Fair’s fair. Let’s try to make the best possible case for the historical existence of Jesus. One never learns about an issue completely unless they are willing to look at it from more than one angle. I intend to write a few more posts on this blog taking up the view of the loyal opposition. Thus I will presently, with respect for the dispassionate approach of Thomas Aquinas, look at the objections first.
The standard disclaimers apply. By the historical existence of Jesus, we are observing the traditional distinction between any possible “Jesus of history” and the Christ of faith. We are interested in knowing if there is a man behind the myth.
Also, we are interested in evidence even if it is barely a whisper, just because that is the sometimes sorry state of our evidence for antiquity.
(1) The Best Case: Non-Christian Sources
This is supposed to be a happy little essay. Let’s not bicker and argue over who interpolated whom. We will simply state that there is a very old dispute over the authenticity of the references in Josephus and Tacitus and that the best possible case will most likely involve an attempt to firm up their genuineness. Because we’re making that best possible case, let’s consider that attempt made and proceed. (If you need all the gory details, you could do worse than starting with my essay on Josephus or Carrier’s essay on Tacitus.)
(1) (a) Josephus
Like so many others, I will start with Josephus. Now while I am assuming for the moment that Josephus mentioned Jesus, that doesn’t mean that I’m assuming any more than that. A very popular assumption of late has been that Josephus made a neutral little potted summary of the life and death of Jesus, a view that found its most cited champion in John P. Meier. But that’s not the way that I’d go with this. Too many difficulties exist in this position to be enthusiastic about it. They have been elaborated with sophistication by Ken Olson and Paul Hopper recently, but so simple a clue as the opening words of Ant. 18.3.4 tells us that the previous passage is out of place.
F. Bermejo-Rubio has not only written an exemplary argument for the historicity of Jesus (to which I have previously written a partial reply) but also has now published a challenge to the supposed neutrality of the Testimonium, when viewed as coming from Josephus, drawing on the words of the text as it exists in the manuscripts before us.
Yet I would go further than Bermejo-Rubio and argue that, if authentic at all, the Testimonium is an example of simultaneous addition and subtraction. It is scarcely imaginable, first of all, that Josephus would introduce the very word for the concept of “Christ” here, so assiduously avoided elsewhere in his many volumes of Jewish history, without something by way of an explanation, particularly one with the goal of creating distance and disavowal. Nor, secondly, should we imagine that this passage of credal simplicity (so Hopper) emanates from the pen of Josephus, who would surely have managed to make some kind of explicit comment regarding the preaching and execution of Jesus or the movement called the Christians. We can see this in comparison with Josephus’ treatment of similar figures such as John the Baptist, Judas the Galilean, Theudas, or Honi the Circle-Drawer, who all elicit enunciated statements of approval or disapproval from Josephus.
What could it have been? It’s impossible to say for sure. Could it have been so problematic that it prevented Origen from quoting it? It would have to be, since Origen does not quote it. Origen does say two things: (a) that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Christ and (b) that Josephus attributed the fall of Jerusalem to James, the brother of Jesus. To posit an original Testimonium is to have the opportunity of providing an alternate explanation for these claims of Origen (instead of attributing them to assumption and confusion, respectively). So it’s attractive to imagine that a longer, authentic Testimonium had contained the mirror opposite of what Origen wrote: that Christians had attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the death of Jesus and that Josephus refuted it by saying that it would have been better for them to say it was on account of the death of his brother, James. Perhaps Josephus could have argued that Jesus was killed for stirring up the people but that James was killed unjustly. This is consistent with the passage in Antiquities 20 and with Josephus’ attitude to trouble makers.
This, unfortunately for our best case argument, is conjecture. The balance of actual evidence, in my estimation, points to the interpolation, rather than amendation, of the passage on Jesus at this point. But, to continue with making the best possible case, such an interpolation would not preclude us from arguing that Josephus had his reasons for avoiding mention of Jesus. Such an argument for the silence of Josephus regarding Jesus and the Christians was a commonplace of scholarship in the early twentieth century and speaks well of the critical acumen of these scholars, who did not confuse a need to find evidence for their conclusions with a need to find evidence where it cannot be found.
