Ancient critics disputed a knowable historical Jesus

Detail of a Third Century mystery cult mosaic from Antioch

Detail of a Third Century mystery cult mosaic from Antioch, click to enlarge

Last year, about one in five English adults surveyed thought the better description of their beliefs about Jesus was a “fictional or mythological character” instead of a “real person who actually lived.” Nearly as many answered that they “don’t know.” Christian groups commissioned this poll, which had 2,545 demographically representative participants.

Reacting to the survey result, James Carleton Paget, a senior lecturer in New Testament Studies at Cambridge University, commented “The argument that Jesus never existed, …was not one that the enemies of Christianity in the ancient world ever used.” Some non-academic apologists agree.

In the earliest surviving scholarly confrontations with Christianity, critics complained vigorously against the unreliability of even natural facts alleged about Jesus. The depth and breadth of ancients’ complaints warranted doubts about Jesus’ existence. However, personal doubt is not an argument. Arguments premised on definite non-existence would be ineffective without proof. It is unsurprising that aimless self-observations and doomed arguments aren’t found in early counterapologies.

Ancient arguments against Christian histories

Ancient people didn’t uncritically accept everything they read. The earliest surviving lengthy scholarly counterapology, the True Word of Celsus, dates from about 177 CE, or more than a century after Jerusalem was sacked. It survives only in Origen’s quotes of it in his Against Celsus of about 248 CE. Here Origen speaks in his own voice about the difficulties of discerning what is reliable in a history:

Against Celsus, I.42: … the endeavor to show, with regard to almost any history, however true, that it actually occurred, …is one of the most difficult undertakings that can be attempted, and is in some instances an impossibility. ..

Origen wrote elsewhere that these general difficulties applied specifically to the Gospels and that it might be consciously entertained that all available information about Jesus may be untrustworthy.

Commentary on the Gospel of John, X.2: There are many other points on which the careful student of the Gospels will find that their narratives do not agree…The student, staggered at the consideration of these things, will either renounce the attempt to find all the Gospels true, and not venturing to conclude that all our information about our Lord is untrustworthy, will choose at random one of them to be his guide; or he will accept the four, and will consider that their truth is not to be sought for in the outward and material letter.

Despite Christians’ obvious reliance on the quasi-historical scriptures, both Jewish and their own, some critics flatly disputed that Christian faith was based on evidence. For example, Lucian of Samosata had a laugh at the expense of what he saw as the credulity of Christians in his Passing of Peregrinus, written in about 170 CE. Along the way, he observes that Christians lack any evidence for their doctrines attributed to a crucified first lawgiver, but instead rely on traditions about his teaching.

Passing of Peregrinus 13: …The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal … Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once and for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws… receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence.

Theophilus of Antioch, a Christian apologist writing around 185 CE, attests to criticisms of the evidentiary foundation and inherent implausibility of his beliefs.

To Autolycus III.4: …But further, they say that our doctrine has but recently come to light, and that we have nothing to allege in proof of what we receive as truth, nor of our teaching, but that our doctrine is foolishness…

Galen the physician, writing around the same time, made some brief remarks about Christian and Jewish reliance on faith, signs or miracles rather than more rigorous proof. Those are discussed here.

One way to attack testimony is to point to incompatible testimony offered by others who may be equally well situated to know the facts. Origen reports that alternative testimony was mentioned by Celsus writing in the voice of a presumed-to-be fictitious Jewish character.

Against Celsus, II.13 : … “Although he could state many things regarding the events of the life of Jesus which are true, and not like those which are recorded by the disciples, he willingly omits them.” What, then, are those true statements, unlike the accounts in the Gospels, which the Jew of Celsus passes by without mention?

Origen might ask the same of Paul of Tarsus, who wrote about others who preached a “different Jesus” or hold a “different gospel” than his in the very earliest surviving Christian literature. There really were distinct Jewish Talmudic stories about Jesus dated to around Celsus’ time, as discussed here.

False in one thing, …

Very often counterapologists characterized parts of the Christian narrative as either inventions or as descriptions of something fraudulently enacted in the first place. Here are some remarks by Origen, criticizing Celsus for believing pagan myths while disbelieving Christian miracle stories.

