It seems bizarre to many that some people believe that Jesus never existed. Not Jesus the figure of faith, miracle working Son of God – nope – even a historical holy man Jesus, who inspired the stories in the bible. Many honestly believe it is all made up. They are almost certainly wrong, and this is probably down to peoples lack of understanding of how historians work. This is not a religious question, not one of faith, but one of history, and historians atheist, Jewish, Hindu or Christian can all agree on this. Hey, let me start at the beginning…
Spending a lot of time as I do chatting on hard core sceptic and atheist forums (and yes I’m a sceptic myself, but a Christian as it happens) I was increasingly bewildered in the middle years of this decade to find a massive upswing in the belief that Jesus who inspired the Christian faith never existed, but was a mythical construct, or based on earlier pagan redeemer figures. This is a position taken seriously by no mainstream historian, and complete rot, but after the QI Christmas special in which the usual Mithras crap was spouted and Stephen Fry put attempts to put the record straight down to Christian propaganda I was outraged enough to become combative and actually engage the “Christ Mythers”, that is not Christians, but people who deny there was a Historical Jesus.
I was astonished by the vehemence, ignorance and appallingly bad scholarship which met my early attempts, though the JREF forum (James Randi Educational Foundation Forum) had long since been a place where this nonsense was attacked, as befits a sceptical community, and after a couple of years anyone arguing it on Richard Dawkins forum is likely to get shot down – but the real change there came where Timothy O Neil an Australian atheist joined me and made a principled stand against this nonsense.
* Pliny the Younger, writing in Bithynia c.111AD Pliny is concerned about how to handle an outbreak of Christianity in his region. He writes to the Emperor Trajan, and the relevant part for our inquiry is
“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
This merely shows Christ was worshiped in Asia Minor, and a reference later in the letter says that some has apostatized up to twenty five years before, so the churches were established there by c.85AD, and probably before. I don’t think Paul ever got this far north.
You can read the whole letter (and Trajan’s response) here
and the excellent historical resource Peter Kirby’s Early Christian Writings website has a couple of links to articles on this letter.
Trajan’s response was
“You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”
It seems that Trajan was well aware of Christians, and that some persecution occurred presumably as a threat to the State through their “atheism” as it was usually termed. Beyond establishing that Christ was worshiped as God this comparatively early stage, it leads us no closer to the Historical Jesus, but it seemed as good a point as any to begin!
Let’s move on to Suetonius, 115CE
Early Christian Writings ( http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/suetonius.html ) is excellent as usual here – so it seems pointless for me to rehash what is said already there.
Suetonius wrote in The Life of Claudius (25.4)
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”
He also notes the presence of Christians –
“Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition “
Now Claudius from 41 to 54CE, so is this Chrestus actually Christus, Christ? Did rows in the synagogue (and recall Christianity was still part of Judaism at this point) lead to the expulsion? It seems not unlikely, and agrees with the account in Acts. Traditionally dated to 49CE, this event is probably within twenty years of the crucifixion so very early – but its not certain. the instigation of Chrestus seems to imply someone alive, but if Suetonius who was writing some seventy years later was using a lost source, it would be an easy mistake to make. I think this probably does represent the earliest Christian missions to Rome – and yet again, it brings us no closer to the Historical Jesus…
Nero ruled from 54 to 68CE. As we shall see other references exist tot he Christian community in his reign in Rome.
Tacitus, Annals – c.115AD
Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”
It probably goes without saying that Early Christian Writings is the best place http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/tacitus.html to start your evaluation.
The possibility this is a Christian interpolation strikes me as highly unlikely – we have an independent reference to Neronic persecution in Suetonius (see above) and it is very unflattering. However none of the Christian Church Fathers make mention of it . It strikes me as entirely probable. Note Pilate is described as a Procurator, but in fact was a Proconsul, a simple enough error, Tacitus using a contemporary title resulting in this anachronism.
