National Geographic on The Search for The Real Jesus

National Geographic’s December 2017 issue contains an article “The Search for the Real Jesus” by Kristen Romey which discusses the archaeological evidence for Jesus of Nazareth. It can be read online here. It was more positive than I was expecting in a secular magazine. It showed that the archaeological evidence tends to support, and does not contradict, the New Testament’s account of Jesus.

Some skeptics claim that Jesus never existed. I discussed this in New Atheists and the existence of Jesus.  Romey describes it as “an explosive question that lurks in the shadows of historical Jesus studies: Might it be possible that Jesus never even existed, that the whole stained glass story is pure invention?” (p  42-43)

It is not really an “explosive question” because there is no debate among historians about the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Romey agrees the suggestion is groundless and is not supported by scholars. She quotes Eric Meyers of Duke University,

“I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus. The details have been debated for centuries, but no one who is serious doubts that he’s a historical figure.” (p 42)

Romey writes, “Even John Dominic Crossan , a former priest and co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, a controversial scholarly forum, believes the radical skeptics go too far. Granted, stories of Christ’s miraculous deeds  healing the sick with a few words, feeding a multitude with a few morsels of bread and fish, even restoring life to a corpse four days dead – are hard for modern minds to embrace. But that’s no reason to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was a religious fable.” (p 42)

It is not completely accurate to say that modern minds find it hard to embrace accounts of the miraculous and supernatural. The majority of people in the modern or postmodern world still believe in God, gods or the supernatural in some form. Those who reject the supernatural are in the minority.

It is hard for some scholars to accept the supernatural details in the life of Jesus not because science has somehow disproved the supernatural and modern people no longer believe in the supernatural.  They reject the supernatural details because of their preconceptions, their naturalistic, anti-supernatural worldview.

Historians and archaeologists agree that Jesus existed, but not all of them believe Jesus was the Son of God who died and rose from the dead. New Testament historians  talk about the quest or search for the historical Jesus, which basically seeks to answer the question, how much of the New Testament  portrait of Jesus is historically accurate and how much (if any) did the early church make up? I have discussed this in The Historical Jesus. Romey describes this division,

“Scholars who study Jesus divide into two opposing camps separated by a very bright line: those who believe the wonder-working Jesus of the Gospels is the real Jesus and those who think the real Jesus – the man who inspired the myth – hides below the surface of the Gospels and must be revealed by historical research and literary analysis. Both camps claim archaeology as their ally, leading to some fractious debates and strange bedfellows.” (p 43)

This is not really accurate. Bart Ehrman states that”most scholars in both the United States and Europe over the past century have been convinced that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who anticipated that God was soon to intervene in history to overthrow the powers of evil, now controlling the world in order to bring in a new order, a new kingdom here on earth, the kingdom of God.” (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, Harper One, New York, 2012, p 270)

There is some truth to this, but not in the way that Ehrman is suggesting. God did intervene in history, evil was defeated and the old world did end in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the kingdom of God was established in the Church, in the lives of Christians where Jesus is king.

Likewise, there are also some skeptical scholars who still accept that Jesus performed miracles or appeared to perform miracles (Mark Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus, Zondervan, Michigan, 2006, p 363-365, 368)

Romey discusses the archaeological evidence for the events of Jesus’ life. She says that some scholars doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The accounts of his birth in Matthew and Luke differ (p 46). New Testament scholars talk about the criterion of multiple attestation to determine the authenticity of events in the Gospels. If an event is recorded in more than one source,  it is more likely to be authentic. The fact that the two accounts of Jesus’ birth are not identical suggests that there are two independent sources for Jesus’ virgin birth at Bethlehem.

Romey writes, “Some suspect that the Gospel writers located Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem to tie the Galilean peasant to the Judean city prophesied in the Old Testament as the birthplace of the Messiah.” (p 46)

However, if Jesus had not been born in Bethlehem, his followers would have believed he was the Messiah.

Romey writes that archaeology cannot prove or disprove that two people visited Bethlehem and gave birth to a child;

“Many of the scholars I spoke to are neutral on the question of Christ’s birthplace, the physical evidence being too elusive to make a call.” (p 46)

Romey then turns to Nazareth. She does not mention it but some skeptics used to claim that Nazareth did not exist during Jesus’ lifetime. Their claims have been disproved by archaeological discoveries  showing that Nazareth was there before Jesus was born (Robert Hutchinson, Searching for Jesus, Nelson Books, Tennessee, 2015, p 98-100).

The modern “search for the historical Jesus” tends to focus more on Jesus’ Jewish background. Romey writes,

“Jesus was raised in Nazareth, a small agricultural village in southern Galilee. Scholars who understand him in strictly human terms – as a religious reformer, or a social revolutionary, or an apocalyptic prophet, or even a Jewish jihadist –  plumb the political, economic, and social currents of first-century Galilee to discover the forces that gave rise to the man and his mission….. Others imagine the onslaught of Greco-Roman culture molding Jesus into a less Jewish, more cosmopolitan champion of social justice. In 1991 John Dominic Crossan published a bombshell of a book, The Historical Jesus, in which he put forward the theory that the real Jesus was a wandering  sage whose countercultural lifestyle and subversive sayings bore striking parallels to the cynics.” (p 46)

The Cynics were basically ancient Greek hippies. Romey continues,

“Crossan’s unorthodox thesis was inspired by archaeological discoveries showing that Galilee – long thought to have been a rural backwater and an isolated Jewish enclave – was in fact more urbanized and romanized than scholars once imagined, and partly by the fact that Jesus’ boyhood home was just three miles from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital.” (p 47)

According to Crossan, Sepphoris was a Gentile city where the young Jesus was exposed to the ideas of Greek Cynic philosophers and he became a Jewish Cynic.

