Sunday, 14 June 2015

Did Jesus really exist? 1. A little introduction

In this blog, I'm dealing with the question many sceptics ask: did the man Jesus Christ really exist? This isn't about whether he did miracles, or whether he was the Son of God, or any such thing. It's just this question: back at the start of the Jesus movement, did a Jewish man called Jesus even exist? Or is the whole idea of such a man, a human being who lived and died in Israel, a total myth?

There is one thing to say to start with - obvious when you think about it. How often in your life have you heard about a human being who is supposed to have existed only to find that he didn’t? Rarely or never, is your likely answer. If I review the history of players of my favourite football club, I know I am not going to find any fictional ones listed, and likewise if I review an academic list of Roman Emperors – no fictional ones there either. The same goes for doing your family tree, and any number of similar exercises. You generally don’t find that historical persons who are meant to have existed actually are fictional.

Appreciating this does matter, as we move from the general to the specific. Unless there is good evidence to the contrary, the reasonable thing to expect is that the existence of Jesus conforms to the general trend – historical persons generally existed - and we cannot dispense with that pattern without warrant: if this Jewish man Jesus is said to have existed, he probably did. That’s a starting point to think from. This in itself doesn’t mean that Jesus did exist. But if one were to suggest that ‘Jesus’ bucks the overwhelming trend, that his existence as a human being is faked, one has to have a good reason why. (Hyper-scepticism isn’t an argument. We can’t change anything by making out Christian texts to be a special case for scepticism. That would be special pleading, not evidence analysis.) I am unaware of any special reason for bucking the trend here. But lets strip back to basics.

The question in effect is this: is the trail of evidence that points back to Jesus better explained by his existence or his non-existence?
First, is there a case to answer? Is there anything to investigate? Is there any reason to think that there really was a man called Jesus who influenced the religion of Judea in the first century AD, some 2000 years ago, and who is remembered as Jesus Christ?

How will we begin to answer that? How close can we get to really knowing anything about it? Are there any first-hand eyewitness reports, and do they even begin to get close to knowing? The answer is, closer than you might think. This is a data-gathering exercise that gets us further than many people might think possible. Behind the claims and conclusions, what is the data and evidence? There is quite a trail. The question in effect is this: is the trail of evidence pointing back to Jesus better explained by his existence or non-existence? There are a lot of different sets of evidence to consider, but you have to start somewhere. Let's start somewhere you may not be expecting.

We start with witness evidence, with what historians call primary and secondary witnesses: not first of all of Jesus but of the decade in which Christianity was born.

An eyewitness: but whom did he witness?

Our first undisputed first-hand eyewitness from the period (who met Jesus' disciples, not the pre-resurrection Jesus) actually gets us directly back to the crucial decade in which Jesus was supposed to have gone public with his mission in Judea and died. That decade is the 30s of the first century.

The funny thing is that so many people don’t even notice the fact that we have an eyewitness of the decade.

Through his own words, the eyewitness indicates to us that he was independent when he came to the subject to Jesus. He was sceptical of the claims of followers of Jesus, if not downright hostile to them, at first. This makes him particularly valuable to historians - he had been on the opposing side. He tells us that he first thought as a non-follower about Jesus. He tells us that he met followers of Jesus. Information the witness gives us pinpoints this to the 30s of the first century, and it indicates the witness was a contemporary of when Jesus is supposed to have been alive.

Contemporary? Independent? Yes. The eyewitness says he was hostile to the followers of Jesus because of their attitude to Israelite life and religion. Then the witness changed sides, he tells us, although it seems tensions persisted between him and some of the people he had formerly opposed. About twenty years later, he wrote down about the people he met in the 30s, the followers of Jesus. He also names Jesus effectively as a contemporary of his younger days, and wrote a few things about him: he understood that Jesus was an Israelite who was descended from the family of King David; that Jesus was born into a family of observant Jews; that he had a brother named James and other brothers who had wives; that Jesus spent time in the land of the Judeans, the homeland of the Jews, and that this is where he died; that his death was by Roman crucifixion; and that his body was buried.

This witness doesn’t claim to have seen Jesus walking around Galilee or anything like that. What he crucially indicates is that he is an eyewitness of those people in the 30s whose religion had something to do with this Jesus figure. The people he saw and spoke with are in themselves important evidence, as we shall see.

This important eyewitness, with his first-hand account of life in the 30s, is known as Paul. He wrote about his experiences in his own words in personal letters which we have to this day, and historians agree on a good deal here, including non-Christian historians. He left behind several letters that secular scholars agree are authentic, personal correspondence written by Paul. (These agreed letters go by the names of Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon. They are named after the peoples they were sent to.) This is valuable. It is like finding a diary.

Sharp-eyed readers will have spotted already that the big question this raises is not really about Paul, but about those people Paul knew back in the 30s. So what did they know about this Jesus, and why was Jesus important to them? What does Paul say about these people? We want to know, given that Paul actually met them. These letters give us Paul's first-hand recollection of people he met in the 30s, 40s and 50s. These letters are our earliest Christian documents - that's the general consensus of  both secular and religious historians who generally agree that he wrote his letters in the fifties. This blog series gathers data from these letters.

But what about the gospels?

Since this is also going to be about Jesus, you might have thought I would have started with what is in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John being the biblical ones). But that would be jumping the gun. The gospels got written down in the form we know after Paul. (Mark's gospel was written first in the view of most scholars, usually thought to be written a little before or after 70AD, but that's for another blog.) First, it’s important that we make our judgment call about whether there is actually anything worth investigating, whether there is a real historical thing that the gospels might help us to understand. So we don't start with the gospels, we start with Paul.

