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A Response To Asher Norman’s Book: ‘26 Reasons Why Jews Don’t Believe In Jesus’

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Reason 23: Did Jesus really exist?

 

The historicity of Jesus

 

Asher Norman questions whether Jesus actually existed and says that if he did exist he was a minor first century anti-Roman zealot about whom very little was really known.  Christianity invented a mythical Jesus figure in the 2nd century and somehow the Christians managed to persuade a sceptical and hostile Roman world to believe in their creation.  

 

Basically his thesis is that we only have the Christians’ word for it that Jesus existed, they wrote highly unreliable accounts of his life a long time after it happened and there is little or nothing of real significance in contemporary writings about Jesus.  

 

Asher Norman uses some highly selective and hostile sources to back up his claims.  One is John Remsberg (1848–1919), author of ‘The Christ’.  Remsberg was an ardent religious sceptic and member of the American Secular Society. As a rationalist Remsberg would have been equally dismissive of Asher Norman’s view that God gave the Torah to Moses as he was of the claims of Jesus to be the Messiah. However, consistent with his general approach, Asher is happy to use atheists and rationalists to attack the New Testament and Christianity, but would never accept such an approach to the Torah.  

 

Remsberg’s contention, used by Asher Norman, is that there are 41 ‘silent historians’ from this period who should have mentioned Jesus and did not.  Jesus’ miracles and resurrection should have made the news of the day and did not so we can discount that they really happened.   

 

Some general points need to be made on this subject:

 

 41 Silent Historians?

 

Asher Norman quotes Remsberg’s list of ‘forty-one silent historians’ – people who did not mention Jesus.  This is also quoted in dozens of sceptical websites as well as in one of Asher Norman’s other sources of information, the anti-Christian ‘Jesus Mysteries’ of Freke and Gandy.   These are the historians Remsberg (and Asher Norman) quotes:

 

Josephus; Philo-Judææus; Seneca; Pliny the Elder; Arrian; Petronius; Dion Pruseus; Paterculus; Suetonius; Juvenal; Martial; Persius; Plutarch; Pliny the Younger; Tacitus; Justus of Tiberius; Apollonius; Quintilian; Lucanus; Epictetus; Hermogones Silius Italicus; Statius; Ptolemy; Appian; Phlegon; Phæædrus; Valerius Maximus; Lucian; Pausanias; Florus Lucius; Quintius Curtius; Aulus Gellius; Dio Chrysostom; Columella; Valerius Flaccus; Damis; Favorinus; Lysias; Pomponius Mela; Appion of Alexandria; and Theon of Smyrna.

 

The list looks fairly impressive until you dig a little deeper.   The Tekton website has done an excellent research into all these writers available at http://www.tektonics.org/qt/remslist.html  

 

To summarise this lengthy piece of research:

 

The question Remsberg never answers is, ‘Why should any of these people have mentioned Jesus?’

 

 

When we look at the writers Remsberg refers to (most of whom are virtually unknown today) we find that for the most part there is no reason why they should mention Jesus anyway (being writers of either fiction, poetry, or on practical matters like oratory and agriculture, or historians or writers of another time or place). Here are some examples:

 

 

For an analysis of all the names mentioned go to http://www.tektonics.org/qt/remslist.html

 

What about those who do mention Christianity?

 

Some of the historians on this list do mention Jesus, but Asher Norman dismisses the significance of this because he wants them to support his thesis of the insignificance of Jesus.

 

Jewish sources.

 

Josephus.

 

The most important extra-biblical references to Jesus are found in the writings of Josephus. Of all the writers concerned, Josephus was closest in time and place to Jesus (though not contemporary with him).  He was born in 37 CE in Jerusalem, only a few years after Jesus’ execution.  Josephus was well educated in biblical law and history.  On his mother’s side he was a descendent of the Hasmonean Kings. On his father’s side he came from a priestly family.   He was a commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee against the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War of 66–73.  After the Jewish garrison of Yodfat in Galilee fell under siege, the Romans killed thousands of Jews, many of whom committed suicide.  Josephus survived and surrendered to the Romans in 67 CE.  He was later released by the Romans in 69 CE and appears to have played a role as a negotiator with the defenders during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE.  In 71 CE he went to Rome and became a Roman citizen.  While in Rome he wrote his histories of this period in particular ‘The Jewish War’ (c 75 CE) and ‘The Antiquities’ (c 94 CE).  He was regarded by most Jews as a traitor and a turncoat after accepting Roman patronage and calling on them to surrender to the Roman forces at the siege of Jerusalem.