There are problems with Crossan’s theory. There is no evidence there ever were any Cynics in first century Galilee. Moreover, the archaeological evidence shows that Sepphoris was Jewish. Romey writes,

“At least 30 mitzvahs, or jewish ritual baths, dot the residential quarter of Sepphoris – the largest domestic concentration  ever found by archaeologists. Along with ceremonial stone vessels and a striking absence of pig bones (pork being shunned by kosher-keeping Jews), they offer clear evidence that even this imperial Roman city remained a very Jewish place during Jesus’ formative years.”(p 60)

As Craig Evans, Professor at Acadia Divinity college, put it,

“All this evidence leads to the firm conclusion that Sepphoris in Jesus’ day was a thoroughly Jewish city. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think there may have been Cynics loitering in the streets of Sepphoris on the lookout for Jewish youths from nearby Nazareth.” (Craig Evans, Jesus and His World, The Archaeological Evidence, Westminster John Knox Press, Kentucky, 2013, p 26-27)

All these attempts to reinvent Jesus do not make sense in that they do not explain why Jesus was crucified. The Romans did not crucify people for being Cynic philosophers, religious reformers or apocalyptic prophets saying the world was going to end. They would have crucified Jesus for being a revolutionary or “Jewish jihadist” and trying to overthrow Roman rule. However, if that had been the case, the Romans would have crucified his followers who would have also been revolutionaries. Instead, they left them alone and they went on to found the church.

The fact that the Romans crucified Jesus while leaving his followers alone, suggests that they were not a political threat and Jesus had not taught or encourage them to overthrow Roman rule. The New Testament account, that Pilate did not believe Jesus was a threat, but the Jewish authorities, who were offended by his teachings and claims, pressured him into crucifying Jesus sounds more credible.

Moreover, there were times when Jesus condemned violence (Matthew 5:39, 26:52). He did not sound like a political revolutionary.

The theory, that Jesus was  a revolutionary, and all the other theories about who the supposed historical Jesus really was, basically have to ignore or explain away all the passages where Jesus said and did things which contradict their theories. They come up with different and contradictory ideas about who Jesus “really” was because they do not want to belive what the actual historical documents, the New Testament, say Jesus was, the sinless, miracle-working Son of God. The so-called search for the historical Jesus often rejects the historical evidence.

Getting back to Romey’s article, she also discusses the 1968 discovery of a first century house in Capernaum, Galilee, which was used as a meeting place and later converted into a Christian church. It cannot be proved but some scholars believe this was Peter’s house described in Matthew 8:14 (p 60-61).

She also mentions the discovery of the “Jesus boat” at the Sea of Galilee which dates to the first century AD, although we cannot know if it was one of the boats Jesus used in the Gospels (p 64).

Some skeptics claimed  that there were no synagogues in Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime, so the Gospel accounts of Jesus visiting synagogues must be wrong. However, Romey reports that in 2009 archaeologists discovered a first century synagogue in Magdala, Galilee, Mary Magdalene’s hometown (p 64-65).

I have written about synagogues from this period here.

Romey writes about archaeology and the death of Jesus,

“I marvel at the many archaeological discoveries made in Jerusalem and elsewhere over the years that lend credibility to the Scriptures and traditions surrounding the death of Jesus, including an ornate ossuary that may contain the bones of Caiaphas, an inscription attesting to the rule of Pontius Pilate and a heel bone driven through with an iron nail, found in the Jerusalem burial of a Jewish man named Yehohanan.” (p 68)

Some skeptics claimed that the victims of crucifixion were not buried, so the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ burial are wrong, Again, the archaeological evidence has disproved the claims of the skeptics (p 65).

The article also contains a good fold-out chart showing how the site of Jesus’ tomb was transformed into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the centuries.

Archaeology cannot prove that everything in the New Testament happened or that Jesus was the Son of God. Nevertheless, the archaeological evidence tends to support the New Testament accounts and does not contradict it.






New Atheists and the existence of Jesus


Some new atheist writers claim that Jesus did not exist.


Richard Dawkins writes, “It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam Books, London, 2006, p 97)


Christopher Hitchens writes about “the highly questionably existence of Jesus” and “there was little or no evidence for the life of Jesus”. (Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great, Allen and Unwin, New South Wales, 2008, p 135, 152)


MIchael Onfray writes, “Jesus’s existence has not been historically established” and “The ultra-rationalists – from Prosper Alfaric to Raoul Vaneigem – were probably right to deny the historical existence of Jesus.” (Michael Onfray, The Atheist Manifesto, Melbourne University Press, Victoria, 2007, p 115,117)

Okay, I have no idea who Prosper Alfraic and Raoul Vaneigem were, but name-dropping cannot cover up how weak the new atheists’ arguments against the historical existence of Jesus are.


Bart Ehrman, who describes himself as an “agnostic with atheist leanings” (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Harper One, New York, 2012, p 2) is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and has written several books critical of conservative interpretations of the New Testament. We can expect him to be neutral and objective. He writes,

“I should say at the outset that none of this literature [denying the existence of Jesus] is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world.) Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed.” (Did Jesus Exist, p 2)

The only academic, which Richard Dawkins cites for Jesus’ non-existence is “Professor G. A. Wells of the University of London.”(The God Delusion, p 97) However, he does not tell his readers that Wells is a Professor of German.

If I have a question about ancient history, a Professor of German is always the first person I would ask.

