Jerry Coyne has written a post in which he states that he is inclined to believe that Jesus never existed, although he hasn’t made up his mind yet. And on what does Coyne base his tentative opinion? An article in the Huffington Post by a biopsychologist named Nigel Barber, a self-published book by a systems engineer, Michael Paulkovich, which Coyne admits he hasn’t read, and finally, another book which he hasn’t read, written by atheist activist Richard Carrier, who has a Ph.D. in ancient history, but who (judging from his Wikipedia biography) has no teaching or research position at any accredited institution. [Update: according to his C.V., Carrier teaches classes at the Center for Inquiry Institute Online (a think tank founded in 1987) using a Moodle interface, and is also an online instructor with Partners for Secular Activism. As far as I can tell, the only accredited program offered by CFI is an Ed.M. program in Science and the Public, in partnership with the Graduate School of Education of the University at Buffalo. However, Carrier does not teach this course.]
I wonder what Coyne would think of a critique of Darwin’s theory of evolution, written by a biopsychologist, a systems engineer and finally, a prominent evolution critic with a Ph.D. in biology, who had never taught the subject at any university. Not much, I think. I find it odd, then, that he is prepared to set aside the opinions of all reputable historians with relevant expertise in the field, on the question of whether Jesus existed.
I have to say that I’m coming down on the “mythicist” side, simply because I don’t see any convincing historical records for a Jesus person. Everything written about him was decades after his death, and, as far as I can see, there is no contemporaneous record of a Jesus-person’s existence (what “records” exist have been debunked as forgeries). Yet there should have been some evidence, especially if Jesus had done what the Bible said. But even if he was simply an apocalyptic preacher, as [scholar Bart] Ehrman insists, there should have been at least a few contemporaneous records. Based on their complete absence, I am for the time being simply a Jesus agnostic. But I don’t pretend to be a scholar in this area, or even to have read a lot of the relevant literature.
Actually, we have excellent documentary evidence for the existence of Jesus from two historians writing in the first century: Josephus and Tacitus.
Josephus (A.D. 37 – c.100) may have been born a few years after the death of Jesus, but he was a personal eyewitness of the execution of Jesus’ brother, James (who may have actually been a half-brother or cousin of Jesus), in 62 A.D. As for Tacitus (c. 56 A.D. – 117 A.D.), he is considered to have been one of the greatest Roman historians, and as a Senator, he was likely to have had access to official Roman documents relating to Jesus’ trial, which took place about 80 years before he wrote his Annals, which states that Jesus was crucified during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, and at the hands of the procurator, Pontius Pilate (Book 15, chapter 44).
The evidence from Josephus
Atheist Paul Tobin, creator of the skeptical Website The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager, has written an excellent article, The Death of James, in which he argues for the historical trustworthiness of Josephus’ description of the execution of James, whom he refers to as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”:
The timing of the incident, the interregnum between Festus and Albinus, allows us to date this quite accurately to the summer of 62 CE.  Our confidence in the historicity of this account is bolstered by the fact that it was probably an eye witness account. Josephus mentioned in his Autobiography that he left Jerusalem for Rome when he was twenty-six years old. He date of birth was most likely around 37 CE. So at the time of James’ execution, the twenty five year old Josephus was a priest in Jerusalem.
The atheist amateur historian Tim O’Neill has written several blog posts rebutting the arguments of modern-day skeptics who deny the historicity of Jesus. O’Neill has no theological ax to grind here: indeed, he declares that he “would have no problem at all embracing the idea that no historical Jesus existed if someone could come up with an argument for this that did not depend at every turn on strained readings.” O’Neill exposes the shoddy scholarship of these “Mythers” (as he calls them) in a savagely critical review of “Jesus-Myther” David Fitzgerald’s recent book, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed at All. In the course of his lengthy review (dated May 28, 2011), O’Neill summarizes the evidence for Jesus’ historicity from the works of Josephus (bold highlighting mine – VJT):
As several surveys of the academic literature have shown, the majority of scholars now accept that there was an original mention of Jesus in Antiquities XVIII.3.4 and this includes the majority of Jewish and non-Christian scholars, not merely “wishful apologists”. This is partly because once the more obvious interpolated phrases are removed, the passage reads precisely like what Josephus would be expected to write and also uses characteristic language found elsewhere in his works. But it is also because of the 1970 discovery of what seems to be a pre-interpolation version of Josephus’ passage, uncovered by Jewish scholar Schlomo Pines of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Professor Pines found an Arabic paraphrase of the Tenth Century historian Agapius which quotes Josephus’ passage, but not in the form we have it today. This version, which seems to draw on a copy of Josephus’ original, uninterpolated text, says that Jesus was believed by his followers to have been the Messiah and to have risen from the dead, which means in the original Josephus was simply reporting early Christian beliefs about Jesus regarding his supposed status and resurrection. This is backed further by a Syriac version cited by Michael the Syrian which also has the passage saying “he was believed to be the Messiah”. The evidence now stacks up heavily on the side of the partial authenticity of the passage, meaning there is a reference to Jesus as a historical person in precisely the writer we would expect to mention him…
The second mention is made in passing in a passage where Josephus is detailing an event of some significance and one which he, as a young man, would have witnessed himself.
