Atheist Freethinkers

Earl Doherty

Advancing the Cause:
Thoughts on the New Atheism and the Myth of Jesus
October 2nd, 2010, Complete Text

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When I was first invited here, I thought: well—an Atheist convention I don’t have to cross the border to get to. When I last entered the U.S. to attend one, as keynote speaker in Los Angeles several years ago, I heard that the Bush administration raised the atheist alert level to orange. But there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. It seems we are now part of a new movement: “The New Atheism,” and we’re making waves like never before. For that, we owe a lot of thanks to writers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens. And while I may not have achieved the same bestseller status, I think I can include myself in an ever-growing lineup of writers and activists who are not prepared to take it anymore and have come out swinging at the deplorable state of our still religiously saturated—I might even say, crippled—society.

When I first started giving lectures and creating websites, and even when I first published The Jesus Puzzle, there was still a sizeable contingent within the humanist/atheist circles I moved in which advocated not ‘taking on’ religion, not openly criticizing it, but simply offering the ‘better alternative’; this would presumably win over on the basis of its rationality and good example. I for one could never warm up to that approach. I’ve been agitated for too long over the growing force of the evangelical movement, the threats to the American constitution (yes, even as a Canadian, I can get worked up over that), the undermining of science education in both countries, the sheer lunacy of rampant expectation of the Rapture and Second Coming—well, you know it all. Then came September 11, which was a wakeup call for a lot of us, and showed us what religious fanaticism was really capable of.

During the 1990s, the theory that the Gospel Jesus never existed as an historical person was still a fringe idea, despite having been around for almost two centuries. But the Internet was beginning to change all that. Several websites and a few books published around 1999 by independent scholars who worked outside the halls of biblical academia were inducing discussion and investigation by all manner of people who now had access to an exploding body of information and many wide-open discussion boards on the World Wide Web. One of those books was The Jesus Puzzle. Together with my website of the same name, and a separate Age of Reason website in which I address religion more generally, it was my way of calling religion, and specifically the historical claims of Christianity, to account. If it can be demonstrated that the Christian icon never lived, that the Gospels are scripture-based fiction whose events and characters are entirely missing in almost the first hundred years of the Christian record outside the Gospels, maybe Christianity will finally be recognized as an outdated albatross which can indeed be “Left Behind”. What a Rapture that would produce!

Over this last decade, the idea that Jesus may never have existed has been gaining ever more traction. As I’ve outlined at the opening of my latest book, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, in an episode of the TV series “Bones” during the 2007 season one of the main characters was actually made to say, “Christ, if he existed…” and a similar remark was made later in the episode during a discussion among the forensic scientists of the show. Does anybody here remember catching that?...Well, such a thing voiced on U.S. network TV in prime time, even in passing, would probably have been unthinkable a few scant years earlier. A little while ago we almost got an indie movie on the subject, but the producer didn’t quite manage the funding he needed.

I for one find the New Atheism exciting; we need make no apologies for it. It’s not surprising the religious community finds it not only objectionable, but scary. It’s one thing to show that the evidence points to there being no God; it’s quite another to blatantly expose the fallacies and fatuities of the religious position. I am going to emphasize “scary,” and it’s easy to understand why the great Satan within atheism is evolution, and why it is being so fiercely fought against.

By way of illustration, I would like to insert a plug here for a past American author who is really one of our great unsung heroes, even if he never openly labeled himself an atheist. But he has gone into such an eclipse (mostly due to opposition from Church and literary establishment of his time) that even our movement has largely lost sight of him: I’m speaking of Vardis Fisher of Idaho, who died in 1968, and who gave us the greatest undertaking in historical fiction ever, a series of 11 novels which he called The Testament of Man. (Sorry, this was in pre-politically correct days.) Relying on the most progressive scholarship of the first half of the 20th century, Fisher portrayed the evolution of humanity’s religious concepts from two million years ago to the Christian Middle Ages, and the later novels were anything but deferential to the western world’s cherished religious beliefs. Some of you may recall a series of articles I wrote about the Testament for American Atheist magazine in 2000-1. To make my point about the scariness of atheism and evolution, let me quote from my review of the first novel, Darkness and the Deep. The characters in this story, prior to language, represent the dawning of awareness and conceptualization. This is the tale of