If Josephus did write about Jesus, it does us no good to come to the clueless conclusion that we learn nothing because he is just repeating what he was told by the Christians of his day. Josephus was old enough and informed enough to be fully aware of what was happening in Jerusalem in the 60s of the first century. If Josephus wrote that James, the brother of Jesus called the Christ, was executed, he did so because James identified himself as the brother of Jesus called the Christ. And if that is a fact, then we should leave it to others more obtuse than us to scribble about how his brother yet did not exist.
In conclusion, Josephus is conclusive evidence for the historicity of Jesus if the references are authentic, and Josephus is valuable evidence of the non-historicity of Jesus if the references are inauthentic (by way of an argument from silence that is not without force). The literature justly focuses on this question, but it cannot be the only question we ask. There is other evidence available to us, and any balanced conclusion must rest on the balance of evidence.
(1) (b) Tacitus
The reference in Tacitus does not easily succumb to arguments for interpolation, even though they have been made from time to time. We can assume its authenticity without much difficulty. The only manuscript of this passage has an interesting incongruity whereby the movement is called Chrestiani while the founder is called Christus. To quote from Woodman’s notes, however, and in keeping with the dry wit of Tacitus:
Yet the coexistence of “Chrestiani” and “Christus” is not impossible: T. would be drawing a muted contrast between the common (i.e. pagan) name for the sect, evidently attributed to the Christians through a confusion with the Greek word chrestos (“good,” “honorable”), and the true origin of the name. (Tacitus: The Annals, p. 325)
That Tacitus is aware of the Christians already has a sort of external evidence. He knew both Suetonius, who also mentions this event in his history, and Pliny the Younger, who wrote to the emperor Trajan regarding the Christians and how to handle accusations made against them. Thus he was in a good position to be aware of the basics of the movement even without conducting much of his own investigation.
This, unfortunately, is also the Achilles’ heel of this reference as evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Tacitus most likely obtained this information from a source that depended, in one way or another, on early Christian preaching. It thus provides solid evidence that the Gospel story was already known as early as 115 and that the Christians were already in Rome as early as the 60s. What it does not do is vouchsafe the contents of that Gospel story.
On the other hand, there is the bare possibility that some earlier chronographer or imperial correspondence had mentioned this Christ and that Tacitus, who took his history seriously and had access to a vast library, had indeed an independent source of information connecting the movement’s origins to Judea and the execution of their Christ by Pilate. All that we can say against it is that such a notice has not survived transmission, but it is possible that such a source slipped through the cracks of history before the fourth century “triumph of Christianity.” While it is only a possibility that Tacitus had independent information, the fact that we cannot disprove it (and the inference that Tacitus has no reason to suspect that Christ is unhistorical) does mean that the mention by Tacitus is not devoid of value.
You could easily argue that any number of people in ancient history are accepted into the books with less evidence and that the level of evidence afforded here, at a minimum, shifts the burden of proof onto the skeptic, to provide a reason (based on other circumstances of the case) why such prima facie evidence should not stand.
(1) (c) Other Pagan References
They do nothing more than to confirm two things that we know from Tacitus: the first and second century existence of Christians and the absence of any ancient objection to the historical existence of their founder.
Not too much weight should be placed on this, however, because we are imposing modern notions of debate and rhetoric on the past if we expect the ancients to argue that there is no evidence for a man named Jesus just because there wasn’t any known to them. Apart from the occasional philosophical skeptic, that just wasn’t the standard operating procedure. Much more powerful, rhetorically, was to concede something to your opponent and then to add further revelations to the tale that discredit it (for example, that the disciples stole the body, or that a Roman soldier impregnated Mary). They invented Panthera while we today ask whether we even know that Jesus existed and dismiss the infancy narratives out of hand. The invention of the printing press no doubt plays a part in our confidence about getting the whole picture of the historical evidence available, something the ancients could never be sure about.
(1) (d) Babylonian Talmud (and Justin Martyr)
There is, finally, a Jewish oral tradition that is worth placing alongside Josephus and Tacitus as a possible source of historical information regarding Jesus. This is the Jewish tradition regarding the trial of Jesus, found in the Babylonian Talmud, b. Sanh. 43a. While this text was finalized sometime in the fifth or sixth century, by its nature it incorporates many traditions that are very old, as it collects and quotes traditional commentary of the rabbis.
