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Refuting the myth that Jesus never existed
The thesis that Jesus never existed has hovered around the fringes of
research into the New Testament for centuries but never been able to become an
accepted theory. This is for good reason, as it is simply a bad hypothesis based
on arguments from silence, special pleading and an awful lot of wishful
thinking. It is ironic that atheists will buy into this idea and leave all their
pretensions of critical thinking behind. I will adapt what has become popular
usage and call people who deny Jesus' existence 'Jesus Mythologists'.
A huge amount has been written on the web and elsewhere which you can find in
the further reading section below. Not all Jesus Mythologists are lunatics and
one at least, Earl Doherty, is extremely erudite and worth reading.
Nevertheless, he is still wrong and, as I have seen myself, he reacts badly to
those who demonstrate it. It is not my intention to study the minutiae of the
argument but instead focus on three central points which are often brought up on
discussion boards. These are the lack of secular references, the alleged
similarities to paganism and the silence of Paul. Finally I want to bring all
these together to show how ideas similar to those that deny Jesus' existence can
be used on practically any ancient historical figure. With this in mind I set
out to prove that Hannibal never existed.
Occasionally people ask why there is no record of Jesus in Roman records. The
answer is that there are no surviving Roman records but only highly parochial
Roman historians who had little interest in the comings and goings of minor
cults and were far more concerned about Emperors and Kings. Jesus made a very
small splash while he was alive and there was no reason for Roman historians to
Christianity is mentioned by the historian Tacitus in the early
second century. But he talks about it only because Christians were unfortunate
enough to be made scapegoats by the Emperor Nero for the great fire of Rome.
Tacitus is interested in the Emperor, not his victims about whom he gives very
limited information. Still, he does tell us that Jesus existed and was crucified
under Pontius Pilate. Jesus Mythologists counter this by claiming that he
could have got his information from Christians which means his evidence is not
independent. So, we have a very convenient situation for the Jesus Mythologists.
Until Christianity had spread no one except Christians would be interested in
Jesus but all later records are ruled out of court as they are tainted by
association with Christianity. This sort of special pleading is one of the
reasons that modern historians have no time for these theories as they are set
up to be impossible to disprove. In fact, Christian evidence for a human Jesus
who was crucified is trustworthy because it ran counter to the myths of the time
and suggested that he had suffered a humiliating death. If they made it up and
then suppressed the truth with clinical efficiency, why did they come up with a
story which even the Christian apologist, Tertullian, admitted was absurd? It
seems far more likely that they had a large number of historical facts that they
had to rationalise into a religion rather than creating all these difficulties
Sometimes Jesus Mythologists will produce long lists of writers none of whom
have the slightest reason to mention an obscure Jewish miracle worker and
somehow think this strengthens their point. In fact, it has all the relevance of
picking fifty books off your local library shelf and finding that none of them
mention Carl Sagan. Does that mean he did not exist either? Jesus was not even a
failed military leader of the kind that Romans might have noticed - especially
if he had been defeated by someone famous.
The only historian who we might expect to mention Jesus is Josephus, a Jew
who wrote a history of his people up to 66AD, which is called 'Jewish
Antiquities'. In fact, Josephus does mention Jesus twice and so Jesus
Mythologists have to devote a lot of attention to attacking the relevant
passages. Their job is made easier because Josephus, a Pharisee, probably felt
nothing but contempt for Jesus which meant later Christians tried to 'correct'
his negative wording.
The majority opinion on Josephus is that the parts of the passage from book
18 of 'Jewish Antiquities' which are in red below
are the additions of a Christian scribe trying to make Jesus appear in a better
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if
it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a
teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him
both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was
the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men
amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first
did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again
the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand
other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so
named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18, 3, 3
To support this idea we can look at the works of the Christian father Origen
who was writing in the mid-third century. This was while Christianity was still
a minor cult with no power or influence. It was generally ignored by the
authorities as long as it kept its head down. Therefore there is no way that
Christians this early could have either knobbled Josephus so that no undoctored
copies were available or got away with quoting something from Josephus that was
not there. We have no reason to suppose that a bright chap like Origen would
even have tried and so can be sure that the copy of Josephus he read and quoted
from was unamended by earlier Christians. We can be doubly sure of this because
Origen flatly contradicts the modern version of Josephus where the Jewish
historian is made to say Jesus was the Messiah. Origen makes clear he said no
What use would the early fathers have had for a passage in Josephus saying
Jesus was not the Messiah? An educated Jew saying this would not be helpful in
an apologetic sense as it would demonstrate that the prophecies in the Old
Testament were not nearly as clear cut as early Christians would have liked to
have believed. And because no one ever challenged Jesus' existence, they never
had reason to point to a critical Jewish source to prove he did. Hence Josephus
was not quoted by the few earlier Christian writers.
