A critique of the groundless claims of the Forbidden History episode “Uncovering the Historical Jesus”.
One would think that a channel called the History Channel would present accurate and reliable documentaries on historical subjects with qualified experts and that what they say is likely to be true. This is not the case. Some of their programs are more reliable, but they have also given us Ancient Aliens which I have discussed in other articles and posts. I have also been watching History Channel’s Hunting Hitler, American Ripper and JFK Declassified: Tracking Oswald which basically involve the cast running around, looking for evidence and speculating, but never actually proving anything. At least there is some good photography and I got to see some interesting scenery.
One of the many problems with Ancient Aliens is that the “talking heads”, which they interview, claiming that the monuments from the ancient world could not have been built by humans so they must have had help from aliens, have no qualifications in ancient history, archaeology and engineering. They do not have the expertise to make such claims. At the same time, real experts, who have been studying these sites for decades, are ignored.
This problem is also apparent in the History Channel’s Forbidden History which, as the title suggests, deals with alternative and speculative historical matters. In “Uncovering the Historical Jesus”, the first episode of season, which is presented by Jamie Theakston, they interview Matt Green, Tony McMahon, Dominic Selwood, Lynn Picknett and Andrew Gough who have no qualifications in New Testament history.
In fact, they have all appeared in previous episodes of Forbidden History. Andrew Gough has appeared in every one! The producers did not go to universities to find some specialists in ancient history and the New Testament and get their expert and accurate opinions. They chose to rely on the same old professional “talking heads” who are not qualified to speak on the historical Jesus, they do not even appear to be well-read laymen, and it shows.
For example, Dominic Selwood says the first Gospels were written 60 years after Jesus. Matt Green says they were written 150 years later. Tony McMahon claims there were 40 to 50 gospels and only 4 made it into the New Testament. Andrew Gough says the Gospels are allegorical and not historical.
In contrast, most mainstream New Testament historians believe the last of the Gospels, Luke and John, were written in the 90s AD, around 60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Many conservative scholars believe Luke was written in the early 60s AD.
As I have discussed in There is no such thing as a Gnostic Gospel, there were other later Gnostic writings on Jesus which were called “gospels” but there were not 40 of them and they were not really “gospels”. Since the 1992 publication of What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography by Richard Burridge, the consensus has been that the New Testament Gospels were meant to be biographies of Jesus. They are not allegorical. They were intended to describe what they believed actaully happened.
Likewise, “gospel” means “good news”. They were news because they told about something that happened – Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. The “Gnostic Gospels” are not news. They do not tell of what Jesus did, rather they consist of Gnostic teachings which were not the sort of thing Jesus would have said.
In the introduction the presenter Jamie Theakston poses questions such as were Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and was Jesus really crucified or was he smuggled out of Jerusalem alive? It sounds like the writers have read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. However, there is no attempt to answer these questions in the program. It reminds me of when I watched Suicide Squad and I got the impression they had changed the script halfway through making the film.
When historians talk about the historical or the search for the historical Jesus, they do not mean whether or not Jesus existed, but how historically accurate is the portrait of Jesus in the New Testament. Did he really claim to be the Son of God and Messiah? This is something which the makers of Forbidden History do not make clear or do not understand.
Non-Christian historians and some of the talking heads usually believe that the “real” historical Jesus was either a political rebel or an apocalyptic prophet or preacher. Tony McMahon says Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who was crucified by the Romans. However, the Romans did not crucify people for being preachers or prophets. Eyal Miron, Marty Friedlander and Dominic Selwood say Jesus was really a political rebel. The Romans would have crucified Jesus for this but if Jesus was a political threat, his disciples would have also been regarded as a threat and they should have also been crucified. The New Testament account, that Jesus was not a political rebel, but the Jewish leaders pressured Pilate into crucifying him, is more plausible.
Instead, the program gives the impression that there is some doubt among historians about the existence of Jesus. Jamie Theakston claims that “a number of academics from across the world can find no evidence for the existence of Jesus”.
There may be “a number” but it is not a big number and these academics do not necessarily have qualifications in ancient history and New Testament studies, which would make them qualified to comment on whether or not a person from the ancient world existed. The only person I am aware of with a PhD in ancient history who denied the existence of Jesus is Richard Carrier, an atheist.
The fact that so few (i.e one) qualified historians doubt that Jesus existed show how unfounded the suggestion that Jesus did not exist is. There is no debate among historians whether Jesus of Nazareth, founder of Christianity, who was crucified, existed, Of course, he did. However, they do not necessarily believe that he was the Son of God who died for our sins, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
Jamie Theakston interviews Raphael Lataster, an associate lecturer in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. I have to confess I had never heard of him so I did learn something from this program. Raphael Lataster claims that jesus probably did not exist and that Paul did not talk about a historical Jesus, but the “celestial son of man”.
Paul never used such an expression. He clearly believed that Jesus was a real person who had been killed a few years earlier. He says he met his brother James (Galatians 1:19).
Raphael Lataster claims that someone like Paul, but not Paul, founded Christianity. He will not accept the historical evidence for Jesus, but wants us to believe some nameless person, for whom there is no evidence, founded Christianity instead.
He also made a garbled comment about looking for a statue of Jesus as evidence. The Jews did not make statues of people.
Jamie Theakston says that we would assume that the Jesus of the Bible, his miracles, trial and crucifixion would be part of the historical record, but they’re not, the historical Jesus is something of a mystery. He does not explain what the thinks the “historical record” is. So much of our knowledge of the ancient world has been lost. We cannot go to Rome and look up the archives of the Roman Empire. There are a lot of big holes in the historical record.
Lynn Picknett points out that Jesus was not that important at the time. We should not expect a lot of references to him in the surviving historical sources. After all, two other people were crucified on the same day as Jesus. Roman historians do not mention them.
Jamie Theakston says that Jesus was mentioned by the ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus but he seems to think there should be more. (I have discussed these and other ancient non-Christian references to Jesus in The Historical Jesus and New Atheists and the existence fo Jesus . )The Jewish historian Josephus mentioned Jesus twice. One passage mentions his brother James. The other is controversial because Josephus says Jesus was the Christ, something a Jew would not say. Most historians believe this passage was altered by a later Christian scribe. Others, including Andrew Gough, believe all of the passage is a forgery, but he does not comment on the other Josephus passage which mentions Jesus. He also claims that the passage in Tacitus which mentions Christ is a forgery. I do not know any historian who would agree with that.
As already mentioned, the Gospels were ancient biographies of Jesus. The Gospels, the rest of the New Testament and other early Christian writings, which mentioned Jesus, are writings from the ancient world. Surely, they are part of the “historical record”. I suppose if you are going to ignore most of the historical evidence, you will think Jesus is not in the historical record.
Much of the program consists of Jamie Theakston looking at the sites associated with Jesus’ crucifixion and burial in Jerusalem, with two guides Eyal Miron and Marty Friedlander who actually know what they are talking about. However, there is no discussion of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee before Jerusalem, which any examination of the historical Jesus should include.
They show us the Garden Tomb which Eyal Miron points out could not the tomb of Jesus because it was built 800 years earlier while Jesus’ tomb had been a new tomb which had never been used (John 19:41).
Then we see the inside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Like other History Channel programs, we at least get to see some interesting scenery. Jamie Theakston says that while the church is right in the heart of Jerusalem today, in Jesus’ time it would have been located outside the city walls so it could be the crucifixion site. Nevertheless, both Tony McMahon and Andrew Gough say it could not be the site because it is inside the city wall.
Did they get paid for this?
Dominic Selwood objects that the church was built 300 years after Jesus’ death, however Eyal Miron explains that the church was built on the site of a tomb which was part of a cemetery from the time of Jesus. Even if the fourth century Christians did not identify the exact tomb of Jesus, they were most likely in the right area. It may have been a few metres from the official site.
They show us the Talpiot Tomb which contained an ossuary (stone bone box) with an inscription which said, “Jesus son of Joseph”. The 2007 James Cameron documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus suggested it once contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth so he could not have risen from the dead.
Andrew Gough says it is a “fraud”. No, it isn’t. It is the ossuary of someone else called Jesus. It was a common name.
Likewise, Dominc Selwood claims the Talpiot Tomb and the James Ossuary are “bogus archaeology” and “fake”. The James Ossuary is purported to be the ossuary of Jesus’ brother James. Its authenticity has been disputed by some, but it has not been conclusively proved that it is a fake.
Jamie Theakston wants to know what archaeological evidence there is for the existence of Jesus. Marty Friedlander tells him that the Gospels’ references to Jerusalem are historically accurate, what they said was there was there, such as the Pool of Bethseda. Jamie Theakston says this not prove Jesus was there and there is no tangible evidence Jesus was ever in Jerusalem. Jesus was one of over 200,000 Jews who visited Jerusalem during the Passover nearly 2000 years ago. What archaeological evidence is he supposed to have left? Serious historians would not make such a statement.
Other episodes of Forbidden History have included “The Lost Treasure of the Templars”, “The Bloodline of Christ”, “The Mystery of the Giants” and “Top Secret Nazi UFOs”. Clearly, they do not have high standards of historical evidence, but when it comes to Jesus, their demands for evidence are unrealistically high.