how mind emerged from the fog-bound darkness of instinct into perception, reason and invention, the essence of animal becoming human. Through the power of his writing, the author brings home to the reader the exhilaration of this achievement. And there is a moment, too, when he creates an image that is at once awe-inspiring and unsettling: an image of the vastness of the world and its billion-year span, all its intricacies of nature and life and instinctual processes groping and evolving automatically, as though a cosmic switch has been thrown and the whole thing left unattended. The beings that form a part of this world are ignorant of their own nature and place within it. So would they be for millions of years; and a part of their long progress would be a blind search for intelligence and understanding.

It takes more than a bit of courage to be an atheist, and to accept a world-view like that. In a public debate attached to a FFRF convention in Minnesota in 2001, I remember a woman in the audience declaring that she was proud of the fact that she could acknowledge a “higher power,” the existence of something greater than herself. What she was really saying, of course, was that she needed a higher protector figure; she had to believe in something—some superior entity—who cared about her. It is often said that we live in an uncaring universe, indeed this is often thrown in our faces, that atheists would condemn humanity to a world that doesn’t care. But this is not true. The universe has worked tirelessly—on this planet and probably on many others—to produce self-aware, intelligent life with the capacity to do just that: to “care” about others. Whether the universe did it without conscious volition or direction is immaterial. Even what we term as natural disasters, the sometimes inimical workings of nature which can create so much misery for us, it is similarly striving to correct: through the evolution of that same intelligent species which is gradually learning how to cope with and even control its environment. Through these awareness points it has been developing for itself out of its own components, namely human beings, the universe has been creating the capacity to learn, to love, to care, to change, to progress.

In contrast, the track record of “caring” by the God of the theists—whichever one—has been abysmal, something I hardly need to elaborate on. According to Christians, he even sent his Son to earth to instruct and save us. But did the Son make known, for example, something as simple as the benefits of personal hygiene? Did he give us the formula for penicillin? Did he explain the structure of the universe or how nature worked? No, he conversed with evil spirits and gave us to understand that they were the cause of illness and could possess witches and heretics; he told us that the world would end in fire and mayhem in the immediate future, and those who didn’t believe in him were damned; he had himself tortured and murdered in order that Deity could forgive us for sins like…torture and murder. What could be more uplifting to the human spirit than being given a cult of blood sacrifice, which is what Christian theology constitutes?

Somewhere, we took a wrong turn—at least temporarily. In the second novel of the Testament, centering on the harnessing of fire, Vardis Fisher brings us to the turning point that still affects us today. Quoting from my review of The Golden Rooms:

It is something of a shock to realize that there was a time when people lived on the earth, and yet things like love, guilt and pity had not yet awakened in the human brain. For Gode, [the principal character] the latter are born after a merciless clash with a group of the more primitive race. And from his haunted dreams of the slaughter comes a belief in ghosts: the birth of the supernatural, the dread of unknown and unseen powers which must be placated. The world had split into two: the visible and the invisible. Humanity had embarked on the path leading to gods and religion.

As fire produced a golden room of light, intelligence created a golden room in the mind. Fisher vividly conveys the wonder and elation when a fundamental truth enters the brain for the first time. But intelligence proved to be a curse as well. For with the light of awareness and self-discovery came greater questions and greater fears. When humans began to know, they also realized how much they did not know. And with the awareness of one’s own existence came the fear of non-existence.

