1. It is impossible to explain why Christianity would shift from worshipping a mythical Christ to preaching an historical Christ. Suppose the shift was the result of a deliberate conspiracy. Why would the conspirators open their message to refutation in this way? And why invent a crucified messiah when the very notion seemed risible to the Hellenists and blasphemous to the rabbis? Suppose the shift was accidental. How could the first Christians forget that a man called Jesus was not born during the troubled years that surrounded the death of Herod the Great? How could they forget that he was not crucified by a notorious prefect named Pilate?
2. Given that the Roman and Jewish elites had access to many documents and records from early Palestine which are now lost to us; and given that these elites opposed Christianity; and given that the early Christians claimed to follow an historical figure; why did these elites never point out that Jesus doesn’t appear in their records? That would have ended the growth of Christianity. But Christian apologists never had to argue against the thesis that Jesus never existed[iii]. In fact, there does not even seem to have been a rumour that Jesus had not lived and died in Palestine! It was accepted by sceptical pagan and Jewish opponents that Jesus had existed. (For example, when Tryphon expressed doubts that God would send a Messiah to Israel, he did not express doubts about the existence of Jesus).
3. The letters of Paul – probably the earliest Christian documents, written during the first three decades of the Church – assume an historical Christ. In his earliest letter Paul mentions that he met James, the brother of the Lord. In a parenthetical remark in 1 Thessalonians 2 v 15-16, Paul refers to Jesus execution by the Jewish people.
Paul also notes that Jesus, like any other Jew, could claim to be descended from Abraham1 Corinthians 15 refers to Jesus’ death and burial and 1 Corinthians 11 describes how Jesus instituted the last supper before his death. Paul’s teaching on love and judging reflects Jesus’ and Paul’s views on eschatology parallel Jesus’. True, he does not mention the parables or miracles of Jesus; but neither does the book of Acts, which has the same author as the gospel of Luke.
4. Tacitus quite clearly affirmed that “Christ suffered the extreme penalty under Pontius Pilate” (Ann. 15.44.3.) It is logically possible that Tacitus uncritically copied a Christian source at this point; but it is also logically possible that America faked the moon landings. We are interested in what is plausible. Tacitus was quite capable of distinguishing rumour from a solid source. Furthermore, he refers to Christianity as a “mischievous superstition” growing in a city “where all things hideous and hateful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular”. It is unlikely that he took any Christian claim at face value.
Nor is it likely that a later Christian scribe inserted the passage, given that he would not want to promote the view that Christianity was a “superstition”. Furthermore, Rome became an important city in the Christian world; it is unlikely that Christians would describe it as the source of all anti-social activity!
5. We should also take Josephus seriously in Ant 20.200, when he refers to the stoning of “James, the brother of Jesus who is called Christ”. By this stage, Christians used “Christ” as a proper name, not a title. “Who is called” does not imply faith – it merely distinguishes this Jesus from the many others who shared the name. The passage shows little interest in Jesus, or even in James’ theology. And it refers to a time when Josephus was actually in Jerusalem.
6. The ‘silence’ of other non-Christian sources on Jesus of Nazareth proves nothing of consequence. Paul was a significant figure for the first Christians; Rabbi Hillel was an important authority for Pharisees. Josephus mentions neither man. Is this evidence of their non-existence? The sources do not mention Stephen, Peter or James, all of whom reputedly either witnessed or performed remarkable miracles. But everyone agrees that they existed. Indeed, most of the authors on the list do not mention the first Christian community in Jersualem at all! Are we to infer that the first Christians did not exist?
Some of the authors that critics expect to mention Jesus are historians who did not write about the relevant place or period; others are philosophers and rhetoricians with no interest in either history or a religion they would have considered foreign and superstitious.
7. The Gospels use Old Testament texts to understand the life of Jesus. However, this does not mean that an early Christian reading of the Old Testament gave rise to the myth of Jesus! The Old Testament gave meaning to events which were shocking and surprising to first century Jews. Consider Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 on the cross; or how Luke uses Isaiah 53 v2 “He was numbered among the transgressors” to explain why Jesus was executed with common criminals. These texts show events in a new light. This new way of interpreting the Old Testament presupposes historical events which had to be interpreted!
8. Some pop historians believe that they have spotted parallels to the life of Jesus in pagan myths. However, on closer examination, these parallels turn out to be myths. Each of the four gospel writers goes to great lengths to give us precise geographical and historical markers for the life and times of Jesus. Greek heroes by contrast, are universal; timeless figures transcending ordinary time and place. Jesus, however, is “Jesus from Nazareth” a small village we know was situated to the far north of Judea in Galilee. He is firmly placed in his historical setting, a Galilean Jew, born around the beginning of the first century (between 6 and 4 BC) and dying between 30 and 36 AD in Judea, under the orders of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who held office from 26-36 AD.
Luke and Matthew both include precise, detailed genealogies, emphasising his human lineage, and anchoring him absolutely in his Jewish, Palestinian historical context. Luke 3:23 states that Jesus “was about thirty years old” at the start of his ministry, which according to Acts 10:37 & 38 was preceded by John’s ministry, itself recorded by Luke ( 3:1) to have begun in the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign (28 or 29 AD). There is nothing ambiguous or transcendent about these details: Jesus was a real man who lived and died in real history.
Judaism, from which Christianity takes its theological roots, was, (and still is), a fiercely monotheistic religion. It has clung tenaciously, nearly always in the face of wide-spread cultural opposition, to the idea of there being “one God and one God only”. This fierce monotheism encapsulates the monotheistic essence of Judaism, lying central to its identity and self understanding; “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” being the twice daily Shema, the call to worship that has shaped the devotional life of observant Jews down through the centuries. The Greek myths, on the other hand, are unashamedly polytheistic; they contain stories of multiple gods, from Mithras, Attis, and Orpheus, Greco-Roman deities, to the mystery cult deities of Dionysus and Osiris. No observant Jew would have had entertained for a moment the Greco-Roman polytheism inherent in these myths. To think that they would have, is both theologically and historically inconceivable, and betrays a mind unschooled in both history and theology.