The Guardian on Jesus: Dear oh dear…

Everyone keeps asking about The Guardian article “What Is the Historical Evidence that Jesus Christ Lived and Died?” by Simon Gathercole, a “Reader in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge.” Poor dear.

Look. Let’s stop producing these terrible, amateur, uninformed articles about Jesus. Please. Desperately, dearly, please.

Gathercole clearly hasn’t done any research on the subject. That’s not a good sign for someone teaching at Cambridge. Your responsibility as a scholar is to address the latest peer reviewed literature in your field on the subject you are addressing. Gathercole does not seem to even know On the Historicity of Jesus exists, much less that it was published by a respected peer reviewed academic press in biblical studies. He certainly never addresses anything in it. Instead he naively apes Christian apologetics, ignorant of even basic contemporary debates on the data he relies on.

Nevertheless, Gathercole blithely insists we have tons of evidence Jesus existed. Oh do we?

What Evidence Was That Again?

Gathercole’s Guardian article starts off by claiming:

The historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth is both long-established and widespread. Within a few decades of his supposed lifetime, he is mentioned by Jewish and Roman historians, as well as by dozens of Christian writings.

This is false. No Jewish or Roman historical text contains any reference to Jesus for at least sixty years. That’s more than “a few decades.” And one text, two average lifetimes after the fact, is far from “widespread.” And that reference, in the Antiquities of Josephus, is widely recognized as a forgery. And indeed, quite demonstrably is a forgery, down to every last word (see OHJ, Ch. 8.9). The second reference in Josephus that Gathercole mentions was also not written by Josephus but inserted centuries later (as the latest peer reviewed literature demonstrates: see my Journal of Early Christian Studies article on it, reproduced in Hitler Homer Bible Christ, and summarized in OHJ, Ch. 8.10).

We have to wait twenty more years before we get any other reference to Jesus as a historical person, in the Annals of Tacitus (contrary to Gathercole, Pliny, Tacitus’s friend and contemporary, never refers to Jesus as a historical person). And that reference is probably also a forgery (as the latest peer reviewed literature demonstrates: see my Vigiliae Christianae article on it, reproduced in Hitler Homer Bible Christ, and summarized in OHJ, Ch. 8.10). But even if it isn’t (indeed even if the reference in Josephus isn’t), neither of those references has any indicated source but Christian hearsay, which by then was just aping the Gospels. Consequently, neither of these sources can corroborate the Gospels. They are not an independent source. It is incompetent (or dishonest) of a historian to cite sources that aren’t independent as if they were multiple or independent sources.

No non-Christian ever noticed Jesus, or ever found any record of him outside the Gospels.

Including Josephus and Tacitus. Even if anything in them about Jesus were authentic.

That’s a problem. Although it’s not a huge problem—if we accept the Gospels all lie about how famous Jesus was, and thus conclude against their wild narratives that Jesus was actually a nobody, then it’s entirely expected no one would notice him in the literature of the era. The real problem for the historicity of Jesus is the absence of any reference to Jesus visiting earth in the earliest Christian documents. Because those “dozens of Christian writings” Gathercole refers to, are just the Gospels, which are wholly mythical and absurd and unsourced and a lifetime too late (OHJ, Chs. 8 & 9), and the Epistles, most of which are forgeries (a fact concealed by Gathercole)—and those that aren’t, never place Jesus on earth. They only describe him as someone seen in visions, and known about from hidden messages in scripture and communications from heaven (OHJ, Ch. 11).

What Are We Comparing Jesus To Again?

Gathercole then inserts his foot in his mouth by asking us to:

Compare that with, for example, King Arthur, who supposedly lived around AD 500. The major historical source for events of that time does not even mention Arthur, and he is first referred to 300 or 400 years after he is supposed to have lived. The evidence for Jesus is not limited to later folklore, as are accounts of Arthur.

Um, historians mostly agree Arthur never existed. Even those who think he did exist, agree it’s a stretch to claim any certainty he did. And really, there is no evidence he did. So, Gathercole is citing a non-existent person who was invented and placed in history later, as an example of how we should conclude Jesus existed. This makes exactly no logical sense.

