CE, cover every person of note and every major event in Palestine over a 70 year period, and also go right back to the alleged creation. But there seems to be a problem. No writer of the 2nd or 3rd century mentions Josephus’ words about Jesus, not even Origen, who wrote prolifically on Christianity and used Josephus’ writings extensively. What Origen does say is that Josephus didn’t believe in Jesus “as the Christ”. Thus Josephus would be unlikely to write such a glowing paragraph on Jesus. Intriguingly, Origen does mention Josephus’ one other possible reference to Jesus, as James’ brother.
Other problems are evident. The solitary paragraph on Jesus in Antiquities, a large work, is in book 18 of 20 books, and is in the middle of Pontius Pilate’s story. Further, this paragraph is the earliest decent non-biblical reference to Jesus, 60 years after his death. The paragraph doesn’t flow with the ones before and after it, and seems to be an interpolation, especially as Origen doesn’t mention it. Without it, the story and the wording flow better. The paragraph is the book’s only reference to Christianity. Josephus was a Jewish historian and parts of the paragraph don’t sound like things that a Jew or a historian would write. He doesn’t elaborate on Jesus’ miracles, although he discusses those of others.
Some parts of the paragraph look like they come from 4th century Christology. Interestingly, the first person to mention the paragraph was Eusebius in the 4th century. In his Demonstratio Evangelica, he says: “Certainly the attestations I have already produced concerning our Savior may be sufficient. However, it may not be amiss, if, over and above, we make use of Josephus the Jew for a further witness.”
Could Eusebius have written the paragraph? I think it’s quite possible. He has been described as a poor historian, an apologetic, and dishonest. He was quite happy to invent, embellish and discard writings to promote the cause of the church. In Ecclesiastical History, he says: “We shall introduce into this history in general only those events which may be useful first to ourselves and afterwards to posterity.” In Praeparatio Evangelica, he talks about using “lawful and fitting” fictions as a “medicine”. The authenticity of Josephus’ paragraph has been questioned for centuries. By 1910, even the Catholic Church said: “The passage seems to suffer from repeated interpolation.” This is in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Josephus’ other reference to Jesus, as I mentioned above, was to his brother James, in book 20, chapter 9. The sentence is awkward. The way it reads, it looks as though the words “who was called Christ” may have been added later, and the reference could be to another Jesus. The name Jesus was a common Greek name at the time. There are 19 different Jesuses in Josephus’ Antiquities. It’s possible that all of the words “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was” (different translations vary a bit) were added later.
Maybe some of the other early non-biblical sources are better. Tacitus, a Roman historian, writing 70-80 years after Jesus’ death, includes a paragraph on Christians, with a mention of Christus, in book 15 of 16 of “his” Annals. But the persecution described by Tacitus isn’t mentioned by other writers, and the paragraph doesn’t match other writing by Tacitus.
Early Christian writers, including Eusebius, make no mention of the Annals, let alone the paragraph. Sometimes the paragraph is attributed to Severus in the late 4th or early 5th century. However, it seems more likely that its first mention is in the 15th century, by church secretary Bracciolini in 1425 when he referred to Tacitus’ lost work. The Annals was found in the middle of Tacitus’ Histories at a German monastery in the 16th century. In 1878, W.J. Ross found that Bracciolini himself had written the Annals in poor Latin in the 15th century. At the time, the church was offering substantial sums of money to anyone who could unearth ancient writings proving Christianity. Thus there may be a number of fraudulent works around this time.
Suetonius, another Roman historian, makes an alleged one-sentence reference to Jesus as Chrestus in his The Twelve Caesars, c. 120 CE. But Chrestus doesn’t mean Christ. The name Chrestus, meaning “the Good” in Greek, was often given to a freed or escaped slave, and this one may have become a leader of the Jewish cause in Rome and was instigating disturbances. The reference to “he” in the sentence is to Claudius, who reigned in the period 41-54 CE, well after Jesus’ death. Also, the sentence mentions Jews, not Christians. Further, the way the sentence refers to “one Chrestus” would suggest it was someone otherwise unknown or unimportant. The phrase may have been originally written to mean “a Chrestus”, and been changed inadvertently in translation. Incidentally, Suetonius’ book is known to include a lot of gossip and opinions, and most of the section on Claudius comes from second-hand sources. At any rate, it is thought that the sentence may have been added by Severus, who was known for making additions and changes to documents.
Although his writings are lost, 2nd century pagan historian Thallus was first mentioned around 180 CE by Theophilis. Thallus sole known reference to Jesus is given by Africanus (c. 220 CE) in Syncellus (c. 800 CE) and reads: “Thallus calls this darkness [at Jesus’ death] an eclipse of the sun in the third book of his Histories, without reason it seems to me”. Africanus then explains that there can’t be a solar eclipse at full moon. No author using Thallus mentions his reference to darkness until Syncellus. Apart from this and the New Testament, there are no other references to an eclipse or an earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death.
