Did Jesus actually exist?

I’m always learning new things. Even though i’ve been an atheist for several years, i’ve always had the opinion that Jesus probably existed. I’ve heard people claim that Jesus did not exist but i never really heard any good reasons to back up their claims. I kind of thought, “Oh, that’s taking it a bit too far, isn’t it?”

I was happy to accept that sure, maybe Jesus existed. Maybe Jesus said some really inspiring things, and maybe some really horrific things. Maybe a lot of the stories were elaborated and embellished over time. But surely Jesus existed, right? I mean there’s historical evidence outside of the bible, right?

Turns out, not so much. Actually, the most celebrated reference to Jesus outside of the bible was probably fabricated, and even provides quite a strong hint that Jesus did not exist at all. It’s this passage from the Jewish historian Josephus:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

– Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3

Oh, i remember Nicky Gumbel in the Alpha Course placing great significance on this passage as part of the evidence that we can be sure Jesus existed. But hold on, what’s this? The passage was supposedly written 93 years after the birth of Jesus, yet it was not referenced by any Christian historian or scholar for over 200 years after that. It was first referenced by church historian Eusebius in 325 CE. Other copies of Jewish Antiquities existed that did not contain this passage. The writing style does not match the rest of Josephus’ writings. This passage comes out of context to the surrounding passages.

What are we to assume? It seems very likely that Eusebius inserted this passage. I mean, it’s perfect for any Christian who wants reassurance that Jesus is mentioned outside of the bible. It’s actually too perfect: Jesus’ works, teachings, being accepted as the Messiah, death, resurrection, fulfilment of prophecies.

And here’s the thing: that’s it! You take that passage on its own and it looks great for Jesus. But when you understand that Josephus wrote at length about many other people at the time, but said no more than this about the supposed saviour of mankind, Jesus Christ, it’s starting to look very much as if Jesus did not actually exist at all.

Then you find out that at the time of Jesus there were already many mythological stories about sun gods who were born to a virgin (often on December 25th), dying and being reborn. It was a common meme. Apparently, Christians have tried to explain that Satan went back in time to create these stories to make it look as though the story of Jesus was based upon them!

I think i can see now why some people consider it unlikely that Jesus ever existed, just like Horus never existed.

As a post-script, here is something i learned a long time ago, but i can’t vouch for whether or not it is true. Apparently, the three stars in Orion’s belt form a line that points down to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. If you extend this line down to the horizon, it points to the exact point where the sun rises, but only on one day of the year. Guess which day? December 25th. The three kings followed the star to find the son.


10 comments on “Did Jesus actually exist?

  1. You are correct in that it is very certain that Josephus did not write that passage. First, there is no way Josephus (a Pharisee Jew) would ever have written that Jesus was the messiah and not followed him. After all, that is the point of waiting around for the messiah! Second, when the passage is removed, the text flows much better. Third, early founders of Christianity like Origen made absolutely no mention of this passage. We know Origen was familiar with Antiquities and it is not believable that he would have passed up an opportunity to bring this up front-and-center in his apologetics.

    As for the star story, very unlikely. Regardless of the truth of whether the extension of the line points to the rising sun on Dec 25 is true (one could find many such coincidences in the night sky, more than one for every day of the year), scholars argue for a spring birth. Dec 25 was chosen much later in a rather successful attempt to co-opt the religion of Mithras (born on Dec 25).

    I have no problem believing that a carpenter-come-itinerant rabbinical teacher running foul of Roman authority and was executed existed. That would be the historical Jesus. But nothing is really known of his life (if he existed), and very little (if anything) in the gospels is regarded as being historical. And what is regarded by many biblical scholars as being historical is only on the basis of very tenuous evidence. The biblical Jesus, then, simply never existed. The gospels were written many decades after the crucifixion based on oral tradition. That’s not much to go on.

  2. Even if one were to believe that the Josephus fragment is authentic (for argument’s sake), I still find it hard to explain why no one else of note mentions Jesus. I mean, here was a man working miracles on a daily basis, walking on water, casting out demons, raising the dead and no major historian even puts a footnote about him?

  3. For me the strange thing is…you knew about Eusebius already.

    Do you remember, quite a few years ago, when you and I stayed in the same town, you treated me to a pub lunch and the subject of biblical authenticity came up. Which is to say, I managed to raise it because I wanted to show off what I’d just learned about Josephus. I was a bit deflated when you already knew the ‘christ’ reference was an insertion.

    You were a christian at the time – the kind who actually did the research and checked the references. You were honest and upfront about what you’d found, but it didn’t seem to shake your faith one bit – it was just a historical oddity.

    Now you’ve rediscovered it, and it means something quite different.

    To complete the irony, I was just starting to get deeply into marxist philosophy at the time, learning all kinds of titbits about the metaphysics of Hegel and Engels. Now I’ve pretty much passed through my marxist phase (I started 20 years after most people do it, and now I’m finishing on the same schedule), and I’m coming across the same titbits again. What then seemed intriguing wrinkles of theory now look like Epic Fails of bad metaphysics.

    Perhaps we just weren’t ready at the time.

    • Gosh! No, I don’t remember that at all! How funny! :)

      It’s like a dot-to-dot puzzle. I had all the dots, I just didn’t want to join them up. I was seeing things in a different kind of way.

      Thanks for trying to rescue me at the time, I can appreciate that now. Sorry for trying to drag you into weirdo world, glad you resisted! I think you were the only atheist I knew back then, certainly the only person willing to identify as such. I think I saw you as a bit of a personal challenge, with your conversion being the ultimate prize!

      Glad things all worked themselves out in the end! :)

    • That actually provides a fascinating insight into the brain of a Christian. You can present a rational, logical argument to an otherwise rational person and they will find another explanation. It won’t challenge their faith. In other words, you cannot deconvert anyone who is not ready to be deconverted.

      Clearly if I knew this once, I forgot it again later. My confirmational bias filter was so strong. Anything that didn’t fit just got discarded. No wonder it took me so long until I was ready to throw off my beliefs and become happy to be an atheist!

  4. Re astronomy, it couldn’t be that the line from Orion (through Sirius) points to a place on the horizon, as this location would change through the night (also it would never point the right way as it points away from the plane of the solar system).

    From googling, it seems the popular story is to link the sunrise with the time at which Sirius set on this night. Note that the Earth’s axis has slowly moved over the last 2000 years so we don’t see the same thing now that they would have back in those days.

    If you’re interested in the many ways the story of the Star has been interpreted through history, we have a lecture on this subject on 13th/14th December. Dr Robin Catchpole will go back to the oldest sources of the story and also use ancient astronomical records to explore whether it might be considered as a real astronomical event or should be considered a myth.

    INTECH Science Centre & Planetarium, Winchester

    • Wow, thanks so much! I feel excited to have a reply from INTECH! Looking forward to coming to Skeptics in the Planetarium in december! :D

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