It was taught:
On the Eve of Passover they hung Yeshu the Notzarine. And the herald went out before him for 40 days [saying]: “Yeshu the Notzarine will go out to be stoned for sorcery and misleading and enticing Israel [to idolatry]. Any who knows [anything] in his defence must come and declare concerning him.” But no-one came to his defence so they hung him on the Eve of Passover.
According to David Instone-Brewer, who has undertaken to analyze the talmudic traditions generally for their date of origin with an eye to seeing which may predate A.D. 70, the introductory formula is:
normally used for traditions originating with Tannaim – ie rabbis of Mishnaic times before 200 CE – though the presence of such a formula is not an infallible marker of an early origin. However in this case, it is likely that these formulae are accurate because this helps to explain why the rabbis regarded this Jesus tradition as if it had comparable authority to Mishnah.
Further, he notes, an independent attestation in Justin Martyr brings the most likely date before 150:
Outside the Talmud, two charges are recorded by Justin Martyr who said that as a result of Jesus’ miracles, the Jews “dared to call him a magician and an enticer of the people.” (Dial. 69)
The mention of this particular pair of charges, in this order, is hardly likely to be a coincidence.
To resolve the internal difficulties of the text and its parallels elsewhere in the Talmud, Instone-Brewer proposes that the original form of this tradition was simple: “On the Eve of Passover they hung Yeshu the Notzarine for sorcery and enticing Israel.” The proposed expansions before and after the charges explain the unusual date of the execution, in that an especially lenient period allowed people to come to his defense and that his execution occurred at the last possible time, while still occurring publicly while crowds were there for the holiday.
Since the New Testament account gives no account at all of a charge of sorcery at the trial of Jesus, instead emphasizing charges of blasphemy and treason, it is difficult to see this account as deriving from the Gospel story. Moreover, Instone-Brewer argues:
The origin of this tradition is also unlikely to be rabbinic or Pharisaic. Although it has been preserved in rabbinic literature, there are two reasons why it was unlikely to be authored within this movement. First, a rabbinic author or their Pharisee predecessors would want the order of the charges to mirror Torah and rabbinic halakha. Second, rabbinic traditions and the major Pharisaic schools tried to dissuade people from working on Passover Eve, so they would not have invented a tradition which said that they decided to try Jesus on this date.
Because the Jewish leaders of the first century were in a position to know the circumstances of such an execution, which would have been remembered for taking place on an unusual date, it is plausible to see this rabbinic tradition, late as its written record may be, as stemming from the historical Jewish memory of the execution of Jesus on Passover Eve with charges of sorcery and leading Israel astray.
You could even say that it’s more probable than not, in which case what we have right here is an argument for the historicity of Jesus. I value it more highly than both Josephus and Tacitus, as it certainly did not come from a Christian interpolator (unlike Josephus) and actually has a decent argument to the effect that it did not derive from the Christian tradition about Jesus (unlike Tacitus).
Summing Up the Argument from Non-Christian Sources
The absence of an ancient tradition questioning the existence of Jesus isn’t exactly telling, positive evidence for us today. While Josephus could be devastating evidence for the historicity of Jesus, it seems more fair either to regard the text as moderate evidence against on account of silence regarding Jesus or simply as too difficult a textual question to hang your hat on. Tacitus likewise is only faint as direct evidence but does raise a good question: with references like these, does doubt have anything to recommend it? Finally, even though its late date of compilation makes it impossible to rule out the possibility of a Christian source to the tradition with certainty, the Jewish tradition (recorded in the Talmud and with an echo in Justin Martyr) provides actual evidence for a historical Jesus. This tradition says that Yeshu the Notzarine was hung on the Eve of Passover, accused of sorcery and enticing Israel to idolatry.
(Sidenote: Some might not find the Talmudic tradition to be enough evidence to fill in a picture that meets their minimum definition of the historicity of Jesus. For example, without more information, he might have lived “one hundred years before Christ,” as proposed by G.R.S. Mead and Alvar Ellegard.)
(2) The Best Case: The Gospels and Related Traditions
Continuing my attempt at a best case for the historicity of Jesus, I’d proceed directly to the Gospel texts and related traditions. They are the most extensive source of details regarding the life of Jesus, so our estimation of them is an essential part of the process of evaluating the evidence.