Again, scary. Perhaps it’s no wonder that fundamentalists are fighting us tooth and nail. But maybe it was natural and inevitable, the only recourse available to evolution as we progressed through a developmental infancy. So much fear and uncertainty had to be assuaged by the certainty of supernatural revelation and the desperate belief that there was something “greater than ourselves.” The problem is, such desperation has brought our world to a tipping point. If it may have aided us in the past, it is now holding us back; it is even threatening our destruction—whether by religious terrorism, or simply through overpopulation as a result of opposition to birth control. The New Atheism has arrived at the appropriate time. More likely, it was simply impelled by the times.

We cannot stand back and watch our society mired in this vast superstition. We cannot allow much of our government and military to be directed by men and women who believe Armageddon is just around the corner. We cannot stay silent while successive generations of our young are given woefully inadequate education in science, history and social rights, while they are indoctrinated into irrationality, into bigotry and prejudice against those who do not share their parents’ and preachers’ beliefs. We cannot stand idly by while they are infected from childhood with a fear of demons and hellfire, with a morbid sense of sin, alienated from their own bodies and the world they live in, while their ability to question and apply critical thinking is methodically suppressed. As Richard Dawkins has put it, all this is true child abuse. When we add the literal child abuse lately exposed as rampant among the clergy (and probably that way for centuries), who will not say that the whole system has become rotten to the core and that something must be done about it?

In regard to my own work, I regularly get gratifying responses from readers of my books and websites. For example:

I found your website yesterday and have been online for at least 15 hours attempting to read and assimilate all that you’ve provided. I was ‘saved’ in 1980 under dubious circumstances. The Jesus Puzzle was an epiphany and I’m happy to report that I’ve got my MIND BACK!


As I read through your book, I sensed the weight of my own lifetime being lifted off my spirit; personal freedom from generations of fear-based control and oppression.


I for once am now beginning to feel liberated from the specter of this Jesus of Nazareth.

So how does one go about dispelling this specter? How can it be demonstrated that no such person, divine or human, ever existed?

The first thing one has to realize is that the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles constitute only one small portion of the early Christian documentary record, both inside and outside the New Testament canon. The story of Jesus of Nazareth, his preaching, prophesying and miracle working, characters like Mary Magdalene, his betrayer Judas, or his parents Mary and Joseph, his trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion on Calvary and resurrection from a tomb outside Jerusalem, all this comes entirely from that one portion, and is not to be found in the rest of the record. Which is not to say that Christians, including Christian scholars, have not spent close to two thousand years reading that story into it. Apologists will try to downplay this dramatic void on Jesus of Nazareth in the non-Gospel record; oh, this is just an argument from silence, they say. But a silence this pervasive and perplexing, spanning so many writers and so many communities for so long, cannot be readily dismissed. Some arguments from silence do have validity when they are that powerful.

Nor is it a simple argument from silence. The record in the New Testament epistles, for example, offers us a picture of a faith movement which is complete and self-sufficient, it makes no room for a recent historical figure and in many instances even excludes one. Instead, in accord with much of the philosophy of the period both Jewish and pagan, it tells of a heavenly entity who is a part of God, who has now been revealed through scripture and the Holy Spirit. He has come into the world in spirit as a channel between God and humanity and as an agent of salvation. He is identified as a “mystery” long-hidden but now revealed.

There was a lot of variety in this broad movement about a saving Son of God; this Son was usually (though not always) styled “Christ” or “Messiah” and given the name “Jesus” which has the meaning of Savior. For some groups he was a Revealer of heavenly truth which itself conferred salvation, for others he had undergone a death as a saving sacrifice and been resurrected. But nowhere is that death and resurrection identified with an historical setting or human agencies.