Why Paul?

It’s like an archaeologist digging a hole to find the ruins of an old house. What he wants to do is to dig down to the bottom layer, because that is the oldest evidence, and that’s where you start to understand the building of the house. It’s the same idea here: this is what historians do. In this case, we can start with what was written down first. (Here and there, I will mention other bits of the New Testament that might have been written down earlier, but I’m aiming not to be complicated here.)

You might also wonder why start with Paul first, given that Paul never claims to have even seen Jesus at any moment up to Jesus’ death. The answer is the same. We start with what was written earliest. We see what data  that gives us.

What Paul saw and heard

So, in this little series of blogs, our first eyewitness of the 30s is Paul. But our focus is on those people he met. The point is that we can get closer to information about Jesus by learning about them, those poor persecuted souls whom Paul harmed in the 30s and wrote about in the 50s. These religious people were there first when it comes to knowing about Jesus - Paul's first-hand eyewitness makes that conclusion absolutely clear. They took notice of Jesus before Paul did - so who were they?

As the earliest first-hand eye-witness of the Jesus-movement - Paul is what historians call a 'primary source' (that is, an eyewitness writing while the events are still clear in his mind). He is a primary source for discovering the early Jesus-movement (whereas for what he knows about Jesus, Paul is what historians call a 'secondary source' or 'secondary witness').

Why this matters

Sceptics must deal with the fact that there was some Jesus-related religion in the 30s of the first century, a religion that did not come from Paul but rather was opposed by Paul, and that was already there before Paul cared. What did they believe about Jesus? How does this data help us to know anything about a historical Jesus? 

Our eyewitness Paul met them and tells us about them firsthand. These people get us closer to the historical Jesus. But to get the picture about them, I also need to gather the data of Paul’s information about the life story of Jesus.

The gap closes

Here's the thing. You might have imagined that our knowledge of Jesus is based on stories that first appear many decades after Jesus was supposed to have been a public figure, or even centuries after. This eyewitness evidence takes us in a different direction. It closes that gap with first-hand historical data right down to a handful of years in the 30s. Between the supposed Jesus of the 30s and these Jesus-followers of the 30s, there is not much of a gap in time. 

The challenge for sceptics is to account for how these people in the 30s had their ideas about Jesus.

It is hard to come up with a simpler explanation than that these Jesus-people in Judea in the 30s had known a historical Jesus in Judea in the 30s: the evidence for this will be presented. Occam's razor favours the simplest explanation for the religion of these people.

Sceptical investigator

Now, to be fair, I want you to be sure that I am writing what a sceptical historian can safely write. I’m going to stick to the best information that a sceptic can rely on.

I’m not writing as a believer this time – although I declare myself one – but I’m doing this for those who are not believers. Even with Paul, I’m erring on the safe side for you, readers. So I’m ignoring letters which bear his name but which some historians suspect as not being by Paul at all. So I’m relying only on a few letters that were without doubt written by Paul – ones which historians of all sides can agree really were written by Paul. That’s fair, isn’t it?

Here's the thing. To be a real investigator here, we have to mentally divorce Paul's letters from the Bible. When he wrote them in the 50s, he had no idea that someone else would put them in the Bible, and as such a reasonable sceptic can't irrationally dismiss a document just because someone later put it in a collection! The only reasonable starting place for an investigator is to work out what the letters really meant in the days they were written. In those days, the only Bible was what Christians call the Old Testament. And Paul's letters weren't part of it.
Too many people take Paul’s letters for granted. If these letters had been lost for 2000 years and then found again today, it would be front page news, because they put in our hands so much information about the origins of Christianity!

All the links to this series are below.
You are here - Did Jesus Really Exist? 1. A little introduction

Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive?

Did Jesus Exist? 2b. Were ancient authors silent about Jesus' existence?

Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?

Did Jesus Exist? 2d. What about these authors then, Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny?

Extra: Did Josephus mention Jesus and was that quoted by Origen?

Extra: What did Tacitus really say about Christ and Christians?

Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus?

Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus?

Did Jesus Exist? 3c. Did Peter and Paul talk about Jesus?

So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)

Did Jesus Exist? 4a. So then: what about the people who were interested in Jesus before Paul was?

Did Jesus Exist? 4b. What did people know about the life story of Jesus before Paul came on the scene?

Did Jesus Exist? 5. Did Paul invent Jesus?

Did Jesus exist? 6. Do the gospels believe in a historical Jesus?

Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive?

Straight to the point. On contemporaries of Jesus, there are two big questions:-

1) Did anyone who was alive at the same time as Jesus write of him? Yes.
2) Did anyone actually write about him during 30-33AD, the years when he was supposed to be someone that people had heard of? Nothing of that kind exists, to the best of anyone's knowledge, but that is no real surprise. You'll see why in a moment.

Let's be specific:
1) Who was it that lived at the same time as Jesus and wrote of him? The first to do so was St Paul. He was a younger (probably) contemporary of Jesus, and a 'secondary source', as historians call it. He was initially independent - the first to write as a (former) non-Christian who had heard of Jesus and was opposed to the Jesus movement. See my Paul blog about this evidence. Future blogs will deal with other early Christian writers who could controversially have been alive in Jesus' lifetime, but the point of this present blog series is to rely on evidence that even reasonable sceptics generally find themselves in agreement with, and for that reason this series will focus on the generally accepted fact of having letters written in the 50s by St Paul.

2) But nothing written during 30-33AD? That is what the rest of this blog is about. (The three year figure is based on how John tells Jesus' story. Anyone who prefers the 27-30AD dating, adjust the question accordingly! - See Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years, pg 24. on the case for 30-33AD.)