The fact ,that Dawkins and the other new atheists cannot find a single academic in a history department anywhere in the world who will agree with them, should give us an idea how credible their ideas are. I could find more scientists with Ph.D.s from accredited universities who believe the world was created in six days than the new atheists can find historians who agree with them.

The new atheists seem to “think” that because they do not believe God exists, Jesus also did not exist. This does not make sense. I am not a Muslim or a Buddhist, but I still believe that Muhammad and Buddha existed. I am not aware of any new atheist who challenges their existence, only Jesus.

Not every historian, who believes there was a Jesus of Nazareth who founded Christianity, believes in God or that Jesus was the Son of God who died for their sins and rose from the dead. For over 200 years historians and theologians have been engaged in a quest or search for the “historical Jesus”, trying to determine whether Jesus really said and did the things attributed to him in the Gospels.

If some historians do not believe in the supernatural and do not believe the supernatural events attributed to Jesus happened, they do not conclude that Jesus did not exist, like the new atheists do. They are more likely to assume they were made up by the early church.

I have argued here that the Gospel accounts are historically reliable.

There is early historical evidence for Jesus other than Christian sources, however Michael Onfray says that “we know that most existing documents are skillfully executed forgeries.” (The Atheist Manifesto, p 116)

Onfray may “know” this, but no one who works in an ancient history department in a university does.

Nevertheless, he continues,

“Nothing of what remains can be trusted. The Christian archives are the result of ideological fabrication. Even the writings of Flavius Josephus, Suetonius or Tacitus, who mention in a few hundred verses the existence of Christ and his faithful in the first century of our era, obey the rules of intellectual forgery. When an anonymous monk recopied the Antiquities of the Jewish historian Josephus (arrested and turned into a double agent, a collaborator with Roman power) when that monk had before him the Annals of Tacitus or Suetonius’s Lives of Twelve Caesars (and was astonished to find no mention of the story he believed in), he added a passage in his own hand and in all good faith, without shame and without a second thought, without wondering whether he was doing wrong or committing forgery.” (The Atheist Manifesto, p 117)

Onfray’s account of an “astonished” monk finding no mention of Christ in Jospehus, Tacitus and Suetonius and adding them “without shame or a second thought” exists only in his imagination. It seems that because he does not believe Jesus was a historical figure, then any historical reference to Jesus must be fake.

The only partial truth to his claim is a passage from Josephus which reads,

“Now, there was about this time Jesus,a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:5:2)

Because Jospehus was a Jew, he was not likely to have said Jesus was the Christ, however the majority of historians do not believe this passage is a complete forgery. They believe there was an authentic reference to Jesus by Josephus, but it was altered and made more Christian by a later Christian monk (John Dickson, Investigating Jesus, An Historian’s Quest, Lion Hudson, London, 2010, p 74).

There is an Arabic version of this passage which is not so explicitly Christian and it may be the original,

“At this time there was a wise man named Jesus. His conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to crucifixion and death; but those who had become his disciples did not forsake his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; he was therefore, perhaps, the Messiah concerning whom the prophets had recounted wonderful things.”

Jospehus mentions Jesus in another passage referring to the execution of his brother James,

“He [Ananus the high priest] 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.” (Jospehus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:9:1)

Tacitus mentioned Christ when he described Nero’s persecution of the Christians,

“To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called.) Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. But, in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition broke out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.” (Tacitus, Annals, 15;44)

This passage is critical of Christians and I do not know of any historian who thinks it is a Christian forgery.

Suetonius briefly mentions Nero’s persecution of the Christians,

“Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.” (Suetonius, Lives, Nero, 16)

Suetonius also wrote about Claudius.

“Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.” (Suetonius, Lives, Claudius, 25)

Some historians think “Chrestus’ is a garbled reference to Christ and it refers to clashes between Jews and Christians in Rome, but it is not conclusive. However, Onfray claims even this passage is a forgery. Surely, if a later Christian copyist were to forge a reference to Jesus, he would make it clearer and spell “Christ” correctly.

There is only one other group I know of which behaves like this towards historical evidence – Holocaust deniers or revisionists who claim the evidence for the Nazi gas chambers is forged, unreliable or misinterpreted. Both new atheists and Holocaust revisionists are motivated by their ideological bias and refuse to accept the evidence.

Onfray further tries to cast doubt on Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius when he writes they are “manuscripts copied several centuries after they were written. (The Atheist Manifesto, p 117)

Our earliest manuscript of Suetonius was copied 800 years after it was written. Our earliest manuscript of Tacitus was copied 1000 years after it was written. However, Tacitus and Suetonius are our main sources for the Roman Empire in the first century. If we were to reject them because of the time between the originals and our earliest copies, we would know very little about that period. Modern historians do not have a problem with Tacitus and Suetonius, only the new atheists.

In contrast, our earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament is from John and is dated to about 30 to 40 years after it was written and our first complete manuscripts are from about 300 years after it was written, but we will not hear any new atheists saying how the text of the New Testament is so much more reliable than Tacitus and Suetonius.

The Gospels, the rest of the New Testament and other early Christian writings also contain evidence for the existence of Jesus. When these are taken into account, there is more historical evidence for Jesus than any other person in the ancient world.

In The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus Gary Habermas and Michael Licona estimate that Jesus or Christ was mentioned by 42 Christian and non-Christian writers within 150 years of the crucifixion, while Tiberius, Roman emperor at the time, was only mentioned by nine writers, including the New Testament’s Luke, within 150 years of his death. (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Kregel, Michigan, 2004, 127-128)

However, Christopher Hitchens writes,

“Well, it can be stated with certainty, and on their own evidence, that the Gospels are most certainly not literal truth. This means that many of the “sayings” and teachings of Jesus are hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay, which helps explain their garbled and contradictory nature.” (God is not Great, p 142)

Richard Dawkins says about the Gospels,

“Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard The New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened…… The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.” (The God Delusion, p 97)

I am not sure what Dawkins thinks a “reputable biblical scholar” is, presumably one who agrees with him.

In the last 30 years the “quest for the historical Jesus”, the attempt to work out how historically reliable the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus is, has come to see the Gospels as more accurate than previous generations of scholars. The majority of New Testament historians do not agree with Dawkins’ rhetoric.

The consensus among historians is that the New Testament Gospels are similar to other ancient biographies and were intended to be biographies of Jesus, describing what they believed happened. This consensus is largely a result of Richard Burridge’s What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2004.

To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, it can be stated with certainty, and in their evidence, that the Gospels are most certainly literal truth. They are biographies of Jesus and intended to describe what the authors believed actually happened. That is the consensus of New Testament scholarship, as opposed to the dogmatic opinions of the new atheists.

Hitchens’ claim that the Gospels are “hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay” is hardly accurate. Matthew and John were traditionally believed to have been written by eyewitnesses. According to Papias, who wrote around 130 AD, Mark wrote what the eyewitness Peter told him (Eusebius, The History of the Church, 3:39, Penguin Classics, London, 1989, p 103-104).

Most New Testament scholars believe Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. Paul died in the mid 60s and because Luke’s sequel Acts ends with Paul still alive in Rome, it was presumably written before he died, Luke must have been written before then.

Admittedly, many scholars believe Luke and Acts were written later, some as late as the 90s, but this is largely because Luke contains Jesus’ prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem in 70, and they do not believe prophecy is possible. But if an account of someone’s life ends with them still alive, it is safe bet it was written before they died, not 25 years later.

Both Dawkins and Hitchens claim the Gospels contain errors and contradictions which are supposed to mean they are not true. Hitchens claim the Gospels “cannot agree on anything of importance.” (God is not Great, p 132). Is he serious? What about Jesus coming from Nazareth, being the Son of God and Messiah, travelling and preaching, having disciples, performing miracles, offending the Jewish leaders, being arrested, tried and crucified and rising from the dead?

Hitchens also claims. “The contradictions and illiteracies [?] of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars, and have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.” ” (God is not Great, p 136)

I am not sure how the “Christ of faith”, which usually means the alleged difference between what Christians believe about Christ and the historical Jesus of Nazareth, can explain any supposed contradictions in the Gospels.

Likewise, Dawkins claims, “The resulting contradictions are glaringly, but consistently overlooked by the faithful” and asks “Why don’t they notice these glaring contradictions?” (The God Delusion, p 94)

The truth is there are numerous Christian books devoted to explaining the supposed contradictions in the Bible, e.g.,

Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of BIble Difficulties, Zondervan, MIchigan, 1982

Norman Geisler, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties, Baker Books, Michigan, 2008

John Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, Whitaker House, Pennsylvania, 2004

Ken Ham, Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions, Master Boooks, Arizona, 2010

Walter Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, IVP, Engalnd, 1996

Sometimes these “contradictions” are just different ways of saying the same thing and both can be true. On the subject of the women who visited Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning, Matthew says Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went (Matthew 28:1), Mark says Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Salome went (Mark 16:1), Luke says Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women went (Luke 24:10), John says Mary Magdalene went and she tells the disciples “we don’t know where they have laid Him” (John 20:1,2), suggesting there were more.

These accounts are different, but they can all be true. They only mean the authors only mentioned some of those who went. They also mean that the Gospel writers were not copying each other and we have multiple attestations to the resurrection.

Even if the new atheists could prove there is an unexplainable contradiction in the Gospels, that would not prove the events in the Gospels did not happen and Jesus did not exist. It would only challenge Christian ideas about inspiration and inerrancy.

Historians and others, who deal with eyewitnesses, like the police, lawyers and journalists, know that eyewitnesses can get it wrong, but that does not mean the events they described did not happen. They just made a mistake.


In Gospel Truth, Answering New Atheist Attacks on the Gospels, Paul Barnett gives the example of the siege of Jerusalem in 66-70 AD. Tacitus says there were 6000 Romans. Jospehus says there were 600,000 (Paul Barnett, Gospel Truth, Answering New Atheist Attacks on the Gospels, IVP, England, 2012, p 93). This contradiction does not prove the Roman siege of Jerusalem never happened.

Real historians do not conclude that an event did not happen or a whole book is not true because of a mistake in the details. Again, the only other group, I know of which behave like this, are Holocaust deniers who look for mistakes and contradictions in the eyewitnesses’ accounts of the gas chambers and the extermination of the Jews and use these mistakes to argue that the eyewitnesses are wrong and the Holocaust did not happen.

Paul Barnett also makes an interesting point in that although Matthew and Luke are believed to have used Mark and sometimes said things differently than Mark, they did not accuse him of getting it wrong, while in the cases of other ancient historians contradicting each other, they often claimed they were right and the others were wrong (Gospel Truth, p 84-85). This suggests that although Matthew and Luke may have said things differently, they did not think Mark was wrong. It is possible for two or more people to describe the same event differently and all be true.

Some of the mistakes and contradictions which the new atheists raise are nothing of the sort.

Dawkins, citing Tom Flynn, argues that Luke made up the “worship by kings” at Jesus’ birth because of “Luke’s desire to adopt Christianity for the Gentiles.” (The God Delusion, p 94) While it is true that Luke appears to have been writing for a Gentile audience, the visit of the magi (wise men or astrologers, not kings) only occurs in Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospels.

