G’Day World #344 – Ben Witherington III on the Historicity of Jesus

My guest on #344 is Ben Witherington III, an evangelical Biblical scholar and lecturer on New Testament Studies, who is currently Professor on the New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.

Ben Witherington

In our discussion, Prof. Witherington makes a case for the historicity of the New Testament and for the existence of Jesus. While he seems to agree with me on certain facts (eg that Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are anonymous documents and that Paul was not an eyewitness), he makes the argument that they can be treated as eyewitness testimonies.

During the show, you’ll notice a couple of times when Ben caught me off-guard and I’ve added my later thoughts into the show, after I had a chance to read up on his claims. I’ve put some links to further information on those issues below:

1st Century Historians Who Strangely Don’t Mention Jesus
The Acts of Pilate
Who Wrote The Gospel Of John?

If you haven’t heard my previous show with Robert M Price (who argues that Jesus is a mythological character), then you can find it here.

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54 thoughts on “G’Day World #344 – Ben Witherington III on the Historicity of Jesus

  1. Cam,

    Man that guy isn’t very far from where I live, but there are even more scary people who live in my neighborhood. (this guy was at least respectful and well spoken)

    Enjoyed the show

  2. Man, he had pretty weak arguments all along, but the bit at the end of believing everything by default was just bollocks.

    And two details: every time he wanted to explain of you should trust a second hand eyewitness he always used pretty credible stories to begin with, like “I’m from North Carolina”, “There was a car accident”. Not “I just saw this guy rising from death”.

    And AFAIK the Nag Hammady texts were transalated from Greek to Coptic, and Gnosticism can be traced to even a few centuries before Christianism, and certainly in the first century before Jesus supposed life itself, so his claims that it was only around during the third or fourth centuries seems a bit crazy.

  3. Also, I’d have loved if you asked him about the Christian theory that the life of Jesus being so similar to countless stories of previous mythical beings is an evil interpolation done by the Devil to discredit Jesus.

  4. I was actually heading in that direction at some stage but I didn’t think it’d prove any point. I just wanted to stick with demonstrating that even the top Christian theologians can’t provide even a half-solid argument based on evidence.

  5. Would it be worth reading his book, then and doing another show with subsequent research that were points of contention that you did not have the knowledge on hand during the show?

  6. Some Dude – which points were under contention? I think apart from the ones I noted in the shownotes above (and which I feel safe in saying aren’t really an issue) basically we disagree on the approach to determining historical fact.

    Ben believes you should take ancient documents at face value as being accurate descriptions of history.

    I believe you need to examine all ancient documents with a critical eye, especially those written by an extremist religious cult claiming extraordinary events which seem improbable by modern standards, and look for hard evidence to support them before you give them any credibility.

  7. One in particular that stood out to me was the notion that the story of Jesus was obviously not a myth because genre signals that indicated it was a biography, not fiction. Based on what he was saying towards the end of the interview, he takes a position of belief in a claim unless he can eliminate the story due to certain genre signals e.g. a romance etc. It seemed to me that there are plenty of stories that would fit the same criteria yet I’m assuming he would continue to move them to the myth category.

    It would also be interesting to get Ben’s feedback on the post show notes, and the question about the origins of Gnosticism.

    Thanks for a really interesting show.

  8. Yeah, I’d argue that the “genre signals” of the Jesus story correspond to those of a mystery cult (eg Mithra, Heracles, etc), not biography at all.

  9. Raglan’s list on the Minnesota Atheists link you provided has a good list of Hero story attributes under the “Was Jesus a myth historicized?” section.

  10. Interestingly, I’ve been having a conversation with Ben on email. He’s accused me several times of not having an open mind and I’ve said I’m open, I just require evidence. In reply, I asked him what kind of evidence it would take for him to STOP believing in God. He said:

    “you would have to provide me with compelling proof that either 1) I am delusional (good luck on that one); or 2) since I am not notably a gullible person, that all and every miracle that has ever happened from the hands or by the power of Jesus did not happen; and 3) if it could be shown with substantial COUNTER EVIDENCE that the NT was nothing but fiction, well then I would give up I guess.

    So I proposed a challenge:

    Here’s my challenge to you – we’ll jointly compose a series of scientific experiments to test the effects of prayer.

    After the experiments, if the group being prayed for has a significantly higher rate of recovery, I will renounce my atheism.

    If, however, the prayer group does not show a higher rate of recovery, you will renounce your Christianity.

    But… Ben declined, saying “there is often a correlation between faith and that sort of healing, and lack of faith and the absence of it.”

    I replied:

    “So is it the prayer or the faith that is involved in the healing? And if it’s the faith of the person being healed, how do you know it isn’t a psycho-somatic recovery? Anyway, I’m happy for you to hand-pick the people being prayed for so you can choose the ones you consider to be truly faithful.

    I’ve given you the perfect opportunity to verify your claims to miracle healing and to convert a non-believer.”

    Let’s see what he says.

  11. Cam

    Great show.

    It seems one of the big issues around this subject is that it’s very hard to get at the objective case.

    Ben Witherington is desperate to convince us that Jesus existed because if Jesus is indeed a myth, it would undermine Ben’s whole life.

    Robert M Price (it could be argued) also has much to lose from accepting the case that Jesus did exist, as again it would mean a huge reassessment of much of what he stands for. Though you could also argue that he has less to lose than the Ben position.

    Ben mentioned in the show a Jewish female historian who agrees that Jesus is an historical figure. If so, that would seem to be a more objective source, as she wouldn’t have the same desire to prove the argument one way or another, I wouldn’t have thought.

    Do we know if she is credible as an historian, or is there something Ben didn’t mention? Perhaps you could get her on the show too.


  12. More from my discussion with Ben:

    In response to be offer to let him pick the people “of strong faith” for the miracle cure experiments, he says:

    “Healing Cameron comes from God. Sometimes he graciously
    does this for people who have faith, sometimes he heals persons who have no faith at all. There is some mystery to this. Neither prayer nor faith is some sort of magic talisman that twists God’s arm, and instantly produces healing.”

    My reply:

    “So, Ben, if you’re saying that prayer doesn’t work reliably enough to test it scientifically, how can you claim to know it works at all? If it just works randomly, how can you be 100% sure that some different agency is at work? And how are you going to “come up with a couple of Christian miracles” if we can’t test scientifically for other explanations for the cure?

    I think, though, this gives me a platform for one of your other proofs. A delusion is commonly defined as a fixed false belief. You believe in miracle cures but then say it doesn’t work reliably enough for a scientific test and decline to even participate in such a test to determine if the belief is true. That sounds like a fixed false belief to me, sir.

    I have given you a chance to put your theory of miracle cures to the test and you’ve declined. I proved I am open minded enough to renounce my atheism if the tests worked in your favour. But you’ve declined to put your faith to the test. I think that tells me a lot about the level of your faith and the level of your own open mindedness.

    warm regards,

  13. Interesting show and a good interview. A shame you didn’t hold the other guy in the last show who disputed the existence of Jesus as accountable. Natural I suppose when you agree with him more.

    What would be really good would be for you to have interviewed them at the same time. Or rather lead a discussion between them and keep them grounded but don’t argue for or against yourself. By having expert against expert you won’t get caught up in what you don’t know yourself.