3) Bear in mind that this post is only about contemporary records. Of course much was written posthumously about Jesus - indeed the urban myth that ancient non-Christian authors are completely silent about Jesus after his death is dealt with here.

What about the King Abgar letters?

Okay, to afficionadoes, I'll say this: I'm not counting the tradition which says that King Abgar of Edessa wrote to Jesus and that Jesus wrote back. Sure, Eusebius (Book 1, chapter 13) wrote that up to his day, the letters were preserved in the library in Edessa. But few consider Eusebius a discerning critic here. Eusebius was getting carried away with the idea of people in foreign lands hearing of Jesus' miracles between 30-33AD, just as some sceptics do. But that bears no relation to the much more humble picture of Jesus in the biblical gospels. (And need it be said, when anyone in a foreign land wrote that they had heard of Jesus, they were a secondary source more remote than St Paul.)

Let's get back to Jerusalem, and back to the point of determining the existence of a first century Jew. Actually, the problem isn't just about finding something from a specific three years. The problem is bigger than that.

Jerusalem before 70AD - everyone's contemporary records lost

Writing history about events in Judea in the first century, which I did for my Masters Degree in Church History, you bump into a few problems. The biggest one is this. Jewish and Roman documents in Jerusalem, the papers of those distant days which Christ-hunters would love to read, to the best of our knowledge went up in smoke. This was when the pagan Roman army destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70AD. And not just the Romans - some Jews had torched the archives first, especially anything to do with debts, as told by Josephus, the first century Jewish historian. The Romans did a pretty good job of it themselves: 'they set fire to the repository of the archives' (see Josephus, War, Chapter 6.3.) You get the picture.

Another example illustrates the point: there was an important Jewish group in Jerusalem called the Sadducees in those days. And yet no known Sadducee document exists in our world today, despite them being an elite. Not one. Zero. Zilch. Even though the Sadducees were a highly significant group. How important? Well, for a start the Hasmonean dynasty relied on the Sadducees' backing in the first century BC, and they continued to play a role in Jerusalem politics in the first century AD. And Josephus wrote as a historian about the Sadducees (eg Josephus Antiquities, 13.171-173). But time has preserved not a single one of the Sadducees' documents. And that's how it is with much of the writings of the ancient world. (See this.) Given that they were around in more or less the same time and region as Jesus, this serves as a lesson to us about what we can reasonably insist on expecting to find.

Another striking example: even from the Roman war in Judea 66-73AD, not a single contemporary document survives. No meticulous Roman records. No contemporary reports in any author. Zero. Zilch. Nothing. 

How about eyewitness documents from the Great Fire of Rome of 64AD? All lost. Writings by eyewitnesses of the fire in Rome haven't survived, and to read about it we have to go to secondary sources such as - guess who? - Tacitus. 

You see, from the ancient world it's typical for little or nothing to survive in terms of documents. But no-one doubts that the Roman army fought and defeated the Jewish forces in Jerusalem, or that the Great Fire of Rome happened. Meanwhile, Josephus' books are the only ones written in the first century to describe the Jewish war. 
It's virtually inconceivable that contemporary records for Jesus would exist now when official records of Roman Judea of his period don't. Such pre-70AD official records are not in existence - that is why no-one on either side of this debate ever quotes from them.
We’ll never know for sure whose names were in those records. Many famous Jews, not just Jesus, could have been mentioned in the records. We know some of their names though. Apart from Jesus, there were Jewish high priests such as Annas and Caiaphas. Rabbis such as Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Meir. Political rebels such as the Jew Theudas. We know about them from later writers. But did any writers mention them while they were alive? Probably, but we will never be able to say that we ‘know’ that to be so, because of the problem of the loss of Jerusalem’s records.

Let the significance of that sink in. Their contemporary records are all gone. No copies survive. So blame the Roman army or the Jewish fire-starters if you like. That means that saying anything about contemporary records for anyone of the time is hazardous. Saying that there is nothing about Jesus written during his three public years doesn't signify anything very much because all was lost. But no-one knows what was lost. You can't prove anything from it.

Tests we cannot perform

So it would count for nothing to say (as has been claimed by some) that since there were Jewish scribes in Jesus' day, then you would expect to see something they had written about Jesus. That is a claim. That is not evidence. You have to have a way to assess a claim like that. One way to do so is to look at all the surviving writings of Jewish scribes from Jesus' day to find out whether or not he is mentioned in them, and compare that with how much other Jews of the day are mentioned in them, in the hope of being able to use such a test to draw some conclusions. But we can't do the test - because the scribblings of Jewish scribes have not survived either. So scribes may or may not have written what Jesus was saying - we can't say either way. (It is likely that some who saw themselves as pupils, and Jesus as their teacher, did make notes - this was a normal Jewish practice, but exploring that possibility is for another blog on another day.)

And it would also count for nothing to say (as some do) that the Romans kept meticulous records, and that there should be - but isn't of course - an official Roman record of (say) Jesus' trial. Such a claim would count for nothing because, of course, there is no record of anyone's trial in Jerusalem from those years. It is not as if we have the rest of the records of Jerusalem trials from which Jesus is suspiciously absent! As if! We have no trial records for anyone - not just for Jesus, but not for anyone! And the same goes for other kinds of records.

If we still had their meticulous records, we could do the obvious test - look in them, find out whether or not Jesus is mentioned in them, compare that with how other Jews of his day are mentioned in them, to see if we can draw some conclusions. But again, we can't do the test - because official records of Roman Judea of those years have not survived. As said, that is why no-one on either side of this debate ever quotes from them. Anyone who might know where such records might be found would become a millionaire from it.