Hitchens claims that “all four Gospels were based on a lost book known as Q by scholars.” (God is not Great, p 133)

Q is a hypothetical source which many scholars believe was used by Matthew and Luke who also relied on Mark. No one (apart from Hitchens) thinks Mark and John used Q. Personally, I believe Q was an oral tradition of Jesus’ sayings, rather than a written source. Many modern scholars seem to assume that because they rely on written sources, so did the Gospel writers.

Onfray claims the Gospels were wrong to call Pontius Pilate a procurator,

“That same Pilate could not have been a procurator as the Gospels call him, for the title of procurator was first used around the year 50 of our era. Pilate’s title was prefect of Judaea.” (The Atheist Manifesto, p 128)

The only problem is Pilate is not called “procurator” in the Gospels, but by the more generic term “governor” or “hegemon”.

Onfray also claims that Jesus could not have been crucified because “History again bears witness: at that time Jews were not crucified but stoned to death.” ( The Atheist Manifesto, p 128)

I looked up “crucifixion” in the index of my Penguin Classics edition of Josephus’ The Jewish War and found eleven references to Jews being crucified. If Onfray has not consulted Josephus, what “history” does he think “bears witness” that Jews were not crucified?

If these are the sort of arguments which atheists out forward for the non-existence of Jesus, are their arguments for the non-existence of God any better?


There is no such thing as a Gnostic Gospel

In 1945 an Arab peasant discovered a collection of papyrus books in a jar buried near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. They included the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and other “Gospels” which are not found in the New Testament. These manuscripts had been written in Coptic (Egyptian) during the fourth century AD, and were translations of earlier Greek texts. Their authors were part of a religious movement known as Gnosticism.

Historians cannot agree on the origins of Gnosticism. It was a combination of Christian, Jewish and pagan beliefs. Gnostics did not believe Jesus was the Son of Jehovah, the Creator God of the Old Testament. They believed the true God was hidden and unknowable, while Jehovah was an evil false god who created the world by accident, trapping  human souls in it. They did not believe Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament who died to save us from our sins and rose physically from the dead. Gnostics did not believe our problem was sin, but ignorance, and Jesus was a spiritual being (some Gnostics did not even believe Jesus had a physical body), who came to reveal the insight or knowledge (gnosis in Greek) about how souls were trapped and needed to escape from this mistake of a world.

The complete Nag Hammadi writings were first published in English by Professor James M. Robinson in 1977. Elaine Pagels, who is now a Professor at Princeton University, introduced them to the general public when her book The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979. In 2003 The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown claimed the Gnostic Gospels, rather than the New Testament, contained the truth about Jesus. Then, in 2006, National Geographic published another Gnostic work, the Gospel of Judas, which had been found at Amber in Egypt around 1978.

When lay people hear that there are Gospels of Thomas, Philip, Judas and others, they may get the impression that they were written by Thomas, Judas and Paul, in the same way that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are believed to have been the authors of their Gospels. They may assume that the Gnostic Gospels contain historically reliable information about Jesus and the New Testament does not give the complete picture of Jesus.

This impression is encouraged by some of Gnosticism’s modern supporters. For example, the back cover of the DVD of the National Geographic documentary The Gospel of Judas reads,

“Hidden for nearly two thousand years, an ancient Gospel emerges from the sands of Egypt that tells a very different version of the last days of Jesus and questions the portrait of Judas Iscariot as the evil apostle.”

In his book, The Lost Gospel, Herbert Krosney refers to the Gospel of Judas as the “words of Judas” (Herbert Krosney, The Lost Gospel, National Geographic, Washington DC, 2006, p 165). He also writes,

“The Gospel of Judas provided a fresh witness to one of history’s defining events, leading up to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was as close to a contemporary account of what had happened as many other accounts of Jesus. It was supposedly the gospel, or good news, of one of the chief actors in the epic account of the last days of Jesus.” (The Lost Gospel, p 48)

They make it sound like the Gospel of Judas is on a par with the New Testament Gospels. In other words, between betraying Jesus and hanging himself, Judas found the time to write a Gospel full of Gnostic ideas which probably did not exist at the time.

Students of Christian history used to believe that the orthodox Christians were the original Christians and the Gnostics were heretics who later deviated from the truth. However, the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels supposedly shows that early Christianity was more diverse. In The Gnostic Gospels Elaine Pagels writes,

“According to Christian legend, the early church was different. Christians of every persuasion look back to the primitive church to find a simpler, purer form of Christian faith. In the apostles’ time all members of the Christian community shared their money and property, all believed the same teaching, all revered the authority of the apostles. It was only after that golden age that conflict, then heresy emerged: so says the author of the Acts of the Apostles, who identifies himself as the first historian of Christianity.

But the discoveries at Nag Hammadi have upset this picture. If we admit that some of these fifty-two texts represent early forms of Christian teaching, we may have to recognize that early Christianity is far more diverse than anyone expected before the Nag Hammadi discoveries.” (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Books, London, 1990, p  20-21)

In his book Lost Christianities Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, writes,

“In the second and third centuries, there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others who insisted there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365.”

“In the second and third centuries there were Christians who believed that Jesus’ death brought about the salvation of the world. There were other Christians who thought that Jesus’ death had nothing to do with the salvation of the world. There were yet other Christians who said that Jesus never died.” (Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities ,Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, p 2)

This may sound confusing to Christian readers until one realises that Ehrman is grouping Gnostics together with orthodox Christians and referring to them all as Christians.