In 62 AD, the 26 year old Josephus was in Jerusalem, having recently returned from an embassy to Rome. He was a young member of the aristocratic priestly elite which ruled Jerusalem and were effectively rulers of Judea, though with close Roman oversight and only with the backing of the Roman procurator in Caesarea. But in this year the procurator Porcius Festus died while in office and his replacement, Lucceius Albinus, was still on his way to Judea from Rome. This left the High Priest, Hanan ben Hanan (usually called Ananus), with a freer rein that usual. Ananus executed some Jews without Roman permission and, when this was brought to the attention of the Romans, Ananus was deposed.
This was a momentous event and one that the young Josephus, as a member of the same elite as the High Priest, would have remembered well. But what is significant is what he says in passing about the executions that that triggered the deposition of the High Priest:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so (the High Priest) assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Messiah, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
…A major part of the problem with most manifestations of the Myther thesis is that its proponents desperately want it to be true because they want to undermine Christianity. And any historical analysis done with one eye on an emotionally-charged ideological agenda is usually heading for trouble from the start… Their biases against Christianity blind Mythers to the fact that they are not arriving at conclusions because they are the best or most parsimonious explanation of the evidence, but merely because they fit their agenda.
The overwhelming majority of scholars, Christian, non-Christian, atheist, agnostic or Jewish, accept there was a Jewish preacher as the point of origin for the Jesus story simply because that makes the most sense of all the evidence. The contorted and contrived lengths that Fitzgerald and his ilk have to resort to shows exactly how hard it is to sustain the idea that no such historical preacher existed. Personally, as an atheist amateur historian myself, I would have no problem at all embracing the idea that no historical Jesus existed if someone could come up with an argument for this that did not depend at every turn on strained readings, ad hoc explanations, imagined textual interpolations and fanciful suppositions.
It is sometimes alleged by “Jesus-Mythers” such as David Fitzgerald that both passages in Josephus are later interpolations, because the third-century Christian Father Origen supposedly declared that Josephus made no mention of Jesus in his writings. O’Neill handily disposes of this canard:
Not content with ignoring inconvenient key counter-evidence, [Jesus-Myther] Fitzgerald is also happy to simply make things up. He talks about how the Second Century Christian apologist Origen does not mention the Antiquities XVII.3.4 reference to Jesus (which is true, but not surprising) and then claims “Origen even quotes from Antiquities of the Jews in order to prove the historical existence of John the Baptist, then adds that Josephus didn’t believe in Jesus, and criticises him for failing to mention Jesus in that book!” (p. 53) Which might sound like a good argument to anyone who does not bother to check self-published authors’ citations. But those who do will turn to Origen’s Contra Celsum I.4 and find the following:
Now this writer [Josephus], although not believing in Jesus as the Messiah, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless-being, although against his will, not far from the truth-that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was “the brother of that Jesus who was called Messiah”,–the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice.
So Origen does not say Josephus “didn’t believe in Jesus”, just that he did not believe Jesus was the Messiah (which supports the Arabic and Syriac evidence on the pre-interpolation version of Antiquities XVII.3.4) And far from criticising Josephus “for failing to mention Jesus in that book”, Origen actually quotes Josephus directly doing exactly that – the phrase “αδελφος Ιησου του λεγομενου Χριστου” (the brother of that Jesus who was called Messiah”) is word for word the phrase used by Josephus in his other mention of Jesus, found at Antiquities XX.9.1. And he does not refer to and quote Josephus mentioning Jesus just in Contra Celsum I.4, but he also does so twice more: in Contra Celsum II:13 and in Commentarium in evangelium Matthaei X.17. It is hard to say if this nonsense claim of Fitzgerald’s is mere incompetence or simply a lie. I will be charitable and put it down to another of this amateur’s bungles.
Tim O’Neill’s more recent online article, The Jesus Myth Theory: A Response to David Fitzgerald (December 1, 2013) is also well worth reading. It is a devastating take-down of the second-rate scholarship of Jesus-Mythers.
The evidence from the Roman historian Tacitus
Wikipedia provides a balanced overview of the evidence for Jesus’ historicity in its article, Tacitus on Christ, from which I have quoted the following excerpts:
Scholars generally consider Tacitus’s reference to the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilate to be both authentic, and of historical value as an independent Roman source. Eddy and Boyd state that it is now “firmly established” that Tacitus provides a non-Christian confirmation of the crucifixion of Jesus.
