The Extrabiblical Christ (On the Historicity of Jesus)

In the controversy surrounding the historical Jesus of Nazareth, Christian apologists often will claim that there is incontrovertible evidence that the Gospel Jesus existed.

They will often cite names like Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Lucian of Samosa, and the writings of Sextus Julius Africanus.

A few brief observations:

Tacitus was born in 56 CE in Rome.
Pliny the Younger was born in 61 CE in Como.
Lucian of Samosa was born in 125 CE in Syria.
Sextus Julius Africanus was born in 160 CE.

While these men each do make reference to a Christian Messiah, i.e. Christ, it is usually in the context of Christians who followed Christ. In his Annals, for example, Tacitus mentions the Christians were named after the Christus, whom they followed, and he goes on to inform that Pontius Pilate arrested and tried the Christus for inciting rebellion, and thus put an end to a terrible superstition which arose at that time. So, once again, it is merely a report that Christians believed in a messiah called the Christ. 

Although a strong source for what first century Christians believed, it is still not direct evidence for the historical Jesus. It's also interesting to note that Tacitus was not at all convinced of the Christians claims and counts their beliefs as little more than superstition.

So it seems all we really have are reports that there were such things as Christians who believe that there was a Christ, and that early Christians and Jews could be distinguished apart from one another. This is not at all a controversial claim.

But it doesn't act as supporting evidence for the existence of the historical Jesus any more than believers in Mithras act as a testament to the existence of Mithras. All it is evidence for is that such a *belief* existed.


The Babylonian Talmud

Another evidence for the historical Jesus which is frequently cited is the Babylonian version of the Jewish Talmud. Many Christian apologists will cite that it is proof that the Gospel Jesus existed in antiquity since it gives an account of his death. But on closer inspection, this isn't as clear-cut as apologists would have it seem.

Although the Babylonian Talmud (Balvi) does, in fact, make mention of the trial and death of a Jewish apostate named Yeshua, it helps to keep in mind that the Balvi Talmud was a 3rd Century composition. This does matter. 

More importantly, though, it doesn't necessarily represent the same Yeshua as the Gospel messiah. Yeshua, after all, was a common first-century name. The first-century historian Josephus lists approximately twenty different men named Jesus, at least ten of whom lived at the same time as the famous Jesus [cf. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, p. 206 n. 6].

Furthermore, it is no coincidence that both Yohanan b. Zakkai and Akiba each had exactly five students, the same number as listed in the Sanhedrin 43a verse. None of the (Balvi) disciples listed in verse 43a are recognizable as followers of the Gospel Jesus, per se. Except for possibly Mattai, which could be a reference for Matthias, e.g. the Gospel Matthew. But seeing as Matthew was also a very common name, it doesn't necessarily make it a reference for the Gospel Jesus. Also, the etymology of Mattia for the Gospel Matthew is problematic in the case of the Balvi Talmud. Reference to the Gospel of Matthew is actually recorded elsewhere in the Talmud, creating a distinction between the Matthias and Mattia spellings.

For example, an anecdote regarding a legal suit which Rabban Gamaliel II was prosecuting before a Christian judge made an appeal to the Gospel and to the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:17 (here spelled Matthias), with one possible reading of the story indicating that it was Gamaliel making this reference. In this part, the alternative spelling indicates that Mattia in the Sanhedrin 43a is not a reference to the Matthew of the gospels but to a different Matthew.

As such, to claim Sanhedrin 43a is actually about the Gospel Jesus is speculative at best. But as evidence, it's not admissible.


Josephus Flavius and His Antiquities

So although there are references to Jesus, they are mainly references to a *belief* in Jesus, after the fact.

Historians have been hard pressed to make any solid links between any of the later writings and an actual historical Jesus, as there was literally nothing written about him by anyone in the first century, apart from the oft-disputed reference in Josephus' Antiquities. Which, again, seems to be a later addition (for reasons we shall discuss below).

A brief comment on why modern historians tend to discount the reference to Jesus Christ in Josephus. Two things to keep in mind:

1) Josephus was a Jewish historian writing in the first century (circa 37-70 C.E.), and so he would have never referred to an Ascetic Jewish Prophet who had died leaving prophecy unfulfilled as the Messiah, let alone a *divine prophet, and so he could not have referred to Jesus as the Christ. No orthodox Jew of antiquity believed Jesus was the chosen messiah, nor would any Jew have considered Christ to be divine—in any sense of the word—since the Jews continued to hold the covenant with Yahweh believing him to be the one true God. As such, Josephus would have most likely chosen his words more carefully, adding something like "supposed messiah," just to make his point clear. But this is not what we find. As Christ's divinity would have been seen as blasphemous to the first century Jew—but not to later Christiansit's a strong bet that this Christos business is a later Christian theological consideration. Josephus' utilization of the Greek “Christos” and not the Hebrew "messiah," at the time of his writing, seems to be out of place, and thus a likely denotes a later addition.

But the biggest give away is the second fact:

2) The earliest Christian writers, such as Origen and Justin the Martyr, frequently quote Josephus but often quote from an earlier version which lacks any reference to Jesus being the Christ. And since their account of Josephus is from an earlier source than the one modern Christian apologists love to quote mine from, we can reasonably be sure that the later addition of Jesus being referred to as the Christ, at the very least, suggests a Christian forgery from no earlier than the third century.

So what can we make of these facts?

