The Jesus of History: A Reply to Josh McDowell
Gordon Stein, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: The following essay was written by the late Gordon Stein in 1982. It is a slightly-modified version of an article that appeared in the July/August 1982 issue of The American Rationalist under the same name. In this essay, Stein claimed that anyone who relies on Josephus’ Testimonium is “dishonest,” “fooled,” and “ignorant.” Even if those statements were true in 1982, they are definitely not true today. While there is no doubt among the majority of scholars that the Testimonium has been tampered with (and thus the entire passage cannot be authentic), a decent number of scholars believe the Testimonium is based upon an authentic core. In other words, on their view, Josephus really did write a passage referring to Jesus on which the modern Testimonium is based, but that passage was embellished by later Christians. Since that view has attracted a number of scholars, it is simply fallacious to claim that anyone who relies on the Testimonium is “dishonest,” “fooled,” or “ignorant.”
The old adage of the computer business, “Garbage in, garbage out,” has applications in other fields as well. Nowhere is it better seen to be true than when applied to the chapter “Jesus-A Man of History” in Josh McDowell‘s Evidence That Demands a Verdict.
McDowell is careful to list his sources, and for that we can be grateful. This listing is a two-edged sword, however. We can see that he has used publications of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, almost exclusively throughout the book. Surely he could quote some of the many Bible authorities who have written books and articles not published by the IVCF? He could, but he won’t for the simple reason that they (the non-IVCF authors) would not support his viewpoints. The reasons are not hard to find. Most of McDowell’s points about Jesus (and about other matters in the book, but I must leave that to others) are simply not supported by modern scholarship.
Another of McDowell’s favorite tricks is to say “So-and-so says that Jesus was an historical figure….” So-and-so turns out to be another fundamentalist writer. This is the old argument from authority, although in this case there is no authority being quoted. It is a weak “proof.” Let me give a specific example of how McDowell uses this quotation system to his advantage, but in disregard of the facts and the truth of the thing we are trying to investigate. On page 84 of Evidence, he quotes “What, then, does the historian know about Jesus Christ? He knows, first and foremost, that the New Testament documents can be relied upon to give an accurate portrait of Him. And he knows that this portrait cannot be rationalized away by wishful thinking, philosophical presupposition, or literary maneuvering.” The quote is from John Warwick Montgomer’s History and Christianity . As it turns out, there is not one factual statement in the entire quotation given above. That doesn’t bother McDowell, of course, who just acts as if the fact that Montgomery said it makes it so.
Among the most blatant of these points (and a fine example of McDowell’s basic dishonesty with the evidence) is the way in which he treats the Josephus quote about Jesus. McDowell does say that the quotation is “hotly contested,” but he never tells us what he means by that, and he then goes on to treat the quotation as authentic. What “hotly contested” means (although I would say it differently) is that the vast majority of scholars since the early 1800s have said that this quotation is not by Josephus, but rather is a later Christian insertion in his works. In other words, it is a forgery, rejected by scholars . Of course, that doesn’t bother McDowell, who has little respect for the truth anywhere in his writings. The most thorough examination of the validity of this particular paragraph in Josephus was made by Nathaniel Lardner in 1838. Lardner’s findings are presented in his work called Jewish Testimonies, which forms volume 6 of his collected Works. We will examine Lardner’s critique of the Josephus passage in some detail, both be cause it is the most important single reference to Jesus as an historical character outside of the New Testament itself, and because it is a good example of how a fundamentalist treats evidence which he doesn’t like.
Lardner’s work on the Josephus passage was merely the first detailed analysis of that passage. Many other scholars have written about it since Lardner, so McDowell can’t plead ignorance of their findings. In fact, the very phrase McDowell uses hotly contested”) indicates that he is at least aware of the fact that most scholars do not accept the genuineness of the passage. Let us look at the passage in full (Antiquities XVIII, Ch. 3, sec. 3):
“At that time lived Jesus, a wise man, if he may be called a man; for he performed many wonderful works. He was a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him many Jews and Gentiles. This was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the instigation of the chief men among us, had condemned him to the cross, they who before had conceived an affection for him did not cease to adhere to him. For on the third day he appeared to them alive again, the divine prophets having foretold these and many other wonderful things concerning him. And the sect of christians, so called from him, subsists to this time.” (Lardner s translation)
Why should we suspect that this passage is a forgery? First because, although the church fathers were quite fond of quoting passages which supported Christianity, and though these early church fathers were quite familiar with the works of Josephus, not one of them quotes this passage in defense of Christianity until Eusebius does in the fourth century. We also know Eusebius to be the man who said that lying for the advancement of the church was quite acceptable. He was probably the one who inserted this suspect passage into Josephus’ works. Origen, the famous early Christian apologist, even quotes from other parts of Josephus, but somehow neglects to quote our passage. Origen wrote his book Contra Celsus in about 220 A.D.