Some documents indicate that the agency was the demon spirits commonly believed in during those times and that the death took place in a heavenly dimension, not on earth. Even Paul points to that agency in 1 Corinthians 2:8 where he identifies those who killed Jesus as “the rulers of this age”; this is a term—as many scholars admit—which in that era referred to the evil angelic forces of the lower heavens. The heavenly world, in the cosmology of the time, both Jewish and pagan, was made up of multiple layers, in which many processes took place among various spiritual beings. It is the Gospels, when they came along, that introduced a human Jesus walking the sands of Galilee and Judea. Nothing of that life on earth can be found in the epistles or various other early Christian documents. (A footnote: a passage in Paul’s 1 Thessalonians says that “the Jews” killed the Lord Jesus—which doesn’t agree with the Gospels—but even most mainstream scholars recognize this to be a later insertion; and 1 Timothy’s passing reference to Pilate is in an epistle written not by Paul but in the 2nd c. in his name and was probably influenced by the newly-developed Gospel story. It is sometimes claimed that the case for Jesus mythicism relies on labelling every inconvenient passage in the epistles as later interpolations, but there are very few that I would appeal to as likely interpolated, and none of them without good and demonstrable cause. Besides, modern scholarship itself has shown that the entire Christian record, including the New Testament, is riddled with forgeries, insertions and amendments to support developing ideas and the widespread rivalry between different groups.)

Our small portion of the early record giving us the story of Jesus of Nazareth can be seen to be even smaller when it is realized that the three later Gospels are heavily dependent on the first one written, the Gospel of Mark. The communities of Matthew and Luke show no sign of having developed story traditions of their own about a life of Jesus until they encountered that of Mark. John, with its very different teachings by Jesus, seems to have incorporated that community’s own spiritual Revealer figure, but it has placed him in an earthly story line and a tale of trial and crucifixion which has been lifted from one or more of the others.

All this would be an impossible situation if all of these communities were derived from the same genesis, for the diverse and uncoordinated world which early Christianity constituted should have produced widely varying versions and emphases in their stories of Jesus if each were derived from a supposed body of oral tradition coming to them across decades. Instead, everything within the Gospels spells literary invention, the product of the various Gospel writers, with the basics going back to a single one of them.

This indeed is another compelling indicator that no Jesus of the Gospels actually lived to be remembered—in oral or literary tradition. Within the last quarter century, New Testament scholarship has come to recognize, rather reluctantly, that virtually every element of the Gospel story of Jesus has been developed out of precedents in the Jewish scriptures. The figure of Jesus, in so many aspects of his birth, life and character, has been constructed as another version of Moses. Every miracle incident, such as the famous feeding of the crowd from a few loaves and fishes, has been put together from details in the accounts of similar miracles by Old Testament figures like Elijah and Elisha; even the pattern of the sets of miracles in Mark reflects a pattern in scripture. Every detail of the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion has been lifted from individual scriptural passages, notably in Isaiah and the Psalms, from Jesus being betrayed, to his silence before Pilate, to the crucifixion between two thieves, to the reaction of the onlookers, to the gambling for Jesus’ clothes at the foot of the cross, and so on. Even the fact of crucifixion can be seen as scripture based (which is where Paul derived it). When the sources of all these building blocks are recognized, there is nothing left in the Gospels to represent “history remembered”, nothing that would belong to the actual experiences of an historical figure supposedly at the root of all this. (And by the way, perhaps you can see that when the Gospels have actually created their story of Jesus out of those scriptural building blocks, it is no wonder that Jesus has such an amazing track record of fulfilling all those alleged scriptural prophecies which the evangelicals make so much fuss over!)

Some of you may be familiar with the scholarly theory of a lost document lying behind the Gospels, called “Q”. It was a collection of sayings and a few anecdotes about miracle working, and it was the product of a Galilean movement preaching the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, some time earlier than the Gospels were written. We can detect its presence in certain passages common to Matthew and Luke; each of those later evangelists added Q’s content into their reworkings of the Gospel of Mark. (The earlier Mark was a party to Q traditions, but he seems not to have known the document itself.) Modern scholars are of the opinion that Q brings us as close to a genuine Jesus as it is possible to get. But Q had no narrative structure, no storyline, let alone one about a Gospel Jesus of Nazareth. Even an attribution or setting for the sayings is not clearly identifiable. And it made no mention of a death and resurrection for its founder figure.