Since we cannot perform those tests, we can resort to testing evidence in other comparable cases, insofar as anything is a reasonably valid comparison. We can for instance test the general claim
made by some that the miracles attributed to Jesus would have caused more or less contemporaneous independent reports to be written, within the three or so years when his ministry is said to have taken place, and that such report would have been saved somehow for posterity.

The test here is not whether or not Jesus did any miracles. The test is regarding the claim that we can just suppose that other people would have written what they heard (or saw) about it. An analogous situation where we can test that assumption is framed in this question: did contemporaries of St Paul report any of the miracles attributed to St Paul in his own day? (if we set aside the reports of them in the Book of Acts for a moment). This is really to the point. We know that St Paul went all around the Roman world talking about what God was supernaturally doing - in Paul's own words: "I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles." (2 Corinthians 12:12) So from this we know for sure that Paul was spreading news far and wide of the miracles that were happening around him. So the test is: did independent contemporaries of Paul report it? It may be surprising to some but the answer is no. We have no evidence of that - even though we know Paul was spreading word of it.  None of it seems to have made an impression on the writings of the contemporaries of Paul who were writing at the time. Not a mention of these rumours of Paul's miracles appears in non-Christian authors. These rumours were just not reaching other authors' ears or were just not believed by them or were just not relevant to what they were writing. So the result of such a test as we can perform is that we cannot assume contemporary independent reports about Jesus (within the famous three years of his ministry) should have come down to us. In this light, the absence of contemporary writers' mention of miracles by Jesus just doesn't prove a single thing, whether or not he is supposed to have performed any.

So anyone who says, "Don't you think if there were rumours of a miracle worker in the Roman empire, those people who kept meticulous records, then surely those stories would have been written down by someone?" - anyone who says that has to reflect that in the case of the known rumours of Paul's miracles, ancient authors didn't do anything of the kind. Whereas the sceptics' objection is that rumours of miracles could not possibly go uncommented upon, on the contrary we have this clear example where they precisely did go uncommented upon, in the selfsame era. That's a bare fact. Any non-mention of any rumours of miracles by Jesus (setting aside whether there were any such rumours) would belong in the same category as the non-mention of Paul's claimed miracles.

By the way, some sceptics say that the things in question were the sort of stuff reported only by irrational people who had a supernatural worldview (particularly Christians in this case) and that therefore report by Christians in particular is disqualified. That would be a misleading point to make. Every ancient writer had a supernatural worldview, Christian or non-Christian!

But to get back to the point of contemporary records: records written while noteworthy people were still active - you don't expect to find much of that kind of text. Not if you're a reasonable and well-informed reader - even a sceptic - who knows about ancient texts.

Even people who were more famous than Jesus appear in no contemporary written record, including the famous Jew Gamaliel. (Come to that, St Paul mentions first-hand that he met Peter three times - and Peter was obviously very important to the church - but there aren't any contemporary non-Christian authors who mention Peter at all in any surviving test. You just can't assume that the outside world was that interested in them. And you just can't assume that time would have preserved such texts. Most texts from the ancient world are lost anyway.) An even more famous example with no contemporary record: Hannibal was internationally famous but our first history about him was written about seven decades after his death. How about Boudicca's revolt in Britain in the first century - a major moment in the Roman history in Britain - no contemporary documents whatsoever. Not a sausage. Some left contemporary records - Julius Caesar for example - but that doesn't go for everyone in the ancient world (and he was the greatest leader of the greatest empire of his day, which means he leaves a big footprint!)! The absence of an ancient record is typical, not unusual.

In any case, the idea of Jesus being famous as a miracle worker far and wide abroad is not a claim in the Bible. In fact Acts 25:19-20 tells us of a Roman official a few decades after Jesus' life who had not heard of him.

What was lost?

What might have been in the lost records of Roman Judea? Records written on wax or clay or papyrus scrolls. Perhaps census records in Palestine, but any such are entirely lost in this period. Perhaps tax records of Jews - lost. Perhaps genealogies (family trees) of Jews? Contemporary records all lost. Of course many Jewish families would have kept their family histories by oral tradition and used writing only for practical purposes (common to do so in the ancient world), so we cannot assume genealogies would always have been written down anyway. Military or civil reports? Only posthumous records survive, nothing written at the time these famous events were happening. 

Of course two genealogies for Jesus are preserved in the gospels of Matthew and Luke but we don't know when these were first written, and there are issues with how much they are literal and how much symbolic anyway.

The truth about ancient records

I hear the funniest things said. Some say that Jesus would have been mentioned in newspapers, but there were no newspapers in those days in Judea to the best of our knowledge, and not to be confused with the Acta Diurna which was probably restricted to reporting events in and around Rome (see page of 155 in "Ancient Rome's Daily News Publication With Some Likely Implications For Early Christian Studies," Tyndale Bulletin 67.1 (2016): 145-160). (If the Acta Diurna included notices of events in the wider empire, then a library copy of the Acts Diurna could have been Tacitus' source for his comments on what the Romans did to Christ. However, Rome's Acts Diurna have not survived and so there would be no way to evidence this.) Some say that Jesus' exploits in his three years of ministry would be internationally famous and recorded within those three years, if he was real. But you don't find them saying that about anyone else who was a semi-public figure in Judea for a mere three years! In any case, what sceptics should be trying to assess is the credibility of Jesus' public profile in the gospel-version of Jesus and here's the thing: anyone reading the gospels finds that Jesus spent most of those three years shunning publicity, telling people to keep quiet about him, mainly staying rural. If that is the Judean persona whom sceptics want contemporary records for, they should consider how reasonable that ask is! The real question is what evidence would you expect of such a person anyway? And how much can really be deduced from none existing when, perhaps, none would be expected?