  14. Cam,
    I’m confused on what you want for evidence of Jesus. Ben’s interview aside. I know that you were attempting to be fair with Ben (you did a great job in the interview), but maybe it would have been better to get a non-christian that supports the historicity, there are plenty.

    I am a layman but let’s give it a try.

    1) The Gospel of Mark was written around 70 CE. And Tacitus writes (though 50 years later) of Nero’s persecution of Christians in 64 CE. Jesus is supposed to have died around 30 CE. Do you really think its possible for someone to get away with a hoax of this magnitude, when people would still be alive to have seen the Crucifixion?

    Inventing stuff up about a guy, easy to do. Inventing a whole new person, who you then claim was publicly executed, and then pull that hoax off while those people are still alive, much much harder. Why were they not called to task on the hoax then?

    Not believing he was God is easy to understand, but not believing the man existed? That takes alot of faith.

    But I’m up for the next step in this debate, what would you like to hear?


  15. Nick, did you hear the show I did with Robert Price (see show notes above for a link)? We discussed the myth scenario in detail.

    I can easily imagine how a fraud like this would be perpetrated. You have to keep in mind that we’re talking about a primitive people, with little or no literacy, in a backwater of the Roman empire. They had a long tradition of believing in messiahs and prophets (such as “Judah”, the messiah depicted in the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were a primitive, uneducated people living in the desert who may have been very easy to deceive, must as people living in the Middle East 2000 years later STILL believe that there will be 200 virgins waiting for them if they commit an act of terrorism.

    But my point isn’t that he didn’t exist, just that we have no solid evidence that he DID exist.

    Chris Summerfield, over on the shownotes from the show I did with Price, has suggested some further theologians to interview, so I’ll chase them up.

  16. Tom – yes, getting both Price and Witherington would have been interesting. In what way didn’t you think I held Price accountable? Over what statements?

  17. Maybe I’m just confused on what you mean by ‘solid.’

    I 100% believe Ramsesses II lived, yet all I have is Egyptian evidence that was made and written by people who have a huge biased agenda and we know lie to make themselves look good. I’m not saying there’s not lots of stuff on Ramsesses, but there is nothing that we can “prove” was written by anyone that actually saw or knew him. No different than Jesus, just because they have an obvious agenda, as all historical writers of the time did, doesn’t mean that we can’t accept anything they wrote. We have ample Christian evidence supporting Jesus, yet you don’t want to accept it because they have an agenda… just like everybody else did…

    Like I said, we have, IMHO solid, evidence that Christians existed within the same generation of people that would have been capable of witnessing Jesus’s public execution. I mean unless you don’t believe Tacitus, which if you don’t maybe we should start by discussing that, then Christians were persecuted by Nero in 60’s….. for there to be enough of them to even be persecuted they would have had to be around for some years prior….

    We have people saying it happened within 50 years of the event, to disagree with there accounts because of bias is great, to think that they invented a public figure…. To believe that they would have been capable of inventing that character from thin air? Not with such a public execution as they claim…. not in a major metropolitan city like Jerusalem. That’s too much for me. They would at the very least need a real person to fill that role…. otherwise the Pharisees, or Sadducees would have written testimony saying they made it up. They would need the public testimony of people who had been alive then, but more importantly they would have needed the silence, and lack of criticism from other people that would have direct incentive to call them out as liars. The silence of the Jewish community, speaks volumes in support of the Christian gospel writers that, at the very least, their man existed.

    On a different angle, if he was made up I have a hard time accepting some of the stuff that they put in there. I mean honestly, Jesus’s last words were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Not exactly the lines I would have my made up god saying. I submit that this is very much just my opinion, but those lines seem far too real, or if Jesus didn’t say them, from a man who actually saw it and felt the pain of seeing the devotion of your life executed, no matter what the rest of the book says.

    I would disagree that Judea was a “black water” province. I would also disagree at how primitive Romans were. I also think we disagree on the reliability of oral cultural heritage. Hmm, I don’t know if this challenge is doable but… can you come up some other examples of individuals that were completely made up within the same generation as their “death.” My experience is that myths happen all the time, and people get recorded as doing things they didn’t really do very quickly, but inventing people, there almost always from some “distant past,” right?

    (I haven’t listened to the Price one yet…. I just got it DLed…)


  18. Hmm,

    I found the Prince interview moderately helpful:

    I’m confused on some of Robert’s arguments here. He claims that Josepheus’ writings don’t count because they’ve been tampered with, yet he quote Oregin as saying that Joepheus didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. I’m confused as to how Origen could know that if Josepheus didn’t write about Jesus?

    His critique of Papius is terrible. Papius wrote about some crazy stupid things…… so did every ancient Greek and Roman historian….

    His charge that the Gospels don’t look like the other eye witness accounts is questionable as well. The problem is he is looking at GREEK literature (he references Xenophone I believe). This is just ignorance. Jesus wasn’t Greek, and consequently neither were the apostles. The Gospels do look like other accounts from eastern and Jewish thought.

    He also says that it wouldn’t matter if the Gospel’s had been written 10 minutes after the crucifixion. It seems to me that he’s demand eye witness accounts at the same time he’s arguing that they don’t count. Still trying to figure out what is wanted for “solid” evidence.

    I found his dating of the gospels as well into the 2nd century out of touch with accepted historical thought. As well as his doubting that any epistles were written by Paul. His ascertain that the earliest Christians weren’t concerned with a real Jesus seems quite flawed, and seems to think that Christianity started as solely Gnostic. hmm,

    A very knowledgeable man and a good interview but when you ask why the rest of main stream historians don’t agree with him, he claim they have a mental block… not the best defense I’ve heard.

    – Nick

  19. Nick, when reading ancients accounts of, say, Ramesses, their reliability has a lot to do with the claims being made and who made them.

    So, for example, if a scribe working for the Pharoah claimed that Ramesses had magical powers, I’d be skeptical for two reasons: first that the claim of being a God doesn’t fit with my knowledge of science and second that the person writing it had an obvious agenda.

    However, if the scribe writes that the Pharoah built Abu Simbel, that’s less of a concern because the claim is pretty straightforward.

    When I read an account written by religious zealots claiming that their prophet lived and had magical powers, I have to initially treat it skeptically. That isn’t to say it should be dismissed out of hand, but that for it to be credible it requires additional evidence to support it. Unfortunately for Christianity, there isn’t any.

    This goes for the public execution in Jerusalem. Why didn’t any of non-Christian witnesses write about it?

    Do you seriously think that by the time the Gospels were written, even if that was as early as three or four decades later, that the people being preached to could remember whether or not a guy had been executed decades previously?

    That’s like a regular citizen in Dallas remembering someone who was executed on death row in Texas in the 1968.

  20. Cam, (do you mind Cam, or do you prefer Cameron?)

    I would say they would. Though I would argue for a later date than 1968, not necessarily for the gospels, but that Tacitus gives us Christians by the equivalent of 1988 (given a year or two for their numbers to grow to a persecuteable? level). And the idea that the early Christians weren’t talking about a physical Jesus just doesn’t hold any water with me. Ignatius (A Christian), writing in 110’s CE, makes it clear that Christians are worshiping a man who was executed.

    I mean these people have been passing on oral tradition for ever. That’s what they did.

    But there is one major event working against me. Tacitus records the death toll of the Jewish revolt (70? CE) as having a death toll of 600,000…. Josephus 1,197,000. And while I don’t know about those numbers destruction of that magnitude would be very hard on oral tradition.

