Myth understandings: an irregular column by David Shanahan

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The Jesus myth

There is a claim which surfaces every now and then, which asserts that Jesus of Nazareth never actually existed; that he was a myth made up by people to legitimise their activities. It should ne noted that historians do not make this claim, as the evidence for the historical reality of Jesus is convincing. But, as we are discussing myth understandings, it is best to get this one out of the way early on.

There are a number of sources outside the New Testament documents which refer to the historical Jesus, both in Jewish and Roman writings. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the dispersal of the Jewish people, the vast collection of oral law and commentary on the Old Testament was finally encoded in written documents, the Talmud. In these records, there are references to Jesus, the disciples, and others, though not at all in a positive way. Jesus is accused of being a heretic teacher who misled the people, performed wonders, and said he had come to destroy the Law. He was executed as a heretic on the eve of Passover. Five of his disciples are named, and the Talmud says that they healed the sick.

The main Jewish source for the historical existence of Jesus comes in the histories written by Josephus Flavius around 90A.D. In his “Antiquities of the Jews”, a 20-volume history of his people, Josephus refers to many of the people mentioned in the New Testament, including the Herod family, Pontius Pilate, the priests Annas, Caiaphas, Ananias, John the Baptist, and others. Specifically relating to Jesus, Josephus relates the murder of James, the brother of Jesus, at the hands of Ananias: “..he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, whose name was James”.

In the most direct reference to Jesus, about which there has been disagreement over the authenticity of some phrases, he provides clear evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Leaving out the disputed words, he says:

“And there arose about this time Jesus, a wise man, [ ] for he was doer of marvellous deeds, a teacher of men who receive the truth with pleasure. He led away many Jews, and also many of the Greeks. [ ] And when Pilate had condemned him to the cross on his impeachment by the chief men among us, those who had loved him at first did not cease; [ ] and even now the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not yet died out.” [Antiquities, xviii. 3.3]

This, note, was recorded by a Jewish historian, not a Christian, and places Jesus in the same time period and context that we find in the New Testament.

Other secular sources also contain references to Jesus. A letter from a Syrian named Mara Bar-Serapion to his son, some time after 73 A.D., refers to three models of righteous living his son should emulate. One was Socrates, another Pythagoras, and the third was “the wise King” of the Jews. All three had died unfairly at the hands of their people, and no good came from their deaths. “What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished…the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. …Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which he has given.”

There are a number of references to Jesus and Christians in Roman historical writings. Around 110A.D., Tacitus, in a history of the Emperor Nero, wrote about the famous fire that destroyed Rome, which Nero tried to blame on the Christians. Tacitus called them: “a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, from whom they got their name, had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was Emperor; and the pernicious superstition was checked for a short time, only to break out afresh, not only in Judea, the home of the plague, but in Rome itself…”

Another Roman reference to Christians comes from Pliny the Younger, procurator of what is now modern Turkey, and a philosopher to boot. He write to Emperor Trajan seeking advice on how to deal with Christians, as they did not worship the Emperor, as was required by law. The interesting section of his letter describes the practices of the sect:

“..they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang an anthem to Christ as God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath not to commit any wicked deed, but to abstain from all fraud, theft and adultery, never to break their word, or deny a trust when called upon to honour it; after which it was their custom to separate, and then meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.” [Epistles, x, 6]

In short, the historical record, outside of the New Testament, contains enough references to Jesus and his life and death by non-Christian sources to refute any idea that he was not an actual figure in time and space. He was no myth.

Of course, the most complete source of information are the 26 documents which comprise the New Testament. Once again, these are generally accepted by historians of the ancient world as reliable sources of material, and it is usually the opponents of Christianity who reject them. They are now worth some study to see what myth understandings may apply to them.

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