Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene Married?

 

According to Family Search I am a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene through the Merovingian kings of France, however I have heard that Internet family tree sites are not that reliable.

In 1982 the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln claimed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants became the Merovingian kings  and that there was a secret society, the Priory of Sion, which preserved the nowledge of this marriage and their descendants.

Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code, popularised this belief. It claimed to be based on fact and drew heavily on The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The name of the character Leigh Teabing was derived from the authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh.

I have addressed the claims of The Da Vinci Code in

The Da Vinci Code Deception Part One

The Da Vinci Code Deception Part Two

The Da Vinci Code Deception Part Three

I wrote those posts in 2004. This post summarizes what they said about the supposed marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and also includes some recent developments.

For a start, there is no ancient secret society, the Priory of Sion, which believes they know the truth about Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Merovingians. The Priory of Sion was founded in 1956 by Pierre Plantard and three others. It was originally a tenants’ association and ran a business transporting children to schools and nurseries until Plantard was arrested for the abuse of a minor and the Priory was disbanded.

In the early 1960s Plantard reformed the Priory of Sion which he now claimed had been founded in Jerusalem in 1099. It supposedly preserved the knowledge of the descendants of the Merovingian kings of Dark age France which included Plantard.

In 1993 Plantard admitted in a French court that he made the whole thing up.

Pierre Plantard

A good website on the real story of the Priory of Sion can be found here.

Moreover, Plantard only claimed to be a descendant of the Merovingians, not Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  Baigent, Lincoln and Leigh came along and said that the Merovingians were the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I have read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail several times and I cannot see how they came to this conclusion. There is no historical evidence. They appear to have just made it up. They admit,

“Of course we couldn’t ‘prove’ our conclusions. As we repeatedly stressed in the book itself, we were simply posing a hypothesis. Had we been able to prove it, it wouldn’t have been a hypothesis, but a fact, and there would have been no controversy.” (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Arrow, London, 1996, p 8)

Plantard claimed to have been a descendant of the Merovingians. Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln turned him into a descendant of Jesus Christ.

Plantard died in 2000. Even before The Da Vinci Code was published, it was clear that the supposed facts, which it was based on, were a hoax.

The earliest evidence for Mary Magdalene is the New Testament Gospels. Mary Magdalene was one of the female followers of Jesus during his ministry and supported him financially (Luke 8:1-3, Mark 15:40). Jesus cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2, Mark 19:9). She was one of the women who was present at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25). She saw Jesus’ body being put into the tomb (Matthew 27:61, Mark 15:47). She was one of the women who discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1,9, John 20:1). She told the disciples the tomb was empty (Mark 16:10, Luke 24:11, John 20:2). The resurrected Jesus appeared to her (Matthew 28:9, Mark 16:9, John 20:11-18).

That is all that the earliest evidence says about Mary Magdalene. It does not say she and Jesus were married. It also does not say she was a prostitute as is often suggested.

The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene by Alexander Ivanov, 1835

Mary Magdalene is sometimes identified with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-12), the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:37-50) and Lazarus’ sister, Mary of Bethany (John 11:1-2, 12:1-3). The New Testament does not say any of this. Mary Magdalene could not have been Mary of Bethany. Bethany was near Jerusalem, while Mary Magdalene’s name suggests she came from the village of Magdala in Galilee.

The fact, that Mary Magdalene was identified by where she came from, suggests she was not married to Jesus or anyone else. Ben Witherington writes,

“In a culture where there were no last names, a geographical designation was one of the ways to distinguish people with the same first name, and it appears that the geographical designation was regularly used of those who never married, especially women who could not use the patronymic (“son of..”; as in Simon bar-Jonah, which means”Simon, the son of John”). In the Greek New Testament, for example, in Luke 8:1-13 Joanna is identified by the phrase “of Chuza”, which surely means “wife of Chuza’, but in the same list Mary is said to be “of Magdala”. Had Mary of Magdala been married to Jesus, she would have been identified in the same way as Joanna, not with the geographical designation.” (Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code, InterVarsity Press, Illinois, 2004, p 17)

Other New Testament figures, Paul and John the Baptist, also do not appear to have been married. There were first century jewish groups, the Essenes and the Egyptian Therapeute, which practised celibacy. It may not have been the norm, but it was not implausible that Jesus was not married.