(2) (a) The Gospel of Mark
The genre and purpose of Mark is a vexing question in New Testament studies. There’s still a plausible argument to be made that the author is a fairly unsophisticated writer, who has padded out his narrative of the ministry of Jesus with little stories here and there that he has heard (alongside some of his own inventions), and the best case for a historical Jesus might capitalize on such an argument. The incorporation of Aramaic material, by an author that seems more likely to know only Greek and Latin; the inclusion of obscure Palestinian geography, by an author that gets the basics wrong; the references to the family of Jesus, by an author that has no use for them; all of this suggests an author that has taken up bits and pieces of prior tradition while creating his story.
Richard Carrier makes a valiant effort to show that Mark 15:21 is “just as likely on minimal mythicism and on minimal historicity,” offering that the passage here may be intended as a symbolic reference to Alexander the Great and Musonius Rufus, a Stoic philosopher (On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 446-451).
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. (Mark 15:21)
Only the Gospel of Mark contains this reference to Simon as “the father of Alexander and Rufus.” Right away we can then form two objections to Carrier’s tentative hypothesis. First, the other example of a symbolic message in the Gospel of Mark (“the number of loaves and baskets in Mk 8.19-21”) had no trouble getting copied in Matthew and Luke, proving that the evangelists were capable of copying these symbolic messages. The omission from the other synoptic Gospels suggests that, even at the early date of the writing of Matthew and Luke, this reference in Mark was not understood as symbolic. Second, it’s just a bit of a stretch to suggest that two names centuries apart, who could not actually be sons of Simon of Cyrene, are just as likely an interpretive option as, say, two names of people that were known to the audience and that were sons of Simon of Cyrene, just as Mark 15:21 actually says.
Carrier asks that we should always look for “strong external corroborating evidence (such as we have for the existence, at least, of Peter and Pilate), in the absence of which, for any detail in Mark, we should assume a symbolical meaning is always more likely” because of all the known examples in which Mark tells stories with “some esoteric allegorical or symbolical purpose” (On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 451).
We should distinguish between allegorical fiction and false tales, in that the author of Mark may have been a fabulist who wanted his stories to be believed and thus authenticate the good news of Jesus as the Messiah. Thus the evidence regarding stories constructed out of the Septuagint is evidence of falsehood of some kind but not necessarily evidence of allegory. As popular literature with the purpose of promoting belief in Jesus Christ, with a near-contemporary setting, the Gospel of Mark could even be argued to make more sense as unabashed invention, meant for belief, rather than as a sophisticated symbolic tale.
(Sidenote: Why don’t we have more people simply positing that an author was, to put it plainly, a liar? There is a real danger of overuse of the “allegory card,” which can be played to avoid making pointed “accusations.” This is history. All claims are equally worthy of proposal, in the pursuit of an accurate account of events.)
But there is a trace of evidence that could help us to place Alexander and Rufus in history, or at least the latter person. In the letter of recommendation for Phoebe, also known as Romans 16, we find the words of Paul: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also.” Here we learn that there was a Christian named Rufus known to Paul. We also hear about his mother but not his father, which might suggest that she was a widow. While it is impossible to prove, it is plausible that this Rufus and his brother Alexander were sons of Simon of Cyrene. This in turn means that the author of the Gospel of Mark, by drawing attention to Alexander and Rufus, who were known to Mark’s audience, could easily be exposed as a liar if they had never heard of their father carrying the cross for Jesus. This suggests the existence of a very early tradition which, like an early tradition that Jesus had a brother named James, would lead most people to suspect that there was a historical Jesus.
(2) (b) The Gospel of John
In John 21, added to the fourth gospel, we find the following (John 21:22-24):
Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.
In history we often value the statements that are made indirectly more than those which are the plain purpose of the author in writing. It is believed that these indirect statements are less likely to contain artifice. Here the purpose of the author is to explain how it is that the disciple died, despite the rumor that this disciple would not die, a rumor that attributed this claim to Jesus. Because the focus is on why the disciple died, the indirect statement is hard to doubt: the disciple lived.
As a matter of interpretation, this is a much easier case than Alexander and Rufus in the Gospel of Mark. Here we have a clear indication of a “disciple” who had claimed to know Jesus. The most reasonable way to harmonize this with the non-existence of Jesus is to say that this self-proclaimed “disciple” is lying and never actually knew Jesus. However it is not really the historical method to go about completely discounting every possible testimony as false. It must be admitted as offering a degree of positive evidence for the historicity of Jesus, even if the testimony might be false.
