Did Jesus Exist?

Tim Callahan. Skeptic. Volume 19, Issue 1. 2014.

What the Evidence Reveals

In recent years, there has been increasing attention given to the theory that Jesus never existed but was, rather, a mythical construct. Often such arguments are tinged with ideological bias, sometimes abetted by erroneous claims, such as those made by Dorothy Murdock (a.k.a. Acharya S) that other dying and rising gods had 12 disciples and were crucified. This is often matched by evangelical Christian apologists, who assert-again erroneously-that Jesus is better attested to than such historical figures as Alexander the Great or any of the Caesars. In fact, they argue, since the manuscripts referring to these persons-such as Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars-are only known from copies dating from no earlier than the Middle Ages and, since there are preserved copies of the various gospels that date from late Roman times, Jesus is actually better attested to than either Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. So, they argue, if you accept the existence and record of the lives of Alexander and the various Roman emperors, you must accept the historicity of Jesus and the record of his life as recorded in the gospels. They also make claims such as, “No serious scholar doubts that Jesus existed.” For example, the renowned biblical scholar (and nonbeliever) Bart Ehrman also makes such a claim in his most recent book, Did Jesus Exist? Once one argues, “No serious scholar doubts that Jesus existed,” then, by implication, anyone expressing such a doubt can be summarily dismissed as a not being a serious scholar.

Claims of Evangelical Christian Apologists

Consider what evangelical apologist Gary Habermas says about 12 historical facts he asserts that “most critical scholars believe” (www3.telus.net/trbr00ks /garyhabermas.htm):

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. Jesus was buried.
  3. Jesus’ death caused his disciples to despair and lose hope.
  4. Jesus’ tomb was empty.
  5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.
  6. The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers because of these experiences.
  7. The resurrection was the central message of Jesus’ life.
  8. The disciples preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
  9. The church was born and grew.
  10. Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
  11. James (the brother of Jesus and the family skeptic) was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus.
  12. Paul (also a skeptic) was converted to the faith.

I have no quarrel with items #1-3. As for item #4, the empty tomb, I’m quite sure any honest scholar would point out that, owing to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in CE 70, it is impossible to locate this tomb, even assuming it survived this destruction and that of CE 136 at the end of the Bar Kochba revolt. Furthermore, it is quite possible that the claim made in the gospels that Jesus was laid in the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is false. As one convicted of sedition and put to death by the Romans, Jesus may well have suffered a further, postmortem indignity, in that the Romans might have dumped his body either in a common grave or even in a trash heap, covering it with lime in the process.

For items #5-10, if one were to go to India today I have no doubt one will find followers of this or that guru who claim miracles in his name and/or claim to have seen their late teacher in the flesh or attest to the guru raising the dead. Consider the story of Sai Baba (1926-2011) raising Walter Cowan from the dead, which includes supernatural knowledge and bilocation (being in two places at the same time, a claim often made for Roman Catholic saints), along with raising the dead. You can read this tale at www.saibabaofindia.com/hislop_sai.htm. I strongly doubt that any evangelical Christians would give credence to such appearances. Yet, they expect others to give credence to their, likewise unsupported claim that, because his disciples said they saw Jesus alive after he was dead, the resurrection of Jesus was historical. It would, of course, be logical that his followers were energized by their mystical belief, as, no doubt, worshippers in India are energized by theirs. It is also not surprising that the Resurrection was integral to their religious belief, since most religions are founded around some sort of supernatural event. Nor is it surprising that their church grew, since this is what religions do starting from scratch. That in creating a new religion the worshippers changed their holy day from Saturday to Sunday is likewise unremarkable-tweaking an old custom to making it your own is common in all religions. As to James being the family skeptic, as with Paul, his dramatic conversion, written in gospels decades after any historical Jesus would have lived, is utterly unverifiable. As to items #11-12—the skepticism of James and the conversion of Paul—that latter’s experience, assuming the account in Acts to be at least somewhat historical, was definitely visionary and is not in the least bit different from other conversion experiences. As to James being a skeptic, I’m not sure to what Habermas is referring.

So, even assuming the historicity of Jesus, we can say of the list above that items 1-3 are generally true. Item 4 is unverifiable. Items 5-10 are possibly true but are of no consequence regarding the historicity of Jesus. Item 11 is doubtful, and item 12 amounts to a common conversion experience.

