There are serious challenges to the Christian claims about what happened to a man they call Jesus, the one they think is Christ, son of God. The same sorts of challenges can be made about Mohammed, and many other religious prophets and deities, particularly if they happened in the distant past, where there are few if any contemporary documents or artefacts.
The claims tend to fall into two categories: the historicity of the person (Jesus, Mohammed); and the supernatural claims made about them (miracles performed, revelations revealed). I’ll refer to then as the Natural claims and the Supernatural claims.
For Jesus, we find now that we have a religion built around him: Christianity. The main sources of information come from the Bible’s Gospels, with all other sources being references to Jesus and Christianity made by non-Christians and Christians some time after the time for which the claims are made (his birth, life, death, resurrection). These claims are a mix of both Natural and Supernatural.
I am an atheist and I see no evidence to support any of the Supernatural claims about Jesus – his own claim to be the son of God, his reported miracles, and his resurrection.
Those theists that do think there is evidence of these are really saying some version of the following: “We have Natural historic evidence of Jesus, and of the Natural events that happened in his life, and we have witnesses to all that, AND to the miracles, the Supernatural events.”
This must be essentially what they are claiming, because they clearly have no direct evidence of miracles actually happening. For example, take the healing of the blind man’s sight. How do we know that happened? Is there some test we could do now, to say, “Look, there’s the evidence of that miracle!”
Well, there were no videos then, so we can’t look at those. And, of course, even if there were it could be that the blind man was faking blindness, in league with Jesus and his crew. “Ah, but other people knew he’d genuinely been blind.” Really? Which people? The people that the narrator of the story told us about? Where did that narrator get the story? Was he there? If he was, was he in league with the fraud? If he wasn’t there himself, the narrator has no evidence that any of it happened, let alone who was there to testify that it was genuine. In other words, the parable of the blind man is at best hearsay, about a story, that has no more evidence for its truth than any other myth.
And so it is will all claims about the Supernatural … AND the Natural claims about Jesus. And behind these objections to the stories about Jesus we have the obvious suspicion that those that started the religious movement early on were either inventing it completely, or elaborating on stories about one of the many ‘prophets’ that wandered the world making claims about their access to various gods. It wasn’t a new pastime even then. Do you believe all of them? If you think some were false prophets, then why not yours?
A common follow up claim made by Christians is that some other party reported on these events, someone that wasn’t committed to promoting Christianity, someone that even disapproved of Christianity, someone with no skin in the game, so they must be credible, right? For example, Tacitus and Josephus.
Tacitus and Josephus
Tacitus was a Roman historian. He referred to Christ and Christianity in his final book, Annals, written in AD 116. This is long after the death of Jesus, so clearly nothing in his account amounts to his memory of events in Palestine. He wasn’t there.
And yet, we hear that scholars consider it to be an “authentic, and of historical value as an independent Roman source.” What does that mean? Does it mean it’s an authentic record of what happened to Jesus? No it does not. It means merely that the scholars think there really was a guy called Tacitus, and that he really did report the story in his book. What it does not say is where he got the story from.
If you read the words of Tacitus it amounts to nothing more than the following: “Nero persecuted the Christians. The Christians took their name from the guy know as Christ. And, here’s what Christians say happened to Christ at the hands of his executioners.”
Tacitus is obviously no more than a report of what Christians believed. Tacitus does not, for example, refer to some other Roman document signed by Pilate, or one signed by the Captain of the guard that saw Jesus die.
So, no wonder it is similar to what was written in the Gospels, because both the Gospel authors and Tacitus got the information from what Christians claimed to be the case. This is no more than reporting hearsay.
If you claim you have half a dozen sources, and all those sources trace back to one source, then you have one source, not six. We don’t know where the current sources got their sources from. It’s a dead end. And as such amounts to a myth.
Josephus is no better. He was a Jewish historian. His references were written around 93–94 AD, 60 years after the supposed death of Jesus, so clearly he too was writing about what others were telling him. While some scholars think the texts have been changed, they think the core is ‘authentic’. Again, the authenticity in question is about whether Josephus wrote them, and that what he wrote is largely what he was told. Who told him? Christians, or someone else reporting on what Christians claimed.
While the claims by scholars to the authenticity of Tacitus and Josephus are about whether Tacitus and Josephus wrote what is in their purported works, the authenticity is NOT about the truth of what they wrote about Jesus.
An Accidental Religion
How do religions arise? One way is accidentally.
