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?