CHAPTER 3: WHY THE JESUS STORY IS FALSE
The point bears repeating. During Jesus’ entire lifetime, from, say 3 BC to 30 AD, not one person—not a Christian, not a Jew, not a Roman, not a Greek—wrote anything about the miracles, what Jesus said, or what his followers did. No one wrote anything. It’s as if nothing extraordinary happened at all…
The Romans were excellent record-keepers; surely any such astonishing letters would have survived. And yet we have not one.
At the same time there lived a famous Jewish philosopher, Philo. He was born around 20 BC, and thus was an adult at the time of the Bethlehem star. He lived well past the crucifixion, dying about the year 50 AD. He would have been the ideal man to record everything about a Jewish miracleworker and savior. He wrote about 40 individual essays, which now fill seven volumes. Yet he says not one word about Jesus or the Christian movement.
It gets worse. For the next 20 years after the crucifixion, we still have no evidence. From the years 30 to 50 AD, not one thing has survived that documents Jesus or his miracles: not a letter, not a book, not an engraving, nothing. Nothing by Jews, nothing by Christians, nothing by Romans—nothing.
And yet, it’s worse still. We know that, from the year 50, we have a few letters by Paul. These letters are finished when Paul dies around the year 70. Now, of course, his letters cannot count as evidence, because it is exactly his accounts of Jesus that we are trying to validate. Apart from Paul’s letters, from the years 50 to 70, we still have no evidence. Nothing by other Christians, nothing by Jews, nothing by Romans—nothing.
And still it gets worse. The Gospels appeared between 70 and the mid-90s. But they, too, cannot count as evidence because it is precisely these documents that need confirmation. Apart from the four Gospels, from 70 to the mid-90s, we still have no evidence.
In sum: for the entire period of the early Christian era—that is, from say 3 BC to the mid-90s AD—we have no corroborating evidence from anyone who was not party to the new religion. Not a shred of anything exists: documents, letters, stone carvings—nothing at all. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this problem…
Men such as Petronius, Seneca, Martial, and Quintillian all lived in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion and would have been ideally situated to write about Jesus’ extraordinary life. So too with Philo, the Jewish philosopher, as I noted above. And yet not one of these men wrote a single word about him…
The Roman perspective
Josephus is important because he is the first non-Christian to confirm that a Christian movement existed, at least by the late first century AD. But what about the Romans?
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Editor’s note: Remember that the NT scholar who has most influenced me is Richard Carrier, who believes that Josephus’ couple of brief mentions of ‘Christ’ were later interpolations by Christians. For apologetic reasons, they put words into Josephus’ mouth. Skrbina continues:
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Tacitus was born in the year 58 to an aristocratic family. Between 98 and 105 AD he wrote four books, including the highly important work Histories. As it happens, not one of them so much as mentions Jesus or the Christians.
But his final work, Annals, which dates circa 115 AD, does include two sentences on them. In section 44 of Book 15 we read the following:
…a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace… a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.
The passage is likely authentic but yet odd in that we have no other reference to Christians in Rome at the time of Nero. But this is not relevant here. What matters is the stunning fact that it took until the year 115—80 years after the crucifixion, nearly 120 years after the miracle birth—for the first Roman to document the Christians. And even then, he grants them all of two sentences.
A second Roman reference—and the third non-Christian [Ed. note: Remember that Skrbina is taking one of the brief paragraphs in Josephus’ book as legit]—comes from Pliny. Like Tacitus, Pliny was an educated and highly literate aristocrat. By the year 110, at around age 50, he had assumed the position of imperial governor of a province in the north of present-day Turkey. In a letter to Emperor Trajan, from about the same time as Tacitus’ Annals, he writes an extended critique of the Christian movement. Over the course of about five paragraphs, Pliny explains his need to repress the Christians, including executing the non-citizens and shipping citizens to Rome for punishment. Christianity is described as a “depraved, excessive superstition,” and Pliny is worried that the “contagion of this superstition” is spreading. But still, he thinks it “possible to check and cure it.”
Pliny’s suggestions aside, what we find here is a fascinating account of a growing but troublesome new religion. The Romans were generally tolerant of other religions, and thus we must conclude that there was something uniquely problematic about this group. It may perhaps have been their Jewish origins, or the fact that they embodied particularly repellent values. We lack the details here to determine the cause of the enmity. But in any case, it seems clear that the early Christians were not simple apostles of love. Something else was going on with this group that the Romans found truly galling and, indeed, a kind of threat to the social or moral order.
And yet, something happened. We know for certain that by the mid-90s or early 100s latest, Christians were becoming noticed and causing trouble for the empire. We are fairly sure that Paul lived and wrote between the mid- 30s and late-60s, and that the Gospels first appeared between 70 and 95.