So what exactly did Origen say? Here are two passages which say basically the
same thing and which reinforce each other:
And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this
James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the "Antiquities of the Jews" in
twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered so
great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said, that
these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in
consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother
of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wonderful thing is, that, though he did
not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of
James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered
these things because of James.
Origen - Matthew X, XVII
For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness
to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who
underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the
Christ, 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 a brother of
Jesus (called Christ) - the Jews having put him to death, although he was a
man most distinguished for his justice.
Origen, - Against Celsus I, XLVII
This tells us that the later passage about 'James, brother of Jesus called
Christ' certainly existed in Josephus in Origen's time because he uses the
phrase 'called Christ' twice. It cannot be a Christian interpolation as they
called James either 'James the Just' or 'James the Brother of the Lord'. The
reference to 'James, brother of Jesus called Christ' is still found in
Antiquities 20 and this by itself torpedoes the idea that Jesus never existed.
The idea that Christians were going around doctoring copies of Josephus
while they were still a persecuted minority is just laughable. Origen also says
that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah so our present day passage
on Jesus in Antiquities 18 cannot have existed although the passing reference to
Jesus in Antiquities 20 is further evidence that he was actually mentioned in
less flattering terms. It should be pointed out that Origen himself reads too
much into Josephus who does say the people thought the killing of James was
wrong but does not go quite so far as to blame the entire Jewish War on the
Allegations that Christianity is an adaptation of a pagan religion have been
around for ages. In the 19th century, Kersey Graves wrote his notorious
World's Sixteen Crucified Saviours - a book so poor that even the Internet
Infidels admit (in rather more diplomatic language) that it is a load of old
cobblers. Just recently the tradition was carried on in
Jesus Mysteries by Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke. These two amateurs are
equally willing to play fast and loose with the facts using carefully pruned
quotations, mis-translation and anachronism to produce a woefully inaccurate
With this is in mind I present "Bede's Guide to the Production of a
Best-seller that Undermines the Roots of Christianity". With this I can
guarantee that you will be able to find all the parallels you like between
paganism and Christianity or indeed, properly adapted, between any other two
unrelated subjects that you care to name.
- The first thing to do is ensure you cast your net as widely as possible.
So within Christianity you should include every cult, heresy and sect you can
get your hands on. Gnosticism will be particularly helpful as they did indeed
borrow large chunks of pagan thought which is partly why they were considered
heretics in the first place. As for paganism, this can include just about
everything. Freke and Gandy comb not only Greek cults (Oedipus) but also
Egyptian (Horus and Osiris), Roman (Bacchus) and Persian (Mithras). Elsewhere
you will find Celtic deities, Norse beserkers and Indian mystics pulled into
the fray. Now, with this vast body of writing, finding parallels will not be
too challenging provided you are willing to wade through it all.
- But don't restrict yourselves to pagan religions from before the time of
Christ. Remember your methodology should be that Christians copied pagans and
not the other way around. This is useful because you can now point to
similarities between paganism and Christianity after the latter was already
widespread. So if, like Freke and Gandy, you can find a picture showing
Bacchus on a cross dating from two hundred years after Jesus was crucified you
can still claim that the Christians copied the pagans and not the other way
- Language is important. Christian terms such as 'salvation', 'Eucharist',
'word made flesh' and 'lamb of god' are common currency today. Therefore when
translating or paraphrasing pagan sources always use modern Christian
language. Never mind that the ancient pagans would not have known what you
were on about - you are not talking to them. In this way you can call a woman
being raped by various kinds of wildlife a 'virgin birth', you can call having
ones body parts stuck back together a 'resurrection' and you can call just
about every Greek hero a 'son of god'. Also it is helpful to use King James
Bible phrases and style when quoting pagan texts. It gives them some more
- Do try to confuse liturgy and practice with history. For instance the
mystery religions and Christianity were both underground movements so they had
to operate in similar sorts of ways. Sacred meals and ritual washing are as
old as religion itself so the Christianity using them as well as pagans is not
surprising at all. Make it sound like a complete revelation.