    But this really is the sum of our impasse. I have no problem with the delay of a few decades, specifically when we’re arguing about his existence, as opposed to his substance. And find it unacceptable that a public figure could be inventing within one lifetime. Especially when you add in the epistles that are older than the gospels (so before 70 CE) that show the presence of 20ish Christian communities around the empire. That some people invented this man after the fact? No, the simplest answer is usually the right one. The Gospels are an attempt to synthesize the oral traditions of these 20ish communities, as there founding leaders began to dying.

    While this evidence is not 100% conclusive, I don’t see any evidence that supports Jesus’s non-existence. All you have is a lack of outside evidence at the time, but aside from some stuff going on in Rome itself, there is very little contemporary writings of historical events going on at all. The vast majority of the data from this time period is from historians looking back on past events, as we do have for Jesus.


  21. Nick

    You say “the simplest answer is usually the right one” and I agree with you. For me, the simplest answer to the Jesus question is that a group of religious zealots tried to give their particular sect additional authority over the others by claiming that their messiah was actually flesh and blood and concocted stories to that effect.

    The alternative – that a “God” walked the earth, raising the dead, walking on water, turning water into wine, returning from the dead… and nobody living during his time wrote anything down about it – is the much more implausible scenario.

    The evidence that supports Jesus’s non-existence is the complete lack of evidence OF his existence. The argument that “we don’t have evidence that he didn’t exist therefore he did exist” is a deductive fallacy.

    When you read something written in ancient times that sounds like many other legends written before and after it, then the simplest explanation is that it is also a legend. To prove otherwise requires evidence and the Jesus legend doesn’t have any.

    Now, of course, you will believe what you want to believe, but don’t kid yourself that it was any basis in history.

  22. Nick,

    just one comment. That Christians were executed just 30 years after Jesus (supposed) death does not really prove anything other than there were Christians at that point in time, which nobody doubts. Paul, writing around 50 C.E. IIRC, was also a Christian and yet from his writings you couldn’t tell if he thought Jesus was a real person or not. He only talks about his death and resurrection, does not give any detail of his life, and makes some remarks about the “Christ” being the spiritual being released after death, implying that the man itself was not really important neither the Christ he follows/praises. Sounds a lot like Gnosticism to me, but I’m not really an expert.

    Someone gave me this link (http://leoquix.blogspot.com/2007/11/post-for-curious.html) in a previous podcast comments. The series goes, in 5 hours, through a lot of the issues in this topic. It’s great stuff.

  23. well,

    I think we’ve reached a pretty good consensus on the evidence:

    *A group of people lived in 30 years of Jesus’s “death.” – This os supported by Tacitus

    “We have the letters between those people.” – The Epistles, who’s authenticity maybe be in question, but not there origin.

    “We have written accounts by these people in 40 years of the Jesus’s “death.”

    However, I would disagree with your conclusion that an incredible complex scheme to invent a person while people were still a live to have “known” him is not the simplest.

    That some dude lived, spoke out against the oppression and was executed, as has happened so many times in history, is the simplest answer.

    -“Now, of course, you will believe what you want to believe, but don’t kid yourself that it was any basis in history.”-

    I think we are operating on the same, or similar data. I just disagree with your conclusion. Faith is not necessary, as the support of a great many non-Christian Historians can attest to. Nope, just interpret what the facts mean differently than you.

    -“The alternative – that a “God” walked the earth, raising the dead, walking on water, turning water into wine, returning from the dead… and nobody living during his time wrote anything down about it – is the much more implausible scenario.”-

    This isn’t the “alternative” at all. This is not a black and white your either a Christian, or you don’t believe Jesus lived at all problem. As a said there are plenty of people with no faith in a god that still agree that the evidence supports a real Jesus of some capacity.

    And, Xan you have some valid points, but debating the true meaning and intent of the Epistles is some intense business. I would argue that your conclusions are well based, but there a many different ways to read them that are just as well based. I see a very different picture when I read them. And while we can have that debate, there are no “facts” to be had, just many, many interpretations that seem to find a way of supporting each individuals preconceptions, whatever those already were.

    – Nick

  24. Nick,

    “Plenty of people” believing that Jesus lived doesn’t convince me. “Plenty of people” believed the earth was flat as well. What’s important is evidence.

    Do we have eyewitness accounts? No.

    Do we have other contemporary accounts (eg from historians or official documents)? No.

    Do we have corroborating evidence (eg something belonging to Jesus, his body, DNA, tomb, paintings done of him in his lifetime, etc)? No.

    All we have is stories told by a primitive people about a magic man who once walked the earth and did wondrous things.

    And, as Xan points out, the earliest of those stories are told by “Paul” in the Epistles and he doesn’t sound like he’s talking about a dude who was recently walking around. He writes in the style of a mystery religion.

    For example:

    In Galatians 2:20 and Galatians 6:14, Paul says that he too has been crucified.”I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”

    The writings of Paul present Jesus Christ as a “mystery”, who is being revealed by Paul and others through the interpretation of scriptures and prophetic writings. His “crucifixion” is described metaphorically and supernaturally, not as a recent event that had just happened a few years prior on earth.

    But as you say, Nick, there are no facts. So – when there are no facts to support the theory that someone lived, why believe he did?

  25. Robert Price was correct.
    Prof. Witherington used every old cannard known to man in his suport for the historicity of Jesus, and the reliability of the gospel narratives.
    He even went so far as to assert that the apostles wouldn’t have died for a religion which they knew to be false. There is a gaping flaw with this argument however, and it is that we don’t know with any reliability how ANY ofthe apostles died. All we have are late and dubious legends about how they supposedly died, all of which were the product of the Catholic propoganda machine, and spread about after all the original apostles would have been long dead.

    I can think of one VERY good reason why the early apostles would fabricate legends about the man Jesus. The reason is because they were fleecing their flocks of all their possessions. The Bible even describes how each new convert was required to sell all their possessions and lay the money at the feet of the apostles. The apostles were quite simply running a cosmic ‘protection racket’. Of course the Bible claims that the funds were distributed back to the Christian communities concerned. But how do we know how much of these funds were being skimmed off the top straight into the apostle’s own pockets?
    It sure would have beaten fishing for a living!

    I would be fascinated to be able view a copy of their accounts and cash flow statements. I’m confident that they would have make for some VERY interesting reading.

    Anyway, I haven’t finished listening to the entire interview yet, so it will be interesting to hear what else Witherington has to say about these matters.

  26. Dave, that’s a great point. I’m not sure (perhaps you can confirm this) that we have any non-Christian accounts of the deaths of the Apostles? We certainly know that the “Catholic” church developed the act of fleecing it’s subjects into a fine art over the next 1500 years. The bishops and cardinals built huge palaces for themselves to live in, and horded art and mistresses, while the people who donated the money lived in abject poverty.

  27. We have absolutely NO non-Christian accounts of how any of the apostles supposedly died.
    Even the Bible gives us virtually no information about any of these mysterious apostles. And the little information it does supply, is inconsistant and contradictory.
    In the book ‘The Acts of the Apostles’, the original apostles virtually all vanish very early on in the book. The work entitled the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ would be more accurately described as, the ‘Acts of Peter and Paul’. Even Peter dissappears after chapter 12, and from then on in, all we hear about are the exploits of Paul.