It is only in the writings of the Gnostics that Dan Brown and others can find “evidence” of a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The Gnostics were  heretical groups which believed that the Creator God of the Jewish Bible was a false god and that Jesus had come from the true hidden God to bring knowledge (gnosis in Greek), rather than forgiveness and salvation from sin.

The Gnostics had their own “Gospels”. Dan Brown claims they were the “earliest Christian records” (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Corgi Books, London, 2004, p 331). This is simply not true. Even the most liberal unbelieving New Testament scholars agree the New Testament Gospels were written in the first century AD, while the Gnostic Gospels were written in the second century and later. As a rule, historians believe that the earlier a historical document is – the closer to the events its describes – the more historically accurate it is. The New Testament is the earliest and most reliable evidence for information about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The later Gnostic Gospels should be considered as less accurate and reliable.

I have argued here that the Gnostic Gospels are not really Gospels at all. The New Testament Gospels were ancient biographies of Jesus. The Gnostic Gospels were not biographies. They consist of Jesus teaching Gnostic beliefs which were not the sort of thing a Jew would say.

Even modern-day academic supporters of Gnosticism agree that the Gnostics were not intending to write history. They were putting their Gnostic beliefs into the mouths of Jesus and others. Elaine Pagels has written,

“Gnostic authors, in the same way, attributed their 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 that the author in the situation 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, 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 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.” (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Penguin, London, 1990, p 47)

Dan Brown and his supporters do not seem to get this and treat the Gnostic Gospels as though they are historical accounts. He quotes the Gospel of Philip,

“And the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her on the mouth. The rest of the disciples were deeply offended by this and expressed disapproval. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” ” (The Da Vinci Code, p 331)

This may sound like there was a romantic relationship between them. However, the  manuscript of the Gospel of Philip is badly damaged. It actually says,

“And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. The […] her more than […]the disciples […] kiss her on her […] often than the rest of the […] They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” ” (Bentley Layton (translator), The Gnostic Scriptures, Doubleday, New York, 1995, p 339)

The damaged page of the Gospel of Philip

We cannot tell where Jesus is supposed to have kissed Mary Magdalene. It could have been on her cheek. Where Jesus is said to have kissed her is irrelevant because the author of the Gospel of Philip was not intending to portray what actually happened. Their Gospels were not meant to be taken literally. The kiss symbolized passing on spiritual knowledge or gnosis (Bart Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, p 216)

In Gnostic writings, such as the Gospel of Philip, Pistis Sophia and the Dialogue of the Savior, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as wiser than and in conflict with the twelve disciples. She appears to symbolize the Gnostics while the twelve disciples represent the orthodox church. When Jesus kissed and loved Mary Magdalene more than the disciples, it refers to the Gnostic claim that Jesus had passed his true teachings on to the Gnostics, not orthodox Christians. It does not mean there was a romantic or sexual relationship between them. The Gnostic Gospels do not say they were married.

Dan Brown claims that because the Gospel of Philip says Mary was Jesus’ companion, this means she was his wife, “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion in those days literally meant spouse.” (The Da Vinci Code, p 331)

Actually, any Aramaic scholar will tell you that the Gospel of Philip was written in Coptic, not Aramaic, and was a translation of an earlier Greek text. The word for “companion” is a loan word from the Greek “koinonos’ which appears in the new Testament  and clearly does not mean “wife”, i.e. Luke 5:10, 2 Corinthians 8:23, Philemon 17.

In the 370s AD Ephiphanius of Salamis wrote that a Gnostic sect the Phibionites had a book,  Greater Questions of Mary, which said that Jesus took Mary Magdalene up a mountain, produced another woman out of her side, had sex with her and ate his semen (Ephpiphanius, Panorion 26:8:2). Eeewww! Again, this is not something historical and meant to be taken literally.

