There are a bunch of people building reputations on the historicity of Jesus – whether the man Jesus existed, what he did, what he claimed to do.
Christians want, no, need, Jesus to be a real mortal man, at least, because they depend on that in order to make their next set of claims about his divinity, his miracles, and most of all, the resurrection.
Non-Christian scholars go to great lengths to show not only that the information we have a bout Jesus is unreliable, but in some cases it is so flawed they think he didn’t even exist.
In history it really helps make your case if there are some independent sources that contribute facts to a story to give us some confidence in the story. One area where Christian scholars fail so badly it amounts to professional dishonesty is regard this independent evidence claim.
One source in particular can be relied upon to be behind most claims you hear from Christians if they start telling you there’s ‘plenty’ (a vague often used term) of evidence for the resurrection. When you look at their sources they tend to go something like this:
1 – Many who are not scholars will point to William Lane Craig, and may even give links to his site and some of the pages where he tells us there are ‘plenty’ of independent sources.
2 – When you go to William Lane Craig you will see that he offers Josephus, and Pliny and Tacitus. But the go-to guy in the end is Josephus.
3 – When you’ve gone down this rabbit whole with the Christian and given your reasons why this isn’t independent evidence, they’ll offer some other Christian scholars, who, they assure you, will provide categorical evidence for the resurrection. Of course these sources never do. But where they do claim to be offering evidence you can bet your shirt on it that they will either point to some other source, like William Lane Craig again, or will cite Josephus themselves.
4 – Some Christians will actually try to cite just Josephus – but usually it’s not Josephus directly that they cite but some description of what Josephus contains along with some explanation of why it’s so good. But this is not actually looking at the content of Josephus.
If you’re not familiar with Josephus you could start here: Wikipedia on Josephus
Remember, Josephus was a Jew, captured by Rome, and writing from Rome. Here’s a brief summary with links: Jewish Virtual Library on Josephus. And from there note this: “However, because of Josephus’ proclivity to depend on hearsay and legend, scholars are never sure what to accept as fact.”
Or, you could try this source: Bible Study Tools on Josephus.
Scholarly Opinion on the Reliability Of Extant Josephus Texts
One of the controversies over what is currently available is the extent to which current transcripts are genuine copies of what Josephus actually wrote, or whether they have been modified by Christians to tell a better story. This is the stuff of historical scholarly work – which I’m not qualified to judge, but which has, of course, its Christian non-Christian perspectives.
I am specifically avoiding this angle, because I don’t think it is necessary in order to make my point. And, I have to say, both the Christian and non-Christian scholars seem to be on thin ice. You can judge for your self by reading them – I bet you’ll soon become bored with the detail that makes no difference.
Josephus as Hearsay
I appreciate the historical interests in these old texts, but in the case against Christianity the most obvious criticism of Josephus and other ‘independent’ sources is that they are nothing more than hearsay. Josephus is not evidence for Jesus at all.
At best, if we ignore the controversy of the reliability of the extant texts, then it is nothing more than a report of what Christians were saying they believed.
Whether it’s what Christians reported directly to Josephus, or what Josephus picked up from non-Christian sources telling what Christians were saying, is unknown.
The same is true of course when a Christian source is provided. If a non-Christian hears some stories about Christ, thinks it all sounds pretty good, and becomes a Christian, then this is now a biased Christian source that is peddling what are basically his unreliable sources that made him Christian in the first place.
And so it goes even today.
History Hangs on Threads
This is a problem for history generally. But in most respects it’s unimportant.
I don’t know of anyone today living their lives in such a way that depends categorically on the truth of whether Nero fiddled as Rome burned. If one believed that legend, then came across information that debunks it, it wouldn’t be the end of your world. One has only to say, “Oh well, I was wrong about that.”
Some historical researchers could build academic careers on something that is later debunked. And the same is true in science. But once the facts are establish there’s no hiding place. It may involve the consumption of some humble pie, but then any scholar or researcher worth their salt would get the pie out, and after a hearty meal they’d get on with using the new data.
The Christian Life Based on Hearsay
But in the case of Christianity people build careers and whole lives on the claim that Jesus was God (ignoring theological quibbles on that score) and that he died to save us. All based on nothing better than hearsay.
You go to church, pray to God and Jesus Christ. Maybe you’re a Roman Catholic and you really believe that when the wafer is blessed it turns into the literal body of Christ. Maybe you’re a ‘sophisticated’ theologian and don’t buy any of the high church stuff, but still believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God, and the resurrection.
It’s based entirely on hearsay? Yes!
The words of Jesus? Put into his mouth entirely by the writers of the Gospels. There is zero evidence Jesus said any of it. When reported in the Gospels some time after the death of Jesus (again, we’re not even demanding proof the mortal man existed here) then it is nothing more than hearsay.
It is no less hearsay than anything a Muslim might claim about Mohammed. Muslims can even make a better claim to the historicity of Mohammed – though of course what Mohammed’s followers tell us Mohammed was told by Gabriel, who was instructed by Allah, is several levels of hearsay too.
I don’t think enough is made of this. Christianity is a religion based entirely on hearsay. But Josephus is a Christian trump card they are allowed to get away with far too often.