Imagine we had a world wide apocalypse, another pandemic that wiped out all but a few human groups dotted around the world. In one group, in Europe, for each Christmas after that event, parents would tell the tales of Santa Claus to their children. One Christmas, a visitor from another colony is passing through and hears the stories of Santa Claus, how he used to visit each Christmas. The stranger mistakenly takes the stories seriously, and repeats them elsewhere on his travels. Further more, he finds that the more he repeats them, the more people want to know about Santa, so he elaborates, invents miracles and all sorts of new events, the healing of blind men, for example. And some of those that heard these elaborated stories go on to expand on them themselves. All of a sudden you have a religion out of nothing more than a children’s Christmas fantasy.
Of course the stories now circulating will differ with different elaborations. They will be inconsistent. Eventually, a new emperor of Europe calls all the bishops of Santa Claus religion together.
Does that make those people appear too stupid? You think that couldn’t happen? If you think this is far fetched compared to evidence to support Christianity, think about the following.
Creating a Religion
So another way of creating a religion is with the intention of fooling people. Perhaps Joseph Smith, the man of Golden Tablets. Smith published the Book of Mormon. “By the time of his death, 14 years later, he had attracted tens of thousands of followers and founded a religion that continues to the present with millions of global adherents.”
Wow! That was in the 1800s, the time of developing ‘Enlightenment’.
But that was nothing.
In the 1950s, a time of radio and television, a second rate science fiction author decided he would create a religion. Obviously, nobody would be dumb enough to pay attention, right? Wrong. Scientology.
The 21st Century celebrities that follow Scientology can look online and read all about this bogus origin, and yet they still believe it. So what makes you think that it would be so difficult to start a religion back in the time purported to be around the life of Jesus? If these Christians are reporting to Tacitus on what they think happened to Jesus, who is Tacitus to say, “Sorry, never happened.” Why would he? He’s only reporting on what they themselves claim.
Of course we don’t even know that Tacitus got the report from Christians directly. It could have been his mate down the brothel, “Hey, Tacitus, that book you’re writing, Have you heard the one about a guy in Palestine seventy years ago?”
This is how poor the information is that’s presented as evidence for Jesus. Even if we have a piece of what Tacitus himself wrote, it says nothing about the truth or falsity of what he wrote about, other than to say that, “Some Christians believed blah, blah, blah.”
If a religion like Scientology can be created in the mid 20th Century, why not one in the time of Pilate in Palestine?
My Alternative Gospel
Imagine, if you will, this scenario (not one I’m claiming happened, but not out of the question).
A man Jesus started making false claims about his access to God’s thoughts. Perhaps he’s a bright fellow, but a little mad. Most people make fun of him. But a few gullible people actually believe what he’s saying.
A couple of other smart guys currently out of work, let’s call then Eric and Ernie, tag along, and while they don’t entirely disbelieve Jesus, they certainly take advantage of him, hype him up, and start to tell others all about him. Maybe slip in the odd story about the occasional ‘miracle’.
Eventually they have raised a bit of a crowed and started to become a real nuisance. The priests want to get rid of Jesus, so make up even more stories about his blasphemous claims, “He actually thinks he’s the son of God!” They succeed and bump him off with the help of one of Pilate’s men, and a little bribe to smooth things over. Jesus is indeed crucified, and dies.
What happens to his followers? This is a bit inconvenient. They were going around with Jesus, being housed and fed wherever they went.
Eric, “I know, let’s tell people he’s coming back in a few days! That will sustain the religion. AND, even better, what if he vanishes … to heaven … by rising up. We can continue telling stories abut him and he’s not here to dispute them. Do you think the other followers will buy it?“
Ernie, “Well they’ve been easily fooled so far. Nobody has to actually witness this resurrection. We only have to SAY that someone witnessed it, us. And, we have to go an steal the body, of course. AND, the more fake witnesses we can add, besides ourselves, the better. AND, with Jesus now resurrected out of the way, in body and ‘spirit’, there’s no way that anyone can disprove any of this junk. AND, we get to live off the tale for the rest of our lives!“
And so, the resurrection story emerges.
Eric, “What if if some of the other followers go back and start asking questions. Everyone will deny witnessing the resurrection. We’ll be caught out.“
Ernie, “No problem. We’ll say it’s a cover-up instigated by the priests that have warned witnesses that they’ll go the same way as Jesus if they say anything.“
Eric, “Brilliant! The greater the conspiracy against OUR conspiracy, the less people will notice ours.“
Welcome to Christianity – my version – which is just as well evidenced as any other … that is, there is no evidence for any of it.
