The arguments these atheists use are very old and very dusty, but they are being presented quite forcefully as of late, and rather than directing them at the institutionalized religion, they are pointed at individual Christians and their personal belief. One of these old arguments is the allegation that Jesus Christ is a myth. Not that He lived but was distorted and myth added to His life by later believers, but that Jesus never existed.
The charge is that there's no historical support for Jesus outside the Bible, and that Christians are believing in a complete fable. How valid is this charge?
"I reverse the phrase of Voltaire, and say that if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him."As it turns out, it's one of the weakest arguments an atheist can bring to the table - one that can even be counterproductive, by making Christianity actually stronger appearing than it was before it was brought up. Once the historical record is examined, Christianity becomes even more trustworthy, not less so.
The Biblical account of the life of Jesus is known to most at least in a basic sketch: born in a stable in Bethelehem, became a wandering Rabbi at around age 30, was executed by crucification by the Romans, and the tomb where He was laid to rest was empty the third day. This bare historical account is at least somewhat familiar to most Americans, if not many around the world.
Christians believe many wonderful and supernatural things about Jesus Christ such as angels heralding His birth, miracles done while on earth, rising from the dead, and so on. But can even the barest historical facts be supported by scholarship? The best way to find this out is to treat the Bible like any other historical account. In other words, instead of treating the Bible as a religious text, treat it as any other very old piece of literature or documentation, and apply the same basic scholarship to it.
How is this done? And can it be done with the accounts of Jesus' life?
This is the historical record is what Jesus' existence is based primarily upon, and those accounts are what must be examined with historical scholarship to see if they are reliable and trustworthy. The bare fact that four such accounts exist at all is significant - that's more than for most historical figures - in fact, if you got three eyewitness accounts of any other figure, coupled with a fourth by a respected and learned scholar gathered from eyewitness accounts, in almost any other context, this would close the book - you've gotten what you need.
However, these accounts contain various supernatural elements, and are open to the charge that they are at the very least doctored and edited information, and at worst a deliberate corroboration by religious zealots, a fiction worked out between them. Because the topic is religious and supernatural in nature, many are inclined to dismiss them, and thus we need more support to present a compelling case.
So how do we examine these texts, how do we find out whether they are trustworthy at least in historical part?
There are many different tests that you can put the Bible to in order to find out its validity.
With these six tests to work from, how does the Bible stand up to them?
- Historical confirmation (is it referred to by contemporary sources)
- Historical accuracy (is the data historically valid and plausible)
- Hostile attestation of the material (do people who are enemies or dislike the cntetn or subject confirm and support the history)
- Reliability of sources (are the sources trustworthy, are there enough of them, are they reliable)
- Trustworthiness of the data (is the material used to piece together the history reliable, is the record reaching us accurate and historical)
- Earlier documentation (how recent was the documentation compared to the events in question)
As it turns out, the Bible is very strong in this area. Events and Characters given in the Bible are mentioned in a dozen ancient historians. Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Phlegon, Thallus, Seuteonius, Lucian, Celus, Mara Bar-Serapion, Paterculus, Cassius Dio, and the Talmud all mention events and persons that are mentioned in the New Testament. With this as a basis, it is safe to say that at least parts of the New Testament can be relied on as historically trustworthy. This passes the first test at least to the same degree as other historical accounts from the time period, which are taken as trustworthy.
Luke in particular is a place to find historically trustworthy information. In Acts, for example, the book (written by Luke) is riddled with details and information that was known to someone alive at the time, but could not and was not known or understood in the centuries later until archaeologists dug up the evidence.
In fact, archeology also supports the historical accounts of events in the New Testament. In the early part of the 20th century it was not uncommon to find scholars who claimed the Bible was patently false and riddled with historical inaccuracies. You can't find many of those any more - and the ones who make these claims are working on old texts and little information.
There is archaeological evidence that supports several significant aspects of Jesus' life. For instance, the tomb of Caiaphas the High Priest, mentioned prominently in the Gospels, has been discovered. Pontius Pilate has been established as the governor of Judea at the time of Jesus' life. Towns (now long gone) such as Bethsaida and Ceasaria Phillipi have been uncovered in the historical record, both mentioned repeatedly in the Gospels.