The absolutely central issue here is where Tacitus got his information from. It may well have been a Roman source, as Christian sources are unlikely to express these kinds of feelings, and Tacitus appears to have despised Christians. One can’t help feel Tacitus had some early reference from which he worked for the Neronic persecution at least — the references to public sympathy brought about by the persecution have that feel.
A common claim I often see is that it is odd that none of the Church Fathers mention the Neronic persecution (they do) or Tacitus’ mention of it. I may as well address it briefly here before proceeding.
Eusebius cites the Church Father, Tertullian (155-230), Defence 5
“Study your records: there you will find that Nero was the first to persecute this teaching when, after subjugating the entire East, in Rome he especially he treated everyone with savagery. That such a man was author of our chastisement fills us with pride. For anyone who knows him knows him can understand that anything not supremely good would never have been condemned by Nero.”
I think that Tertullian is here drawing directly on Tacitus, and his account (cited above) of the Neronic persecution. I may be wrong, but “Study your records” implies that Tertullian was referring to a Roman authority, and Suetonius or Tacitus fit the bill, and Tacitus best.
Phlegon of Tralles, c130-160??? EDIT: or possibly much earlier, writing circa 80CE – see links for detailed discussion.
Jerome wrote —
Jesus Christ, according to the prophecies which had been foretold about him beforehand, came to his passion in the eighteenth year of Tiberius, at which time also we find these things written verbatim in other commentaries of the gentiles, that an eclipse of the sun happened, Bithynia was shaken by earthquake, and in the city of Nicaea many buildings collapsed, all of which agree with what occurred in the passion of the savior. Indeed Phlegon, who is an excellent calculator of olympiads, also writes about these things, writing thus in his thirteenth book:
(Phlegon) – “In the fourth year, however, of olympiad 202,* an eclipse of the sun happened, greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it; at the sixth hour, day turned into dark night, so that the stars were seen in the sky, and an earthquake in Bithynia toppled many buildings of the city of Nicaea. These things [are according to] the aforementioned man.”
The events referred to are from 32CE, a possible date for the Crucifixion and darkening of the sky. Yet in Jerome’s translation Jesus is never mentioned! My suspicion is that he was referring to Jesus, and that Jerome was honest here, as that is his implication. However Phlegon was clearly extremely credulous and loved fortean phenomena – see his
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phlegon_of_Tralles – Wikipedia entry
, so I hesitate to put much emphasis on him. Still he mentioned Jesus and prophecies fulfilled, and was a secular historian. Good technical discussion complete with excellent links and analysis to be found on Textcavation —
This brings us to Thallus, writing somewhere between 50 and 150CE
The key passage here by being quoted by Julius Africanus in alost work, but quoted by George Syncellus in a 9th century text! Does not inspire confidence does it, but very normal for recovering historical data
Here is the passage from Africanus —
“A most terrible darkness fell over all the world, the rocks were torn apart by an earthquake, and many places both in Judaea and the rest of the world were thrown down. In the third book of his Histories Thallus dismisses this darkness as a solar eclipse, unreasonably, as it seems to me. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on Luna 14, and what happened to the Saviour occurred one day before the Passover. But an eclipse of the sun takes place when the moon passes under the sun. The only time when this can happen is in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last day of the old moon, when they are in conjunction. How then could one believe an eclipse took place when the moon was almost in opposition to the sun? So be it. Let what had happened beguile the masses, and let this wonderful sign to the world be considered a solar eclipse through an optical [illusion]. Phlegon records that during the reign of Tiberius Caesar there was a complete solar eclipse at full moon from the sixth to the ninth hour; it is clear that this is the one. But what have eclipses to do with an earthquake, rocks breaking apart, resurrection of the dead, and a universal disturbance of this nature”
There are three good sources for study of this – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thallus_%28historian%29 Wikipedia is succinct and good , but also see
Textcavation and for all you atheists out there the generally very sound Richard Carrier.
I don’t aim to make any real judgements myself at this point, just chronicle the key texts, but I will end here for today. More tonight or tomorrow!