What about statues?

People ask why no statues of Jesus from those three years? Two reasons: Jews didn't do graven images, and that's that really; but also, the Jesus of the gospels didn't hold public office anyway. We're dealing with a life story that says that even when an instruction was issued to put 'King of the Jews' on his death cross, protestors argued it should say instead only that 'He claimed to be king of the Jews'. He never held office. Seriously, who on earth would possibly make a statue of him? His Jewish followers would object as a matter of religious principle and no-one else would care.

What about authors who were alive and writing at the time of Christ?

You see a lot of nonsense written - or rather copied and pasted - about ancient people who supposedly should have written about Jesus if they had heard of him. I have been through a lengthy list of the same - a list produced by John E. Remsburg - and on that list have found only six who could feasibly, possibly have been writing at the time of Jesus' public ministry - 30-33AD - and they don't amount to much of a case. These are the six:

  • Columella – wrote about agriculture, which is his eligibility for the list gone!
  • Florus Lucius wrote a dodgy history of Rome that ends before Christ was a public figure. That’s his eligibility gone. 
  • Paterculus – possibly died too soon to have heard of Christ. He wrote a Roman history ending before Christ was a public figure.
  • Philo – lived in Alexandria in Egypt. To quote Bart Ehrman: "“We do have the writings of the important Jewish philosopher Philo from the early to mid-first century. He never mentions Jesus, but we would not expect him to do so, as Christianity had probably not reached his native Alexandria by the time of his death in 50 CE." (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, pg 57.)
  • Seneca – born in Spain in 4BC and raised in Rome. His more famous work is on philosophy and plays for the theatre. He didn’t write on our topic, and it is not thought that he was a published author until after the time of Christ.
  • Valerius Maximus – his work mainly mentions famous Romans. It may well have been published before Christ was a public figure anyway. He barely merits a place in this six. 

And that's the lot. If you see other names on such a list of ancient people who supposedly 'should have mentioned Christ', you can be sure that they were living and writing after the time of Christ. And you can find out more about all these writers in my blog here.

The fact that these six far-flung writers of Jesus' time don't mention this Jewish teacher isn't a reflection on Jesus, it's a reflection on what they were writing and when they were publishing it. It certainly isn't sensible to try to argue that Jesus should have figured in their books during the years 30-33AD. You can't prove anything about Jesus - for or against his existence - from this.

Piecing history together

As mentioned, because of the war and the destruction of Jerusalem, contemporary written records of Jesus or most of his contemporary Jews in Jerusalem don't survive before AD 70, just archaeology. This doesn't mean that no Jews existed in Jerusalem in the first century before 70AD. A precious few tell us about themselves. Paul writing in the 50s tells us he visited Jerusalem, as did a Jew called Philo who lived and wrote in Egypt and died some time after 40AD (but who gives very little biography about himself sadly). Josephus too was in Jerusalem - after Christ - I will come to him.

With a story like this to critique, of a man in a Judean backwater who was elusive for much of his three years - and Jerusalem's records destroyed in a war in 70AD - where is evidence going to come from? But the historian  piecing together the first century history of Judea can’t give up without a fight. There is evidence. Because away from Jerusalem, here and there, other people put pen to paper and preserved posthumous memories about those people, information that was not lost in the devastation of 70AD. While all Jerusalem's original records are lost, the records written in places further away are not.  

Some of these accounts about Jewish people of the first century were written down on the late side. For instance, when Jews tell us the sayings of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Meir, they rely heavily on versions that were written a couple of hundred years later by other rabbis. But some historical sources are earlier.

The Jewish historian Josephus lived in the first century, and there are three passages in his histories that are of particular interest.

The Dead Sea Scrolls (preserved in fragments in jars in arid caves) are a goldmine for understanding how Jews thought in the centuries before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, But they are mainly about the world before Christ. They don’t mention Jesus but they are useful for reconstructing the world of that era.

Of all the records written further away from Jerusalem by Jews, the earliest of all relating to Jesus are the words of the Jew whom Christians call Saint Paul, the younger contemporary of Jesus - even knowing Jerusalem where Jesus is said to have died. This is the earliest of the posthumous accounts of Jesus. Of course, what you are expecting is for me to lay out the evidence that this Jesus did actually exist.  

This blog series is a data-gathering exercise, starting from the ground up. So, like any sceptical historian, it is good to go for our earliest source - Paul - as a priority, even though he is a 'secondary source' about Jesus.

Did Jesus Really Exist? 1. A little introduction
You are here - Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive?
Did Jesus Exist? 2b. Were ancient authors silent about Jesus' existence?
Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?
Did Jesus Exist? 2d. What about these authors then, Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny?
Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus?
Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus?
Did Jesus Exist? 3c. Did Peter and Paul talk about Jesus?
So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)
Did Jesus Exist? 4a. So then: what about the people who were interested in Jesus before Paul was?
Did Jesus Exist? 4b. What did people know about the life story of Jesus before Paul came on the scene?
Did Jesus Exist? 5. Did Paul invent Jesus?

Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus?