Let’s try some better examples: the Roswell legend (complete with intact flying saucer and recovered alien bodies) was invented in less than 40 years time, and still believed by millions, even though 100% false; John Frum and Tom Navy, were invented in less than 40 years time, and still believed by thousands, even though they never really existed; Ned Ludd was invented in less than 40 years time, and believed by thousands, even though he also never existed (see the index of OHJ: “Roswell myth,” “cargo cults,” “Ned Ludd”). The Gospels were written over 40 years after the fact. More than enough time, as all precedents show, for such a man to be invented. We don’t need to cite King Arthur. Or Daniel. Or Moses. Or Abraham. Or Hercules. Or Osiris. Or any of dozens of other supposedly “historical” persons who never really existed.

Why Are We Still Acting Like the Gospels Are Histories?

“The value of this evidence is that it is both early and detailed,” Gathercole claims. Neither is true. The early evidence (the Epistles of Paul that weren’t forged) give no clear or earthly details about Jesus at all (OHJ, Ch. 11). And the first time we hear about Jesus as a person walking around the planet like some regular Joe with superpowers, is not early. The average human lifespan then was 48 years (OHJ, Ch. 4, Element 22). Anyone who was an adult in 30 A.D., would probably have been dead by 70 A.D. And indeed, we have no evidence any of the first Christians were alive after that year. Guess when the Gospels start being written? After 70 A.D. Most of them decades after 70 A.D.

So when Gathercole says of the Gospels that “these all appeared within the lifetimes of numerous eyewitnesses,” he is making that up. We can verify not a single eyewitness was alive when any Gospel was written. And when Gathercole says the Gospels “provide descriptions that comport with the culture and geography of first-century Palestine,” he’s also not telling the truth. Mark, the first Gospel written, is famous for getting the geography and culture wrong. Matthew had to “fix” those telltale errors decades later, in his rewrite of Mark. And Luke, who claims to have researched his story, makes basic historical errors (such as confusing the chronology of Jewish rebellions, and placing the birth of Jesus in the “wrong” decade). And even what he gets right, he just lifted from reference books of the era (like Josephus).

Gathercole insists it’s “difficult to imagine why Christian writers would invent such a thoroughly Jewish saviour figure” when and where “there was strong suspicion of Judaism.” Actually, it’s not even remotely difficult to imagine (OHJ, Chs. 3, 4, 5, and 10). Many pagans were already converting to Judaism even before Christianity came around, despite the “strong suspicions” of some who disliked that fact. So this may be evidence of Gathercole’s lack of imagination. But Gathercole’s lack of imagination is not evidence Jesus existed. Jesus actually was invented in the Gospels as a Gentile-friendly, Greek-speaking, Cynic-sounding, Jewish demigod, no different than the invented Egyptian demigod Osiris or the invented Syrian demigod Adonis or anyone else of like kind. While many Gentiles were already converting to or admiring of Judaism, Paul came along and made it even easier to sign up (by eliminating circumcision and the grueling ritual and dietary requirements). The Gospels were made up decades after Paul had died. And they were fabricated in Greek, because they were written for the Gentile and Hellenized Jewish audiences that were already in the market for an exotic salvation cult just like the Christians were selling.

Just as “gospels” were invented for every other foreign culture’s savior god that the pagans were popularly flocking to, the Christians did exactly the same with theirs. That makes his invented historicity typical of the exotic foreign savior gods of the era. Not unimaginable.

How Do We know?

Gathercole then says:

Strikingly, there was never any debate in the ancient world about whether Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. In the earliest literature of the Jewish Rabbis, Jesus was denounced as the illegitimate child of Mary and a sorcerer. Among pagans, the satirist Lucian and philosopher Celsus dismissed Jesus as a scoundrel, but we know of no one in the ancient world who questioned whether Jesus lived.

First, this is false. Some Jews and even some Christians did question whether Jesus lived. Second, even apart from that, Gathercole’s argument is dishonest (OHJ, pp. 349-56). Because the very period in which the historical Jesus was invented, the 70s to 120s A.D., is when we should hear people challenging that invention. But we are not allowed to hear what anyone said in that period. All criticism of Christianity in that half century was erased from history. Even all debate among Christians in that half century was erased from history. Which is suspicious. But even suspicion aside, we still can’t argue from the silence of documents we don’t have. We don’t know what the critics of a newly minted historical Jesus were saying in that whole human lifetime of Christian history. So we cannot say “there was never any debate” about it. Any debate there had been, was deleted.