Bethlehem was even thought to be a myth until not long ago achaeologists dug up evidence of the original town's existence. The census taken by Quirinius was considered a historical flaw, because the historical record (primarily Josephus) of a Governor named Quirinius was in the wrong time period: 6 AD, years after the time most people say Jesus was born. The thing is, a coin was found by archaeologists that gives the governor of the area as "Q" in an earlier time, around when Jesus was thought to have been born. How can this be? Can there possibly have been two political leaders with the same name in such a short time frame? Surely this is outside the realm of reason, why, We have a President Bush right now, and there never has been another named Bush as president, especially not within such a short time period. Oh wait...
Even if this had not been found, we don't know exactly the date Jesus was born, and a later date of 6 AD is not a vast gap of time. Scholars are pretty sure Jesus wasn't born on 1 BC or AD (there was no year 0), but aren't exactly certain of the specific date. There's no other record outside Luke's account of a census, but it's not exactly impossible that one could have taken place, and there are many gaps in specific accounting in that time period.
There is an attempt to claim that this Quirinius cannot have been alive at the same time A King Herod, which is a fairly weak effort, since while the great king Herod was dead, his sons took over and both took the name Herod. Again: two Presidents Bush. For more thoughts on censuses and governors, others have taken a closer look.
The truth is, the more archaeologists dig into the past in that area, the more the Bible is proven reliable and historically accurate, both old and new testaments.
One of the more reliable ways to find out whether a historical account is valid or not is to find support for it in enemy accounts. For instance, it's one thing to hear that King Goomba had a solid gold throne from his historian, but it is another, more trustworthy thing to hear that from the archives of the nations he fought against. Because these accounts have no interest in glossing over facts or inventing details that glorify their enemy, anything they corroborate is a strong indication of truth.
For early Christianity, just about everyone was hostile. Jews wanted it destroyed as a radical, heretical cult. Romans wanted a scapegoat to blame for their troubles and Christians were a useful, easy target. Surrounded by at least unfriendly forces, the writings about Christianity from the time are definitely hostile witnesses.
Thus, any account of Biblical information is hostile from the time period - and even accounts such as the Jewish Talmud support the historical information and persons listed in scripture, and especially at the time, Christians were reviled, hated, and even hunted to imprison and kill by Jewish leaders.
RELIABILITY OF SOURCES
In addition to the above sources, most of which which are presumed historically valid and trustworthy on their own by even the most jaded anti-Christian scholar, we have the scriptural accounts. This sounds circular (the Bible is true because it says it is!), but bear with me a moment.
I don't have time to go into the careful scholarly examination of Biblical texts and age verification of the different books of the New Testament, but suffice it to say that it is overwhelmingly verified as being written within years, at most decades, of the events. The accusation is often that the text has been modified and edited over the centuries, but the actual earliest texts are incredibly like the ones we have now, there are almost no changes, and none in any text that changes meaning or significance.
Let's just say that the people who copied the Bible did so as if they loved it and feared the wrath of the God they believed in if they monkeyed with the text. With that as an introduction, consider a few things. The writers of the various letters wrote as if they were talking to people who had personally seen several of the events and knew about what had happened. Paul in particular mentions this, talking about hundreds of eyewitnesses, among whom were people he was writing to and were alive at that time. If he was making Jesus up out of thin air, people who got these letters would not have venerated them, they would have thrown them away as trash. Appealing to people alive in the midst of those who got the letters is a clear way of appealing to those people for witness.
If those people didn't exist, or said "what Jesus, I was around then and I saw no Jesus" then the letters would not have been carefully preserved and recopied, and especially not later treated as scripture. Just something to consider.
The Bible is, interestingly enough, one of the most archaeologically and textually supported books in antiquity. There's more support from outside sources and archeology for the Bible than many other very trusted and established historical events and accounts. Both points 5 and 6 here can be taken in one step here.
One of the weakest arguments against the Biblical account is that it's so very old it can't be trusted. That it's been recopied and edited so many times that by now it's just fiction (again, careful scholarship negates this). This argument would thus invalidate all historical accounts from the same time period or older. Thucides, Herodytus, Tacitus, Josephus, all the historians from the past would have to be discarded based on that argument, everything older than an arbitrary trustworthy expiration date would have to be ignored as trash. Basically, we could know nothing about the past because it's old, and this standard would march through the years, sequentially invalidating everything older than a certain line of history. That argument is just goofy.
Another of the more absurd arguments is that since the texts were not written as the events occurred then they are too late to be trusted. This is the kind of attitude that would say that anything written about John F Kennedy now cannot be trusted because myths have built up and its been too late. 1963 is so long ago by now, nobody can write anything accurate about that time, and forget the Holocaust! The truth is, the latest gospel was written by Luke in around 65 AD. That's about 30 years after Jesus Christ is said to have been executed - as of this writing, that's the same time as has expired since 1977. Why, its been so long, nobody can trust a word of it! Well, let's compare to some other sources.