Moreover, we can tell that the Q collection underwent evolution over time, as new sayings, new developments, were added to older ones. In its finished state as used by Matthew and Luke it seems to have contained a founder figure; however, it can be demonstrated that this figure, too, was part of that evolution, and that he is not traceable back to the earliest layers within the Q sayings tradition. This later invention of a founder figure is a common occurrence in many ancient sects and societies. An historical Jesus can no more be snuck into the byways of Galilee than he can into the Jerusalem precincts of the Sanhedrin and Pilate.

Incidentally, as you may know, there is a sizeable scholarly contingent that questions whether a Q actually existed, suggesting that there could be other explanations for the common material in Matthew and Luke; the preferred one is that Luke drew on Matthew. But most scholars maintain that this alternative is too problematic, and I would very much agree. In fact, I devote considerable effort in my new book to arguing the existence of a Q, and that the various communities of Mark, Matthew and Luke grew out of the Kingdom preaching movement which had produced Q, all of them locatable in the same general area at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

However, the Gospels have introduced a major new element that was not to be found in Q: the story of the sacrifice, the death of the human Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate egged on by the Jewish authorities. There have been many proposals to explain the original purpose Mark had in writing his Gospel—which, by the way, can be dated with some confidence by internal evidence to have occurred around the year 90, a good 20 years after the Jewish War and after mainstream scholarship traditionally dates it; the others would have followed over the next few decades. We can regard the Gospel of Mark as essentially an allegory, a symbolic story: first of all, representing the Kingdom-preaching movement itself, with the figure of Jesus of Nazareth building on that invented Q founder and symbolizing the teaching, miracle-working, and prophesying missionaries of the sect. As in allegory generally, such a representative figure renders the thing being symbolized more understandable, it simplifies the lines of what may be a more complex subject, and better enables the author to impart his spiritual truths and lessons.

In addition to this, the author of the Gospel of Mark added another dimension, based on the Pauline type of Christ cult. He brought the latter’s heavenly Messiah to earth, identifying him with the Q preaching founder, and symbolizing his heavenly atonement sacrifice in terms of an entirely fictional crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem. It would seem that the Kingdom-preaching community Mark belonged to had come in contact with the Christ cult movement and was led to amalgamate the two in its own religious outlook. This process of melding two different and largely independent trends of thinking is known as “syncretism” and it is one of the common engines of evolution in the history of ideas. Two separate expressions on the first century scene, the Kingdom sect, and the Pauline type of heavenly Christ faith, were brought together, creating Christianity as we know it. That composite is found nowhere before the Gospel of Mark.

Did the Gospel authors think that their Jesus character was basically historical? They would have been under no illusion that they were writing an actual history of him, since they took all the details of the story from scripture, and the later evangelists felt no compunction about changing elements, both large and small, of the story they found in Mark. Still, the question is a good one, and cannot be answered with any surety. They may have assumed the existence of a preaching figure at the root of their Kingdom tradition, and Matthew and Luke may have treated the Q document as a record of his teachings, though even these they altered at will to serve their own agendas. But the pre-Gospel record, and until those Gospels began to be disseminated some time into the 2nd century, contains no tradition of the Passion story, no sign of the trial, crucifixion and resurrection in the earthly circumstances we find portrayed in the Gospels. Thus for Matthew, Luke and John, who look to be simply taking it from Mark, the story of Jesus’ death would seem to have come to them from out of the blue; Mark himself shows every sign of inventing it from scratch.