“Whoa, there! It’s not as simple as that. What about the Virgin Birth?”A Christian
Didn’t happen. Eric and Ernie made up that story too, to add a bit more mystique to the religion. Mary was actually fooling around with Joseph’s mate. Stoning adulterers was common back then, so what would people rather believe about ‘Christ’? The truth or another myth? Which myth, mine or the Christian myth?
But if Jesus is who he says, that changes everything! Jesus said, “I am the way, the TRUTH & the life…” The number of Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Jesus’ life including things he had no control over (eg: place of birth & specific details regarding his death). That would be mind blowing!”A Christian
No, Jesus did not say “I am the way…” Eric and Ernie made that up to. And what if he HAD said it? It was false, because he was just some ordinary mad man.
But you can’t do that! You can’t mess around with history that way. What if we did that to Churchill, or any other historical figure? Many historical stories have very little evidence.”A Christian
Why not? How do YOU know YOUR myth is true, and not mine, or some other perfectly simple explanation as to why the religion arose out of a lie?
I didn’t meet Winston Churchill but I have no doubt he wrote his, ‘Fight them on the Beaches’ speech! There are many eyewitness accounts of the life, death & resurrection of Jesus. The apostles were willing to die for the Gospel. I don’t think they would have died for a lie.A Christian
Well, if you’re a Christian, I assume you disbelieve in the Islamic faith. Yet, many Muslims have martyred themselves for what they believe in.
If you die for a lie, but you don’t think it’s a lie, you don’t know you’re dying for a lie, but it’s still a lie.
What About Churchill?
Let’s take seriously the possibility that Churchill’s “Fight them on the beaches” speech didn’t happen. Let’s suppose the recordings we hear today were fake, created after the war to make Churchill seem even more of a hero. What about all those people still alive today that heard the speech on the radio? Let’s pretend they have false memories, instilled in them be playing the later recordings.
I know, I’m stretching your credulity here, imagining such a famous speech was faked, that false memories implanted, that old news papers reporting it were fake too, … including the treasured notebooks, the government materials … all fake, all a WWII conspiracy.
Nevertheless, let’s suppose that somehow it was actually fake. What would that matter now? Sure, some historians would want to re-write some text books, and we would probably get a few more History Channel documentaries out of it. But what would it really change to our lives now? Would it make you give up on your studies, or convince you to quit work, to go an live in France? Would it change the Brexit deal? Would it stop the COVID pandemic?
I doubt very much would happen at all.
And the same goes for most historic events. Historians and archaeologists are learning more about he past all the time, and when something new crops up, a new piece of evidence that changes a story, what happens? Outside academia, the world carries on.
But, as our Christian friend asked, what if the story of Jesus is true, and could seriously shown to be true? Even if it was only the Natural history of Jesus that was proved to be true, that would be amazing. What if the Supernatural claims could be proved to be true? As our friend said, “That would be mind blowing!“
Yes, but what if it isn’t true?
Unlike the histories of Churchill or any other historic figure, if some evidence was found that Jesus did not exist, some evidence, a scroll or two, that showed that the story of Jesus was totally made up in 30 AD, what would THAT mean for Christians, for the Roman Catholic Church, for every Evangelical preacher getting rich off the proceeds of his church? Well, that would indeed be mind blowingly interesting. Christianity would be destroyed! Wouldn’t it?
We have to be honest with ourselves. To most Christians it wouldn’t make a jot of difference. They don’t believe based on reason and evidence. When they claim to provide evidence, such as Tacitus and Josephus, that’s not for their benefit. That’s for our benefit, to shut us up. NOTHING will stop a true believer believing, no matter how great the fantasy the religion is built on. How do we know this? Because of the number of totally incompatible religions that exist.
Nobody that values reason above faith could possibly believe that their religion is the one true religion while all the others were false, given the lack of evidence for all of them. But if you hold faith above reason, you can be convinced to believe any one rubbish.
All you Christians know this, when you look at Muslims. All you Muslims know this when you look at Christians. You just can’t look at yourselves in the same light.
Faith to Faithless
Now and again, the reality of how ridiculous the stories of Jesus and Mohammed hit home. That can be quite a shock.
If it happens to you, you might find yourself in conflict with family and friends. You might be bullied into returning to the religion. You might be ostracised once they realise you are really leaving. In some cases there might be the threat of death.
If you need help, contact Faith to Faithless, and find a group of people with similar experiences that will help you deal with this dramatic change in your life, which I hope will be a good one.