The earliest copy of writings we have of Julius Caesar were written 900AD, that's about 1000 years after he died. We have a total of 10 manuscripts about him. Here's some other examples:
The New Testament? Written between 40-95 AD, the earliest copy we have is just 30 years later in 125. Oh, and we have about 24,000 parts or whole manuscripts of the New Testament.
- Plato? Written roughtly 4th century BC, earliest copy, again 900AD or so. 7 manuscripts.
- Homer's Iliad? Written 900 BC, earliest copy 400 BC, 643 manuscripts
- Thucydides? Written about 450 BC, again about 900 AD is the earliest manuscripts, and we have 8 total.
The entire New Testament was written in the first century AD, within 60 years of the death of Jesus Christ. Those Twenty-four thousand pieces and manuscripts we have are, as I noted above, incredibly similar and coherent between each copy, within 95% exactitude, and with only minor differences where there are any. The Dead Sea Scrolls were examined with great glee by skeptics, who found to their disappointment that they really were almost exactly like the other texts we have. The oldest manuscript from Egypt is the same way.
In other words, the documentation is earlier, in greater number, and closer to the events that happened than most historical documents we have - almost any from that time period. The text is reliably translated and passed down and is coherent with the earliest manuscripts.
So yes, the Bible passes these tests.
I THOUGHT THIS WAS ABOUT JESUS!
Well it is, but establishing the trustworthiness and validity of the Biblical record is useful for establishing the existence and validity of Jesus as a real person. If the Bible can be trusted on so many other historical events and persons, why throw out Jesus? You'd need a pretty strong case to expunge one major character from the entire text once it's been established as reliable.
So what about Jesus specifically? In 1995, the Skeptical Review said this about the historical evidence of Jesus Christ:
The absence of extrabiblical evidence of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth has long been an embarrassment to Christian apologists. In their defense of Christianity, early church fathers like Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria cited from both Jewish and pagan sources evidences that they thought were supportive of Christianity, but they were unable to produce any secular testimony of the actual existence of Jesus. The frustrating truth was (and is) that secular records contemporary to the time that Jesus allegedly lived were completely silent about this man who presumably was so famous that great multitudes followed him during his personal ministry.Now, rationally, there's no reason why on earth Roman historians would take notice of a Rabbi in a small province of Rome that lived 3 years and had a few hundred people follow him at times. Jesus was not a major historical character by all the standards normally followed. He was not a great military leader, he was not a political figure, he was not a great writer or artist. He was a teacher who had a fairly short teaching career and was executed as a criminal. Thus, a lack of historical accounts specifically about Jesus Christ would not be particularly noteworthy, rather it would be expected. There is in fact no direct historical account of Jesus' life in Roman histories. No Roman bothered to give an account of the acts and life of Jesus Christ because no Roman historian at the time cared about him.
That's not to say these historians never mention Jesus or His life. Jesus is actually mentioned a few times by Roman historians, in rather well-known accounts.
"Nero looked around for a scapegoat, and inflicted the most fiendish tortures on a group of persons already hated by the people for their crimes. This was the sect known as Christians. Their founder, one Christus, had been put to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. This checked the abominable superstition for a while, but it broke out again and spread, not merely through Judea, where it originated, but even to Rome itself, the great reservoir and collecting ground for every kind of depravity and filth. Those who confessed to being Christians were at once arrested, but on their testimony a great crowd of people were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson, but of hatred of the entire human race."
Tacitus, Annals Book XV, 44
"...made them curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do."
"They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their errors was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up."
-Pliny the Younger, referring to the acts of Emperor Trajan in Epistles X.96
"As the Jews were making constant disturbance at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."
-Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 25.4
"...and brought before it the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, whose name was James."We have even more specific details about Jesus Christ in Jewish writings from the time period. More than simply references to the man from the past, the Talmud focuses on his actions and the response of the Jewish leaders of the time. The Babylonian Talmud speaks of “Yeshu Hannozri” (Hebrew for Jesus the Nazarene):
-Josephus, Antiquities XX 9.1
“He shall be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf...”and later says this about Jesus:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, 'He is...to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover — Ulla retorted: 'Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defense could be made? Was he not a Mesith [i.e., enticer, or heretic].Roman and Jewish authorities never disputed that Jesus' tomb was empty. They argued that the Apostles overcame the guards, broke the seal, rolled the huge stone away, and ran off with the body, but never that it was still in the tomb. Jewish actually mention the "they ran off with it" argument.
