http://freethought.tamu.edu/criticism/mcdowell/jesus.html The Jesus of History: A Reply to
The Jesus of History: A Reply to Josh McDowell By Gordon Stein, Ph.D.
NOTE: The following article is a slightly modified version of
an article that appeared in the July/August 1982 issue of The
American Rationalist under the same name.
Copyright 1982 by Gordon Stein. Reproduced with permission of
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 because 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."
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
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 concerning 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 treat "_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
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
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
Wells, G.A. The Jesus of the Early Christians. London:
Pemberton Books, 1971.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank