As a former Atheist who has been a Christian in the UK for the last ten years I’ve grown accustomed to criticism of Jesus in the media, especially over the Easter period. Just in time for Holy week Rob Waugh wrote an article last week titled ‘Five massive lies the Bible tells about Jesus’. In this brief response I will argue that calling what the New Testament authors recorded about Jesus’ life lies is at the very least an uncharitable overstatement. The lack of quality research for the article is particular bewildering given the usual high quality theological criticism the Metro online provides.
What I found fascinating about the source Waugh chose to use to reveal these startling revelations about Jesus was that it was a self-published book written by David Fitzgerald, who isn’t even a trained Historian. A person’s case is only as strong as their sources and so this isn’t a good start. It’s therefore as credible as trying to unravel Evolutionary Biology using the self-published work of an amateur young earth creationist. There is not one ancient historian or someone in another relevant field with a PhD at an accredited university who teaches that Jesus did not exist. As much as they doth protest, access to a search engine doesn’t turn someone into an ancient historian.
Claim 1. Why don’t Historians mention Jesus?
Jesus is actually mentioned as much or more than we would expect, given that Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi preaching in an obscure backwater of the Roman Empire. It is assumed without reason that the four biographies in the New Testament of Jesus’ life are of no historical value, which no Ancient Historian believes to be accurate. Fitzgerald alleges that there are 125 different accounts of that period that we would expect to find Jesus in, nonsense.
If this list is similar to fellow mythicist Michael Paulkovich’s list of a 126, it includes Soranus who was a Gynaecologist so it’s not really surprising that he doesn’t mention Jesus. Jesus and his brother James who was a contemporary of Josephus are both mentioned in his famed book Antiquities. It can be categorically argued that no one in the ancient world gives even a hint of credibility to the idea that Jesus never existed. As the Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman who is no friend of Christianity says in his book ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ “The view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet”.
In a further demonstration of the weakness of his argument, we only have one line of contemporaneous historical reference to the infamous Carthaginian general Hannibal who almost destroyed the Roman Republic at the height of its power. So considering that we have over 20 secular and Christian sources that mention Jesus within 150 years of his death, we’re actually rather spoilt for choice considering Jesus lived in period where the vast majority of writing no longer exists.
Claim 2. Did Jesus actually ‘fly up to heaven’?
Fitzgerald was right to observe that the ascension should’ve been one of the most significant and influential moments in history. It was. His only real problem is an anachronistic one, he just doesn’t like that the eyewitnesses didn’t write it down as much as he would have liked. However, in an oral culture, ideas and testimony were primarily spread through word of mouth because it was an inexpensive and easy way to spread ideas. What was seen by eyewitnesses was eventually recorded in Luke’s biography of Jesus and in his compendium the Acts of the Apostles. So, the only Historian we would expect to record the ascension of Jesus does. Fitzgerald never presents any reason why we would expect any other Historian in the first century to mention it.
Claim 3. And what about the whole tax census thing – did any historian notice that?
Out of the five claims this one does actually expose a potential problem, however, even the worst case scenario does not lead to the absurd implication that Jesus didn’t exist. There are a number of explanations offered by Christian and secular scholars and for now it’s unresolved and so the most we can really say is that Luke may have been wrong. However, given how much Luke has been proven accurate as an historian in other matters there’s good reason to believe there’s an explanation.
Contrary to Fitzgerald there were a number of large-scale Roman censuses prior to 74 CE. Augustus records in ‘The Deeds of Augustus’ that he ordered three large-scale censuses in 28 BCE, 8 BCE and 14 CE and they sometimes took years to complete and recorded over 4 million Roman citizens. Regardless, it certainly doesn’t merit being called a lie, that’s mere hyperbole.
Claim 4. Why has no historian written about Herod killing all the kids?
It is true that other than in the Gospel of Matthew there is no other recording of this event. Nevertheless as Historians have noted it was an act quite in keeping with Herod’s character and previous actions. After-all, this is a man who in just the last years of his reign executed 300 military leaders and had three of his own sons murdered.
Emperor Augustus was recorded as saying that ‘it is better to be Herod’s pig than his son’. It is really no surprise that any Greco-Roman historians didn’t record the slaughter of the innocents given the low value ascribed to infants seen in the then common practice of infanticide. It was simply unimportant given other events occurring at the time.
Claim 5. Why did no one else notice the Star of Bethlehem?
The star of Bethlehem, whatever it was, we are told In Matthew’s account that it was to announce the birth of Jesus. Fitzgerald’s argument amounts to one from silence, some people he thinks ought to mention it don’t, therefore it didn’t happen. There isn’t much else to say. Interestingly Fitzgerald’s reference to the alleged three hour darkness during Jesus crucifixion may have some probably confirmation from a passing reference to an unusual darkness made by the Roman historian Thallus.
So rather than being five massive lies, there are good reasons to doubt the sensationalist claims of a self-published atheist who would have us uncritically accept that there was no real Jesus. At Easter there is no better time to look into the claims of Jesus by reading through one of the Gospels and examining for yourself whether he was a fruitcake or the savior of the world. Happy Easter.