- Say totally different things are in fact closely related. For instance,
Mithras was sometimes represented by a bull. Say this is the same as Jesus
being called the lamb of God (ignoring that one is a symbol of sexuality and
strength and the other of innocence and humility). Compare the Mithric ritual
of taking a shower in the warm blood of the aforementioned bull with Christian
baptism with water. Claim that the thieves crucified with Jesus are the same
as a pair of torch bearers that appear on some illustrations of Bacchus.
- For goodness sake do not mention the things that really made the pagan
mysteries interesting. After all your work of showing that Jesus and Bacchus
are one and the same, you will lose everything if you let on that Bacchus was
the god of drunkenness and his worship involved getting plastered and having
sex with anything in sight (goats being a particular favourite). In fact, keep
sex out of it altogether. Yes, sex was the central feature of an awful lot of
these pagan rituals but that is not the point your are trying to make.
- Avoid up to date scholarship which will probably pour cold water over your
vaunted theories. You will find plenty of nineteenth and early twentieth
century writers with a bone to pick that can support your wildest
speculations. And do not worry if not everyone agrees with you - you can
always dismiss the dissenters as apologists or as those unable to cope with
your earth shattering ideas.
Using this guide you should be able to produce as many parallels as you
require to convince even the most blinkered of readers. As you can probably tell
from the above I am not impressed by the pagan myth hypothesis. It is
interesting to note that despite his vast amount of reading, hostility to
orthodox Christianity and willingness to allege that most the New Testament is
fictional, not even John Dominic Crossan has any time for the idea that Jesus
was made up of pagan motifs. Nor indeed do the vast majority of liberal scholars
- the pagan myth hypothesis is firmly outside the pale of scholarship and with
The Non - Silence of Paul
The whole idea that Jesus did not exist started with the fact that Paul does
not say very much about his life or ministry. It is instructive to first find
out what he did say so here is a list. You can read the relevent snippet
biblical text by holding your mouse over the red scripture references.
- Jesus was born in human fashion, as a Jew, and had a ministry to the Jews.
- Jesus was referred to as "Son of God". (1
- Jesus was a direct descendent of King David. (Romans
- Jesus prayed to God using the term "abba". (Galatians
- Jesus expressly forbid divorce. (1
- Jesus taught that "preachers" should be paid for their preaching. (1
- Jesus taught about the end-time. (1
- Paul refers to Peter by the name Cephas (rock), which was the name Jesus
gave to him. (1
- Jesus had a brother named James. (Galatians
- Jesus initiated the Lord's supper and referred to the bread and the cup. (1
- Jesus was betrayed on the night of the Lord's Supper. (1
- Jesus' death was related to the Passover Celebration. (1
- The death of Jesus was at the hands of earthly rulers. (1
- Jesus underwent abuse and humiliation. (Romans
- Jewish authorities were involved with Jesus' death. (1
- Jesus died by crucifixion. (2
Cor. 13:4 et al)
- Jesus was physically buried. (1
It turns out that careful analysis of the letters shows that Paul was not
actually all that silent at all. The first reaction to all this from the Jesus
Mythologist is to dispute that Paul wrote very many of these letters. But
actually seven of his letters are completely undisputed and all facts about
Jesus's life shown above are from these. It is ironic that the pastoral epistles
of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, that liberals insist are late (and date from after
the synoptic Gospels), contain practically no details about the life of Jesus at
As there are still rather a lot of details about the historical Jesus in the
undisputed letters, the Jesus Mythologist will use special pleading to try and
explain them away. But as we can see, Paul is not attempting to tell Jesus's
life story, he is just using the odd snippet about Jesus where it is helpful to
illustrate his point. He knows that his readers are aware of what happened
because all of his letters are to people who are already Christians. He is not
trying to convert them and he is not engaged in apologetics.
If we look at the letters of the early Christian fathers, they rarely have
details about the life of Jesus except in passing because they know their
readers are familiar with the Gospels. What we today call the Gospels had not,
of course, been written down at the time that Paul was preaching but oral
communication was considered to be more reliable than the written word at the
time. When these people had heard about Jesus they did not need a revision
primer when Paul wrote to them but specific advice about problems and
controversies. Of course, none of this will convince the Jesus Mythologist who
just cannot understand why Paul does not just repeat verbatim to his
correspondents what he has already told them in person.
Did Hannibal really exist?