As to the claim that Alexander the Great and the Caesars were no better attested to than Jesus, and that they are only known from copies of historical documents dating from the Middle Ages, this is true only if one ignores the preserved iconographie record of such people in the form of coins and busts. For example, there are coins dating from Alexander’s lifetime inscribed with his name and showing him in profile. Though the ancient Greeks favored idealized realism over genuine portraiture, there are certain things that tell us the image on these coins is that of Alexander. He is represented as beardless at a time when most Greeks were bearded. He is also represented as having ram’s horns because he had an epiphany, while at a shrine in Egypt, that he was the incarnation of Zeus Ammon, combining the heads of the Greek and Egyptian pantheons. Since Ammon was often represented as having the head of a ram, representations of Alexander in profile showed him with horns. While the realism of the Greeks was idealized, the Romans wanted to be remembered for themselves, warts and all. Thus, a bust of Julius Caesar shows him as clean-shaven with a slightly receding hairline and rather pinched, compressed features. Emperors Nero, Vespasian and Titus are shown in profile with double chins on coins inscribed with their names. However, whereas Vespasian and his son Titus look like stout peasants, Nero looks flabby and indolent. In sharp contrast to this, we have no contemporary images of Jesus. Early representations of him in Roman reliefs, mosaics and frescoes on catacomb walls, show him as a beardless youth. Yet, as a first century Jew, he almost certainly would have worn a beard.

Bart Ehrman’s Historical Jesus

Unfortunately, in his contempt for those he calls “mythicists” Bart Ehrman attaches to his critique of their views an excessive denial of any mythic parallels to Jesus. Discussing his 2012 book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth on the Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehr man/did-jesus-exist_b_i349544-html) he asserts:

Moreover, the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. The alleged parallels between Jesus and the “pagan” savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination: We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseam in their propagandized versions).

Ehrman is certainly right in saying that the pagan dying and rising gods were not savior gods, like Jesus. However, since the virgin birth is merely a variant of an erstwhile virgin being impregnated by a god, there are several heroes, demigods and gods who are, essentially, bom of virgins or otherwise having mixed human and divine parentage. They include the heroes Perseus, Achilles and Aeneus, the demigod Heracles and the god Dionysus. Another dying and rising god is the Egyptian Osiris. Critics of such parallels ture quick to point out that Osiris only lived in the underworld land of the dead, hence wasn’t really resurrected. However, such an objection fails to consider that Osiris was not only killed by his brother Set, but was chopped into 14 pieces as well. His wife, Isis, reassembled all the pieces, magically knit them together and brought him back to life. This is, plainly and simply, a resurrection of the body. Like Osiris, Dionysus was raised from the dead. As a child, he was killed and eaten by the Titans, whom Zeus destroyed with his thunderbolts. All that was left of the boy Dionysus was his heart. Zeus sewed it into his thigh, from which he subsequently gave birth to Dionysus. Thus, Dionysus is called the twice born. This story appears in the writings of Diodorus Siculus, who lived in the first century BCE. The dying and rising gods of myth are associated with seasonal cycles of vegetation and are usually killed by dismemberment. Thus, dying by crucifixion as Jesus did varies enough from the mythic parallels to seem historical. Nevertheless, crucifixion and dismemberment were both excruciating forms of punishment and death.

There is really no reason the myth of the dying and rising god could not have been merged with a historical character seen as a man-god. However, it has become fashionable among some academics, including not only Ehrman but Burton Mack as well, to look askance at mythic parallels to Jesus. But consider the word of a Christian-St. Justin Martyr -who lived in the first half of the second century. In his First Apology, addressed to Emperor Antoninus Pius, he says in chapter 21, titled “Analogies to the History of Christ”:

And when we say also that the Word, who is the firstbirth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. For you know how many sons your esteemed writers ascribed to Jupiter: Mercury, the interpreting word and teacher of all; Æsculapius, who, though he was a great physician, was struck by a thunderbolt, and so ascended to heaven; and Bacchus too, after he had been torn limb from limb; and Hercules, when he had committed himself to the flames to escape his toils; and the sons of Leda, the Dioscuri; and Perseus, son of Danae; and Bellerophon, who, though sprung from mortals, rose to heaven on the horse Pegasus. For what shall I say of Ariadne, and those who, like her, have been declared to be set among the stars? And what of the emperors who die among yourselves, whom you deem worthy of deification, and in whose behalf you produce some one who swears he has seen the burning Caesar rise to heaven from the funeral pyre?

Nor is Justin alone among notable Christian apologists who accept the validity of mythic parallels to Christ. In his essay “Myth Became Fact,” the noted 20th-century Christian apologist C.S. Lewis said:

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth, which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be a myth comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens at a particular date in a particular place, followed by definite historical consequences. We pass from a Baldur or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle … God is more than god, not less. Christ is more than Baldur, not less, we must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology, We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there-it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.

Of course, neither Justin Martyr nor C.S. Lewis was a “mythicist”—Ehrman’s term for those who think Jesus was entirely mythical. Yet, both accepted the validity of mythic parallels to Jesus. Ehrman also asserts that the gospels themselves, along with their source documents, attest to the historicity of Jesus:

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul)-sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind. Moreover, we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus’ life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and his own brother James. If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it.

Paul does indeed refer to meeting Peter and James, the latter of whom he calls “the Lord’s brother,” in his epistle to the Galatians. However, the sources to the Greek gospels written in Aramaic, which Ehrman claims can be dated within a year or two of the death of Jesus are only inferred from certain word plays in the gospels that make more sense in Aramaic than they do in Greek. We don’t actually have these Aramaic documents, so the word play may well point only to Aramaic speaking authors who also spoke and wrote Greek-the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean in Roman times. At the same time, there are passages in the gospels that are almost word for word copies of similar passages in the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), the Jewish scriptures translated into Greek. Thus, with respect to the historic validity of early Christian writings, Ehrman seems to have overplayed his hand.

I do find the fact that Paul refers to James as “the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19), a clear indication that Jesus was a real person. However, Paul also largely dispensed with any historical aspect of this real Jesus. He says as much at the beginning of his epistle to the Galatians (Gal 1:11,12):

For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

After this revelation, Paul says, he went away to Arabia for three years, then returned to Damascus, after which he finally went to Jerusalem, where he spoke only to Peter, with whom he spent 15 days, and James, whom he calls “the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:15-19). So, Paul’s Christ Jesus came, almost entirely, from his direct revelation, which most of us would call a hallucination.

The biggest problem with using the gospels as source material for the life of Jesus is that practically every event related in them is demonstrably fictional and based on four mythic sources. These are the Jewish scriptures, Jewish apocalypticism and recent historical events interpreted through an apocalyptic lens, pagan myth, and Greek literature. As an example of the gospels’ historical untrustworthiness, consider the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. All four gospels claim that, as he enters the city riding on an ass, he is met by crowds who hail him, crying “Hosanna!” This means “Save us!” and, by extension, “Free us!” Yet, the Roman authorities don’t intervene in what is plainly an act of sedition. However, Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews (abbreviated Antiq.), written late in the first century, records a far different Roman reaction to a would-be messiah Theudas (Antiq 20:5:1):

Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effect with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet and that he would by his own command, divide the river and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit him to make any advantage of this wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against him; who, falling on them unexpectedly, slew many of them and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This is what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius Fadus’ government.

What is particularly striking about this passage is the Romans’ gratuitous brutality in response to a messianic pretender. Theudas’ claim that he could divide the waters of the river Jordan is an allusion both to Yahweh dividing the Jordan so the Israelites under Joshua could march, unimpeded into Canaan, in the Book of Joshua, and to Moses dividing the Red Sea in Exodus. All Cuspius Fadus had to do was to wait for Theudas to get his feet wet, at which time he would have been thoroughly discredited. Yet Fadus chose to react with excessive violence. Pilate, too, was gratuitously violent. In Antiq. 18:3:2 Josephus describes an incident in which Pilate dealt with a mob of angry protestors in Jerusalem by disguising some of his soldiers in civilian dress, with swords hidden under their clothing and having them mingle with the crowd. At a given signal, from him, they drew their concealed swords and killed or wounded many of the protestors.

The Betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot as a Test of Scriptural Accuracy

Yet another story from the gospels that highlights their fictional nature is one that on the surface seems entirely plausible-the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot. The story is most fully developed in the Gospel of Matthew, with a variant tale of the death of Judas by the author of Luke in the Book of Acts. The Gospel of John says only that Judas betrayed Jesus. In the Synoptic Gospels, Mark says that the chief priests gave Judas money to betray Jesus (Mk.i4:io) and that Judas identified Jesus for the armed men sent out to arrest him by greeting Jesus with a kiss (Mk. 14:44, 45). Matthew fleshes the story out most fully, beginning with Judas getting a specific amount of money to betray Jesus (Mt. 26:14-16):

Then, one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.

As in Mark, Matthew says that Judas, according to a prearranged signal, identified Jesus by kissing him and calling him “Master” (Mt. 26:47-50). Mark says nothing of the fate of Judas while Matthew tells a tale of remorse and despair that makes Judas quite human (Mt. 27:3-8):

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned, betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And, throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them in the treasury, since they are blood money.” So they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

All of this sounds highly plausible on the surface. After all, people do betray others for money, and someone might well, out of remorse or guilt, commit suicide. However, even a cursory examination of the motive and even the need for a betrayer, particularly one who had to use a special signal to identify Jesus, reveals fatal flaws in the story.

Let us begin with Judas’ motive. Supposedly, he has followed Jesus for a number of years. One would think it would require a considerable fortune to make him betray his teacher and master. If the 30 pieces of silver were 30 shekels, which would be the standard Jewish coin, weighing about 11.4 grams, then 30 shekels would amount to 342 grams of silver. The standard Roman coin of the day, a denarius, which was one day’s wages, weighed 4.5 grams. If we divide 342 by 4.5 to see how many day’s wages 30 shekels would equal, we get 76. So, for this story to be true, Judas would have had to betray Jesus for two and one half months wages. Suffice it to say that this fails as sufficient motivation.

Now let’s consider the need for Judas to identify Jesus to the arresting temple guards. According to the gospels, Jesus has made himself a very public figure while in Jerusalem, being hailed as a king on Palm Sunday and creating a major disturbance in the temple by overturning the tables of the money changers. In fact, by Matthew’s account, Jesus even points this out to the arresting party (Mt. 26:55):

At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day 1 sat in the temple teaching and you did not seize me.

It can be argued that the night arrest can be rationalized as a way to do things as quietly as possible. However, as Jesus himself says in the verse above, he would have been a public figure. Thus, there would have been no need for Judas to identify him for the arresting party. One might even question whether or not the temple authorities, if they were actually the ones arresting Jesus, really needed a betrayer at all.

Since it wouldn’t be necessary for Judas to betray Jesus with a kiss, and since 30 pieces of silver is a paltry sum-insufficient as inducement for the betrayal-perhaps the 30 pieces of silver and the betrayal with a kiss either have symbolic meanings or were existing motifs that at least some of the original readers of the gospels would have understood as literary devices. Let us consider the betrayal by a kiss first, since it is common to all the Synoptic Gospels. Is there an episode in pagan myth, Greek literature, or the Jewish scriptures in which someone betrays another with a kiss? As it turns out, there is such an episode in the Jewish scriptures and it is related to a major tale of the betrayal of God’s anointed kingnamely the betrayal of King David by his own son, Absalom, a story told in 2 Samuel. When Absalom’s revolt is crushed, David gives orders that his son is to be taken alive and unharmed. He still loves Absalom despite the young man’s revolt. However, JoabDavid’s cousin and the commander of his military forces, being far more pragmatic and also being a character with no moral scruples to hinder his pragmatism-kills Absalom without hesitation (see 2 Sam. 18:11-15). David then makes Amasa, who had been Absalom’s commander, leader in Joab’s place. Making Amasa his commander is a brilliant diplomatic stroke, allowing David to both magnanimously reach out to disaffected rebels, and to punish Joab by depriving him of command. However, Amasa proves to be ineffectual at putting down another revolt. Joab, ever the pragmatist, takes a direct hand in removing Amasa to effectively regain control of the army. He meets Amasa on the road having a sword concealed under his clothes, to assassinate him (2 Sam. 20:9-10):

And Joab said to Amasa, “Is it well with you, my brother?” and Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. But Amasa did not observe the sword which was in Joab’s hand; so Joab struck him in the body, and shed his bowels to the ground, without striking a second blow; and he died.

So, here is the original betrayal by a kiss. It is important that this episode, itself involving a betrayal, is part of the greater tale of Absalom betraying David. By using this motif Mark was able to imply the story of the betrayal of David, since Jesus was portrayed in the gospels as the new Davidic king. Matthew expanded on the use of Absalom’s revolt for his version of the fate of Judas.

Now let us consider why Matthew introduced the motif of Judas betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Since this would amount to only 76 days worth of wages and would, thus, be insufficient inducement for betrayal, this amount, mentioned only in the Gospel of Matthew, would seem symbolic. In the Book of Zechariah, the prophet-acting the role of the shepherd who consigns the sheep to slaughter-asks the traffickers in sheep for his wages (Zech. 11:12):

Then I said to them, “If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver.

Since the prophet, as the worthless shepherd, is consigning the sheep (the people of Israel and Judah) to slaughter, he is acting much as Judas acts in betraying Jesus. In the verse following that above, which we will examine shortly, Zechariah speaks of the 30 shekels of silver sarcastically as a “lordly price.” The reason he does so is that 30 shekels equals the compensation to be paid out if one’s ox caused the death of another’s slave (Ex. 21:32): “If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.” Thus, as the wages of betrayal paid out to the worthless shepherd from consigning the sheep to slaughter and as an amount paid for the compensation for losing a slave, Matthews 30 pieces of silver is rich in literary allusion.

Judas’ final fate in Matthew is also related to the story of Absolom’s betrayal of King David. In all the Bible, New Testament and Old, only two people hang themselves: Judas, and Ahithophel, a chief military counselor to King David’s rebellious son Absolom. When Ahithophel’s advise to Absolom to pursue the fleeing King is rejected, he sees their cause is lost since David will now be able to regroup and gather his forces. So, Ahithophel goes home, sets his house in order and hangs himself (2 Sam. 17:23). Just as Ahithophel betrayed King David, so Judas betrayed David’s descendant, Jesus. Once again, an important incident in the tale of Judas’ betrayal is based on literary allusion rather than history.

Firstand Early Second-Century Non-Christian References to Jesus

Were Jesus a truly historic figure, we would expect independent, and at times hostile, attestation to his existence, and, indeed we have such sources. However, there are only two of them and they mention Jesus only in passing. The first of these is to be found in the Antiquities of the Jews. Josephus tells how the high priest Ananus took advantage of a gap in the Romans filling the office of procurator to put some people to death on his own initiative (Antiq. 20:9:1):

Festus was now dead and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananus] assembled the sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others [or some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law he delivered them to be stoned…

This passing reference to James being the brother of Jesus, “who was called Christ,” neither praises him nor denigrates him. He is merely described as a messianic pretender. The Greek word translated as “called” is legomenou, a form of the verb lego, “to speak.” So, the phrase could as easily be translated as, “Jesus who was spoken of as Christ.” This phrasing has the feel of objectivity and historical validity, and, indeed, most scholars do accept the passage, as written, to be genuinely from the hand of Josephus.

Those who doubt that this is a genuine reference to Jesus of Nazareth point out that the earliest copies of the works of Josephus we have date from the 1100s, leaving plenty of opportunity for pious forgers to add the phrase “who was called Christ” to the text. Since Josephus mentions 20 men named Jesus in his writings, unless the phrase “who was called Christ” was genuinely part of the original narrative, the reference could easily have been someone other than Jesus of Nazareth. One fact that argues against the validity of the phrase is that there is no other genuine passage previous to this one telling us of the person Josephus alludes to being called Christ. We would expect a passage similar to that on Theudas about Jesus as a messianic pretender. These objections notwithstanding, most modem scholars accept the phrase “who was called Christ” as genuine. Notable among those who accept its validity is Louis H. Feldman, professor of classics and literature at Yeshiva University. As a Jew, Dr. Feldman has no Christian bias that might cast doubt on his opinion.

The other near contemporary reference to Jesus is in the Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus. In Annals XV; 44, after telling that many suspected Nero of starting the fire that burned Rome, Tacitus says:

To suppress this rumor, Nero fabricated scapegoats -and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians, as they were popularly called. Their originator, Christ, had tseen executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor [L. procurator] of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of a temporary setback, the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started), but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capitol.

As a hostile witness, Tacitus is particularly believable. Had he known that Jesus was a mythic figure, he wouldn’t have gone out of his way to make such a myth historical. Arguments against the historical value of this brief passage from the Annals are that, writing ca. 115, nearly a century after the death of any historical Jesus, Tacitus was using second and third hand information, and that what he said of Jesus was merely what Christians said of him. That may be true. However, one criterion for testing the validity of an ancient document is the criterion of embarrassment; i.e., people don’t generally go out of their way to fabricate fictions that place their heroes in a bad light. Of course, Christians could conceivably have gloried in a founder who stood against what they saw as a wicked system. However, such a personage is of little worth unless he was real and historical.

So, was Jesus historical? In my opinion, the passages from the Antiquities and the Annals are genuine and historical. Thus, Jesus, too, was historical…barely. He was, at the same time a figure of convergent mythic systems, both Jewish and pagan. Ultimately, however, the historical Jesus is so imbued with mythic characteristics as to render his historicity moot.