Secondly, the passage comes in the middle of a collection of stories about calamities- which have befallen the Jews. This would not be a calamity. Thirdly, the passage has Josephus, an Orthodox Jew, saying that Jesus was the Christ. That is a highly unlikely statement for him to have made. The whole passage reads as if it had been written by a Christian. Josephus is made to call the Christian religion “the truth.” He would hardly have said that. Although Josephus reports the miracles of a number of other “prophets,” he is silent about the miracles attributed to Jesus. Again, this makes no sense when compared to Josephus’ known genuine writings. The last phrase in the quotation, “. .. subsists to this time,” referring to the Christians, would not make any sense unless it were written quite some time after Jesus had died. Josephus, on the other hand, wrote the Antiquities in about 90 A.D.
In spite of all the negative evidence against this passage, evidence of which McDowell seems aware, he still uses the passage to try to support his case for the historicity of Jesus. Such a procedure is both dishonest and futile. The only people who are fooled by this are the ignorant. Scholars will only wince at the dishonesty involved and disregard this “evidence.”
The next major ancient historian who supposedly mentions Jesus, and thus provides us with evidence that he was an historical character is Tacitus. Cornelius Tacitus wrote his Annals after 117 A.D. Their exact date of composition is not know, but we do know that it was at least 70 years after Jesus’ supposed crucifixion. Jesus is not mentioned by name anywhere in the extant works of Tacitus. There is one mention of “Christus” in Book XV, Chapter 44, as follows:
“Nero looked around for a scapegoat, and inflicted the most fiendish tortures on a group of persons already hated by the people for their crimes. This was the sect known as Christians. Their founder, one Christus, had been put to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. This checked the abominable superstition for a while, but it broke out again and spread, not merely through Judea, where it originated, but even to Rome itself, the great reservoir and collecting ground for every kind of depravity and filth. Those who confessed to being Christians were at once arrested, but on their testimony a great crowd of people were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson, but of hatred of the entire human race.” (D.R. Dudley’s translation)
While we know from the way in which the above is written that Tacitus did not claim to have firsthand knowledge of the origins of Christianity, we can see that he is repeating a story which was then commonly believed, namely that the founder of Christianity, one Christus, had been put to death under Tiberius. There are a number of serious difficulties which must be answered before this passage can be accepted as genuine. There is no other historical proof that Nero persecuted the Christians at all. There certainly were not multitudes of Christians in Rome at that date (circa 60 A.D.). In fact, the term “Christian” was not in common use in the first century. We know Nero was indifferent to various religions in his city, and, since he almost definitely did not start the fire in Rome, he did not need any group to be his scapegoat. Tacitus does not use the name Jesus, and writes as if the reader would know the name Pontius Pilate, two things which show that Tacitus was not working from official records or writing for non-Christian audiences, both of which we would expect him to have done if the passage were genuine.
Perhaps most damning to the authenticity of this passage is the fact that it is present almost word-for-word in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus (died in 403 A.D.), where it is mixed in with obviously false tales. At the same time, it is highly unlikely that Sulpicius could have copied this passage from Tacitus, as none of his contemporaries mention the passage. This means that it was probably not in the Tacitus manuscripts at that date. It is much more likely, then, that copyists working in the Dark Ages from the only existing manuscript of the Chronicle, simply copied the passage from Sulpicius into the manuscript of Tacitus which they were reproducing.