Christians do not have to agree on everything. Modern Christianity is diverse with thousands of denominations. Baptists and Presbyterians have some different beliefs, but they still regard each other as Christians and agree on the essential core doctrines. On the other hand, there are groups, like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, which go too far and deny the essential doctrines about the nature of Jesus and should be considered as heretics.

The early church was not as unified as Pagels suggests. In Galatians and Acts 15, we can see that the early Christians also did not agree on everything. Paul and some Jerusalem Christians did not agree on whether or not Gentile Christians had to obey the Law of Moses, yet they both agreed that Jesus died for their sins and rose from the dead.

Adherents of a religion can be identified by their beliefs. The Gnostics had very different beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus and salvation. The difference between orthodox Christians and Gnostics cannot be compared to the differences between Christian denominations. Orthodox Christianity has more in common with Islam than with Gnosticism. Those academics, who regard Gnostics as Christians, rarely define what they mean by Christian. It looks like anybody, who believes anything about Jesus or claims Jesus for their agenda, is a Christian. Jesus would not have agreed with such a definition (Matthew 7: 21-23). If I say I am a Muslim, but I do not believe in Allah, the Koran or that Muhammad was a prophet, I am not a Muslim. Likewise, someone, who does not believe in the core Christian ideas about God, Jesus and the New Testament, is not a Christian.

The word “Christian” comes from “Christ” which is Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah”. The Jews believed the Messiah would defeat evil and usher in the kingdom of God. Christians believe Jesus had done this through his death and resurrection and the founding of the Church.  Gnostics believed that Jesus had come from the true hidden God to reveal knowledge of the truth. They did not believe he was the promised Messiah or Christ of the Old Testament. They cannot be Christians.

The Nag Hammadi discovery did not prove the Gnostics really were Christians. Historians have always known about the Gnostics and their different beliefs. Around 180 AD, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, wrote a five volume work, Against Heresies, in which he described and rebutted Gnosticism and other heresies. The pro-Gnostic Elaine Pagels admits that Irenaeus “however hostile, nevertheless is accurate.” (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, Pan Books, London, 2005, p 138) The Nag Hammadi manuscripts only confirm what was already known about their non-Christian beliefs. They do not somehow prove that the Gnostics really were Christians.

If the Gnostic Gospels were historical accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus written by his contemporaries, but they had not made it into the New Testament, then there would be some basis to the modern argument that early Christianity was more diverse and the Gnostics were actually Christians. This is not the case.

The New Testament Gospels were written by contemporaries of Jesus. Matthew and John were written by two of his disciples. Most theologians believe Mark was the first Gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke relied on Mark. According to Papias, Bishop of Hieropolis, writing around 130 AD, Mark received his information from the apostle Peter (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:39:15). Peter is believed to have been killed in Rome during the persecution by Nero in 64 AD, meaning Mark’s Gospel must have been written before then.

Luke and its sequel Acts were written by the same person. Luke does not claim to have been an eyewitness, but relied on the accounts of others (Luke 1:1-3). Liberal theologians claim Luke was written around 80-90 AD. However, internal evidence suggests it must have been written before 64 AD. The last half of Acts is an account of the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul. Acts 21-28 describes Paul’s arrest, imprisonment and journey to Rome to face trial. Paul was also killed in Rome by Nero in 64. However, Acts ends with Paul still alive in Rome. If a biography of someone does not mention their death, it was obviously written while they were still alive. I have never heard of a biography written nearly 30 years after the person died but does not mention their death. The logical conclusion is that Acts and its predecessor Luke were written while Paul was still alive, that is before 64, meaning Luke would have been able to rely on contemporaries and eyewitnesses for his information about Jesus. Many theologians believe that one of Luke’s sources for his Gospel was Mark. This again means that Mark must have been written before 64, perhaps in the 50s.

There is no mention of any Gnostic Gospels until the second half of the second century. While Bart Ehrman regards both orthodox Christians and Gnostics as Christians, he has still written that the New Testament Gospels “are our earliest and best accounts of Jesus’ life.” (Bart Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, Oxford University Press, Oxford ,2004, p 110) He says Jesus could not have said the Gnostic teachings attributed to him in Thomas and the other Gnostic Gospels because “we have no evidence to suggest that Gnosticism could be found already in the first two decades of the first century – especially in rural Galilee. These Gnostic sayings must be later traditions, then, placed on Jesus’ lips in some other context (e.g., in the second century, in a place such as Egypt or Syria).” (Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, p 125)

When Ehrman examined the historical evidence for Jesus in his book Did Jesus Exist?, the only Gnostic Gospel, which he refers to, is Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, which he suggests was written around 110-120 AD (Bart Ehrman ,Did Jesus Exist?, Harper One, New York, 2012, p 76) and only when it agrees with the New Testament Gospels (Did Jesus Exist?, p 307, 321, 322). He apparently believes the other Gnostic Gospels tell us nothing about the historical Jesus.

Furthermore, Thomas was probably written later than Ehrman suggests. Around 173 AD, Tatian, a Syrian Christian, complied a harmony of the four Gospels called the Diatessaron. In his book Thomas and Tatian and Thomas, The Other Gospel Nicholas Perrin shows that Thomas is based on the Diatessaron. When Thomas is translated into Syriac, over 500 catchwords can be identified (Nicholas Perrin, Thomas and Tatian, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 2002, p 169). These are words in a saying which can be associated with a word in a nearby saying, i.e., the same word or a similar sounding word, making to easier to memorize. This suggests that Thomas must have originally been written in Syriac.