    A good short article to read about the matter of the apostle’s deaths is this one by Farrell Till, at ‘The Skeptical Review online’

    Another good article is this one.
    Some of the reader comments make interesting reading all on their own.

    Like most Christian apologists, Witherington simply assumes the very things he is attempting to prove.

  28. -The author of the gospel of John never claimed to be an eyewitness anywhere in the entire book. The gospel of John is written entirely in the third person, not the first person.
    It always refers to “they” and “them” , not “me” and “us”. The appendix to the book contains the claim that it was written by an eyewitness (chapter 21 v.24), but it was not written by the original author. It was an anonymous ‘we’ who made that claim.

    -Many of the gospel traditions were adapted from previous religions, and even contemporary novels. Bob Price has discussed this at some length in a variety of articles and interviews.

    -Most Bible scholars are Bible believing Christians. Talk about a biased sample! It’s no wonder that most Bible scholars happen to agree with Witherington’s opinions.

    -According to the gospel Jesus, as well as other New Testament personalities, Christians definitely earn browny points for doing charitable works.
    The author of the episle of James, even goes so far as to say that “faith without works is barren”, and that “faith without works is dead”.
    Paul wrote about God’s judgement in Romans chapter 2; “For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.
    Jesus, in the book of Mark, is reputed to have said; “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
    And in the book of Luke,
    “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.”
    How ridiculous for Witherington to suggest that Christians do not build up brownie points for doing charitable deeds.

    -The Testamonium Flavianum is in my opinion an entire interpolation. It intrudes upon, and interupts the flow of the prose in that particular passage. This particular passage in Josephus reads better and smoother with the ‘Testimonium’ removed from it.

    -According to the gospel of John (chapter 2), right at the beginning of his career, Jesus is supposed to have driven the money-changers out of the temple with a whip, and overturned the tables of those selling sacrificial animlas etc. thereby causing a riot within the temple precincts. The synoptic gospels, in contradiction to this story, have him doing this right at the end of his career. Where does Witherington get off stating that hardly anybody had heard of Jesus until right at the end of his career? Jesus was supposedly had vast multitudes of people following him around all over the countryside, and you can bet your life that anyone who started a riot in the Jerusalem temple during a religious festival would have attracted the attention of the entire city. According to the Bible, Jesus did indeed attract such attention!

    -How does Witherington know that the author of the gospel of john was in fact a 1st century Jew living in Palestine, who would have been stoned for writing this gospel? Another unfounded assumption. Does Witherington really have any idea about where or when this gospel was written?

    -Does Witherington believe every ridiculous claim that Papius supposedly made in his writings?

    -Seutonius and Tacitus NEVER claimed that Jesus’ crucifixion was recorded in the Roman records. That is an outright lie. They merely reiterated what the contemporary Christians of their time believed.

    -We don’t actually have Papius’ own original testimony. We only have Papius’ words through the quotes of the third-fourth century church historian Eusebius. In other words, “he said, that he said, that he said”. Talk about crappy 3rd hand hearsay testimony!

    -Christianity FAILED MISERABLY in ancient Palestine. The vast majority of Palestinian Jews denounced and rejected the idea that Jesus was some kind of Jewish messiah. Christianity only really began to flourish once it hit the Pagan Greek and Roman world, where people were accustomed to myths of dying and resurrected saviour gods.

    -Martyrs don’t have to ‘die with their boots on’ in order to be venerated as some kind of hero. Many community leaders have been persecuted for their beliefs by the powers that be. At any rate, it wasn’t the crucifixion which cemented Jesus’ reputation as a messiah figure, but rather the legends about his resurrection and ascension into heaven.

    -We know the character of the disciples based on the gospel narratives. Take Peter for example. According to the Bible, Peter was a lying, cowardly, bully, as were other of the disciples. All the disciples are supposed to have deserted Jesus and fled at the first sign of trouble, leaving Jesus to die an ignominious death at the hands of the Roman authorities as a seditionist and a rabble-rouser. All I can say is that he can’t have been a very convincing miracle working superman.

    -Josephus wasn’t a contemporary of Jesus. He lived AD 37 – 100.

    -Pliny wrote that Christians “were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god”, not “worship Jesus as the Christ”, as Witherington stated.

    -Luke did NOT claim to have gotten his information directly from eyewitnesses.
    Here is the text in question.
    [1] Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us,
    [2] just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,
    [3] it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-oph’ilus, (RSV).
    Luke only says the eyewitnesses handed down the information (1:2), not that Luke was the direct recipient of anything from them (nor even that the others were, either, whom Luke says were compiling similar stories)–for he writes paredosan hêmin, “handed down to us,” i.e. the present generation of Christians, not Luke specifically.
    Richard carrier has written extensivly on Luke’s incompetence as a historian here.
    Witherington was using a very poor Bible translation. I wonder which one he was using?

    -Did I really hear Witherington say that the evidence for Jesus is stronger than the evidence for Julius Caesar? WTF? : 0
    The evidence is strong???

    -Witherington claims that Paul probably met Jesus during his lifetime because he was a member of the Sanhedrin. Who says Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin? Nowhere in the Bible does it state that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin. All it states is that he claimed to be a Pharasee.
    For starters, in order to be a member of the Sanhedrin, a man was required to be married, and Paul specifically stated that he was single. Paul’s statement to the unmarried and widows in the Corinthian church gives evidence that he was not married at the time of his writing the letter: “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.”
    Does Witherington even believe his own bullsh1t?

    -Paul didn’t live in Jerusalem during his preaching career, and when he finally did go to Jerusalem he did get into trouble. By the way Cameron, we have no evidence that Paul was ever executed. All we have is more unsubstantiated Catholic tradition about that.

    -Paul may not have been intentionally lying, but he was a fanatical Jew before he became a fanatical Christian. I think he had some serious mental problems, and was more than likely a severely deluded individual.

    -The acts of Pilate? The acts of Pilate is well known to have been a blatant Christian forgery! Apologists and Bible scholars prefer to call these ancient forgeries ‘pseudepigrapha’, rather than forgeries.

    -Paul persecuted the early Church in Judea. Which meant that at the time all the gospel stories were supposed to be happening, he didn’t believe a word of it. It wasn’t until he experienced his hallucination, or epileptic seizure on the road to Damascus, that he supposedly changed his mind about Christianity. I believe that Paul was converted to some form of Gnosticism, and not orthodox Christianity as we know it. One thing is for sure, Paul definitely wasn’t a Methodist.

    -Witherington keeps going on and on about oral culture, while discussing the authorship of written literature??? What’s with that? He is certainly not an ancient historian, he is a Christian apologist through and through.

    -He says he believes that Peter really wrote 1 Peter, and that Jude the brother of Jesus really wrote the book of Jude? He’s got to be joking! How does he know such things, when the majority of reputable Bible scholars wouldn’t even dare to make such a claim?

    Anyway, that was a brain curdling interview, and I think you did well to keep your cool. Congratulations Cameron.

  29. Very smooth, relaxed interview with a difficult guest – you managed to expose Witherington’s weak arguments skilfully.

    Witherington’s facile rhetoric when he asks you to present evidence of the non-existence of something is hysterically funny. 🙂

  30. ha what sources two wikipedia pages and an atheist site.

    Funny you would probably believe what Josephus says about the Maccabeans but not on Jesus (not mentioning the ‘golden paragraph’ but the one of which one of his brothers viz. James gets stoned to death.