By the time we get to the “Jewish Rabbis” and the “Lucian and Celsus” Gathercole is talking about, we are in the second half of the second century, one hundred and fifty years after the time Christ is supposed to have lived. None of those people would have had any way of knowing Jesus didn’t exist. All they had were the Gospels. Which they just assumed were recording myths about an actual man. Because they had no other assumption or information to go on. Well, except the Jewish Rabbis in Babylon. Christians there were telling them that Jesus lived and died a hundred years before Pontius Pilate (OHJ, Ch. 8.1). Evidently, even Christians who insisted Jesus existed couldn’t agree on what century he lived in.

That doesn’t sound like a real historical person to me.

Conclusion

This is representative of the bankrupt methods and arguments the so-called “consensus” of Jesus’s historicity is based on. False claims and bad logic are spun into, as Gathercole puts it, “abundant historical references” that “leave us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died.” Somehow no historical references, becomes abundant historical references; and late hagiographic myths become histories; and forgeries become evidence; and texts showing some challenged a historical Jesus, becomes “no one” challenged a historical Jesus; and somehow we magically know what existed in entire lifetimes of missing texts discussing the reality of Jesus. And instead of citing the only peer reviewed academic book on the question of the historicity of Jesus published in almost 100 years, Gathercole cites Maurice Casey and Bart Ehrman: neither of whom has ever published any peer reviewed book or article on defending the historicity of Jesus.

As Barak Obama said, “Come on, man.”

Photo of Barak Obama at a rally saying 'Come on, man' and making an incredulous face.

16 comments

  1. Denis Gaudreau April 19, 2017, 7:38 pm

    Good day Richard.

    Great review again. I must be honest and even i I have a belief Jesus did live, like you said chances are slight… I still hold on the fact like you said there was a lot of documents have vanished to probably hide some unconvenient thruth but which… If any if there was no real Jesus.

    Maybe some credential to my view is from the French sociologist of religion and philosopher Frédéric Lenoir and his book Socrate, Jesus and Buddha – three life masters. He was also the head editor in France for Le Monde des religions. He is not religious but agnostic and I have met him in Montreal once. He has his website but in French only.

    Still I have your book on my wish list on Amazon waiting to have some extra budget to buy it.

    Reply
  2. Andrew April 19, 2017, 8:24 pm

    I always enjoy the child-like assertion that “Roman and Jewish historians referred to Jesus, therefore he existed,” as if ancient historians did not constantly cite mythical and legendary figures in their works. And make shit up. Hell, even modern historians relied on legends from such spurious sources as the Historia Augusta well into the 19th Century if not longer …

    Reply
  3. Vinícius Cerva April 19, 2017, 9:24 pm

    Which was the last peer reviewed work on the subject before yours? Btw, congratz for the OHJ.

    Reply
  4. Rainer Ludwig April 20, 2017, 2:18 am

    Hi Richard, interesting reading as always. Just one note: how can you be certain that “all criticism of Christianity in that half century was erased from history. Even all debate among Christians in that half century was erased from history.” Is there any evidence of this? My concern is that just because no such recordings exists does not conclude that it existed in the first place.

    Reply
    1. There certainly was, as there always was.

      Even in Paul’s day we see seething schisms and attacks from within and all around, as the sect had already fragmented into several, calling each other anathema and servants of demons and false Christs. That would have been even more the case a lifetime later. The Gospels, written in the gap period, exhibit different competing theologies and perspectives. They are in fact arguments against each other (as I show in OHJ, Ch. 10). But they effect that through allegory and fake history (Acts is another classic example: see OHJ, Ch. 9). So we have to infer what the real arguments were, and often can’t tell. No one tells us directly.

      So there was a lot going on and being said in that lifetime, that we don’t get to hear. Whether anyone recorded it (wrote it down) is a different question; but no one even talks about it in the second century. And they show no sign of knowing what was really happening in that period (e.g. Papias relates a history of the writing of the Gospels that is impossible and thus not even remotely true; so they either didn’t even know what happened in that previous lifetime, or they decided to delete it and replace it with myths).

      So it could have all been deleted by time, and not deliberate erasure. Deleted all the same. We don’t get to hear it all the same. But proposing no one wrote anything, no letters in a whole human lifetime of the church, is very unlikely: it makes no sense that we would have rampant letter writing in Paul’s lifetime (much more than was preserved, as Paul himself references letters we don’t have), and none whatsoever the next lifetime, when the sect was larger and even more diverse and thus even more at each other’s throats, and even more butting heads in competition across three continents and two empires.