"The first requisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion."The fact is, the existence and person of Jesus Christ is in a historically trustworthy book and is mentioned by established, trustworthy, and reliable historians. No credible scholar who has studied the topic can reject the existence of Jesus Christ, it's a fool's attempt by people who cannot simply disagree with Christianity, but must expunge Jesus entirely from the historical record like the Ministry of Truth in 1984.
"Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."Here’s the list of historically documented facts regarding the New Testament we have (from corroborating sources):
- A man named Jesus lived in the Roman district of Palestine, and was born in the Galilee area.
- Jesus was a miracle- or wonder-worker and teacher who wandered the land
- He died by crucifixion after a trial by both religious and civil authorities, ending with Pilate
- Jesus’ tomb was found empty soon after his interment
- Followers of Jesus claimed to have met and experienced the presence of the risen Jesus
- James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic before this time, was converted when he believed he also saw the risen Christ
- Proclamation of the Resurrection was being spread soon after Jesus’ death
- The gospel message centered on the preaching of the death and resurrection of Jesus
- Sunday was the primary day of gathering and worship
- Just a few years later, Saul of Tarsus (later named Paul), a leading Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, became a Christian believer after what he believed was an experience meeting the risen Jesus.
- This Paul made various journeys around Asia and even into Europe to preach about Jesus and was eventually imprisoned in Rome
"We may define "faith" as the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of "faith." We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence."MIRACLE OF MIRACLES
Now, does this mean that the Bible is proven historically, that you have to believe Jesus rose from the Dead? That he is God? No, it means that when you read the Bible you can trust historical accounts: Jesus existed, he traveled around, these locations are real, these historical events happened. The miracles, the supernatural aspects of the Bible, the matters of faith? Well, you can't prove that kind of thing historically, because even if there was a record of Jesus being seen after his excruciating (literally - the word was invented to describe the unspeakable pain of crucifixion) execution, that wouldn't mean it was supernatural - it could have been a mistake, he might have lived through it, it might be a duplicate, etc.
There are good arguments for the resurrection being true, for example, but ultimately this isn't a matter that can be proven empirically and scientifically. Supernatural events by definition are outside the realm of science. You believe or you do not believe.
“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”What you cannot do is pretend Jesus never existed or that the Bible is unreliable. All you can do is say "well that miraculous stuff I don't buy," and leave it at that. You cannot even argue that these events did not and cannot have occurred, as David Hume tried - because that's an attempt to prove a negative, and the arguments he used were comical at best (they boil down to "since I've never seen it happen, it cannot have").
Perhaps at a later time I'll deal with miracles and the supernatural, but if you want more thoughts on the matter, C.S. Lewis has written a great book on Miracles. The book The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel handles the topic in a less effective but easier to read manner. Dr Norman Geisler's I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist is a pretty powerful book as well as Francis Schaeffer's classic The God Who Was There. The website Stand to Reason is dedicated to making coherent, rational arguments in defense of Christianity, if you are curious there's a good and easy place to start.
As I've stated earlier, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof - the existence of Jesus is not extraordinary and it's pretty easy to establish, if you do some minimal scholarly work - using the same methods and assumptions you would with any other historical figure, at least. The claim Jesus Christ is the third person of the divine trinity who died to save His people from their sins and is coming again in glory to usher in paradise... well, that's pretty extraordinary, to the point that no proof would suffice to convince a hostile listener, let alone a disinterested one. That's where faith comes in.
But make no mistake, atheist comments aside, faith is based on evidence and reason - it is not wholly without logic or evidence. Christianity is a historical religion, based on actual events. As Paul said: if the resurrection never happened, its all a sham. There's good historical and rational basis for the Christian faith, just not enough to argue someone into belief. That's where the act of God part comes in, that's where the gift of faith is introduced. It's not a leap of faith: it is not based on blind, irrational assumption. It's a gift that enhances and makes clear what evidence portrays.
Ultimately, if you want an interestingly compelling argument, look at how the Apostles behaved and lived after the resurrection. I'll let Supreme Court justice Anthony Scalia handle this closing argument:
It is not irrational to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses who had nothing to gain...the wise do not believe in the resurrection of the dead. So everything from Easter morning to the Ascension had to be made up by the groveling enthusiasts as part of their plan to get themselves martyred.