Second century writer Phlegon reported a three hour eclipse and an earthquake in his Olympiads. But the earthquake Phlegon refers to was in Bithynia, over 500 miles from Jerusalem and wouldn’t have been felt there. Also, he doesn’t refer to a full moon at the time of the eclipse, and Origen backs this up. So this reference wouldn’t have been in the original work of Africanus, or in Syncellus. It first appears in the Book of the Title by Agapius, a Christian Arab of the 10th century. Africanus’ sentence “Clearly this is our eclipse!” contradicts nearby text and may have originally been a margin note that some scribe added into the main text. Another point worth noting is that ancient folk tended to associate an important event with an earthquake or eclipse, even when these things didn’t happen. Twentieth century academic Claire Preaux found 200 examples.
Tacitus’ and Suetonius’ friend Pliny the Younger wrote to Trajan early in the second century about 80 years after Jesus’ death asking the emperor for advice on what to do with the Christians and their “depraved, excessive superstition”. Trajan replied that they should be punished unless they worship Roman gods. This exchange proves nothing about Jesus. Nor does the one a few years later in 115 CE between Trajan and Ignatius, where Ignatius says, “I have Jesus Christ in my heart”, to which Trajan replied, “Do you mean him who was crucified by Pontius Pilate?” Ignatius answered “yes” and Trajan sentenced him to be thrown to wild animals. It could well have been a case that the Jesus story had spread a fair way by this time and may have been known by thousands of non-Christians and Christians alike.
Regarding the Talmud, the Rabbis make a c. 3rd century reference in Baraitha Sanhedrin 43a to a Yeshu who was stoned and hanged on the eve of the Passover for sorcery. It’s not sure if the name Yeshu necessarily means Jesus, a common name at this time at any rate. A number of other Yeshus appear in Sanhedrin. This particular one had five disciples, listed as Buni, Mattai, Naqai, Netzer and Todah, who were also executed. Clearly, this story is not about Jesus.
Some people think that the mention of a “wise king” more than half way into a long letter by Mara Bar-Serapion to his son sometime around 73-200 CE is a reference to Jesus. But there were many “messiahs” at the time of Jesus and some even had this same name. Most were killed by the Romans or the Jews. Bar-Serapion said the Jews’ kingdom was taken away from them and they were “driven away into every land” after the king’s death. However, the Jews didn’t have a kingdom at the time of Jesus. The writer may have been referring to an Essene figure known as the “Teacher of Righteousness” who was regarded as a messiah. Or, given he mentions Socrates and Pythagoras in the same paragraph, the “wise king” may refer to someone more contemporary to these earlier figures, perhaps before Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem in 597 BCE, when many Jews were sent to Babylonia and then to other countries. The paragraph also contains inaccuracies relating to Pythagoras.
One of the most famous collections of ancient documents is the Dead Sea Scrolls, a whole library of some 1,000 documents dating from about 200 BCE to 66-70 CE. Yet there is no mention of Jesus or his followers.
You would think if Jesus did all the wonderful things the Bible credits him with, such as healing the sick and blind, feeding 5,000 with a few fish and loaves, and walking on water, an abundance of contemporary non-biblical writings on him and his feats would exist, but there are none. Mentions in documents in the period after his death are brief and vague, and either don’t seem to refer to him or appear to have been added in later. Further, there are no contemporary paintings, drawings or statues of Jesus. This lack of evidence for a historical Jesus in non-biblical documents and elsewhere raises questions over the authenticity of the Gospels. Without corroborative evidence, and especially given the synoptic problem, the inconsistencies, absence of birth and death dates, and little on Jesus’ life from infancy to age 30, the existence of Jesus as an important person is brought into doubt.
Different Christian groups had various views on Jesus over time, some believing that he was only spiritual. 2 John 1:7 says that many people saw him in this way. The Gnostics viewed him as docetic. Islam believes he was a person but that the crucifixion was an illusion. There wouldn’t usually be all these different views if someone was definitely real.
Ancient times were filled with gods, godmen, spirits, magicians, etc., and the distinction between what was real and what was purely a god or a spirit was often blurred. Jesus wasn’t the only godman story of this period. Others included Horus, Krishna, Mithra, Dionysus and Attis, all born on 25 December. There are many instances in various societies and religions of a real person being elevated to god status after death, including Julius Caesar, although they weren’t all important or well known people. Many civilizations had mythical and semi-mythical kings, including Egypt, Sumeria, Rome, Greece, Sweden, Assyria, England and Israel, and of course Jesus was deemed king of Israel.
Based on the evidence, or lack of it, I can only conclude that Jesus was either myth or one of hundreds if not thousands of itinerant preacher-magician-godman types doing the rounds in Israel 2,000 years ago and his story was blown out of all proportion. It seems Jesus was some minor figure or myth that evolved over the centuries as the Bible evolved. Jesus and his story may have been invented or enhanced by early church leaders and writers to obtain or increase power, and to impress or repress the masses in an age of fear and superstition.