(2) (c) Papias
The words of Papias have been quoted many times in the investigation of Christian origins. They seem to offer a rare ray of light regarding the Gospels from the early second century. The first to quote him is Irenaeus, who makes the following remark:
These things Papias, the hearer of John, who was a companion of Polycarp, a man of ancient time, testifies in writing in the fourth of his books, for there are five books composed by him. (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 5.33.4)
This does not actually say that Papias knew any of the disciples of Jesus. The John mentioned here may not be the same John who was a disciple of Jesus and could have been the one called “the presbyter.” After quoting from Papias, this is exactly how Eusebius interprets him:
And Papias, of whom we are now speaking, confesses that he received the words of the apostles from those that followed them, but says that he was himself a hearer of Aristion and the presbyter John. At least he mentions them frequently by name, and gives their traditions in his writings. These things we hope, have not been uselessly adduced by us. (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.7)
Papias thus does not claim to know any of the disciples of Jesus, but he is a witness to an ongoing oral tradition in the second century regarding what people said that the apostles heard from Jesus. Unfortunately, because of the phenomenon of “secondary orality” whereby the information of written sources can enter the oral tradition, this does not confirm the existence of any traditions that are earlier than the Gospels.
(2) (d) Quadratus of Athens
This author is known by quotation:
He himself reveals the early date at which he lived in the following words: “But the works of our Saviour were always present, for they were genuine:-those that were healed, and those that were raised from the dead, who were seen not only when they were healed and when they were raised, but were also always present; and not merely while the Saviour was on earth, but also after his death, they were alive for quite a while, so that some of them lived even to our day.” Such then was Quadratus. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.3.2)
We could put a naturalist spin on this and say that these could have been “faith healings” of people that had known Jesus. We should not necessarily interpret the author as saying that they had lived until the reign of Hadrian, one hundred years later, but only that they lived to the same general era and generation, i.e., to the late first century or the very early second. At this point the testimony becomes, at least, plausible. However, it does not mention any particular witness to these details, and it could be simply a deduction from the Gospel stories themselves.
(2) (e) The Gospel of Luke
The prologue reads:
1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
This is a highly stylized bit, in imitation of historical prologues generally. Unfortunately the rest of Luke leaves us nothing to substantiate the idea that the author investigated the matter from several witnesses. None of them are named and none of the tales are cross-examined, but we should expect both those things in a work with real historiographic purpose.
Besides which, the argument of John Knox that canonical Luke and Acts date to the mid second century seems persuasive to me. This makes the implicit claim of Acts to being written by a companion of Paul a falsehood (as I cannot accept the feeble alternative). Unless we resort to the hypothesis that Acts has incorporated an unedited diary or somesuch, this in turn implies that the author of Luke-Acts is not exactly your basic honest historical reporter.
On the other hand, those who see in the author of Luke-Acts a companion of Paul (and much more those who see Acts as a composition of the 60s of the first century) will naturally find in this text quite powerful confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.
(2) (f) Thomas and Either Q or Matthew
The trouble with lists of sayings is that they are among the easiest material to end up falsely attributed. We see that transformation occur in the Nag Hammadi Library between Eugnostos the Blessed and the Sophia of Jesus Christ.
Despite the tantalizing possibility that Q or the Gospel of Thomas date to the mid first century, it is impossible to use them to authenticate the historicity of Jesus. They just as well could have been the words of someone else (or, in the hypothetical Q, some kind of basic story and words) that have been later carried over into the mouth of Jesus after he had been invented as a historical person.
Besides which, I’m a Q skeptic.
On the other hand, the best possible case for the historical existence of Jesus might well include Q. Even Doherty and Wells eventually posited entire Palestinian communities or barebones Jesuses (respectively) to account for the synoptic tradition represented in Q. Part of me wonders whether Q might see a resurgence as part of a defense of the historicity of Jesus.