McDowell is on even shakier ground when he tries to promote the short mention of “Chrestus” in Suetonius. First, any scholar ought to learn to at least spell the name of the person he is writing about correctly. McDowell spells it incorrectly as “Seutonius.” Then he makes the unforgivable and dishonest statement that “Chrestus” is “another spelling of Christus.” This is not correct. “Chrestus” means ‘The Good” in Greek, while “Christus” means “The Messiah.” Actually, Chrestus was not an uncommon name in ancient Rome. Since Jesus was admittedly not in Rome instigating the Jews, we are almost definitely talking about someone other than Jesus here. I should mention that the entire relevant quotation from Suetonius which is involved here reads as follows: “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” The “he” is Claudius. As just mentioned, not even McDowell claims that Jesus was at Rome in 55 AD, when this incident is alleged to have occurred. It is also difficult to see why Jews would be led by Jesus. That is pretty strong evidence that this passage does not refer to Jesus of Nazareth at all, and so is irrelevant to our discussion of whether Jesus ever lived. We can, however, add the lack of a mention of Jesus in Suetonius to our list of “negative” evidence for the existence of Jesus as an historical person. The reference in Suetonius is Life of the Caesars (Claudius 25:4).
We now come to the issue of mention of Jesus in the Jewish Talmud. Here McDowell’s lack of scholarship is again painfully evident. In fact, we are again tempted to say that because the correct information is so readily available, perhaps his failure to provide it is a deliberate attempt to mislead. We must first explain that the present Talmud contains virtually no mention of Jesus. This is because there was much persecution of the Jews during the Middle Ages, and many Jews were afraid that the presence of the numerous unfavorable references to Jesus which existed in the Talmud of the time would bring down the additional wrath of the Christians. These references were gradually eliminated, by agreement, during the many subsequent recopyings of the Talmud which occurred over the years. However, most of these references to Jesus have not been lost to our view, since they have been collected by scholars from ancient copies of the Talmud and republished several times. Of course, McDowell is blissfully unaware of all of this. If we look at the materials con-cerning Jesus which had been removed from the later copies of the Talmud, we can see that they say that he was a bastard and a magician who learned magic spells in Egypt or else stole the secret name of God from the temple and used it to work magic or miracles. The father of Jesus is also claimed to be a soldier named Pantera. At any rate, authorities are agreed that most of this Talmudic material derives from the period from 200 to 500 A.D., and represents Jewish attempts to deal with the growing strength of Christianity. It makes no attempt to be historically accurate and, in fact, is of no use in determining if Jesus was an historical person. McDowell, of course, mentions none of this, and is also in error (or purposely misleads) when he says that “Comments in the Baraila are of great historical value:” and then gives a quote which leaves off the initial few words, namely “And it is tradition …”. This means that the Talmudic scribe was merely reporting what had been said by Christians (and this is in about 300 A.D.). The passage describes how Jesus was stoned and hanged for practicing magic. That doesn’t quite sound like the New Testament account.
McDowell again misleads when discussing the “evidence” found in Tertullian’s works. What he doesn’t tell you is that Tertullian is taking his information (to the effect that Tiberius is supposed to have received a report from Pontius Pilate on Jesus) from Justin, and Justin is merely assuming that there must have been such a report. Later, (about the 5th Century) someone forged the actual report containing what purported to be Pilate’s words to Rome about Jesus. McDowell, in one of his few attempts at honesty, does admit that “Some historians tread ” nearly all’] doubt the historicity of this passage.
The “evidence” quoted from Pliny Secundus (Pliny the Younger) is also of dubious value for determining whether Jesus was historical. The work (written in about 112 A.D.) states that Christians were singing a “hymn to Christ as to a god…”. Of course, that may well have occurred, but how that fact reflects upon the historicity of Jesus, I and the other authorities consulted are at a loss to understand. The fact that believers seventy years later acted as if Christ were a god tells us nothing of whether Jesus was an actual person on this earth. Jesus is neither the same idea as Christ (the messiah) nor is the fact that people believed something to be true any evidence as to whether it was true.
In his section on Justin Martyr, McDowell fails to tell us, as was noted previously, that Justin merely assumed that there must be a report from Pilate to Tiberius. In the fifth century, someone forged just such a report, which McDowell gleefully quotes. All it does is show that McDowell is a fool, not that Jesus existed. No one has ever been able to prove that such a report of Pilate ever existed. Without the report, quoting from a much later forgery will not make a case for you.