When the Gospels and their content began to travel, spreading to other communities beyond the Kingdom-preaching circles of Galilee and Syria, a story that would no doubt have been recognized as allegorical by its first audiences gradually came to be misinterpreted as actual history. But it took most of a century for it to spread and permeate the consciousness of all aspects of that broad movement which believed in a spiritual intermediary Son of God as an agent of salvation, until everyone looked to the Gospel figure and events as the genesis of their faith. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In the minutes remaining, I’d like to highlight a few of the aspects of my new book which have carried further the earlier The Jesus Puzzle. In the 10-year interim, I was regularly urged to provide a much fuller case, to delve more deeply into the sources, arguments and evidence. I obviously took that to heart, because I went from 390 pages to 814—with a larger page dimension. In Jesus: Neither God Nor Man I tried to provide a deeper understanding of the mythological thinking of the time, how the ancients viewed the spiritual parts of the universe above them and what could go on in them. Modern readers are in many ways ‘fooled’ by some of the language employed by early writers like Paul, for they use terms like “flesh” and “blood” and “body” which lead many people to think that this must refer to human features, that “death” and “crucifixion” are things which ipso facto must take place on earth—even though this is never spelled out. Yet all this type of thinking and terminology could be as much at home in the heavenly spiritual world as in the earthly material one; even some New Testament documents reveal this, as well as the Greco-Roman philosophy of the era and the pagan salvation mythologies known as the mystery cults, which contained strong resemblances to many features of the early Christ faith.

I have also spent more time highlighting certain patterns of thought found in the epistles of the New Testament. For example, the writers consistently portray the one “acting” in the present time as God himself, rather than Jesus. The latter never emerges from an indefinable background; he has provided the “raw material” of death and resurrection which enables God to grant salvation, but his role is never assigned to any time and place, let alone a recent one. This would confirm the mythicist concept of the death and resurrection preached by Paul and others as being a heavenly event, one revealed by God and scripture and now having its effect through faith in response to the preaching of apostles like Paul, who never appeal to Jesus’ own recent preaching or earthly activities. It is patterns like this which traditional scholarship has consistently overlooked or ignored, often being guilty of twisting their reading of the texts to make them conform to the tyranny of the Gospels.

In The Jesus Puzzle I highlighted two “smoking guns” which clearly indicate that a Jesus had never been on earth to begin the Christian movement. Discussion of these passages in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man has been much expanded to make that case even more conclusive. The Epistle to the Hebrews, for example (chapter 8, verse 4), contains a grammatically ambiguous statement in the Greek: it says either that “If Jesus were on earth [meaning now], he would not be a priest” or “If Jesus had been on earth, he would not have been a priest.” Both are contrafactual statements, but if the past sense is the meaning, it becomes a statement that Jesus had never been on earth. What my analysis does is show that, within the context of the passage and through deductive reasoning, the present sense, allotting the statement to the present time, cannot be supported; in fact, it can be shown that the author can only be applying it to the past.

Another smoking gun is the Apology known as Minucius Felix (written around the year 155). In describing and defending his faith, the author has fashioned a debate between a pagan and a Christian, and into the pagan’s mouth he places a list of calumnies commonly leveled against the Christians: they indulge in lust and fornication at their banquets, they reverence the head of an ass and the genitals of their priests, they kill infants and drink their blood. In the midst of this litany of horrors the accusation is included that the Christians worship a man who suffered death as a criminal, and the wood of his cross. In dealing with this list of calumnies, the Christian treats the latter accusation with the rest: all are declared false and foolish, with no indication that this item is distinct from the others and indeed lies at the heart of his own faith. What has rescued this document for Christians is the fact that in regard to the crucified man, Felix provides a reason why the accusation is foolish: because no criminal deserves to be worshiped as a god, and no mortal should be relied on for salvation. What centuries of scholarly analysis has done is read into this that the Christian debater is implying that the crucified man was neither a criminal nor a mortal, but was indeed a god. But the text does not say this, and the only way to derive such an implication is to beg the question and read standard Christian doctrine into the writer’s mind.

