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.
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.”