    And you probably would believe what Tacitus says on Tiberius but not on Jesus’ crucifixion.

    This is called selective hearing, only listening to what you want to hear, how unfortunate.
    Apparently all the ancient historians must have thrown away their usual care to the facts when it came to Jesus and just written about him anyway…do you know how stupid that sounds…

    The idea that Jesus is a mere fiction only became seriously endeavoured during the rise of German-higher criticism so just realise you are going against the tides of time and scholarship and instead picking the opinions of those who are in the margin and those who are uneducated in the matter.

    Indeed ancients who wrote works against Christianity such as Celsus and Hierocles never even pushed the opinion that Jesus didnt exist: once…not even once: because they knew that was absurd.

  31. Simon,

    The major problem with apologists such as yourself relying on Tacitus or Josephus in historicity arguments is that neither of them either claims to be a direct eyewitness of the events nor do they cite their sources.

    The TF clause in Josephus, which most scholars agree is a fake, raises another issue – if we agree that Christian authorities were prepared to insert fake clauses into these works in an attempt to bolster their story, then it suggests to me two things: 1) that other such sources might also be fake, especially as the oldest extant versions of them tend to be from around 1000CE and 2) that the need to fake sources in the first place suggests a lack of authentic sources.

    The bottom line with the historicity of Jesus is this:

    There is not a single firsthand eyewitness or contemporary account of him. None. For a guy who was supposedly performing regular magic tricks and disturbing the peace so much that his own people wanted him executed, there isn’t a single mention of him by contemporary Jewish scholars, his own people or the Roman authorities.

    So the best we can say is that he might have existed. Not much of a basis for all the hype.

  32. Witherington claimed that the various ancient Historians, mentioned by Cameron, referred to Roman records that Jesus was executed. I believe that that is false. He is making an unwarranted inference from their actual statements. I think their actual statements do not refer to any ‘records’ of Jesus’ execution. So he really seems to be twisting the evidence there.
    I think you should host a debate between Witherington and Dr. Price. That would be the ideal situation. Or a debate between Richard Carrier and Witherington. that would be fantastic!

  33. I’ve just finished listening to this podcast for the first time. I think Witherington did a fantastic job and I think its safe to say that he had Cameron on the ropes for a quite a bit, which is a rare thing indeed. However… on the ropes and knocked out are 2 different things entirely.

    Witherington does fail to point out one important point. When it comes down to it, it has to be a matter of faith in something that can NOT be proved. Witherington can believe in it 100% based on the evidence and Cameron can doubt it 100%. At least one of them is wrong and there is no scientific way to prove which at this point. But it does come down to faith. Witherington has it and Cameron does not.

    There is STRONG evidence for Jesus being a real person. That does not address the grand claims and if there were no grand claims of supernatural feats and power, then Jesus may very well not be contested. But it seems to me that everyone is in far too great of a hurry to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And as old as all of this is, 2,000 years ago is still quite modern to us in terms of records and knowledge of what was going on. Had it happened 1,000 or even 500 year earlier, we would have probably been out of luck on most of what we have.

  34. Mike, I’d be interested to know that you believe is the STRONG evidence. Considering there isn’t a single eyewitness or contemporary account of the man or his deeds, I think that’s a pretty bold statement.

  35. I don’t think its such a bold statement. There are many people in the ancient world for which there is little or no evidence other than just stories. Even many of the well known persons from the ancient world are based on a scrap or shred of evidence here or there. Perhaps 1 or 2 mentions in ancient documents which occurred around the time of their life or some time after their death. Certainly, many bits of information we now possess are from documents which are quoting much older documents that are no longer known to exist and some of those documents are quoting yet older documents.

    In the case of Jesus, we have the 4 gospels. Those at least are claiming to be eyewitness accounts, though you can debate their origins or veracity. We also have many accounts of people living immediately after the time of Jesus who would/could have known the eyewitnesses and wrote about it.

    Is this enough to prove beyond any doubt that Jesus lived? No. But that is an argument from silence. Its a great argument if you are trying to poke holes in an otherwise firmly held belief. But its another thing to eradicate that belief altogether from lack of better evidence to a standard that you dictate.

    The strong evidence is not the strength of any one of the arguments that are popularly made. To me, the strong evidence is that… had Christianity not gone anywhere or remained a minor messianic cult and never exploded into the gigolithic size it has, then you probably wouldn’t be so strongly questioning whether Jesus ever lived.

    As far as I know, we have no evidence for Buddha or Confuscious… I also am not aware of any personal handwritten accounts made by Mohammed himself or Saladin for that matter. We don’t have any concrete proof of any kind for the first of the Merovingian Kings, but there is little doubt that they existed as real people at some point, though what the reality of their life may have been could obviously be far different than what little we still hear about today.

    Additionally, because of the fraudulent claims made over the past 2,000 years by so many Christians of various sects/denominations its easy to assign claims of a hoax to almost anything miraculous that is claimed. While I would agree its good to question all of these things and also agree that Chrisitans only have their predecessors to blame for this reputation, those false claims are only justification to question and doubt the claims about Jesus. Or even doubt that he may have lived. Even that is fair.

    But to claim there isn’t strong evidence, that at the very least he was a real person who went around Israel teaching is to hold Jesus to a standard that we do not hold most other historical figures to. Even if it was totally faked, those who faked it could not have imagined how vast this religion would become.

    So to sum it up. In my opinion… whether you disagree with the veracity of the evidence or even doubt that Jesus lived, its a poor argument to claim he didn’t exist at all and it indicates bias on the part of the debater to disregard what evidence we do have as not strong for the mere existence of Jesus, which for almost any other figure would certainly qualify as a perponderence of evidence.

  36. Mike

    You’re wrong in a few places mate.

    1) The NT gospels do NOT claim to be eyewitness accounts. At best they claim to be BASED on eyewitness accounts of others, which makes them second-hand at best. And because most scholars agree that Matthew and Luke are based on Mark and Q – and John doesn’t recount life events – we actually only have one document to consider – Mark. And the author of Mark doesn’t claim to be an eyewitness.

    2) The “argument from silence” is that there is complete silence about Jesus from historians / scholars living in his time about him. That isn’t about poking holes. That’s about asking – why didn’t anyone living and writing 20 – 33 CE even mention him?

    3) You’re correct that we don’t have any firsthand sources of Mohamed, Confucius or Buddha either. The big difference between those three and Jesus, however, is that they aren’t claimed to be gods. They were mere men. It isn’t claimed that they were miracle workers. It’s the same thing when we look at the other people in ancient history that you refer to – as soon as its claimed that they were some kind of god or miracle worker, they are immediately put into the “possible myth” category. Think King Arthur.

    4) You claim there is a “preponderance of evidence” for Jesus’ existence but you haven’t mentioned what you think that is. I’ve explained that the NT gospels aren’t considered reliable by scholars. What else do you have?

      1. Thanks Jojo, I have read several of Ehrman’s books. While he makes some good points, I don’t find his arguments convincing.

  37. Yeah, I agree with you about the NT. I didn’t get overly specific about what my view is. But there is still a lot written about him compared to most other “mythical” figures like Hercules. But most scholars refused to even consider that the city of Troy was real until they found it not all that long ago.