Paul’s personal letters give us what historians love best – first-hand eyewitness accounts of events of interest to us. He saw some of the first Christians. But we don’t know that he ever saw Jesus before Jesus died. For that reason, historians call Paul a 'secondary source' when he is talking about Jesus, and a 'primary source' when talking about people he says he met. Secondary sources are a historian's bread and butter, along with primary sources. In this case, Paul met people reputed to be eyewitnesses of Jesus and he names some of them in his first-hand accounts.

First-hand autobiographical anecdotes are witness evidence. The historian assesses Paul's competence and credibility to say what he says as a primary witness of events in the early church in the 30s of the first century. And assessing Paul as a secondary source for the life of Jesus involves our assessing Paul's use of information he gets from people whom he would take to be eyewitnesses of his contemporary Jesus, if Jesus existed. So, for example, when Paul indicates that Jesus died in Judea, is Paul competent and credible in saying that?

I need to be clear what my subject is here. As Paul writes about both a pre-resurrection Jesus on earth and a post-resurrection Jesus in heaven, I want to be clear that this blog is gathering data on the former: i.e. what Paul says about a pre-resurrection Jesus, a man on earth.

As usual for these blogs, I’m using only a few of Paul’s letters, from seven letters that to secular scholars are authentic, written about 20 years after Jesus by a man who knew some of Jesus' friends and family. It should be possible to establish things that are common ground. This is not about them being in the Bible: these personal letters were 'outside the Bible' when Paul wrote them. I am also not trying to use Paul’s letters to prove that the gospels are true – I am just gathering data from Paul’s letters alone which we can then assess. And these blogs are not about proving that Jesus was the ‘son of God’ or anything like that – they are just about seeing what data can be gathered about there being a Jewish man – Jesus – at the start of the Jesus movements. That’s the task: to assess whether this man Jesus existed.

Paul: a contemporary of Jesus?

A contemporary of Jesus, who wrote about Jesus, Paul gives away a lot in his letters. He was around at the same time that Jesus is supposed to have been around. That is, he was active in Jewish religion as an adult in the 30s of the first century (and he wrote about it in the 50s in his personal letters). We can calculate the dates from Paul's autobiographical statements
 about when he visited Jerusalem. So if Jesus existed - which is what this series of blogs is investigating - then we have information about him by one of his contemporaries.

Paul: independent?

And not just a contemporary, but one who was initially on the opposing side from Jesus' followers. 
Paul was the first to write as a (former) non-Christian who had heard of Jesus. Paul was not just going along with whatever he was told by followers of Jesus, because at first he was persecuting them, not lapping up their every word. He had an independent opinion of Jesus, the opinion of a non-follower: he regarded Jesus with the eyes of an outsider, not the eyes of faith at first. He was sceptical of the claims of followers of Jesus, if not downright hostile to them. He never forgot that; so he wrote, "At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now!" (2 Corinthians 5:16). The change in Paul's point of view came when he converted to following Jesus, but he never lost his own independent spirit, as can be seen in the letters he wrote, letters accepted as authentic by scholars on all sides, secular scholars, Jewish scholars, Christian scholars. (Read Galatians 1-2 for example.) Later, I will say something below about the 'hearsay' question that is sometimes raised about Paul's knowledge of Jesus.

Data about Jesus in Paul's letters

Paul tells us some things about Jesus’ life story. You can tell right away that Paul regarded Jesus as a fellow Jew for a start.

Without further ado, here are some of those things:

Genealogy and birth

             Jesus was an Israelite and he was descended from the family of King David (Romans 1:3).

             Jesus arrived ‘out of a woman’ (Gal 4:4), so was undoubtedly a human with a mother as far as Paul was concerned! (It's a funny phrase to modern ears. The nearest thing is what is said of John the Baptist being best of those 'born of women' - Luke 7:28. Nothing so much as humanity is revealed in this being said of John the Baptist and Jesus.)

Family and upbringing

             Jesus was born into a family of observant Jews (that is clear because he was born under the Jewish law, which Jews call the Torah)[1] (Galatians 4:4).

             In his biological family, Jesus had a brother named James (Gal 1:19), and he had other brothers (who had wives – 1 Corinthians 9:5).[2]

             Jesus’ life was in the first half of the first century.

o             Paul was writing in the 50s of the first century (the date is calculated from dating information in Paul's letters), and Jesus' brothers were adults with wives and clearly still alive in the 50s: this means Jesus' life can be dated to the first half of the first century.

Jesus’ ministry

             Jesus had a ministry specifically to Israelites (Romans 15:8 - see in a follow-on blog). To be clear, this is a human Jesus ministering to fellow Israelites as a member of their race: "To them [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Messiah" (Romans 9:5). So Jesus was of the Israelite race, the race of their most respected forefathers, and Jesus was the Israelite Messiah.

Jesus’ Passion Week (the last week of his life)

             Jesus spent time in the land of the Judeans, homeland of Israelites, and this is where he died (1 Thessalonians 2:15).

             Jesus was betrayed at night-time, during a gathering which extended from before supper till after supper, at which Jesus handled some of the food and a cup (1 Cor 11:23-26).

             Some people of Judea caused Jesus’ death (1 Thess 2:15): “You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches [in Judea] suffered from the Judeans, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.” –

o             That’s a bit of a scrapbook of incidents – the sufferings in Judea of churches and Jesus and Paul and his friends, as well as ancient prophets who Paul drags into the subject!

             Jesus’ death was by crucifixion (1 Cor 2:8), which means the execution was carried out by the Romans (Paul would have known that it was the Romans, not Jews, who practised crucifixion in Judea). 

             His death was no later than the 30s of the first century. (The date is calculated from dating information in Paul's letters.)