They say that quantity has a quality all its own. Is it not at least interesting that in the first half of the second century (if not earlier) we witness such an explosion of written material regarding Jesus, his story and sayings? Again, as we mentioned in the discussion of Tacitus, this kind of evidence is far from conclusive but it may at least meet the standard of prima facie evidence. It is the kind of thing that should put the shoe on the other foot and require us to have good reason for doubt about the historical existence of Jesus.
Summing Up the Argument from the Gospels and Related Traditions
There are many Gospels under the names of apostles, but we know all too well that these superscriptions are highly suspect and that the apostle’s mantle was claimed to give authority to the text. For the most part we can easily dismiss most claims of eyewitness reporting present in these ancient Christian gospels because those claims come from those all-too-fake titles and all-too-fictional prologues of the gospels.
The only very good arguments here come from the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John. The Gospel of Mark contains a reference in passing to Alexander and Rufus, presumed to be known to the audience, who have a connection to the Gospel story by way of their father. The Gospel of John makes an indirect claim regarding the fact that a disciple died, defending his death as being part of the plan, in a way that gives credibility to the existence of this disciple, who claimed to have known Jesus.
If we were keeping a running tally, we’d now have four people attested in the sources that could anchor Jesus as a figure of ancient history. From the non-Christian sources, we learn about James the brother of Jesus (if Josephus is authentic) and about the rabbinic tradition (which may go back to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem themselves). From the Gospel traditions, we learn about Simon of Cyrene (who had two sons well-known to the audience of the Gospel of Mark) and a certain unnamed disciple whose testimony regarding Jesus lies behind the Gospel of John.
Anyone being fair about the matter should admit that this brings the historicity of Jesus to the status of “some positive historical evidence.” If there were absolutely zero evidence against, then we’d have to give the balance of evidence to the historicity of Jesus. No doubt the failure of some skeptics to make these kinds of admissions proves frustrating in this discussion. It is perfectly alright to have a high evidentiary standard and to judge that the historicity of Jesus does not make it. It is perfectly alright to have considered the entire case in the round and to judge the evidence against the historicity of Jesus to be better than the evidence for. But it is just a bit off to attempt to argue that there is nothing at all, zero degrees Kelvin, to give heat to the positive case for the historicity of Jesus and thus to declare that the balance of evidence is simply nil-nil.
(3) The Best Case: The Letters and Similar Writings
Lastly we come to the home turf of skepticism regarding the historicity of Jesus, as several authors have detected a wedge between the early letters and the Gospels. While this point of view has much to commend it, and though we are not really discussing here the evidence against the historicity of Jesus, there still are some remarks to make.
(3) (a) Paul
There is a heavy emphasis on Paul. Although he is not the only writer and might not even be the earliest (with Hebrews for example in the competition for that honor), the apparently-contextualized status of his letters (largely thanks to Acts but also from the internal evidence) makes him ground zero. If they are authentic, they are the letters of a man who knew Peter and James, who themselves are the people that the Gospels say knew Jesus. So proving that Paul didn’t know about any kind of historical Jesus would put the lie to the Gospels; proving that he did would corroborate them.
1 Thessalonians 2:14-16
14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.
On the other hand, the argument against use of this passage as evidence for Paul’s beliefs is rather simple. Plenty have argued that there is an interpolation here, and so we’ll just admit that it isn’t pure speculation to think so.
18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!
Although much less acknowledged, suspicion regarding this passage exists, as it does for the previous one. The waters have been muddied in this regard by the attempts of Wells and Doherty to interpret the apparent sense of this passage into something else, which leads to a fallacy to the effect that it must be authentic if even they tackle it as such. But Neil Godfrey has brought attention to the literature on this passage as a possible interpolation, and the case is as strong as any. Indeed, as interpolations go, the one in 1 Thessalonians above (if it were one) must be older, since it is already present in Marcion’s Apostolikon. Yet this passage apparently was not.
I will also mention here 1 Corinthians 15:3-11, which Robert Price argued to be an interpolation, but which if authentic has Paul handing on tradition received from those before him and, in particular, a tradition that implies (or at least suggests) the temporal proximity of the death, resurrection, and appearances to Peter, James, and the Twelve, similar to what we find in the Gospels.
But I’m getting ahead of myself! On the best possible case for a historical Jesus, at least two of these passages would be taken as genuine, including the passage in Galatians. And if it were, it would, like Josephus, cinch up the argument for the historicity of Jesus. James and Peter would have known Jesus during his life, as attested by one Paul who knew James and Peter.
Thus I really think those who want to take the contrary position should consider these passages interpolations or, otherwise, countenance the possibility that the letters themselves are not genuine.
The rest of it is not really worth discussing here because even a best case argument from the other references in the letters of Paul might chip away at the understanding of Doherty but could still admit the hypothesis championed by Wells, et al., of a Jesus who was placed in the indeterminate mythic past. Only these passages (along with the reference to Pilate in 1 Timothy 6:13, naturally) could hope to do more and place Jesus in the recent past.
(3) (b) Hebrews
Hebrews 13:12 says that, “Jesus also suffered outside the gate.” This could be taken literally, but it doesn’t make too much sense to do so. The author in the immediate context compares this suffering to “an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.” He also suggests that they should “go to him outside the camp” and “seek the one that is to come.” As per usual, not the one who is going to come back or return, but the one who is to come. Moreover, on other grounds, Hebrews more than any other New Testament letter begs for an allegorical or platonist interpretation (and must at least be considered consistent with a hypothesis such as the one Wells suggested). One does not find their solace here when it comes to the argument for the historicity of Jesus.
(3) (c) 1 Clement
Before on this blog I have presented my partition hypothesis regarding 1 Clement. However, I have not presented it formally and know of nobody who’s suggested it before (so perhaps I really should present it formally at some point). In any case, the letter refers to the apostles being appointed by Christ. There’s only one passage that comes close to saying anything regarding a historical Jesus:
42:1 The Apostles received for us the gospel from our Lord Jesus Christ; our Lord Jesus Christ received it from God. 42:2 Christ, therefore, was sent out from God, and the Apostles from Christ; and both these things were done in good order, according to the will of God.
However it isn’t really a clear reference, is it? If the apostle Paul, who did not know Jesus on earth, could say regarding the institution of the Lord’s supper the words “I received from the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:23), then how are we to say that 1 Clement means anything other than the appointment of apostles by Christ through revelation?
(3) (d) Epistle of Barnabas
The Epistle of Barnabas, written between 70 and 135 AD, almost certainly does not have any historical information regarding Jesus handed down to him. The centerpiece of the text is the very model of Crossan’s “prophecy historicized,” as the author explicitly works out the attributes of Jesus from the scriptures. (While Barnabas 4:14 might appear to quote Matthew 22:14, it quotes something absent from the critical text of the Gospel of Matthew, which should lead us to think that some other source is being quoted with a scriptural formula here.)
(3) (e) 1 John
I believe that this letter came from the same community that wrote the Gospel of John, and the first few words are consistent with the idea that this community had someone who claimed to be a disciple of Jesus. While this letter thus has value as evidence, it should be read alongside John 21 as pointing to the same witness.
(3) (f) Aristides and Justin Martyr
These second century apologists refer to “the gospel” and “the memoirs of the apostles,” respectively, as written accounts. Thus they help us place the terminus ad quem for the gospels, but as evidence they do not count for much by themselves.
(3) (g) Ignatius of Antioch
Hermann Detering and Bernard Muller, among the presentations online, are well worth reading regarding Ignatius of Antioch. The trouble here is not that we have any difficulty in identifying his reference to a historical Jesus but only that it comes later than the Gospels and is dependent on them, in the mid second century.
(3) (h) 1 Timothy
This is also a product of the mid second century, part of the reaction to Marcion, at least if we agree with those who have investigated the matter and concluded as much.
(3) (i) 2 Peter
While I do regard 2 Peter 1:18 as a reference to the story in the Gospels, I also regard this letter as a product of the mid-to-late second century.
Summing Up the Argument from the Letters and Similar Writings
Portions of the letters of Paul (1 Thess 2:15-16, Gal 1:18-20, 1 Cor 15:3-11) do go some way towards attesting to a historical Jesus, but they are all the subject of debates over authenticity of some independent validity. While others would not concede as much, I allow that Gal 1:18-20 would present more-or-less conclusive evidence for a historical Jesus, by providing clear evidence of James being his brother, if it went back to a historical Paul. It is easy to see why this passage is a mainstay of popular arguments for the historicity of Jesus.
After this bright spot in the epistles and treatises of early Christianity found in words attributed to Paul in the New Testament, we are left to temptation during a proverbial 40 days in the wilderness. The extraordinarily long Hebrews and 1 Clement both give us no real whisper of a historical Jesus and (though not analyzed here) plenty of grist for the mill against believing that such a man figured in their thoughts. That is, perhaps, not quite as bad as the curious case of the Epistle of Barnabas, which could be aptly described as a “transitional fossil” in the move from an ahistorical Jesus to a historical one in the early church. (Sidenote: Because we have been looking for positive evidence of historicity here, there are other texts, inside and outside the New Testament, that I have not canvassed, such as 1 Peter, James, Jude, Revelation, various apocrypha, and the Nag Hammadi Library.)
When we emerge on the other side of the Gospels, we start to see clear references to a historical Jesus that can most probably be assigned to dependence on the Gospel texts. This is at least as early as the reign of Hadrian, when Aristides wrote. Thus we have 1 John, Aristides, Justin Martyr, 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and Ignatius (either pseudo or perhaps just dated in the 140s). Other than the evident dependence on the Gospels, we can note with interest how many are embroiled in conflict with gnostic-type opponents and the threat of either docetism or Marcionism: namely 1 John, Justin Martyr, 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and Ignatius, with only one apology (ostensibly addressed to outsiders) possibly providing an exception.
Summing up, then, the only evidence found here is that which we read in certain passages of the Pauline letters. Some of it is quite good if authentic but loses all weight as positive evidence, of course, if not.
Weighing the Evidence for the Historicity of Jesus
On the one hand, it is not hard to understand why many have expressed conclusions similar to those of Michael Grant in Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels.
If we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned.
On the other hand, it is also not hard to see why a hard-boiled skeptic could be unmoved by this level of evidence. To quote an online presentation by one Jim Walker:
Even with eyewitness accounts we must tread carefully. Simply because someone makes a claim, does not mean it represents reality. For example, consider some of the bogus claims that supposedly come from many eyewitness accounts of alien extraterrestrials and their space craft. They not only assert eyewitnesses but present blurry photos to boot! If we can question these accounts, then why should we not question claims that come from hearsay even more? Moreover, consider that the hearsay comes from ancient and unknown people that no longer live.
And it is true that we have not uncovered any eyewitness accounts or physical evidence of Jesus. Instead we have hearsay, sometimes with a presumably short chain of transmission (that is, if the textual witness is authentic!) and sometimes with a more murky one.
- Paul in Galatians 1:18-20 makes a claim with a two-step chain of hearsay, if it is authentic: Paul says he met James, and this James allegedly was the brother of Jesus.
- John 21 and 1 John make a claim with a two-step chain of hearsay: the authors say they knew a disciple, and this disciple allegedly said they knew Jesus.
- Mark makes a claim with a three-step (or more) chain of hearsay: the author says they knew of Alexander and Rufus, Alexander and Rufus presumably claimed to be sons of Simon of Cyrene, and Simon of Cyrene allegedly carried the cross for Jesus.
- Josephus makes a claim with an indeterminate chain of hearsay, if it is authentic: Josephus claims that he had information regarding James, his informants allegedly claimed to know about James, and James allegedly was the brother of Jesus.
- The Talmud makes a claim with an indeterminate and lengthy chain of hearsay: The Talmud records the traditions of the rabbis, these traditions were allegedly communicated over centuries, the rabbis allegedly quoted a tradition regarding the execution of Jesus, this tradition was allegedly communicated over centuries, and the originators of the tradition allegedly knew about the execution of Jesus.
I do not add to this any considerations of the criterion of embarassment (or any of the other criteria supposedly authenticating the contents of the gospels) because they have already come under frequent and heavy attack by scholars in the past few years, and this piece is plenty long already.
I think it should be said that this is “some positive historical evidence,” and I took exception above to those who fail to acknowledge even that little bit. But I also think it should be said with humility. This is no slam dunk. There is no victory dance. And we should not crow in superiority over those who do not come to the conclusion that, therefore, Jesus existed.
As the best possible case that can be made for the historicity of Jesus, there is enough ambiguity in the evidence here that we cannot conclude that the problem has been settled once and for all. The strength of this evidence should instead lead us to consider whether we have any reasons for doubt and to wonder where, in the end, the balance of evidence lies.