    And certainly, we have a lot of references within 50 years or so of Jesus’ lifetime. We can’t say that for other mythical figures. And stories of God status and supernatural feats are nothing new. Many historical figures known to have existed had many such claims and stories made about. Alexander being one of them.

    And there are many more recent stories of people from Joseph Smith to Benny Hinn, most of the popes, the Fatima girls, etc… Each have devoted believers and skeptics, but they all were real people.

    So I think my point is still valid. And as far as silence from local historians it certainly doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. It just means that “history is working on it” ;). And let’s just say for sake of argument that Jesus wasn’t anymore than a teacher who was crucified for being overzealous. And the rest was made up by his followers. You wouldn’t expect to see historians writing during just a 3 year ministry. Many were making messianic claims at that point, with none who were especially noteworthy.

    At the end of the day, I think you are not giving the evidence that does exist fair credit. It’s not about convincing you to believe the gospels. It’s a very limited argument that there was in fact a historical Jesus who probably was crucified and whose followers went on to found Christianity. Thoughts?

  38. You keep saying I don’t give the evidence credit, but what evidence?

    As I keep saying, there isn’t a single eyewitness account of his life. There isn’t a single contemporary account of his life at all. All we have – ALL WE HAVE – are stories told by believers over the next century, which vary wildly and contain many supernatural plot lines, especially if you include the Gnostic and apocrypha, and less than a handful of references from Jewish scholars who mostly mention the ChristIANS (not Jesus) or make passing mentions of a Jesus. Regarding the latter – as none of these scholars mention their sources, and we don’t doubt that there were a number of Jesus cults in the late first century, these can hardly be used as historical evidence for the man, only for the movement. And we know there can be movements without the man – eg Mithras, Heracles, etc.

    So what evidence do you think I need to give more credit to?

  39. Ya know mate… this hard line against the evidence is going to come back to haunt you… but I’ll address it.

    When you seek out answers to questions like this (ex: was Jesus a real person) you have to make a reasonable playing field and you also need to go by the “what is more likely or less likely” rule. Its impossible to prove so many things in our world. Perhaps I saw the Loch Ness monster personally, full view for 10 minutes and watched it waddle out of the water, eat a few people and go back in and disappear just as camera crews showed up. Perhaps I was the only one to see it. Does the complete lack of any other person verifying what I saw change the fact that it happened? NO. Will people believe my story of what happened? On the whole, NO. Does that mean my testimony doesn’t even qualify as evidence? Of course not. My testimony gets tucked away somewhere in the long list of accounts of sightings of the Loch Ness monster. Now… if I happen to also be known for reporting sightings of Champ, the Lake Champlain monster, bigfoot, UFO’s, aliens, the Jersey Devil and Elvis… does that make my account of the Loch Ness monster not evidence? NO. Its still evidence. Just, very, very questionable evidence. But if my name was Jacque Cousteau and I told the story of the Loch Ness monster… you might give it a bit more credibility. Only the quality of the evidence changes with the circumstances. Its still evidence!

    So with Jesus… we have documents and evidence that talk about there being a literal man named Jesus. These documents primarly discuss Jesus in ways that clearly intend to portray him as having been a real living man. Whether the gospels were all written by those we associate with them, or written by others close to him, they certainly intend to put forth Jesus as having been a real person who lived in that general time-frame.

    We have accounts of the city of Atlantis, some of which include detailed descriptions of the harbor. But these accounts of Atlantis are being relayed by someone who claims it was destroyed a very long time before the account was written. Nevertheless, many people believe this has some basis in fact and seek diligently for more evidence of it today.

    But Jesus had people writing about him in a time-frame that those who allegedly walked with him were still around and purportedly wrote some of these accounts and were consulted by those we do have accounts from. The apostle Paul’s letters are accepted for the most part as actually being written by Paul. Paul certainly talks about Jesus as having been a real person and any other interpretation would be in a very small minority. John talks about Jesus as having been a real person.

    In the NT, discussions of the city of Jerusalem, persons involved and other details give compelling evidence that the persons writing these accounts lived in those areas during this general time-frame and accurately identified real people for whom we now have proof also lived during that time-frame. One example would be Caiaphas the High Priest. His existance was doubted as well for many years by skeptics. Josephus accounted for him, though Josephus was born approximately in his final year as high priest. So anything Josephus cited, was not first hand knowledge, but rather gathered from others. Other information about Josephus (who is a controversial person anyway) has proved incredibly reliable. But he wasn’t around during the time of Jesus. I am well aware some of his references are highly questionable. Others are not so much. But my point here… is that many of the truly fake gospels and other documents have such gross errors in them that its laughable they lasted any length of time at all. And I’m talking significant geographical errors, etc.. where its obvious the writer had no real knowledge of those places or persons.

    There is questions as to why there weren’t more contemporary accounts of Jesus if he was so great. Well… certainly its a valid question and begs an answer… but we are talking about a culture with strong oral traditions. Also… the Roman civil war destroyed an aweful lot. And its very common knowledge the extent that both Romans and Egyptians have gone to in the past to wipe someone or something off the face of the earth. So why, with the destruction of the temple and attack on Jerusalem is it so hard to believe we don’t have surviving accounts from that period, if there were any. We don’t have much in the way of surviving texts from the Library of Alexandria either. We can’t even agree on a general number of volumes that were kept there. In fact… we aren’t even sure when the darn thing burned down or who caused it! How can this be? The time-frame isn’t all that different from Jesus’ lifetime and if there was ANYTHING in history that you would expect historians to write about, it would be what the heck happened to the largest, greatest and most important library in the history of the world then or now.

    So my point in all of this is… I don’t expect to have photographic evidence of Jesus or video tape of his teachings. Or even verified first hand witnesses to his life. While we do know a lot about the time he lived in and have a lot of ways to gather information, its just too long ago. All we can go on is what we have and read into it the best we can.

    When you look at the profound impact Christians have had and some of the extreme natures to which these people died under, when they were in a much better position to judge if there was any validity to these claims that Jesus was a real person and walked and talked, etc… I think it is very clear the evidence points to there being a real literal man named Jesus. Are you going to claim that there is absolutely NO evidence?

    I don’t want to get into semantics about what the definition of evidence is. There is evidence… period. You don’t have to like the evidence, you don’t have to give it much credibility if you don’t want to. But its still evidence. Its my position that based on the period in history from which these stories arose, the amount of detail given by the documents we have and what we might expect to find… there is a perponderence of evidence that he was a real person.

    The argument about whether he did all these miracles and are the gospels completely true and written by those given credit… all those things are another issue entirely.

    On the most basic of Christian issues (did Jesus actually exist) I think there is more evidence for him than most of the mythical people and places in antiquity and many of those have eventually turned out to be verified as real. Are there counters as to why there is not more documentation about it? Of course… Other more unbiased sources would have been great! Will we find some someday? Maybe. Is it reason to question whether he was real? Sure…

    But at the end of the day, until we have better more solid proof one way or another, we have to settle on the query…

    “what’s more likely”

    That this was all made up completely, or he was real? There is significant questions as to how much of the accounts are accurate, whether later Christians added details to biblical documents as well as other historical documents. But to have everything we have, even given those questions and to take a stance that its MORE likely than not, that he never existed at all… I think begs more evidence to that effect from your position, rather than simply taking the argument from silence position and calling what references we do have into question. Perhaps to put it a more simple way…. unless you can show something far more direct that Jesus was NOT a real person, I think when it comes to historical weight of evidence on questions of this nature, Jesus being real wins by default.