Well, we can say that in the 1st century of the common era there were Christians who believed in a man named Jesus which they deemed the Christ. But all the evidence is the same in that it's all merely accounts of what Christians believed, not actual hard evidence for the historical Jesus.

Saying Christians believed in Christ is not at all a controversial statement, now or in antiquity. So although Christian apologists love to cite these examples, all they are technically doing is reaffirming what Christians commonly believe and have believed for centuries.

So although it seems there were Christians with an active belief in a first-century Christian messiah, that is the extent of it. Historians can go no further than this in establishing a historical Jesus, as the evidence ends here.


Socrates vs. Christ

Stating Christians believed in Christ is not the same thing as saying Christ existed, however.

In order for historians (or anyone else for that matter) to proclaim Jesus existed beyond a reason of a doubt, we would need writings by Jesus Christ himself, which we do not have, or we would need writings by people who had met him personally and knew him, which, again, we do not have.
 So in reality, we have NO first-hand accounts of anyone ever meeting the Jesus of the gospels directly. We only have stories about first-hand accounts.

This is not enough to establish the historical Jesus as extant. 

Some have objected to this line of reasoning by reminding us that the same could be said of Socrates, also. That there is not enough evidence to claim that there was a historical Socrates. After all, he could have been a fiction concocted by Plato merely to invoke as a 'mouthpiece' for Plato's political ideologies. 

Of course, nothing is riding on this observation. As historians, we would simply say, sure. It is true we cannot go any further than pointing out that people believed Socrates existed, and that, yes, there is still the slightest possibility that he may have been a made up character in the philosophical works of Plato. But when the same question is put to Christian, why is that this point should be so hard for them to concede? 

Because, if it isn't obvious, the consensus of Biblical historians is that Jesus existed! But let's not be so hasty. As the NT historian and theologian Robert M. Price informed in an online discussion, "The relevant question is whether there is any basis for that consensus. I think not. It results from the inertia of tradition and the abhorrence of thinking outside the box of what "professionals know."

On the other hand, I can't make the assumption there wasn't any historical Socrates either, but I'm comfortable admitting as much. Probably because my belief in Socrates existing or not existing has no bearing on the status of my eternal soul or the condition I will endure in the afterlife, should these things exist.

But the real question is, do we have enough room to doubt the veracity of each belief independently? In other words, is a belief in a historical Socrates more acceptable than belief in a historical Jesus? I would say so.

Plato invented characters in order to serve very specific functions in his dialogues. Usually to get across a profound philosophical point through the modus operandi of a dialogue. The philosophical dialogue was an already well-established genre in Plato's day and one he adheres to.

Whereas, the Gospels fit more within the literary archetypes of fist century historically-real fictions, as the professor of Hebrew studies in comparative literature, Robert Alter, at Berkley has observed. It may be a minor point, but it's worth mentioning, as the genre could reveal the intentions of the author better, and so we should not turn aside the possibility.

Additionally, we know that Plato is the direct author of all his works which make reference to Socrates. We do not know who wrote the Gospels, and therefore, there is one degree of separation between them and those they write about. 

Finally, the claims being made in the Gospels go beyond the natural realm and there are theological assumptions made about the nature of Jesus Christ, such as he is a redeemer of human "sin" and that if we do not follow him we will perish in eternal torment. No such thing was ever claimed of Socrates, and so it is unimportant whether or not we believe Socrates is a work of fiction or the genuine article. But where the historical Jesus is concerned, the issue is not so trivial, because it does make a difference whether he really existed or whether he was a mythic figure who shares, in no small way, so many traits as other well-known mythic figures of his day.


Closing Thoughts

I for one believe there was, in all likelihood, a historical Jesus. But I do not think he is at all related to the gospel version of his namesake. 

Like Price, I cannot say whether or not there was a historical Jesus for certain. I am inclined to think so, but while I can assume all I want, this is not the same as definitively answering an age old question of where does the Gospel Christ end and the historical Jesus begin? Or, for that matter, is there any relationship between the two? Perhaps, it is more like the relationship between Spartacus and his legend, in which we have multiple attestations of various confrontations and encounters of the great man, but none of them agreeing fully, but frequent enough to establish probable existence. But like Spartacus, the only thing we can claim for sure is that we don't know very much about the actual man. We only have hearsay of his legend.

In fact, all we know about Jesus are stories which come to us second hand by later Christians. So we know that Christians believed that Jesus Christ was a special figure, but like Tacitus claimed, it may have merely been the popular superstition of the day. Apologists will invoke Tacitus, to support their belief in Jesus as probable, but they often ignore the implication of Tacitus' view that he viewed the whole messiah business as nothing more than superstition. Why suppose otherwise?

Another similarity between Jesus and Spartacus is that both men were products of their day. They were each at the epicenter of cultural and world change. They both fulfilled the needs of those oppressed and who were in dire need of a savior. So they found a person who fulfilled their criteria. The oppressed slaves found a savior in Spartacus, and the oppressed Jews desperately in want of a messiah found the archetype present in Jesus Christ. But as historians, that is about all we can say. 

So while the historical Jesus of Nazareth's legend bloomed into active worship (and eventual deification) in the same way that myths based on Pythagoras, Appolonias of Tyans, Julius Cesar, and Alexander the Great all arose within their lifetimes (or shortly thereafter), I see no reason to assume that it wasn't merely another case of a great man being deified. And it is this mythic archetype which I believe has been preserved in the Gospels. Meanwhile, the real historical Jesus, whoever he might have been, has been eclipsed by the massive shadow of his own legend.


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