I want to wrap up by showing how easy it is to produce a scenario where we
can deny the historicity of a major public figure. When I published this spoof
on the Secular Web's discussion board it was taken seriously even though with
hindsight it seems ridiculous. The comments in italics are annotations to
bring out points of similarity with the various Jesus Myth ideas in currency.
I would invite any Jesus Mythologist to explain to me the substantial
differences between their theory and the spurious one below.
To ask whether or not the great Carthaginian general Hannibal every
actually existed might seem rather pointless. An exercise for a student
learning about the nature of historical evidence perhaps but not something any
serious scholar would waste time on. But maybe we should not be too hasty in
acquiescing with the opinion of establishment historians (in other words,
there's a plot by academics stifling debate).
In fact, although there is plenty of writing about Hannibal, none of it is
contemporary and there is no archaeological evidence for him at all (not
surprising given the Romans razed the city from whence he came).
Furthermore he is not mentioned in any Carthaginian sources - incredible given
he was supposed to be their greatest leader (there are no Carthaginian
sources as the Romans burnt their city down)! We find when we actually try
to pin him down he tends to recede further into the mists of time. His
exploits, such as leading elephants over the Alps, are clearly legendary (the
sceptic pretends to be incredulous but seems happy to buy his own amazing
theory) and it is not hard to find a motive for the creation of this
colourful character by Roman writers (as long we can invent a motive for
fabrication we can assume that fabrication exists).
Rome and Carthage were great trading rivals in the Western Mediterranean
and it did not take them long to come to blows. Rome signed a peace treaty
but, under the leadership of the elder Cato desperately wanted to rid itself
permanently of the competition. (this is actually true and so helps to hide
when we slip into fantasy) They needed an excuse and the idea they came up
with was brilliant. Like all ancient civilisations, the Romans rewrote history
as it suited them to demonstrate their own prowess. (a useful and
exaggerated generalisation) Consequently we should not be surprised to
find that they invented a great enemy from Carthage to demonstrate the threat
still existed and justify a further war to wipe them out.
The author of the fiction was Cato himself (we need someone to point the
finger at and note how there is no distinction made between the background
material above and theorising here) who we know wrote the earliest Roman
History (true as well, actually). But it was intended simply as a
justification for a further war with Carthage. It contained the details of
Hannibal's alleged campaigns against the Romans including victories on Italian
soil (it might well do but Cato's history has conveniently not survived).
Cato brilliantly combined the truth with his own anti-Carthaginian propaganda
with the intention of goading Rome into another wholly unjustified war with
the old enemy (give the fabricator lots of credit for his invention).
Once the war was over and Carthage razed to the ground, the Romans were able
to ensure that only their version of history survived (this is important as
it enables all other sources to be declared forgeries).
Therefore the myth of the great Carthaginian war leader became fact and
later Roman historians like the notoriously unreliable Livy (we have to
denigrate counter sources) simply assumed Cato's fabrications were true (because
the ancients were stupid and simply could not do any research themselves).
In history there is little that is certain but there is also a level of
scepticism that makes the task of the historian impossible. Furthermore, the
thesis that Jesus never existed requires selective scepticism about which
sources are reliable and how others are interpreted. In the end, if Jesus did
not exist, it makes Christianity a much more incredible phenomena than if he
- The Evidence for Jesus - RT France: Very few scholars have bothered reply
to the Jesus Mythologists but France was one who did. This book refutes
elements of GA Wells with rigour and honesty. Sadly only available in the UK.
One Hundred Years Before Christ - Alvar Ellegard - Literary critic invents
a variation on the Dead Sea Scrolls conspiracy and then redates all the
ancient documents to support it.
The Jesus Mysteries - Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy: Unadulterated rubbish
from the masters of the genre.
The Jesus Puzzle - Earl Doherty: A serious minded and worthwhile effort to
put the best case for an impossible theory.
The Christ Conspiracy - Acharya S: Makes Freke and Gandy look like serious
scholars. Really, really, silly and unintentionally quite funny.
The Jesus Myth - GA Wells: Another serious effort to show Jesus never
existed. Sadly for devotees the author has changed his mind now and admits he
- Tekton Apologetics - JP Holding:
Among many other things, contains a demolition job on the Jesus Mythologists
so total and complete you even end up feeling sorry for them.
- The Jesus Puzzle
- Earl Doherty: Worth reading if you find his book hard to get hold off.
Covers some points in more detail.
- Truth be Known -
Acharya S: For those who cannot believe how dreadful her book is, there is
� James Hannam 2001.
Last revised: 6 October, 2001.