    And just to make sure I get this right… your question was “What evidence do I think you need to give more credit to”?

    The evidence (culmination of everything/whatever we have) that points to him being a real man, weighed against a simple argument that we could have more evidence and we don’t, so he probably didn’t exist. I think when you have references to a person and then a massive religion steadily builds up around that person and writings exist with many indicators that there was a real person, then it only makes sense that he was more likely than not a real person unless you have evidence to the contrary, which you don’t. The fact that later Christians (who we know existed) attributed all manner of supernatural events to his life both during his ministry and his childhood should only serve to bolster the argument that he was a real person, though it may cast doubt on the traditional version of how his life actually transpired.

  40. And lets not forget… Caesar was considered to be a God… Alexander was considered to be a God, many of the Pharoahs and even the Emporer of Japan have all been considered to be either God, a God or the son of a God. We believe without question that all of those people exist. We don’t believe the God claims one bit. The pope and a number of modern saints have all existed and yet, miracles have been attributed to them. Faith Healers exist all over the world. Impressive stories similar to any of the Jesus stories abound about these people. We know those people exist for real, though the majority don’t buy the supernatural stories. Perhpas in the future, Benny Hinn will be at the top of another religion and skeptics will argue Benny couldn’t have been a real man, because there were too many stories being told about him.

  41. Mike

    That’s a nice long rant but you’ve failed in your primary task – providing EVIDENCE.

    You’ve mentioned the NT gospels – which I’ve pointed out, time and again, are NOT eyewitness accounts of Jesus, they are, at best, third hand accounts, Chinese whispers, stories about a rumoured magic man passed on through an underground, illegal cult. That’s well accepted by most historians. We don’t even know who authored the 4 NT gospels, so we have no way of knowing if they or their sources were credible.

    What we CAN be pretty sure about is that Mark is the only one that even has a chance of being legit. Why? Because Matthew and Luke are copied from Mark and Q and John – well John is off in its own little world.

    As for Paul – we believe that at lest 8 of the Pauline epistles are real. But we also know that Paul doesn’t even CLAIM to have met Jesus and nowhere in his letters does he talk about Jesus’ life. He briefly mentions a crucifixion and a resurrection and this details obviously DETRACT from his reliability, because we know that human beings don’t come back to life from the dead. He’s obviously willing to believe the mythology. The other thing that seriously detracts from Paul’s credibility is his “vision” on the road to Damascus. People who have ‘visions’ usually have some kind of mental disorder and aren’t taken as having sound mental faculties.

    Apart from those easily dismissible sources, what else do you have that you think is ‘evidence’?

    The fact that a religion grew up around him? No big deal. Religions grew up around Mithras and Apollo as well.

    You say “there is more evidence for him than most of the mythical people and places in antiquity”, but again I ask – WHAT? Stories written about “a man who once roamed the land” isn’t evidence. It’s story-telling. Just because a bunch of mostly-uneducated and mostly-illiterate people living in the desert believed those stories and perpetuated them, doesn’t give them ANY credence whatsoever.

    Plenty of people today believe in UFOs but that isn’t evidence.

    Plenty of people today believe that Mohammed is the only prophet of God – do you believe that to be true just because THEY believe it to be true? Do you take their BELIEF as EVIDENCE?

    Of course you don’t. That would be stupid.

  42. I am not trying to present any additional evidence or even claim additional evidence is at present available. You have a good handle on what is commonly known to exist (and in fact, a better handle than the vast majority of Christians). So we really don’t have any disagreement there.

    It appears our opinions differ as to the weight of the evidence. I still consider the writings of Paul and whoever else you are willing to accept, as sufficient evidence that these people who were alive in the time-frame of Jesus’ life, assert that a real Jesus existed. That’s their assertion. I don’t think we disagree on that.

    Based on that and the fact that obviously a large movement has occurred also believing in him, I’m willing to state firmly that it is more likely (far more) than not, that Jesus existed as a real person. You on the other hand, see to be of the opinion that because we have very limited accounts and most are “chinese whispers”, that isn’t even worthy to be called evidence, but even if it was, it doesn’t even carry enough weight to make his existance more likely than not. You also seem to base that in large part on the grand claims made about Jesus.

    I think the supernatural claims and the argument that he existed as a person are 2 seperate issues. I think that Mithras and Apollo are 2 very different characters, for whom we have far less information. You seem to be of an opposing opinion. So I can accept that we are at an impasse of debate here.

    My final word is… I can only blame Christians who over the millenia have exaggerated, if not completely fabricated an untold number of things, which have resulted in a much broader level of skepticism than would otherwise have existed.

  43. The bottom line for me is that we don’t have the first-hand testimony of a SINGLE PERSON who claims to have seen him with their own eyes. NOT A SINGLE PERSON.

    When you combine that fact with the stories of him which are obviously fantasy – magical feats, rising from the dead, etc – then it just casts a huge shadow of doubt on the whole story.

    As a recent guest of mine said: “It’s like someone from the year 4000 CE thinking that Harry Potter was a real person. He must have been real! There were books written about him and films made about him and people believed in him!”

    You could just as easily read JK Rowling and say “well she talks about real places in London, so it MUST be real!”

  44. All valid points except no adult argues Harry Potter is real and the actor who portays him is. The movies about HP don’t change the fact that Daniel Radcliff (???) is a real person. Same possibility for Baby J.

  45. Hi Cameron,

    I realize this was posted a year ago, but I just came across it. I’d like to say, first of all, that you seem to have done your homework, and I’m enjoying listening to your interviews. If I may, I’d just like to offer a correction on one point and nuance another, respectively: 1) that no contemporary non-Christian authors mention Jesus, and 2) that there is no eyewitness testimony contained in the NT. While the second point, I will happily grant, is debatable, the first one simply is not.

    You are quite right to say that certain bits in the passages from Josephus which talk about Jesus are interpolations by later Christian scribes. There is little doubt about that, and it’s pretty easy to pick out which bits aren’t original. On the other hand, very few (if any) historians today believe that the whole passage (I’m speaking of the longer one in book 18) is inauthentic. The consensus is that pious medieval scribes must have embellished the bits that Josephus–being a Jew, not a Christian–simply would not have written; the rest is authentic. As for the shorter passage which simply refers to ‘James the brother of Jesus who is called the Christ,’ there is no reason to doubt its authenticity, and insofar as I’m aware no modern scholar does.

    There are a couple other sources as well, but this seems to be the one in question. So, if one wants to doubt that Jesus existed, fine (though, I should add, this is a very, very marginal view not taken seriously by almost any qualified and credible historians); but the argument that no outside sources speak of his existence simply won’t do. If you want a credible argument, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

    The second point, as I mentioned, is disputable and is indeed disputed. I’m personally quite convinced that the NT does contain some eyewitness testimony, but this, as you probably know, is a very complex issue that frankly I don’t want to get into in a comment on a year-old blog post. (A good recent book on this, however, is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham. If you haven’t read it, you should. Bauckham is a very meticulous scholar.) What I would like to say, however, is that whether or not one ultimately concludes that there is eyewitness testimony contained in the NT, there is good reason to think so, and these reasons cannot be discounted as readily as you seem to do if you want to give the impression of honest criticism. (Of course, conversely, many scholars who believe that the NT does contain eyewitness testimony discount objections just as readily. It always goes both ways.)