The testimony (supposed, as the work in question is now lost) of Thallus is also worthless on the historicity question. Julius Africanus, in a surviving fragment, states that Thallus in the period before 221 A.D., wrote that the darkness which supposedly covered the earth at the time of the Crucifixion was due to the death of Jesus. He is merely telling what the Christians of the time believed. We have no evidence at all that there ever even was an eclipse at the time when Jesus was supposedly crucified.
We have no way of dating the fragment quoting the letter of Mara Bar-Serapion. It doesn’t mention Jesus or Christ, but merely says that the Jews of the time (which time is uncertain) killed their “wise King.” We do not know to what this refers, and neither does McDowell. It is, again, worthless as evidence for an historical Jesus. Likewise, Lucian’s sarcastic comment, written in the second century, is worth nothing except as evidence that he was aware that the Christians of the time (of which there were a goodly number) felt or thought that there was a man who was crucified in Palestine” as the basis of their sect. This was written far too late to be used as historical evidence, nor is it offered by Lucian as such.
I leave McDowell’s last piece of “evidence” for last because it is the most laughable of all. He actually says that it is evidence for the historical existence of Jesus that “The latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica uses 20,000 words in describing this person, Jesus. His description took more space than was given to Aristotle, Cicero, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed or Napoleon Bonaparte.” This is the entire quote in this section, reproduced verbatim. I assume that the implication is that if the Britannica writes more about a subject than it does about other people whom we know are historical, then the one with the longer article must be just that much more historical. I would refer McDowell to the articles in the Britannica about dragons, unicorns and witches for comparison. In short, the length of an article in the Britannica reflects only the editor’s feeling about how important a subject is, not whether that subject was an historical person or not. Surely the role of Christians and the legends about Jesus have been important historically. That doesn’t mean that Jesus really existed. I would suggest that McDowell consult the article about Zeus and see if that confirms his idea that Zeus must have been historical because he has an article of his own in the Britannica.
In conclusion, we can see that McDowell has failed miserably in his attempt to show that Jesus was an historical character. I am not stating categorically that Jesus was not an historical character, although I think that the evidence for his existence is grossly inadequate to come to any positive conclusion. I think that this lack of evidence makes it quite unlikely that Jesus ever existed. A chapter such as McDowell’s, however, does make it quite likely that McDowell is non-existent as a scholar, while quite large as a liar and stretcher of the truth.
When you add up all of the following facts, the case for the existence of Jesus as an historical person becomes rather remote: 1) there are no proven, legitimate references to the existence of Jesus in any contemporary source outside of the New Testament (which is really not a contemporary source, as it was written from 30 to 70 years after Jesus supposedly died), 2) There is no evidence that the town of Nazareth, from which Jesus’ mother supposedly came, ever existed at the time he was supposedly living there, 3) the existence of Jesus is not necessary to explain the origin or growth of Christianity (were the Hindu gods real’?), 4) the New Testament accounts do not provide a real “biography” for Jesus until you look at the Gospels. The earlier Pauline epistles imply only that he was a god, and 5) the biblical accounts of the trial and death of Jesus are logically self-contradictory and legally impossible. Jesus could not have been executed under either Roman or Jewish law for what he did. Whatever you call what he did, it was not a capital offense under either system. Rather, it looks like someone is trying to make Old Testament prophecies of the death of the Messiah come true by fabricating a scenario which simply doesn’t make sense legally.
Drews, Arthur. The Christ Myth. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co, .
Drews, Arthur. Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus. Chicago: Open Court, n.d. [c 1912].
Guignebert, Charles. Jesus. New York: University Books, 1956.
Lardner, Nathaniel. Jewish Testimonies. The Works, volume 6. London: W. Bell, 1838.
McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict. San Bernadino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972.
Stein, Gordon. An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus
Wells, G.A. Did Jesus Exist? London: Elek/Pemberton Books, 1975.
Wells, G.A. The Jesus of the Early Christians. London: Pemberton Books, 1971.
Copyright 1982 by Gordon Stein. Reproduced with permission of the author.