Josephus’ writings cover a number of figures familiar to Bible readers. He discusses John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, Pontius Pilate, the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, the High Priests, and the Pharisees. As for Jesus, there are two references to him in Antiquities.

First, in a section in Book 18 dealing with various actions of Pilate, Josephus refers to Jesus and his ministry. This passage is known as the Testimonium Flavianum referred to as ‘TF’ in the rest of this article.

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 among 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.

Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3

There are three possible views on this passage.

The consensus of scholars, both Jewish and Christian, is view 3.  The list of those who take this view includes Jewish scholars such as Geza Vermes, Louis H. Feldman, and Paul Winter and secular scholars such as E.P. Sanders and Paula Fredrikson. Even Jeff Lowder, co-founder of the Secular Web, recognizes the merits of the partial authenticity theory. Paula Fredrikson sums up the state of the question among scholars: ‘Most scholars currently incline to see the passage as basically authentic, with a few later insertions by Christian scribes.’ (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, page 249).’

Christopher Price (Did Josephus refer to Jesus? www.bede.org.uk/Josephus.htm) does a phrase by phrase analysis of the TF in which he takes the third view listed above and shows how the language of the text fits in with Josephus’ use of Greek and is unlikely to be used by a Christian.  In particular he notes that the phrase ‘wise man’ is used by Josephus to apply to Solomon and Daniel, but is not the kind of phrase a Christian would use about Jesus.  The phrase for wonderful works (‘paradoxa’) is used by Josephus to describe incredible deeds, but is nowhere used in the New Testament or in early Christian literature to describe the miracles of Jesus.  It would be unlikely that a Christian would say that Jesus drew over many Jews and Gentiles, since the Gospels record that Jesus did not go to the Gentiles or send the disciples to them until after the resurrection.  By the time Josephus was writing though this would be a reasonable statement to make for one who was not on the inside of the Messianic movement, but saw that both Jews and Gentiles followed Jesus. Christopher Price says ‘Josephus simply retrojected the situation of his own day, into the time of Jesus.’

 

The parts of the TF which are most clearly disputed as original and probably were inserted by a later Christian writer are the phrases ‘If it be lawful to call him a man’ and ‘He was the Christ.’  A Christian writer may have inserted these phrases to show that Jesus was more than a wise man and was the Messiah.   On the other hand some scholars say the original may have read ‘He was the so-called Christ’ and a later Christian writer deleted ‘so-called.’  Also the section ‘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’ is likely to be a later addition.  

 

If we take these sections out we have a statement which is still significant in what it tells us about Jesus:

 

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following among many Jews and among many of Gentile origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) had not died out.

 

The second reference in Josephus, in Book 20 describes the murder of Jesus’ brother, James (Yakov), at the hands of Ananus, the High Priest.

But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.

Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1

This passage is found in every copy of the Antiquities we have and there is no textual evidence against it.  It uses non-Christian terminology. The designation of James as the ‘brother of Jesus’ contrasts with Christian practice of referring to him as the ‘brother of the Lord’ or ‘brother of the Saviour.’   The emphasis of the passage is not on Jesus or even James, but on Ananus the high priest and the turbulence he caused. There is no praise for James or Jesus. This is not what we would expect if this were an interpolation. Neither this passage nor the larger one connects Jesus with John the Baptist, whom Josephus also writes about, as we would expect from a Christian interpolator.  The bulk of the evidence therefore favours highly the genuineness of this passage.  Josephus does not say that Jesus was the Christ (Messiah) but that he was the so-called Messiah.  In other words he is saying this is not his belief, but implies that there are those who do believe Jesus to be the Messiah.

Josephus ends up being a rich source for confirmation of the Gospel record:

 

Information on Josephus taken from http://www.tektonics.org/jesusexist/josephus.html and ‘Did Josephus refer to Jesus?’ by Christopher Price www.bede.org.uk/Josephus.htm

 

The Talmud and Rabbinic writings.

 

The Talmud (from the Hebrew word meaning ‘instruction or learning’) is a central text of mainstream Judaism, in the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history.  The Talmud has two components: the Mishna (c. 200 CE), the first written compendium of Judaism's Oral Law; and the Gemara (c. 500 CE), a discussion of the Mishna and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Tanakh.