    If we’re going to be a skeptics, we ought to be honest skeptics. Likewise, if we’re going to be a believers, we ought to be honest ones. What we’re after here is the truth, not defending our worldviews, whether those be Christian, skeptical, or something else. And this involves proper, honest use of historical evidence insofar as that is possible.

    Keep up the inquiry!

    1. Hi Benji, thanks for the comments.

      Regarding Josephus – He was born about 37CE, so he isn’t a “contemporary” of Jesus, according to the supposed timeline of Jesus’ life, who supposedly died around 33 – 36 CE. He wrote his “Antiquities” about 60 years after the events are supposed to have occurred and therefore isn’t a contemporary. He wasn’t alive when the events are supposed to have occurred, nor is it likely that he knew anyone who was present when the events are supposed to have occurred. So, at best, he was passing on second or third hand information.

      Regarding the eyewitnesses, I don’t believe that it is complex at all. Firstly, as I’m sure you know, none of the authors of the NT gospels were eyewitnesses. They don’t even claim to be. Whether or not they knew or interviewed eyewitnesses is uncertain. We don’t even know with any accuracy who wrote the NT documents, so it’s impossible for us to know how credible they are. The only NT author who claims to have interviewed eyewitnesses is the author of “Luke” and most scholars agree that “Luke” is a composite of Mark and the Q source, so his claims can be easily dismissed.

      If you disagree with any of my assertions, please let me know.

  46. Cameron,

    You’re right: Josephus was not a contemporary of Jesus. (I realize looking back at my comment that I didn’t nuance that point very well.) He was a contemporary of the first generation of eyewitnesses. That, of course, doesn’t give Josephus’ account the weight of eyewitness testimony; however, it does tell us that people were aware of Jesus and at least some of the events of his life. He may have heard this information from Christians, he may not have. This we can’t know. But when, as in the case of Josephus, we have a disinterested account which mentions a certain man, written by a contemporary of eyewitnesses, I can’t think of a single good reason to doubt that such a man existed. Does it prove his existence? Certainly not. Nothing from history can really be proved. But there just isn’t any good reason to doubt that he existed. Whether or not you decide that this man was who his followers make him out to be in the NT is something else.

    My point regarding eyewitness testimony in the gospels is that sweeping statements like “none of the authors of the NT gospels were eyewitnesses” is a gross oversimplification. That just can’t be said so confidently, because this is indeed quite a complex matter on which there is no consensus. Again, I don’t wish to get into this here because it’s beside the point I hope to make. I only wish to clarify that there is nothing like a consensus among NT scholars regarding whether the gospels do or do not contain eyewitness testimony.

    As an aside, I’d like to quickly clarify one more thing if I may. Luke almost certainly did use Mark and “Q” as source material, but it’s clear that he also had other sources. (It’s quite like writing a research essay today: you gather all sorts of different sources, but your paper [we hope!] isn’t just a copy of any of those sources–it will contain its own independent assessment, organization, judgments, etc.) So Luke’s gospel is not just some kind of synthesis or amalgamation of Mark and “Q”. There is other source material there, and some of it probably is testimony from eyewitnesses. I can’t think of any reason to doubt this. But once again, whether these eyewitnesses were telling the truth, or delusional, or whatever, is up to you.

    Thanks for responding, Cameron. I don’t wish to debate or anything like that. I had only hoped to point out that you appear to be just as biased as many believers in the way you evaluate data. I am a Christian, but as an historian also, I do realize that the jump from the data available about Jesus to the belief that he was who he is claimed to be is one of faith, not facts. The same goes for you and your judgment that he wasn’t who he is claimed to be. History can’t tell us these things, and so both the Christian and the atheist have predispositions that have to be left on the table when we approach the discipline of history.

    We all have some sort of underlying agenda, even if it is just to defend our pride. Historians have to at least be aware of this as we approach historical inquiry and try as best as we can not to allow our biases to shape the way we evaluate our data.

    Thanks once again for the dialogue.

    1. Benji

      Josephus’ mention of Christianity doesn’t tell us ANYTHING other than a small cult existed in Judea towards the end of the first century. That’s all any intellectually honest historian can deduce from his statements. And, as we both know, the Middle East, then as now, was full of cults and religions that believed all manner of crazy things – Christianity was just ONE MORE.

      As for the authors of the NT gospels, I can say with great certainty that the majority consensus today among historians is that none of the authors of the four gospels were eyewitnesses. It’s nowhere near as complex as you are trying to make it sound.

      Here are the simple facts (show me where I’m wrong if you can):

      1) None of the Synoptic gospel authors even claim to be an eyewitness. Surely if they were, they would have said so.
      2) Furthermore, as “Matthew” and “Luke” are LARGELY based on Mark and Q, it seems unlikely that they are writing from their own experiences.
      3) The author of “Mark” doesn’t claim to be an eyewitness, and even if the author is the “Mark” that Papias suggests (which is doubtful), he was a later follower of Peter, not of Jesus, and so, at best, his information is secondhand.
      4) The author of “John” is often claimed to have been an eyewitness because of two paragraphs (19:35 and 21:24) but neither stands up to analysis. Furthermore, “John”‘s authenticity is dubious for a whole host of reasons – not the least of which is that the version of Jesus it portrays is greatly differs in style and substance to the version of Jesus contained in the synoptics.

      I fully expect Christians to claim I am “biased” which is why I try to limit my arguments to the facts. If you can show them as being wrong, please go ahead.

  47. Cameron,

    Let me first of all say that I never intended to point a finger at you and call you biased as a cheap shot. I don’t do cheap shots; I believe in substance. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I have come across otherwise. The points that I hoped to make (and was apparently unsuccessful) are two: 1) We both bring biases to the table–I as a Christian and you as an atheist–and to the extent that we can, we have to leave them there to do honest history; and 2) Most of your arguments are not “facts” as you want to think.

    In reality, the only thing in your last comment that is factual is that none of the gospel authors claim to be eyewitnesses. The rest of these “facts” are nothing more than sweeping statements based on a sketchy familiarity with evidence which is open to interpretation and is hotly debated among scholars of early Christianity (of which I am one, by the way, so I can attest to the state of such debates first-hand). If you were to submit a paper to an ancient history department in a University calling these things facts, you’d do well to pass. This just won’t fly as honest, critical historical scholarship. Why? Because you’re rejecting offhand and without critical engagement the conclusions of _huge_ numbers of scholars in the field. Perhaps you are prepared to expand your sweeping statements but haven’t for the sake of brevity, which is understandable in a blog comment.

    Please understand that what I’ve tried to defend is proper historical method and _not_ necessarily the Christian faith. I like to think that somewhere in the process of my education I’ve acquired the competence to critically and honestly assess the evidence for myself and decide what metaphysical conclusions I’ll draw. You’re free to do the same.

    As I said, I don’t want to debate and I don’t want to come across as accusatory, smug, or argumentative. If it’s alright with you, I’d prefer to go ahead and end the dialogue here because you seem like an alright guy and I don’t want this to turn into an argument. Arguments never go anywhere.

    If you’d like to do some reading that isn’t on Wikipedia or an atheist web site (that isn’t intended as a cheap shot, by the way!), here’s a good bibliography of some of the relevant scholarship on NT and early Christianity.

    Thanks for the chat, and keep up the reading!

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