             Jesus’ body was buried (1 Cor 15:4).
More information from Paul about this Jesus is in a follow-on blog. It covers questions such as what Paul knew know about Jesus' personality, Jesus' teachings, that Jesus had a ministry, that Jesus had disciples. (Glen Miller argues a longer list of interesting examples here)

I’ll stop there for the moment. The sceptical historian already has plenty to interest him or her. Things about the post-resurrection Jesus in heaven are another story, albeit they are what some people are more interested in!

Let's look again at 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. It's interesting for how it places Jesus on earth before his death. Now some people would say Paul was told this by other Christians, and some people would say he was told this in a vision. Either way, this text proves that Paul believed Jesus was alive on earth in the past. The passage breaks down like this:
  • "The Lord Jesus, on the night
  • he was betrayed,
  • took bread,
  • and when he had given thanks,
  • he broke it
  • and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way,
  • after supper
  • he took the cup,
  • saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Notice simple telling features in this, simple things so ordinary that it is easy to miss them. Here it is again, this time with notes:
  • "The Lord Jesus, on the night - it was night, so it was on earth, the place where there is night and day
  • he was betrayed, - so it was on earth, that night, that someone betrayed Jesus
  • took bread, - Jesus handled an ordinary physical object on earth that night
  • and when he had given thanks,
  • he broke it - Jesus broke an ordinary physical object on earth that night
  • and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way,
  • after supper - so the above events were before supper and now it is after supper, he was at a meal being eaten on earth that night
  • he took the cup, - Jesus handled another ordinary physical object on earth that night
  • saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

So, however it is that Paul believed that he came by this information (and see Appendix below), he believed this information, and so he believed Jesus lived on earth. And he believed that Jesus was betrayed and that he died in Judea, the homeland of the Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:15). 

My point in going through the scenario of "the last supper" is not to prove that Jesus did these things, but to prove that Paul believed these things: as far as Paul was concerned, Jesus had a human history on earth prior to his death. So I'm not convinced by those who have said that Paul didn't believe Jesus had a history on earth.

(Paul calls this a tradition he received ‘from the Lord’ (see Appendix below), but it is hard to know what to make of him saying that, given that it is not a saying unique to Paul. Mark 14:22-24 has the same story, but could easily have been written down long before Paul wrote his letter. That is, Mark chapters 11-16 could have been written decades earlier even than the rest of Mark’s gospel. Strong arguments have been made that show chapters 11-16 as a distinct text that was written in the early 40s for reading in churches. See Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ, pages 81-90.)

Is it right to treat Paul's words as evidence?

As mentioned, I’m using only a few of the letters Paul wrote, ones accepted by secular scholars as authentic, written by Paul round about the 50s of the first century (my my blog on dates is here):

  • a letter to the church in Rome (called Romans)
  • another to the church in Galatia (Galatians)
  • another to the church in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians) and
  • others to the church in Corinth (Corinthians).


These letters were written by Paul in the 50s of the first century AD. As we shall see, he was getting information about Jesus from people in Judea in the 30s, which was the decade of Jesus' death. What he learned from others about Jesus from the 30s onwards, he wrote down in the 50s.

No serious historian can afford to ignore Paul’s evidence.

Don’t be thrown off course by the fact of these letters being found in the Bible: that is, that some Christians later, people whom Paul never met, decided to collect Paul’s letters and put them in the Bible. This fact bothers some people, who think someone sat down and wrote the Bible as a book of propaganda to give the church power: actually the Bible is a collection of letters and books.

When Paul wrote them, they were his personal letters, the letters of someone who was not very powerful at all. At the time he wrote them, these letters were 'outside the Bible'.

The historian reads them as historical letters from the 50s of the first century, and assesses the credibility of Paul as a first-hand witness about the Christians he met, and as a secondary source for his information on Jesus. That's the job of a historian.

How close was Paul to events?

So, Paul had all of the above information about the life story of Jesus. That seems pretty good at first sight. But hold on: how close was Paul to events? How could he know these things? For a start, how close in time was he to the Jesus he wrote about? I've already mentioned that information Paul gives about Jesus' brothers and their wives dates the life of Jesus to the first half of the first century. I've blogged on how Paul's autobiographical letters hand really useful dating evidence to us
, and from these we can work out that these letters can only have been written between the 30s and the mid-60s of the first century at the latest. Conservatively, the evidence points to the later side. That is, he wrote down these things in the 50s. The same dating evidence (at the link above) tells us that Jesus would have died in the 30s at the latest. So, Paul was writing about 20 years after Jesus is said to have died in the 30s. That's not really such a long time. You might be able to remember what your favourite football team was doing 20 years ago, for example: not every detail but the things that are most important to you. And you wouldn't say that no-one who played in your favourite football team 20 years ago is qualified to recall it. Or you might be able to remember where you went on holiday twenty years ago, or who your friends at school and work were.

We can narrow down how close Paul was to events. This is because we have his autobiographical first-hand eyewitness information about events after Jesus is said to have died, events of the 30s and 40s that he witnessed. From this, we discover that Paul was getting information about Jesus in the 30s (See in the link above). And we assess what Paul says just the way we would any other ancient historical witness.

Getting closer to the Jesus people spoke of

So, one of the findings in Paul’s autobiographical account is that others had a church life related to Jesus before he himself did. This proves to be very important. He knew these people even before he was a believer himself. In fact, he had been harming them when he didn’t share their beliefs. He reveals that this was in the 30s (again, Paul's dating evidence is at the link above).

So a crucial question is what did those people believe? I mean Paul's victims in the 30s whose lives had something to do with Jesus, and had done before Paul ever showed up at their door.