In around 200 CE when Rabbi Judah Hanasi compiled the document called the Mishna. He saw that the conditions for the Jews were going from bad to worse, with the Temple destroyed, the Sanhedrin no longer able to meet and no central authority functioning as Jews fled the land of Israel and endured persecutions. In order to preserve what Judaism calls the Oral Torah, he decided the time had come to write it down so he went to as many rabbis as he could in order to extract from them their entire memories. He put those recollections together, edited them and the result was the Mishna (which means repetition).  A commentary on the Mishna was added called the Gemara, the entire compilation being known as the Talmud.

When considering the Talmud in relation to Jesus we have to remember three things:

 

  1. It was written a long time after Jesus.
  2. It was written at a time when there was a total division between those who believed Jesus to be the Messiah and those who did not.  
  3. It was written by those who were strongly opposed to belief in Jesus as the Messiah.

In his book ‘Answering Jewish objections to Jesus’ (volume 4), Michael Brown writes on this subject (p 63-4):

 

‘As for the Rabbinic writings, there are numerous possible references to Jesus, under the name of Balaam, Ben Stada, or ‘a certain one,’ but there is dispute about whether they really refer to him … There are also clear references to a certain ‘Yeshu’, but either the Talmud has its chronology totally amiss, placing him in different centuries more than a hundred years apart (see b. Sanhedrin 107b; b. Sotah 47a, placing him during the time of King Jannaeus, who died in 76 BCE), or else at least one of the references does not speak of Jesus (it is, however, possible that the Talmudic editors did in fact make such a chronological error).  In these various accounts Jesus is seen among other things, as a deceiver, idolater and apostate, but, to repeat, it is uncertain as to how many of these texts, if any, intended to speak of Jesus of Nazareth.’

 

Having said that there are some definite references to Jesus in the Talmud (always spelt Yeshu), most prominently the following account:

 

On the ever of Passover they hanged Yeshu the Nazarene.  And a herald went before him for forty days, saying, ‘He is going to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and led Israel astray.  Anyone who knows anything in his favour let him come and plead on his behalf.’  But not having found anything in his favour, they hanged him on the eve of Passover.’  (b. Sanh. 43a, t. Sanh. 10.11, y. Sanh. 7.16, 67a).

 

The same passage from b. Sanh 43a also states that ‘Jesus practiced magic and led Israel astray’ (b Sanh 43a, cf. t. Shabbat 11.15, b. Shabbat 104b), making reference to five of his disciples, although only some of their names agree with their New Testament counterparts, pointing to the Talmud’s vague and largely erroneous recollection of the details surrounding the life and death of Jesus.  There is also a negative reference to ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ in b. Sanh 103a, cf Berakhot 17b) and there are negative references to some of his followers in the early Tannaitic literature, notably as having the power to heal (see t. Hul 2.22-23).

 

Also of significance to traditional Jews, despite its late date, is the testimony of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204).  In its original form (before being edited because of Catholic Church censors), Maimonides, in his law code, speaks of ‘Jesus of Nazareth who aspired to be the Messiah and was executed by the court,’ going on to explain why he could not be the Messiah but how, despite the false nature of their teachings, Christianity and Islam would still help prepare the world for the knowledge of the one true God (Hilcot Melachim 11.4).

 

For a religious Jew, this settles the question, since both the Talmud and Maimonides state clearly that Jesus lived and was put to death.  In fact for the traditional Jew the existence of Jesus has never been questioned.  Rather the question has been, Who is he really?  And that question remains relevant for every reader, both Jewish and Gentile.’  

 

Roman sources.

 

Tacitus.  (56-120 CE)

 

Asher Norman says Tacitus provided ‘no credible evidence for a historical Jesus.’

Tacitus mentions Christians and ‘Christus’ in Annals 15.44. This is an account of how the Emperor Nero attacked Christians (whom Tacitus wrongly calls ‘Chrestians’) in order to draw attention away from himself after the fire of Rome of 64 CE:

But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumour, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.

 

Very few historians would assert that this quote is a forgery.  It is written in the style of Tacitus and appears in every known copy of the Annals.  The anti-Christian tone is so strong that it is extremely unlikely that a Christian could have written it.  Tacitus was known as a very careful historian who checked his sources.  

 

Tacitus turns out to be an extremely rich source of data that confirms important aspects of Christian history:

For a detailed analysis of the quotation from Tacitus go to http://www.tektonics.org/jesusexist/tacitus.html

 

Pliny the Younger (62?-c.113).  

He was Governor of Bithynia. His correspondence in 106 AD with the emperor Trajan included a report on proceedings against Christians. In his letter 96 of Book 10 he spoke of false Christians who willingly ‘reviled Christ’ but also described the actions and practices of those who remained faithful:

In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel not doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement. There were others also possessed with the same infatuation, but being citizens of Rome, I directed them to be carried thither.