Against Celsus, III.27 : …How is it possible that, while supposing the marvels related by the disciples of Jesus regarding their Master to be wholly fictitious, and finding fault with those who believe them, you, O Celsus, do not regard these stories of yours to be either products of jugglery or inventions? And how, while charging others with an irrational belief in the marvels recorded of Jesus, can you show yourself justified in giving credence to such statement as the above, without producing some proof or evidence of the alleged occurrences having taken place? Or do Herodotus and Pindar appear to you to speak the truth, while they who have made it their concern to die for the doctrine of Jesus, and who have left to their successors writings so remarkable on the truths which they believed, entered for the sake of “fictions” (as you consider them), and “myths,” and “juggleries,” upon a struggle …? …

Origen wrote similarly at VIII.45, renewing this rebuttal when Celsus repeated this theme.

Macarius Magnes’ “Greek” disputes at least two Gospel incidents, one natural (the crucifixion) and one miraculous (when Jesus evicted demons into swine). Macarius’ work, entitled Apocriticus. is difficult to date, but is generally placed in the Fourth Century after 325. Since the “Greek” is unidentified, how much earlier he wrote (if he was a real person) cannot be determined.

Apocriticus, II:13: (speaking of John’s claim that he knew a witness to the crucifixion) For how is the witness true when its object has no existence? For a man witnesses to something real; but how can witness be spoken of concerning a thing which is not real?

Apocriticus, III: 4: (demons and swine) And if we would speak of this record likewise, it will appear to be really a piece of knavish nonsense, … What a myth ! What humbug ! What flat mockery ! … Wherefore, according to my judgment, the record contained in this narrative is a fiction. Once more, if you regard it as not fiction, but bearing some relation to truth, there is really plenty to laugh at… It may be left to babes to make a decision about all this.”

Anti-Christian writings by the Emperor Julian are dated to his short reign, 361-363 CE. The first book and other fragments of his Against the Galileans survive in the rebuttal Against Julian by Cyril of Alexandria, written in the first half of the Fifth Century. Here, Julian disputes the legendary but in principle natural genealogies, with the clear suggestion that they are not alone in being unreliable:

Against the Galileans, I: …For though in your genealogies you trace Joseph back to Judah, you could not invent even this plausibly. For Matthew and Luke are refuted by the fact that they disagree concerning his genealogy…

Sometimes counterapologists attacked either specific incidents or the records of Jesus more broadly by imputing bad faith to the writers and their sources. Here are Macarius’ Greek and Julian.

Apocriticus, III.5: … He says, “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” … Wherefore it seems to me that these cannot be the words of Christ, if indeed He handed down the rule of truth, but of some poor men who wished, as a result of such vain talking, to deprive the rich of their substance…

Against the Galileans, Book I: It is, I think, expedient to set forth to all mankind the reasons by which I was convinced that the fabrication of the Galileans is a fiction of men composed by wickedness. Though it has in it nothing divine, by making full use of that part of the soul which loves fable and is childish and foolish, it has induced men to believe that the monstrous tale is truth…

Eusebius recorded similar arguments made by Sossianus Hierocles around 303 CE. Hierocles is a candidate for being Macarius’ unidentified “Greek” character.

Against Hierocles II: … “… the tales of Jesus have been vamped up by Peter and Paul and a few others of the kind, men who were liars and devoid of education and wizards, …”

Unsurprisingly, apologists stood up for the good faith of the earliest Christian witnesses. In this case, though, Origen tells us that factual accuracy wasn’t always their priority.

Commentary on John’s Gospel X, 4: I do not condemn them [the four Evangelists] if they even sometimes dealt freely with things which to the eye of history happened differently, and changed them so as to subserve the mystical aims they had in view; …They proposed to speak the truth where it was possible both materially and spiritually, and where this was not possible it was their intention to prefer the spiritual to the material. The spiritual truth was often preserved, as one might say, in the material falsehood…

… Suspicious or worse in all

These attacks on specific sources or facts alleged about Jesus were not calls to remove isolated blemishes from Christian teaching, but to reject it whole. Ancient writers and their audiences were familiar with the heuristic “False in one thing, suspicious in all.” The strongest form of the idea (“…false in all,” one strike and you’re out), is found in the Jewish Bible criterion for true prophets.