Our main source for the Merovingian kings is History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours (538-594). Gregory said nothing about Mary Magdalene coming to France and becoming the ancestor of the Merovingians. In fact, in another work, The Glory of the Martyrs, Gregory recorded that Mary Magdalene had been buried in Ephesus in modern Turkey (Gregory of Tours, The Glory of the Martyrs, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 1988, p 47)

In the 11th century the Cathars or Albigensians appeared in southern France. They had similar beliefs to the Gnostics. Around 1212-1218 Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay wrote that the Cathars believed “the Christ who was born in the earthly and visible Bethlehem and crucified in Jerusalem was evil; and that Mary Magdalene was his concubine.” (Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay, Historia Albigenesis 10-11)

As I have said, the earlier a historical text is to the events it describes, the more accurate it is considered to be. It is only over 1000 years after Jesus and Mary Magdalene lived that we find a reference to a belief that they had an actual sexual relationship. Since the Cathars drew on ancient Gnostic beliefs, perhaps they, like Dan Brown and others, took the reference to Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene literally and built on it.

In the 12th century legends appeared that Mary Magdalene had travelled to the south of France. Dan Brown claims she gave birth to a daughter Sarah who was the ancestor of the Merovingians (The Da Vinci Code, p 342). The medieval legends about Mary Magdalene do not say this.

There were other legends about Mary Jacobi and Mary Salome who travelled to France separately and landed at another location. They had a black servant Sarah the Egyptian who became the patron saint of the Gypsies. Brown appears to have confused these two legends and merged them (Dan Burstein (editor), Secrets of the Code, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004, p 36-37).

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment

In 2012 Professor Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School announced she had come across a papyrus fragment which came to be known as the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. This was apparently a fourth century Coptic translation of a second century  […]Greek text which said,

“The disciples said to Jesus […] deny. Mary is [not] worthy of it. Jesus said to them , My wife. She is able to be my disciple […]”

It does not say which Mary, but it appears to mean that Jesus called Mary Magdalene his wife.

Karen King received another papyrus fragment from the same source, a fragment of the Gnostic Gospel of John in Coptic. Christian Askeland, who had written his PhD on the Gnostic Gospel of John, compared King’s fragment with another manuscript of the Gnostic Gospel of John called the Codex Qau. Hershel Shanks writes,

“What Askeland found was astounding. The text of CGJ replicated every other (every second) line from a leaf of the Codex Qau, which was discovered in 1923 in an ancient Egyptian grave and is therefore universally recognized as authentic. Moreover, for 17 lines the breaks in the lines of the fragment of CGJ in King’s possession were identical to the breaks in the lines of the fragment of CGJ in the Codex Qau. Whoever had penned the fragment of CGJ in KIng’s possession had obviously copied the text of CGJ from the Codex Qau. He or she simply copied the beginning of every other line from the Codex Qau. The forger even copied a typo in the online edition from which he copied. It therefore seems almost certain that the fragment of GCJ in King’s possession is a modern forgery.

So what does this have to do with the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”? Answer: “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is written in the same hand and with the same writing instrument as the fragment of CGJ. It came to King with the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”. Moreover, both fragments are written in Lycopolitan, a relatively late dialect of Coptic. In short, whoever penned the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” also copied the fragment of CGJ. If one is a forgery, the other is a forgery.” (Hershel Shanks, “The Saga of ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ “. Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2015, p 58)

In an article “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife” in The Atlantic in 2016 Ariel Sabar showed that the forger of the fragment was Walter Fritz who had studied Egyptology at the Free University of Berlin. He had also managed several internet porn sites featuring his wife and other men. Karen King agreed that the fragment was most likely a forgery.

In 2014  The Lost Gospel by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson was published. They claim to have decoded a sixth century Jewish manuscript  Joseph and Aseneth about the Old Testament Joseph and his Egyptian wife Aseneth and it is really about the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene before his public ministry . They basically swapped the names of Joseph and Aseneth with Jesus and Mary Magdalene because  … because that way they get to write a book saying Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.  They think  it is acceptable to find an ancient text about a married couple, change the names and say they have proved it is about the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In a review Robert Cargill, Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa, commented,

“By the same allegorical logic, you could swap the names of Samson and Delilah and claim that Mary Magdalene cut Jesus’ hair. Or swap out Adam and Eve and conclude that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were the primordial couple. Or read David and Bathsheba allegorically and end up with Jesus having a son named Solomon, who is guarded by the Priory of Sion, and … well, you get the idea.”

Jacobovici and Wilson also claimed that the song “Until the End of the World” by U2 “refers to Jesus and Mary Magdalene as a bride and groom.” Actually, the song is about Jesus and Judas Iscariot. This only shows that believers can make anything about Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

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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.

001

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)

004

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)

002

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.

003

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.

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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?