Their information gets us closer to Jesus, if he existed, because they were interested in him before Paul was. Anything we can find out about their beliefs about Jesus is worth its weight in gold. Why? Because what they thought about Jesus gets us closer to the heart of the matter. That is the subject of the next blog in this series. (A link is at the bottom of this page.)
Do we believe Paul?We assess Paul’s competence and credibility to say the things he says just the same as we do for any other ancient witness to anything. The things he says about the pre-resurrection Jesus (see above) are not really strange. For example, indicating that Jesus was a Jew is not strange. Paul was a fellow Jew, a contemporary, who spent time in Jerusalem. He knows what a Jew is. He is competent and credible in saying that Jesus is a Jew.
Likewise, indicating that Jesus died in Judea and was buried is not at all a strange thing to say. And again, Paul is a competent and credible witness to this. You get the idea, and can go through the list of information above yourself if you wish.
What about his sources? Were Paul’s sources of information credible? Well, Paul says that he met Jesus’ brother twice, and Peter three times (Galatians 1-2). He says he spent 15 days with Peter to get to know him. There is no reason to think that these are not credible sources of information about Jesus. And if Paul was getting his information wrong, these repeated encounters gave opportunity for Paul to be called out for it.

I’ve written more about what Paul and Peter discussed here. I’m keeping this short – blog length – and encourage readers to go to academic books to check these things out for yourselves. By the way, some people think Paul's only source of information was 'visions' and 'revelations' but Paul doesn't actually say so: see the appendix below for more on that.
Isn't what Paul says about Jesus just hearsay?

'Hearsay' is repeating what someone else says. Paul here is repeating what someone else says about Jesus. A historian normally uses the term 'secondary source' or 'secondary witness', not 'hearsay', to talk about this kind of thing. The point is that it is a form of evidence that can be useful: you don't just throw it away in the historical method. Secondary sources are a historian's bread and butter, as well as primary sources. You test secondary evidence, decide which bits of it are usable. It is like in English civil courts, where 'hearsay' is actually admissible in evidence - it is used to help decide court cases. The civil courts have specially designed tests so that 'hearsay' can be used, so that the truth can be determined 'on the balance of probabilities'. The historical method is a bit like that. I'll say more about this in a blog about evidence and analysis and the historical method. In short, Paul's evidence about the historical Jesus is useful secondary evidence if it is carefully used. It can be compared with other sources, and Paul's credibility as a witness can be tested, as can the credibility of his sources.
Did Paul mean what he says about Jesus?

Some say that Paul didn't believe that Jesus ever lived as a man, as a historical figure. These people are known as 'mythicists', because they believe that Paul really thought of Jesus as a myth: mythicists say that Paul's Jesus was only a god-figure who only ever had been thought of as being in a place in the sky, like in mythological tales. In the view of these people, what Paul really means is this: when Paul says that Jesus was an Israelite who was descended from the family of King David, Paul means that Jesus wasn't really. When Paul indicates that Jesus was born into a family of observant Jews, Paul means that he wasn't really. When Paul says Jesus was ‘born of a woman’, he means he wasn't really. When Paul says Jesus had a brother named James and other brothers who had wives in his family, Paul means that Jesus had a spiritual association but didn't have any real brothers of any kind. When he indicates that Jesus spent time in the land of the Judeans, the homeland of the Jews, and this is where he died, Paul means he didn't really. Etc.
So when Paul indicates that Jesus’ death was by Roman crucifixion, he means it wasn't really. And when Paul says Jesus’ body was buried, he means it wasn't really. The mythicists claim that what Paul really meant is that these were just tales he made up for telling in church meetings to make them feel like theatrical religious occasions. Mythicists say that Paul didn't mean any of it. That, I say in response, is just standing the text on its head. All these things Paul says are brief, terse little comments found in isolation, and Paul doesn't embellish them with any fancy flourishes. It is difficult to doubt that Paul means what he says when he writes about...
“... the same things those churches [in Judea] suffered from the Judeans, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.” (1 Thess 2:15) This is gritty reality to Paul, not a flight of fancy.
Another obvious reason for not taking this all to be a supposed religious drama play (!) by Paul, is that Paul indicates that others' believed these things before he did. That is what the next blog is about.

I'll say more about mythicists' theories in a future blog, not least the fact that no such theatrical dramas existed of this kind at all in Paul's day!

Some ask, Why didn’t Paul say more about Jesus? - there is a blog about that question here, which also reveals some more things that Paul says about Jesus. (The content at that link used to be in this blog, but I’ve split it into two blogs because this blog was getting too long!)

Appendix 1: Paul's 'revelations'

Something that gets a lot of attention from mythicists is this: in Galatians, Paul said that he received his 'gospel' message by a revelation direct from God. But what did he mean by that, and did he have any other sources of information? The answer to that question is now at this link.

Appendix 2: Paul's existence
And a 'ps' since there are some who ask how we even know that Paul existed. The obvious answer is that we have several of his letters, full of telling autobiographical data, evidence of a life lived. Seven of the letters are recognised as authentic by secular scholars. In the first century of Christianity, other authors mention Paul too. Apart from Luke's Book of Acts, which provides eyewitness report of Paul at work: 1 Clement (about 95AD) reminds the church in Corinth of when Paul wrote a letter to them (1 Clement 47:1-3). Ignatius (about 110AD) mentions Paul too (Ign. Ephesians 12:2). Polycarp (also about 110AD) reminds the church in Philippi that Paul wrote a letter to them (Polycarp 3:2, 9:1, 11:3). Paul existed.

[1] Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity,  Part 3, pages 1, 57.