      And this is why we don’t know what the reaction was to the publication of the first Gospels. Neither approval nor censure, verification or falsification, we don’t get to hear, and thus don’t get to know, what anyone’s reaction was. We therefore cannot claim to know it was uniformly positive. Though we know it can’t have been. Because we have evidence in the second century that gives us clues of mythicist Christians the century before (e.g. The Ascension of Isaiah; 2 Peter). And the Gospels not only deliberately contradict each other on fundamental things (which no one could have simply been fine with or ever questioned or challenged: the very fact that each Gospel rewrote the ones before to say different things is evidence of disapproval of the original things said), they say wildly false things anyone could have refuted had they regarded them as making any true claims at all (e.g. that a horde of zombies descended on Jerusalem; that Jesus was famous across the entire province of Syria; that the sun went out for three hours). If anyone noticed who knew the truth, we don’t get to hear what they said. And if no one who knew the truth noticed, we can’t claim to know what they would have said. Except the obvious: that those things didn’t happen.

      More on what evidence there must have been, even in Paul’s lifetime, much more so the next, see my sections on exactly that in OHJ, Ch. 8.

      Reply
  5. Hennie Kotze April 20, 2017, 6:44 am

    This is again a powerful response to a person who will easily be believed by ignorant people. Can I copy your article?

    Reply
  6. (John) Adamm Ferrier April 21, 2017, 9:28 pm

    Dear Sir

    Thank you for a most thought provoking article.

    As a public health academic, I would just like to briefly comment on the “average age” and the inference made that people in AD 30 would pass away by AD 70. Prior to the early 20th century the average age was much lower because of high rates of infant and perinatal maternal mortality. This skewed the “average” considerably. If people survived childhood and childbirth, then their overall life span would be more likely to be closer to preindustrial age life spans – if the age of 65 were attained they could on average expect perhaps a further 8- 12 years of life. The adage “the longer you live, the more likely one is to continue living” or perhaps more bluntly, “while there’s life there’s hope”.

    It is therefore not implausible that an adolescent witnessing the events described in the gospels might have lived until the next century. From another perspective (consistent with my interest in gender and health) the reason that most of the apostles (but not all) were male simply may have been a pragmatic one. Younger sons and a shortage of eligible women available for marriage may have existed for some time, leading to the creation of communities like the Essenes: which I understand had many doctrinal beliefs consistent with those ascribed to Yeshua Ben Miriam.

    Thank you again for a most thought provoking article, and I look forward to discovering more of your writing.

    Best wishes from “Downunder”.

    Reply
    1. I’m using Fier’s life tables. The book is more precise and explains the details. But in short: In antiquity, if you survived childhood, you had a 50% chance of still being dead by age 48. Thus, not counting those who never got to be an adult in the first place, the average person was dead by 48. The probability of surviving 60 or 80 years are likewise calculable, and much lower than 50% (as shown in the book, Element 22). And that’s not counting specific influences that increase mortality for sub-groups over the average inhabitant, like wars, famines, plagues…and persecutions.

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  7. jim valentine April 23, 2017, 5:12 pm

    The average human lifespan then was 48 years (OHJ, Ch. 4, Element 22). Anyone who was an adult in 30 A.D., would probably have been dead by 70 A.D.

    You are conflating two very different demographic terms: LIFE EXPECTANCY with LIFE SPAN. Life expectancy is an actuarial term measuring the average number of years a person in an age-specific cohort may be expected to live based on current mortality rates. Life span refers to the maximum number of years a member of a species has lived on record (for humans, it is 122 years).

    In first century Palestine, life expectancy probably fell into a range of 28 to 38 years largely because of astronomical infant and childhood mortality (around 50%). Those who lived through their teens and twenties, had a significantly greater life expectancy ahead of them.

    Mortality data from Greco-Roman antiquity shows that life span had little correlation with life expectancy. People who lived into their 60s and 70s and longer, though less numerous than today, were not uncommon. Socrates (allegedly) died by decree at age 70 still vigorously preaching his philosophy with many good years otherwise ahead of him.

    A twenty-year old follower of Jesus had no obligation to die before age 48. The gospel of mark written around 70 A.D. could have been written by such a follower in his mid-fifties granting 4 or 5 years for composition, editing, and release of manuscript. Almost certainly, the Mark Gospel was not written by an eye-witness for obvious reasons but it is not unreasonable to speculate that the writer or writers may well have had contact with a Christian community whose first generation could have included multiple alleged eye-witnesses. However much one is inclined to dismiss this scenario, the generational arithmetic makes this possible. The Gospel of Mark could have been written by hearsay from a Christian community that included second generation “children” of parents who claimed to have seen and heard the man Jesus.