What I focused on subsequent to dealing with this passage in The Jesus Puzzle, is that each of the accusations is responded to following the identical pattern: (a) itemizing the accusation, (b) making a scoffing remark about how erroneous, foolish or outrageous such an accusation is, followed by (c) the comeback accusation that the pagans are in certain ways guilty of doing those very things themselves. It should be evident that if Felix has imposed the same pattern of response—and nothing more—on all five, he means the same thing in all five cases, he has the same attitude in all five cases. In all of them he is reacting to the inherent offensiveness of the charge. It is too bizarre to think that in one of these cases he has precisely the opposite attitude, that he does not intend to heap scorn on the accusation that Christians worship a crucified man, or that he would actually be defending the charge in such a misleading and impenetrable fashion. Now, this in itself is not a denial of the existence of the crucified man, but if one group calling itself Christian is capable of denying that Christians do or ought to worship a crucified man, it can hardly be the case that the movement began in such a fashion.

This whole question of the 2nd century Christian apologists up to the year 180 is a fascinating and revealing one, for the majority of them (the only exception being Justin Martyr) make no mention of an incarnated Jesus (not even his name), explaining their religion—usually addressed to emperors—with no Gospel story and no sacrificial atonement doctrine. Rather, they believe in the Jewish God and his heavenly Son, or Greek-style Logos, who simply reveals God. And they call themselves “Christian” on the basis of being “anointed”—which is what the basic term means—not because they follow an historical figure referred to as “Christ”. Again, scholarship has had to struggle to explain this strange state of affairs. But it’s a revealing part of the picture of early Christianity, a picture of diversity, the lack of a common origin or dogma, with much of it devoid of a human Jesus. Out of this competitive diversity, one line of belief based on the Gospels emerged victorious, achieving, like a Richard Dawkins meme, a kind of biological propagation, which eventually swamped all the rest.

Finally, most of you may be familiar with the two last-ditch lines of defense for the existence of an historical Jesus, the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus, both of whose texts as they now stand contain references to a man crucified by Pilate. There has been more ink spilled over Josephus than any other ancient writer in regard to the Jesus question; my own contribution in the new book is 54 pages—probably a record. I think I have demonstrated that both references in the Antiquities of the Jews are thoroughly unreliable, and not authentic to Josephus. The main one, the famous Testimonium Flavianum, is universally acknowledged to be, as it stands, a Christian product, but the whole thing was probably the work of the Church historian Eusebius in the 4th century; no sign of any version of it surfaces in Christian commentators before that time.

Something similar is the case in regard to Tacitus’ reference to a “Christus crucified by Pontius Pilate” in his Annals, written around 115. Of course, he could simply have been repeating newly developing hearsay of the time among Christians in Rome about an imagined historical founder. But the curiosity is that Tacitus’ mention of Christ is in conjunction with an account of Nero’s bloody persecution of Christians in Rome in 64, holding them responsible for the Great Fire which levelled half the city in that year. (Remember the film Quo Vadis?) And yet that prime event of persecution is nowhere referred to by anyone else—either Christian writer or Roman historian—until the beginning of the 5th century. And that includes Eusebius in his comprehensive History of the Church. Such a silence, especially within a Christian movement fixated on martyrdom and the history of persecution it supposedly endured, is virtually incredible. In fact, a close examination of certain Christian documents over the first few centuries indicates quite clearly that they cannot have been aware of any such persecution. Such a conclusion virtually guarantees that the entire account in Tacitus, along with the mention of Christ, is a later insertion, and that the dramatic Neronian persecution is itself a fiction. It’s a complex question, and I spend many pages examining it. A few other, more minor, alleged allusions to an historical Jesus in non-Christian sources are even more dismissible.

Can Christianity survive the demise of an historical Jesus, the realization that the crucifixion never happened, that all those teachings in the Gospels had other sources—some of them Greek, in fact? It’s doubtful. One might go further and suggest that if Christians were forced to abandon Jesus, many would be led to abandon the Deity himself. The role and image of the Christian god is so tied up with his Son and Savior, he might have very little left to stand on.