Moreover, 51 of the 114 sayings in Thomas contain a textual variant which agrees with the Diatessaron. This means that Thomas and the Diatessaron agree with each other, but not with the Greek New Testament. For example, Matthew and Luke say, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay the head,” (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:50), but both Thomas and the Diatessaron say, “Foxes have their holes and birds have their nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head and rest.” (Nicholas Perrin, Thomas, The Other Gospel, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2007, p 83) This suggests that Thomas is based on the Syriac text of the Diatessaron, so Thomas must have been written after 173 AD.

In contrast, if the Greek words of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are translated back into Jesus’ language, Aramaic, as much as 80% is rhythmic or poetic, which would have made it easier to memorize (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2009, p 158). This means that the words attributed to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels were originally spoken by an Aramaic speaker and were not the creation of the Greek-speaking authors of the New Testament and they have been recorded accurately.

The Gnostics claimed they had preserved the inner teachings of Jesus which had been secretly passed down to them. Their actions suggest otherwise. They wrote these supposedly secret teachings down and circulated them so they could be read by their orthodox Christian critics.  Furthermore, Jesus told his disciples to teach everything, which he had taught them, to their disciples, the Church (Matthew 28:19-20). The early Church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Peter based his knowledge and authority on being an eyewitness to Jesus (2 Peter 1:16-18). John also said he was an eyewitness and was passing on what had been revealed to him (1 John 1:1-3). Paul instructed Timothy to pass on to “faithful people” what he had taught him (2 Timothy 2:2). Clement, Bishop of Rome, around 96 AD, wrote that Jesus had given the Gospel to the Apostles who had passed it on to the bishops and deacons (1 Clement 42). In Against Heresies Irenaeus (d. 202) said that the Church’s beliefs had been passed down to them from the Apostles and their successor (3:2:1-2) and these were preserved in the four Gospels (3:11:8). They were the inheritors of Jesus’ teaching, not the Gnostics.

In The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown claims, “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relatively few were chosen for inclusion – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them” and “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.” (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Corgi Books, , London, 2004, p 313)

In fact, there are only 24   known so-called Gnostic Gospels, Apocryphon of James Apocryphon of John, Apocryphon of Peter, Book of Thomas the Contender, The Birth of Mary, Book of John the Evangelist, Dialogue of the Saviour, Gospel of Bartholomew, Gospel of Basildes, Gospel of the Ebionites, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of Eve, Gospel according to the Hebrews, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, , Letter of Peter to Philip, Pistis Sophia and Secret Treatise of the Great Seth.

The exact number of “Gnostic Gospels” is debatable because none of these are Gospels in the same sense as the New Testament ones. In his 1992 book What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography  Richard Burridge  compared the structure of the Gospels to biographies from the ancient world. Ancient biographies contained little or nothing about the subject’s childhood. They tended to focus on their careers which were usually made up of anecdotes or accounts of events and speeches. There is a lot of attention given to how the person died. Burridge concluded that the Gospels were ancient biographies. Since then most historians have accepted this and they regard the Gospels as biographies of Jesus. (Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2014, p 239-240)

None of the Gnostic Gospels are biographies of Jesus. They are not accounts of his ministry, death and resurrection, comparable to the New Testament ones. The Gnostic Gospels consists of Jesus’ supposed sayings with no narrative or context. One would be hard-pressed to tell from the Gnostic Gospels that Jesus even lived in first century Palestine. The only exception is the Gospel of Judas which has a plot about why Judas betraying Jesus was a good thing, but there is still no narrative of his ministry.

“Gospel” means “good news” (euaggelion  in Greek). When we read or watch the news, we expect to learn about what has happened. In the ancient world it was announcing that something good had happened, such as the emperor had won a victory over sin and death. The New Testament Gospels are “good news” because they tell what has happened, what Jesus has done and won a different kind of victory. The Gnostic Gospels are not Gospels, that is, they are not “good news” because their Jesus does not do anything good or great. He purportedly just gives some Gnostic teaching.

The fact that the Gospels were written as biographies shows they were intended to be taken literally and describe what actually happened. The Gnostics do not appear to have had the same concern for historical truth. The Nag Hammadi collection includes Eugnostos the Blessed and The Sophia of Jesus Christ. Eugnostos the Blessed is a letter written by a pagan philosopher to his disciples. It was rewritten as The Sophia of Jesus Christ in which Eugnostos’ words were put into Jesus’ mouth. The Gospel of the Egyptians and the Apocryphon of John are also believed to be Gnostic reworkings of pagan texts (James Robinson (editor), The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Harper, San Francisco, 1990, p 220). Putting a supposed Christian veneer on a pagan text does not make the Gnostics Christian. Rather, it shows their beliefs were pagan in origin. The Gnostics were not interested in preserving the actual words of Jesus. They were looking for figures through which to express their Gnostic ideas.

Elaine Pagels acknowledges their Gospels are not historical,

“Gnostic authors, in the same way, attributed their secret teachings to various disciples. Like those who wrote the New Testament gospels, they may have received some of their material from early traditions. But in other cases, the accusation that the gnostics invented what they wrote contains some truth: certain gnostics openly acknowledged that they derived their gnosis from their own experience.

How, for example, could a Christian living in the second century write the Secret Book of John? We could imagine the author in the situation he attributes to John at the opening of the book: troubled by doubts, he begins to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ mission and destiny. In the process of such internal questioning, answers may occur spontaneously to the mind; changing patterns of images may appear. The person who understands this process not in terms of modern psychology, as the activity of the imagination or unconscious, but in religious terms, could experience these as forms of spiritual communication with Christ. Seeing his own communion with Christ as a continuation of what the disciples enjoyed, the author, when he casts the ‘dialogue’ into literary form, could well give to them the role of the questioners. Few among his contemporaries – except the orthodox, whom he considers ‘literal-minded’ – would accuse him of forgery; rather, the titles of these works indicate that they were written ‘in the spirit’ of John, Mary Magdalene, Philip or Peter.” (Beyond Belief, p 47)

This may leave readers wondering how some academics can believe the Gnostic Gospels represent a valid alternative form of Christianity when they know they are not historically reliable. This is because their opinions are not so much a result of historical research, but of their worldview. They appear to subscribe to a philosophy of postmodernism which says there is no absolute truth and all beliefs are equally true. Texts, such as the Gospels, do not have one true meaning. All interpretations by the reader are equally valid. What the author actually meant is irrelevant. Thus, what Jesus meant, his identity and purpose, are irrelevant to the postmodernist. All ideas about Jesus, orthodox Christian or Gnostic, are equally valid, not whether or not one group has accurately recorded Jesus’ life, teachings and purpose. There is no true Christianity and heresies which have got it wrong. There are many “Christianities”.

Another postmodernist assumption is that “History is written by the winners.” This means the orthodox Christians won, their Gospels were accepted and the Gnostics lost. If the Gnostics had come out on top, they would have become the true Christians and the orthodox Christians would be the heretics. Again, the issue of which side better represents the real historical Jesus is irrelevant.

It may be true that the winners often write history. If Hitler had won World War II and we were all Nazis, our history books would not portray Hitler as an evil dictator. However, it is not always the case. The American lost the Vietnam War, yet they have written numerous books about the conflict. Likewise, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War with Sparta in the fifth century BC, but our knowledge of the war comes from the Athenian historian Thucydides (c. 460-c.395 BC).

The New Testament Gospels were not written by winners, but by a despised and illegal religious minority who were disempowered and persecuted for what they had written and believed. There were a few exceptions but in general, the Roman authorities did not persecute the Gnostics, which suggests the Romans understood what some postmodernist academics do not, that the Christians and Gnostics were two different groups.

The early Christians were persecuted because they refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. They believed to do so would deny the uniqueness of Jesus. The fact, that the Gnostics were not usually persecuted, suggests they must have compromised, denied Jesus’ uniqueness and sacrificed to the pagan gods.

Postmodernists tend to side with the underdog, those oppressed by the powerful. Thus, they favour the Gnostics whom they see as oppressed by the orthodox Christians. On the other hand, if the Gnostics had “won” and Constantine became a Gnostic, these postmodernist academics would presumably be supporters of orthodox Christianity.

Dan Brown says that Constantine decided which Gospels would be included in the New Testament at the Council of Nicea in 325 (p 313-314, 317).  This is not true. In Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code Bart Ehrman writes,

“The historical reality is that the emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude, and he did not order the destruction of the Gospels that were left out of the canon (there were no imperial book burnings). The formation of the New Testament canon was instead a long and drawn-out process that began centuries before Constantine and did not conclude until long after he was dead. So far as we know, based on the historical record, the emperor was not involved in the process.” (Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, p 74)

The early Church had already decided by the end of the second century. When it was still powerless and persecuted, that there were only four genuine Gospels. As already mentioned, around 173 AD, Tatian compiled a harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John called the Diatessaron. He did not use any other “Gospels”. In Against Heresies, written around 180 AD, Irenaeus argued that there could only ever be four Gospels because there were four zones of the world, four principal winds, four covenants between God and Man and the cherubim had four faces (AH 3:11:7) . Irenaeus’ reasoning is admittedly dubious but it does show he believed there were only four Gospels. Around 200 AD a list of the Christian canon was drawn up, known as the Muratorian Canon which included the four Gospels. Origen (184-254) wrote, “The Church has four Gospels. Heretics have many.” (Homily on Luke 1:1)

Orthodox Christians did not agree on all of the New Testament books by the end of the second century. The New Testament canon was not finalised until 367. However, the four Gospels had already been accepted for about 200 years. There had only been doubts about whether the General Epistles, Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation, should be included.

Eusebius records how around 200 AD Serapion, Bishop of Antioch, leaned some Christians in Rhossus had been using the Gospel of Peter. At first Serapion accepted it However, when the realised it was not orthodox and could not have been written by Peter, he rejected it and warned others about it (Ecclesiastical History,6:12:2-6). The fact, that Serapion had been previously unaware of the Gospel of Peter, suggests that it was not well-known nor widely distributed, and it was not on a par with the New Testament Gospels. Eusebius does not mention other incidents of Christians being deceived by false Gospels so it sounds like an isolated case. The Gospel of Peter is not even Gnostic in its theology. No Gnostic Gospel was ever considered as canonical and authentic by orthodox Christians.

The Gnostic manuscripts from Nag Hammadi are a significant archaeological discovery in that they show what the Gnostics of the second century, and later, believed. However, they do not challenge or undermine the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament Gospels were written first and were intended to be biographies of Jesus and record his teachings and achievements. They are Gospels. “good news”, because they tell what Jesus has done for us.

The Gnostic Gospels were written later. Even Gnosticism’s modern academic supporters agree the historical Jesus was not a Gnostic and he did not say the things attributed to him in the Gnostic Gospels. They may be alternative versions of Jesus, but so is Jesus Christ Superstar. They are not reliable historical sources for Jesus of Nazareth. The Gnostics were simply using Jesus as a mouthpiece for their Gnostic beliefs which there is no evidence existed during Jesus’ lifetime.

The Gnostics may have called some of their writings “gospels”, but unlike the New Testament Gospels, they are not biographies of Jesus, concerned with the “good news” of what Jesus has done. The truth is there is no such thing as a “Gnostic Gospel”.