    In any event you should correct the conflation of life span with life expectancy. They are two distinct concepts requiring proper definition.

    Reply
    1. Colloquially, average lifespan is average life expectancy (half of all people were dead by then; and I do assume only those who survived childhood). I use the precise terms in the book. But this is a colloquial article for a general audience, and a general audience makes a distinction between maximum lifespan and average lifespan.

      Reply
  8. Steven C Watson April 25, 2017, 6:15 am

    Baptist Elder; Faculty of Divinity. Almost 100% to be expected.

    So what there would have been a few people in their sixties and older knocking about before the revolt? Absent near genocidal wars there is a fair chance of someone tottering into their seventies; however, wars are never good for the old folk: in such circumstances old folks survival rates plummet. Grant folk living though all that; you still have the “Christian” writings closest to the supposed time of Jesus either not mentioning him where they should or being very ambiguous.

    Gathercole holds all the Gospels have a have a Christology of preexistence; if you hold such views, you have to allow that those ambiguous references could be to that preexisting deity I would have thought.

    He brought up Arthur. I think there was a man behind the legend; but Arthur’s dates also wander about by one and a half centuries and if he was real he is on the wrong side of the Plague of Justinian.
    Both are totally overwritten by legend and mythology. That is the thing I don’t get about you Craigs and Gathercoles: even if you could strip away the gunk to a real person; he still wouldn’t be a god.

    Reply
  9. Steven C Watson April 25, 2017, 6:30 am

    I see the Grauniad comments immediately erupted in mockery. One thing I must check: do they have a Faculty of Astrology? If not, why not?

    Reply
  10. A non-patron insisted Hitchens had a far superior argument for historicity.

    No, he didn’t.

    Hitchens was not a biblical scholar and didn’t know what was wrong with his “Argument from Nazareth.” That argument is fully refuted in Proving History, with summary and additional data in On the Historicity of Jesus. Just check “Nazareth” in their indexes.

    But the short of it is, the scriptures the Christians were then using predicted three things about the messiah (and we know this, because they say so): that he would be born in Bethlehem, that he would come from Galilee (even though Bethlehem isn’t in Galilee), and that he would be a “Nazorian,” which actually doesn’t mean someone from Nazareth (the word is significantly different, though similar enough to sound almost like it). Matthew tried to make his story fit all three predictions by choosing a town in Galilee that sounded almost like Nazors, and then inventing an excuse to have Jesus born in Bethlehem but “come from” Galilee. Just like Matthew had Jesus ride into Jerusalem on an adult and a baby donkey simultaneously (even though that’s ridiculous to impossible), in order to get what he believed was a more literal fit with scriptures.

    Mark may have started this, by doing the same thing for the same reason, just as he started the donkey thing (only using a single donkey) to also match scriptures: just as Matthew over-literalizes to make everything fit while Mark is more judicious; hence Mark simply disregarded the Bethlehem scripture, and chose the Galilee and Nazorian narrative to run with instead. That’s if Mark 1:9 is genuine, though it might not be. It’s an unusually worded verse for Mark. And the only place he ever says Jesus came from Nazareth; when Mark’s narrative seems to consistently imply he came from Capernaum; and elsewhere Mark consistently called Jesus a Nazorian (before later scribal emendations, as we see from the manuscripts and Matthew and Luke’s use of Mark), which again, does not mean someone from Nazareth. Likewise Acts says the Christians were originally called Nazorians, even though none of them came from Nazareth, and Nazorian again doesn’t mean someone who did. And there are second century Christians who indeed say it meant something else.

    The scriptures were thus the source for the two-origin narrative for Jesus. Not history. There is no evidence Jesus was ever imagined to come from Nazareth before the Gospels invented the idea; all by trying to make their invented stories match select scriptures, each in their own preferred way.

    You might also want to see my discussion of the invalid (albeit somewhat different) “argument from embarrasment” from a Nazareth/Galilee origin in Not the Impossible Faith, Chapter 2. The short of that: there is no evidence Nazareth was so despised or backward as usually claimed; and having the messiah come from a humble origin was not only exactly in line with the gospel the Christians wanted to promote (that the messiah would be the most humbled, that the least shall be first, and so on), it was also in line with even some pagan hero narratives (where a hero may end up coming from the most humble origins, e.g. raised by poor shepherds in a backwards town etc.), and actually admired by the public, and only offensive to the aristocratic elite, the very people the gospels condemn and make no effort to woo.

    Reply

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