Over the past few days, an announcement has been circulating primarily among atheist-focused Facebook pages. The topic: proof that Jesus never existed according to American Joseph Atwill who will be giving a presentation in Britain this month about his “new discovery” in promotion of his books, no doubt. As a result, I have found myself running all over Facebook as the details are shared to try to persuade people to be very skeptical of what this man has to say as atheists there get lulled into the wishful thinking that their greatest nemesis, Jesus Christ, may never have existed at all.
Denying that Jesus was a real person is just as bad as believing in supernatural explanations for things. My criticism of religion is merely an extension of my belief that believing in lies is bad, and believing in reality is a better path for life and humanity. For that reason, I want to let anyone know who’s listening that whatever Atwill is peddling is likely bunk.
Let me set the stage a bit and summarize for you Atwill’s claims. According to the announcement’s website, his thesis is that “the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats and that they fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ.”
I have several problems with this and Atwill’s credentials in general. First of all, according to Atwill’s own blog he “studied computer science in college” (never saying whether or not he obtained a degree), and prior to college he attended Japan’s Jesuit-run St. Mary’s Military Academy where his “school days was spent studying Greek, Latin, and the Bible”, but it never clarifies whether he has achieved any level of mastery of those languages (I’ve “studied” Greek and Latin myself, but couldn’t claim to even have a beginning level understanding of them). Although the British presentation announcement lists Atwill as an “American Biblical scholar”, I would have serious issues with calling him that. What exactly is he a scholar in? From what I can tell, no actual Bible, Theological, or History scholar would call this man their colleague. Recently, Bible and Christian History scholar Bart Ehrman (who I recently wrote about here) wrote on his blog about what it takes to be a Bible scholar in response to the new book “Killing Jesus: A History” written by Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly. I think its important to understand what it takes to be recognized as an expert in the field. According to Dr. Ehrman:
“To become an expert in the historical Jesus (or the New Testament broadly, or Hebrew Bible, or first century Roman empire, or pick your cognate field) takes years of diligent study. My own graduate students at UNC typically enter into our PhD program after already started taking ancient languages (e.g., Greek, Latin, and/or Coptic) in college; then doing a two or three year master’s degree mastering ancient languages, learning modern languages (usually French and German) so they can read scholarship done overseas, and getting sufficient background in the field that can *prepare* them to *start* doing a PhD. O’Reilly of course never even went this far. Once my students are in their PhD program, they spend two years doing seminar work – full time, two years – then they take a semester or two to prepare for their five PhD exams; after they take their PhD exams they write a dissertation, in a well-defined and narrow field in which they become absolute experts; the dissertation almost always takes two years of full time work. In other words, after a 2-3 year masters degree, they spend five years (if they’re fast) to get the PhD.
And *then* they are beginning, *junior* scholars. At that point they are not ready to write a book for a general audience even in their own field of expertise. First they have to spend years more working in their field, writing another scholarly book, and developing even further expertise.
To be a real scholar of the historical Jesus you need to be able to read the New Testament in Greek; you need to be able to read Jesus’ own scriptures, the Hebrew Bible, in Hebrew. You need to be able to read all the sources about Jesus, which requires Latin and Coptic. You need to delve deeply into scholarly research, which has been going on, at intense levels, since the 1770’s. And then you’re ready to say something to the world at large. You can’t just read the Bible, take it to be historical, fill out the details with your imagination, and imagine you’ve written something that people should buy into (or buy! O’Reilly and friend will make millions on this fluff.) (Then again, maybe the rest of the book isn’t as crazily fluffy as this excerpt?).”
By those standards, Atwill doesn’t come close.
Moving to Atwill’s claims that Jesus was invented by the Romans as some kind of conspiracy to quell Jewish revolts, I’ll try very hard to not to simply say its ridiculous (because it is), but also provide a few nuggets of evidence according to what the scholars say. Most scholars accept as fact that Jesus of Nazareth existed. I’m going to remain brief, but if you want all of the details in an easily digestible format, I strongly recommend reading Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?. To summarize here, the main reasons for believing this comes from several ancient sources, including those from the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman Senator and historian Tacitus, and of course, the New Testament itself, which include writings from the most famous Christian missionary of all, Paul. There is no archaelogical evidence, or Roman records, but that is not surprising. There are not these kinds of things for most of the people who lived in first century Palestine.