In the early Christian era, there was direct support from both sides for applying forms of the heuristic to the problem of assessing the overall reliability of historical teachings about Jesus. We have already seen Origen noting the possible conclusion that “all our information about our Lord is untrustworthy.”

Apocriticus, II.12: But he [the Greek] with bitterness, and with very grim look, bent forward and declared to us yet more savagely that the Evangelists were inventors and not historians of the events concerning Jesus…if these men were not able to tell the manner of his death in a truthful way, and simply repeated it by rote, neither did they leave any clear record concerning the rest of the narrative.

Apocriticus, III.6 Come, let us unfold for you another saying from the Gospel which is absurdly written without any credibility, and has a still more absurd narrative attached to it… …From such childish records we know the Gospel to be a sort of cunningly woven curtain. Wherefore we investigate each point the more carefully.

Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Pagans III.57 (about 305 CE): You do not believe our writings, and we do not believe yours. We devise falsehoods concerning Christ, you say; and you put forth baseless and false statements concerning your gods …

Eusebius, Proof of the Gospels, III.5 (about 311 CE) … I think then it has been well said: “One must put complete confidence in the disciples of Jesus, or none at all.”

Disbelief in a knowable historical Jesus and rhetorical tactics

Having grounds to discount severely so much of what was alleged about Jesus plausibly eroded full confidence that he really existed. That is, general uncertainty about the body of facts entails uncertainty about whether there were any facts.

Here is a modern illustration. In his 1927 essay, “Why I am not a Christian,” Bertrand Russell described his disbelief in a knowable historical Jesus this way,

Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about him…

Russell’s harsh judgment of what we know about Jesus is disputable, but if granted to be his estimate, then his doubt about Jesus’ existence is predictable and needs no further explanation. “We do not know anything historically about Jesus, but I have no doubt he existed” would call for an explanation.

However, “We don’t know anything historically about Jesus, so he didn’t exist” is both an obvious fallacy and a wretched argument. “I have my doubts that Jesus existed” isn’t an argument at all. Disbelief in a knowable historical Jesus falls short of a finding that Jesus definitely didn’t exist.

Such a finding cannot be rhetorically useful unless it could be supported by historical knowledge about what lay behind the Jesus stories, which is what Russell lacks. As the ancient Christian rhetorician Arnobius of Sicca wrote of a different opinion-driven dispute around 305 CE,

Against the Pagans IV: 19. …By what proof, by what evidence, will it be shown? For since both parties are men, both those who have said the one thing and those who have said the other, and on both sides the discussion was of doubtful matters, it is arrogant to say that that is true which seems so to you, but that that which offends your feelings manifests wantonness and falsehood.

In those few books that survive for us to read, we mightn’t expect to find many undisciplined gratuitous expressions of personal doubt nor any insistence at all about Jesus’ unprovable non-existence. We cannot be sure that such statements weren’t ever made because of how little that was argued by the ancient “enemies of Christianity” reaches us. We read nothing of theirs from the First Century, although Paul of Tarsus tells us there were some enemies, including himself.

In the Second Century and even longer after the disputed events, neither side could have firmly determined whether or not Jesus had really existed. Like the modern Thomas Paine, ancient critics likely preferred to argue the points they thought they might win,

Age of Reason II.14: …It is not the existence, or non-existence, of [Mary, Joseph and Jesus] that I trouble myself about; it is the fable of Jesus Christ, as told in the New Testament, and the wild and visionary doctrine raised thereon, against which I contend…

According to Celsus’ Jewish debater, contention against the scriptural Jesus was winnable.

Against Celsus, II.74: All these statements are taken from your own books, in addition to which we need no other witness; for you fall upon your own swords.


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  1. Pingback: Reconstructing ancient Christ-myth theory | occupy illuminati

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