 

They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, 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.

 

Like Tacitus, Pliny is hostile to Christianity and describes how as a governor he tried Christians.  There is no question about this being a later Christian addition and the style of writing matches perfectly with Pliny’s usual style.  Pliny was in a position of power as a governor and clearly encountered Christians in the course of his duties.  

 

From Pliny we learn that Jesus was worshipped, and that some believers died for belief in Him, in the early second century. We learn of several aspects of worship that correspond with the New Testament - Worshipping Jesus as a divine person and living an ethical life based on God’s commandments.

For more information on Pliny go to http://www.tektonics.org/jesusexist/pliny.html

 

Suetonius. (70-140)

 

The references in Suetonius’ writings are not very conclusive.  In his book the ‘Deified Claudius’ he writes: ‘Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chrestus.’ It is not certain that this is really a reference to Christ because he spells the word Chrestos (rather than Christos) and it also implies that ‘Chrestos’ was alive at the time when Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome (c 49CE). It may be that Suetonius was writing about the activities of Christians and wrongly presumed from one of his sources that ‘Chrestus’ had at some time in the past personally delivered his message to Rome.  That is why he seems to indicate that Chrestus was directly behind the agitation, whereas it was in fact his followers who were involved.  Or it may be that he was writing about a man called Chrestus who was behind the disturbances in Rome and this quote had nothing to do with Jesus.  

 

This passage does confirm the expulsion of Jews from Rome referred to in Acts. Acts 18.2 refers to this event and shows that there were Jewish believers in Jesus living in Rome at that time (Aquila and Priscilla).   This is commonly dated in 49 CE, though some prefer 41 CE.  If there were Christians in Rome in 41-49 AD, that is a strong indication that Jesus existed, since His life would have been well within the memories of those living at the time.

 

For more information go to http://www.tektonics.org/jesusexist/suey.html

 

Other writers.

 

Thallus was a historian who wrote in Greek in approximately 55 CE.  His works have been completely lost.  A third-century Christian historian, Julius Africanus, composed a History of the World down to around 220 CE in five volumes. In one of the surviving fragments, Julius discussed the three-hour darkness which occurred at the crucifixion of Jesus and makes this comment:

 

‘On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Saviour falls on the day before the Passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun.’

 

For more information on this subject go to  http://christianthinktank.com/jrthal.html .  Here Glenn Miller does a lengthy study of this passage in which he gives evidence that both Thallus and Julius Africanus were reliable historians and draws this conclusion. ‘The reference to the miraculous darkness around the Crucifixion of my Lord--even documented as to the hours by Phlegon!--is powerful evidence not only for the ‘existence of Jesus’, but for the reliability of those portions of the gospel accounts that describe that phenomena. In the public records of the day, a ‘most fearful darkness’ followed our rejection of the Light of the World.’

 

Other less important classical writers also speak of the historical Jesus, including Mara bar Serapion, (c 73 CE) who speaks of Jesus as the ‘wise king’ of the Jews;  Lucian of Samosata (c 115-200 CE) writes of ‘that one whom they still worship today, the man in Palestine who was crucified because he brought this new form of initiation into the world’ (for more information on Lucian go to http://www.tektonics.org/jesusexist/lucian.html).

 

Conclusion.

 

In the end none of these writers can be held up to prove or disprove the case for Jesus as the Messiah.  The fact that these writings exist, as well as numerous writings by believing Christians from this period, does show us that Jesus existed.  It is interesting that the prophecy of Isaiah 53 indicates the obscure origins of the ‘Servant’ and the unbelief and rejection he would experience:

 

‘Who has believed our report?
 And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground.  He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. 
He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.’  Isaiah 53.1-3.

 

The rejection of Jesus and of his message is a fulfilment of this scripture.  Nevertheless this prophecy goes on to indicate that there would be those who would profit from his sacrifice and the he would bear ‘the sin of many’ and ‘see his seed’ (those who believe) and ‘prolong his days’ (through the resurrection from the dead).  

 

‘Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief.  When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand. He shall see the labour of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.’  Isaiah 53.10-12.

 

The New Testament also speaks of both a rejection and an acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah:

 

‘He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.  He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.  But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.’  John 1.10-13

 

In the end the real question we have to ask is not whether Jesus existed, which in reality is a no starter.  The question is ‘Who is He really?’  As Michael Brown has said in our quote above, ‘That question remains relevant for every reader, both Jewish and Gentile.’

 updated 7/6/11

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