In terms of an overall context, historian Ronald Mellor has stated that the Annals is “Tacitus’s crowning achievement” which represents the “pinnacle of Roman historical writing”. The passage is also of historical value in establishing three separate facts about Rome around AD 60: (i) that there were a sizable number of Christians in Rome at the time, (ii) that it was possible to distinguish between Christians and Jews in Rome, and (iii) that at the time pagans made a connection between Christianity in Rome and its origin in Roman Judea.…
…Scholars generally consider Tacitus’s reference to be genuine and of historical value as an independent Roman source about early Christianity that is in unison with other historical records.
Van Voorst states that “of all Roman writers, Tacitus gives us the most precise information about Christ”. John Dominic Crossan considers the passage important in establishing that Jesus existed and was crucified, and states: “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be, since both Josephus and Tacitus… agree with the Christian accounts on at least that basic fact.”
…Scholars have also debated the issue of hearsay in the reference by Tacitus. Charles Guignebert argued that “So long as there is that possibility [that Tacitus is merely echoing what Christians themselves were saying], the passage remains quite worthless”. R. T. France states that the Tacitus passage is at best just Tacitus repeating what he had heard through Christians. However, Paul R. Eddy has stated that as Rome’s preeminent historian, Tacitus was generally known for checking his sources and was not in the habit of reporting gossip. Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman wrote: “Tacitus’s report confirms what we know from other sources, that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, sometime during Tiberius’s reign.”
5. Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies by Craig A. Evans. 2001. ISBN 0-391-04118-5 page 42.
6. Mercer Dictionary of the Bible by Watson E. Mills and Roger Aubrey Bullard. 2001. ISBN 0-86554-373-9 page 343.
7. Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation by Helen K. Bond. 2004. ISBN 0-521-61620-4 page xi.
8. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition by Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd. Baker Academic, 2007. ISBN 0-8010-3114-1 page 127.
9. Tacitus’ Annals by Ronald Mellor. Oxford University Press. 2010. ISBN 0-19-515192-5 page 23.
10. Beginning from Jerusalem by James D. G. Dunn. William. B. Eerdmans, 2008. ISBN 0-8028-3932-0 pages 56-57.
11. Antioch and Rome: New Testament cradles of Catholic Christianity by Raymond Edward Brown, John P. Meier 1983. ISBN 0-8091-2532-3 page 99.
23. The Jesus legend: a case for the historical reliability of the synoptic gospels by Paul R. Eddy, et al. 2007. ISBN 0-8010-3114-1 pages 181-183.
40. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence by Robert E. Van Voorst. William. B. Eerdmans, 2000. pp. 39- 53.
41. Tradition and Incarnation: Foundations of Christian Theology by William L. Portier 1993 ISBN 0-8091-3467-5 page 263.
52. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan. HarperOne, 1995. ISBN 0-06-061662-8 page 145.
53. Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament by F.F. Bruce. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974. p. 23.
56. Jesus by Charles Guignebert. University Books, New York, 1956, p. 13.
57. France, RT (1986). Evidence for Jesus (Jesus Library). Trafalgar Square Publishing. pp. 19-20. ISBN 0-340-38172-8.
58. Ehrman p. 212
Who is Michael Paulkovich, anyway?
Michael Paulkovich, a systems engineer, is the recent author of a book called No Meek Messiah, excerpts from which can be found on this Web page. The following excerpts should put to rest any notion that Paulkovich has any credibility on historical matters (emphases are mine):
In No Meek Messiah I provide a list of 126 writers who should have recorded something of Jesus, with exhaustive references… [I was most amused to see Apollonius of Tyana, Epictetus, Petronius, Plotinus and Tiberius described as “historians” in Paulkovich’s list – VJT.]
Within a year after the decree by [Emperor] Theodosius [in 391 A.D.], crazed Christian monks of Nitria destroy the majestic Alexandrian Library largely because philosophy and science are taught there — not the Bible…
Christianity was made the only legal cult of the empire, and for the next 1500 years, good Christians would murder all non-Christians they could find by the tens of millions.…
Early Christians believed all necessary knowledge was in the Bible and thus closed down schools, burned books, forbade teaching philosophy and destroyed libraries. The Jesus person portrayed in the Bible taught that “devils” and “sin” cause illness, and thus for some 1700 years good Christians ignored science and medicine to perform exorcisms on the ill…
Jesus has nothing against stealing, as he instructs his apostles to pinch a horse and a donkey from their rightful owner…
This Jesus character speaks highly of father Yahweh’s genocidal tantrums in Matthew 11:20-24…
People who are experts in one field are capable of appalling lapses of judgement when assessing the evidence in fields outside their own. By any objective criteria, there is abundant historical evidence that Jesus existed. Professor Coyne should have the grace to acknowledge this fact, and admit his error. But I’m not holding my breath.
NOTE: Kairosfocus has written an excellent post titled, Jeff Shallit: “Surely the right analogy is Santa Claus to Jesus Christ. Both are mythical figures . . . ” — spectacular Fail at History 101 in which he presents two videos summarizing the evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus.