Several of the apologetic books I have read this past year addressed a particular claim that Jesus did not exist, that Jesus was a made-up character by individuals who were simply power hungry, self-serving, manipulating thieves. The majority of credible historians do not consider this claim to be of any serious consequence, and often deal with it in short order. In the book, Jesus Outside the New Testament, Van Voorst’s first and second chapters address this very claim, and then move on to more serious, and consequential, claims made by atheists.
I took some time and visited several atheist sites to see if that was an accurate representation of a claim made by skeptics, (that Jesus did not really exist), and found it to be true. One of several that I found comes from Infidel.org, a popular site for anti-theists, skeptics, and others, who generally believe Christianity has a negative impact on society. The last couple of sentences are what I want to focus on in this post.
“Did Jesus exist? If not, then there’s not much to talk about. If he did, he called himself Lord. This means that either:
He was Lord,
He was a liar, or
He was a lunatic.
It’s unlikely he was a liar, given his morals as described in the Bible, and his behavior doesn’t sound like that of a lunatic. So surely we must conclude that he was Lord?”
Firstly, note that this argument hinges on the assumption that Jesus did in fact exist. This is at least debatable.” 1
The reference to Lord, liar, or lunatic is from Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, which should be a mandatory read for any high school or college youth group. Some of you may also know C.S. Lewis for the Narnia series of books, which have been turned into popular movies in the last few years.
Before I go any further, let me explain some abbreviations you will see below. ca. stands for, on or around that particular date. Most know that B.C. Stands for Before Christ, but many believe that A.D. stands for After Death, which is a common mistake. A.D. stands for Anno Domini, a Latin phrase which means In the Year of our Lord. You will also see B.C.E. and C.E. which are more recent designations for the same. B.C.E. means Before Common Era and is equal to B.C., and C.E. means Common Era which is the same as A.D. Many Christians resent the attempt to take Christ out of the common Gregorian Calendar, but those recent designations are becoming more common and accepted.
In Jesus Outside the New Testament, author Robert Van Voorst says, “The earliest possible reference to Jesus comes from the middle of the first century. Around 55 C.E., a historian named Thallos wrote in Greek a three-volume chronicle of the eastern Mediterranean area from the fall of Troy to about 50 C.E. Most of his book, like the vast majority of ancient literature, perished, but not before it was quoted by Sextus Julius Africanus (ca. 160-ca. 240), a Christian writer, in his History of the World (ca 220). This book was likewise lost, but one of its citations of Thallos was taken up by Byzantine historian Georgious Syncellus in his Chronicle (ca. 800). According to Syncellus, when Julius Africanus writes about the darkness at the death of Jesus, he added, ‘In the third (book) of his histories, Thallos calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun, which seems to me to be wrong.’” 2
Julius felt that Thallos was wrong because the solar eclipse cannot happen during a full moon, and Passover always falls during a full moon. Obviously, a solar eclipse would explain why the darkness that fell over the land during the crucifixion. Why can’t we experience a solar eclipse during a full moon? Let me explain, when we observe the moon we are only seeing the part of the moon that is illuminated by the sun. When we see a full moon we are seeing the moon from nearly the same perspective as you would see the moon from the sun. In other words the earth is ‘between’ the sun and the moon which are just about lined up. It would be impossible to see a solar eclipse with the moon being further from the sun then the earth. A solar eclipse takes place when the moon is between the earth and the sun, not when the earth is between the sun and the moon. This is why Julius Africanus mentioned that Thallos was wrong. Thallos was trying to explain away the darkness of the crucifixion by a natural occurring solar eclipse, which was not possible at that time.
Who was Thallos? No one knows for sure, but some speculation has been who the Jewish historian Josephus mentions. In The Antiquities of the Jews, Flavius Josephus writes, “Now there was one Thallus, a freed-man of Caesar, of whom he borrowed a million of drachmae, and thence repaid Antonia the debt he owed her; and by sending the overplus in paying his court to Caius, became a person of great authority with him.” 3
Determining who Thallos was is not as important, but what is significant is the mention of the darkening sky at the time of Christ’s death. Thallos is also the only known non-Christian to write about Christ prior to the gospels.
A second source outside the New Testament can be found with Pliny the Younger. Pliny the Younger was a Roman Senator and lawyer in Rome who was active in government, administrative duties, and a prolific writer of letters, most of which have been preserved. In his letters, he mentions Christians, and specifically Christ. Many letters involved how to deal with and punish Christians. In one report to Emperor Trajan, from a post in Asia Minor, Pliny explains how he deals with Christians, “I have asked them if they are Christians and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and their unshakeable obstinancy ought not to go unpunished… They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to more than this; that they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery…This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by the torture of two slave-women, whom they call deaconeses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.” 4
Van Voorst goes on to explore the accounts of several others who mention Jesus outside the New Testament: Suetonius, Tactius, Mara bar Serapion and others, all of whom confirm the figure of Jesus Christ, his claims, and his followers. Arguments against Christianity go back thousands of years as we see above with Thallos, but the claims of Christ being created by man and never having existed become more prevalent in the 1700 and 1800’s. One Bruno Bauer (1809-1882) is worth mentioning. Bauer laid out three arguments that have been adopted and carried down for nearly two hundred years. First, Bauer denied the value and accuracy of the New Testament. Second, the lack of Christ being mentioned in the first century, and finally, that Christianity was a combination of several religions and mystical at its roots. Bauer was eventually removed from his teaching position at the Berlin University in 1839 for his views.
Van Voorst shared that in conversations with newspaper writers, magazine and book editors, one of the first questions they always ask is if he can prove Jesus existed. The reliability of the New Testament would have to be addressed in another post, which I already have, but the accounts of Jesus, his followers, and their practices, outside the New Testament abound in ancient literature. Speculation about his existence will persist, but if a believer is willing to take a few minutes, and read up on the arguments for his existence, and how historical literature supports this claim, they will be pleasantly surprised. Something else I would like to mention about Bruno Bauer. He substantially influenced two of his students that you may have heard of: Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. 5
1. Internet Infidels, Mathew. Common Arguments, Web Log Post. infidels.org. infidels.org, 2007. Web June 2013. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/arguments.html
2. Van Voorst, Robert, E. Jesus Outside the New Testament. Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000, Print.
3. Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jews. Blacksburg: Unabridged Books, 2011. Print
4. Powell, Doug. Guide to Christian Apologetics. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2006. Print.
5. 1. Van Voorst, Robert, E. Jesus Outside the New Testament. Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000, Print.