What does Josephus say? Writing in the end of the First Century (some 60 years or so after the death of Jesus), Josephus references Christians and Jesus twice in his work called, “Antiquities of the Jews”. Certain aspects of those writings are debated among scholars, but generally speaking the conclusion of most scholars (atheists and believers alike) is that they can be used as reliable sources to show the existence of Jesus based on several criteria that I’ll not bore you with here.
What does Tacitus say? Tacitus, a Roman pagan writing in the early decades of the second century, mentions Jesus in his work called “Annals.” According to scholars, Tacitus provides a dispassionate perspective on the persecution of Christians after the burning of Rome (probably by Emperor Nero) in 64 CE, and on the crucifixion of Jesus.
What about the New Testament? A full discussion of the evidence within the books of the New Testament (NT) would take too long for me to discuss here (this is already much longer than I first intended), but the key points are found in the works of Paul.
There are several books written and claimed to have been written by Paul in the NT. Scholars generally agree that 7 of the 13 letters in the NT were actually written by Paul (and 6 were forgeries or otherwise mistakenly attributed to him). To see a detailed list, go here.
Of those letters believed to be written by Paul, the key pieces of compelling evidence for Jesus’ existence come from Galatians 1:18-24. In these versus, Paul expressly states that three years after his conversion to Christianity, he visited the Apostle Peter (aka Cephus aka Simon Peter), and Jesus’ brother James, for fifteen days. Peter, was known to be Jesus closest companion in the Gospels, and James is mentioned to be Jesus brother in other NT writings as well. Scholars estimate this event likely took place less than ten years after Jesus’ death, sometime in the 30’s CE. Basically, what this proves is that Paul has first-hand knowledge of a man who was named Jesus who died by Roman crucifixion recently, provided by people who actually knew Jesus (including his own brother). To me, this is very compelling information. As with the writings of Josephus and Tacitus, there is much more I could go into to show why scholars generally agree that Paul’s writing is historically reliable, but that information is out there should you want to find it.
Lastly, for me, Atwill’s claims just do not meet the smell test. He has asserted that “Jewish sects in Palestine at the time, who were waiting for a prophesied warrior Messiah, were a constant source of violent insurrection during the first century… When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare. They surmised that the way to stop the spread of zealous Jewish missionary activity was to create a competing belief system. That’s when the ‘peaceful’ Messiah story was invented. Instead of inspiring warfare, this Messiah urged turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and encouraged Jews to ‘give onto Caesar’ and pay their taxes to Rome.” Basically, he thinks the Roman’s fabricated the myth of Jesus in some grand conspiracy to get Jews to chill out and stop revolting. Aside from this being completely revisionist history of the first century Roman Empire and Palestine, its just absurd for this reason: If the Romans wanted to invent a story, why would they have invented the story of Jesus with so many inconsistencies and contradictions? The NT is fraught with competing ideas about the details of Jesus’ birth and ministry and death. Ideas that cancel each other out in many cases. Ideas that wouldn’t convince first century Jews that he was the Messiah who should be followed. Its just nonsense.
There was a time when I briefly flirted with the tempting notion that Jesus never existed. It would be simpler to be an atheist if this were true. But I am a skeptic and a truth-seeker first and foremost, and after reading about the evidence and learning what the scholars who have devoted their lives to this subject matter have said (and I’m still learning), I have accepted as fact that Jesus of Nazareth did in fact exist, and that he was crucified by the Romans sometime in the 30’s CE in Jerusalem. As I’ve learned more about the history, I’ve found the reality is much more interesting than the possible myth of Jesus being a fabrication. I do not believe that Jesus was supernatural, that he was the son of god, or god himself. I don’t even believe that he believed that, but that is a discussion for another time. Of course, like Atwill, I’m no scholar either, but I never claimed to be. All I know is the evidence (as analyzed by professionals who have devoted their lives to the study of this subject matter) for a historical Jesus is compelling, and I choose to base my conclusions (in all aspects of my life) on what can be reasonably proven, not what I want to believe, or wish to be true. That is my wish for current believers, and my fellow atheists alike. Don’t be sucked in by things that make no sense in reality. The world will be better for it.
Check out Dr. Bart Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist” for more information about what the historical evidence is for Jesus’ existence.
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*10/10/2013: Some edits made to fix typos and remove my annoying misuse of apostrophes. No content altered.